How Well do you Know Your Neighbors?
An interview with A Gracious Neighbor author Chris Cander.
Houston, Texas, author Chris Cander‘s latest novel was billed as Big Little Lies … but in Texas. While Cander has the writing prowess and character development of a big name like Liane Moriarty, her style is all her own. Readers may remember her previous novels The Weight of a Piano and Whisper Hollow. With A Gracious Neighbor, she turns her gaze on her own Houston neighborhood.
Stuck at home during the pandemic, Cander found inspiration in her immediate surroundings, transposing the 1917 Susan Glaspell short story “A Jury of Her Peers” (based on a real murder) onto the leafy streets of her West U neighborhood—with plenty of juicy, 21st-century updates. The novel deals with the friendship between women, romantic love and obsession gone wrong, and the secrets that lie behind the paneled doors of even the most idyllic neighborhood.
Martha Hale is a lonely wife and mother who’s thrilled when her glamorous former high school classmate Minnie Foster moves in next door. But Martha’s preoccupation with Minnie’s life starts to become an obsession. How far will she go for friendship?
“Anyone who wishes they could choose their neighbors will relate to this simmering suburban drama,” writes Shoulder Season author Christina Clancy in her book blurb. “Chris Cander pits the power of compassion against the pressures of uniformity in this hugely entertaining drama. Cander explores the high cost of privacy, the insecurity behind our efforts to maintain appearances, and the risks we take to find out what’s really going on behind closed doors.”
We talked to Chris Cander by phone from her home in Houston about the short story that inspired this book, developing Martha’s character and writing through a pandemic.
Erin Z. Bass: You say in your “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the book that this story was inspired by a short story by Susan Glaspell. Can you talk more about that and why you decided to set it in your hometown of Houston?
Chris Cander: I was inspired when my daughter’s English teacher at a progressive Catholic private girls’ school assigned the story because she wanted the women to read about old, longstanding, misogynist examples in our culture. For me, it was a moving story. I was quite stunned by how really little had changed. In all the advances women have made, I’m feeling like some of that is unraveling even now. I first got the idea in early February of 2020, a few weeks before the pandemic shut everything down.
I feel that women don’t necessarily default to sisterhood. I saw it when my daughter was in high school. It was the same old queen bee pecking order I had experienced when I was in high school. I knew instantly that I wanted to explore that in a longer form. I gave it some thought and realized I would like to work toward the ending of that story. Wanting to contrast the original story published in 1917 with a modern setting, I immediately decided I’m going to set it in my own neighborhood. I had never set anything in Houston. I moved there at three months old. The pandemic offered me a perfect opportunity to focus on exactly where I and my neighbors were quarantining. I didn’t intend to write about my immediate neighbors, but my inspiration came from the stereotypical, exaggerated characteristics my friends and I have noticed living in West U for 17 years. Everyone was being forced to examine what home was for them while we were locked down.
EZB: How did you go backward from the ending of Glaspell’s story?
CC: Typically, I start with the voice of a character and maybe a hint of situational concern. I got to begin the novel with the ending in mind, and I’ve never done this before. I repeated the question “why?” “Why does this character want this, fear this, feel this way?” Going back and answering those questions and anchoring in time and places to build the backstory. I’m particularly dependent on timelines and use timeline software. I build out the entire family history and the social thresholds that are relevant in their lifetimes. That is how I start backing it all out.
It was a unique situation to know that I have to end up at this one place. For The Weight of a Piano, I didn’t know Claire was going to push the piano off the edge of the cliff. In this case, I knew there would be a murder and I knew there was going to be a tenuous relationship between the two women. Knowing those themes, I needed to back out a complicated scenario so it would be an arrival.
EZB: Martha Hale is such a great character. She’s insecure and nosy, but also warm and loving. I think we can all identify with parts of her. How did she develop?
CC: I loved Martha from the get-go, and I borrowed little details from my own life for a lot of her. Probably until I was in my mid-’40s, I always felt like the weirdo on the outside. She wants so much to be loved and to fit in and be relevant and be helpful and can’t quite figure out how to do it all. I felt so much empathy for her as she grew on the page. I had a handful of early readers and every single one said, ‘did you base Martha on me?’ And I loved it. Even the most popular person still feels insecure at times. We would all admit that at one time, we felt a little bit out of place and awkward, always striving to find our place in a social circle or community.
The anticipation of making a new friend had been building steadily inside her since the day the house was sold, but suddenly a sense of possibility ballooned as though with helium, and she felt like she was lifted off the ground. There was some anxiety, too, as an unpleasant memory involving this woman returned, as it had occasionally over the years. It felt like some sort of karmic sign. She grabbed the plate of bars—not a disposable plastic container; a real plate ensured the neighbor would have to return it—and jog-walked across her small yard. “Minnie Foster!” she called out, nervous but beaming with delight. “Is that you?”– Chapter 1
Minnie was harder as nothing is told from her point of view. I wanted everything to turn out as it did through Martha’s point of view. We only know Minnie through Martha’s interactions with her. I tried to stay objective about Minnie. I wanted readers to see her through Martha’s eyes. She was harder to write, except that all I had to do is tap into all those mysterious people I have known in my life that I have mythologized on some level. The reader’s job is to decide who is Minnie.
EZB: You wrote this novel during the pandemic. Did that influence the story and did you finish it during the pandemic as well?
CC: It brought the idea of setting it specifically in a tight-knit community where people were making observations about one another into the fore and gave it another social dimension. Being at home and thinking about how much I missed my friends—I couldn’t sit at their kitchen table or participate in normal life—brought the whole question of what it means to be part of a community into greater relief. The pandemic allowed me to spend more time per day writing. I finished the first draft in nine to 10 months, which is quick for me. It was a huge escape for me. I felt bad for the people who don’t feel like they had an escape during the lockdown.
EZB: One of the central themes of this novel is the obligations neighbors have to each other. Do you know your neighbors?
CC: I think that I live in a neighborhood that has some really exquisite and expensive homes on it. I think that like the characters in A Gracious Neighbor, I would make decisions about who they must be. It’s forced me to think I don’t really know anything. I’m not going to make a judgment about anyone positively or negatively. Everyone is always going through something. It’s heightened my awareness of the need for empathy.
We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing!”Martha Hale, “A Jury of Her Peers”
EZB: What has the early response to this novel been like?
CC: Amazon released it as the first pick for June. We have a West U info exchange group on Facebook. My friend who is the namesake of Bonnie the parakeet posted about the book, and it has 150 comments. People knew it was coming, but I think it’s been kind of a mystery about am I going to see myself in the book?
A Gracious Neighbor is one of our summer 2022 reading picks. View the full Summer Reading List here.