Chris Cander found national success writing character-driven novels whose struggles play out in remote and evocative locales. The USA Today-bestseller has transported readers to such places as West Virginia, Chicago, Soviet Russia, and the California desert. But for her fourth novel, A Gracious Neighbor, Cander turned her novelistic gaze on her own neighborhood: West University, an affluent tiny city within the sprawling expanse of Houston Texas, home to business executives, doctors from the nearby medical center, and professors from Rice University—the U in the titular WEST U. At home during the pandemic, Cander found inspiration in her surroundings, transposing the 1917 Susan Glaspell short story “A Jury of Her Peers” onto the leafy streets of her own neighborhood—with plenty of twenty-first century updates. The novel deals with friendship and discord between women, romantic love and obsession gone wrong, and the secrets that lie behind the paneled doors of even the most idyllic environs. I talked to Chris about what it was like to write about her hometown, the trouble that can arise when neighbors watch each other too closely, and the perils of gossip shared after too many white wines at school auction night.
Chris Cander is the USA Today bestselling author of the novels The Weight of a Piano, which was named an Indie Next Great Read; Whisper Hollow, also named an Indie Next Great Read, longlisted for the Great Santini Fiction Prize, and a nominee for the 2015 Kirkus Prize for Fiction; and 11 Stories, named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best books of 2013, the winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award for Fiction, and a USA Best Book Award finalist. She is also the author of the Audible Original Stories Eddies and Grieving Conversations. Cander’s fiction has been published in twelve languages. She lives in her native Houston, Texas, with her husband and two children. For more information, visit www.chriscander.com.
The germ of this story was found in a short story from 1917, but its themes (insular neighborhoods, the petty, casual cruelties that lie under their beautiful facades) are, as they say, evergreen. Why do we find these neighborhood-oriented stories so endlessly entertaining?
People are easily seduced by first impressions. We’re drawn to these neighborhoods in part because they look—from the outside, anyway—like nirvana, like the good life. Presumably, this is where families are intact, and children are safe and fed, and everyone has the opportunity to practice extracurricular sports, and so on—manicured lawns, sculpted trees, fresh flowers planted seasonally, decorations at the holidays—it’s a very specific version of the American dream. I think we’re drawn to the stories within them to watch the myriad ways they fall apart.
Yes! Everyone knows—whether consciously or not—they know in their bones it’s not really that idyllic. It’s like a built-in paradox.
In a book like this and in a neighborhood like this, these images are begging to be dismantled. Readers may experience a measure of schadenfreude when they see that some of these perfect-looking people and families are held together by white wine and duct tape. That’s why gossip magazines are so popular. Everybody wants to see the movie stars looking lumpy in a bikini, because it makes us feel better about our own bikini-exposed lumps. And I think the same can be true about living in a neighborhood in which we fear feeling a fundamental incompatibility with the residents, being misperceived by or even rejected by them. We want to feel comfortable in our skin, in our neighborhoods, but we’re often highly sensitized to our own fears.
And these incompatibilities and misconceptions can have far-reaching consequences.
They can. Also, there are a thousand ways to prove stereotypes wrong.
I love how you put Martha in the place of the reader, literally looking over fences into these backyards, to see the real truth. Every one of us has been there at one point or another, feeling like they are on the outside looking in.
I wanted any reader to be able to identify with Martha, to be able to imagine themselves imagining their own neighbors. However, it was really unusual for me to only tell a story from one character’s point of view. I worried about the narrative becoming hyper-internalized with Martha thinking about her circumstances, her relationships, where she is in the neighborhood and in society, how she’s failed, how she’s being perceived. There’s this total self-awareness all the time. I was afraid the reader would find it all a little tedious, but I decided it was the only way Martha could come to know herself and the people around her.
Tell me about the significance of Martha’s and Minnie’s very different-looking houses.
Each of these homes is a metaphorical representation of the physical exteriors of the characters that live there. How they look on the outside reveals something about what motivates them and how they want to be seen. Martha’s is a slightly bedraggled, original 1940s bungalow nestled in between fancy new-builds. She can’t afford a lawn crew, so she maintains the exterior herself. Likewise, she herself is less put together, less fit, has hair that responds to Houston’s humidity, and so on. There’s a scene where she’s looking through her underwear drawer, and observes that all her bras and her undergarments are faded and turned to the color of an old rubber band. It’s like the missing shingles on the roof and the withered elastic of her brassiere are parallel. In contrast, Minnie lives in a brand-new, unnecessarily large mansion next door. Minnie always looks beautiful and effortlessly elegant, yet the reader learns that what goes on behind the exterior of her home and her appearance doesn’t match. There’s a dichotomy: the more excessively self-conscious the exterior, the more collapse is happening inside.
Similarly in Houston, we drive a lot. In the novel I’m writing, everyone’s driving, everyone’s got a car, but the kind of car they are able to get varies greatly. And those cars tell us something about them that we couldn’t learn any other way.
