By Leslie Lindsay
Edgy, smart, and propulsive blend of literary thriller meets family dysfunction.
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
Spotlight: Motherhood & Mental Illness
A masterful tale of family dysfunction, enmeshment, interconnected twists, the infallible effect of memory and emotion, lies, and so much more in Nicole Bokat’s THE HAPPINESS THIEF (SWP, May 18 2021).
Natalie Greene is a 41-year old recently divorced woman raising a 15-year old daughter. Even now, she still believes she caused the car crash that led to her mother’s death when she was thirteen. But did she? Haunted by this, her dissolving marriage (and the fact that her ex has so easily moved on), Natalie is trying to make ends meet while being a freelance food photographer when strange emails, the death of her stepfather, and a large FedEx package appears and then disappears, catapulting her back to those earlier days.
But there’s more: a recent trip to the Cayman Islands where her stepsister, happiness guru, Isabel’s, conference was held, an eerie similarity to the car crash that happened to Natalie’s mother nearly 30 years prior. Could the two events somehow be linked? Was Natalie responsible for both?
Edgy, smart, and propulsive blend of literary thriller meets family dysfunction.
Isabel insists that the events are not related; still, it doesn’t settle well with Natalie. Armed with just enough suspicion, an ever-present haunting, Natalie takes matters into her own hands, along with a Boston Globe investigative reporter. THE HAPPINESS THIEF is about memory, PTSD, family, tragedy, mental health issues, and what one will do to cover up mistakes. There are several unsavory characters, many who had the means and motivation, but THE HAPPINESS THIEF is more of a mind-game, with plenty of twists and deceit.
Please join me in conversation with Nicole Bokat:
Nicole, welcome! I am marveling at the twists and turns—and the gorgeous writing in THE HAPPINESS THIEF. Much of Natalie’s motivation in this story stems from feeling haunted. She just can’t shake the fact that she likely caused her mother’s death. What stirred you into action with this story? Was there a question or theme you were seeking an answer to?
First of all, thank you so much for your lovely words about my writing and my novel! The Happiness Thief changed as I revised many drafts. But, I wanted to deal with two seemingly unrelated themes: trauma and the positive psychology movement. I’ve been obsessed with certain issues which affect women more powerfully than men and how, in our society, responsibility for achieving the elusive work/life balance is foisted onto us. I grew up believing that women should be able to bounce back from childbirth in record time and go back to the office. If they couldn’t it was because they weren’t strong and sturdy enough, not because there was no parental leave or job protection. I felt tremendous guilt when I couldn’t measure up to my own expectations; I blamed myself for not reaching certain goals, even though, intellectually I understood that not everything was in my control. When I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, it sparked this idea. I decided to write about the wellness industry’s role in perpetuating this myth that happiness is mostly self-determined.
The title, THE HAPPINESS THIEF, suggests that happiness is elusive, it can be stripped away. In fact, there’s a line in the book [I’m paraphrasing] about happiness being something only wealthy people are interested in. Can you talk more about, please?
Sure. The wellness industry is really geared at people who aren’t struggling too much financially. The line “money can’t buy happiness” has been ingrained in us yet it’s been disproven by research. A little more than a decade ago, a study out of Princeton University claimed that $75,000 a year was the amount an individual needs to feel content. But, recently, I read about new studies from a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School that disproved the idea that happiness plateaus at a certain income. It turns out that having more money is equated with a sense of well-being. Once financial security is covered, people are motivated to address loftier goals like job satisfaction, better relationships, hobbies, and travel. In other words, they go from surviving to wanting to “thrive,” and that’s where the happiness/wellness industry comes into play.
“Nicole Bokat has the rare and precious gift of being both a master storyteller and an elegant poet. Each and every sentence dazzles in this intelligent and fiery tale about family, loss, and what it means to feel happy, whole.”
