|The Sweet Life|
The Sweet Life, Lynn York’s latest tale set in the fictional hamlet of Swan’s Knob, North Carolina, takes place ten years after Miss Wilma Mabry and Roy Swan first began their tentative and sweet courtship in The Piano Teacher. Now in 1988, the two lovebirds have settled into the easy, shared domesticity that comes with contented married life. Or so it would seem. Miss Wilma, busy with her life as piano teacher, church choir director, and wife of the richest and most altruistic man in Swan’s Knob, wonders if such happiness isn’t temporary, and suspects her husband might be a little bored with their quiet routine.
But then Roy suffers a stroke and its debilitating effects, and Wilma realizes her worst fears were paltry compared to the grim reality with which she must now contend. In addition to Roy’s ailing health, Miss Wilma has other issues to confront. Her teenage granddaughter, Star, is living with her for half of the school year and going through the throes of her first real (and sexual) romance with a local boy. Her ex-son-in-law, Harper, who has a special knack for irritating her, has been making plans on the sly with Roy to use the Swan homestead for his latest scheme. And her neighbors and friends, while well intentioned, keep clamoring to see Roy and aid in his recoverywhen all he wants is to be left alone. On top of it all, Miss Wilma must struggle with the knowledge that when Roy says he doesn’t want to see anyone, he means, most particularly, her.
With this sequel to The Piano Teacher, York continues to explore human nature and interpersonal relationships through her intensely developed characters and her complex, riveting narratives. Readers will find new reasons to swear allegiance to the memorable Miss Wilma, as well as poignant, stirring messages about memory, trust, life, and love.
Lynn York was born and raised in North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and the University of Texas at Austin, she lived in Washington D.C., working in the international telecommunications industry until small children and the promise of decent vegetables and a yard with grass brought her back to North Carolina in 1995.
What sparked this new tale about Swan’s Knob? You’ve said that in The Piano Teacher, Miss Wilma Mabry was a strong character who surprised you. Would you say the same for Roy Swan? What about other characters, like Harper and Star, who were given more “room to breathe” in this novel?
Even as I was finishing The Piano Teacher, I knew that I wasn’t quite done with the folks of Swan’s Knob. I wanted to write a book that showed Swan’s Knob in a later era, and I wanted to find a story that could stand alone, so that it didn’t matter which book a reader picked up first.
Early on in my work, it was Roy Swan who intrigued me. As a character, he showed up fairly late in my drafting of the first book, and even though I added some sections for him as I revised, I just had the feeling that there was more to his story. I decided pretty quickly that The Sweet Life would be his book.
It was a lot of fun to return to Wilma and Roy, eight years after time of The Piano Teacher, and to find out how they were getting along. The romantic in me loved dreaming up the rest of their courtship and, particularly, their weddingwhich I let Roy describe in first chapter of The Sweet Life. I particularly felt for Wilma: what would it be like to marry man in his sixties, a guy had never been married and still lived in his parents’ house? It was fun to imagine how they would negotiate those early trials of moving in together, giving one another “space,” adjusting to each others’ histories and family background. And of course, when you start so late in life, you run into the inevitable problems of aging all too soon. It was interesting to work with characters I already knew as they grappled with an increasingly difficult situation.
Likewise, it was lots of fun to take some of the other original characters, such as Starling, who was a ten in The Piano Teacher, and find out how they had grown up. Starling is a pretty precocious seventeen-year-old in this book. She makes everyone call her Star now and dresses a bit like Madonna. (This book is set in 1988, remember). Poor Star’s the kind of kid who has matured early, mostly because the adults in her life have not. For example, her father, Harper, is still pretty much the same randy rascal at forty that he was at thirty-two. Harper’s always been one of my favorite characters. He scrambles a bit over the course of this book to make something of himselfand he does have some success, though I think he always going to be the kind of guy who swigs a little tequila right before he goes out for a run.
While the setting of The Sweet Life and many of the main characters remain the same as in The Piano Teacher, this new novel seems to have greater scope than the first Swan’s Knob tale. Can you elaborate on some of the themes you wanted to explore in the bookor was any and all thematic work unconsciously done?
