The Sweetheart Deal by Polly Dugan : Q&A with the author!
We're going to do something a little different here today at Black, White & Read Books. I was recently contacted by Little Brown & Company and asked to read a book titled The Sweetheart Deal by Polly Dugan. And I will fully admit... I was nervous. What if I didn't like it? What if I couldn't even finish it? Luckily, Polly Dugan ensured she didn't make a liar or a jerk out of me (thanks, Polly!)... as I absolutely loved the book and was excited to continue reading it each time I had a few minutes to pick it up.
After reading (and loving) The Sweetheart Deal, I had the distinct honor of getting to do a Q&A with the sharp, witty, yet relatable Polly Dugan. I will be posting my review of The Sweetheart Deal shortly, but it's going to be hard to follow these thoughtful and insightful answers! But I'll try... I'm nothing if not hardheaded! And without further adieu, here it is!
In The Sweetheart Deal, I loved the rotating narrators, especially the glimpse you gave us into the minds of Leo and Audrey’s sons. Which character did you find easiest to write? Closest to your own inner monologue?
Thank you! I felt like the alternating points of view made for the best structure for the book, and while I was writing I was constantly aware of the challenge of making each character as distinct and authentic as possible. Because it was easy to draw from some of my experiences as a wife and mother, as well as my husband Patrick’s as a spouse and father, there were aspects of Audrey and Leo’s characters that made them the easiest to write, even though they’re not the two of us. All my characters always start out with a bit of my own DNA, but the more time I spend with them, they evolve into their own unique beings, composites really of all different influences. Since childhood, I’ve always been concerned with how everyone else in the room was feeling, and after decades of speculating about other people’s emotional landscapes, it feels natural to take on writing multiple characters’ internal narratives.
I will say after Audrey, in many ways Garrett is a very close second to my own inner monologue. It’s funny to think this, but maybe it’s because after Leo dies, he and I are the only two ‘people’ who know about the pact. All the conflicted feelings and anxieties Garrett has come straight from me even though I’ve never experienced what I put him through. When he visits his mother’s grave and so desperately wishes she were alive to comfort and advise him—me again. I lost my mom 12 years ago this September and I’ve felt exactly the way Garrett does more times than I can count.
Portland plays such an essential part in this story. Was it difficult to capture the heart of a city you so clearly love within a narrative where the setting played just one part of the overall tone?
Luis Urrea gave a craft talk about place at the Tin House Workshop in 2013, which made a huge impact on my writing. Previously when I’d put my characters in specific places or settings—a barn, the inside of a car, a school dance, a kitchen stool—I wasn’t aware of paying close attention to making those choices. Luis’ talk sharpened and validated the decisions I made regarding place in my work; after his lecture I appreciated the relevance of the front steps of a porch, a neighborhood sidewalk on a hot summer day, or a school art show much more acutely than I had before. It reminds me of when my son got glasses and marveled at the high definition with which he could now see things—that kind of awareness.
I knew I wanted the story connected to actual places in Portland that benefitted the book for another reason. Writing my first novel was intimidating, especially in the early stages, and one of the ways I made the process feel more accessible was to rely on my own beloved city and places that were familiar to me, which would serve, I hoped, as catalysts to help both the characters and the story develop. A critical part of my writing process is somewhat visual, for lack of a better word—if I can see and hear what’s happening (in my head)—it’s so much easier to get the work out onto the page. Luis’ talk emphasized that for me—by using Portland and real places around the city, by having a certain foundation of authenticity already established, I could focus on the conflicts and stakes at hand. For example, when Audrey and Garrett go to buy the suit, I loved that I could just drop them into Jos. A Bank at Washington Square Mall and give all my attention to what happens there between them. Using Portland and the various places around town that appear in the book felt like accessing the greatest stage sets available.
Do you feel any of your favorite authors informed the plot or feel of The Sweetheart Deal? If so which authors/books and in what ways?
I feel like my favorite authors and books always inform and influence my writing in ways I never fully recognize, and if I do at all it’s in retrospect prompted by questions like yours. I have writer friends who are so adept at citing specific sections of specific books that have impressed them deeply. I don’t have that kind of recall; for me it’s more that influential books and authors have taken root the way early childhood experiences imprint us—they happen to us and then they leave evidence behind, one way or another, a lot or not very much at all, for better or worse.
I’m sure I’m going to unintentionally overlook a book or author I mean to mention but, when I delve, I can recall several impressions and why they’ve remained. Anna Quindlen’s two books Every Last One and One True Thing both moved me deeply for how effectively she portrays mothers, families and their intricate relationships and huge losses—two very different ones in these books. I hold practically everything about her work as personal creative goals. I read Susan Minot’s Monkeys in one marathon sitting one summer day. Her book delivers so much about layers and dimensions of family in both the prose, which is so razor sharp, as well as what’s between the lines and off the page.
