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A Viking Reader's Guide to The Summer We Read Gatsby

A Conversation with Danielle Ganek

1. If anything in this book seems to be autobiographical, it would be Cassie and Peck's obsession with The Great Gatsby. What was your own experience in discovering this classic novel?

Like Cassie, I grew up as an American abroad and attended international schools at which The Great Gatsby was not required reading. And as she did, I devoured fiction about American life, reading them as textbooks to better understand the country in which I felt like a foreigner when I visited. But unlike her, I first read Fitzgerald's novel when I was too young, around 10 or 11, choosing books that seemed "adult" but not really understanding them. I read it again in college when I studied Fitzgerald's work and read as much of it as I could. When I started working on this novel I read Gatsby over and over again to try to understand its enduring power.

2. This book's 2008 setting is a wonderful parallel with the pre-Depression setting of Gatsby. What cultural similarities do you see between the two eras?

I started writing the novel-in 2008-with a focus on the comparison of the two eras. Both seem to have been infused with a sense of infinite possibility and the feeling that the party would never end. At the time I was more interested in how the prosperity and the seemingly easily attainable American Dream would impact people who were not, so to speak, at the party. Of course I didn't realize until I was much further along in the writing process that we were about to hit a recession ourselves and that this was becoming more of a period piece than I fully appreciated.

3. Like your book Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him, this novel explores, in a lighthearted way, the meaning of art. What draws you to this subject matter?

I'm obsessed with the creative process. I wrestle with it myself as a writer and I'm particularly drawn to artists whose work has the power to move us, to transport us, to teach us. I'm fascinated by how we (some of us, anyhow) will almost fetishize works of art, whether novels or paintings or films through which we witness that spark of truth that grabs hold deep inside of us.

4. Many of the characters in this novel-Peck, Biggsy, Miles Noble-have consciously forged their own identity to become more powerful in a place where so many people are born into wealth and power. Can they ever truly fit in in a place like the Hamptons or will they always have something to prove?

It seems a very American quality to me, this sense of possibility, that anything is possible and that we are all the (unreliable) narrators of our own life stories. Each of the characters has a different impetus toward creating their own versions of their tales. Even Cassie has had to forge her own identity without benefit of a particular context. Of the other three Miles is the one for whom the accumulation of wealth was a driving force. Peck's reinvention of herself stems more from a creative place, as an actress always yearning for more drama. And Biggsy almost psychopathically sets about turning everything into art, including himself. In his mind anything can be justified in such a way, even stealing, or "appropriation," as he would call it.

5. If there is a ghost in Fool's House, it would seem to be Lydia, who looms as a distinct presence even though we never see her alive. As the author, how do you define a character that is not physically present?

That was really hard. I found myself becoming very infatuated with Lydia and wanting to include more of her, but at the same time needing to keep the story moving forward in the present. I had a lot more scenes with her interacting with the two sisters than made it into the final draft but ultimately I was most interested in how her wishes were interpreted after she was no longer present to explain herself.

6. This book is a love letter to the Hamptons, as you explore all of the facets of its geography, history, social milieu and culture. What makes this landscape so inspiring for you and for other creative people?

I was always intrigued by the legacy of the artistic community out there. There is certainly something about the light, and the combination of sea, sky and bays that inspires one to try to capture it. A place like that becomes layered with all the artists who came before, particularly Jackson Pollock whose work and story continue to fascinate us. I was absolutely blown away by visiting the Pollock-Krasner house. Frankly, I'm something of a cynic and I went in almost feeling that there was something a bit pathetic about their former home being turned into a tourist destination. So I was taken by surprise at how moved I was to walk on the floor of Pollock's studio and to see their belongings tidily lined up on the shelves and in their bedrooms.

7. Peck and Cassie are compatible opposites, almost yin and yang. Did you develop one character before the other or did they both evolve at the same time?

They evolved at the same time. I didn't deliberately try to create total opposites but was thinking about how different siblings can be, how we can be related by blood to people who are mind-boggling to us in how foreign they seem. So the idea that these two women who didn't know each other at all could be all that was left of their "family," and be suddenly expected to see each other as sisters was interesting to me.

