A little over a month ago I received an especially thoughtful email from a lovely publicist at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, inquiring as to whether or not I might be interested in reviewing Donna Freitas' latest novel This Gorgeous Game. I was struck by the publicist's enthusiastic recommendation and accepted her offer. In between my reply and the book actually arriving, I went into something of a distressing reading slump. But, interestingly, the subject matter of the book combined with its excellent cover impelled me to crack it open the night it came. And that night lasted longer than I originally anticipated as I literally could not put the book down. You can read my review here. I wanted to run out and recommend it and talk about it with anyone who would listen. Fortunately, Ms. Freitas subsequently agreed to answer a few of the many questions bouncing around in my head after emerging from this engulfing novel. Enjoy!
First things first: I love the title of this book. It’s from a quote by Thomas Merton, which is included at the beginning of the novel. How did you originally come across it and then settle on it as your title?
Thank you. I’m glad you like it!
All along while I was writing This Gorgeous Game I was thinking about Merton and how at the end of his life he’d had an affair with a young woman. So Merton’s story began to weave itself into Olivia’s story and how Father Mark was imagining his relationship with her. I knew Merton had written about this affair and quite literally the second I wrote the last few words of my first draft I went searching in his journals for an epigraph. These particular words of Merton’s chilled me to my center the moment I read them (see the quotation below) and I knew immediately they had to be the first words that met the reader when they picked up the book. They couldn’t be more perfect, I think:
I simply have no business being [in] love and playing around with a girl, however innocently . . . After all I am supposed to be a monk with a vow of chastity and though I have kept my vow— I wonder if I can keep it indefinitely and still play this gorgeous game! —Thomas Merton
A really close friend of mine, Marie Rutkoski, also an author (The Cabinet of Wonders and The Celestial Globe) helped me to decide on this piece of the epigraph as the title and I’m grateful to her for this. I like the way you can interpret it to mean many things, especially after you find out how it plays a role in Olivia’s story.
A word on covers. I think the cover for This Gorgeous Game is both eye-catching and disturbing. Did you have any input on it and what was your first reaction to seeing it?
Yes, I had input. And though the image is very disturbing, I really love the cover and the final book is really beautiful. The designers at FSG/Macmillan were very generous in asking my opinion about the different cover ideas they’d come up with, and then when they decided to do a photo shoot, they let me pick the model which was exciting. When I saw the final cover image, though, I was stunned not only by how beautiful it is (even though yes, it’s disturbing too) but by how symbolic they made it. The look on the girl’s face can be interpreted so many ways—is she frightened? Angry? Defiant? Is she shrinking away, trying to hide in the corner, or about to spring at you to fight back? And I love what they did with the type—running it across the girl’s body as if she is both labeled “gorgeous” and marked as the “game” being stalked. Plus, together all the type forms a cross and once you notice it you can’t unnotice it.
What was the impetus for Olivia’s story and how long was it in the making?
A long, long time ago I was stalked and by a person I trusted deeply who had so much power and because of this so many boundaries between us it never occurred to me he would even think to cross them or that it was even possible for him to fall in love with me—especially since not in a million years would I ever love him back. I was so naïve. It was so repulsive to go through what I went through. So I understand, perhaps too deeply, what Olivia feels and how scared and trapped she is by the end of This Gorgeous Game.
When I became a writer here and there it crossed my mind: “Maybe some day I will write about this.” Then I’d quickly push that thought away—like the experience itself, the thought of having to go through it again on the page was repulsive to me. So repulsive I didn’t even like to think about it. But then one day I heard Olivia’s voice and the start of the novel, its first lines, and in that moment I knew, “This is it. This is how my feelings about this experience will come out, through Olivia’s story.” Olivia’s story is not my own, but once I began to write her voice I knew there was no going back, that there was so so so much to say and so so much I felt and so strongly that I finally had a place—a productive, life-giving, safe place—to pour it all out and pour it all out I did! Even though it was an intense experience to write This Gorgeous Game I am so glad I did. I am so proud of it, this accomplishment, because, at least on a personal level, I was able to face my own monsters and turn them into something worthwhile. I hope readers agree. I feel grateful that it was published.
