Recently, I was sent a copy of The Other Life by Ellen Meister to feature in my 2011 Holiday Gift Guide. Since I’m donating the book to charity, and therefore unable to read it, I was excited when I found out I’d also get to share an author Q&A with my readers.
About the Book:
Quinn Braverman, a pregnant and happily married young mother with an unsettling secret. As a child, she stumbled across a portal to an alternate reality where her other life was playing out, a place where every choice she made was the opposite of what was happening in her present life. Intrigued yet wary, Quinn ignored the portal for more than two decades while building a life onLong Islandwith her attentive husband and adorable young son. But their idyllic life is threatened when Quinn gets frightening news about her pregnancy, and the portal draws her like a magnet with the promise of a fear-free existence. More than a simple escape from uncertainty and grief, it offers a comforting reunion with her artistic bipolar mother whose suicide seven years ago shattered Quinn’s world—on the other side of the portal, her mother is still very much alive.
Unable to resist the portal’s lure, Quinn begins to slide back and forth between the parallel universes, each of which offers elements of bliss as well as devastating loss. In one life she has a loving, stable husband and a six year old who needs her, but she also faces a shattering prognosis for her unborn child and no mother to comfort her. In the other, she is free of this pregnancy’s burden, happily living with her neurotic, famous ex-boyfriend in New York City, and, though childless, is reunited with her beloved mother. How can she possibly choose?
The Other Life explores just what it means to be a mother and asks the impossible question of what to do when you learn that your unborn child will be severely disabled. In addition to being an emotionally powerful story, the rights to the book were recently optioned by HBO to become a series.
A Conversation with Ellen Meister, author of The Other Life:
1. After the Smart One and Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA, this book is a real departure for you. What inspired it?
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of escape. I guess that’s part of the job description for a fiction writer. I was thinking about that one day after my husband left for work and the children left for school. There I was, all by myself, waiting impatiently for my computer to boot up so I could lose myself in the world I had created, when I began to wonder what might happen if a wife and mother could use those magical hours alone to escape in a more literal sense.
At once, I had the image of a portal right smack in the middle of the most domestic setting…an opening that would let the woman cross over to the life she would have had if she had chosen a very different path. The more I thought about this idea, the more excited I got. As details about my main character and her two lives emerged, a story began to form. But it wasn’t until it occurred to me that my protagonist’s mother was dead in one life and alive in the other that I knew I had a book.
2. THE OTHER LIFE is about returning to the road not taken and exploring the life unlived. Have you ever longed to see what happened on the other road?
Haven’t we all? I think that’s human nature, especially in times of extreme stress. We play the “if only” game, imagining what might have been. What if I hadn’t gotten married? What if we hadn’t bought this house? What if we never had a child? What if I had been there to prevent that accident/suicide/awful mistake? Of course, it’s easy to condemn this line of thinking as counterproductive, but I believe it’s a coping mechanism. There’s only so much grief and anxiety our minds can hold before we need a mental vacation.
3. In this story Nan makes the ultimate sacrifice for a child, in this case her daughter, Quinn, and her grandchildren. Do you think that kind of love is instinctual or learned?
I think we’re hardwired to make sacrifices for our children. It’s the basest human instinct, and it gets switched on like a spotlight when we have our first child. I guess scientists can explain the chemistry of it, but from a personal perspective, falling in love with my first child was the most dramatically transformative moment of my life. I was flooded with something that seemed to alter myDNA, restructuring every cell. I was no longer just Ellen, I was Max’s mom, and I knew from that moment on every decision I made in life would be informed by that simple fact.
4. With Nan and Quinn, you brilliantly capture the mother-daughter relationship and the bond that hovers between boundless love and bruising tension. Did you draw from personal experience?
Thanks for that compliment! I can honestly say that my own even-tempered mother is nothing likeNan, but I’ve always been fascinated by the wrenching emotional turmoil of family relationships. I’m not sure there’s anything more interesting—or more human—than the ways in which we are tested by love.
5. As her daughter straddles parallel universes, Nan wonders whether having an escape route will help Quinn manage life’s difficulties with more grace, or instead taunt her with a decision no one should ever have to make. Is it a blessing or a curse…or something else?
I love this question, because I think it gets to the heart of the book, and I hope readers will explore this issue themselves. What if their life included a portal to what might have been? Would they welcome the possibility to cross from one life to another? Or do they think they would be tortured by the endlessness of the choices they could make?
6. In musing about her mother, Quinn observes: “Sometimes we don’t just simply grow and change. Sometimes life is so harsh and so dark, a part of us gets excised completely, leaving us permanently altered.” It happened to Nan, but what is it about Quinn that keeps her from the same fate?
Quinn lives very much outside of herself. She’s introspective, sure, but she’s a giver and feels like her place in the world (or, in her case, worlds) is to take care of others. She’s so acutely aware of being needed that it’s very nearly impossible for her to make the kind of choice her mother did in her darkest hour. To Quinn, suicide is the ultimate act of selfishness.
7. THE OTHER LIFE has been called “the thinking woman’s beach read” (NY Times bestselling author Joshilyn Jackson), making it perfect for a book club selection. What feedback do you get from book clubs?
From my experience, book clubs enjoy novels with fresh writing, complex characters and enough emotional resonance to leave readers with questions that feel very personal. So I’ve been delighted that so many readers have chosen the book for their groups. And I understand that some of the more controversial aspects of the book–such as Quinn’s choices–have sparked heated discussions. (Everyone seems to have a strong opinion here!) As an author, I couldn’t ask for more.
8. At the heart of THE OTHER LIFE is Quinn’s struggle with the news that her unborn child will have a disability, which could be severe. She learns this early enough that termination is still an option, but it is an impossible decision. Why was this question so important for you to explore?
While I was never in Quinn’s position of being faced with such a wrenching choice, I am the mother of a child with a disability. He’s now a wonderful, funny and fascinating young man, and I couldn’t dream of life without him. But, like most mothers in my position, the what-ifs were always there. What if I had been given that choice? Or—perhaps even more difficult to answer—what if the question wasn’t about abortion, but about the chance to erase it all and start again? In some ways, when Quinn had to make these choices, it felt very personal to me.
9. Modern women yearn for balance between work and family. As a writer and mother of three, do you have any advice for them?
For me, it’s a matter of priorities that boils down to a simple equation: Family = first; Work = second; Housework = dead last.
Purchase a copy of The Other Life by Ellen Meister for $9.98 at Amazon.com.
Visit US.PenguinGroup.com to find out more about the publisher, or to order the book now.
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The Other Life Giveaway:
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