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A Q&A with Miranda Cowley Heller on The Paper Palace

Posted on 16th July 2021 by Anna Orhanen

Chosen by Reese Witherspoon as her book club read for this month, Miranda Cowley Heller's magnetic, Cape Cod-set debut The Paper Palace makes for perfect summer reading. Taking place in the course of one hot day, it mines a rich seam of family legacies, secrets and the choice between desire and safety. We are delighted to share a Q&A with the author in which she discusses the inspiration behind The Paper Palace.

The centre of this story is a woman who has to make an impossible life-changing decision in a single day. She has a truly happy marriage with a wonderful husband, but she also has a soul mate from childhood whom she always thought she’d marry if their lives hadn’t taken a dramatic turn. Suddenly, she has to choose between them. Tell us about this choice.

I was interested in exploring was a woman who feels two equally deep and passionate yet completely different kinds of love but has to choose between them. We’ve all been faced with these moments — choosing between one kind of happiness and another. In this case, Elle must choose between a great love and a great love. There is no bad choice . . . which means there is no good choice. What do you do when there’s no clear right answer and yet your life depends on it? What if it’s your last chance to live the life you know you were meant to live? Would you blow your life apart, or would you sacrifice it for your children? Elle’s dilemma distils down to a simple question: Who do I want to be — what parts of myself do I want to be true to in the end?

Much of the novel is set on Cape Cod. You vividly transport readers to the summer heat, the bug bites, the swimming. What is your relationship to that part of the world?

I grew up spending every summer in the backwoods of Cape Cod. Both my parents were artists, so we could leave the city for the entire summer. It was the, 60s and, 70s, and most adults were too busy navel gazing to pay much attention to us. We were a pack of completely unsupervised children, running around the woods barefoot, hitchhiking into town to get penny candy, swimming in the ocean at high tide, getting sucked into the undertow. We were fearless and independent — it never occurred to us to be otherwise — and that feeling of freedom is forever embedded for me in the smells and sounds of those woods, those ponds, the giant dunes. I hope that intensity pervades the novel — the indelibility of place — how it grounds and shapes our lives.

The novel takes place over twenty-four hours, and fifty years. So not only is the main character facing an urgent life decision during one summer in Cape Cod, but we also see decades of past experiences and relationships that have shaped who she has become and that have brought her to this moment. Why did you want to share these pivotal moments from throughout Elle’s life?

The fifty years allow the reader to understand for themselves why Elle’s decision is utterly impossible. We see her life in glimpses but also in full: the reverberations of the bad choices her grandparents and parents made, the choices she made herself, the lies she carries, the truths she can’t get away from. The many small moments that, when put together, add up to her present.

Besides writing, you have a background in screen entertainment, having worked in drama series development at HBO. How much overlap is there for you?

From the point of view of execution, the mediums are very different. That said, I know I have absorbed certain elements of screenwriting. I think in a very visual palette — imagine scenes in an almost filmic way. Clearly, I am a big believer in the cardinal rule: Show me don’t tell me. And I hope spending so many years in the world of dialogue has given me an ear for how people actually speak and converse — that nonlinear back-and-forth, the evasions and left-hand turns. The importance of the unsaid between characters. To me, it is the spaces in between that often reveal the most.

The Paper Palace has some dark moments, but it maintains a sense of humour and romance. How do you balance those tones so well?

l have always been drawn to the combination of high/low, dark bumping right up against light. For me, it’s all part of the whole. Humour can cover misery; falling in love can feel like the most acute pain. A dirty sock can have as much emotional weight as a wedding ring. 

Some of the most important relationships in this novel are those between daughters and mothers. Both Elle and her mother, Wallace, have overcome adversities. What do such relationships say about what we inherit and who we become?

The myriad ways in which the past endlessly informs and re-informs the present fascinate me. The scar tissue left under our skins, the rough patches that, however subtle, reshape us. And not just the fallout from own experiences, but also the impact of someone else’s choices. What happened to Wallace as a child changed how she approached the world. She is a person who needs to be dismissive, to undermine the importance of things. Did that attitude lead Elle to keep secrets she might otherwise have shared? Might she have gone to her mother for help if their relationship had been closer? I love these kinds of questions.

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