Author Dawn Tripp talks about her latest novel, Game of Secrets, different versions of the truth, the secrets her characters keep, and the burning fragments from which her best work springs.
Interviewer Luan Gaines: Game of Secrets is propelled by a secret, an extramarital affair in 1957 New England, the conflicts begun still unresolved years later. What was the inspiration for your novel?
Dawn Tripp: Game of Secrets is a literary thriller with a small-town murder at the heart of it—a mystery played out through a Scrabble game. But it didn’t start that way.
Several years ago, late spring, I was working on a historical novel—and out of the blue, over the course of a month, I wrote a series of 40 poems. I haven’t written poetry since my twenties although as a writing form, it is my primary impulse. I grew up writing poetry. I studied poetry at school. I see the world through that eye. But when those poems came, they came out of nowhere, and kind of knocked me over. And what I noticed is that they were all digging into things I couldn’t quite bear to write straight out in narrative, and so they surfaced, in bits and pieces, in those poems. I wrote about a mother and her son, a friend who died abruptly, a girl crossing over a bridge, an illicit love and its aftershocks, a car accident, a dream stubbed out, a young man staring at a woman across a moving street while the rest of the world fell away.
It didn’t take much for me to see that those poem-fragments had a certain life, a certain dreamlike immediacy that the novel I was working on did not. So I ditched that other book—almost 400 pages of it—because I could feel that these fragments were the grains of a larger story, and that was the story I wanted to walk into. That was the story that I was on fire to tell.
Out of those pieces, there were three I couldn’t stop thinking about: the image of a 14-year-old boy driving fast down an unfinished highway in a borrowed car, heat in his hands on the wheel because he loved a girl; the image of two women playing Scrabble; and the image of two lovers, a man and a woman, meeting in an old Cranberry barn. I did not know their names, but I could feel the tension between them, and I knew that this would be the last time they would meet. I had already filled a notebook when an older man I knew from town told me the story of a skull that surfaced back in the ‘60s out of a truckload of gravel, a bullet hole in the temple. The moment the story was out of his mouth, I knew that skull had everything to do with those two friends playing Scrabble. It had everything to do with the lovers in the cranberry barn, and with that boy driving fast down an unfinished highway in a stolen car.
My best work starts in this place: with fragments that are burning, sharp, acute. They might feel intuitively linked, but curiously, for me, the longer I can resist the impulse to pin everything down into place, the more necessary the writing becomes. That doesn’t mean the order isn’t there, or that some dark underside of my mind hasn’t already mapped it out. I have faith that there is such a cogent order. And I write to discover it.
“The dead have their dirty fingerprints all over the lives of the living.” What does this statement reveal about Game of Secrets and the two families caught between the past and the present?
Game of Secrets revolves around a decades-old murder and the mystery surrounding it. Fifty years ago, Jane Weld’s father, Luce, was Ada Varick’s lover and was killed as a result. As Jane and Ada come together for their Scrabble game they play out the stories that have bound their lives together, as well as the deeper unspeakable secrets that have driven them apart. But the stakes shift and what has been long-buried starts to surface, when Marne, Jane’s daughter, falls in love with Ada’s youngest son, Ray.
As Shakespeare said: “what’s past is prologue.”
Luce Weld spreads the seeds of deceit in 1957 in an affair with Ada Varick, both married with children. Does time ameliorate or exacerbate the enmity between Luce and Ada’s families? Why is this renegade bootlegger and unfaithful husband so sensitive to the needs of his eleven-year-old daughter, Jane?
Time appears to have healed the rift left in the wake of Luce’s murder, but when a conflict remains unresolved and secrets are kept, there is still the pull of what is unspoken moving underneath. Luce was actually in my second novel, Season of Open Water, and in that story, he was a dark character, his motives, his actions, and yet when the book was done, he lingered with me. I knew I needed to dig into him, to find that other side of him, that glimmer of humanity which exists within each character and is often intrinsically linked to their flaws. For me a character’s flaw is often the most intriguing aspect of them. It impacts their fate; it is the point where what is paradoxical—what is weakest and most violent and most beautiful—about them can intersect. Luce is a con, lawless, a no-good, “he killed a man once,” his daughter knows without knowing the details. But in Game of Secretss, Luce’s greatest flaw, the true reason he fails his daughter Jane, is not because he does not love her enough, but because he loves her so much, yet cannot step out of his own shadows to say so. Luce’s love for Jane, and his inability to express it, is the element that makes him unerringly, inescapably human. I will always try to find that core place in every character I write—particularly those who appear at first so conclusively one-sided. I will go and dig into them to find that other side, that dark and soft, more vulnerable side that renders them in a completely different light, if only momentarily.
We know little of Luce Weld but his outlaw ways and passion for Ada before he disappears, “a sort of dizzying fate he once thought might save him.” Does his mythic past and sudden disappearance free Luce from the real-time consequences of his behavior? How does his abrupt end impact Ada Varick? Jane?
