Melissa Senate Interview

A Conversation with Melissa Senate, Author of The Secret of Joy

How did you come up with the idea for The Secret of Joy?

My own life provided the inspiration (truth is stranger than fiction). Out of the blue several years ago, I received an email with the subject header: I think you might be my half sister. Whoa. I’ve had no contact with my biological father or any member of his family since I was eight years old, but I’ve always known I had a half brother, who was born when I was seven. And now here the half brother was, making contact. You can imagine the soul-searching, the questions I asked myself: Who is this person to me? A total stranger or a family member? What does the word family mean, exactly? How do I feel about it all? I had so many questions and no answers. And that’s one of the gifts of being a novelist; I could pose that question on paper, create a fictional scenario (using real life as a basis), a fictional character, and have her help me find the answers. And to make things more interesting for myself, I flipped everything: a half sister instead of a half brother. And I made the main character the one who grew up with the mutual father—that was very revealing for me.

You’ve written about sisters before, but in different capacities. Do you have a sister of your own? How did your experience of growing up either with or without siblings shape your understanding of what it means to be and have a sister?

Sisterhood is such a powerful word, such a powerful concept. That shared upbringing, that shared female experience. I love exploring the ways in which sisters can be raised in the same home by the same parents, yet have such different experiences, be so different. I do indeed have a sister of my own, two years older, and though we haven’t lived in the same state since I was sixteen, I’ve always felt very close to her. In The Secret of Joy, there are two sisters with DNA and a father (barely, for one) in common, but nothing else to bind them together—no shared upbringing. How do they forge a relationship? Especially if one isn’t interested? There is so much to delve into!

In your own life, you moved from New York City to a small town in Maine for what you call a “quality of life experiment.” Was your move as impulsive as Rebecca’s? How did that move affect your life and inspire your writing?

It was as impulsive—and yet, not, at the same time. I have long-known that my gut instinct serves me well, and when it said to move from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where I’d lived for fourteen years, in the apartment of my dreams on the twenty-third floor with a balcony and a tiny-but-there view of the East River to a small town in Maine with one (unnecessary) traffic light, I listened, despite. Despite leaving my family, my friends, and my beloved New York City itself. What I needed was quiet—though I didn’t realize then that the quiet I sought was an internal thing, not an external thing. When I did move to Maine and got the external quiet, I could hear myself think and slowly realized that the peace and serenity I sought did not come from long stretches of grass and blue ocean and the lack of honking taxis and eight million people, but that peace is something you have to find within yourself, not from your surroundings, though your surroundings can certainly have a huge effect. Ah, life lessons. The good news: I love Maine. And I do appreciate the quiet! As for how the move affected my writing, I’ve discovered that all of my adventures, big and small, have found their way into my novels in ways even I can’t identify sometimes.

Are any aspects of The Secret of Joy at all autobiographical? Are any of your characters ever loosely based on friends or acquaintances?

See question number one! Interestingly, though I love to borrow from my own life for the premise of my novels, I never, ever base, loosely or otherwise, my characters on anyone in my life.

I am nothing like Joy Jayhawk, for example. Or Rebecca. I do like to take situations from my own life and turn them around to explore them in fiction, though. I’ve done that in every book. A serial dater in NYC—check. A single woman who gets pregnant two months into a new relationship—check. A wedding that isn’t quite what you envisioned—check. A half sibling who “knocks” on your door one day out of the clear blue sky—check!

What are some of your favorite places in Maine? Have you ever been to Wiscasset?

The sign welcoming you to Wiscasset announces that it’s “The prettiest village in Maine.” I was so charmed by that and had to see for myself if it was true. And it is! The drive into Wiscasset is all part of the pretty—blueberry stands dot the countryside, and there are beautiful old farms and grazing horses. And the town is picture-postcard lovely. Many of Maine’s towns are so pretty and charming, but also bustling at the same time. I particularly love Camden and Kennebunkport. And my own town is pretty cute, too.

How did you come up with the idea for Joy’s singles tours?

I saw a glossy advertisement for a pricey singles bus tour of California’s wine country, and I wondered what happens when that bus leaves the station: Are singles checking each other out? What if you’re not attracted to anyone—do you want your money back? Or is it about the adventure? What if two singles are vying for the same person? What if, what if, what if? But I immediately envisioned that weird little yellow minibus from Little Miss Sunshine, not a real bus with air-conditioning and a bathroom, and that strange little minibus began informing the kind of people who’d be on the tours—people on the quirky side. Seeking not so much romance, but acceptance, connection. It’s so interesting how ideas take root.

Many of the characters in this novel experience heartbreak at one point or another. What was your motivation for creating so many troubled relationships?

I didn’t do it consciously! I think I wanted to explore what the word family means to many different kinds of people in different stages. Including . . . myself.

Rebecca is pretty confident all along that she and Joy really are sisters. As you were writing, did you ever waiver on your decision of what the blood tests would say? Do you usually know how a story is going to end when you start writing it?

I always write to a last sentence, actually. Does that sound strange? I always knew what I wanted for Joy and Rebecca at the end, and I wrote to that ending. I wasn’t sure exactly what would lead them there, the twists and turns, the ups and downs; the characters take over to tell their own stories. But I knew before I wrote a word that these two women were sisters, in every sense of the word.

How did your work in publishing help prepare you for life as a writer? Is it helpful having been on the other side of the book business?

You know, it’s hard to answer that question, because I don’t know what it’s like to be an author who wasn’t an editor first, who wasn’t working in the New York City publishing world. I started out in publishing as a twenty-two-year-old editorial assistant at a fiction house and left as a thirty-four-year-old senior editor. I feel like I grew up in the editorial world. The one thing I am sure of about publishing is this: it’s a business. It’s vital to remember that and probably the one thing that has been the most helpful to me these past ten years that I’ve been a full-time writer. But just as vital to remember is the fact that the creation of books, from the author who writes to the publishing house who produces, is a labor of love for everyone involved.

What’s up next for you?

I am hard at work on my next women’s fiction novel for Downtown Press. It’s set in an Italian cooking class and involves the tiniest bit of magic and a lot of romance. My working title is The Love Goddess’s Cooking School and it will be published in 2010. I’m also very excited that in May 2010, my second novel for teens, The Mosts, will be published. Though set in the high school world (and mostly on a farm in Maine!), I explore my favorite themes: acceptance, family, relationships, and self discovery.