The Heart of the Novel: Nicholas Montemarano and Eric Puchner

If you want to lose and then find yourself in stories of modern family life, look no further than the fiction of Nicholas Montemarano and Eric Puchner. Both authors peer into the beautiful messiness of contemporary America by way of its homes: the high stakes of our daily rituals, the turmoil beneath serenity, the white lies and longings that hold it all together. Puchner is author of the beloved story collections Last Day on Earth (Scribner, 2017) and Music Through the Floor (Scribner, 2005), as well as the novel Model Home (Scribner, 2010), which won the California Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Montemarano is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, The Book of Why (Little, Brown, 2013) and A Fine Place (Context Books, 2002), and the short story collection If the Sky Falls (Louisiana State University Press, 2005), a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Now he’s celebrating the release of his third novel, The Senator’s Children, published this month by Tin House Books. Centered on two sisters who have never met, it is an intimate family drama about a political scandal and the personal aftermath. Puchner read an advance copy and was enthralled. “This engrossing, brilliantly structured novel takes a familiar situation—the implosion of a presidential candidate’s career—and creates a thing of heartbreaking beauty out of it,” he writes. “By asking whether forgiveness can conquer blame, and whether we might even be able to treat strangers like family, The Senator’s Children feels like exactly the kind of novel we need.”

Novelists Nicholas Montemarano (left), author of The Senator’s Children; and Eric Puchner.

So Eric Puchner and Nicholas Montemarano got in touch, and what started as an e-mail exchange in the fall of 2017 turned into a literary deep-dive. The two discussed scandals and second chances, finding the heart of the novel, and blurring the personal and political.

Eric Puchner: The Senator’s Children feels like a departure for you in terms of material. One of the things I admire about it, in fact, is that you take a familiar subject, one that’s sort of ripped from the history books—the infidelity of a presidential candidate and its ramifications on his career and family—and find a brand new story to tell.  What compelled you to write about a political scandal?

Nicholas Montemarano: This novel does feel like a departure in some ways—I never expected to write about a political scandal—but in other ways, it continues a preoccupation of mine. So much of what I’ve written—I realized this only after I completed The Senator’s Children—is about families, specifically how they cope with the aftermath of tragedy. My first urge to write this novel came after listening to a late-night talk show host lampoon a politician whose career and life were falling apart. I was compelled less by the fact that this man was a politician and more that he was a public figure being mocked when privately he and his family must have been in great pain. I had an especially strong reaction to the audience’s laughter. I may have been the only person in America, for all I know, who felt sorry for this man, his wife, and his children. We like to see the mighty fall, and then we love the redemption story that often follows. But this politician—the one who was the butt of so many jokes—there wasn’t going to be a second act for him. Not a chance, not after what he did. I couldn’t help but wonder what the rest of life would be like for a person who had become such a pariah.

EP: That’s another thing I admire about the book, the sympathy you show each and every character—not only David, the disgraced senator, but also “the other woman” who in some ways conspires to take David down. Was there a particular character you found hard to empathize with at first? Who was the trickiest character to write your way into?

NM: David Christie was unfaithful to his wife while he was running for president—and while she was battling cancer. Can you feel sympathy for someone who did that? Well, that was one question I set out to ask in my novel. The answer, for me, was surprisingly immediate: yes, of course. The challenge, then, was to bring out those aspects of David that might evoke empathy in readers. On the other hand, Rae, the woman with whom David has the affair—she was more of a challenge. In early drafts, she wasn’t very sympathetic. She was too interested in cashing in on the affair; she wanted to write a book about it and still hoped, years after the affair, to win over David. But she struck me as a caricature, a cultural footnote you might see on a reality TV show (in fact, I had her on a reality TV show in the first draft). So I had to dig deeper and allow her to be flawed—she can be needy and self-absorbed—but sympathetic. In her case, her saving grace is that she loves her daughter.

EP: We’ve been talking about David and the other woman, but the novel’s called The Senator’s Children. For me the emotional heart of it is the story of the two sisters, Betsy and Avery, who don’t know each other because one of them is the living proof of their father’s scandal. It’s just such a fraught, thematically rich situation. Did you know from the beginning that you would focus on David’s two daughters and their very divergent trajectories in life? And that these trajectories would eventually cross?