Stories and books like “The Body”/Stephen King, The Virgin Suicides/Jeffrey Eugenides, The Ice Storm/Rick Moody, The Catcher in the Rye/J.D. Salinger, and The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany/John Irving collectively and alone each modeled writing from adolescent/teenage boys points of view and/or illustrated close friendships between young men. The three sons in The Sweetheart Deal ages 15, 13 and 11 each get to tell their story and the influences of these aforementioned books helped me strive to get those perspectives as right as I could.
I find that authors are first and foremost loyal and loving readers. For yourself, is there a book that you feel should be more highly regarded than it currently is? Maybe a book that is typically overlooked but you feel should become a part of the literary canon?
I don’t know if there’s a sleeper among my favorite books since some of my top picks have received well-deserved acclaim from both readers and critics. Liz Strout’s Olive Kitteridge is one of the best books I’ve read and while I’m in vast company loving it, I was a fan of her first novel Amy and Isabelle, which got worthwhile recognition but it’s a book I think should be more widely known. Likewise The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman was received so well critically but I have yet to find someone else who’s read it. I loved the book and I wish I could find other readers who have too so we could talk about it.
Then last year I read Mary and O’Neil by Justin Cronin for the first time and like Waldman’s book, I loved it but I have no one to discuss it with even though it won both the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Stephen Crane Prize. Lastly, I submit The Blessings by Elise Juska as a solid answer for the question of a book that should be more highly regarded than it is. I contributed an essay earlier this year to the We Wanted to Be Writers website Books by the Bed series and what I wrote about Juska’s book was that she mastered writing diverse points of view across genders, ages, stages of life and circumstance, so much so that for any portion of the book, the reader’s guess whether the author was male or female would be a gamble. Also, the family she writes about, The Blessings, those are my people—Irish Catholics connected to Philadelphia and the northeast, where I hail from. I felt like I was spending time with old friends from the first page to the last.
The culture of the brotherhood of firefighters was so prevalent in your story. What kind of research did you do to prepare for that portion of The Sweetheart Deal?
My husband and I are close friends with a firefighter and his wife. They have both been readers of mine for a long time, long before I ever had the idea for this novel. So when I was writing this book, I had the two of them vet all the sections that pertain to the job and lifestyle and I visited my friend’s firehouse—another real place—to know exactly where Kevin and Leo worked, and where Leo’s family would have visited him. The Internet provided a wealth of details about the traditions and customs of firefighters’ funerals and I had my friend look at that section closely to make sure I got it right, especially since Leo doesn’t die in the line of duty.
Who is your most valuable reader/critic?
Historically it’s always been my husband, Patrick. I have great friends, really smart people whom I trust who’ve given me tremendous input over the years but their availabilities don’t always line up with my timelines for wanting feedback—they have jobs and families and demands of their own to prioritize—so the pressure I put on Patrick tends to increase the more I write, and he takes it in stride. One of the reasons he’s so great is because although he’s not a writer and doesn’t read literary fiction, his comments are on par with workshop feedback, I swear. He’s just a smart guy and he knows me so well and often has a really good grasp of the story I’m trying to tell. In fact the section of the book where Audrey musters getting dressed for the day, but in all the wrong clothes, that suggestion came from Patrick. I wouldn’t have come up with that as a vehicle for conveying how at the mercy of her grief she is, and I really like how it also works to illustrate the intimacy of the friendship between Erin and Audrey—how friends hold each other up under those circumstances. Getting dressed seems so simple but the simplest things are herculean when a person is in the depths of grief and Erin is helping Audrey survive one herculean thing at a time.
I do have to say that having the input of my agent Wendy Sherman and my editor Judy Clain, both first as readers, and then Judy and her assistant, Amanda Brower, formally during the editing process, was so special, and their contributions made the book better than I ever thought it could be. There are all kinds of author/editor experiences and when you’re in a partnership that clicks across multiples phases of the book, including some of the creative stages, for me that’s really been one of the greatest parts of becoming a published author.
We tend to make our dearly departed into faultless people with incredible character and we gloss over any instance where our loved one was a flawed human. In The Sweetheart Deal, I enjoyed watching as Audrey had to admit to herself some of Leo’s less palatable qualities. Do you feel this made you better understand the motives of the characters after Leo’s passing?
