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Q&A with Tracy Winn, author of Mrs. Somebody Somebody

I recently had the rare experience of devouring a book called Mrs. Somebody Somebody by Tracy Winn and to sit down and talk with Tracy about her book.  Mrs. Somebody Somebody is a collection of ten linked short stories set between 1947 and 2004 in Lowell, Massachusetts, a historically significant American industrial mill town. Each of the stories is narrated by a stunning variety of characters, who pop in and out of the stories at various stages of their lives.  It’s a wonderful read and today Random House is launching it in paperback form.  Congratulations Tracy!

So, Tracy, the obvious question, what inspired you to write Mrs. Somebody Somebody?

I’m driven by something different from wanting to get some large notion onto the page. Usually, the impulse to write comes from a small mystery or a lingering need to understand human (a friend’s or my own) behavior. Each of the stories in Mrs. Somebody Somebody began because I wanted to resolve a question with no available answer. The stories about Mr. and Mrs. Burroughs began with a question: why and how do married people stay together when one of the partners is serially unfaithful? The title story began with a regret I needed to resolve. (The essay in the back of the Reader’s Circle Selection paperback issue of Mrs. Somebody Somebody coming out through Random House in June tells the story behind that story.)

 Mrs. Somebody Somebody is a collection of short stories, but it reads like an engrossing novel.  Why did you choose this format?

 I’m susceptible to linked short story collections the way some people have a weakness for sweets. My favorites, like Alice Munro’s Beggar Maid or Eudora Welty’s Golden Apples, have characters that reappear. I especially like seeing characters from other characters’ points of view. The stories in Mrs. Somebody Somebody are each narrated by a different character and put together so the reader gets to know each of the characters almost from inside their heads and then also through the eyes of another character. Have you ever noticed how much richer your understanding of a friend becomes when a mutual friend shares his/her perceptions of that person? That is what I am playing with here.

 The linked story form also allows for pregnant gaps in time. A lot can be suggested between stories: characters grow, things have happened, even a whole town like Lowell can change over time between one story and another, allowing a larger scope. Also, novels don’t have the satisfying compression that short stories allow. Think of linked short stories as being like beads — each having its own beauty. And when you stand back, wow! A whole necklace.

 I was immediately captivated by your very first line, ”Lucy Mattsen was nobody—like all the women I worked with—until the day the baby fell out the window… like a whole chicken”  -- your ability to combine humor and horror is so skillful. Who are your favorite authors, and how has their writing influenced you?

Well, you’ve put two sentences together here, the first one in the book and one from page 5 so maybe you are the one who is skillful at combining! My favorite authors change depending on the day, but the ones that have influenced me, along with the two mentioned before are Faulkner, Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, and more recently Stuart Dybek, Alice Mattison, Alistair MacLeod, and Lorrie Moore, just to name a few.

 Your characters are so compelling.  Where do your characters come from?

Thanks for the compliment. My characters are a blend of memories and imagination. Some of the characters start out being based on someone I’ve known, but because I usually put them into new situations, they end up being influenced by those situations and becoming their own beings with little in common with their origins.

Many characters appear and re-appear throughout your stories, often in surprising ways.  Did you have this all planned out before you wrote each story, or did the characters re-emerge as the stories unfolded? 

 I didn’t know the first stories I wrote were related to one another, but then one day Noe Hathaway, in the title story, needed a doctor. When Dr. Burroughs from “Blue Tango” walked into “Mrs. Somebody Somebody,” he started a rash of unexpected connections and discoveries that I developed further and further. I made the last link in the final stages of the editing process when it came clear that an officer near retirement in “Cantogallo” was someone the reader had seen before. (I won’t ruin it by revealing any more than that.)

My book group thinks this book would be a wonderful movie.  If it did become a movie,  what actors would you like to see play Stella, Lucy, Charlie Burroughs, Franklin?

Don’t you think Ellen Page would make a good Lucy? This is my first casting assignment and thinking this way makes me wish I’d gone into it as a career. I can see someone like Evangeline Lilly as Stella. She would have to be a brunette for this one. She can look both pretty and hard without looking — as my mother says — “cheap.” My heart is set on James MacAvoy playing Franklin; he has just Franklin’s combination of toughness and vulnerability, and he can look so pained by moving his eyes a certain way. What do you think of Colin Firth as Charlie Burroughs and Evan Rachel Wood as Delia? Or maybe Kate Blanchette? Maybe your book club would like to invest in movie rights?

Thank you Tracy for your delightful answers. We look forward to sharing Mrs. Somebody Somebody with our Daily Grommet community.

Tracy is generously giving two readers a signed copy of Mrs. Somebody Somebody. Leave a comment or question below to be entered to win. Or if you would like to purchase a copy click here.

