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Speak Now


A literary thriller from the daughter of James Jones.

$14.95 $11.21

Interview with Kaylie Jones by Raul Deznermio

Although Speak Now is very much a literary novel like your previous four books, it also feels at times like a psychological thriller. When you were writing it, did it feel like you were moving in a different direction than your other novels?

Yes, in the sense that I had to work out the “thriller” aspects ahead of time, and map out the sequence of events in the way a mystery or thriller has to be worked out in order to come together. This was different for me, since my earlier novels were for the most part character driven, and didn’t need to rely on the careful dispensing of clues.

I’m a great fan of the mystery and thriller genres. I read them to quiet my mind. In writing this book, I found that fitting all the “mystery” elements together was much more difficult than I’d imagined!

The story line in Speak Now is very unsettling at points, particularly with the threat that Niko Kamenski poses to Clara and her daughter. This seems to match the inherently tenuous state of early sobriety. Were you consciously juxtaposing these different types of threats that Clara faces?

Absolutely. Glad you noticed! Being in early sobriety, from all reports, is like living in an altered state. Without drugs or alcohol in your system, all your senses are heightened. Colors appear brighter, and dangers, of course, seem much greater. Emotions rise and fall sharply; anger and rage rise to the surface more readily; and sadness comes upon you unexpectedly. Also, there are moments of indescribable ecstasy, a purity of emotion and clarity of mind, which people describe as a kind of spiritual awakening. Given this situation, Clara is unsure of whether or not to trust her instincts, emotions, and judgment, believing that her fears and her anxiety are being caused by her early sobriety. And at the same time, she is in a state of ecstasy, happy beyond her wildest dreams, in love, and with a miracle baby she’d been told she’d never have. Also, alcoholics are notoriously good at denying whatever problem is staring them in the face. Clara is no different; she would much rather believe it’s all in her mind than admit to herself the possibility that the stalker who haunted her youth is really back. She doesn’t want to frighten her new husband, so she keeps silent, while he, feeling the same way, avoids telling her things he thinks will cause her fear or anxiety.

In Speak Now, the protagonist’s Russian father, Viktor, was a political prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Was it psychologically difficult for you to write about the Holocaust?

I began researching this part of the book more than ten years ago. I traveled to Auschwitz on my way back from Russia in 1988. Over the next decade, I read a great many memoirs and histories, spending a good deal of time in the Columbia Library stacks. To my amazement, I learned that there were many Russian political prisoners in Auschwitz, and that the largest number of attempted escapes were made, after Poles, by Russians. The Russian political prisoners were, for the most part, communists, and that gave them a bond with the Polish Camp underground. I lived in Russia twice and understand the Russian temperament and language, which is why I chose to make Viktor Russian in the first place.

Reading the memoirs was excruciating. I discovered Primo Levi, who is not only an Auschwitz survivor, but a brilliant, brilliant writer. I learned something staggering from him as a writer, which is restraint. Total, unequivocal restraint gets the message across much more powerfully than screaming. I’m not sure why this is. I suppose the human mind shuts down when overloaded. It seems to be much easier to comprehend and follow one individual person’s ordeal than to comprehend a statistic, like eight million dead. Primo Levi understood this and focused on small incidents, small acts of heroism and resistance that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. He also, like Chekhov, understood that it is a mistake to judge. He just tells the story and lets the reader be the judge. I hold Primo Levi in the highest esteem. He is one of my heroes.

After I was done with my reading, I let the information sit, then wrote down the stories that rose first in my mind. Those are the ones I used for Viktor’s memories. I attributed the stories to their original sources. Auschwitz stands so far outside the realm of human experience that invention cannot do the survivors’ experience justice. I still have nightmares about Auschwitz.

How extensive was your research on this novel—with both the Holocaust experience as well as any other aspects of the book?

I researched other aspects of the novel as well. Clara is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor whose role in the Camp was ambiguous to say the least, and she in turn is the victim of a stalker. There is a good deal of information on stalkers and the nature of stalking available today. I also went to women’s shelters and spoke to abused women, and women who were stalked. Without going into great detail on what I found, suffice it to say that an amazing parallel quickly became apparent: physically or psychologically battered women suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, much as soldiers do; much as Holocaust survivors do. Clara has symptoms of PTSD, although not the actual disorder. She chose social work as a profession, helping battered women to get away from their abusers. While she is very good at her job, she cannot recognize symptoms in herself which are perfectly clear to her in her patients.

The new edition of A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries includes a new chapter, “Mother’s Day.” Was this written recently or when you originally wrote the book? And was it difficult to integrate the chapter into the book?

An earlier draft of “Mother’s Day” was written specifically for the book, back in 1989. My editor at the time, Deb Futter, didn’t like the story and felt that the tone was wrong and didn’t work with the rest of the chapters, which are actually closely linked stories. She was right. It took me another fourteen years to get enough distance on “Mother’s Day” to understand what it was really about. This happened thanks to Johnny Temple at Akashic Books, who wanted to reprint the book, which offered me the opportunity to go back and fill that hole in the bookChanne’s relationship with her mother.

It was not difficult to fit the story in, because I had always intended for it to be there.

Nothing at all is left of the earlier draft but the shell, the overall story line, which is about Channe driving her mother back to the mother’s small and run-down home town in Pennsylvania to visit her own mother, who’s had a mild stroke. The relationship between the three generations is extremely strained, and the mother regresses, and the roles are reversed.

As a writing teacher, do you ever solicit feedback on your own writing from your students?

Absolutely. I have a writing workshop at my house, a very small and private group. Most of these writers have published novels and/or stories, and are devoted to the writing life. I trust them implicitly, and believe them when they give me feedback positive or negative. My husband is my first reader. He’s the one by whom I pass rough drafts. He’s the harshest and most understanding judge, and one of the best line editors I know. Plus, he’s not scared of me so he can’t be swayed!

What made you decide to publish with an independent press, whereas your previous books were all brought out by major publishing houses?

Almost all the major publishing houses in the US are owned by three super-conglomerates. Book sales are being forecast by bean counters with MBA’s. Does an MBA care if a book is “literary” or “well written”? Not in the least, as far as I can tell. And yet, books that are practically unreadable are touted as “literary” by their publishers. Editors, for the most part, are terrified of losing their jobs, of not bringing in the big bucks. And too often, they are fired, or move voluntarily to a different house, leaving their writers behind. I’ve been “orphaned” in every publishing house I’ve been in.

I’ve never written a word with the idea in mind of writing a bestseller. I’ve written because I felt I had to. I’ve written because every once in a while I think I have something to say. When my last novel was published by Harper Collins, with a beautiful cover and fantastic blurbs, it was lost in a sea of what publishers consider “mid-list” fiction. I’m tired of being treated with disrespect for being a “serious” or “literary” writer. I’m tired of feeling like I’m kneeling in front of Goliaths, begging for meager crumbs. Our country is in serious trouble when the only God we pray to is the God of money. I’d rather be published by an independent press that cares about its books and is trying to make a difference in an increasingly indifferent world.