This is such a good question—Luce does become a larger-than-life figure for both his daughter and his mistress, a sort of talisman or cypher between them. The small-town legend of his disappearance, the rumor of his affair with Ada and his murder by her husband are all branching undercurrents that both link and divide Ada and Jane and their children. But his sudden disappearance, the mystery of his fate, has the most immediate and poignant consequence on Jane. She is haunted, and will always be haunted, by how he loved her once, how she loved him, how she could lie down in the stories he told—the ghost of that simple love between them is, for her, oddly excised from time and the absent center her young life revolves around.
After Luce’s disappearance, Ada’s recklessness leads to tragedy for her family, her behavior as wild and impulsive as during the affair. As a woman who makes her own rules, how does Ada’s behavior affect her boys?
Ada is reckless, but she is also trapped, and it is as much the violence of her relationship with Silas that impacts her boys. The violence between Ada and Silas is the shadow they are raised in. It underpins their characters, their culture, with devastating consequences. I always felt, in a strange kind of way as I was writing the scene, that I was in the car Green drove the night of the accident. I felt the rush of the night they were hurtling through, Huck next to him goading him on, the insensibility of their father Silas drunk in the back seat, and I knew that when they tried to take the speed from the highway to the back roads, it was not simply for the sake of speed itself, but for the desire, the need, to outrun the closed-end life they had been born into.
Of Ada’s boys, Huck is the most troubled. Marne, Jane Weld’s daughter, expresses great antipathy for Huck
- can’t stand him, in fact. Are Marne’s instincts accurate, or is she recognizing the same inability to conform in Huck that bedevils her? What is the deeper dynamic between these two characters?
Huck is, to me, the most deeply flawed character in Game of Secrets. But before I knew anything about him, I knew Huck only as a 14-year-old boy driving fast down an unfinished highway, thinking of a girl. I knew that long before I realized what darker secrets he kept, what he might have done or who he would become—how he would grow up to be a man whose views and past stood for things that are easy to dislike or disdain. Marne despises Huck, and on the surface, yes, they couldn’t seem more different. Yet what Marne discovers, what she has to own, is that awful and stunning and ordinary truth that often what we dislike most about another is what we have to come to terms with in ourselves. Marne scorns Huck’s judgmental views, his insularity; yet her judgments of him, and others, are scathing. Those origami birds she folds have such a sharp intrinsic life—and are, in a sense, not so very different from the wood carvings Huck makes sitting in the back of his truck. Both Huck and Marne struggle to work with what they have been given, and to render out of a raw, at times brutal, inheritance, something of beauty, something luminous, something free.
The actions of one generation are called for account in the following ones. As the years pass, Ada appears oblivious to the pain she once caused Jane. What does Ada’s engagement in their weekly Scrabble games reveal about this “other woman"? What is Ada seeking from Jane through their weekly interactions?
As I was writing the scenes between Ada and Jane, that question haunted me. It was clear, from the start, what Jane sought in Ada, but Ada’s need of Jane is more subtle, more oblique. Ada is fierce, even forbidding. That said, I don’t feel she is oblivious to the pain she once caused Jane, but she approaches the present with Yankee fatalism: What’s done is done; bed is made, now lie in it; all that. And yet. Ada wants the truth to surface. Not only the truth of what exactly did happen to Luce, but the truth of what kind of love might have existed once between them—the tone of that love and what it meant, what it might still mean. Love changes us. Whether it lasts or fails. It changes us in the moment; it impacts who we are and who we will become. The love between Luce and Ada was not straightforward. It was not gentle, wise, or kind. It did not have that simple clarity of the love between Jane and Carl. But it was.
Marne makes snap judgments about her family’s motivations, like her interpretation of her father’s statement about his wife, Jane, that “there wasn’t anyone else,” and the impression that her mother harbors “something fugitive in her eyes.” Whatever Jane’s reservations about the lost baby, why is this secret so painful to Marne? Are Marne’s expectations of Jane unrealistic?
It is the keeping of the secret that is painful to Marne—Jane’s distance, her emotional distraction—which forms a distinct rift between mother and daughter. In this family, as in many, what remains unspoken becomes a greater weight, a greater source of damage, than what is openly acknowledged.
Jane is more complex than she at first appears. There are moments in the novel when Jane’s perception of reality, of life and intimacy and time, seems to approach a more encompassing vision of what truth is. Jane is capable of great feeling and compassion, and, more than any other character, she seems to recognize that our lives are not as conclusive as we imagine them to be, and sometimes what we feel, what we sense, what we believe, can be more intrinsic to who we are, than what we think we “know.”
With time, Jane has internalized her unresolved questions about her father and Ada Varick, though they are still compelling. The affair unleashes conflicts that reverberate through both families. Is this damage ultimately given voice in Marne’s rebellion and resistance to “home”?