I think people living in small towns everywhere, and particularly, those in the South, experienced some major changes in outlook during the span of the 1980s (the time span for these two books). The physical and social barriers that kept Surry County, North Carolina, separate from Santa Fe, New Mexico, separate from Surrey County, England, and separate from Jakarta, Indonesia, for that matterthese barriers began to come down. If cheaper, faster transportation didn’t do it, then cable television and a thousand other things did.
I am no sociologist, but many people would say that this period is when the rural South started to blend in with the rest of the country. Maybe we became less backward, less isolated, but we also became more homogenized. And we let people put a bunch of ugly hamburger franchise outlets on our main streets. The good news is that we have clung to some of the important things that make us unique: our music, our language, our religion (for better or worse), and, of course, our ties to the land. Thematically, I guess I gravitate toward these elementsconsciously or unconsciously, it’s probably a little bit of bothbecause I’m interested in whatever it is that distinguishes my experience, my people, from everyone else on earth.
Look at the way I’ve used wine and winemaking in The Sweet Life, for example. These ended up being important thematic components for the book, but the idea came from a much less lofty source: from my own experience growing up in Surry County. We had a family friend, Mr. Leck Brown, who would give us scuppernong wine for Christmas. He made the stuff himself and “bottled” it in plastic milk cartons. My parents didn’t really drink wine, but my daddy would pour it over the Christmas fruitcake, which tended to get a little dry over time. When I originally created Roy Swan for The Piano Teacher, I gave him Mr. Brown’s winemaking hobby.
When I decided to set The Sweet Life in 1988, I realized that this was just about the time a few people in the Yadkin Valley started getting serious about growing grapesand not just the sweet native Scuppernongs, Muscadines, but a range of European (vinifera) varietals. This was a natural progression for Roy and his tobacco farm. I decided that Roy’s little winemaking hobby, as Wilma puts it, had gotten all out of hand, and that he had turned his old family farm into a vineyard. From the outset, I knew my book would cover the time span of the harvest season for Roy’s vineyard in the year just before his grapes will yield a full production.
From there, the whole idea took on a life of its own. Roy’s wine emerges first as a mere prop in the action, then it becomes truly tangled up (or you might say, entwined) with the plotline, and gradually, I hope the reader can begin to see what the process of winemakingthe concentration and preservation of the fruits of the earthmight mean to Roy and, by extension, to the rest of us.
You can think of it that way, or you can go along with a few of my friends, who claim that I put in all that winemaking in my book solely for the research experience. I did have to research the winemaking process, folks. This involved arduous process of driving around on the pretty back roads of western North Carolina and stopping in the vineyards of the Yadkin Valley. It would have been rude not to sample a little bit here and there. . . . I guess I was expecting the wine to taste like Les Brown’s sweet, syrupy scuppernong, but I was mistaken. Let me give you a quick commercial: There is some very nice wine produced in North Carolina right now. I favor the Cabernet Francs and the Voigniers I’ve tried, but most all of the major varietals are now produced somewhere in the state. The Yadkin Valley received its official appellation in 2003, and there are lots of great vineyards to visit: Shelton, Westbend, Round Peak, Childress, Raylen, and many others.
While The Piano Teacher was by no means a saccharine tale, The Sweet Life seems to have a darker, more complex tone. What compelled you to explore the boundaries of life and death so extensively in this novel? What accounts for this difference in tone? Were you aware of the difference as you wrote The Sweet Life?
I guess The Sweet Life is a bit darker. I think of this book as part of the Southern gothic tradition, though the most macabre elements of the story are nothing more than the awful results of human aging. I was very interested in exploring what happens to lovephysical love, romantic love, familial affectionas our bodies deteriorate and begin that long slide from life to death. I wanted to try to recount the way people struggle to summon up whatever forces they have on earth to prevent, or at least postpone, our decline.
Roy and Wilma, a happy couple married late in life, were natural candidates for this exploration. To me, Roy’s illness is all the more distressing to us because it comes on just at the moment when his life has hit its stride. That’s the real poignancy of middle and advancing age, isn’t it? That you feel you’ve just begun, and then boom, your back goes out (or worse . . . ). Chronicling the onset of Roy’s stroke and the aftermath of damage made for some tough writing days. It took me fully two weeks to get through the scene where Roy falls unconscious under his truck.