The narrative starts with a brief prologue that gives the reader a hint of where things are headed and then it slips back in time to when it all began. Which part did you write first and were there any passages that were particularly difficult to set down on paper?
The prologue was definitely the first thing I wrote—that scene is what came to me immediately and crystal clear and what made me start writing the book. In the earliest draft it went from the prologue scene to the chapters where Olivia is already anxious and trying to get away from Father Mark—it didn’t slip back in time to when they first meet. Then my editor—smart, wonderful woman that she is—asked that I be willing to take the reader back to the beginning so the reader could experience the entire relationship from beginning to end, from when Olivia is happy to when she begins to doubt and then shifts towards despair and regret. My editor wanted to experience the excitement and beginnings of doubt along with Olivia.
I remember thinking, at first: No you don’t! Really, really, you don’t want that! But really my response to her on this had to do with the fact that, as the writer, I was the one who didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to be in the moments when Olivia is excited about Father Mark. It felt too grotesque.
Eventually I was able to do this, obviously, and now some of the scenes I am most proud of are in that beginning section. Those are also the scenes that were most difficult to write—like the one where Olivia meets Father Mark at the bar and then the one where she is in Father Mark’s office at the university and Jamie walks in. Those moments are so creepy to me. I felt so repulsed by Father Mark while I was writing that it was far easier to bear the scenes when Olivia shares that repulsion. So writing Olivia’s character when she is still in full admiration of Father Mark and basking in his attention were by far the most difficult.
I love your chapter titles. Examples: “On Dark Nights of the Soul,” “On an Embarrassment of Riches,” “On Girls in Bars.” They felt very carefully chosen and worded. Were they hard to come up with?
Thank you. I’m glad you liked them!
The form of the titles—that they all begin with “On” and then a topic related to the chapter—was there from the start when I began to write. The style is common in philosophical treatises and priests’ sermons actually—priests would title their weekly homilies “On Love” or “On Repentance” and so I loved giving them over to Olivia. I loved how the fact that, because the novel is in first person, it’s as if Olivia is in that role of the priest, sermonizing on a topic of her choosing about what is going on with her at that moment. It felt really important to give Olivia that rather ancient power and to have her make that tradition her own in the face of not only what is happening to her but by whom it is happening. So the chapter titles have a lot of layers to them, meaning-wise, and I loved choosing the words and topics.
You have degrees in both religion and philosophy. How does your faith and/or belief system inform your writing?
Between my role as a professor of religion and the fact that I was raised in a crazy, funny, food-and-saint-focused Italian Catholic family, I’d say that I’m “culturally Catholic,” kind of like many of my Jewish friends call themselves “culturally Jewish.” The culture of Catholicism shows up most obviously in my first novel, The Possibilities of Sainthood. Then, the role and power of the priest and his vows are obviously a huge theme in This Gorgeous Game. When I was growing up, a priest could do no wrong and the vow of celibacy was more or less equivalent to asexuality and which, as we now know given two massive waves of scandal in the Catholic Church over sex abuse, is not the case.
One of the things I often see in reviews of both my novels are initial assumptions that because of these themes the characters and story will be preachy and try to convert the reader—which is about as far from my intentions as it gets. It is possible to write about faith without being preachy. I’m always interested to see, though, that people feel the need to tell readers not to worry that my books will preach.
I do not consider myself or my characters “devout.” But religion has an influence in their lives—for Antonia in The Possibilities of Sainthood, the saints and Catholicism are one great big playground and she is pretty irreverent about all of it, and for Olivia in This Gorgeous Game, Catholicism and its priests cause her great pain and trauma. For most people, I think, religion in one form or another and regardless of our beliefs has an influence in our lives and decisions and various life complications—you don’t need to be devout for it to be this way. So I think it’s an important topic to write about.
I thought Olivia’s ordeal was tightly and sensitively written. Her growing isolation felt terrifyingly real. Yet even as she withdrew from those around her, she only grew closer to me as the reader. Did you have a very clear idea from the beginning of how close you wanted readers to feel to her or how you wanted things to unfold?
