One of the voices I have enjoyed over the years in the Regional sections of the New York Times has been that of Debra Galant, who chronicled lesser-known aspects of the New Jersey suburbs experience in those pages in the mid- and late-1990s. That is, she was speaking about my backyard, and doing so with a wit and insight I admired. So it’s no surprise that Debra’s now an established novelist, nor that her third book, Cars From a Marriage, presents recognizable but intriguing suburban characters. What makes it unusual is that Debra filters their 20-year marriage through the lens of the couple’s vehicles. She recently answered some of my nosy questions about her book and her writing process.
Lisa Romeo: Your fiction, including this book, has been praised for its humor, wit, and also for your honest portrayals of men and women in modern marriages. Where do you think that ability to capture those authentic marriage moments in prose comes from?
Debra Galant: I'm not sure. I think the unflinching portrait of wives, as well as the humor, started when I did the Jersey column for the New York Times in the mid-1990's. I held myself, and members of my social class and gender, up to a pretty exacting mirror. As for the husbands, I believe I've gotten better at telling their side of the story with each successive book.
LR: In a guest post on novelist Christina Baker Kline’s blog just prior to the book’s official publication date, you wrote that the entire process of trying to make enough noise to ensure the success of your third novel was taking a toll on your enthusiasm to promote the book. Do you feel any differently now that you’ve had your book launch party and gotten some feedback from readers?
DG: A book launch party is a wonderful event, and I was happy that I opened this one to the public. I felt very fawned over. That won't get me on the bestseller list, but it did fill my heart. And I've gotten some terrific feedback from early readers. It does help put things in perspective.
LR: How, if at all, do you categorize your novels? Any other authors whose work you hope yours is lined up near on a reader’s bookshelf?
DG: I don't know about the label, but the authors I'd like to be grouped with would include Nick Hornby, David Lodge, Elinor Lipman, Cathleen Schine, Diane Johnson and Edith Wharton.
LR: What are the cars from your own marriage, and what do you think that list means?
DG: Currently? There's my husband's VW Rabbit (a peppy little car with press plates that he drives into the city), a dented old minivan (currently assigned to the 17-year-old driver in our house) and a RAV4 I got from my sister when she got my Dad's BMW. In the fall, I get my Dad's Audi and the minivan finally goes! Which may remind you a bit of the way that Ivy and Ellis keep getting cars from Ivy's father.
LR: In the book, Ivy is a New Jersey stay-at-home mom, with a driving phobia, a transplanted Southern bell and daughter of a car salesman. Her husband, a former stand- up comic who’s now a PR executive with a mortgage, two kids, and a Buick LeSabre. Does any of that reflect situations and relationships you see around your own suburban New Jersey town?
DG: I see the driving phobias all the time. Mortgages with two kids are pretty standard. The LeSabre I made up.
LR: Living in suburban New Jersey myself, I have trouble even imagining how much a fear of driving would severely limit my own life, and my family’s. How much of giving Ivy that burden was a plot necessity, and how much did it grow out of her character? I guess in a way what I’m asking is what comes first for you, plot or character?
DG: In this case, the character definitely came first. I spent many years afraid to drive on highways. It's a crippling fear, and makes living in New Jersey very complicated. The plot grew out of this.
LR: I understand the inspiration for Cars From a Marriage grew out of a conflict with your husband over accepting a hand-me-down car from your Dad, and that you knew, all at once, that telling the story of a marriage through the couple’s cars, was a solid premise for a novel. Can you explain how you went about structuring the book?
DG: I don't remember how I decided on the alternating first-person, but I do remember tacking index cards onto a bulletin board in my studio at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, pacing the Ellis and Ivy chapters, and hanging various subplots on real world events. It's a pretty simple structure, but it helped me deal with the complication of the story taking place over 20 years. Fear and Yoga took place over one week and Rattled took place in a period of about two months.
LR: You’ve mentioned that you enjoyed writing the chapters from the husband’s point of view much more than you thought you would. Can you describe what that was like for you?
DG: Writing in first person definitely helped. I have to "hear" a character in my mind, particularly a character who's quite different from myself. Once I started hearing Ellis's voice, as a narrator, he came into being. If I'd been writing in third person, it would have happened with the dialogue. I particularly enjoyed the contrast between Ellis's bravado and his guilt. He resents his wife, yet loves her deeply. That makes him interesting.
LR: I believe you wrote a sizeable chunk of all of your novels at an artist colony. What do you think works for you about that kind of setting? Do you find you make big breakthroughs there, or is it more about having a concentrated block of uninterrupted time? Or something else?
DG: It's all about the uninterrupted time. Which makes it sounds less significant that it really is. In real life, you're always being tugged one way or another. Being at an artist colony is like being on a honeymoon with your art. Nobody dares interrupt you unless it's really important.
LR: Any upcoming readings and other events lined up?
DG: A reading at New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville on Friday, May 14 at 5:30 pm, a signing at Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore Sunday, May 16 from 1 to 3 pm and a talk at Newark Public Library's annual donor reception on Tuesday June 22 at 5:30 pm. I'll be on WBGO Journal (88.3 FM in Newark) on Friday May 21 at 7:30 pm. I am also working out details on an event at NovelTeas in Red Bank NJ in mid-July to coincide with a big car show.
LR: Does your day job running Baristanet, one of the first and still most highly regarded hyper-local news sites, contribute to your novel writing in any way?
DG: Baristanet contains the kernels of hundreds of novels, for me or somebody. But mostly it serves to atomize my attention span.
LR: Do you have another novel in progress?
DG: I started one last fall, but it's been dormant. I have another idea I'll probably take up once the book promotion has wound down.
Note from Lisa: We are giving away a signed copy of Cars From a Marriage. Simply leave a comment and be sure there is a way for me to contact you via email to get your U.S. postal address, if you win. Comment up until midnight May 20 to enter the random drawing.