Q&A with Deborah Goodrich Royce, Author of Finding Mrs. Ford
By John ValeriJune 26, 2019
Deborah Goodrich Royce first began courting audiences as Silver Kane on All My Children in 1982 and subsequently starred in dozens of film and television projects. In the ‘90s, she served as the story editor at Miramax Films, overseeing readers, manuscript acquisitions, and script development. In 2002, she and her writing partner won a grant from the Massachusetts Arts Council to develop and workshop their screenplay, Susan Taft Has Run Amok.
Ms. Royce and her husband restored the 1939 Avon Theatre in Stamford, CT, which hosts an ongoing series of speakers under her leadership. Further, she serves on the national council of the American Film Institute, the executive board of the Greenwich International Film Festival, the international council of the Preservation Society of Newport, and the governing boards of New York Botanical Garden, the Greenwich Historical Society, and the PRASAD Project. Ms. Royce’s debut novel, Finding Mrs. Ford, marks the next chapter in her celebrated career.
Recently, the author reflected on her transition to novelist, what of her creative background proved helpful or hindering, how her story reflects the contemporary cultural and political climate, the power of juxtaposing past and present, and the intricacies of developing plot twists that both surprise and satisfy.
Finding Mrs. Ford is your debut novel. What inspired you to embrace this format, and what of your writing background (editing/writing screenplays) did you find to be helpful and/or hindering throughout the process?
I have been a big reader of novels my entire life. It is a genre that is deeply embedded in my subconscious, so I think I was naturally drawn to it. I like that feeling of entering a different world—a world that is made up—and finding moments of truth in fiction. Even though I spent years in the film world working with screenwriters, many films are adaptations of novels, so—even there—I was steeped in books!
Your question regarding what from my background in film would help or hinder me in the writing of a novel is very interesting and pertinent. Through the process of developing Finding Mrs. Ford, I had to work to shake off my in-built way of looking at the world cinematically. I had to let go of that “camera angle” in my mind and fully get into the head of the protagonist.
In early drafts of the book, there were many more “scenes” that played out from some bird’s eye (read: distant) view of the events. In the final version of the book—other than the opening chapter when we are watching Mrs. Ford walk through the town of Watch Hill while a car is following her—there is very little of that removed perspective that remains. In fact, even at the beginning, I have made it clear that Mrs. Ford is vaguely aware of the car behind her but is distracted and not fully paying attention. So, in the end, the reader remains with our protagonist. Unlike a movie, we cannot see around any corner that Mrs. Ford can’t see around.
As the story opens, we meet the refined Mrs. Ford (Susan), whose carefully constructed life begins to fall apart when the FBI shows up to question her about an Iraqi Chaldean she allegedly once knew. How does this serve as both a catalyst for suspense and a reflection of our contemporary world climate?
I have always loved the juxtaposition of the small story against the backdrop of world events. If you consider a book/movie like Dr. Zhivago, the deeply personal narrative of the characters is made more interesting—more important—by the events of history that they cannot escape. To bring this analogy more into the realm of thriller, we have only to look at a film like Notorious. In it, there is the small story of the character, Alicia (played by Ingrid Bergman), who is the daughter of a German spy. She is a rebel living in Miami, a wild party girl who wants nothing to do with anything political. She, of course, gets dragged into that arena in South America and—well, her small life is thrust against the backdrop of postwar espionage and intrigue. This I find interesting.
In my book, Sammy is coming to Susan from Iraq. It is August of 2014. ISIS is just then marching into Mosul and slaughtering the local people. Sammy is an Iraqi Chaldean—a Christian from that area around Mosul. Why is he coming to see Susan? This I find interesting.
I also love a tightly wound character who is clearly hiding something. As such, Finding Mrs. Ford begins with Susan Ford living her life keeping all of her ducks in order. Every day, she has her coffee in a chair by the edge of the sea. Every day, she walks her dogs at a certain time. Every day, she wears the clothes that are typical of a woman of her age and wealth in the particular community in which she lives. Her life is intentionally—willfully—ordered.
But, the book begins with a gunshot and Mrs. Ford startling in reaction to it. This is, of course, the shot that goes off every single day at the yacht club close to her house to signal the raising of the American flag. So why would she be so jumpy? Soon, we come to see that the gunshot is the least of her worries! But I like starting the book with this moment because it sets the tone that there is a brittleness to her façade of calm.
