In Ann Brashare's Latest, Two Kids From A Fractured Family Meet At Last

Apr 23, 2017
Originally published on April 24, 2017 11:02 am

Novelist Ann Brashares' parents divorced when she was young. "It wasn't an amicable split ..." she says, "And in some way the divisions just kept going, even to this day they do." Those experiences inspired Brashares — who wrote the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series — to write her new novel, The Whole Thing Together.

The conceit at the heart of the book is a boy and a girl — not related by blood — are part of a very un-blended family. Their parents are determined to stay angry at one another, so the kids have never met — but they occupy the same bedroom at the family's shared summer house on Long Island. Sasha and Ray spend their childhoods living in parallel, but finally meet as teenagers.

Brashares says the story is entirely made up, but that she drew on her own feelings as a child of divorce.

"I have two wonderful, loving parents," she says. "It's not that I bear hostility and grievance toward them. I'm mostly really, really grateful for everything I got. But the divorce was central to our lives. ... I wanted to explore that in a fictional family but explore what were real feelings."


Interview Highlights

On getting her start as an editor at a book packaging company that produced young adult books that could be adapted for film and TV

That was my entire training as a writer, nearly. I thought so much about the craft of writing and learned how to ... take a plot apart and build it back ... to think about character, and about pacing, and about all the elements, and to try to analyze as an editor: What makes a story work? What keeps your eyes on the page? What makes you feel involved in it?

All in all, I just felt like it was this incredible writing education and partly it was because we weren't really so precious about any of it. We were usually working on a pretty fast schedule and so I just ended up working on hundreds, and hundreds, and thousands of pages — and I loved it.

On the success of her 2001 novel The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

I worked as an editor for, I think, 11 years, and for many of those years ... I was wholeheartedly involved in what I was doing. But in some ways, the constraints of the popular book began to weigh on me a little bit. So, I sort of felt like when I got to do my own thing, I would really delve into the aspects I cared about most, regardless of whether it would be popular or not. And it was funny because ... I definitely didn't mean to write it as a popular book and I was incredibly happy and gratified that it turned out to be one.

On how she came up with the plot

I pretty much made it up whole cloth. ... First I started with the three sisters at the center of the original family, and then I was imagining that the parents split up when they were really little, they each remarried, and I had this idea of each of them having another child. And then I thought, what would be the relationship of those two additional children?

They have three sisters in common, in this case they share a house, but the parents have had such bitterness that they refuse to be anywhere near each other, so their paths just never cross. And yet, they share this whole life; they share these sisters, they share a room, they share toys, they share books, they share the stuff they collect on the beach. And so there's some mythic sense of them being intimately connected, and yet strangers.

On the attraction that forms between the two teens

I had a sense that they were going to finally — the summer of this book — they were going to meet. ... They're sharing a bed, and I guess I'm so connected to the tactile quality of that ... the smells and the feelings of another person who you kind of know, but really don't know. ... That kind of can't help but have at least sensual overtones.

On the YA industry becoming more expansive

It should be. I hope it is. There's so much energy, and so much good writing ... I feel like it naturally has to expand. ... I feel like there's sort of an old prejudice about what it is to be a young adult book, and I think a lot of those prejudices have been broken open.

Radio producer Malika Gumpangkum, radio editor Barrie Hardymon and Web producer Beth Novey contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Writer Ann Brashares struck gold with her book "The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants." The best-selling novel for young adults turned into a series and was made into a movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS")

AMERICA FERRARA: (As Carmen) Magic has come to us in a pair of pants.

(LAUGHTER)

FERRARA: (As Carmen) And I'm proposing that we share them equally and that this summer they travel among us, and they'll link us.

NEARY: The success of the "Sisterhood" series brought Brashares a huge fan base that ranges in age from teenagers to young women who grew up reading her books. Brashares has a new novel, "The Whole Thing Together," and she joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us, Ann.

ANN BRASHARES: Thank you for having me.

NEARY: Your new book, "The Whole Thing Together," is the story of a family split by divorce. And it's not a happy tale of a blended family. These are divorced parents who are determined to stay angry and seem kind of indifferent to how that might affect the kids. Why were you interested in exploring that kind of a family dynamic?

