Open Book with Tara Conklin
Stockbridge native Tara Conklin has always been a writer, but she says she never considered herself to be "a real Writer" (with a capital W) until her first novel, "The House Girl," was published in 2013.
"Writing always seemed too uncertain and mysterious to serve as a valid career goal. Over the years, I wrote for fun and strictly for myself. This changed when I began writing 'The House Girl.' Those characters felt real to me in a way that made them impossible to ignore, so I decided not to," Conklin, who now lives in Seattle with her family, said in an email interview with The Eagle. "I left my law job with the intention of finishing the novel within a year. If I could sell it, great; if not, I'd go back to being a lawyer. Luckily, the book sold to William Morrow publishing, became a bestseller, and now I'm working on my third novel with no plans to ever return (knock wood) to a law firm."
Prior to writing full time, Conklin worked as an attorney for an international human rights organization and at corporate law firms in London and New York. She earned a bachelor's in history from Yale University, a JD from New York University School of Law, and a master's in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
Released in February 2019, "The Last Romantics," was an immediate New York Times bestseller; the inaugural read of The Today Show Book Club with Jenna Bush Hager, as well as a Barnes & Noble Book Club Pick and IndieNext Pick, among others.
"The Last Romantics," is the story of the Skinner family, unmoored by the sudden death of their father, and later how each of the four close siblings develop and become distinct personalities. The story is told by Fiona, the youngest of the Skinner siblings. Fiona, now 102, tells her story while being interviewed at her first public event in 25 years to talk about her enormously famous and beloved poem, "The Love Story."
"This is an absorbing and redemptive novel of grace, craft and heroic characters. A revelatory and original account of the many 'heady promises of love,'" Colin Harrington, an Eagle correspondent, said in his review of the book.
Conklin said the original inspiration for "The Last Romantics," came from a tragedy that happened within her own family many years ago.
"The event prompted me to question my assumptions about family, love and grief. These questions merged with a long-standing desire to write a novel about siblings that showed the shifting, evolving nature of those relationships over time," she said. "I've always been fascinated by siblings — I'm one of three, I have three children, my dad is one of six — but I haven't read many novels that really do justice to the complexity and significance of those relationships.
"Early on in my drafting, I read an essay by Cheryl Strayed where she described her mother as the love of her life. This seemed like a radical idea — that phrase is so often used for a romantic partner. I found myself wondering: what if the deepest, most abiding love of your life was a brother or sister? And from there, the Skinner siblings were born."
The book's paperback release will be celebrated at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox, 5:30 to 7 p.m., Friday, Jan. 17 with a reading by Conklin. Ahead of her visit, Conklin took time out of her day to answer a few questions about her favorite books:
Q. What books did you use in your research for writing this book?
A. I read a number of books, fiction and non-fiction, that dealt with grief, specifically the loss of a sibling. "Surviving the Death of a Sibling: Living Through Grief When An Adult Brother of Sister Dies," by Dr. T.J Wray and "The Empty Room: Understanding Sibling Loss," by Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn were particularly helpful. I also did online research into sex blogs of the 90s (fun!), read all kinds of poetry and took poetry classes at the Richard Hugo House here in Seattle.
Q What are some of the best books you've read about families/relationships?
A. There are many great books about family relationships. The ones that immediately spring to mind are "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen, "Commonwealth" by Ann Patchett, "Pachinko" by Min Jin Lee, "& Sons" by David Gilbert, "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott and "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith. But I could list at least a dozen more.
Q What are some of your favorite novels about siblings?
A. See above. Most notably "Little Women," which is the first book that made me weep as a child; and "Commonwealth," which is the first book that made me weep as a writer because I consider it an absolutely perfect novel about siblings and I wondered: why should I bother writing another? But of course, every novel, like every family relationship, is different and can teach us something new.
Q What is your favorite book of poetry?
A Probably anything by Mary Oliver. Her poems always calm me down and make me optimistic about the world, which is a tough attitude to maintain these days. I also read a lot of Jorie Graham as research for Fiona's character. There's a quote of Graham's that really shaped how I envisioned Fiona's writing process: "A poem is a private story, after all, no matter how apparently public. The reader is always overhearing a confession." I wanted "The Last Romantics" to feel a little bit like Fiona's confession: this is what she remembers, this is what she did wrong, this is who she loved.
Q What's the last thing you read that you simply couldn't put down?
A. "Normal People," by Sally Rooney.
Q. What books are currently on your nightstand?
A. I always have three to four books on the go at once so I can choose what to read before bed, depending on my mood! Right now it's "The Overstory," by Richard Powers; "The Witches Are Coming," by Lindy West; and "The Testaments," by Margaret Atwood.
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