―Judy Batalion, New York Times best-selling author of The Light of Days
Since May is mental health awareness month, I am keen to those elements in THE HAPPINESS THEIF. There’s definitely deceit and gaslighting, but also subplots about suicide and PTSD, troubled teens. Everyone, especially now, is affected by mental health issues. Can you talk about how these elements came to life for you in THE HAPPINESS THEIF?
I come from a household of mental health professionals. My dad was a psychiatrist, as is my sister. My mother is a social worker who worked on staff at a hospital for years. My father chose not to have a private practice but to deal mostly with disadvantaged populations. While he didn’t talk about his patients much, I was keenly aware of the role mental health played in both our family and the larger world. I had my own experiences with traumatic events when I was young (my father’s brother died of cancer at 33 years old, when I was nine). That tragedy and my dad’s grief affected me deeply. When my father died, years later, my earlier trauma was triggered in ways I couldn’t immediately understand. My experiences were nothing like Natalie’s in my novel. But, I took my own emotional and physical reactions and blew them up to create my character.
What pieces of craft do you feel you are particularly skilled at—and what areas do you struggle?
I love language, the flow of it, the poetry. I don’t know if I’m “particularly skilled at” writing on the sentence level; but it’s what I find most pleasurable (which can be a trap, too)! The areas I struggle with the most are creating plot and keeping the dramatic tension high. I’ve learned to ask myself in each chapter: what’s at stake for my heroine now?
Without responding in complete sentences, what was going on in your life as you wrote THE HAPPINESS THIEF?
Adjusting to an empty nest and missing my, now, adult children. Dealing with my husband’s early-stage cancer—from which he’s since recovered. A little traveling, which was wonderful. Both of my sons’ graduations, one from college and the other from law school. Wrestling with the inevitability of downsizing from our house and figuring out where to go next.
…and do you think those things subconsciously filter into your own writing? How might writers harness that flow, while staying true to the story at hand?
Writing fiction is a privilege and a form of escapism for me. It’s a joy, even when it’s difficult, even when obstacles like structure and plot present themselves. These are wonderful “problems,” puzzles to solve. I wrote a chapter outline for the novel, which inevitably changed over the course of several drafts, and shared it with a marvelous writer/editor who helped me brainstorm. My concerns inform aspects of my characters’ lives and thoughts. But, since I mostly write fiction, I like to get away from my own daily life through my work.
Nicole, this has been so great. Thank you! One last thing: since Natalie was obsessing on these car crashes, what’s obsessing you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary.
So many things! Politics has been front and center the last few years. A number of issues concern me the most: climate change, gun violence, health care, income inequality, and racism. On a personal level, I’m preoccupied with where my husband and I are going to live. We still plan to sell our house and hope to stay in our town. But, during the pandemic, my house was like a womb, protecting us. It’s going to be hard to leave it.
For more information, to connect with Nicole Bokat, or to purchase a copy of THE HAPPINESS THIEF, please visit:
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See all books in the May 2021 author interview series on Motherhood/Mental Health/Illness HERE.
YOU MAY LIKE:
I found echoes of Caroline Leavitt’s PHOTOGRAPHS OF YOU (both protagonists are photographers, there’s a car accident), but also B.A. Paris meets Mary Kubica with touches of Gilly Macmillian. Also, in thinking about books with photography and a slight thriller aspect, consider THE VANISHING POINT (Elizabeth Brundage interview coming June 2 2021) meets T. Greenwood’s THE GOLDEN HOUR . Keep in mind that while THE HAPPINESS THIEF has elements of who-dun-it and domestic suspense, it’s more of a character study than a straight thriller.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
NICOLE BOKAT is the author of the novels Redeeming Eve and What Matters Most. Redeeming Eve was nominated for both the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction. She’s also published The Novels of Margaret Drabble: This Freudian Family Nexus. She received her Ph.D. from New York University and has taught at NYU, Hunter College, and The New School. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Parents magazine, The Forward and at More.com. She lives with her husband in New Jersey and has two grown sons.
ABOUR YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, soon to become an audiobook from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.