Hyatt Bass reads at Book Soup tonight
About a zillion years ago, a friend's roommate dated a nice, hardworking filmmaker named Hyatt. So I guess I wasn't thinking that the book by Hyatt Bass sitting on my desk could possibly be from the same person. When it dawned on me that it was -- and news came that she'd be reading tonight at Book Soup, with a wine-and-cheese reception at 6 -- I wanted to ask her a few questions about "The Embers," her debut novel. The book shifts perspectives between various members of the fictional Ascher family as they grapple with the early death of their son, Thomas.
You used to live in Los Angeles – and you’re reading here tonight. What about the city resonates with you?
When I lived in Los Angeles, I worked in film, and it seemed like everyone I met worked in film, and all we talked about was film. I regret that, because I now know that there is so much more to the city than that. I have a friend here who takes the bus everywhere, and I wish I'd done that at least, because I found being in a car all the time very strange. I actually put a lot of that isolation -- that feeling of ships passing in the night -- into "The Embers."
In "The Embers," how much does place inform character?
Place definitely informs character in this book. I really wanted to explore another place I know very well (and have tremendous fondness for), which is New York City -- as well as the Berkshires, where the Ascher family has a country house. The Ascher family is a very New York family. Joe is a famous playwright and actor, best-known for his one-man shows. He has a chip on his shoulder because he was raised in the Bronx and is "half-Jewish" -- and doesn't carry the waspy Upper East Side pedigree of his wife, Laura. Their kids, Emily and Thomas, are very New York kids -- precocious and, of course, exposed to a lot -- not just the culture of their city's museums and theaters and so on, but to the drugs and old-beyond-their-years ways that a lot of city kids have.
The thing about the Berkshires is that it's this place where they all go to get away, and there is something very pure about the natural setting, and something more natural about their interactions there. Everything that happens in the Berkshires house, though, happens in the past, because in the present, the Berkshires house is gone. The house has been destroyed -- and the family, too, has fallen apart. Thomas is definitely the "purest" character in the book -- partly because he dies before he moves beyond the fairly innocent age of 18, and his ashes are scattered amidst an apple grove on the hillside above their former house. Emily is determined to hold her wedding -- a happy occasion, and one of new beginnings -- in this very grove, when the apple trees are in bloom. And the wedding will be the first time that she, Joe, and Laura have been reunited since Thomas' death 15 years before.
About a place that's no place, and the symbolism of gardens.
A large portion of the book also takes place at a hotel in the Midwest, where Joe, who has not written a play since Thomas' death, is skulking around, trying to write. I'm intentionally unspecific about where this hotel is, but I thought the Midwest was a good choice since the rolling hills and farms are something that mirror the Berkshires setting. And because he is looking back on his past so much while he is trying to write, I wanted the two places to feel somewhat similar. I also like the idea that he is at a hotel, because a hotel is so filled with transience -- lots of strangers passing one another and never connecting -- and this very much reflects Joe's current state of isolation, and his lack of connection to his family, who he really yearns for in many ways. In the hotel garden, he strikes up a friendship with this precocious young girl, Ingrid, who reminds him a lot of Emily when she was younger. Not to get overly symbolic, but for me, the garden setting is very significant for this friendship, which is very much about a loss of innocence. Ingrid, teetering between childhood and adulthood, is on the cusp of waking up to all kinds of things; while Joe is looking back at his life with feelings of regret and yearning -- and very much longing to rekindle the kind of friendship he had with his daughter when she was more innocent -- not just because of her age, but because she had not yet experienced the heartbreak of her brother's death.
And how do your characters define home? How important is home to them?
Home to me is synonymous with family, and this whole book is about family. Joe and Laura and Emily are very important to one another, and have tremendous love for one another. But certain things have happened -- betrayals and challenges, some big and some small, the biggest of course being Thomas' death -- that have really torn at the fabric of this family. Ultimately, there is a sense of redemption, and the love between them triumphs. You know, these people are really connected to one another no matter what. In some sense, they are each other's home and will always be each other's home. At the same time, Emily is embarking on a new life with her fiance, Clay -- they are starting their own home together, and she is very wary about this leap she's about to take because she's so aware of all the challenges that can come up and wreck everything.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Sharah Shatz