8. Biggsy, from his name to his inexplicable behavior, seems more like a metaphor than an actual character at times. Have you encountered this type of person in your own life?

The very idea of an artist-in-residence seems amazing. What a job! I've certainly encountered many people who seem to go to extraordinary lengths to make "characters" of themselves, who take to extreme the creation of a persona, dressing in what appear to be costumes. The art world is rife with these kinds of personalities. I did meet a young artist once who was wearing a version of Biggsy's shrunken suit and the visual of that ensemble came back to me when I wrote the character.

9. Running through Summer is the theme that stories are always dependant on who does the telling, and many of the characters, including Lydia, Peck, Cassie and Cassie's mom, are shown to be unreliable narrators at time. What aspects in your own storytelling get left out or exaggerated?

My husband likes to say I can't tell a story without embellishing it to make it better! As they say in the news business, why let the facts get in the way of a good story? But we all can't help viewing our childhoods through a specific lens, whether rose-tinted or negative or symbolic. The creative process works in all of us and we sift through the memory banks, searching for signs or patterns and we keep the stories that fit the tale we want to tell as adults. When I tell the story of my life I tend to focus on how I was always the foreigner, both here and in other countries and how this sense of always being the outsider, the observer looking in fueled my writing.

10. The epilogue, told from the perspective of Peck, is an interesting way of closing the novel. Was it there from the earliest drafts? What made you decide to include it?

In an early draft I attempted to have the two sisters alternate narrating duties but I realized pretty quickly that Peck worked better on the page when seen through another set of eyes, rather than as a first person narrator. It wasn't until I finished what was essentially the very last draft that I felt this was a person who would need-or who would demand-to have some sort of say in any story being told but especially one about her. She would absolutely just interject with her version if Cassie were telling the story aloud. So it was with much doubt about whether it worked or not that I wrote her the epilogue. Because it wasn't in the previous drafts at first it felt a bit jarring and I almost took it out. But then I came to feel it was right, and almost fitting that it feel jarring because that's Peck.

Questions for Discussion

1. Early in this book, the reader learns that The Great Gatsby is very important to Peck and Cassie. In what other ways does Ganek weave The Great Gatsby into this novel?

2. As an outside to the local culture, Cassie makes the perfect tour guide to the Hamptons (or as Peck calls it, "the Country") for readers unfamiliar with this setting. Seen through her eyes, what sort of place is it?

3. Peck, we learn early on, is a self-created "character" who has gotten more eccentric over the years. What sort of person lies beneath the theatrics?

4. How do Peck and Cassie, who are definitely not members of high society, fit into the social world of The Hamptons, as Ganek describes it?

5. Ganek explores the contradictory attitudes we have toward artists in our society-there is a reverent, almost religious worship of people like Fitzgerald and Pollack, and a general suspicion of Biggsy and the other "artist" types Cassie has seen around Europe. What differentiates the true artist from the Biggsies of the world?

6. Given Peck and Cassie's dilemma, would you have sold the house or kept it?

7. Is the Miles Noble that Peck ultimately falls for the same Miles Noble she loved many years ago?

8. Cassie seems to resist the idea of falling in love with Finn Killian even though she is immediately attracted to him. What convinces her to take a chance?

9. Art-and the people who make it-is a central preoccupation of this novel. Everybody seems to want to be an artist or acquire art, yet as Peck is always quick to point out, most of them lack taste. As you see it, what sort of status does owning art or knowing artists confer on the wealthy?

10. The book's epilogue has Peck refuting some basic details of Cassie's account of their summer. Which narrator is more reliable, and whose version do you believe?

11. Cassie, as Peck predicts, "comes out of her shell" during this summer. Would she have been able to do this without Peck's help?
Like summer itself, this bewitching novel will leave you half in love and yearning for more. Elin Hildebrand, author of Barefoot

JUNE 2011