THE BEST PLACE TO BE, a novel in stories by Lesley Dormen a novel in stories
About the Author

A Conversation with Lesley Dormen

Q: You've written for women's magazines for many years. Tell us about your transition from nonfiction and humor articles to fiction.

I wrote about love and intimacy for the magazines mostly. I knew I wasn't reinventing the wheel, but the fiction writer in me instinctively brought her own stylistic slant to each piece, at least to the extent that the form allowed. Humor gave me more room to play. When I returned to writing fiction, I had to learn the difference between, for example, the "I" that I sometimes brought into my magazine pieces and the "I" that narrated the stories I was writing. The magazine "I" was more or less me; the fictional "I" was a created persona, a character. Not me. I learned, and I'm still learning, the crucial difference between the two.

Q: You now teach writing classes at the Writers Studio in New York City. How has teaching affected your own writing?

As a teacher, I'm talking simultaneously to my students and to myself. I haven't stopped learning. I might be a step ahead of my students, but I've been where they are. Earlier that same day sometimes. We're all so vulnerable as writers. We ask ourselves to open a vein and then bleed onto the page—but artfully! I want to help them to be brave as well as artful. Which is exactly what I ask of myself.

Q: The Best Place to Be is called a novel in stories. The linked stories are all narrated by Grace Hanford and begin in the narrator's present, circle back to her childhood and young womanhood, then loop back again to the present day. Tells us about your decision to write in a nonlinear fashion.

Directors shoot films nonlinearly for practical considerations—time, money, an actor's availability. My considerations were emotional. I wrote the stories I was able to write—that is, to emotionally connect to—at any given time. The first story I wrote, "I Asked My Mother," is five pages long. I found Grace in that story. What I connected to was her anger. I felt tenderness toward that anger, toward its ferocity and its impotence. It also made me laugh. Once I tapped into the anger, and into my interest in it, I knew I was on to something. But anger is the emotional tip of the iceberg. Underneath are fear and hurt and often damage, and that's true of Grace. The defense of anger—because it can be comic and compelling on the page—was easier to access than the vulnerability, which comes with the dangers of sentimentality and self-pity. So I wrote what I could when I could. When the stories were finished, I made an editorial decision to order the stores in a nonlinear way. That's how our minds work, I think. And associative disorder reflects my feelings about time and memory and place. Grace herself is a nonlinear thinker—she exists in the present and in the past in every relationship, every situation, and every story.

Q: The Best Place to Be could be called a valentine to independent women and perhaps the entire boomer generation (we see Grace age from age 15 to 50+). How important is time to you and the development of your characters?

Time and family are the great subjects, as far as I'm concerned. I came back to writing fiction as I was approaching fifty, so my own mortality was never not on my mind. My parents had recently died. I was shocked. Shocked. I can't imagine that the boomers are special in that way. Still, we have always seen our own generation in italics, I suppose, because of all the attention the culture we created has reflected back on us. All that couldn't not influence Grace and my other characters. Soon we'll seem as antique as the so-called lost generation. I suppose we already do in certain quarters, though our narcissism seems to be as healthy as ever.

Q: There are many complicated family relationships in this book. What were the reasons for portraying them in this light? Were there inspirations for Richard, Alex, Irv, Percy, Phoebe?

All family relationships are complicated, as far as I can tell, so that's the only way I know how to portray them. That's why families are so interesting to writers. The inspirations for those characters come, in their various disguises and altered states, from my own life.

Q: You, like the main character Grace, moved from Cleveland, Ohio, to New York City on the cusp of the 1970s. How autobiographical is The Best Place to Be?

I wish I had an original answer to that question. My novel is both autobiographical and completely created. Grace is no more me than Alex is my actual brother or Richard my actual husband. They are all characters, as any one of their suspiciously real-life counterparts would be eager to tell you.

Q: Which chapter or passage was the hardest to write and why?

The hardest was "General Strike." It was the last story I wrote—and rewrote and rewrote. I began to grasp that the heart of the novel was Grace's grief for her lost father. That story, about a trip Grace and her husband take to Rome with her brother and his wife, contains her grief. In Rome, watching a documentary about the assassination of President Kennedy, Grace realizes that the intimacy she shares with her brother—the two of them being the only survivors of that once upon a time intact family—would always be more powerful for her than any other intimacy. I remember sitting in my room at Yaddo, day after day, rereading William Manchester's book about the Kennedy assassination, The Death of a President, and crying.

Q: The Best Place to Be is in many ways a love letter to New York City, as Grace grows with the city and its "Manhappenstances." Tell us about the choice to make New York a character in this book.

New York is so much a character in my own life that it had to find its way into my fiction. I think of New York as a stage, peopled over the centuries by the most fascinating characters anyone could ever hope to meet anywhere, in and out of books, and I feel lucky to be among them, taking my turn on the stage.

Q: Grace finally discovers "the best place to be." Can you tell us more about that place?

In the title story itself, Grace is alone, on a train bound for Washington, D.C. She has the right book with her; there is no particular landscape to look at or other passenger to be distracted by. For a moment, she feels released from time's grip on her. Nothing in the past to regret, nothing in the future to fear. She's content. That moment is the best place to be. Of course, the moment passes.

Q: Are you working on anything else? If so, can you share a little about it with us?

It turns out that I'm not finished with Grace. I'm working on a novel about her complicated, indispensable friendships with other women, how they fare over time.