Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Next Time You See Me includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Holly Goddard Jones. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In The Next Time You See Me, the disappearance of one woman, the hard-drinking and unpredictable Ronnie Eastman, reveals the ambitions, prejudices, and anxieties of a small southern town and its residents. There’s Ronnie’s sister Susanna, a dutiful but dissatisfied schoolteacher, mother, and wife; Tony, a failed baseball star-turned-detective; Emily, a socially awkward thirteen-year-old with a dark secret; and Wyatt, a factory worker tormented by a past he can’t change and by a love he doesn’t think he deserves. Connected in ways they cannot begin to imagine, their stories converge in a violent climax that reveals not just the mystery of what happened to Ronnie but all of their secret selves.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Emily’s initial shock at discovering Ronnie’s body develops, over time, into an intense fascination and a sense of connection to the corpse. What do you think drives Emily back to visit the body? What motivates her to keep it hidden?
2. How does Ronnie’s disappearance force Susanna to question her own life decisions? Do you think she was aware of her own unhappiness before Ronnie went missing?
3. Christopher experiences a range of emotions about Emily, from disdain to empathy to attraction. What do you think draws Christopher to Emily? In what ways are they similar?
4. Discuss Susanna and Dale’s relationship. What do you make of Dale’s treatment of his wife? Do they both share the blame for their unhealthy relationship?
5. On p.225, Susanna’s mother tells her, “If you’re going to leave what you’ve got, you better know what you’re getting.” Compare and contrast how the characters in the novel are defined by their comfort zones: Emily, Susanna, Christopher, Tony, Wyatt. In what ways do these characters find satisfaction and/or disappointment by taking risks?
6. Ronnie is a polarizing character, one that Holly Goddard Jones depicts primarily through the lens of other characters. What is your take on Ronnie?
7. On p.169, Jones writes of Mr. Wieland, Emily’s science teacher, “He didn’t like to think that had he been Emily’s peer rather than her teacher, he’d have been one of the students pelting her with her lunch. But he wondered.” In what ways do the characters in The Next Time You See Me discover their capacity for cruelty, particularly Christopher and Wyatt? What is the point that Jones is making about the dark side of human nature?
8. Wyatt is a sympathetic character in many ways, despite his mistakes. How did your opinion of Wyatt evolve as you learned more about him?
9. What do you think provokes Wyatt to attack Sam? Do you think he blames Sam for his own actions?
10. On p.385, when Emily’s mother expresses her remorse about advising Emily to “try to be normal,” Susanna responds, “I don’t that’s such bad advice.” Do you think that Susanna is being sincere? What do you make of Emily’s behavior throughout the story?
11. Tony and Susanna’s brief affair ends abruptly once Ronnie’s body is found. Was her disappearance the only reason they were drawn to each other?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Several characters in The Next Time You See Me relate to A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Read this novel for your next meeting and compare and contrast Susanna, Ronnie, Emily, and Christopher to Gene and Finny.
2. Discuss which character each member of your book club related to most. Then have each member select their ideal cast for the movie version of The Next Time You See Me.
3. Read Holly Goddard Jones’s short story collection, Girl Trouble, which also takes place in a small Southern town. How are the stories in this collection similar to The Next Time You See Me? How are they different?
4. Learn more about the author at www.hollygoddardjones.com, http://www.facebook.com/HollyGoddardJones, and https://twitter.com/#!/goddardjones.
A Conversation with Holly Goddard Jones
You come from Kentucky yourself. How much of this story is autobiographical?
When I was a little girl, a phone line repairman found a murdered woman’s body in an abandoned shack on a property near my neighborhood. It’s a cliché to say this, but that was a different time, and I spent much of my summer days unsupervised, and the subdivision I lived in was lined on a couple of sides by undeveloped wooded areas where I wasn’t supposed to go but often did. I thought it was thrilling to explore those woods, and I was fascinated by the idea that death had happened so close by—that it might have been me to find the body, under other circumstances. So that was the germ of the idea with Emily Houchens, her discovery, how entangled that discovery gets with her games of make-believe. But Emily’s story obviously isn’t mine, though we share some commonalities, such as having a father who works at a factory. And Emily isn’t me, thank goodness. I wanted there to be a disconnect in her, something missing. For all her sensitivity, she’s a character who has a hard time understanding the experiences of others, which is what I think her mother was actually talking about when she encouraged Emily to be “normal.”
The Next Time You See Me depicts the intricacies and the dark elements of a small community. Why did you choose to write about small town life?
Well, the short and easy answer is that I understand small towns—I’ve lived the majority of my life in them. But a small town is also an excellent backdrop for tragedy, because a death like Ronnie’s reverberates in a way that it wouldn’t in a city. You can see how her story touches all kinds of people, how it ignites the best and the worst qualities in each of them. I like setting fiction in small towns, too, because it gives me the opportunity to write about so many different ways of life. In a town of 10,000, the rich kids and the poor kids, the black kids and the white, are all going to go to the same school. Their parents are going to shop at the same grocery store.
What is your writing process? How was writing a novel different from writing your short story collection, Girl Trouble?
My writing process is “any which way I can,” and what that has often meant for me is fits of creative energy alternating with quiet, fallow periods, in which I’m thinking about the characters but not necessarily sitting down and making sentences. That method works better with short story writing, because I can draft a piece in a handful of those intense sessions, then focus on revision. A novel resists fits and starts—it doesn’t offer the same kinds of immediate payoff. With my stories, I’m often carried through the home stretch of a draft by the sheer emotional intensity of the experience, but you can’t live for years that way. So learning to write a novel was partly, for me, about learning to live more happily in the quiet writing moments, when I’m not necessarily worked up into an emotional lather.
