Q&A: Ashley Prentice Norton author of If You Left
Synopsis for If You Left
For most of their marriage, Althea has fluctuated between extreme depressive and manic states — what she calls “the Tombs” and “the Visions” — and Oliver has been the steady hand that guided her to safety. This summer, Althea decides that she will be different from here on. She will be the loving, sexy wife Oliver wants, and the reliable, affectionate mother their nine year-old daughter Clem deserves. Her plan: to bring Clem to their Easthampton home once school is out — with no “summer girl” to care for her this time — and become “normal.”
But Oliver is distant and controlling, and his relationship with their interior decorator seems a bit too close; Clem has learned to be self-sufficient, and getting to know her now feels like very hard work for Althea. Into this scene enters the much younger, David Foster Wallace–reading house painter, who reaches something in Althea that has been long buried.
Fearless, darkly funny, and compulsively readable, If You Left explores the complex dance that is the bipolar marriage, and the possibility that to move forward, we might have to destroy the very things we’ve worked hardest to build.
So, when people ask, how do you answer the “what’s your book about?” question?
I usually make something much more interesting up because people never remember anyway. No, seriously, If You Left is about the effect manic-depression has on a marriage. Oliver is a fabulous caretaker when Althea has episodes of mania or depression, but during periods of stability he’s patronizing and acts out by having affairs because he’s furious at how her disease has taken their life hostage.
The book takes place over one summer in East Hampton when the situation comes to a head and they must decide whether or not they can save their marriage. There is also the issue of their adopted daughter, Clem. Althea knows that if there its any chance for things to work out between her and Oliver, she must finally try and break out of her self-absorption and mother the girl, who she has up until now, mostly ignored.
Sounds pretty heavy.
Well, it’s definitely dark at times, but also funny. It’s told from Althea’s point of view and she is able to see how ridiculous and small her life is at times. She doesn’t even know where the mugs are kept in her own kitchen for example, but even she can see how laughable this is. She lacks so many skills, emotional and practical, because she has been ill for so long, but never feels sorry for herself. At least that’s the way I wrote it.
What interested you about manic-depression?
People always ask me if I had to do a lot of research on the topic to write this. Usually when we are chatting at a cocktail party. Rather than generate an “awkward moment” and explain that, like Althea, I have manic-depression myself, I usually just say I know a lot of people with the illness, which I do. My experience is both similar and different than Althea’s though. I’ve also been hospitalized for clinical depression and undergone ECT, but I’m also lucky enough to be highly functional with a stable, loving marriage, three wonderful children, and a career. I guess I wanted to write this book and tell it from the point of view of the manic-depressive because usually the story comes from the partner’s POV.
Are you trying to educate people about bipolar illness with this book?
Yes and no. If You Left is like any kind of book. It’s about something, and if the subject is new to the reader, they will learn something. But If You Left is a novel, not a manifesto or textbook. And Althea doesn’t represent an archetype. For the first time in forever, she is waking up to her true self, her goals and desires, after years of being stymied by Oliver. The challenge facing Althea, however, is to see if she can finally stand up for herself, if it is not too late. I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling the book.
Was this a hard book to write?
It’s never the subject of the book, it’s the discipline. But I have a friend who I send daily logs to tracking how many hours spent, how many pages written, etc. When there is enough we go over them. Keeps me honest.
Do you have a writing routine?
I write anywhere from three to four hours a day during the school year, either on my bed with my pug, or downtown in the Writers Room. In the summer, I can write up to five to six hours at the East Hampton library, much to the consternation of my family who thinks I should be at the beach or playing tennis. When I’m working, I can’t. I just can’t.
Are you working on anything right now?
Sure. It’s about intimacy and friendship. At least for now.
If You Left is available for purchase at Amazon.
For more information visit ashleyprenticenorton.com.