What a wonderful, poignant thing for you to say about the book and how you felt about Olivia—thank you.
As a reading experience, I have always hoped that This Gorgeous Game would be very intense, and almost grueling to be inside Olivia’s head from beginning to end. I want people to feel, really feel Olivia’s emotions as if they are their own. With regard to Olivia’s voice, its cadence, how it shifts from exhilarated to doubting to very repetitive as she becomes more and more upset and insecure and horrified, I hope that readers can almost hear it, and that it allows readers to really walk in Olivia’s shoes.
Most of all I hope that readers can understand why Olivia holds everything inside for so long and why she is so unbelievably afraid to speak what she suspects out loud, to even admit it to herself never mind accuse Father Mark of what she thinks, knows somewhere deep, he is doing. This is the very reason why this sort of abuse that happens in the form of unbelievable amounts of unwanted attention (yet no sexual intimacy) from a person in power, a mentor, a teacher can go on for so long, why a teenager would endure it. Because it’s so difficult to point to what exactly the person has done wrong, because forms of attention can be so innocuous, teens will sit silently afraid to make an accusation. In some small way, I hope that This Gorgeous Game will make readers—teens and their parents and teachers—begin to look at this kind of inappropriate behavior. In its own way it can be just as shattering as sexual abuse, but we rarely if ever talk or are educated about it.
What are you working on now? What do we have to look forward to next?
It’s a novel called The Survival Kit and it will be out in 2011 from FSG.
Last August, I was sitting outside at a coffee shop, and it popped into my head that if my mother were still alive, I’d be at home in Rhode Island helping her with the annual Survival Kit making event in my family. My Mom was a nursery school teacher and every year she made these Parent Survival Kits, which were a series of symbolic items she’d place inside a paper lunch bag, designed to help parents manage the transition of seeing their little three year old kids go off to school for the first time (the parents used to cry way more than their kids, Mom used to say).
That day I began to wonder, what if my mother had made me my very own Survival Kit for after she died—what would she have put in it and why? And what, in my experience of mourning her death, do I now wish I would have had inside that paper lunch bag to help get through that first year after her death? I decided to play the answers out through a novel.
So The Survival Kit, begins (on the very first page) with the protagonist, Rose Madison, escaping into her mother’s closet—it’s a week after her mother’s funeral—and searching out a dress she’s always loved of her mother’s. “Rose’s Survival Kit” is tied with ribbon to the hanger. Rose going through the items inside, living them one by one over the course of the year after her mother’s death, is what propels the story. It’s a very bittersweet story for me, but I care deeply about it.
And one of the major, major storylines is a romance! I loved writing the romance for The Survival Kit. I always love romance in a novel and while This Gorgeous Game, has romance in it, it’s nothing like what I got to write for The Survival Kit. I can’t wait for it to come out to see what people think.
What’s the one book and/or series you’ve been gushing about nonstop lately?
That’s a toss up between Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall which I loved, loved, loved and cried for the last hundred pages and Morgan Matson’s Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour which reminded me of a Sarah Dessen novel and I just didn’t want it to end. I can’t wait to read what they both write next.
And just for fun, what’s the first word that comes to mind when I say:
Olivia: strong and intense
Books: my favorite things
Father Mark: monster
Music: Glee (I kind of love Glee!)
Writing: my passion
Love: can’t live without it
Growing Up: my grandmother and going to the beach
YA: amazing voices
Home: pillows and my fluffy bed
Thank you so much, Donna!
And now for the giveaway! The awesome folks over at FSG have kindly offered up a copy of This Gorgeous Game to one lucky commenter. To enter simply leave a comment telling me the last book you read that featured a character you wanted to run right onto the page and protect with all your might. The giveaway will be open for one week and will close at midnight on Tuesday, June 8th. This giveaway is open to residents of the U.S. and Canada only. Please be sure to leave me a way to contact you either in your profile or in the comment itself. Thanks!