I had the pleasure of raising the girls in the Traveling Pants novels from the first taste of freedom at 16, to nearly complete freedom four years later. But as a writer I felt ready to keep growing, to find myself some more freedom still. I felt I had pushed the maturity of the young adult category as far as I sensibly could.
Q. What is your new novel about?
It’s about two sisters and a young man and the life they’ve shared on a small island summer community. Now, after a few years apart, they’ve come back together as adults and are forced to revisit those old relationships and to challenge the rules they’d made for themselves as children.
Q. Both sisterhood and friendship are key themes in this book, and in particular, friendship between sisters. Do you think sisters Riley and Alice’s relationship is unusual?
The range of sibling relationships is so wide, it’s hard to call any unusual. These two girls are very different. They represent, in a way, different stages of life and also the natural division of qualities that often seems to happen between siblings. (I’ll be this, you’ll be that.) They respect, almost idolize, each other’s differences, which I realize does not always happen between sisters.
Q. How much of yourself did you put into these characters? How much are you like the two very different sisters in the book, Alice and Riley? And how about Paul, for that matter?
In fiction, as in dreams I think, we fracture ourselves into several different people. I think I’m probably not like any one of the characters individually, but very much a combination of the three.
Q. What is the history of your relationship to Fire Island, New York, where your novel is set? How much did the actual place inspire the novel? Did you write it while you were there?
I first visited Fire Island when I was in college. I arrived at night, and it seemed to me an otherworldly place. I can still summon up that feeling sometimes. Or at least I try to. We own a house there now and my husband and I and our children spend our summers on the beach.
I first imagined this book while walking along Lighthouse Promenade on a rainy afternoon. I developed and wrote part of it on the island, but it’s a notorious feature of the island that though it inspires, it’s hard to get any real work done there.
Q. There are a number of secrets that drive the story in this book. Without disclosing what they are, why do these characters withhold the truth from one another, even though they love one another deeply?
What’s a novel without secrets?
But really, I think these characters were effortlessly honest with one another as children. Now they have all these feelings and desires that they feel they can’t share and that cause them shame. They’ve been cast out of innocence and they realize they are naked. Naturally they are trying to cover themselves up.
Q. Would you say that the ability to tell the truth about yourself is one of the essential qualities of maturity?
I don’t think I would. I might even say that we hide ourselves more and more as we get older, because our impulses and desires grow more complicated. That’s the plot, I guess. But indeed the resolution requires the acquisition of self-knowledge. You need to tell the truth to yourself, if not about yourself.
Maybe it’s another example of the diapers to diapers, gums to gums phenomenon. We are most honest about ourselves when we are very young or very old.
Q. The fear that the choices one makes in life will cut one off from one’s past, and from the people from that time in one’s life, is a concern for young people as they enter adulthood. This is a central theme of your novel. How would you describe the ideal way to negotiate that passage?
I don’t know if there is an ideal way. These characters don’t negotiate it ideally. For them it’s the cause of great suffering.
I think, in general, that people who require less consistency from themselves, who are comfortable with a more fluid identity, seem to have an easier time of it. And conversely, it’s the people who are most principled and most stalwart who often struggle the most.
Q. To some extent, the young people in your novel are suffering from the excesses and mistakes of their parents, who are members of the sixties generation. How do you think Riley, Paul and Alice’s behaviors and decisions reflect what they’ve seen in their parents’ lives? Do you think they are part of a larger generational trend?
I think that Riley, Paul, and Alice suffer from an excess of caution, in a way. Their parents took gigantic risks and made gigantic mistakes. I think they are scared to live that big or be that stupid. Indeed divorce and infidelity were so rampant in the seventies and eighties, that the generations to follow (myself included) are living with the hangover. We are desperate to make good decisions—almost paralyzed by the notion of what not to do. Maybe we grow up slower as a consequence.
Q. Fire Island is a magical, protected world for these characters as children, and seems to have influenced the people they grew up to be. Do you think there was something inherent in the place that made it special, or is it the constancy of having a special place, and friends, to return to year after year? Is there something particular to summer that makes this happen? Could the same kind of friendships have formed in a ski town, for instance?
There are places that seem to stand still, and Fire Island is one of them. I think a ski town could have that quality as well. These are single-season places where time does not flow. That is part of the magic, but it can also be a curse. It’s harder to accept change in an unchanging place. It’s harder to live the other seasons, I think, when you’ve identified so fully with one.
Q. Religion is also a strong background element, especially toward the end of the story. How important is it to the characters, and to you?
I was a very devout child. I lent my whole imagination to my faith. I was brought up Catholic, and I felt transported by the aesthetic richness of it. We mostly went to the hippie mass in the gym where a guy with an acoustic guitar sang “Day by Day” and “Morning has Broken” a lot, but sometimes we went to the big church, and it seemed to me the fanciest and most beautiful place on earth. Like Alice and her family, we were always late and underdressed. My older brother unfailingly wore a concert t-shirt to church—usually Black Sabbath or Judas Priest. It’s no wonder we never felt quite welcome there.
I suspect Alice’s religious experience is a bit like mine. She is capable of believing wholeheartedly as a child, but can’t quite square with the tenets of the church later in life.
Q. Which other fiction writers do you like to read? Whom do you admire?
I love and admire the work of Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy and Marcel Proust. Among my earlier loves were Judy Blume and Colleen McCollough.
Q. Are you working on a new novel? Can you talk about it?
Not yet. I’ve been writing so much for the last