A conversation with Deborah Goodrich Royce “Finding Mrs. Ford”

A Conversation with Deborah Goodrich Royce:

 

Q: What inspired you to write Finding Mrs. Ford?

A: Several different threads of inspiration coalesced to get me started on Finding Mrs. Ford.  First—and I say this only half facetiously—was the empty nest. I jokingly say that it took the youngest child leaving home for me to get the real estate in my brain back. To be clear, I LOVE my children and could not—would not—imagine my life without them. However—and this may be due to some shortcoming in my own capacity—writing was difficult for me while raising them. I did many things during the years that my daughters were at home—acting professionally when they were very young, story editing at Miramax in their preschool and elementary school years, restoring and running a theatre, participating in writing groups, and serving on multiple boards throughout—but the kind of deep dive that I required to be able to get this book written only became possible when the house became quiet. But let’s call that part less pure inspiration and more precisely the ability to open the window to pay attention to inspiration and do something about it!

On that note, there are some larger themes that I have spent many years considering. One is the idea of identity and how it can be malleable depending on so many circumstances of life. I remember years ago when I was flown out to Los Angeles by Paramount Pictures to screen test for a pilot with Christopher Lloyd. The producer and director could not decide between me and one other actress. They liked us both so much that they kept bringing us back over and over again. On one of those return auditions, the director informed me that I was different depending on what I wore. I suppose now that it makes perfect sense, but I had not considered this concept before his comment. He went on to clarify that I moved my body differently in a dress than I did in pants, and further, that my personality altered a bit to go along with it. This is a small example, but it illustrates a much larger truth. I think many of us move, act, maybe even think differently based on myriad external details of our environment. Hence, Mrs. Ford is seen as a mature woman of means and social position in her life on the east coast in 2014. And she is seen contrastingly as a young college coed living in what was once a model suburb in what was once a happy family on the outskirts of Detroit in 1979. Suffice it to say, that she acts and thinks differently in each place and time. Oh—and I got the part once I got that concept. The pilot was called Old Friends. We had a ball making it, but it was not picked up by ABC, its network. So—and this is another motif of the book—destiny intervened to take me in a different direction.

A third inspiration would be my life-long interest in the Middle East. The character of Sammy Fakhouri is a Chaldean—a Christian (specifically Catholic) from the north of Iraq. Not many people outside of Detroit (I hasten to add Iraq) know what a Chaldean is. I met Chaldeans in Detroit in my college years and was intrigued. I asked a college professor of Middle Eastern Studies about them. She (not being from Detroit) was surprised that I had encountered them in the US. I guess this would qualify as a continuation of my fascination with identity. Who were these people who came to Detroit? How did they fit in in that northern industrial city and what was their position at home in Iraq.

When the Iraq war came about, I was curious about the figure of Tariq Aziz—also a Chaldean—who had served over a span of years as Sadaam Hussein’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. He died in jail of a heart attack in 2015—while I was writing Finding Mrs. Ford—after being condemned to death by an Iraqi Tribunal. But he had risen up inside of Iraq in that post-WWII moment of Pan-Arabism—a greater-Arab-identity irrespective of national borders (and maybe religious divisions, as well, given Mr. Aziz’s participation as a Chaldean)—that struggles to survive in the Arab world today. Very little of this information remains in my book (editors, editors, editors!), but I hope the overarching theme is still present.

Another subject matter of interest to me is fear—what it does to us and how we behave in the face of it. The character of Annie is fearless—or seems that way to Susan. Susan is riddled with fears, yet makes choices that defy her own misgivings. Susan makes the decision to quit her nice and respectable summer job at an upscale ladies’ boutique and put on a Playboy bunny-style costume to serve drinks to men at a very questionable disco because she is afraid to do it. It is foolish and counterintuitive—and it will have life-long consequences—but she does it anyway. And she also does it because of Annie. Annie’s recklessness, her charisma, her klieg-light personality all play a part of the allure of Annie for Susan. She has never met anyone like Annie and is uncontrollably drawn to her. To use a movie/book reference of character archetypes, Susan is Melanie and Annie is Scarlett. Enough said for some of us, but, for younger readers, I am referring to Gone With the Wind, BTW. I have known a few Annies in my life—those women who walk into a room and all eyes turn towards them—I have felt the pull of their personalities and puzzled over the source of their power. And it is not just beauty, that is for sure. Their magnetism is part of their identity, but exactly which part?

All in all, I have just taken many paragraphs saying what can be summed up in one word: Identity. Who are we and why are we that way? Would we be different if something pivotal changed in our lives? And do we ever truly know another person?

 

Q: Finding Mrs. Ford is your debut novel. What drew you to the thriller genre?

A: I love a good thriller! A Daphne du Maurier  book or a Hitchcock movie would be the type of mystery/suspense/thriller—however you want to categorize it—that keeps my attention and that I can watch/read more than once. The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn, The Witch Elm by Tana French—these are two books that came out when I had finished but not yet published Finding Mrs. Ford—both strike exactly those complex notes of the search for identity and for facts in the face of a cataclysmic trigger in a world where nothing is what it appears to be.

And—spoiler alert—my second book, Ruby Falls, has turned out to be a thriller, as well, though it is far more gothic and spooky than Finding Mrs. Ford. It is in early drafts, but it would appear that thrillers are what I like to write!

 

Q: You have had a very successful career as an actress and story editor, in what ways do you think your career thus far has influenced your writing?

A: I am so happy to be answering this question right now about how my past as an actress and a story editor plays a role in my writing today. I am referring to Glenn Close’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes (fantastic movie—The Wife—we played it for weeks at the Avon, the cinema we run in Stamford, CT), and after the New York Times cover story today (1/9/19) about older women and our emergent voice and power. So, let me begin by saying that my entire life—my multiple careers, all of my years as an actress, a mother, a wife, a story editor, a volunteer, a building restorer, a cinema operator, and on and on and on (I am sure ALL of us can tally up a list of what we have done that includes many things, paid and unpaid)—come together to make me the person who types in the words that my characters say and the thoughts that they think and the events that occur in their lives. It is all there. Inside my head.  We all have that. And it gets stronger and better as we get older.

I could not have written this book when I was younger. I am not disparaging younger writers at all—many of our greatest writers have done their best work in youth—I am simply stating a fact about myself. I mean, think about it, it is extremely depressing to think that power exists on a downward-sliding scale because of changes to a face or a body. Why should that story be true? It is a story like other stories. And it revolves around placing one’s power—one’s identity—outside of oneself and into the hands of another. I don’t think our identity is terribly safe in someone else’s hands. This arc is visible in the book, taking the reader from the younger women, who most certainly place their personal power outside of themselves to the mature Mrs. Ford, who finally takes hold of it.

All I can say is that I have more energy and clarity of thought today than I ever had in my younger years. Maybe it is the empty nest (my children are going to murder me for continuing to say this!) and maybe it is the physiological changes that allow focus to change. To turn inward and away from those voices that seek to define (and limit) us in ways we may not really wish (or need) to be defined and limited.

  

Q: You have experience writing sceenplays, did you find the process of writing a novel similar to that of writing a screenplay or very different?

A: I love the writing of books. I go into a room that we have in our house in Connecticut that overlooks the water. We face due-west and the view is enchanting 365 days a year. I am looking at it now. We are on a river, so I see trees on the opposite side. They are quite barren—I am writing this in January—so devoid of much color. But the sky above them is awash in greys and blues and pinks. But I digress. When I am writing a book, there is a flow that I can tap into which is transporting. Often I find myself surprised by things that my characters think or say or do. Yes, I outline and have a plan when I begin. Yet, just like in life, people surprise us. Even when they are not real.

I don’t love writing screenplays. I am fond of reading them—and certainly seeing them produced—but the writing of them involves a lot of mechanics and formatting that I want to gloss over. Jump-cuts and fade-ins and all of that stuff.  Now…should I be offered the opportunity to take a pass at the screenplay of Finding Mrs. Ford…I would certainly jump at it!

That said, in early drafts of my book, every one of my readers (dear friends and editors) said it read like a movie. I had to work to get out of a movie head and into a book head. In early drafts, I had many more fly-on-the-wall observation perspectives—like in a film—that ended up being changed in the final version. Apart from the opening tracking shot (see what I mean about thinking like a movie-maker?) in chapter one—when we follow Mrs. Ford, who is unwittingly being followed by a car—there is very little that goes on that is outside of her head and her perspective.

 

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the process of writing Finding Mrs. Ford?

A:  One of the most important things that I could do to nudge myself into a serious writing mode was to go public about the fact that I was writing this book. To literally just say to people that I was working on a novel. It made my humble and discreet husband visibly cringe to hear me tell people I was writing a book.  I think he was worried that I would never finish the thing (remember all the years I had been hesitating to take the real time needed to write) and that I would embarrass myself. He may murder me now, too, because I am probably over-exaggerating his feelings. Maybe my third book will be one in which a woman is murdered by her children and husband for blabbing too much about them? But in the end, my instinct about myself was right. After I reassured my husband that I could emotionally survive the shame of admitting to folks that I never finished my book if, in fact, that turned out to be the case, I got busy writing it. By saying out loud that I was writing a novel, I wrote a novel.

Post-script to that: About six months into the process, I was talking with a dear friend and writer of SEVEN(!) books—the very talented Harriette Cole—and she asked me how many days a week I was writing. I told her the truth that at that point it was one. She paused and gave me a perfectly deadpan stare. Then she told me flat out, “You will never finish your book writing one day a week.” Harriette, of course, was right and I listened to her advice. I went on to cut other commitments, to reduce the number of boards I sit on, to give up a nascent practice of bridge playing (alas, my absence will not be mourned in the world of bridge!), and to carve out the time needed to do it.

 

Q: What message do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I want readers to take away a message of hope and rebirth and renewal and endless possibilities for reinventing ourselves in our lives. It is, I think, a fundamentally American message and Susan and her cohort, Annie, are fundamentally American girls (I think I can use the word, girl, to describe a young woman—there were so many thrillers with the word, girl, in the title in recent years—Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, The Luckiest Girl Alive and more—I think I’ve read almost  all of them!).

Another message would have to do with the sweep of history and the simple fact that nothing exists in a vacuum. A stone cast in the water causes no end of ripples in all directions. And the fact that there is nothing new under the sun. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.

Two girls meet and become friends. A boy from Iraq and a girl from Michigan meet at the same time.  Girl meets girl. Girl meets boy. Time passes and somehow—we don’t yet know how—girl and boy move on to new places. And that is where we open the book. The FBI shows up at Susan’s door in Watch Hill—thirty-five years after everyone first met—having just detained Sammy, who was on his way to see her, all the way from Baghdad.

How does it all tie together? Because, of course, you know it does. And I think that life is like that too. I could NEVER have predicted the places I would go or the people I would meet (though maybe Dr. Seuss could have). It is probably good that we don’t know the future because it would just seem ridiculously implausible. Yet, the implausible happens every day.

And, once again, we come back to the question of identity. Who are we? Does the person we are exist in a straight line from birth to death? Who are the people we know? And do we really know them? Who is Mrs. Ford? And who, in the end, will find her?

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