Filed Under: Critical Mass
Kelly Simmons found it freeing to get inside the mind of a septuagenarian suffering from dementia. Because, to put it plainly: "grandmas got nothing to lose," an attitude that stirs up some serious family drama and a roomy, Main Line closetful of skeletons in her newest novel, The Birdhouse.
It all starts innocently enough with a get-to-know-your-grandparents school project. But, as with her highly praised debut novel, Standing Still
, Simmons' psychological thriller propels the first-person narrative into some very dark places. In Standing Still
, severe panic disorder sets the stage for a kidnapping and a remarkably internal drama about relationship and lies. The Birdhouse
looks at the interplay between Ann, the aging matriarch, her granddaughter, and an untrusting daughter-in-law. Shifting between Ann's diaries, written 40 years earlier, and the present family drama revolving around guilt and deception, Simmons plays with the reader's own sense of what's real and what's a product of Ann's fading memory.
Simmons will be stopping by Children's Book World in Haverford at 7 p.m. tonight
(side not: this is not a children's story). We caught up with Simmons to chat about her new book. If you can't make it tonight, Simmons will be holding a book signing later this month at Head House Books in Philly.
Author Q & A
Your first novel came out of your own experiences with panic disorder. Where'd you get the idea for this second book?
Actually, the idea for this book started when my daughter came home from school with an assignment to interview grandparents and research aspects of the family that had been handed down through the generations, whether it was a hobby or a type of work. At the time, I thought to myself that could really blow up in the wrong grandparent's hands or the wrong kid's hands, you know; the skeletons could all come out of the closet. So that assignment just made me smile. And then, a couple years later, that idea kept coming back to me, and I thought, 'you know what, that's a book.
: Is it something about the uncontrollable curiosity of children?
Definitely, it's a threat. She's curious and loves digging through her grandmother's stuff, and the grandmother has some real power, because she knows the secrets, and it's almost like she want to tell them to someone. Telling them to a child would be very inappropriate; yet, you wonder if she's going to or not.
How does the grandmother's dementia come into play?
Well, she's not the most reliable narrator. You're not sure if she's telling the truth or not. That's why her diaries from forty years ago are so critical.
What was it like going from a female character with panic disorder in your first book to one with dementia in this story?
People who are damaged are interesting to me. And unfortunately our family did go through this with several relatives, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. So I got to see first hand how peoples' perceptions are altered by these states: whether it's panic or a disease, the person you thought you were dealing with isn't quite the same anymore. It's interesting to me how peoples' selves are filtered My agent says I'm drawn to the dark side, and disease is part of the dark side.
Was it different getting into the mind of the grandmother?
Well, it was similar in some ways to my first book. Both novels are written in the first person and both narrative travel in an interesting way. But writing from the perspective of a 70-year-old woman in this novel was very freeing. She really couldn't give a shit what people think. She has nothing left to lose.
In both your books, there is a lot of infidelity. Why is that?
Haha â I don't know if I can answer that. It's funny; I never looked at it that way. The Birdhouse
is set in the Main Line, and it's a very Main Line story. To me, that is about things that are hidden: the house looks beautiful on the outside, but on the inside it's complex. The marriage looks great with the white picket fence and all, but inside it's not all great. It's much more about the damage inside. But I'll have to think back and ask my friends if they think I'm obsessed with infidelity....
This comes out of your experiences living on the Main Line?
Totally. Being here, but not being from here, and being an observer and an outsider, it's a fascinating place. I just can't seem to stop writing about it.
So this is a Maine Line story not a Philly story?
Well, I think that the Main Line is so much a part of what Philadelphia is â for better or for worse.
How would you describe the novel very briefly?
It's kind of a love letter to grandmothers. But not in a sappy way because their relationship is dangerous.
Are you working on anything else?
I am working on two books. I have one being reviewed right now called The Book Addict
. I have another that I'm writing about four women awaiting a liver transplant.
Same style and structure as what we've seen so far?
KS: The Book Addict
is similar in structure and written in the first-person. The other book, though, I'm writing in the third-person, so that's a different platform for me.