In a way, all interactions are about big issues on some level, some power dynamic, some longing, if you think about it. The Pinewood Derby scene, for example, was a lot of fun to write because I was feeling aggravated about parental competition and how parents use their children to work out their frustrations and ambitions, and the derby presented itself as a great way to explore this.
There’s a real sense of menace in the novel, but it’s nuanced, and doesn’t play out as we expect. The external dangers we anticipate dissipate, leaving a more pronounced, internal danger in their place.
I think I wanted to explore the interaction between actual menace, which obviously does exist, and internal perceptions of it. When do things really go wrong and when do they subside? I guess the answer is that one doesn’t really know, but it is important to be alert. Growing up Jewish in a post-Holocaust world, this subtly informs my psychology. In sunny Southern California, I didn’t experience any sense of menace in this way, but living in the shadow of horror that was experienced by relatives, teachers, etc., was confusing. You were supposed to look out for something, but what? How do we all carry the histories of our families, our backgrounds, with us as we interact with others? I wanted to explore that.
“A Town of Empty Rooms” ends with Serena preparing to speak, out loud and from the heart. It’s a telling image, since part of what the novel is about is the necessity of stories as a way to connect and identity.
I always wanted the ability to be someone else. What did other people really think? Did they have the same thoughts/experiences as I did or were they different? When a person told a clear, honest story, it was the closest I got to being them. And when you hear a story or insight that echoes your own feelings, it’s really, in my view, sacred — as though we inhabit each other for a moment. It’s a deep and powerful bond. All these storytelling moments in the novel are moments in which stories become a vehicle for characters to connect.
Writers who helped me: John Cheever, Paula Fox, Richard Yates. I loved their cool, uncompromising views of their characters. They allowed them to be flawed, and complicated, and not necessarily likable. But their characters are so deeply human. We can learn from characters and their mistakes in novels and then learn from them in living our own lives. In real life, I think I actually have something in common with Dan, who wants to see the world as good — it was a challenge for me as a person to be able to see people as flawed without feeling disloyal to them. So to develop these characters as full, complex, layered people was freeing for me. It was like seeing the world in a new 20/20 vision way.