Author On the Bookcase: Jennifer Vanderbes, author of Strangers at the Feast

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Author On the Bookcase
Jennifer Vanderbes

Jennifer VanderbesI'm thrilled to welcome Jennifer Vanderbes, author of the new book, Strangers at the Feasts, to On the Bookcase. On Thanksgiving Day 2007, three generations of the Olson family gather. While the Olsons navigate the tensions and secrets that mark their relationships, seventeen-year-old Kijo Jackson and his best friend Spider set out from the nearby housing projects on a mysterious job. A series of tragic events bring these two worlds ever closer, exposing the dangerously thin line between suburban privilege and urban poverty, and culminating in a crime that will change everyone's life.

Jennifer writes stories that "attempt to answer certain questions." A simple "what if" question started the story that became Strangers at the Feast.

What questions did you want the reader to ponder while reading Strangers at the Feast, Jennifer?

The questions I am most often asked by Book Clubs have to do with my inspiration – how did you come up with this story?

All of my writing is an attempt to answer certain questions: I never write autobiographically because I am less interested in what has happened than in what might have happened. In school, I was often told, “write what you know,” but that seemed utterly boring. I want to discover that which I don’t yet know, so every story or novel I write begins with one, or a series of what ifs…...

E.M. Forester once famously explained that ’The King died and the Queen died’ is a a narrative,  but that  ‘The King died and the Queen died of grief’ is a plot.  A good story is tightly bound by cause and effect, so I’m always looking for an interesting chain of events; this will determine where the story begins, and where it  ends. But I won’t begin writing until I am certain that the chain of events presented in the novel, the “what-if” scenarios that I am answering, will, in the end, pose much larger moral and political questions for the reader, and for myself.

Stranger at the FeastThe basic premise for Strangers at the Feast came on a Thanksgiving Day several years ago when I was too ill to attend my family’s dinner. I stayed home, but managed a decent walk, during which time I peered into a lot of windows and noticed how so many houses were empty, and that it would make an excellent day for a break-in.  So there I had it – what if on this peaceful holiday there was a moment of trespass, the violation of a home.  From that simple scenario a series of secondary questions sprung to mind: who would be the trespasser, where would this happen, and, most important: why would it happen?

Those questions could only be answered by populating the story, and here is where memory and experience sometimes play a role for me.

I had spent a portion of my childhood in the area of Stamford, CT, watching the city undergo a dramatic “urban renewal” – housing projects were torn down, and the black population that had once been so visible on the downtown streets seemed to vanish. I had long wondered – where did these people go? – and that curiosity led me to invent the character of Kijo, a seventeen-year-old black boy who is living in the Stamford projects.

Years ago, I attended a dinner for women writers hosted by a single woman who had adopted a young girl from India. At the time, I had no idea this would ever make its way into my fiction.  But clearly something in the image of this woman and her daughter, and perhaps my subconscious curiosity about how this had come about, stuck with me. This woman became Ginny, the 30-something academic who is hosting Thanksgiving for the first time because she has just adopted a girl from India.

Only some of the novel’s characters emerged from people or situations I had witnessed in the real world, but what all of the characters in Strangers at the Feast have in common Is their complicity in the events of the novel – they all play an essential role in the tragedy that strikes. From a simple what if I tried to craft a story that would feel, by the end, utterly inevitable, and would raise a series of haunting moral questions for the reader.

Thanks so much for sharing your discussion "questions" with us, Jennifer. Race, family, poverty, American Dream, justice -- lot of topics to ponder.

Praise for Strangers at the Feast

"Vanderbes has written an absorbing and suspenseful story about the dynamics of family, generational misunderstandings, and the desperate ways one copes with both the arbitrariness of fate and the consequences of one's choices." --Library Journal (starred review)

Jennifer Vanderbes is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a New York Public Library Cullman Fellowship. Her debut novel, Easter Island, was translated into sixteen languages, and her essays and reviews appear in The New York Times and Washington Post. She lives in New York City.

Check Jennifer's website for more info!

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