I think it’s also easier in a story collection to leave your characters’ lives in shambles, and I couldn’t have seen my way to the end of this book if I didn’t think there would be light at the end of it, even if that light is very faint and distant.
Why did you choose to set the novel in the early 90s? How would it be different if it was set in the present day?
I wanted to write about a woman’s disappearance in a time that wasn’t yet complicated by cell phones, internet, and Nancy Grace—and I wanted to write about a kind of childhood that is perhaps harder to find now, even in small towns like the one I grew up in. When I realized that Tony was black—and this wasn’t something I immediately knew about him—it made sense, too, because I could capture his story at a time when he would have been able to have the illusion of equality, but the racism would have been less coded.
Which was your favorite character to write? Which was the most challenging?
I loved writing about Sarah, mostly because I just loved Sarah. She’s a person I wish I could know in real life: kind but no pushover, witty, and, at least until Wyatt enters her life, content with the person she has become and the life she has made for herself, even if that life is not everything she had hoped and dreamed as a girl it would turn out to be. Ronnie was also a lot of fun to write. I have to admit that I kind of admire her reckless pursuit of pleasure.
Wyatt and Emily presented a similar challenge. On the one hand, I knew a lot about them—certain aspects of their personalities and their ways of living were remarkably clear. That introductory section about Wyatt, his morning rituals and habits, came to me almost fully formed, as if he really existed and I was just putting down the facts about him. Ditto many of the passages about Emily. But demonstrating how these familiar and sympathetic characters could be capable of such acts of darkness was very hard. With Emily especially I struggled with what I wanted the reader to assume was true about her. She has ranged over the various drafts between merely lonely and pathetic and something closer to sociopathic.
Tony was a challenge, too, because I felt a heavy responsibility to do justice to a character outside of my race. My realization that he was a failed athlete, a baseball player who had come very close to success, made him finally click for me. I could see him through the lens of his ambitions and his disappointments as well as his race, and that helped me to write frankly about the real ways that his race affects his experiences in the world without making that his central defining characteristic.
Why did you choose to set the last chapter a year before the rest of the action in the book? Did you always know that you would end the story with Ronnie’s perspective?
I was in the home stretch of the novel—the last 75 or so pages—when I had the idea for the Thanksgiving epilogue, and I was so excited that I stopped working on the main part of the story and went ahead and wrote it in a feverish day or two. Then I went back and wrote the rest of the story, the one that ends with Susanna at Emily’s bedside. I think writing the Thanksgiving section unlocked the rest of the draft; it gave me something to strive toward. It’s one of my favorite parts of the novel.
Why is it set a year before the book’s action? I don’t know how much of this was conscious thought at the time, but there was a nice symmetry to beginning the book around Halloween and ending at Thanksgiving, even if I was going back a year in time to do so, and I wanted to be able to show Ronnie alive, full of life. Also, this is the only time in the book that the reader gets to see an actual scene play out between Susanna and Ronnie, and that relationship between them is so important to the novel. I thought it was also nice to build a scene around the photograph that Susanna ends up using for Ronnie’s MISSING posters—to know what was going through Ronnie’s head at the moment it was taken.
Does the story end for you where it does for us as readers? Or have you imagined the characters’ futures in your mind, beyond the pages of the book?
I don’t have a strong, specific sense of what happens to each of the characters, but in general, I think Susanna is OK—that the events of these weeks have given her the courage, the imperative, even, to seek out happiness. I doubt it will be easy for her, but I think she’s better off without Dale. And perhaps Dale is better off without her.
I hope Tony runs for sheriff and wins. And I hope Sarah finds contentment again.
Emily I don’t know about. She isn’t in a very good place at the end of the book.
Who are your writing influences? Any books you are currently reading that you would recommend to your readers?
Some writers who inspired this book in particular are William Faulkner—the Ronnie section in the middle of the book owes a debt to the Addie Bundren section in As I Lay Dying—and Margaret Atwood, whose Cat’s Eye and The Blind Assassin showed me some tricks about how to move a story between past and present. Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply gave me a model for a contemporary book that straddles perfectly that line between a literary novel and a suspense novel. Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children helped me with conceiving a book as a series of alternating third-person perspectives, including the ways that a writer can get mileage out of the gaps—the stuff that happens between chapters, when one character hands the story off to another. But the book that most captures what I strive to do as a novelist is William Trevor’s Felicia’s Journey. I just love it so much. I realized this only in retrospect, but Wyatt certainly has some Mr. Hilditch in him.
The books I’ve read most recently—and I loved all of them—were Christopher Coake’s You Came Back, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. I went to grad school with Chris, and I looked up to him, and it’s just such a pleasure to read this novel, which is a page-turner but also heartbreaking and artful. The Art of Fielding was interesting to read after The Next Time You See Me Me was copyedited and out of my hands. I’m glad I didn’t read it sooner. The books aren’t obviously alike, outside of the fact that Tony is a baseball player, but the big cast of characters, and the approach to point of view, are similar.
What are you working on next?
I’ve been writing short stories again, which is fun, but I’m eager to dig into another novel project. I may have something, but it’s too early to talk about. I’ve got to get it past the first trimester.