Author Q&A: Jeannie Zusy

– Interview by Elena Bowes

The Frederick Sisters Are Living the Dream is a very funny, sometimes romantic and often moving portrait of how one woman’s life gets turned upside down when she becomes the caregiver to her middle sister with special needs.

Maggie gets a call from ER in Maryland where her sister Ginny lives. Ginny, who has learning disabilities and diabetes, has binged on Strawberry Jell-O. So, Maggie decides to bring Ginny to live with her in upstate New York. The oldest sister Betsy is vehemently opposed to the idea. But Betsy, a professional surfer, conveniently lives thousands of miles away. Maggie uses all the patience and dark humour she can muster to deal with her new life as caretaker, mother, freelancer, and separating wife who is starting to date again.

Jeannie, while all the characters in your book are very human, I especially loved stubborn, maddening, loveable and funny Ginny.

Can you tell us about the joys and challenges of writing about Ginny?

So glad you enjoyed the book, Elena, and thanks for these great questions. Ginny was a lot of fun to write. One of the joys of writing Ginny was her unpredictability. One minute she’s sweet, the next, she’s salty. She’s full of contradictions and she’s got a big personality. She surprised me often when I was writing, saying or doing things that I didn’t see coming and so cracked me up. What was challenging about writing Ginny was capturing that dichotomy. It was very important to me that the reader see her as a full human being. Ginny may have certain limitations, but she also has many gifts. She has dreams, desires, style, sexuality, and also the power to order from Amazon and drive various people crazy.

There aren’t many novels about caregivers or characters with learning disabilities. Why do you think that is?

That is a very good question, and I really don’t know why. Truth is that most people in their lifetime will need to be a caregiver to a loved one. When I was living through my own adventure with my brother Davie (more on that later), I was struck by how many people I knew that were going through something similar, and/or had someone in their life that was special. I found there were very few contemporary books that dealt with these things.

I felt these were important things to write about and so set out to capture the intensity and beauty that come along with caregiving, and the importance of humour in dealing with so many complex and mundane things.

You wrote your novel in the first person. Can you explain your thinking on that decision?

Having lived through a similar thing, this felt most natural. Maggie, of course, is her own person, and separate from me. I hoped to capture her in the most honest way I could, directly from her point of view. I wanted to show Maggie’s humanity. She is not perfect, and she knows it. But she is deeply earnest in her desire to do the right thing.

What is your writing process?

I write almost every day, sometimes for an hour, sometimes all day long and into the night. I sit at our dining table, facing out to the sea of green trees. At night, when I’m really in it, I’ll sit on one of my daughter’s beds (they both live in the city now) and write in the dark.

In addition to writing books, you also write short stories and plays. What do you like best and least about these three art forms?

I enjoy all the forms. As an actor, I started writing one-woman plays and then plays for others. Then, as a mother to younger children, I started writing short stories for them and for adults. This gave me the courage to try writing longer things. So I guess it kind of depends on where I’m at in life. But also, the subject matter helps determine the form. For example, it was very clear to me that The Frederick Sisters needed to be a novel, because I knew I had a lot more to say than I would be able to in the length of a play. Now that I’ve written the book, it would be an interesting challenge to find the essence of it and filter it down to a play or screenplay.

Tell us about your colourful book jacket. Is that Rascal, Ginny’s beloved dog?

It is! The team at Atria Books/ Simon & Schuster did a wonderful job capturing the heart and humour of the book. I love how the title looks like a neon advertisement. Yes, that dog is Rascal, Ginny’s best friend, mother, child, and bodyguard. I believe my brother Davie would have loved the cover, as Rascal looks just like his beloved dog Lacey.

I read about your family on your website. Can you tell us about your colourful parents who sound like ideal characters for a novel?

My father grew up in a poor family during the depression in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and went on to become a navy captain during WW2 and then an international journalist, running press bureaus in Cairo, Istanbul, and other places. My mother was a high-society Nampa, Idaho girl (her father was the mayor), who after surviving TB, dared to travel all the way to Turkey to accept a Fulbright with the American Hospital there. They met in Turkey and, yes, it’s a love story that is indeed novel-worthy. After their more exotic adventures, they settled down outside of Washington DC where they raised seven children, including me, the baby. Most importantly, my parents were kind and generous people who shared an interest in the greater world.

What books are you excited to read?

The list is very long. I just began Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Take My Hand and can’t wait to get back to it tonight. I look forward to Terena Elizabeth Bell’s short story collection Tell Me What You See (publishing in December). I am hoping to receive The Whalebone Theater by Joanna Quinn as a present soon, and I’m already looking forward to Annabel Monaghan’s Same Time Next Summer, which is sure to be next summer’s romantic swoon.

What’s next?

I’m working on two novels. A contemporary novel, which, like The Frederick Sisters, is a human comedy about serious themes. The other is historic fiction, inspired by that story I just told you a bit about: how my mother, father and his first wife met in Istanbul in the 1950s. Both works-in-progress are big love stories.

Thank you so much for answering these questions,

Thank you, Elena! It’s been a pleasure.

– Interview by Elena Bowes

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