Our interview today is with Steven Lee Gilbert author of A Lovely, Indecent Departure (4.4 stars on 21 reviews). Before the interview a brief description: Anna Miller wants only one thing, her son, and she will do anything to keep him. When a district court awards custody of Oliver to his father, she abducts the five year old and flees to Italy where with her family’s help they disappear into the fabric of her native homeland. Told in prose that is both stripped-down and overpowering, Gilbert shapes the everyday conflict of child custody into a stunning search for sense of worth. Standing in the young woman’s way is Evan Meade, the boy’s guileful and mean-spirited father, who hires a private investigator when the efforts of the embattled local sheriff, Monroe Rossi, fail to track them down. But as the investigation draws them all closer to Anna, Evan’s true nature betrays itself and the question of what’s in the child’s best interest becomes not so clear anymore.
Interview with Steven Lee Gilbert
1. Your book takes a close, intimate look into a parent’s struggle with child custody. Where did you come up with the idea behind A Lovely, Indecent Departure?
Many years ago I had the unfortunate duty to watch from the sidelines as the custody battle between my wife and her ex-husband first unravel and then go against her. The courtroom drama unfolded, it seemed, like a short theatre act, with one biased eye-witness after another, my self included, testifying on one of their two behalves. The judge then processed that information and decided within a few hours whose interest best served the child. What followed was a difficult time, indeed, for her, and for me, also. But as Albert Einstein once said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”, and so it was in considering all of the courses of action she might have taken to keep her son the seeds of this story were sown.
2. Some of the story takes place in Italy. Have you ever been there? Does the country inspire you?
I have had the chance to visit Italy, and Florence, in particular, and it stands out as one my favorites. The old world art and architecture, and the feeling of having stepped backwards in time, seemed perfect to me for a story in which the character is seeking resilience and optimism.
3. You mentioned your own personal experience with child custody. How much of the characters were drawn from real life?
Not much (though my wife is Italian and a school teacher). Mostly, they are composites of many different people I know coupled with my imagination. It is one of the joys and challenges of writing, taking this vague notion of character and turning it into a real person in whom the reader can develop a sort of one-sided relationship with. It’s what happens in real life, this trickling of personality, so why should fiction be any different. To be sure, as important as who these characters were was the notion that many people, real and imagined, tend to have a public persona that differs from the private one.
4. How do characters change or evolve throughout the course of the story? What events trigger such changes?
The are three separate events that contribute to the evolution of character. The first happens before the first page, when Anna loses custody; the second when Evan Meade, the boy’s father, hires a private investigator to track down his son; and the third to Sheriff Monroe Rossi as he begins to get a sense that the law was standing on the wrong side of what was right. Each of these acts—or result of the acts—serve, I hope, in helping the reader form a truer, more accurate impression of the characters. So in this sense, the change doesn’t occur to the character but to the reader them self.
5. How did you come up with the title A Lovely, Indecent Departure?
There are two things that motivate Anna. The first is her son, whom she is driven by love to care for and protect. The second is her own childhood, which was, because of the actions of her mother and father and then those of a sexual predator, riddled with feelings of loss, abandonment, and a deep sense of unworthiness. It’s a life she still feels saddened by and especially bound to in her marriage with Evan Meade. As such, there are two journeys in the book. The one is Anna’s taking of her son, the second is her departure from the indecencies rendered to her in the past.
6. What research did you have to perform to back up your story?
I believe a book should be accurate in both its telling and the details, especially fiction, so I did do a good bit of research study in writing it. Oddly enough, I found a resource for not only how to find a person who has disappeared, but also how to disappear and never be found. Both, not surprisingly, rely a great deal upon luck. Then of course, there was the Italian culture and language, but fortunately my wife is intimately familiar with both and so she was a great resource.
7. Why did you refrain from using quotations in the dialogue of the novel?
I get asked that a lot. Honestly, I first experimented with omitting quotation marks from my writing simply because I had seen some of my favorite authors—Cormac McCarthy, Kent Haruf—leave them out and wanted to see how it impacted my own writing. What I discovered was that in creating dialogue without the use of them I was forced to be even more precise with my word choice, depending on technique and the accuracy of words alone to inform the reader of what was happening in the story, which is, ultimately, a writer’s first job. So, in short, I think writing without quotes has made me a better writer. Everyone may not agree, some say it’s more work for the reader, but in comments I’m seeing, it isn’t taking my readers long to forget they’re not even there.
8. Explain your writing process?
My writing process was a lot different before when I was just writing and not marketing a novel. Then I would write all day, taking breaks to garden, run errands or just give myself time to think and recharge. Now, I divide my time amongst writing and the many tools at a writer’s disposal, such as Digital Book Today, in promoting the novel. For over a decade my routine had been to get up at 4 a.m., write for a couple of hours, go for a run, shower and then off to to a job all day. It was difficult at first, but I was determined and now I find that time of the day is one of my favorite times to write (though I don’t do it often these days). What else can you do at 4 a.m. but sleep? There are absolutely no distractions before dawn and no matter what happened the rest of the day I had fulfilled my dream of being a writer.
9. How do you get past writers block or distractions like the internet?
I don’t really think in terms of writer’s block, because I think of writing as work—albeit work I love—and a long time ago, I wishfully committed myself to the work of being a writer. As I said, that meant for me, rising at 4 a.m so I could get a couple of hours in before I had to go to work. Those early habits took root so that now when I sit down at my desk, it is the same as sitting down to work and like everyone else with a job, sometimes the work comes easily, sometimes not. Sometimes distractions, of which our mind can be the greatest contributor, get in the way. When that happens, the only thing you can do is either let the distraction become you or write through it. Neither one nor the other is wrong a hundred percent of the time and both will make the writing better. But with writing comes the understanding that often you have to write ten times a hundred words to find the one hundred that fit. There is no way around that, no shortcut, no magic elixir. When you think of it like that it’s not really writer’s block but instead an appreciation that the story is there inside you, revealing small bits of itself, even when we’re not actively looking for it. A writer’s talent is measured in patience, not words.
10. Most difficult part of writing?
Technology. Email, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, the internet in general. These can all be helpful resources, but if you let them—and I do—they can get in the way of everything else.
11. What would you like readers to take away from your novel?
In this book I ask readers to root for a protagonist despite that character’s self-motivated and ethically wrong behavior. It was a daunting task but one I felt my own bookshelf supported as it is filled with similar anti-heroes, protagonists who aren’t quite villains but not necessarily heroes either. Characters like Caulfield. Gatsby. Gollum. The Kid. People who at some point in their lives found themselves at the mercy of a stronger, more malevolent force and fought back. But more than the struggle between right and wrong, what I hope readers take from this story is that things are not always as they seem. Often, the real human struggle is syncing the who we are on the inside with the person we are on the outside.
12. What’s next?
My next novel. It’s titled The Dead Lion, and involves a soldier returning from war. I began writing back in the mid-nineties, before Departure, a couple of years after I came back from serving in the Army during the Persian Gulf War. Much like this novel, it started with my questioning what it would take for me to walk away from my post. In this case, the soldier deserts when his pregnant wife is struck and killed by a hit and run driver. He returns to his father’s apple farm in the mountains of North Carolina, where he is followed by violence in the form a machismo, extremist contractor determined to see military justice carried out.
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