Your books are always set in Baltimore, where you live in an upper-middle-class suburb. Life there couldn’t be more different than in the edgy Baltimore of The Wire—a TV series we know you love. Tell us about your Baltimore.
Actually I live within the city limits, but Baltimore has many green spots and I am certainly in one of them. Newcomers to Baltimore are often surprised by its patchwork-quilt quality: blue-collar Hampden just down the street from hoity-toity Roland Park, corner drug markets a mere matter of blocks from the leafy neighborhoods where children play. For writers, what makes the city so appealing is its gritty, distinctive character. Nobody could call it bland, or vanilla, or cookie-cutter.
Abby’s lovely house is a massive character in its own right. How does that house symbolize Abby’s family, sometimes loving, sometimes dysfunctional?
The Whitshanks’ house takes on the importance it does simply because I was trying to think like a builder, since building is their family business. I figured that if they themselves were telling this story, they would want readers to notice the integrity of their dwelling place. No shortcuts! No synthetics! No “Harry Homeowner fixes,” as Red Whitshank puts it.
There are rumours this may be your last novel. Please tell us that it’s not.
I think those rumours got started when I said I wanted to go on writing this book until I died. But when I realized that I wasn’t interested in exploring the generations prior to the 1920s, I had to end the book after all. In fact, I have another novel coming out in 2016 with the Hogarth Shakespeare series: Vinegar Girl, a modern-day retelling of The Taming of the Shrew.
Do your children and grandchildren ever recognize something of themselves in your books? If so, do they mind?
I have a kind of allergy to putting anything from my real life into my novels. But in each of the past dozen books or so, I have deliberately inserted a “cameo appearance” of my daughters and, as they arrived, my sons-in-law and my grandchildren. These are minuscule—often just a single sentence—and my family hasn’t objected. (In A Spool of Blue Thread, they are the people who rent the beach house next door to the Whitshanks every summer.)