BRASHARES: Well, I guess, to be honest, some of it is pulled from my own biography. My parents split up when I was young. I'm one of four kids. You know, it wasn't an amicable split, and it wasn't, you know, an easy one. And it just - in some way, the divisions just kept going, and even to this day, they do. And I have two wonderful, loving parents. It's not that I, you know, bear hostility and grievance toward them. I'm mostly really, really grateful for everything I got. But the divorce was central to our lives. And I guess I wanted to explore that in a fictional family but explore what were real feelings.

NEARY: Well, I have to say I did find, at times, that the parents were really remarkably insensitive to how their anger and their determination to divide everything in certain kinds of ways would affect their children.

BRASHARES: Yeah, they are. I mean, partly, I wanted a story of real disjunction and then an opportunity. And this is based on that kind of old childhood wish of something good coming out of it, some unity or wholeness coming out of it. So it's true. The parents kind of have the most growing to do, which I was interested in, too, the idea that the kids - the five of them, you know, affected by these parents - you know, they all have their own stories and their own growth in this book. But the parents have almost more than any of them.

NEARY: Well, the conceit at the heart of the book is very intriguing. A boy, Ray, and a girl, Sasha - they're not related by blood, but they are part of this unblended kind of family - they've never met even though they share a bedroom in this summer house. Had you ever heard of that kind of relationship or did you just make it up whole cloth?

BRASHARES: I pretty much made it up whole cloth. I was thinking about - first, I started with the three sisters at the center of the original family. And then I was imagining that, you know, the parents split up when they were really little; they each remarried. And I had this idea of each of them having another child. And then I thought, what would be the relationship of those two additional children? They have three sisters in common. In this case, they share a house. But the parents have had such bitterness that they refuse to be anywhere near each other, so their paths just never cross. And yet, they share this whole life. I mean, they share these sisters. They share a room. They share toys. They share books. They share, you know, the stuff they collect on the beach. And so there's some kind of mythic sense of them being intimately connected and yet strangers.

NEARY: I know you have your book. And I wonder if you could open to Page 21. I was wondering if you could read a passage there. And this is where Sasha is describing her relationship with Ray right at the beginning of the book.

BRASHARES: (Reading) She used to want to meet him, fantasized about playing with him, made up games they might enjoy together. She was physically jealous that her sisters got to have him for their brother and she didn't. But later, she began to think it was easier that she never did meet him. He had the best qualities of an imaginary friend. He was patient, sympathetic and understanding, silently sharing her things and spaces. He was never selfish or loud or bullying. He never even disagreed with her. He was just what she wanted - sometimes needed - him to be. So in that way, he was an ideal roommate.

NEARY: (Laughter) Now, not surprisingly, these roommates start to get very fascinated with each other as they become teenagers. And as teenagers, they start to share a summer job. They trade off weeks just as they trade off weeks in the house. And they begin writing to each other, and this sort of flirtation begins.

So at the beginning of the book, did you know - as you were beginning to write this book, did you always know you were going to have them get attracted to each other?

BRASHARES: That wasn't, I guess, the spark at the very beginning. I mean, I had a sense that they were going to finally - you know, the summer of this book, they were going to meet. And, you know, partly because, at a certain point, they're sharing a bed - and I guess, you know, I'm so connected to kind of the tactile quality of that and also the sort of the smells and the feelings of another person who you kind of know but really don't know and that that kind of can't help but have at least sort of sensual overtones. So I guess that's sort of where it went.

NEARY: They keep this little budding relationship secret. But as it turns out, there are a lot of secrets in this family. Aren't there?

BRASHARES: There really are.

NEARY: And that's what the book kind of becomes about, the idea of family secrets and how they can eventually really be harmful. Right?

BRASHARES: Yeah. And I think the idea is that, in some ways, you need to release them in order for there to be kind of a healing and a coming together.

NEARY: Ann Brashares is the author of "The Whole Thing Together." Thanks so much for joining us.

BRASHARES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.