“If the family were a fruit, it would be an orange, a circle of sections, held together but separable—each segment distinct.” —Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Think of the day you married your husband or wife. The day a first child was born. At that moment it was very easy to believe that this newly created family was going to be truly perfect from now on, that the young, idealistic people you were at that moment were matched in body, mind, and soul forever. But as you age, things begin to change. It could be something as simple a wife cultivating a new hobby or volunteer opportunity that keeps her away from home a few nights a week. Or a formerly landscaping-adverse husband has retreated into the garage with an implausible interest in properly maintaining the lawn mower. The children, who once relied on you for their very existence, now spend much of their time out with friends or in their rooms, testing their own boundaries and yours, making decisions that you wouldn’t necessarily agree with. Yet, despite this evolution in your relationship with each of them, you still love this now motley crew fiercely, despite looking at them over the breakfast table and wondering who the heck they are. They are your family, always will be. But what is it that truly binds a family together in spite of their many differences? And how far can we stretch those bonds before they break?
The family we meet in On the Divinity of Second Chances is in a similar position, a group at vastly disparate points in their personal, emotional, or spiritual journeys, blinking at one another and wondering what they’ve become. And though they can’t know where each new path will take them, at the start of the novel it is nearly inconceivable that they will ever converge again. That is, until the slow unraveling is abruptly reversed and the cracks that divide this family begin to heal.
A father’s bagpipe music echoes through the trees and into the ears of his wayward son. A father and daughter join forces to find her lost dog. News of a baby on the way stirs up deep feelings that, ultimately, bring a mother and another daughter to a new understanding. A simple rope swing and the advice of a stranger help rekindle a marriage. And a poorly tended campfire gives a son the last push he needs to finally go home. As the bonds that connect them are restored and made ever stronger, all the members of the family—and a few who’ve been added along the way—find themselves closer together and, most important, grateful they could mend what needed mending before it crumbled forever.
On the Divinity of Second Chances is a story of how every family is linked under the watchful gaze of the full moon. What each of us makes of this connection defines our place in the universe. But ultimately, our lives are measured in forgiveness—not only when we have courage to accept it, but when we are able to offer it freely.
Kaya McLaren teaches art and lives on the east slope of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State with her dog, Big Cedar. Her third novel, How I Came to Sparkle Again, will be published by Viking in summer 2010.
Q. Dancing plays a big role in this book, just as it did in Church of the Dog. What is it about dancing that is so effective in bringing people together?
I think being a massage therapist for a few years made me really conscious of touch in a cultural perspective. A lot of people are touch deprived. Ballroom dancing is a way to touch one another with boundaries, and those boundaries allow us to enjoy that touch. We don't have to constantly prepare to assert a boundary, because it’s already in place. We can relax and just take in the other person’s essence.
I used to go to community dances at the grange hall in Ignacio, Colorado. I loved so many things about it. I loved watching the teenagers two-step with one another and how much pride the teenage boys took in being good dancers. It struck me that people, but perhaps especially men, want to know the rules. They want to know what to do. Dancing provides rules of etiquette and codes of conduct. It’s a relief to everyone. It’s like a fence everyone can see, instead of an invisible electric fence people live in constant apprehension of running into.
I loved watching the older couples who moved with a level of grace it takes a lifetime to achieve. It always struck me as such a metaphor for what was likely going on in other arenas of their relationship. We live in such a verbal society. I think it’s really important to stop talking sometimes and just enjoy being in each other’s presence.
Q. Are you still writing from your bathtub? How was the experience of writing this book different from your previous novel?
I started writing this book in a house that had sliding doors on the bathtub, so I couldn't set my binder down on it anymore. I was lost. At some point, I was living in a moldy tipi. It didn’t have a bathtub. I moved seven times while I wrote this. I had to switch over to writing on a laptop.
At some point in my development of this story, I started reading about screenwriting so I could write a screenplay for Church of the Dog. That really, really made me more conscious of plot and of showing instead of telling, and dramatically changed my writing.
Q. As you’ve toured and met booksellers and fans, what are some of the questions you’re asked most often? What has surprised you most about comments or insights people have about your writing?
Everyone wants to know if I’m Mara or Jade and, while they’re both a part of me, sure, I assure you that truthfully, I’m not as nice as either of them.
