Read January Magazine's 2001 interview with Joy Fielding
Joy Fielding has been described as the maven of domestic terror, though the author herself would likely balk at that description. Fielding feels that her books are about ordinary people -- women mostly -- caught in extraordinary situations.
"I think women are very grateful to see other women portrayed in a real way" says the 52-year-old author on a tour recently promoting her most recent book, Missing Pieces.
The reality Fielding brings to women through her work comes on several levels. But there is little of Hollywood gloss here. Fielding's characters resonate with life as we've really seen it. A refreshing change in an age of silicone and hair mousse.
With age comes wisdom, I distinctly remember hearing in my youth. I don't think so. With age comes wrinkles, I'm sure they meant. And bladder problems, and arthritis, and hot flashes, and memory loss.
Joy Fielding's voice is strong and true. And if she sometimes looks microscopically at places where other writers merely hover, it just seems to bring her readers closer.
"I really wanted to write about my feelings: about the things I see when I look in the mirror," and in the opening pages of Missing Pieces and through the voice of the character whose voice we hear throughout the book, Fielding does just that. These reflections aren't often the kind that are voiced in a literary world that sometimes seems as obsessed with plastic and youth as the latest Hollywood flick:
Actually I surprise myself sometimes. I'll be all dressed up, feeling good, thinking I look great, and then I catch my reflection unexpectedly in a store window or a pane of glass, and I think: Who is that? Who is that middle-aged woman? It can't be me. I don't have those bags under my eyes; those aren't my legs; surely that's not my rear end. It's genuinely frightening when your self-image no longer corresponds to the image you see in the mirror. It's even scarier when you realize that other people barely see you at all, that you've become invisible.
In Missing Pieces, "Writing in the first person really freed me to find my own voice." Though there are some aspects that might not invite the full spectrum of the mainstream audience. It is, admits Fielding, a "woman's book. I think it has appeal for women because it presents them in a very clear light." She's not ruling out male readers, although they might come for a different reason: "It would be a good book for any man to read who'd like to understand women better."
Whatever your gender, Missing Pieces is a skillfully executed work of fiction written by a Canadian writer whose prose is filled with both power and clarity. Fielding's work has not always been lauded by the Canadian literati. She feels her success in that regard has been marred by her ability to attract a commercial audience to her work. Something she has done for an ever-increasing readership since her first book was published in the early 1970s.
After returning from traveling through Europe with a friend in 1972, the young would-be author sat down at her mother's kitchen table and banged out her first manuscript in five weeks. She did it, Fielding says, because she didn't know any better and didn't have much else to occupy her time. "It just didn't occur to me that I couldn't just sit and take however long I wanted to write this book." On completion, she bundled it off to five publishers. Two accepted it.
"I just sat down and wrote whatever came into my head. And I was lucky, because the stuff that came into my head was publishable."
Fielding doesn't think that she'd have as easy a time breaking in to today's competitive publishing world, but, "I was fortunate that someone was willing to take a chance. I don't think that they had any expectations that it was going to be a big success, but they thought that I had a voice that was worth hearing." The publisher was Putnam and the book was The Best of Friends. That first book was not a huge seller, but it did start the momentum in a career that has progressed on a course that looks almost charted when viewed from this late angle.
A redhead with a direct, blue gaze, Fielding herself doesn't look very unlike the 47-year-old heroine of Missing Pieces; Kate Sinclair. Kate is a Palm Beach family therapist whose life seems incredibly in control. Until a series of circumstances just slightly out of her own grasp begin to cause her comfortable existence to unravel.
"People from different countries often say 'You wrote about me'," says Fielding. "I get that from people all around the world. And you think: well wait a minute. That can't be. But while we haven't maybe experienced all of the specifics, we've all felt that loss of control. We've all felt trapped. We've all felt angry and hurt and confused and afraid."
While it's true most of us have felt at least some of those things, most of us haven't experienced what it's like when their sister falls in love with a convicted serial killer, as Kate Sinclair's does in Missing Pieces.
"Initially it astounded me that my books are so popular all over the world. Because I wondered what a woman in the Chech Republic, for instance, has in common with my upper middle class career woman in South Florida? But in fact they do. The characters are so real that you can relate to them." The commonalties, says Fielding, are more integral than the specifics.
Fielding feels that, at an emotional level, women all over the world have similar problems. "I think people in general are more similar than we are dissimilar. Once you tap into that common reservoir: that's what people really identify with. That's what makes the books relevant to people in all walks of life and different cultures, different languages, different age groups and religions: everything."
Another thing that Fielding thinks adds to the relevance of her work is that it speaks to large chunks of the population who feel passed over by other authors. "There are all these women out there who are being missed by popular fiction," says Fielding, who writes about women who are not necessarily conventionally beautiful or in the first bloom of youth.
Fielding thinks that a lot of women feel somewhat invisible while doing their daily lives. "And when you aren't seen, you aren't heard." Expressing those feelings is perhaps what makes her readers feel the most strongly identified with.
"I've had a few turning points," says Fielding of her career. "1980 with Kiss Mommy Goodbye was the first time that I made the New York Times bestsellers list and that got into a certain market and level of readership. It happened again with See Jane Run which has probably been my most successful book to date."
Published in 1991, See Jane Run was a huge success in all the ways that these things are counted: including a television movie made in 1995. The film, starring Joanna Kerns as Kate and directed by John D. Patterson, was the most popular for ABC-TV in it's debuting season.
"See Jane Run really had worldwide success. It's been a phenomenal book for me. Since then it's been steadily building." It has, says Fielding, contributed a great deal to her own visibility as an author.
All of Fielding's books have been set in the United States, though that hasn't always been her desire.
"With most of my books I have suggested originally that the story be set in Toronto. And I always get the same comment back." Publishers, says Fielding, generally tell her that they love the book's concept, but would she please set it in an American city?
"I think they just don't trust the American public to feel comfortable with a setting other than their own." Fielding thinks it's likely that a reader from New York would be more familiar with a city like Toronto than they would with a place like Caspar, Wyoming. "I think it underestimates the intelligence of the American reader. Certainly in my travels across the US a lot of readers have asked me why I haven't set my books in Toronto or other places in Canada."
Missing Pieces, however, was never intended to be set in Toronto. Palm Beach presented the ideal setting for the novel Fielding found emerging. The fact that Fielding tries to spend at least a week there each month made it an easy reach, as she knows the area well. There was, however, more to Palm Beach that made that area perfect for this novel. "Palm Beach is a very precarious paradise," says Fielding.
That paradise presents the counterpoint to the novel's cacophonous subtext. Against the artificial blue of the Palm Beach sky, we see Kate's sister fall in love with a convicted serial killer; we see her elder daughter rebel and become a stranger; we watch as her mother falls ever further towards Alzheimer's and Kate's own two plus-decade marriage begins to fall apart.
It's through Kate's relationships with the other important women in her life that we begin to understand Kate: pretty much as she begins to understand herself.
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.