My consolation (beyond the fact that he is not a real person, of course) was that I am simply not able to see life, even the life I create in my novels, solely in a somber light. There are not a lot of funny things about having a stroke, of course, but I did manage have some fun with Roy’s language impairment and his gift for checking out his nurses’ cleavage. I even threw in a little bathroom humor toward the end. Beyond that, the story lines of other characters in book serve as significant counterpoints to Roy and Wilma’s situation. I really enjoyed writing about the young love (or lust, maybe, you’ll have to decide) between Josh and Star. I was hoping that this would remind readers that Roy himself (and all of us) were young once, and that we bring some portion of that starry-eyed exuberance with us, even into old age.
What interests you more: narrative or character? Which do you find it more difficult to develop over the course of a novel?
I would say that I am just about equally interested in the two. However, when I write a novel, I always start with my characters. That means, first, finding waysthrough language, action, and detailto breathe life into flat, vague ideas, until they become people who are nearly real (at least to me). Once I’ve done that, I just follow them around for a while within their particular setting, and gradually, I begin to find their place within my novel. If you look back at the first chapter The Sweet Life, notice how much we learn about Josh, just from a quick tour of his attic room.
Not all of my “walkabouts” with characters actually end up in the novels themselves, though. I do a lot of work on them away from the book itself and even away from my writing desk. I even dream about characters once in a while, just like you might dream about your dead Aunt Mildred. One time, Miss Wilma appeared in a dream in which I was shopping for clothes at the Traditional Shop in downtown Swan’s Knob. She went through the racks and advised me on what I should be wearing. If that sounds freakish, I can tell you, it sort of was. . . .
Once I have developed a decent group of characters, I try to understand where each character is in his or her life, and most importantly, how each character relates to the others. The narrative, or what most people think of as the plot, is just a natural outgrowth the characters and their conflicts with each other. Once you put all of the people in motion within the confines of a small Southern town, thankfully, things just start to happen. Once one thing happens, that causes another, and pretty soon, every one of my characters is in a heap o’ trouble, and I am late for carpool because I am so involved trying to figure out how to extract Celeste from her impulse to kill her patients or how to help Star decide if Josh is “the one.” This is a lot of fun for me, more fun than almost anything else on a good day, and my children have grown accustomed to my tardiness.
That said, I think it is difficult to develop a really interesting narrative, one that is going to make my readers stay up late to read one more chapter. The way my process goes, I don’t plan out my plot too far in advance. I have only a very sketchy idea where I am going at any given moment (here, my friends will see interesting parallels to my real life!). What this means is that I hit dead ends, or at least, very boring cul de sacs, and end up backtracking, rewriting, etc. There are also days where my characters refuse to do what I say (again, real life parallels . . . ) or uninvited strangers show up in Greyhound tour buses (Delrina Kay drove into my novel in just this way). These are all good things, though they can make your writing (and, by the way, your life) a little untidy, requiring you to go back and do a bunch of straightening up later.
- Evaluate the structure of the novel. How effective was York’s method of telling us this story through several perspectives? Describe key differences between each character’s perspective by comparing and contrasting them. For instance, compare Miss Wilma’s sections with Star’s; or Roy’s with Harper’s; or Celeste’s with Josh’s. By the book’s end, was there any particular character you wish you’d heard from one more time? By the last page, did you want to know more? If so, about what?
- At the outset of the novel Miss Wilma suspects her husband, Roy Swan, of having an extramarital affair with a younger woman. Discuss Wilma’s motivation for feeling this wayis it because she is slow to trust others (like Harper or Star) or because she doesn’t trust herself? (Remember, she feels guilty about missing the warning signs that preceded her first husband’s suicide). At the outcome of the book, what are we to believe about the trust we put in others? Does York have a definitive, black-and-white answer for us, or is her message more complex?
- While The Sweet Life is an elaborate narrative with several subplots, it’s also a fairly comprehensive study of interpersonal relationships. Compare and contrast the following relationships, and discuss what these pairs reveal to us about the connections we make with other people and the demands we put on those we love: Wilma and Roy; Star and Josh; Celeste and Travis; Harper and Star; Wilma and Sarah.