Other frequently asked questions are about the sexual orientation of Daniel in Church of the Dog, and of Pearl and Beatrice in On the Divinity of Second Chances. It hadn’t occurred to me that Daniel might be gay, so at first this topic really surprised (and delighted) me. In my rewrite, I’ve tried to suggest that he’s not. Pearl and Beatrice in this book, however. . . . Well, I wanted it to be like in so many small towns where the people who can handle the truth see it, and the people who can’t handle it think they’re just really good friends and housemates. I was at a book club meeting in Kansas City where quite an argument erupted about it. I assured the people for whom it would have ruined the story if they were gay that they were just really good friends, and to the people who were sure they were gay and were fine with that, I said, “Oh yeah, they totally are.” Ultimately though, does it really matter? I mean, they’re old and sleep in separate bedrooms and are celibate as a lot of old heterosexual couples. Maybe there are moments of that spark still, or maybe, just like in heterosexual relationships, the spark is just a glowing ember. What feelings or actions define a relationship anyway?
Mostly, people approach me and share really personal stories, often about grief and loss. I always feel really honored. Something about my writing struck a chord and made them feel like they weren’t alone. And you know, they’re not.
The math teacher at the school where I teach seemed like an unlikely person to read my book, but he did last summer, and when were enjoying the welcome-back breakfast on our first day back, he heard someone say they thought Mara and me were pretty much the same, and he chimed in, “No, she’s all of her characters. That was really clear to me.” That’s when I had no doubt left that Mr. Schef is indeed the smartest person in our building.
Q. On the Divinity of Second Chances delves deeply into how a family relates to one another as they grow and change. How is your relationship with your own family? Were any of the episodes in the book inspired by something that happened to you personally?
I’m lucky that in my family we are very conscious of letting one another change and grow. I was always taught that it’s okay to make mistakes, especially by my mom. I think my family sees life as the vehicle for the evolution of our souls, and not a status quo to be maintained or a status to be achieved. Generally, we’re very forgiving with one another.
Anna and Phil’s marital problems were inspired by one of the men I was engaged to. I felt like every time he opened his mouth, he just picked a scab and made things worse . . . that if he would just shut up, we would have space to re-create the dynamic of us together instead of solidify the pattern of us in disharmony. I felt like if we could just have fun, it would be okay because other things would seem smaller and I would like him enough to want to resolve some of the other issues. Instead, I lost all inspiration to want to be with him. A person can’t re-create a new beginning until they’ve let go of the old story.
The Aretha storyline was based on me losing Tasha Good Dog. I still hope there is dog reincarnation, but who knows how it all works.
Q. Your first book Church of the Dog included some very emotional portraits of animals, one of whom had his own voice in the text. On the Divinity of Second Chances features Aretha. Was it very difficult to write the sadder passages about her? What texture do you think animals add to a story?
It was grueling to write the Aretha storyline. I sobbed and sobbed while I wrote it. I sob every time I read it. In fact, my eyes are brimming right now just thinking about it. I felt like it was important to write about it though, because some people do feel that level of devastation when they lose a pet and need to know they’re not alone. A lot of people will say, “It was just a dog,” or “It was just a cat,” but that’s not everyone’s truth. To some of us, that dog was our world.
When you lose a pet, you realize just how much a part of your landscape they were. In my own life, animals are a huge part of my setting. Naturally, that influences what I write about when I write about setting in a novel. I can’t imagine a place without animals. I sneak my dog, Big Cedar, into my classroom frequently. Kids need dogs. We all need dogs.
Q. Which of the characters in this novel were easiest to craft? Which were more challenging? Did any of the characters end up going in a different direction than you imagined them?
Overall, I found all the characters easy to craft. They’re all parts of me. It was hard to make Anna likable. Anna is the impatient and somewhat intolerant part of me. Olive, too. They’re the parts of me that I don’t always like, but that do give me strength or structure. They’re like my skeleton.
I loved writing the scenes with Jade and Forrest together because their relationship is so much like my brother’s and mine and my uncle’s and mine. My Uncle Doug is six years older than me and grew up just down the street, so he’s like an older brother to me. I have to give him full credit for Peter Lemonjello. He used to call me and say those things when I was a massage therapist. I don’t think either of us ever call one another without using a funny voice at first. We definitely have a humor that’s all our own.
Q. One theme that appears in your books is the urge to start over in a different place. Do you have a wandering streak? In what places have you lived? Are there places you’d still like to venture?
I have a big wandering streak. I’ve got Mars in Sagittarius, so you know I react to everything by moving. In addition, I lived and worked all over the western United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, when I was an archaeologist. I still love to travel, but I hate to leave my dog and my horse. I love my home and hate to leave it, too. I haven’t figured out how to resolve all that. I think it might be to ride my horse on a cross-country trip with my dog in tow. Maybe I could do my book tours that way.
I haven’t traveled abroad much, and want to see all the pleasant parts of the world with safe and delicious food. When I’ve had the time, I haven’t had the money. When I’ve had the money, I haven’t had the time. I’m turning forty this summer. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to wake up in another country on that day. I might. I like the idea that I could. But, you know, it’s really hard to beat my life here. My dog is getting older. There’s no time to waste being apart from one another.
