This is the first time I have done something like this, so I am very excited to be included in Sue's Virtual Tour to promote her book Tangled Roots, now out in paperback.
I loved this book, which is quite different in form from any other fiction I have read. To give you a brief outline of the story, it centres around the two main characters, Grace and John and is written in the first person. Grace is John's mother.
John seems to have everything going for him. He's forty, still single, handsome and is a physics professor at an American University. In spite of all these assets, John is in emotional turmoil, relying on pills to get him through any pressured situation. He blames his mother for most of his discontent.
Grace, his mother, an old woman in the novel, is telling her life history to strangers, one of the many things John resents about his mother. He feels neglected and is left emotionally scarred by her. Grace is in some ways a typical American Jewess mother, but circumstances conspired against her and she feels she has no choice but to move the family to London. Lizzy, John's sister, really doesn't want to go and when she is eventually bludgeoned into doing so, the result is a disaster. Yet another reason to turn him against Grace, as John and Lizzy are clearly close.
I particularly loved the character of Grace and, as a mother who has made mistakes myself, I can empathise with her. John seems to grow as the book progressed and I warmed to him and had high hopes for his future wellbeing. It became clear that he had to reconcile his past before he could move forward in both his private life and his career.
I was a little worried about the physics aspect, not having a great love of the subject, but in fact the language is so cleverly used by Sue that it is not in any way difficult to understand. I particularly admire the metaphors she uses.
The story moves from Boston to London and even to Moscow. I felt I knew such a lot about Moscow by the time I had finished and the fine detail and obvious research put in by Sue is evident.
This is an intelligent read, full of surprises and the two main characters, indeed, even the lesser ones, are beautifully drawn. I would highly recommend Tangled Roots to anyone.
Oh, here comes Sue now. I'll just put the kettle on (it's a bit early for a Guinness) and get out the Soda bread and home made marmalade. That'll go down a treat I'm sure.
Now for the interview:
1. Did you choose Russia straight away for the travel connection? Quite a difficult country to write about I would have thought.
Placing a significant portion of John’s story in Russia was important for two reasons. Firstly, a great deal of the important research in physics over the years has come out of Russia. Whether for military application or not, the Russians take great pride in their scientific community and celebrate it. When I was researching the book, I had the great pleasure of spending a bit of time with the Cosmology Professor and Author Joao Magueijo, and he told me a great deal about the state of research in Russia today and convinced me of what I had already suspected...namely, that John needed to go there. The other, personal reason why John needed a Russian experience is that part of what he had been running away from was his mother and his roots. John grew up as a ”disaffected” American Jew with deep roots in Russia. He needed to go back there in order to figure out who he was, where he came from and how that can be incorporated into the man he wanted to be. I was really pleased with how that all worked out, to be honest. But you are right. Writing about Russia is difficult, and although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the Russia I visited and consequently wrote about was a small window of openness and westward assimilation. In 2004, Russia was wealthy, there was a new entrepreneurial spirit, Muscovites were less frightened to speak their minds. For me it was very exciting. A bit like the “Wild West,” in that there was an anything goes type of attitude. But there was also a great deal of hope and excitement in the air, and I knew that John would be able to tap into that as well. Since then, Putin has once again created that old sense of anger and distrust, which saddens me greatly. I think if I was doing my research there today, I would find a very different Moscow, although it breaks my heart to say it. I fell in love with Moscow as well and long to go back.
2. What made you think of writing in the format you chose? I haven't come across a book written in this way, so found it very unusual and at times challenging. Sometimes I wanted the story of, say, John to continue, then it skipped to Grace, but of course that made me want to read on....
To be honest, I didn’t find this format. The format found me! “Tangled Roots” is actually 2 books in one. It started as a separate novel in which Grace tells stories of her life to people who come to her as if she was a guru. That in itself was a hard concept for mainstream publishers to take on — a normal, little old lady being a Guru? Come on. But while we were trying to sell that, I got on with the work of writing what I thought would be a “sequel,” the story of John. Having left him as a sullen, disturbed teenager in Grace’s story, the strong maternal instinct in me felt the need to make him whole, so to speak. So I began to write his mid-life story. But once I had completed nearly three-quarters of that manuscript, I realized that the 2 stories were so interlinked that I had actually, in fact, written 2 parts of 1 novel. A lot of thought and soul-searching went into the decision to combine the two, as you can imagine. So I started to cut and paste, and I realized that the concept of 2 people having different views and experiences of the same events was very important to the novel, and so I decided to interweave their chapters rather than have one and then the other. Yes, I suppose it makes for some frustrating start-and-stop moments, but I hope that the through-line is strong enough to keep people reading.
3. Did you base Grace on personal experience? Either of yourself or your Mother?
This is rather difficult to answer. The personality of Grace is actually diametrically opposed to both my own personality and my mother’s. In some ways, creating the character of Grace allowed me to see what it would be like to react to life’s challenges in such a different way than I would. Thankfully, neither myself nor my mother has ever suffered from depression, although I have witnessed it in some people I am close to. So, no — I would have to say the character of Grace is very much a “what if” creation. But her voice is one I grew up with. It is very much a New York Jew, matter-of-fact, tell-it-like-it-is sort of voice which was the voice of my grandmothers coupled with that of the short story writer, Grace Paley. Actually, the novel had it’s seed in a short story I wrote using that sort of voice and the naming of my character as Grace is my own little homage to Paley, who I think was one of the greatest writers, and indeed the greatest short story writer, of her generation.
Thanks so much for having me here, you crafty gardener you. I love “being” in Ireland and your tulips are gorgeous! How about a toast to Spring!
I've loved having you here Sue and I wish you every success with Tangled Roots. I do hope everyone has enjoyed today's rather unusual blog from me. I certainly have. For details of how to purchase Tangled Roots, see Sue's blog: