I received an Amazon.com gift certificate over the holidays and a couple months later I had fun loading up my virtual shopping cart with new books. Sandra Novack's debut novel Precious was included in that shopping spree, and when it arrived I started reading it on a Saturday morning and finished it by Sunday. It's a book I'd heard nothing about but it's so compelling and beautifully written that I only put it down to eat, brush my teeth, and sleep. How's that for a book recommendation?
Precious (available in hardcover) follows a family thrown into crisis one summer in 1978 when the matriarch, Natalia Kisch, suddenly walks out on her husband, Frank, and her daughters (nine-year-old Sissy and 17-year-old Eva). At the same time, the family's small Pennsylvania town is rocked by the disappearance of Sissy's one-time best friend Vicki. The intriguing story is made more startling by the way Novack brings to life the tensions that exist in all families (between siblings, parents and children, husbands and wives).
I jumped at the chance to discuss the book with Novack, though to give fair warning, the interview could be considered a little spoilery as Novack talks about events in her real life that inspired some aspects of this book. To get to know this author, read more.
On where the idea for Precious came from: "I think the idea was always in me, particularly the idea of a girl who goes missing and a family who's sort of struggling with the fallout of loss. In part it's because when I was seven my older sister Carol, who was 17, she ran away from home and I never saw her again after that day. And so I think that the idea of disappearances is something I carry around with me and have carried around with me for however long it's been since I've seen her."
Discussing how and why she became a writer: "I knew about myself that I needed to express something and communication was always a part of that and I'm always concerned with and desire reaching out to other people, and originally I thought I was going to go into counseling. And I studied philosophy which pretty much makes me useless and unemployable so why not try writing? (Laughs) I don't know that I thought I was going to be a writer. I took a class and enjoyed it and just started making more and more choices for writing until really, writing was all that there was. I'm very shy with people, so it's a medium that works well for me because if you can put something on the page you can always think about how to say it just the way you intended."
On whether or not she based Sissy on herself and used her own family's experiences: "Well, writing from Sissy's perspective, I mean I think I got along pretty well because I'm like the emotional equivalent of a seven-year-old (laughs). So that worked out pretty well and Sissy was fun to write. I always say that to a large degree Natalia and Eva and Sissy are all sort of manifestations of myself. You know, Natalia's a really hyper-controlling person and I tend to be like that — very severe with other people and myself sometimes. And Eva's much more like, the id part — she's really sexual and kind of loose and out there and she was fun to write in that regard because she didn't have a lot of ambition. Sissy was more imaginative and introverted."
In the book Eva gets caught up in an affair with her teacher named Peter. Novack discusses whether or not she could sympathize with this morally challenged character: "As a writer there's really no place I wouldn't go in terms of writing. So it was interesting to me. That boundary and that kind of power differential would be like, an idea in the book and it would kind of play out in the plot where Peter takes advantage of this girl. And, you know, I can't say that I was terribly sympathetic toward him because I think he's aware of what he's doing. He's looking for a kind of easy affair and when things get too messy he's very willing to blame it on Eva. He can steep himself in denial and justify his actions and I don't generally like people like that anyway. He's not particularly sympathetic for me but at the same time I think he's human and does the best that he can to move on with his own life."