Today we welcome Holly LeCraw to the blog to celebrate the upcoming release of her second novel, The Half Brother. Holly’s debut, The Swimming Pool, was a named a Top Debut and Best Book of the Summer in 2010. LeCraw is a native of Atlanta who now calls the Boston area home. The Half Brother takes place in a boarding school and, like its author, has roots in both Atlanta and New England. We are so excited to have Ms. LeCraw join us today. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy the conversation!
The Half Brother is a Cain and Abel story about two brothers who are teachers at the Abbott School, an Episcopal boarding school located in Massachusetts. Can you share with us a bit about Charlie and Nick and tell us more about their story?
I’m glad you mentioned Cain and Abel—those verses from Genesis were originally going to be my epigraph. Stories about brothers are some of the oldest we have; it’s an archetypal relationship. We’re always trying to understand ourselves, and we look to siblings in particular as our counterparts, our mirrors, our others, for good and for ill.
Charlie was raised by his mother, Anita, and believes his father died in the Vietnam War before he was born. When he was twelve years old, Anita married a wealthy man from an old-Atlanta family, and their position in the world changed overnight; then, a year later, Nick, his half-brother, was born. Nick has always seemed like a golden child, beloved, innately good, beautiful. Charlie loves him, feels protective of him, but also defines himself in relation to him, as his opposite.
When he’s a young teacher, Charlie falls in love with May Bankhead, the daughter of Abbott’s school chaplain, but then their relationship ends and she leaves town. Nearly ten years later, she returns to Abbott to teach, and that same year Nick comes to teach at Abbott as well. He is instantly beloved, a pied piper, and Charlie’s very quiet and solitary existence is upended. For reasons of his own, believing he’s acting out of love, he pushes Nick and May together, but of course the results can’t be anything but complicated.
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro are just a few well-known novels about boarding schools. What sets your novel apart from these titles is that rather than focusing on students, it tells the story of its teachers. Why do you think prep school stories are so popular? What is it about boarding school settings that appeal to you as a writer?
Everyone’s been a teenager. Every adult has, more or less, come of age, and for most of us adolescence was the most vivid, dynamic time of our lives, even if—especially if—we were miserable. So revisiting that time is part of the appeal. Also, a boarding school is almost always a setting of privilege, and people are usually fascinated by privilege, whether or not they approve of it.
It’s also a fairy-tale sort of environment, a closed society, which can be a useful structure for a writer. That being said, however, I didn’t choose the setting first. I didn’t go to boarding school myself; it doesn’t have any personal significance. I had Charlie Garrett, my protagonist, first, and he was a teacher, and it went from there. Ages ago, I had him working in a day school—but it was in a small town. So, for this story, I always wanted that sense of separation. I suppose you could also say that it’s a coming-of-age book, given that Charlie is a very, very late bloomer.
I honestly didn’t think of it as a “boarding school book” until recently, because it’s about adults, not students. But as it turns out, there are a lot of people out there who seem to love boarding school books. So it’s quite nice to have this built-in audience I wasn’t anticipating.
Your debut, The Swimming Pool, was released in 2010. How have things changed for you, as a writer, over the past few years?
The main difference between writing my first book and this one was that the second time I was much more self-conscious. It was paralyzing for a while. I knew what it was like to have something completely public. You think you know what that’s going to feel like and that it’s just going to be unmitigatedly wonderful, but then it happens and, in my case, I felt very exposed, which I wasn’t expecting. I had to get used to it. I think many authors are taken aback by the process, especially with all the online visibility; but we know of course that we are also very fortunate. It’s just become part of the business.
The flip side is that while writing this book I did feel a certain legitimacy I hadn’t felt before. I’m not saying that feeling is itself legitimate. I was a writer before, I’m a writer now. But if you know you’ve managed to finish and publish one book, you can hang on to that, on the dark days.
As was true with your debut, The Half Brother is certain to be a popular book club selection. What do you think are some of the most important discussable themes in The Half Brother? What are you most looking forward to discussing with book clubs?
There’s now a reader’s guide posted on my website. I’m looking forward to talking about Charlie’s ideas about identity, and if and how those change—family identity, racial identity, spiritual identity. I’m also looking forward to discussing Anita, who’s one of my favorite characters; and also Nick. How good or bad is he? How much responsibility does Charlie bear—is he, as Cain asked about Abel, his brother’s keeper? And, as with The Swimming Pool, there is the topic of the effects of secrets on families, especially secrets held through generations.
You grew up in the book industry—your family owned and operated Atlanta’s fabulous Oxford Books. So much has changed in the publishing world since this bookstore closed its doors in the late 90s. Perhaps one of the most notable changes is the digital transformation of books into electronic books. What are your thoughts on e-books and their surge in popularity?
I haven’t read an e-book yet, although I know people love them. I think anything that gets a person reading is just fine. But I do feel that a physical book is a uniquely well-designed object, and that an e-book isn’t an improvement. It’s just different. I am deeply attached to the feel of a book, and I read better, I think, knowing that I’m literally holding the entire story in my hands, rather than having it up in the cloud.
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