Reading Group and Teaching Guide

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In a recent conversation with MJ Rose, the author of the engaging new release The Secret Language of Stones: A Novel, the following question came up: Thinking of all the book club members who are reading this interview, if you were to pull together your ideal book club—made up of authors—who you would pick to meet with to discuss your book? And what would you expect them to ask you?

After thinking long and hard, I decided to invite a few authors whose books I have recently enjoyed, feeling certain it would lead to a lively discussion. Here it is, my ideal book-club-of-the-month. Read on to find the questions each writer posed.

Anthony Doer: All the Light We Cannot See
Veronica’s Grave reads like a mystery, a real page-turner.  Could you talk about the ‘poetic prose’ of Veronica’s Grave. How do you come by these stylistic touches?  Do you write poetry?  What are your sources of inspiration? Do the metaphors and similes come easily or do you have to work at them? Then, too, there are lovely lyrical passages as the young girl moves into her high school years, into first love and beyond. Can you say more about that?  
 
Kristin Hannah: The Nightingale
In life, we are tested in many ways requiring courage and determination that we may not know we possess. In Veronica’s Grave, the young girl is left pretty much to fend for herself. When faced with hardships—for instance, the death of her mother, having to change schools three times in three years, leaving her beloved Bronx—she shows fortitude when faced with disappointment and resistance to comply with parental pressures. Can you talk about where that strength came from?  
 
Christina Baker Klein: Orphan Train   
Veronica’s Grave is a story full of rich details of growing up in a working-class family in the Bronx in an historical moment in American history following the end of World War II. Even the language used by family members is era-appropriate. There are some profound introspective passages such as when the young woman is weighing the merits of various suitors in what is decidedly a pre-feminist age. Can you talk about depicting the pre-feminist, pre-sixties era as it affected marital choices? gender relations?  What was it like to delve into your past and share these perspectives with your readers?

You do a great job of taking us into the internal dialog of a young woman weighing her options about how to get into college. Could you say more about turning what most think of as an ordinary part of life—going to college—into a great tale of adversity and true grit?
 
M J Rose: The Book of Lost Fragrances and The Secret Language of Stones: A Novel

Various parts of the memoir are told in different voices. Did you write them at different times? Did you consciously adapt the voice to match the life passages of the narrator? The title of the memoir and the dramatic note on which it ends, complement one another. How did you decide to end it where you did?  how did you come up with the title?  was that the working title and were there others you considered?

 

The Story Behind Veronica’s Grave

The question I’ve been asked about Veronica’s Grave more than any other is: When did you first decide to write this story? 

 In some ways, the writing of the book feels providential, that I was destined to write it. When I was a child, no one talked about my mother. No one told me she had died. I thought I was the only one who remembered her. It seemed importantI not forget her. That said, I only had one memory of her, a memory with a mind of its own that would come and go when least expected. 

So in a way, you could say that writing the book is the capstone of a life-long love affair I’ve had with my late mother. 

Yet, at other times, the writing seems highly accidental. There I was one day, walking Madison Avenue, passing a kiosk filled with pamphlets and flyers. A catalog for 'Gotham Writers' caught my eye.  In it were courses on writing fiction and non-fiction—on writing comedy or poetry, essays or songs.  But there was one course being offered on the Upper East Side, only blocks from my home, on memoir writing; I signed up.  

And after a few weeks, it felt as if I had fallen into a parallel universe—one populated with a most supportive cast of characters. I liked my classmates’ stories; they liked mine. What’s more I admired their courage and willingness to share them.     

So it was I kept on writing, kept on taking courses, and eventually I sent off 25 pages to She Writes Press—a publishing platform for women writers. They were interested, but thought the manuscript would benefit from editing; they introduced me to a fabulous editor, Elizabeth Kracht who, after reading the entire manuscript, said: No one’s going to buy a 144,000-word memoir from an unknown author. We have to cut.  

How many words will they buy?

85,000. 

As you can imagine, a lot of well-written incidents had to be left on the cutting room floor before Veronica’s Grave could take its present-day form.  

 

Ten Questions for Readers to Ponder

  1. In what ways is Ed a good father? What are his shortcomings as a parent?  Do you attribute his shortcomings to the time period in which the narrator grew up?  Or to something lacking in her father as a person?  What qualities of a "good parent" does he seem to lack? 
  2. Discuss the other adult figures in the narrator's life while growing up - Nana, Mrs Schwarz, Miss Marge.  How were they supportive?  How were they not supportive? 
  3. Throughout her childhood, who is the narrator closest to?  Explain how.
  4. Why do you think the narrator's father wanted to keep it a secret that Miss Marge was not her biological mother?  
  5. How might the narrator's childhood have been different if the narrator and her siblings had been told the truth early on? 
  6. The child idolizes Nancy Drew, who she sees as brave and fearless. Is the child brave? spunky? a milquetoast? What evidence can you offer? 
  7. How do you feel the narrator's childhood shaped the choices she made later in life? 
  8. Were there moments when you particularly empathized with narrator?  If so, when and why? 
  9. What do you make of the child’s longing for a house? What does she dislike about the house on Crescent Place? What does she like about the house on Decatur Avenue? 
  10. There are a number of themes—that of unresolved childhood grief, the importance of education for young women; and family secrets and the damage done by them. Which if any, did you identify with? Explain. 

Once you’ve read the book, I would enjoy hearing your thoughts and questions. You can reach me by clicking here.

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