NM: I was just talking about this last week with my students. I showed them the pages in my notebook from 2011 when I wrote down my first thoughts about this novel. It was called The Senator. But a few weeks later, the working title became The Senator’s Daughter because I decided that its focus—and its narrator—would be Avery, the daughter born from the affair. I wrote the first paragraph—which no longer exists in the novel—and then one page later in my notes, I wrote: The Senator’s Children. I could see myself changing my mind and discovering what the heart of the novel would be. Even at that early stage, I knew who David Christie’s three children were and that his two daughters, estranged from their father to varying degrees, would collide late in the novel. I wrote pages of notes about them. It’s amazing to me that, after five years and so many drafts, much of those first notes I wrote about them remain true. Some things we know from the very beginning, and other things we have to write our way towards knowing.

EP: I wonder about that in relation to the novel’s structure. Another thing that impresses me is the way it moves so unexpectedly through time, toggling between the mid-eighties, the early nineties, 2010, and (in the final section) 1977. I found this to be the source of a lot of the book’s poignancy and power. (In some ways, it feels like the real subject of the novel is time and its irrevocability.) Was the jumping-around-in-time structure something you knew you were going to have from the beginning, or is it something that evolved during the drafting process?   

NM: I really like what you just said about time and its irrevocability—yes! If I had to choose two words that seem to capture my books thus far, they would be: time and regret. What is the life span of a terrible mistake? Can time heal even our deepest wounds? Or do those wounds fester and multiply? I’ve written three novels, and all of them move around in time. It’s difficult for me to imagine writing a novel that doesn’t; it just feels natural to me. As a reader, I’m drawn to nonlinear narratives. Many of my favorite books—The Things They Carried, Jesus’ Son, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City—jump around in time. Or skip ahead, like the “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Or move backwards like Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal. Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things, one of my favorite novels in recent years, includes surprising flash-forwards. Time jumps can be so powerful. We’re here, then suddenly we’ve jumped ahead, or back, and important things happen in that white space. I remember turning the page to Part Two of your novel, Model Home, and seeing that time had jumped ahead a year—even a small time jump like that excites me. I’m like, what did I miss? What happened between those two pages? The ending of The Senator’s Children, the final jump back in time—as soon as it happened, it thrilled me; I knew it was right.

EP: I want to ask you about the language in the book, which feels whittled down to its very essence—there’s a kind of spareness to it that feels evocative and hard-boiled at the same time.  Reading it, I couldn’t help thinking of Babel’s dictum that “only a genius can afford two adjectives to a noun,” except that it seems to me you’ve decided to get rid of adjectives altogether. Is this ultra-spare voice something that comes easily and naturally to you? Or, like Isaac Babel, do you “go over each sentence, time and again,” taking out anything extraneous?

NM: Eventually, I had to give myself over to sparer prose. During revision, it won me over and convinced me that it would be best for the novel. The first draft was bigger, louder, stylistically and formally explosive, multiple narrators, very voice-driven. With each draft, more of that fell away. The aspects of the first draft I was most enamored with were exposed as just that—writing I was too enamored with and attached to. The revision process was one of whittling down me, so to speak. The novel couldn’t be about me being a good writer or making some interesting moves; everything had to be at the service of the story. And so with each revision the novel became quieter and more intimate. Whenever my editor and I spoke about the later drafts of the novel, we always came back to intimacy—that was the novel’s strength, she kept telling me, and I came to believe her. It’s amazing to see how much the novel changed through revision—more than any other book I’ve written.

EP: Speaking of change, the biggest change that happened between your writing of this novel and its publication was the election of Trump. You wrote the novel before Trump’s infamous Hollywood Access tape, which—unlike David’s indiscretion—didn’t end up crushing Trump’s chances at the presidency and makes the Monica Lewinski scandal seem almost quaint. Has Trump’s ascendancy changed your perspective on the novel in any way? Would you write the same book in 2017?

NM: I would. Trump, of course, has reset almost everything when it comes to politics. But families—it seems to me that they remain the same. And I really see The Senator’s Children as a family novel more than a political novel. I set David’s run for the presidency in 1991 and 1992 mostly by necessity: I needed Avery, his daughter outside his marriage, to be in college during the present narrative in 2010. But setting the political scandal twenty-five years ago turned out to be interesting. I had a chance to revisit some of the political sex scandals around that time. In the case of Gary Hart in 1987, a photograph brought down his run for the Democratic nomination. But during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was able to overcome allegations of infidelity and win his party’s nomination and the White House. David Christie’s fate was closer to Hart’s. Or John Edwards’s in 2008. Some readers of The Senator’s Children have told me that the political world depicted in my novel feels, in the Age of Trump, like a throwback to a more civil time. Politics, of course, has always been a rough sport—and a fascinating one. But I’m a writer more interested in the private—what happens behind closed doors when the shit hits the fan, how families cope, how people lose each other, or hold on.