Q. This question appears in the discussion portion of this reader’s guide as well, but it deserves asking: What are some second chances you’ve been given in your own life?
Most of my profound second chances are pretty personal, and sometimes embarrassing.
Q. What are some of your favorite books or authors? How have they influenced your own writing? Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?<
Linda Hogan is my favorite author. I love her strong connection to nature. She’s masterfully poetic without ever sounding forced. She’s just a beautiful, beautiful storyteller, and I wish I could say her writing has influenced mine, but truthfully, she’s in such a different league that I can’t begin to come close. If I ever become one quarter of the writer she is, I’ll be profoundly proud of myself. If you haven’t discovered her yet, check out Solar Storms.
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver was the first book I read just for fun after graduating from college. She reminded me what a good journey a book can be and I’ve enjoyed all her works since. It’s been inspiring to experience the evolution of her work. I still love her early works, but was in awe of The Poisonwood Bible.
Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley remains one of my favorites for showing different points of view. She captures the perfect balance of heart and quirk as she writes about people (and animals) trying to do their best. I never wanted it to end.
I love fiction from other parts of the country—other little pockets of culture, like Southwest writing and Southern writing. From the Southwest, I enjoyed So Far from God by Anna Castillo. Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek is my favorite collection of short stories. The Death of Bernadette Lefthand by Ron Querry takes place on the Jicarilla Reservation where I taught, so I really enjoyed how he captured the sense of place. From the South, I enjoyed Water from the Well by Myra McLarey, full of quirk and everything else. Rich. And who doesn’t love Bailey White and Fannie Flagg? I went through a time in my early twenties when I only read works from women writers from the South: Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker. I love flavor and a strong sense of place in what I read.
Ursula Hegi is another favorite of mine. Lots of flavor. Lots of quirk.
The funniest book I ever read was Letters to Rollins, a collection of real fan mail to Henry Rollins. It shows that truth is always stranger than fiction.
Surfing the Himalayas and Snowboarding to Nirvana are great books for people who love snow sports and are interested in Buddhism.
Advice for aspiring writers? Trust that you have a story in you that no one else can tell. When it's time to take it to the world, don’t give up and don’t take rejection personally. It’s like dating. Not everyone wants what you have to offer. It doesn’t mean that it’s not good. It might. Or it might just mean what you’ve created doesn’t fit into the niches agents and publishers are looking to work with. There are lots of ways to skin a cat. Read about it. How to Get Happily Published by Judith Appelbaum was my guide. I read it cover to cover and followed all her advice.
Q. What are you working on now?
I’m working on cleaning my house and getting report cards done. I’m also working on maintaining a level of physical fitness where I can maximize my fun in life and avoid back pain.
Writing-wise, I’m still finishing How I Came to Sparkle Again, my third title. I’ve begun to type the whole thing over from start to finish because it’s been through so many revisions that I need to address continuity. It’s good to question whether each word is worth being typed again.
I have two more books that have been dying to get out of my brain. They’re getting intolerably impatient with me. I can’t wait until Sparkle is done and I have all kinds of time to dive in and write them. There's nothing like the first draft. It’s like a honeymoon.
- Forrest, for the first time, sees his father as vulnerable. When did you realize your parents were just human beings and not, for lack of a better word, superheroes? How did that make you feel?
- Which of the narrators was your favorite? Why? Is he or she also your favorite character? Why or why not?
- Phil observes that effort and awareness sometimes work at cross purposes. What are some examples of trying so hard that it almost certainly ensures you won’t perform your best? How do you relax into or prepare your mind for activities where this can be a problem?
- In what ways do you think Jade was better off at finally having found Aretha? In what ways would her memories of her be different had she not gotten those last few moments? What part does closure play in our lives? In what ways is an emphasis on closure realistic? Is it a healthy emphasis?
- In what ways might Anna be doing more harm than good in insisting that Phil almost completely cut himself off from the occupation he once loved? Are there ways she could have found a middle ground?
- Anna, at a rather pivotal moment in her daughter’s life, reflects that she’s not having a very good birthday. In what ways are her thoughts selfish? Put yourself in Anna’s shoes—how do you think you’d react? Now put yourself in Olive’s shoes—how do you think you’d want your mother to react?
- If your spirit guide were to materialize, what do you think he or she might look like?
- If you were Jade, would you have kept Forrest’s secret? What would be the benefits of telling Phil and Anna where he was? What about the drawbacks? Do you think his crime merited running away?
- Discuss the relationship between Pearl and her burn-happy neighbor Dean. In what ways could their feud have been avoided? How do you think their relationship will progress?
- What people—or animals, for that matter—were granted a second chance during the course of the book? Did anyone who didn’t get a second chance deserve one? Or vice versa?
- What are some second chances you’ve been given? What are some you’ve granted? Were they successful?