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SunLit Interviews

An image, an old cookbook and a writer’s instinct inspired a novel of compelling family dynamics

Author Elisabeth Hyde also called on her journals during her work on a presidential primary campaign to add depth to the story

Author Elisabeth Hyde. (Photo by Joan Simon)

Elisabeth Hyde is the author of five critically acclaimed novels, most recently “In The Heart of The Canyon,” a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a People magazine Great Read. Her fourth novel, “The Abortionist’s Daughter,” became a bestseller in Great Britain. Trained as a lawyer, she worked for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., before she started writing full time. She lives in Boulder.

The following is an interview with author Elisabeth Hyde.

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


What inspired you to write this book?

Originally I had the image of a group of siblings getting together at their elderly father’s house, and squabbling to no end, and the father just closing his eyes and thinking, “Good God, will they ever stop?” From there, I had the personal experience of visiting my own father (age 98) and coming across my mother’s old copy of “Fannie Farmer,” and finding her cooking notes in it. And I got to wondering, what if the owner of the cookbook had used it as a personal notebook, jotting down ideas for stories that came to her while making meatloaf?  And there was a third image, that of a man running for Congress back in the 1970s with a rambunctious family and, ultimately, a dark secret. Those three elements formed the basis for “Go Ask Fannie.” 

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

A few of my favorite authors:  Anne Tyler, for her quirky characters spinning the extraordinary out of the ordinary; Richard Russo, for his empathy and compassion; William Faulkner, for his damn sentence structures; and, most recently, Richard Powers, for giving us “The Overstory,” and Rachel Kushner, just for being so dark. Also, I just finished an extraordinary book of writing prompts/memoirs, called “The Butterfly Hours,” by Patty Dann, and now want to read everything she’s written!

“Go Ask Fannie” by Elisabeth Hyde.

Characters? I immediately think of Anna Karenina; Om and Ishvar, the tailors in Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance”; Scout, from “To Kill a Mockingbird; and Jenny Fields, for raising Garp.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

Although much of the novel takes place in the fall of 2016, a large portion takes place back in 1984, when Murray (the father) is running for Congress. I chose this chapter, which comes halfway into the book, because it shows how his campaign affected the whole family. All of them (parents and kids ranging from 6 to 16) had to crowd into the family van and travel around the state to campaign events and present themselves as the perfect family. They had to wear nice clothes and appreciate all those bean suppers and fish fries. For the teenagers, it got old very quickly; more than once their squabbling forced Lillian (the mother) to break the rules and smoke in the car. But it’s in this chapter that Lillian experiences the most profound moment of love for her family, a foreboding in itself. 

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

When I was 22, I worked on Mo Udall’s presidential primary campaign, going from state to state and contacting labor leaders to get their support. I’ve always wanted to revisit this experience through my fiction, and it was a kick to go back and reread my journals of my time on the campaign trail. 

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

I found the excerpts of Lillian’s short stories the most difficult to write. I had to find Lillian’s voice and make sure it wasn’t mine. I remember reading a lot of first lines from George Saunders’ stories to inspire myself, which, translated into Lillian’s voice, yielded a young woman’s wholly amateur attempts at fiction.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

Fannie Farmer apparently had a paralytic stroke at the age of 16!  By age 30, she was walking again, but she had a limp for the rest of her life.

What project are you working on next?

A much darker novel. I don’t talk too much about works in progress, but this novel involves a sex offender, and the research has been disturbing to say the least. (One of my friends said, upon hearing the subject matter, “Elisabeth, can’t you just write a book about cotton candy sometime?”)

Buy “Go Ask Fannie” at BookBar.
Excerpt from “Go Ask Fannie.”


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