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This reading group guide includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A withauthors Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant. The suggested questionsare 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.
Questions for Discussion
1. The first chapter epigraph quotes, “ . . . all you can do is mop up the aftermath, dump it in a giant personal hazmat container and move on.” The topic of resilience is deeply woven into the fabric of Tee’s story. Do you feel that it was her own strong character, the people around her or both that allowed her to pull through the adversity she faced?
2. How did denial facilitate more problems for Tee? She believes that you should “never let them see you sweat” (page 8), and acts accordingly, but that only deepens her debt and her troubles. Is this a common hurdle for people in distress?
3. What role does Olivia play in Tee’s development? Does her idea of destiny eventually become part of Tee’s religion as well? How does Olivia’s parenting style differ from Tee’s?
4. Both of Tee’s important careers—at Markson & Daughter and To a Tee—help her make use of skills (label design and organizing) that she originally hadn’t even considered marketable. What does this show us about jobs and careers? What are the authors saying about natural talents?
5. When Tee recounts her marriage, she distinguishes between the dreamy stage of love and the “reality portion that set in . . . The part about what’s for dinner? Who’s doing the laundry? And what time are you coming home?” Do you agree with this distinction? And how do you think that Amber and J.J.’s marriage managed to avoid that trap?
6. Discuss the Thanksgiving scenes present in the book—from the shared traditions of old to the addition of new members, like Ron and J.J. How was this setting important, both to establish a sense of time and a context for Tee’s troubles?
7. When speaking of her parents, Tee comments, “We’re all geniuses when it comes to playing the cards other people are dealt.” Do you agree that it is easier to solve other people’s problems than your own?
8. In one particular scene where Tee is trying to analyze all her problems, she says, “ . . . ignorance is not bliss. It just means that when life slaps you upside your head you can say, ‘Where’d that come from?’ and halfway believe yourself.” How do you interpret this thought? Do you agree that ignorance is simply an excuse?
9. Why do you think that Tee keeps the truth from her own parents, even when she urgently needs their help? What did you make of her parents’ reaction when she finally tells them the truth?
10. Tee leads a very solitary life—she voluntarily isolates herself from her parents, daughter and son-in-law, and eventually even from Gerald and the Live Five. She explains that throughout life, she has been betrayed by her closest friends, and rhetorically asks, “How do you know whom to trust?” Do you think that she ever answers this question for herself?
11. Two of the toughest downgrades in Tee’s life involve her car and her house. She speaks of these luxuries as the measurements of her accomplishments. How do you feel that this materialism led her into the deep recesses of debt? How did letting go of material things allow her to concentrate more on herself as the ultimate judge of her accomplishments?
12. Discuss Ron as an example of entrepreneurship. Why do you think that Tee first rejected Ron? What about his final speech in her kitchen made her realize that she was wrong to dismiss him? And what in his demeanor set him apart from Gerald?
13. What Doesn’t Kill You clearly shows strong ties and resonances between the different Hodges generations: Tee’s parents, Tee herself, Amber and—at the end of the story—a new grandbaby.
14. Tee admits: “Somehow when you become an adult, and have children of your own, it’s easy to forget you’ll always be your parents’ child—and that their radar is as tuned to you as it was when you thought you got away with sneaking in past curfew.” How do parents play a role in our own personal development? And, likewise, how do they sometimes keep us from learning the lessons we have to learn for ourselves?
15. Tee sees herself as a voice from the past whose message serves as a warning to a new generation: “And I’m writing [my story] all down . . . so I can give my grandbaby a word or two of advice, not that they’ll listen. Some things you just have to learn for yourself.” What does this say about the chronology of life experiences? What do you think of this end to the story?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. This book is primarily about organization—physical, emotional and personal. Write a “diary” entry about the sector of your life that you’d love to have a Mess Master come and sweep into nice, compact cubbyholes. Are there any ways that you can help do that yourself?
2. Tee taps into a small but viral underworld of reality television, that of the home makeover and DIY organizing. Do you agree with the organization of the renovated rooms? Do shows like these help their “customers” find a good balance between cleanliness and style?
3. Much of What Doesn’t Kill You deals with careers—those that change, those that serve as models to others etc. Are you looking for a change yourself? Check out such websites as LinkedIn.com and careerbuilder.com.
A Conversation with Virginia DeBerry & Donna Grant
The title of this novel is borrowed from a classic adage, as in many of your other books, including Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made, Gotta Keep On Tryin’ and Far from the Tree. Why do you use expressions to title your books? Do you seek to reinvent them and make them relevant to our current lives?
We like expressions because they are familiar—whatever walk of life you’re from—and the words are always wise and sum up a situation perfectly. Of course most of us don’t realize that until we experience that 20/20 hindsight for ourselves.
What Doesn’t Kill You reads like a proclamation of independence. Although it’s carried out by a woman, it seems like an important lesson for anyone—the lesson of living and working for your self-satisfaction. How do you feel that you’ve learned that lesson in your own lives? Are your careers as writers part of that self-discovery?