It’s so true, there’s often a tendency to idealize our departed, especially if they make it easy for us to do so, with some people we can’t, but Leo’s a prime candidate for achieving posthumous perfection. And while he is a good husband and father and friend, really someone we’d call a ‘good person,’ I had always intended to make him complex, so of course he’s flawed too, like we all are. Even in marriages that last or are seen as happy ones, spouses still disappoint each other with their shortcomings, so as the story progresses, we get a more complete and authentic picture of Leo, often at the same time Audrey does. And as she learns these things she doesn’t grieve any less, but she and readers recognize she’s not grieving a perfect person. The rub of course is that because Leo’s gone he can’t do anything to redeem himself or apologize or explain to Audrey—it’s up to her alone to reconcile his less than finer moments. Then Garrett complicates that, in more ways than one.
I’d always planned for things to happen with Garrett and Audrey the way they do, but they’re not related to the revelations about Leo that Audrey learns. In fact, what happens between Garrett and Audrey starts when she’s at her most flawed and damaged—she’s still feeling deep grief and loss and uses Garrett to self-medicate—and it’s long before she hears about Leo’s bending the truth years earlier. Audrey’s motives are never vengeful or designed to ‘get back’ at Leo, but she is honest about her motives. She reveals how completely self-aware she is when she realizes, “Now Garrett is the closest I’ll ever be able to get to my husband.”
It’s really interesting to me that when I finished the book and looked back—I have Audrey reference this toward the end—the title and the premise initially place her in the unwitting position of ‘being in the middle’ but that’s the position Garrett is simultaneously in too.
I found that The Sweetheart Deal was really well-written, including characters with incredible depth and complexities. How did your time as a bookseller yourself inspire your writing?
Thanks for your generous feedback! I’ve had multiple incarnations as a bookseller and I can’t imagine my writing being where and what it is today without those influences. The first one was with Borders Books, a tremendous book retailer (check out its whole history; a lot happened before its ultimate demise) that I started working for in 1991 as a bookseller. The store that I helped open in Marlton, NJ that year was staffed with people who perceived themselves as readers and intellectuals and book-lovers, many of whom had left other careers to work in a bookstore. It sounds strange to put it that way now but that’s what happened. We weren’t a bunch of high school kids needing part-time jobs, we were in our twenties, thirties and forties; college graduates; people with advanced degrees, at least two attorneys I knew of, people with families to support. There was a ton of pride and mutual admiration among us, which was one of the things that made it a terrific place to work and we had great perks. One was that each employee had a ‘house account’ so you could charge your heart out on books, and like with any credit system spend beyond your actual means, which we all did, but the intention behind it was pure: Borders wanted their employees well-read and knowledgeable to best serve customers and their diverse shopping and reading needs. As a result of my house account, and working with interesting colleagues from whom I learned about authors and books I wouldn’t have otherwise, that was probably one of the most-well read periods of my life, if not the most.
That was also when I started attending readings and seeing my writing idols in person. If you can believe it Peter Hedges came to our Marlton store to do a reading when he was promoting What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in 1991. A celebrity comes to Marlton! That’s exactly how it felt to me. I loved that book and Marlton didn’t often see that kind of action. Then I saw Paul Auster at the Borders in Philadelphia in 1992 when Leviathan was published and it meant so much to me to see him here in Portland at Powell’s in 2008 when Man in the Dark came out. There was something so full circle about it that it was hard to believe there had been16 years between those two readings.
These are just a few bookseller moments that fueled my desire to be a writer and offered the possibility that if I ever become a published author I might have the chance to give readers what those authors gave me.
I am always fascinated by an author’s process from idea to execution? What was your writing process for The Sweetheart Deal? Did you begin with a plot, a particular character, a theme? What was your daily writing schedule like?
Some days I still feel disbelief that I’ve written a novel. For so many years it felt like the most unattainable thing because I was a short story writer and I didn’t think I had the ability or talent or stamina to write a novel. And quite honestly it feels like the initial idea came from a fortuitous ‘think on your feet’ moment during which a number of diverse influences converged at the same time. One of the first questions my (now) agent asked me in 2013 shortly before I signed with her was if I was working on a novel. I queried her after writing a short story collection and my honest answer to her question was ‘no.’ I knew the answer she was looking for was ‘yes’ so I worked to make that the truth. After abandoning one false start idea, for reasons I can’t explain beyond the appearance of the muse, I thought of the joke—for lack of a better word—that my best friend from college, my husband and I came up with years ago, in 2000 maybe, that if I died, she had to marry Patrick. It was all very silly and fleeting but came from a genuine place of love and trust and longevity in our friendship, as well as her approval that I’d married a guy she liked so much—the two of them are very good friends in their own right and share a mutual affection.
