The opportunity to interview bestselling author Amy Meyerson couldn’t have come at a better time. Opening her latest page-turner, The Imperfects, was like running from a world falling apart to a twinkling pink-and-blue bound kingdom, where intrigue, sibling rivalry (oh-so unfamiliar to all of us, I’m sure), and best of all—secret histories—rise to the surface like the chunky yellow Florentine Diamond at the center of this captivating universe.
Once cradled in the palms of Medicis and Habsburgs, the Florentine Diamond disappeared in late 1918, only to be discovered as the center gem in a mid-century brooch dropped behind the Philadelphia dresser of the late Helen Auerbach. Helen was a beloved matriarch and grandmother of Beck, Ashley, and Jake Miller, three adult children who along with their mother, Deborah, live complicated lives that rarely live up to each other’s expectations. New York Times bestselling author, J. Ryan Stradal, calls this masterful family drama “a truly beautiful and truly American story full of unspoken history, loss, and hope.”
Pamela Loring: Amy, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Launching a new book during a pandemic must be a challenge (though I understand you have a very good reason to enjoy staying home). Has anything about the virtual launch process surprised you?
Amy Meyerson: Thanks, Pamela. I’m delighted to be able to talk to you about The Imperfects. Launching a book during the pandemic has certainly been a memorable experience, to say the least. It’s easy to dwell on the disappointments of it, but there have been some unexpected pleasures to releasing a book during this period. As soon as it became clear that most of us were going to be staying home for the foreseeable future, I banded together with several other authors who had books releasing this spring and summer. A few I knew, most I didn’t. It’s been really great, making new writer friends and feeling a strong sense of community during this time. Also, many of my friends and family, who would have been unable to attend my in-person events, have been able to join the virtual events, which has been a lot of fun.
Pamela: I love books peppered with factual nuggets that send me off on Google searches to see if they’re true, and The Imperfects is chock full of them. You weave in both the mystery of the missing Florentine Diamond and the drama of the fall of the Habsburg dynasty as well as the story of 50 children rescued from Austria by Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus in the spring of 1939. What about Austrian history is attracting you, or is serendipitous research bringing you to it?
Amy: This novel grew out of my interest in gemology and wanting to write about a family diamond passed down from one generation to the next. When I started researching, I hadn’t heard of the Florentine Diamond and hadn’t thought much about the Habsburgs beyond Franz Ferdinand and the start of WWI. But, as soon as I read about the Florentine’s disappearance, I knew it had the makings of a great centerpiece for a novel. From there, I started researching the Austrian Empire as well as the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany, which eventually led me to the 50 children. I don’t want to give away anything in the novel, so I won’t divulge more details. I will say, though, that it was so fun to follow the research and watch as my story took shape around it. I really like writing about topics that, at the onset, I know little about. It allows a sense of discovery to occur on the page that I don’t think would happen if I were already very familiar with the subject.
Pamela: I suspect you’ve written the kind of book you’d want to read. Is structuring such a romping multidimensional storyline a special knack of yours? Any tips for writers?
Amy: Structure is one of the most challenging parts of writing for most writers. How do you decide the timeline? Where do you speed up? Where do you slow down? What do you leave out? What do you highlight? For me, much of pacing and shaping a story takes place in editing. In the first draft, I just try to get the scenes down then I go back and hone the story. I’m an over-writer. My first draft is usually about 100 pages longer than the final edited version, but I need that excess material in order to know my characters and to understand what needs to be on the page. One thing that helped with The Imperfects was deciding to make the story—other than the prologue—entirely set in the present. I knew I needed to begin with Helen’s death and her granddaughter, Beck, finding her brooch. From there, I kept the story chronological. The challenge was balancing all the characters and deciding when to dip into each of their stories and perspectives. Again, much of this came in revisions. At first, I just wrote it organically, shifting to a character’s narrative when I was curious what was going on with them at a given time or dipping into their perspective in a group scene when I wanted to see what they saw. Then, when I went back over the text, I tried to be conscious of where we heard from each of the characters, if one was dominating, if another had been absent too long. I used color-coded post-its to mark each character’s perspective throughout the book, so I could monitor how much page time they had. It’s important for writers to find ways to see objectively how their stories unfold. I always recommend printing out drafts and having many colors of post-its on hand to trace your storylines.
Pamela: I really love your even hand with characters who are loveable but flawed. Excuses aren’t made for them, and they don’t always see the error of their ways. As a writer, how do you so deftly balance this kind of realism with the reader’s thirst for change and redemption?
Amy: It’s tough! One of the biggest concerns many readers have is likability of characters, and it took me a long time to determine what I think this term means. For me, it doesn’t mean, do I want to be friends with this character? Rather, it means, do I want to follow them on their journey? And characters have to have a journey. They have to change. Otherwise, the reader will feel letdown if a character doesn’t evolve. Before I started writing The Imperfects, I needed to know my characters really well. I filled out this questionnaire passed to me from another writer that’s about 7 pages long and includes all types of details that will likely never make it onto the page—if they have seasonal allergies, their favorite animal from childhood, their pain threshold, things like that. In completing the questionnaire, the characters become real people, independent of me. This questionnaire also helped me to locate the characters’ individual struggles. In the novel, it was important that each character had an arc independent from their joint search for the story of Florentine Diamond and Helen. Getting to know them really well was the only way I could have them be both fully fleshed out and evolve over the novel.
