Sisterhood over self help (3 Questions for Melissa Senate, author of The Secret of Joy)

New Yorker Rebecca Strand is shocked when her dying father confesses a devastating secret: Joy, a daughter he turned his back on, the result of an affair when Rebecca was a toddler. Now he wants Joy to read the unsent letters he wrote every year on her birthday. Determined to fulfill her father’s last wish, Rebecca drives to a small town in Maine and knocks on her half-sister’s door. As is always the case with sisters, secrets, and broken hearts, everything that happens after that in Melissa Senate's latest novel, The Secret of Joy, is complicated, to say the least. The book is in stores this week, and Melissa spared a moment for 3 Qs in the midst of launch-o-palooza.

This is fertile ground for a story to grow, Melissa. I'm curious about the roots. Where did the idea come from?
Several years ago, I received an email out of the blue that said: I think you might be my half-sister. I was. Am. It took me a long time to decide to take that little (huge) nugget and write a novel to help me figure out the answer to some burning questions, such as: if you haven’t seen or heard from your biological father, or any member of his family, since you were little (or, in Joy’s case, never at all), is his child from another relationship really your sibling? Or just a stranger? Does the word father or sister or brother mean anything without back up? I had a ton of questions and set out to uncover how I felt through a fictional character, but it’s interesting to me that I flipped everything on its head in the writing of the story. Nothing but the basic questions that are proposed in the novel are autobiographical. Just the questions! And I surprised myself quite a few times during the writing of this story with how I felt about certain things. Amazing how writing fiction can teach you so much about yourself.

When a book is about folks -- as opposed to lost symbols, car chases, etc -- the nuances and consistency of character mean everything. How do you anchor yourself, visually and conceptually, while you craft the people in your books?
I picture my characters’ faces with their personalities etched into their features. I rarely base my characters physically on celebs (except for my first book—Jane from See Jane Date looked just like Ann Marie from “That Girl” (a young Marlo Thomas). She did not look like Charisma Carpenter, who perfectly played her in the TV movie, but now when I think of Jane, I think of Charisma only. Which makes me think of hot David Boreanaz, which is a good thing. I have long been drawn to guys with dark eyes and dark hair, starting with my very first serious crush in 7th grade. But Theo, Rebecca’s love interest, has sandy-blond hair and pale brown eyes because that’s just the way he came out of the keyboard -- he sort of created himself. I never base the guys on anyone. They’re always inspired by the guy I wish I were dating. (Yes, I’m single!) Right now, as a single mother, I’d love a guy who, like hot, wise Theo, works with his hands and made things, like porch swings and tree houses for my son. A guy who’s smart and honest and romantic and always seems to say the right thing at the right time.

Okay, putting that out to the Universe. Meanwhile, you seem to have your feet firmly on the ground career-wise. Talk to us a bit about the nuts and bolts of process. (Whatever you're doing is working spectacularly well!)
An idea flits into my heart, mind and soul (if I may be so dramatic!) and I just know. The idea, just a wispy thing, grips me and I think about it until the two major characters—my protagonist and the person or thing who “forces” her change—become clear. Then I write out a one page treatment, a bare bones synopsis, then think about that, then revise the storyline into a “pitch” I can share with my agent. If she green-lights it, I’ll then let myself dream it into a full blown synopsis, which is what I usually sell a novel on. The synopsis, in its major plot points, rarely changes, but how the characters get from page one to page 325 is another story.

I’m crazy about my editor, Jennifer Heddle at Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books. I love working with her. She’s just so razor-sharp smart and aware and interested in the world and pop culture (which I’ve learned via being her friend on Facebook!). Her suggestions, starting with our first conversation before she even bought my book, were so intelligent and thoughtful. And she’s New York honest in a very kind way with her editorial letters and edits. I absolutely trust what she says. As I’ve gotten to know her, I’m even more touched that she bought my book. She’s a tough customer, I think. And that’s a good thing.

The Secret of Joy is a Simon & Schuster Book Club Pick. Click here for the Reading Group Guide.)


Your book sounds great - and what an eye-catching cover! Thanks so much for stopping by BtO for a fascinating chat!

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