Interview with Helen J. Darling, Author of Terms and Conditions
17 Dec 2019
What can you tell us about your new release, Terms and Conditions?
It’s a sequel to my first novel, I’ll Know Me When I Find Me. It follows the same protagonist, a 35-year-old woman named Jane Desmond. In the first book, Jane realizes her life hasn’t unfolded the way she’d expected, and the story follows how she tries to come to terms with her own ambitions as well as those of her friends. It’s also about the nature of their friendships, what they owe to one another. The new book picks up immediately after the first one ends, and follows Jane as she embarks on the risky adventure of trying to fulfill her ambition now that she’s come to terms with it. It’s about how she wrestles with the notions of what success needs to look like, about the rules she applies to herself that determine a great deal of her self-acceptance. It’s also about how social media colors our notions of success and happiness.
What or who inspired you to become an author?
I’ve wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember. Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, was my favorite novel when I was a child. I remember being six or seven and having my own spy route in my neighborhood, and making up stories about the people and things I saw. I’ve still got my original copy and it’s held together strictly with rubber bands. I’d save it in a fire.
What’s on your top 5 list for the best books you’ve ever read?
What a good question. Harriet the Spy stays on that list. I loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette? The clever way she told that story through emails, letters, news releases, and other forms just knocked me out, not to mention the general wit of the writing. Sense and Sensibility is another book I’ve read multiple times and never get tired of. Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, is a stage play but that’s a piece of literary magic I’d never want to be without. I’ve mostly read essays by James Baldwin, and not his novels, but I’m about to change that. If ever a person could give a masterclass in how to write a sentence that is at the same time poetic, gut-wrenching, and utterly truthful, he is that person. Every sentence he writes is a work of art.
Say you’re the host of a literary talk show. Who would be your first guest? What would you want to ask?
James Baldwin would be a fascinating interview, but (a) he’s dead and (b) even if he were alive, he’d scare me to death. So I might not want him to be my first guest. I adore Fredrik Backman’s novels; I’d ask him to take a scene from Britt Marie Was Here or A Man Called Ove and break it down on a mechanical level, to get at how his dry sense of humor works on the page. I’d also love to interview Jenny Lawson. Her deep vulnerability in her frankness has endeared her to millions of people, but I can’t imagine ever being as brave as she is. I’ll bet that interview hour would fly by.
What’s your favorite thing about writing?
I love when I get in the zone, when the words flow from my brain to my fingers faster than I can type them and three hours can pass as quickly as three minutes. I imagine it’s what it’s like for an athlete, when they get hot and every shot seems to drop for them. I couldn’t hit the ocean with a ball if you dropped me off a boat, but I know what it feels like to have a story pour out of you. It’s such a rush.
What is a typical day like for you?
I telecommute and set my own hours, which is an utter luxury for a writer. I do my best writing in the morning, so after I get up and my family leaves the house, I settle down with the dog and write for about three hours. Then I try to hit the gym during my lunch hour, I come home, grab something for lunch, and turn to my day job. Because I’m in an office by myself, I have few distractions and I can get a lot done in a short amount of time. I get most of that work done before my family comes home, but occasionally I’ll do a little work at night, particularly if everyone else in the family has work to do. Those nighttime tasks are mostly the marketing or management end of the business, not the creative end. I unwind at the end of the day by reading or watching movies and hanging out with my family.
What scene in Terms and Conditions was your favorite to write?
It’s hard to pick one. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but the scenes that involved Tina either directly or indirectly were fun to write. I found myself in the zone then. I also found myself in the zone when writing the main scene with Sylvia. The first scene that involves Edgar and Chloe and their influence on Jane—particularly the aftermath of that meeting—was a lot of fun. And I liked the scenes involving Shawn; crafting that tension between him and Jane sparked a lot of joy, for sure.
Do you have a motto, quote or philosophy you live by?
I’m convinced the secret to a fruitful and happy life can be summed up in two basic principles: (1) Do your homework, and (2) Don’t be a jerk. (I use another word, but it’s nsfw). I honestly can’t think of any human conflict that can’t be resolved by applying one of those two principles.
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