The narrative alternates perspective between past and present events. How does this construct serve the story, and what was your plotting process like to account for this?
I felt that it was important to begin the book in the present day (2014 to be precise). I wanted the reader to first see the woman that Susan Ford has become, the life that she leads, and—most important—all that she has to lose. I wanted the backdrop of the violence in Iraq to exist on a scrim behind the action. I also wanted the reader to see how destabilized Susan is by the arrival of the FBI with their questions about Sammy Fakhouri without having any idea why that would be so.
As the book alternates between 2014 in Watch Hill and 1979 in Detroit, bit by bit, the truth of what Susan is hiding comes out. I think it is far more interesting to have the truth revealed in increments and to work to find it in both the past and the present. Little bits come out in the past; little hints are dropped in the present.
For me, the pacing of Finding Mrs. Ford has always been that of a roller coaster. The ride begins with a jolt as the car is released from the brake. It starts its slow, inexorable climb up the track. Then it peaks at the top, followed by that thrilling rush as it careens down the opposite side. And then the whole thing repeats.
Consequently, we meet Susan as a young, impressionable woman who falls under the spell of the “dazzling” Annie Nelson. Tell us about the dynamic of their friendship. In what ways does their history shape the future, and how does this lend itself to the exploration of themes that transcend the intimacies of their experiences?
The theme of this book is really an exploration of a woman’s identity. In this case, two women. Annie and Susan are polar opposites in type, temperament, and life choices. Yet they are each drawn to the other. Susan falls under the spell of Annie, but Annie has enough sense to know that Susan has the better odds of creating a real and meaningful life.
I think it is important to see how vulnerable and impressionable Susan is when she is young. It is in such stark contrast to the woman that she has become. It sets the stage and further begs the question of how she got from Detroit to Watch Hill and why she is so anxious to avoid answering it.
I think it is far more interesting to have the truth revealed in increments and to work to find it in both the past and the present. Little bits come out in the past; little hints are dropped in the present.
I think it is also important to come to understand why Susan would be drawn to a girl like Annie, someone who seems to be trouble with a capital T, as my mother would say! Friendship is as mysterious as romantic love. You can’t always predict the person with whom you will become a friend. This plays out with Susan and Annie. No computer algorithm would match them for a date! And yet, there is an undeniable attraction between them.
Without spoiling anything, it can safely be said that not all is as it appears to be. In your opinion, what is the key to developing plot twists that both surprise and satisfy (i.e., don’t feel gimmicky)? Are you aware of these seminal moments at the outset, or do they develop more organically throughout the process—or is it some combination of the two?
Excellent question. In the case of Finding Mrs. Ford, both things are true. I had outlined three key plot points that I wanted to have happened before a surprise occurs in the middle of the book. These are unnerving moments that need to play out to indicate to young Susan that she has entered a world (the Detroit disco in 1979) that she is not equipped to navigate.
With revisions, I added more depth and complexity to what was going on in that world and what Susan is running away from now. It is not a spoiler to say that there is a strange necklace that is featured on the cover of the book. The image on the cover is of a gorgeous hydrangea with a pretty blue background. But, there is also this necklace—a gold question mark on a chain—that snakes through the petals of the hydrangea. The necklace throws the entire image off from being pretty to being a little weird.
That necklace is an important point of the plot, but it was not in the first draft of the book. When it came to me that I wanted to add it, I had to literally lay out the chapters on the floor of my house! It was vital that it made sense and that there were no discrepancies in the timeline. My book, as you mentioned, goes back and forth between two eras. But there are also some non-linear moments in each of those eras. When that happens, a writer has to be scrupulous about making sure that the ticking clock is real and correct.
In addition to storyteller, you are also a well-known actress. What of the background were you able to draw upon to enliven your characters and the world they inhabit?
As an actress, you are always parsing ever deeper levels of your character. You are making up your own backstory for that character that makes internal sense to you. As a novelist, you do the same thing, but you are a bit more omniscient about all of the players in the scenes. Much of this material remains hidden, but it informs the way a character is written on the page or played by an actor.
Where it gets really fun is that the entire process is repeated when you add in a reader or an audience. They do the same thing. They read or watch those characters through the prism of their own understanding and histories. So it is a rich, multi-layered cake where everyone’s role is important in creating a delicious (or deliciously mysterious) whole.