It’s true. A car is a necessary possession in here, and its appearance can convey a message—not always the one we’d like it to. If you can’t afford a really nice car, does that mean you don’t take care of yourself? What if you can afford it, but choose not to drive an expensive car? It’s all about exteriority versus interiority.
Martha literally lacks the financial and the emotional wherewithal to control her exteriority, and it’s almost like a shameful thing, to be seen as she really is.
Exactly, but as you pointed out, she really is the one who has less to hide. Though her behavior becomes strange and her choices, questionable, she’s consistent in her earnestness. With her, what you see is what you get. And the WYSIWYG is not necessarily true with a lot of her neighbors.
It makes me think about what you and I have talked about many times over lunch, that as writers, we’re trying to uncover the occasionally uncomfortable truths that make life interesting, whereas some of the people around us seem engaged in the opposite, which is to pretend everything’s fine.
In the book, there’s a chapter dedicated to the Little League auction, and the conversation the women are having is so superficial. It very delicately dips into somebody’s marital status, and they quickly pull back because it was too hot to touch. There was obvious shame around it and reticence to get any deeper, so immediately the characters went back to talking about the statement lamps that one of them wanted to bid on. As in real life, people who are straining to “keep up with the Jonses” may fear getting too vulnerable with each other, and maybe even with themselves.
Did you discover anything new about your neighbors in the course of writing this book? Did you come to see your neighborhood any differently?
I started this book early in the pandemic when everyone was quarantining at home. It wasn’t warm enough yet for the A/C compressors to be running all day, and since I wrote mostly sitting outside in my back yard, I had the opportunity to pay attention to my neighbors, especially those I didn’t know well, in a more sustained way than ever before. I wondered about their lives, how they were spending their time, how they were coping emotionally and physically and financially with our collective circumstances. This intersection of fact and fiction informed not only the way I wrote about my characters, but allowed me to think of my neighbors, both real and imagined, more intentionally and empathetically.
Definitely. I’m not giving anything away by sharing that there’s a murder at Minnie’s gorgeous home at the end of the novel. So now, when I go on walks around my neighborhood, I think about Minnie and can’t help but wonder if certain housing choices are a salve for the owners’ sadness or psychic wounds.
You mention murder, but not all the offenses committed in the novel involve physical violence.
Right. The murder is announced in the first-person plural prologue, but the murder itself really isn’t the focus. It’s more about the social and emotional crimes especially between and among women happening at kitchen tables, cocktail parties, gala auctions, and in little league bleachers and how those petty prejudices and nonviolent, barely perceptible cruelties affect individuals and communities. Me walking down my street and making a snap judgment about someone’s house is, in a way, a psychic crime on my part. Who am I to judge someone I don’t know? We do this kind of thing to each other all the time. So, these quiet, Hopper-esque, late-afternoon transgressions the characters commit against each other are more significant than the murder that bookends the novel. You’ve heard the term novel-in-stories. This could be read like a novel-in-unpunishable-crimes.
Late-afternoon crimes. I love that. You also focus your attention on the ways the characters do—or don’t—fit into society. That could be larger than just a neighborhood, too.
Everyone in the novel is concerned with how they’re perceived, and how they move through the society in which they find themselves, which is probably true of most people in most communities both macro and micro, whether within a culture or country, a small town or a book club. And it’s relevant. That destabilizing fear of being—as Martha very specifically is—on the outside of a group and being judged by those within it is probably universal. There’s a constant thrumming tension in a neighborhood like this, where it seems like everybody’s looking at each other’s exteriors and peering into their actual or metaphorical windows, looking for their points of weakness.
The tension that thrives in these neighborhoods is ripe ground for narrative tension.
You and I have talked a lot about this: we look like belong in our neighborhoods, but we don’t really feel like we belong. I love the framed sign in your office: You Are An Outsider. Again, maybe because we’re writers, we’re comfortable with and even celebrate that position because that’s the vantage we require in order to write about uncomfortable things. Not everyone feels the same way. In life and in stories like this one, tension starts to ramp up when the threat of being revealed as a member of the out-group increases. When the threat of being revealed as a survivor of domestic violence increases. Or the perpetrator of domestic violence. Whatever shame is rising to the surface, the tension is heightened when someone is trying to suppress it.
Now that your novel is out, how do you feel about your neighbors reading your version of the neighborhood?
Some people who read this book are going to think it’s about them, but it’s not. It’s an amalgamation of conversations that I’ve overheard, of social situations I’ve witnessed as an observer or a participant, of character traits that are so ubiquitous as to be easily stereotyped. I do worry about hurting people’s feelings, but on the other hand, if they recognize themselves in something about a character, then maybe that’s an opportunity for growth. That’s definitely true for me when I read fiction.
My sister gave me a t-shirt fifteen years ago, having no idea how prescient it was, that says, “Be careful or you’ll end up in my novel.” It’s practically a rag now, holes at the armpits, frays at the collar and hem. It’s worn out because I’ve worn it so often at home and around the neighborhood, so really, readers should know: they were warned.