We think self-discovery is an ongoing process. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, stop when you’ve reached a particular milestone . . . the eighteenth birthday, getting married, starting your career, having a child. Goals are OK, but life is not about the end game it’s about all that happens before you get there; truly it’s how you play the game that matters. We are on our own journey(s) of discovery, not only about writing but about as much other stuff as we can possibly experience.
In your books, you always explore the enduring relationships between women. In What Doesn’t Kill You, you treat that topic in a different way—both giving due diligence to the bond between mother and daughter and acknowledging a woman’s need to concentrate on herself. This is an especially important theme when it comes to financial well-being. Do you feel that it’s an important message for women specifically?
Women must learn to take care of themselves—not just their families—because in reality, you are actually the only thing you can really count on.
Are any of the characters in the book based on people you know? If so, whom? Do you feel that the best characters are ones that the authors know in real life?
We actually try to avoid using people we know from our lives in our stories—it’s not fair, and we mostly want to keep them as friends! But there’s a lot of Virginia in Tee’s personality and demeanor and way too many of Tee’s experiences. Virginia doesn’t have any children, so no, there was no sleeping with the best man at her daughter’s wedding, but many of Tee’s postemployment dilemmas are ones Virginia knows personally—so we had a great “in-house” resource.
Another important choice of words from Julie comes when she tells Tee, “You know, Tee, you don’t know what’s around the next corner if you don’t turn it.” Are these words that you have often had to say to yourselves? What is so comforting about a close friend assuring you that there will always be unpredictability to life?
It’s hard to be brave all the time. Sometimes it is hard to be brave at all and, without your friends, to remind yourself that you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, that “this too shall pass”—the journey would be so much lonelier and more difficult. We often quote the scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when they’re on the cliff—the posse is hot on their heels. Butch suggests they jump. Sundance says no and is forced to admit he can’t swim. Butch cracks up and says, “Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill us!” Then they hold hands and jump.
You don’t conceal the fact that the friendship between the two of you began with competition, as you were both working in plus-size modeling. Eventually, you developed a successful co-authorship career. Does the strong friendship between Julie and Tee mirror your own? Is there a specific common ground that leads to strong bonds when two people share a competitive past and a common respect for one another?
Mutual respect and trust has got to be at the core of any thriving friendship, and that has always been the case with us. And we established early that although we were competition for one another, the contest would always be fair. Unlike Tee and Julie, professionally we were always on equal footing. Tee started off as more of a role model for Julie. We enjoyed allowing their friendship to grow, so much so that Julie later has lessons to teach Tee. The space to grow and change is a wonderful gift friends can give each other.
Toward the first surge of her new career, Tee mentions that she created a blog with ideas on organization where her readers could ask for tips, ask questions and make comments. Do you find that your own blog (twomindsfull.blogspot.com) is a place where you can connect with your own readers and reach your audience more directly?
We love having our readers connect with us via email, our blog and our MySpace page (myspace.com/twomindsfull)! We post topics that run the gamut from the serious to the ridiculously inane, but our favorite part is reading the comments—and frequently commenting back. We like the immediate, hands-on involvement. And yes, we do monitor our own blog and My-Space page—’cause we get asked that all the time. That’s why we’re sometimes slow to respond—it’s all do-it-ourselves.
Why did you choose the end of the story to be dedicated to the future, the new generation created by Amber and J.J.? How do you feel that our own experiences help shape those of the next generation?
We have loads of readers that are a generation, even two, younger than we are. And we’re always tickled when we hear from them, in great detail we might add, about the things they learn from our books. When you reach a “certain” age, as we have, you have attained a “certain” wisdom—but that’s nothing new, it’s what has been happening with human beings on the planet from the beginning. So as storytellers, we are doing our part in continuing a cycle that’s as old as life itself.
Your books have a great following with women and especially with book clubs. Why do you feel that the lessons you exemplify in your stories speak so loudly to groups and to women? Are either of you in a book club?
We believe that the truth of women’s life experience—family, friends, mates, children, jobs, struggles, joys and everything in between, is a universal experience, one that transcends age or race.
Are you two currently working on another book together? Can you tell us anything about it?
Indeed we are—all we can (will) tell you at the moment is that, like so many of today’s headlines, politics and scandal will be at the heart of the story. Will the past cast its shadow over the present forever?
Virginia DeBerry was a successful plus-size model, former Vice President of BB/LW modeling agency and served as editor-in-chief of Maxima magazine before becoming a novelist. DeBerry is a graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo. She currently resides in central New Jersey.
Donna Grant spent more than a decade as a model for catalogs and advertisements. Grant has been featured on the pages of Essence, McCalls, Family Circle, and Woman's Day, as well as appeared on Good Morning America, and Live with Regis and Kathy Lee. Grant served as the Managing Editor of Maxima before her writing career. A Brooklyn native, she is a graduate of New York University and still lives in the borough with her husband.