I first encountered Patry Francis’ words on her blog, Simply Wait, back in the 2005, before I had heard of Facebook or Twitter, when I read dozens of individual blogs to connect with other writers. There, she let readers into her simple New England life, shared thoughts on writing, family, illness and dysfunctional families. When I heard she’d sold her first novel, I knew I’d want to get my hands on it right away. The Liar’s Diary is a taut, powerful novel of obsession and loyalty, and what lengths we’ll go to for those we love.
Now Patry’s second novel, the The Orphans of Race Point, has been published to rave reviews. Library Journal suggests it as the next book you should read after Pulitzer-prize winner Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. In it, Francis explores themes of betrayal and rescue, obsession, and the many faces of love, set against the vivid backdrop of the artsy Portugese community of Cape Cod’s Provincetown. I spoke with her about the book, her writing process, and her weighty themes.
JR: Where did this novel germinate, and how closely do you feel the final book remained to your original vision?
PF: I had a clear vision of [co-protagonist] Gus hiding in the closet after witnessing his mother’s murder, and I wanted to explore how that that trauma would play out over the course of his life, how it would define the man he became. I wanted to try to understand a character who lives in the shadow of a dark legacy, sees the possibility of repeating it, and makes a conscious effort, often through some radical choices, to transcend it.
In its final form, the novel cleaved pretty closely to that source. What changed was the emergence of Hallie as a protagonist who eclipses Gus in some ways. In the original, she was described only in backstory. It took many drafts (and some years!) before I realized I was burying the most significant part of the narrative, and that I needed her voice to tell it.
JR: You told me once that this was “the story of my heart”…Can you say more about that?
PF: I loved these characters more than any I ever created, partly because I first saw them as children who were confronting the kind of trauma no child should face. Immediately, my empathy was engaged. I also spent many years with them, and though each is flawed in his or her own way, they are braver, kinder, and wiser than I am. Their company enlarged me, maybe even changed me. My greatest reward as a writer has been hearing from readers, either through messages, or at book clubs, who have engaged with Hallie, Gus, Nick and Mila in a similar way.
JR: In both your novels, The Liar’s Diary and The Orphans of Race Point a person’s fate hinges upon an action, often made in the spur of the moment, that is really about saving someone they love or care about. Where does your interest in this kind of human experience come from?
When I was eleven, I was staying at my best friend’s house when it caught fire. Nearly Everyone, including five children, one of whom was deaf, escaped. Only the mother, a serious alcoholic whose careless smoking had caused the fire, was trapped inside. By the time the fire fighters arrived, the house was completely engulfed in flames, and they couldn’t locate or reach her. Acting on the same courageous, reckless impulse that many of my characters display, her husband rushed into the house and managed, almost miraculously, to get her out. She was hospitalized for many months, but survived—and never drank again. The redemptive nature of his act, and his great love for her, in spite of all the pain she had caused her family, is something that has stayed with me, and crept into my work in many ways. For me, fiction is one way of asking: would I have the courage?
JR: I feel like this novel explores love in all forms: Romantic love, family love, divine love…was that a conscious theme when you set out to write it, or one of those spontaneous gifts from the creative process?
PF: When I begin a novel, I’m focused on telling a compelling story and keeping myself entertained as I go–which will hopefully transfer to the reader. The themes emerge on their own, so in that sense, they are gifts of the “deep mining” we do when we write. I must have been fairly aware that love was my subject though, because the epigraph at the beginning of the book has been there since the first draft.
PF: Which character do you most identify with and why?
I really had to think about this one, but when I did, the answer was clear. I am the quirky, disaffected, bookish, vulnerable teenager! Maybe that’s why I instinctively switched to first person when I wrote about Mila, and why her section just flew. When I was an adolescent, I didn’t just admire my favorite artists, writers, or philosophers, I became obsessed with them—just like Mila does. It was fun to revisit and transform that part of myself. I also gave her the novelist’s task, of digging deeper into the other characters, finding out who could be trusted and who could not, who deserved forgiveness, and who it would be hard to absolve. And of course, she is the one who ultimately unravels and explains the story’s secrets.
JR: What are you working on next (in your writing)?
PF: I’m working on another long novel, though hopefully this one won’t take twelve years to complete. Several familiar, and to me somewhat mysterious preoccupations, have already arisen, but this novel is different in that it has an element of magical realism. So far, I’m entertained!
JR: Now, more importantly: How do you take your coffee?
PF: With a little milk and a notebook!
JR: What brings you comfort?
PF: I find comfort in the people I love, the work I do, and the natural world. I’ve almost never been without a canine companion. I also read the Stoics every day, though I am still not a very stoic person. Philosophies and religions, are often condemned because those who claim to follow them fail, sometimes in egregious ways. I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Just because I fall short of Marcus Aurelius’s teachings doesn’t mean there’s no truth in them, or that I should stop trying. It just means I’m not there yet. Getting up in the morning and believing I can do better than I did yesterday–that also brings me comfort.
Photo credit: “Provincetown” by essygie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.