ACTS – A Reader’s Guide

Q. What was the genesis of this novel? Did a particular character or situation come to mind first?

A. My favorite books are those written by writers who love the “ordinary,” Anne Tyler, Sue Miller. I’m the same way. I’m most interested in characters that are not spectacular in any manner, other than the remarkable ways in which they reveal themselves. I had been thinking about my Mary character, kind of seeing her in my mind: a woman steadfast in her longing for marriage and children, someone who valued a traditional, moral life. But, of course, what does that mean? No one is without fault, so the idea of placing good Mary in a life built on a lie was intriguing to me.

Q. At the heart of this book is the moral dilemma of telling the truth versus burying it deep within a marriage.

A. When husband Tom learns the truth, he asserts to Mary that he has never once lied to her. Mary counters, “That’s only because you’ve never had anything worth lying about.” Thus the philosophical question: Does everyone have a breaking point? For Mary, offering the truth for its own sake wasn’t enough to risk what she held most dear: her husband, her family, her happiness.

Q. You named the book Acts of Contrition, and certainly there is reason for Mary to feel contrite. How did the title come to you?

A. The title came easily. If Mary were sorry—for the sake of it, because she did wrong and was regretful for it—then her contrition might have been “perfect.” But Mary was seduced by the good life: her husband, her children, and the life she built with them. In a sense, she made a deal with the devil. So she was contrite, yes, but the reader wonders about her contrition. Certainly it was imperfect. She was more concerned about getting caught, about losing what she had, than about coming clean for the sake of it. Is this to say she was a bad person? Absolutely not. It’s to say that she was human.

Q. Why do readers connect with Mary’s dilemma?

 A. I think Acts appeals to women who love reading about marriage and motherhood, and the undercurrents of domestic life that are often messy and rife with secrets. And certainly the juxtaposition of the tumultuous love affair that consumed Mary in her twenties against the reliable, steady ship of a marriage that occupied her in her thirties is something with which women can relate.

Q. You use Tom’s brother, Patrick, as Mary’s mirror, in a sense—and Teresa, her sister, as Mary’s foil. And there is a definite theme of addiction that pours through the text.

 A. Mary struggles with Tom’s brother, Patrick, because she recognizes how much alike they are. Patrick is addicted to alcohol, but Mary is no less afflicted; she’s addicted to people. And both rationalize their way out of their addictions. There is a big reliance on bargaining and negotiating one’s actions. I was also drawn to the AA 12-Step program and the similarities it bears tothe Act of Contrition prayer. Both require that we take a certain inventory of our lives, admit to our wrongs, and “cash in” the chips we rely on to justify our behavior.

Q. Do you think readers will criticize Mary for steadfastly stating that her life’s ambition was to be a wife and mother?

 A. Perhaps some, but I know what I’m made of, and though I’ve wanted to be many things in this life, there hasn’t been anything more compelling than being a wife and mother.

Q. Many writers of literary fiction claim they know their novel has come to an end when their protagonist “lands” on safe ground, when she has found herself enough to come to terms with her crisis. Does Mary get there?

 A. Mary cherished the safety of “the devil she knew,” so for her, in order to “land,” she needed to see that she could let go, that she could embrace a future in which things might be unpredictable, a future she might not be able to contrive through negotiation and bargaining. Once she reaches that spot, where she has opened up to the possibility that Sally might know the truth, that Landon might someday be a part of Sally’s life, that the marriage she and Tom share might be made of something other than the stuff of their first decade together, she’s able to grow.