We recently caught up with BlogHer Book Club author Margaret Dilloway about her novel How to Be an American Housewife. Here's what she had to say about her novel, her favorite English class and we even wrangled a little bit out of her about her next book.
BlogHer: Throughout How to Be an American Housewife, different characters repeat the phrase, "The past is the past." It seemed that the more the characters tried to force themselves to just move on from past events, the harder they found everything. Do you think the past is ever really just the past?
Margaret Dilloway: Leaving the past in the past is certainly something I struggle with, which is probably why it's a theme in the book. It's poisonous to have regret and dwell on past actions or lost opportunities, because nobody has a time machine. If you made mistakes in the past, learn from them and move on. Concern yourself with how things are now, and how they will be in the future. I think the people who know how to do that tend to be more content. This book is all about letting go of the past, so you can move on.
Image Credit: Shae Lorigan of Saflower Photography
BlogHer: Sue didn't want to be like her mother, even though she wanted to please Shoko. Yet, she and Shoko were very much alike. Do you think that Sue and Shoko ever recognized their similarities?
Margaret Dilloway: Yes. Though they seemed to start out on opposite spectrums (disobedient vs. obedient), they were falsely labeling themselves. In the end, they both realized that they didn't have to be "perfect" housewives; and that there was no shame in it. They both just wanted what was best for their kids, and to be true to themselves.
BlogHer: I know that you wrote another book before How to Be an American Housewife. You had an agent, but you said the book didn't sell because it straddled the line between literary fiction and chick-lit. Did that experience influence how you wrote your subsequent books?
Margaret Dilloway: It was actually between literary and commercial; I understand this to mean literary is more character-driven, while commercial fiction is more plot-driven. I took it as a compliment. I like to read stories with plot and great characters, so that is what I aspire to write. It didn't affect how I write.
I've always written in a certain way, where the characters fall out of the present and recall memories mid-stream. Or perhaps my characters are always heavily influenced by their pasts.
I try to make the writing reflect what it's like to be in the character's skin, to know what their inner lives are like. In Housewife, Shoko goes back and forth into her past, sometimes recounting events out of order. In my new novel, the main character, Gal, is a scientist, and she's got a no-nonsense straightforward way of thinking.
BlogHer: On your blog you've mentioned that your best English class experiences were in junior high. I think most of us feel that we'd rather not remember most of those years. What made those classes such positive experiences for you?
Margaret Dilloway: I just did a book club where all three of my junior high school English teachers showed up, and we talked about that! It was because they had really interesting coursework. In 7th grade, we had formal grammar training with all the sentence diagramming (rare nowadays) and we got to read Shakespeare aloud, which I loved. In 8th grade, my teacher encouraged me to write a lot, and I remember feeling very supported. In 9th grade, we read in different genres, from the Classics to contemporary fantasy, and analyzed a lot of different stories and themes. None of the teachers made you just read a story and then spit out a summary.
BlogHer: Can you tell us anything about your next novel, The Care and Handling of Roses and Thorns? Here's the catalog copy:
Thirty-six year old Gal Garner lives a regimented life. Her job teaching biology and her struggle with kidney disease keep her toggling between the high school, the hospital, and home on a strict schedule. Only at home, in her gardens, does Gal come alive. But even her passion, rose breeding, has a tangible and highly structured goal: Gal wants to create a new breed of rose, win Queen of Show in a major competition, and bring that rose to market ...
Then one afternoon Galís niece Riley, the daughter of her estranged sister, arrives.
Unannounced. And their lives will never be the same ...
Margaret Dilloway: The research on this one was interesting; I corresponded with a man who breeds Hulthemia roses, so that's the kind Gal breeds. My sister-in-law, Deborah, has had three kidney transplants, so she gave me a ton of insight into that aspect; most of the kidney stuff really happened to Deb. And both Deborah, and my husband and I, have assumed separate guardianship of two of our nephews in the past; there's a lot about a teenager dropping into your life in the book, too.
I love how it turned out. Usually when I re-read my work for the first time, I do a lot of cringing. But this time, I enjoyed the hell out of it like someone else had written it; I've never ever had that happen before.
All the characters were fun to write. Gal especially. She's awfully curmudgeonly and always thinks she's right, but she's still such a great person, you like her anyway.
And the ending surprises everyone. It surprised even me. I had it outlined a certain way, and the story protested, so it changed.
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