- In The Piano Teacher, the first of York’s novels about Miss Wilma and the town of Swan’s Knob, Harper was the antagonist to Sarah’s protagonist. In The Sweet Life, Harper is the antihero, a character who “saves the day” without having much (at least, at first) that’s heroic about him. Discuss his character development through the different roles he plays in the novel: founder of the music festival; father to Star(ling); friend (and possible protégé?) of Roy Swan; and foil to Miss Wilma.
- Early in the novel, Celeste and Travis discover their youngest son Josh reading Erica Jong’s seminal Fear of Flying, a feminist novel about a woman who jeopardizes her marriage in an attempt to discard all of her old hang-ups and fears. How does this book act as a symbol within The Sweet Life, and what events or changes does it foreshadow? In particular, discuss the relevance of Fear of Flying for Celeste, who has borrowed the book in secret, and for Josh, who is an adolescent male just beginning to explore his sexuality. (And, discuss the significance of the scene when they discover Josh reading the bookwhat is implied when Travis tries to explain the book to Josh?)
- The Sweet Life is full of bittersweet drama and poignancy, but it’s also full of gently comedic moments. Highlight and discuss the importance of such moments in the narrativewhat do they do for the reader (besides evoking a smile)? What keeps York’s more humorous characters from becoming caricatures or stereotypes? (Like, for instance, Delrina Kay.) And what of characters like Travis, who tread the line between ridiculous (his “healing”) and sinister (his treatment of Celeste)?
- When Roy slips into a coma after his stroke, we glimpse his dreams, which often involve memories of his youth. Discuss the significance of these particular memories/dreams, and how they explain certain aspects of Roy’s character and/or foreshadow events to come. Also, how well do you think York conveys the mindset of a man in a coma? Did you find it believable? Did these segments “work” for you?
- If you’ve read The Piano Teacher, you know that Miss Wilma underwent a gradual but important transformation ten years prior to the months described in The Sweet Life. Over the course of that novel, she became less reserved in her actions and more flexible in her outlook, and she even met the love of her life, Roy Swan. Does Wilma Mabry go through as extensive a transformation in The Sweet Life? What does she learn after enduring Roy’s stroke, coma, and isolated rehabilitation? What do we learn from her actions? Despite her prudish, most obstinate moments, what makes us stick with her, and even root for her?
- When Roy wakes from his coma and discovers the extent of his impairments, he begins to withdraw from Miss Wilma and keep her at a distance. We’re led to understand, as he believes, that he does this out of love for Wilma. To what extent are his actions dictated by pride? At what point does he stop being likable and become rather cruel and ugly? Discuss this development in Roy’s character in terms of realism, and then decide what York may be trying to say to us about the nature of pride. (Keep in mind, too, Wilma’s refusal to seek Roy out after he has banished her from the Swan homestead.)
- Several people try to claim Roy’s “healing” as a result of their own good (or bad) deeds: Delrina Kay believes her midnight wine-tasting brought Roy back from the edge of death; Travis insists it was Wilma’s anointed laying-on of hands, assisted (of course) by Travis’s holy oil and blessing. Even timid Celeste believes her failed mercy killing sparked something in Roy that made him snap out of his comatose state. How do you explain everyone’s zeal to lay claim to Roy’s recovery? Who do you believe is most responsible (either voluntarily or involuntarily) for his turnaround? What (or who) would you describe as the best example of faith in this novel? What is York trying to say about matters of faith, and of life and death?
- At the novel’s resolution, we learn that Josh and Star will not live “happily ever after”that Star will return to Santa Fe, that the two will grow apart, and that eventually Josh will be married at least twice. And yet, Josh will always remember his time with Star and how he felt when he was with her. How does this connect with (or parallel) the first segment of the book, which describes Roy’s encounter with the Korean girl in the window? What do the two segments tell us about the power of memory?
- Also at the novel’s resolution, Wilma unknowingly utters the punch line to Travis’s crude joke about the Widow Green. Discuss the significance of the joke in both contexts (in the hospital and on the hill at the farm), and how it acts as the perfect “punch line,” or ending, for this book.