Pamela: As a high-school student, Beck, who works as a paralegal, had a run-in with a Mr. O’Neal, a condescending, misogynistic teacher whose treatment of her (and other girls) resulted in such trauma that her misguided response ended up costing her for decades. Did you have a Mr. O’Neal in school, and can you talk about your choice of this trauma as her wounding event?
Amy: I was very fortunate not to have any Mr. O’Neals in my high school. I’m still close with my high-school English teacher and go back to talk to current students when I’m in Philadelphia. I have, however, dealt with misogyny in several jobs and can certainly relate to the ways Beck, as a woman, didn’t feel like her thoughts were taken seriously by a male superior. When I was constructing Beck’s character, it was important to me that while she undoubtedly did something wrong—and I’m intentionally being vague here so as not to spoil anything—her reasons were understandable and, hopefully, sympathetic. I thought this was more dynamic than simply making her a troubled youth. She felt voiceless and didn’t know how to respond. Twenty years later, rightly or wrongly, she still feels victimized and isn’t sure how to respond. So, her journey isn’t about coming to terms with what happened to her but about taking responsibility for her actions and learning to help others avoid a similar fate.
Pamela: When the estranged Miller siblings are forced to come together, they act as if childhood slights, rifts and wrongs happened yesterday, making assumptions about each other’s motivations based on ‘ancient’ history. Where’d you find the bravery to tackle the minefield of adult sibling dynamics and the tact to make it fun? Did you find yourself taking sides?
Amy: In daily life, I’m a pretty conflict-averse person, so much so that I often create drama in trying to avoid it. And, when I do argue with my mom—who’s the only person I really fight with these days—it’s always passive aggressive. So, it was really fun to write characters who thrived in direct, aggressive confrontation. To avoid being melodramatic, their fights needed to be funny, sometimes even bordering on absurd. Part of this was dredging up old resentments, which is all the Millers really have because they haven’t spent time together in years. The other thing that made these scenes pleasurable to write—and I hope pleasurable to read—was the characters’ constantly shifting allegiances as well as their complete anger one moment followed by immediate forgiveness the next. It keeps the reader on their toes—and also me as the writer. I found myself siding with one character at one moment then another character the next.
Pamela: Your characters find ways to enjoy and love one another in spite of their discordant history. This message of love despite imperfection lights up your novel, but surprisingly, so does their reckoning with the weight of intergenerational trauma. When Ashley thinks of her grandmother, she says, “Of course Helen could be a handful. Look at everything she’d endured, a lifetime of guilt at surviving when her family didn’t.” And Mrs. Zhang, also a survivor, says, “I’m very lucky to have my sister, but I think about my parents every day. For them, I had to look forward, not back. I had to learn to be happy, to have my own family. If not, it was a waste.” What drew you to explore the value inherent in dealing with traumatic family history?
Amy: When I started to conceive Helen’s character, two things I knew very early were that she was Jewish and an Austrian immigrant, which led me to thinking about Holocaust. As one of the characters in the novel explains, when you survive that kind of trauma you respond in one of two ways—either you’re very open about it or you remain silent. I think a lot about this idea of silence, the necessity of it but also the consequence. I wanted to explore what it would mean for the Millers to learn that unspoken history, how it would change them. As I was thinking about Helen’s secret history and the fact that she came to the US alone, it got me thinking of how many other children from different parts of the world are forced to emigrate alone. With Mrs. Zhang’s character, I was hoping to draw some parallels that might make both the characters and readers more empathetic. Mrs. Zhang was partially based on my sister-in-law’s mother, who has a remarkable story of escaping China during the Cultural Revolution. Among many other things, what inspires me about her is how proud she is of her experience and how willing she is to share it. With both characters—Helen and Mrs. Zhang—I didn’t just want to expose the trauma; I wanted to reflect on what it’s for, a better life for subsequent generations. So, I didn’t want the characters to be broken by what they uncover. Rather, I wanted it to help them be more present and happier in their lives.
Pamela: Do you have any favorite writers who influenced and inspired you?
Amy: So, so many. I’ll name a few books that I read for The Imperfects that were helpful and inspiring in ways both obvious and not: The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor, Miracle Creek by Angie Kim, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Memento Park by Mark Sarvas, 50 Children by Steven Pressman, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, Away by Amy Bloom.
Pamela: Lastly, can you think of one question that you wish you’d been asked in interviews but no one has asked?
Amy: One topic I’ve introduced into several interviews is my decision to set the entire book—other than the prologue—in the present. Usually, when a book has a present and past storyline, it’s told in two time periods, with the stories interwoven. While I love reading those types of stories, it wasn’t what I wanted to write in The Imperfects. For me, the central question of the novel is, what can we learn about the past based on what’s left behind and what is lost to history when older generations pass away without telling their stories? I was curious to see if I could tell Helen’s past based entirely on the artifacts that outlasted her life. In order to do this, the story needed to be told entirely through the Millers as they uncover Helen’s past. So, the reader only knows as much as the contemporary characters, nothing more. I like mentioning this because it’s somewhat atypical for this type of story but was constructed very intentionally. I hope that it inspires readers to reflect on their own stories, what they know about the past, what they don’t, what questions they can still ask their older generations before it’s too late.
Where can we buy your book?
Also, you can order The Imperfects from your favorite independent bookstore!
Amy Meyerson is the bestselling author of The Bookshop of Yesterdays, translated into 11 languages and The Imperfects, published by Park Row Books/Harper Collins. She has been published in numerous literary magazines and teaches in the writing department at the University of Southern California, where she completed her graduate work in creative writing. Originally from Philadelphia, she currently lives in Los Angeles.