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The Matter of Grace
Jessica Barksdale Inclán

 
An Interview with Jessica Barksdale Inclán

Although Grace's illness is the central mystery of your novel, it's not the thematic core, is it?

No. What I wanted to focus on in this novel is the gift of friendship. Like most of us, I've had some friends who were struck by serious illnesses. And what I noticed during those times—especially during the most anxious moments of uncertainty, during testing and surgeries—was the way we all naturally banded together. Each of us no doubt had our own personal problems at home, yet friendship caused an almost organic reorganization of our priorities and we all pitched in together to support our ill friend.

Grace's friends seem to realize how lucky they are to be part of this circle of friends, even though, at times, they neglect their own issues to be there for her. Is this because they realize their friends would do the same for them in crisis?

Well, that's part of it. But I tried to make the characters conscious of how important the friendships are for them on a daily basis. In my own life, my women friends have supported me through emotional distress, job, family, and creative issues.

The irony, of course, is that Grace seems to be the one person who doesn't truly benefit from the friendships. Can you talk about that?

Sadly, Grace is so emotionally damaged that she can't feel the love of her friends. She needs their attention and their concern, yet she can't really feel lucky to be so loved and supported. Friendship is a daily thing and maybe a crisis rallies the troops, but the community created by a group of friends who care for each other is something to take strength and comfort from every day. That's why the swim team is as important to the mothers as to the kids!

Why did you choose to make Grace's illness more than meets the eye?

What really interests me about people is what they hide inside. Grace is an extreme example of this, but Stella, Helen, and Felice also have feelings and needs they can't face. I wanted Grace's illness to be a turning point for all of them—in which, sensing their own mortality, they finally confront their own problems. Because Grace's illness is so much more complicated than the cancer she claims, her friends use the heartbreaking experience of not being able to reach Grace to help themselves reach within.

It's interesting that you made the character who most seems to "have it all" one who also struggled with food and weight issues. Why did you do this?

I guess, in a way, Stella represents the flip side of Grace. She didn't have everything easy as a kid—although she did not have the same level of abuse as Grace—and she certainly felt the same need to transform her personal appearance. But she was able to make this tremendous effort without letting it become her only priority. Her relationship with Aaron is the most open and communicative one in the novel. They talk. They support each other. Grace's relationship with Kathleen, however, seems to have always been doomed by Grace's intense neediness, her desire to be fixed by someone else's love, her inability to get out from behind the mask she wore.

Why did you make food issues such an important part of the story?

The ways women treat their bodies shows what an intense preoccupation we have with our looks. Sometimes it seems as though we believe that, if we could only look great, everything else would be great, too. I will be different. I will be happy. So-and-so will love me. While most of us do not go to the extremes that Grace does, I think we all have this reaction at one point or another. I have had to learn to love my body and I still don't think I fully do. This issue is important to me—somehow girls have to learn early on to love the bodies they have, not try later to change what they become as women.

Approaching this story from multiple points of view was an interesting idea. Why did you decide that was the best way to tell this story?

While multiple points of view can be a little more challenging for the reader (you feel you are getting to know one character when I move you on to the next!), I love the idea of knowing a story from all angles. It's my inherent nosiness! I also think there was great value in having Helen, Stella, and Felice share both their inner viewpoints and their perspective on Grace. I feel that, in a way, each of them is bearing witness to Grace's mystery, each of them holds pieces of the Grace puzzle.

And yet the puzzle is never fully solved, is it?

No. And that's the way life is sometimes. All of the love they feel for Grace isn't enough because Grace can't love herself. And when you can't love yourself, warts and all, it's almost impossible to really love other people. I mean, does Grace really love Kathleen? I don't think so. Real love involves exposing yourself to someone else and risking rejection—not manipulating or deceiving someone into caring for you.

What about the other characters and their relationships? What did you most want to convey in their stories?

I am fascinated, as most writers are, by relationships. Sometimes I think we all forget how fluid they are, ever moving and changing. What I have seen again and again is that couples who can confront that shifting landscape with honesty and openness are much more likely to weather life's bumps in the road—and even to be enriched by them. For instance, James and Felice may have been able to make it if they had been attuned to the growing distance between them. But by the time we meet them, it's way too late. On the other hand, Helen and Darryl stand a real chance, despite the affair, because she is able to recognize what's important to her in time to be honest and recommit herself fully to making her marriage work.

Mothering is another theme throughout this book. What did you hope to convey about the bonds of motherhood?

I wanted to show, first of all, how strong that bond can be. Doris, for better or worse, is an example. Even though she has done a lousy job of protecting her child in the past and even though she makes a poor choice in siding with Grace against her friends, most of that comes from a fierce loyalty. I also think that we tend to believe what we want when the truth is too painful and Doris certainly showed that kind of blindness in Grace's childhood and continues to show it during her illness. On the other hand, Felice's mothering shows that a mother can be imperfect, can make mistakes and repair them. Though she loses James, she gains a whole new relationship with her kids.

What about Celia? It seems unnatural that Grace doesn't care more for her, doesn't it?

Well, Celia's story is as sad as Grace's. Just as Grace spent her childhood feeling unloved and unprotected by her mother, so does Celia. And when you look at the other mothers in this novel, you see how much they derive from the love they give their kids. Poor Grace is caught in—and continuing—the same cycle she knew as a child. And Celia is as innocent as Grace once was, and she's liable to need a lot of help in understanding that she is worth something, even if her mother is too damaged to reach out to her. But I hope I leave readers with the feeling that these women who love Grace will try to help Celia feel loved.

 

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