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July 15, 2009

Randy Sue Coburn: A Writer's View

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Randy Sue Coburn's novel A Better View of Paradise unfolds the story of 36-year-old landscape designer Stevie Pollack, whose professional and personal lives unravel. Leaving Chicago behind, she returns to her roots on an Hawaiian island. When she learns that her father is dying, what began as a holiday escape becomes a chance for transformation. In today's guest blog post, Randy Sue talks about some of the real-life inspiration she drew on for the novel. She is also the author of Owl Island and Remembering Jody.

My new novel, A Better View of Paradise, spins out of a complicated father-daughter bond. I had focused so much on mothers and daughters with my last novel, Owl Island, and when it came time to start a new novel, there was nothing I wanted to explore more than the importance of that other primal relationship, and how it sets a template of behaviors and expectations that affect a woman later in life.

Like Hank, the father in Paradise, my dad was a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan and had a terminal illness in the fall of 2003, when it looked like the Cubs had their best shot at the World Series in many years. I knew it was probably his last chance to see his team go the distance. I gave to Stevie, my Paradise protagonist, all my own hopes that Cubs wins would extend my dad's life. Which is not quite so insane as it sounds, when Wrigley Field is your father's only church of the resurrection. It was such an intense time! We would watch games together when I visited, and we'd talk on the phone between innings when we were apart. Of course, the Cubs didn't make it that year and, of course, they broke our hearts. But then the Cubs aren't sports, they're tragedy, so it wasn't much of a stretch to intertwine their demise that season with that of a difficult, demanding father who has a whole lot of trouble expressing love.

The novel's protagonist, Stevie Pollack, owes much of her professional success as a landscape architect to the high-octane doggedness that her father Hank infused her with at an early age. Yet in order to please Hank, she's submerged huge chunks of her own intuition as well as anger, which I think is a syndrome to which many women can relate. In Stevie's case, this is part of why she's drawn to difficult, demanding men whose love she feels she has to earn by performing. Expressing her own needs in an intimate relationship has never really felt safe for her. And before Hank dies, she struggles to gain a better understanding of the forces that shaped her father and, in turn, herself, in order to outgrow what has become a stultifying pattern. Her relationship with Japhy, the vet she meets on the Hawaiin island of Kaua`i, becomes a crucial testing ground.

The primary setting of Kaua`i stems from my falling in love with the island over the course of numerous visits and always wondering what it would have been like to grow up there, on a dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. How would that affect one's sense of direction in life, both literally and figuratively? What kind of conflict would arise from being nurtured by the beauty of Kaua`i, yet being trained by your father to achieve in the more competitive mainland world?

Even though Hank is Chicago born and bred, and a supreme rationalist to boot, his home in Kaua`i is where he has gone to die. A place where the culture is so imbued with spirit that the dead are often spoken of in the present tense. Stevie, with fractional Hawaiian blood from her mother's side, is far more attuned to this aspect of the island than Hank, and in her last months with him she looks beyond all the aloha and tourist industry kitsch to delve into the island's powerful heritage of myth and mystery. Forces that will help her deal with his death.

My fabulous editor at Ballantine, Linda Marrow, suggested this novel's title, and I couldn't be happier with it. But my working title was A Girl at Her Volcano, which reflects the influence of the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele, also known as "she who shaped the sacred land." Stevie is a land-shaper herself, by profession --- a landscape architect --- and like the volcano goddess, she was exiled from Kaua`i, Pele's first creation. In the course of my research, I read dozens of fascinating accounts in which Pele appeared to islanders in various forms --- often as a beautiful young woman, often as an elderly crone. Sometimes she wanted a hotel room. Sometimes she wanted a ride or cigarettes or whiskey. But always, Pele asked something of those to whom she appeared, and always, she disappeared just as mysteriously as she had arrived. This is the first piece of the book that came to me --- a mysterious, Pele-like woman asking something of Stevie when she's just a girl that takes her the whole course of the novel to understand.

I hope to return to Kaua`i so Pele can lend a hand in dreaming up my next book. And while I haven't been to Wrigley Field since my dad died, I plan to sneak in a handful of his ashes to scatter under the bleachers next time I go.

---Randy Sue Coburn