General contest rules: To enter, you must be a U. S. resident, and at least 18 years of age and you must leave a comment or question on today’s post. No purchase necessary. The winner(s) will be randomly selected and will receive a win a copy of  Mrs. Somebody Somebody. Employees, contractors, and the families of employees and contractors of Daily Grommet, Inc. are not eligible to enter. You are not eligible to win if you have received a prize or giveaway from Daily Grommet in the last six months. Void where prohibited. Contest will run from 8:00 am EST June 8th through 10:00 pm EST June 8th, 2010.

Comments

  • ronni o Says:

    i read this book and feel exactly like the interviewer! the book was intriguing and historical---blended with humor and empathy. the book also embraces some love and romance--- MRS. SOMEBODY SOMEBODY has ALL the elements for an authentic, sincere, entertaining film!!!
    tracy winn---you are amazing!
    ronni

  • Susan Says:

    This sounds wonderful ... perfect summer read! I love that Tracy answered the "casting" question. I assign actors' roles in my head with almost every good novel (maybe I missed my calling!) It will be interesting to compare her choices with my own when I read the book -- which I now plan on doing at my first opportunity! Great interview! Thanks, Grommet!

  • Vicky Mlyniec Says:

    I can't wait to read this book. Love the title. And thanks for broadening the appeal of linked short stories, Tracy.

  • mari coates Says:

    This is one of the best story collections I've read in a long time. It brings to life the town of Lowell, MA, as the enormous changes in the textile industry were beginning to devastate the region. Tracy Winn is a close and generous observer of her characters. They will move you deeply and make you laugh out loud. Don't miss this book.

  • Lee Sharkey Says:

    Mrs. Somebody Somebody is a memorable book. Its characters, residents of a New England mill town in its heyday and decline, struggle to shape their lives within its unforgiving environment. What is most wonderful about Winn's collection of linked short stories is that she stays with her characters as they learn from the past, their next act unpredicatble. Always a step of the reader, they leave us vulnerable and moved--restore our sense of engagement in a common human enterprise.

  • Sara Says:

    Hi Tracy,
    Welcome...So great to have you here on Daily Grommet! Thanks for visiting with us!

  • Peg Alford Pursell Says:

    Thanks for the interview -- I love to learn about writers' processes, particular writers whose work I admire like Traci Winn's. I enjoyed hearing how you didn't know at first that you were writing linked stories, how it happened, Traci, and that your impulses for writing, in general, are solving questions of human behavior. Also, love "each narrated by a different character and put together so the reader gets to know each of the characters almost from inside their heads and then also through the eyes of another character. Have you ever noticed how much richer your understanding of a friend becomes when a mutual friend shares his/her perceptions of that person? " Beautiful book; so glad it's out in paperback now.

  • Denise Wright Says:

    I'd love to win a copy! As a teacher, summertime is when I'm able to do more pleasure reading.

  • Carlen Arnett Says:

    I had the pleasure of getting to know Mrs. Somebody Somebody last summer when Tracy Winn's collection of short stories kept me up much too late two or three nights in a row! So compelling are her characters, and the writing itself, that I knew I would be sharing this book.
    There's a certain elegance in the writing, and a certain grit in the stories, how they unwind, and certainly in the characters. What a satisfying combination! What a terrific book!

  • Tracy Winn Says:

    Thanks for the welcome, Sara. And to all of you for these lovely comments. I'll check in again soon to see if anyone has any questions.

  • Sarah Banse Says:

    More than a year after reading Tracy's Winn's collection, Mrs. Somebody's Somebody, I am still haunted by that baby flying out the window in the opening story, like a chicken out the window. Tracy's imagery is so powerful and her insight into human nature so acute that it stays with a reader and seeps into your own life when you least expect it. You combine that with beautiful sentences and this is a must read. Thank you Tracy for this wonderful book.

  • Susan Swafford Says:

    I'm intrigued by the entire idea of this book and its characters. Is it (or will it be) available in audio format? Audio fits my current lifestyle ideally, as it allows me to enjoy "reading" even while my eyes/hands must be occupied by less enjoyable activities.

  • Tracy Winn Says:

    Susan,
    I would say, please ask Random HouseTrade Paperbacks! Random House owns audio rights and maybe if people start asking about that (my favorite way to read too!) they will make it available in audio format. I'll ask too.

  • Kristina Says:

    Looks like a great summer read for the pool. I look forward to it.

  • Tori Says:

    Thank you Tracy for sharing with us, and thank you all for the thoughtful comments yesterday. The random winners that were selected to win a signed copy of Mrs. Somebody Somebody were: Susan (comment #2) and Denise. Congratulations- come back and tell us what you thought about the book!

  • Joan Says:

    I prefer novels, but really liked these short stories because they were well-linked.

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