When I thought about that set-up, I imagined how two men would handle that grim, hypothetical proposal during a specific moment of heightened machismo and chivalry. And then, what would the surviving friend do if that tragedy came to pass? The other thing that came to me early on was if I made the character at the center of this abstract agreement a firefighter, there would be a certain tension that wouldn’t be a factor if the guy were a banker or teacher or lawyer. So in the very beginning I started with a plot and two particular characters, these male friends. From there I came up with sketches of Audrey and the boys, wrote a proposal and about the first twenty pages, and my agent really loved the premise and not long after I had a book deal and a year to write the novel.
The early writing process involved research, which was comforting because it was valid, real ‘work’ but I wasn’t pressured to be producing pages. The first person I talked to is a physician who has worked at the ER at one of the ski resorts at Mt. Hood. We met so he could share what he knew about skiing fatalities which I needed before I could dive into developing the beginning of the book past those first twenty pages.
The other thing I did, which felt necessary, was ask a few guy friends to respond to a survey about male friendship, and their collective participation was invaluable. Initially Leo and Garrett were going to be dear college friends but what I got back from my friends was that the friendship I was envisioning would have formed in high school.
After the mountain and friendship feedback/research I began at the beginning with Leo’s accident, Leo and Garrett’s back-story and Leo’s funeral. It was probably the only time I wrote chronologically. After that I wrote the scenes and sections that I had most fully formed in my mind; one of the first sections I wrote was when Audrey and Garrett go by the suit, which helped me know those characters early on as well as set up what’s at stake.
Beyond that the most effective way I seemed to generate pages and ultimately write the entire book was by approaching the narratives of each character’s story the way I would the short form. I had a sense of all the boys’ stories so I got those down; then I wrote some sections that revealed Erin and Audrey’s friendship and the dynamics between Kevin and Garrett. After I accumulated enough sections, I incorporated what I had and then figured out how to connect them so they became a much larger whole. It literally felt like building, or doing a puzzle or quilting—you just start with squares and the final, beautiful result belies that simplicity. I know some really talented quilters.
Then from probably April to November of 2013 my writing schedule and process were not very structured but they were consistent. I’ve discovered I’m a binge writer, so I’m very committed to working first and foremost when I’ve got the ideas and words and sentences coming which in some cases means my family starts dinner without me. I have to strike when the iron’s hot and during that seven-month period my kids were out of school for the summer so I didn’t have the same flexibility available as I did when they were out of the house for six hours. Somehow it all worked out and the work got done and neither the writing nor my family’s well- being seemed to suffer, I’m not sure how.
You had such a great understanding of the complexities that come with each age of the characters in your story. What situations in your own life informed your writing of people in various phases of their lives (children, teenagers, parents)?
Some of the nuances of situations, like the morning when everyone’s preparing for the funeral, I was very familiar with because they’ve happened to me. Since I’ve lost both my parents I’ve lived through two mornings very much like that, and although my losses were different from what I put Audrey through, I know how uniquely uncomfortable those hours feel and at what loose ends people are.
Then Garrett’s father and Audrey’s mother, as well as Garrett’s memories of his mother, who are all at their best versions as parents in the scenes in which they appear—nurturing, wise, loving—came from my memories of interactions with my mother when she was exactly that way. We were very close and she was my touchstone for so many things, and when I was troubled she usually knew how to handle me even if she didn’t know how to fix me. There’s also a bit of channeling my father-in-law’s relationship with my husband into Garrett and his father Julian. Before Patrick and I were even engaged, I broke up with him and the way his father counseled him helped inform how Julian advises Garrett.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I drew on fundamentals of my husband’s and my experiences as parents to develop Audrey and Leo. And truly, I’m always the first resource I tap for any character I’m writing. Matt Sumell talked about this at length in an article he wrote for PW back in March and I loved when he said this about his book, Making Nice: “The book is a fiction regardless of what details I’ve taken from ‘real life.’” I always have to understand my characters really well if they’re going to be fully formed and part of that understanding means endowing them with something I’m a bit of an expert on, typically an experience or an emotion, even if I’ve taken that experience or emotion from someone else.
So when I was writing the boys—although I’m a woman—I could remember so clearly being misunderstood or angry or embarrassed or anxious or self-conscious as a child and teenager, all the emotions and feelings and interactions that the boys experience alone and with each other, their friends, Leo, Audrey and Garrett. I know what an unrequited crush feels like. Plus, I had my observations of my own sons for material. I was talking to my son’s sixth grade class about writing last week and one of the suggestions I shared about becoming a better writer is to pay attention, to become an acute observer, all writers are. I joke that no one is safe around me, and people close to me can attest, just as some of these answers reflect, if something that really happened will serve the story, some aspect of it will likely turn up in my writing.
*Note: This advanced reading copy was given to me by the publisher, Little, Brown & Company. All opinions expressed in this post are wholly my own, except those of the author. Bear Allen cannot be bought! *