MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
By the time the first short chapter of Stewart O'Nan's new novel is over, an old woman has been killed after a bungled break-in at her house. The two burglars are behind bars, and the pregnant wife of one of those men is about to get the phone call from jail that will change the course of her life for the next 28 years. The novel is called "The Good Wife"; it's a story about life on the outside of the prison system, a story about waiting. Author Stewart O'Nan joins us.
Thanks for being with us.
Mr. STEWART O'NAN (Author, "The Good Wife"): Oh, pleasure.
BLOCK: I'd like to talk to you about the opening scene of the novel. Patty Dickerson, the wife, is at home at night. This is a small town along the southern tier of New York state. And she's waiting for her husband, Tommy. And you alternate between this calm, romantic scene that she's setting up at home and this scene of violence that's taking place across town.
Mr. O'NAN: Well, when I opened up, I knew I wanted to have sort of the book in miniature right there, something that would show her faith and her constancy and the ability to get through the worst. And so as the book opens, she's waiting for him in the dark, which sort of sums up what she does for, you know, the rest of the book in a way. And I love the cross-cut as well and--the cross-cut action in the middle of the night, and I thought it would be a good way to establish omniscience as a narrator and also to set the tone for the book, which is very quiet and very intimate but interrupted by these terrible things that happen.
BLOCK: Tommy, when he goes to trial, ultimately gets sentenced to 25 years to life; he gets the maximum. And most of the novel after that is about Patty's patience. She delivers their child; she raises their baby; she's visiting on weekends, as often as she can. How hard was it to write a book where the real action is over very early on and the rest of it has to be talking about decades, which are really just a waiting game for her?
Mr. O'NAN: Well, I see the book as really being the way that Patty becomes the person that she is at the end of the book. She changes a great deal necessarily because she doesn't have Tommy there with her. She goes through all these major changes in her life as a young woman and as a young mother and then getting older and changing jobs and becoming a very different person than the one that she began with. And I think that's the real motion of the book; it's sort of, you know, a subterranean motion.
BLOCK: You write a lot about Patty's visits to the various prisons that Tommy is sent to. Their son Casey essentially grows up visiting his father in prison and going through the humiliations and the hassles that the guards put them through. There's one visit to the prison--Casey, their son, is now six years old. And I wonder if you could read from this section. This is on page 216.
Mr. O'NAN: Well, this is the first family reunion visit in which they're allowed to stay overnight in a trailer, and this is really the first night that Casey has ever spent with his father. It's going to be the first time that Tommy ever, you know, kisses him good night and says good night to him and tucks him in. And, you know, Patty's worried about Casey's reaction to the first time going literally into a prison and staying there overnight. But this is the processing that they go through.
(Reading) `She takes Casey's hand and looks down at him to show it's OK--"This is just like a regular visit"--and sees from his eyes that he doesn't believe her. She bends to him, letting the others go ahead. "This was the worst part right here," she promises. "All I have to do is get through this, OK?" "OK," he says, but unsure. The guard has to call inside to have the door buzzed before he can open it with a key. He closes it after them, calls using a wall phone with no dial, and the bolts clack home. One at a time they pass through a metal detector while a pair of guards root through their bags, stirring and jabbing their clothes with a steel rod. As the guards are working over Patty's red bag, one of them stops; the other reaches in and pulls out her brand-new nightgown and kneads the package with both hands. They handle Casey's PJs the same way, squeezing them as if they might be hiding a gun. She knows Tommy's going through much worse; that before he can see them, he's strip-searched, told to open his mouth, to bend over. For Patty, that's the mystery at the heart of visitation. The way the system's set up, it's like a price they're supposed to pay over and over until they give up and stop loving the people they've come to see and stop coming. That's why she has to submit, why, even as she hates everything about this place, she needs to be here. Maybe next time she'll leave Casey at home.'
BLOCK: You know, it's such a huge topic, this notion of prison and incarceration and all the questions that that raises. When you took that on and you decided to write what you call a quiet book about that, how did you figure out how to tell that story in a quiet way?
Mr. O'NAN: Well, I knew it was going to be Patty's story, and I figured if I could stay close to her and what is important to her, what her true desires are, even from day to day, that I would be OK because her emotions are just so wide, so high and so low at times, as a young mother, as a wife who's separated from her love. I knew that if I could just stick close to her and write that and then let the reader feel it--you know, sometimes you have to cut back very far, so that the reader has a space to sort of feel what she's feeling rather than telling them. I knew that I would be OK because I think as the book went on I found her an absolutely fascinating character, and I hoped that the readers would too.
BLOCK: When you talk about cutting back like that, what do you mean?
Mr. O'NAN: Well, instead of, you know, actually saying what her emotions are or how she's feeling, you have to find ways to let her just demonstrate or things that sort of--eh, this is...
BLOCK: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. O'NAN: ...difficult to put into words. Chekhov said that when you want your reader to feel more about a character, you as a narrator or author have to become colder. And in that sense sometimes you have to put your character in a situation where the reader wants to defend her from other characters or events or even sometimes from the author or narrator yourself. Another way is also not having a reaction shot after something big happens. You don't go in and then cap it off by saying, `And this is how she felt about it.' You just sort of leave it like that.
BLOCK: The title is, of course, "The Good Wife," and I wonder, as you created this character, you must have had to wrestle with how good to make her. She's endlessly patient for 28 years of her husband's imprisonment, and it's not that it's easy for her and she does struggle with it, but I think a lot of us would wonder how good we would be.
Mr. O'NAN: By the time I got about a hundred pages into the draft of the book, I had a very good feel for Patty and I understood Patty, and she became real to me. And I know how she thinks and how she feels and what she thinks about certain things, so it's very easy for me to sort of cleave to her personality and just say, `You know, I'm just going to follow what Patty would do here.' And she is good, but she's not endlessly patient. And she despairs a great deal as well. I mean, she's not, you know, sort of happy-go-lucky and, you know, `This is all going to turn out well.' She realizes what situation that she's in, and she just deals with it, but she deals with it within the very real parameters of her town and her life and her family.
BLOCK: Stewart O'Nan, nice talking with you. Thanks so much.
Mr. O'NAN: Oh, thank you, Melissa.
BLOCK: Stewart O'Nan's novel is titled "The Good Wife." You can read an excerpt at our Web site, npr.org.
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