Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wednesday, June 10, 2015: Maximum Shelf: Did You Ever Have a Family


Gallery Books: Did you Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Gallery: Did you Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

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Did You Ever Have a Family

by Bill Clegg

Acclaimed memoirist Bill Clegg (Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man; Ninety Days) offers a profound jolt with his first novel, Did You Ever Have a Family, the impetus for the creation of Gallery Books' new literary imprint, Scout Press.

June Reid's world is splintered and lost in an instant. In the early morning of her daughter's wedding day, her farmhouse explodes and burns, killing June's ex-husband; her current boyfriend, Luke; her daughter, Lolly; and Lolly's fiancé, Will. Did You Ever Have a Family maps the circumstances of the blaze and follows the aftermath of this tragedy as it affects June and other members of the families and communities of the victims.

In Clegg's unusual composition, each chapter belongs to a different person, with the reader left to configure their connections. Some of their stories are told in first person, some in third, and almost all in flashbacks. This ever-shifting perspective highlights mistakes and misunderstandings, including June's; other characters provide small revelations, thereby contributing to larger questions. The relatives and acquaintances of the deceased are joined by others with less clear ties, who appear to the reader in ever-widening concentric circles. Thus Clegg slowly and skillfully reveals the night of the fire and the nuances of the surrounding community in deft disclosures, through different points of view and with deep feelings.

June's farmhouse is located in the small Connecticut town of Wells, where the locals are employed, somewhat resentfully, in serving weekend people from New York City. June had first been a weekender, and later moved in full-time. She ruffled some feathers when she began dating Luke, a handsome young man some 20 years her junior with a complicated history, about whom everyone in town had an opinion. June's own family is not uncomplicated: following her divorce, she struggled to get along with her daughter, Lolly, a dreamy girl who apparently blamed her mother for the fracturing of the household. But June had worked to get to know Lolly's fiancé, Will. She was counting on a future. In a moment of unguarded exasperation, she rhetorically asked Will's sister: "Did you ever have a family?" After losing hers in such a spectacular, gruesome fashion, June eventually departs Wells carrying no identification, with only her car keys and a bank card left in the jacket she was wearing when she ran out of her house.

Early chapters focus on native Wells residents: friends, neighbors, the florist contracted for the wedding, the caterer who never got paid. But as characters gradually expand and diversify, the geography of Did You Ever Have a Family also spreads as the narrative unfolds, until its focus ranges from the east to the west coast of the United States. The lives of many are altered by the loss of June's family; their simply expressed, easily understood emotions belie the gut-wrenchingly awful stories they tell. And each is ultimately working to build or define family, with varying degrees of success.

Lydia is Wells's town outcast, busty and socially awkward, who gave birth years ago to a baby whose father had to have been African-American, although Lydia's husband was red-haired and pale. That baby would grow up to be an intelligent, athletic, convicted felon--June's boyfriend, Luke. When readers meet her, Lydia is chafing under the opinions of small, mean minds and loud voices. Town gossip holds Luke responsible for the tragedy, and thereby confirms Lydia's low social status. Following an estrangement of several years between mother and son, June had orchestrated a tentative reconciliation. But when June leaves town following the funerals of everyone she loved, Lydia loses not only her son but her only friend. After June deserts Wells, gossip gains strength, and may yet destroy what the fire didn't.

Supporting characters include a teenage neighbor who helped fix up the yard for the wedding and who carries his bong with him everywhere, and the family of June's never-to-be son-in-law, Will, who return home to Washington State to mourn him. At a small seaside motel on the West Coast, a couple who have fled their own tragedy in Seattle worry over their new guest, a ghostlike woman who rents by the month and never leaves her room. And with yet another perspective, the reader learns the identity of Luke's father, although Luke himself never did. These characters and vignettes are not disconnected, although their relationships become clear only over the course of Clegg's masterfully woven story.

June and Lydia inhabit the center of this wondrous, grave and glorious story, but each voice that speaks up in Did You Ever Have a Family is gripping and invokes the reader's sympathies. Every character and every small tragedy is a sensitively portrayed, complex, and compelling study on its own. What first appears to be a tale of grief in the face of unspeakable loss grows with its own momentum, until finally its scope is much wider than initially suspected. The expansive and surprising result eventually portrays the building of community and the possibility of recovery, even forgiveness. Did You Ever Have a Family is an elegant first novel, carefully composed and beautifully, hauntingly written. --Julia Jenkins

Scout Press, $26, hardcover, 9781476798172

Gallery Books: Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg


Bill Clegg: Characters with Secrets

photo: Christian Hansen

Bill Clegg is a literary agent in New York, and the author of the bestselling memoirs Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days. He has written for the New York Times, Lapham's Quarterly, New York magazine, the Guardian and Harper's Bazaar. Did You Ever Have a Family (Scout Press) is his first novel.

What motivated your transition from memoir into fiction, and how did it go?

I became interested in stories where people with good intentions inadvertently make the wrong choice and instigate calamitous consequences.

On top of that: How do the people in their lives forgive them, how do they forgive themselves? Also the possibility of years of struggle that arrive at peace, finally, but not for long. For instance, stories of people who find love after years of its absence, only to face its sudden loss. I found that fiction was the place to begin to find answers to those questions, and soon the world of the novel came into being.

Did your insight as a literary agent make writing and selling a novel easier or harder?

Probably both. I advise my writers to write for themselves first and try and satisfy the terms of the work as they've laid it out, and then open their ears to their fellow writers and me, and then editors. Hold on to it as long possible, take it as far as you can before sharing. If publishers don't want it right away, it is likely not the end of the story, it's just that it's not always easy. So knowing that there are no sure outcomes when you submit fiction to publishers was useful because I could, over the years that I worked on the novel, just try and answer the questions I was asking and also stumble onto new ones. For a long time, whether it would be published or not was, happily, not involved in its making. So that part was helpful. Of course, when my agent Jennifer Rudolph Walsh sold it, there was a lot that didn't need to be translated for me as we progressed toward closing a deal.

I love that so many different characters get a voice in this book. Did you have a favorite to write?

At various times I was drawn to some more than others. Cissy, who works at the seaside motel, held my attention for a long time. She still does.

Cissy is indeed a great enigma. Does this mean that you'll be writing more about her? Is there room for a sequel here, or will you be able to let her go?

I don't think Cissy would figure into any next book I might write, but you never know. And I don't see a sequel in the cards. Anything else that might happen to the characters in Did You Ever Have A Family I leave to the imagination of readers. I have, though, been writing in and around a group of characters in Wells, the town in the novel. It is a place I expect I'll return to at least one more time.

What makes for a compelling protagonist?

Oh, gosh--many things and likely different for every reader. I tend to be drawn to characters who have something to learn through the course of the story being told. Also people with secrets. I had a lot for a long time and it's a lonely existence that I am sympathetic to.

This novel starts out as the story of one family's tragedy, but it expands into something larger. Is this the book you set out to write, or did it grow as you worked?

It opened up in the writing. And far beyond what ended up in the book. I had to write beyond and outside the thing to figure out some of the characters and ideas and voices. Issues of class and people's relationship to the places they come from became more important and more interesting to me as I wrote.

How tantalizing! What happens with that material? Has it run its useful course?

Not as tantalizing as you might think! All that material is for the forensic computer experts to someday find in my computer but it will never see the light of day.

Do you feel that there is a moral to this novel, a message you needed to share?

When it feels like the end it often is not. And also: despite everything we think we know--about class, about human nature, about psychology--we really know nothing of anyone else's life, cannot ever presume to understand another's particular existence. Judgement is often no more than a confession of ignorance. --Julia Jenkins


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