I do agree. The unresolved conflict between the two families—the questions, the secrets, what has not been owned, spoken, or played out—is what draws Jane and Ada to their Friday board game. It is what Marne resists and tries to escape; and it is as well what draws her back. Like the pull of the moon.
I think of a quote from the Gnostic Gospels: “If you bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is inside you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Marne resists Ray Varick’s charms, though she appreciates the irony of their attraction: “Ada Varick’s youngest son sitting on Luce Weld’s only daughter’s front porch making eyes at his granddaughter.” Is Marne’s conflict more about her family’s history with the Varicks or her innate distrust of relationships? Might this relationship heal the breach between the two families?
I wasn’t thinking of a creative twist on Romeo and Juliet when I wrote Game of Secrets, but in many ways the relationship between Ray and Marne is so charged because of the tangled history between their two families. That said, Marne’s innate distrust of intimacy feels to me to be at the root of the impasse between them. Marne was not in my original vision for the novel—which centered on the Scrabble game and the unsolved crime. Marne crept in as a satellite character, and frankly, I wasn’t sure I liked her at first: she was too judgmental, too cynical. Not always kind. But she was funny—self-deprecating and wry. She made me laugh and I could feel how alive she was—how on the verge—because she felt so much and at the same time was resolutely unwilling to let herself feel. It made me curious. I knew someone with such insistent hard-and-fast convictions would have to collide head-on into the one thing she swore she never would.
One of the most powerful and tenacious relationships in Game of Secrets is that of Ada Varick and Jane Weld. How does this gradual accommodation from adversaries to friends allow Jane to grow past the losses of her youth? In bartering her secrets, what does Ada want in return from Jane?
When I first began to write Jane and Ada, I did not see the bond between them as one of simple friendship. Fifty years ago, Jane’s father was Ada’s love and was killed as a result. So while Jane and Ada are bound by their shared past, as well as by their children, there is this man they both loved and the mystery of his death between them. In the course of the game, as Ada and Jane lay down their words, they begin to move into what is unspeakable between them and within themselves, to own what they have loved and lost and grieved, what they have feared, what they have turned from, what they ache for, dream. They turn fluid around what appears impervious and, through the exchange of the game, they begin to reconcile what feels stunningly disparate, even unresolvable. Because what are words if not a bridge? Between one person and another. Thought and reality. Past and present. Present and future. Words bridge silence. Words, and the stories they comprise, bridge time.
Jane declares: “There’s a certain hope you feel at the beginning of a game.” Ada says, “In the end it all comes down to numbers.” How do these statements define each of these characters’ personalities and their strategies in a Scrabble game that is as much about life as the framing of words?
Loss and hardship mark the lives of both of these women—and while Jane appears to maintain a gentle and open idealism, her style of play is marked by a quiet guardedness, a fear, a shadow that she carries. She plays tight. She builds small words off of hooks exposed. Ada, on the other hand, always plays for an open board. At end of the day, Game of Secrets could not have been framed by any other game. How we play Scrabble can reveal so much about how we tick, who we are. Some play for the words; some play strictly for the numbers; some play to keep the board open; some play to shut it down. Most players will look at the board and see the words that fill it. But a good player—a canny player, as Ada is—will also see the opportunity in the skinny spaces still left open in between.
A photographer captures Jane in a picture that hangs in her grandmother’s parlor. This image illustrates how we each walk separately in the world, caught in random moments. Since returning home, Marne carries around a book that belongs to her mother, a book with a particular history. What affect does the juxtaposition of the photograph and the book have on Jane? How significant is this link between mother and daughter?
When Jane sees Marne reading that book—an old library book which she picked up off the floor of her father Luce’s car fifty years ago on the last night she saw him—the past rushes in on her. An object can do this. It can hold time, suspended like amber. For Marne, the photograph of Jane as a young girl crossing over the bridge represents what she longs for and what she shuns, what she cannot penetrate about her mother, and the place where she is from. It was taken by a stranger, someone who did not, could not really enter the life of the town, and yet was able to capture it, inadvertently, to grasp in that simple random photograph, something deeply essential to who Jane was: that nameless, changeless aspect of her, that Ada is drawn to, that Huck falls in love with, that Marne struggles to understand.
For Jane, the book links back to her father’s disappearance, and her practice as a child of raising his face like a reflection in water when she wrote in the margins of that book. But to a certain extent, for Jane, that past is closed. The book is more of a relic to her, whereas the photograph is a hinge between the girl she was once, her world as it was then, and now. The book and the photograph are implicitly linked, but one is hermetic; the other open-ended, unsealed.
The power of language is pivotal to Game of Secrets: “Unite. Untie/ Heart. Earth/ Pare. Reap.” Considering the meanings of words, the assembling of letters, enables Jane to weight both words and actions. Marne shares this penchant for introspection. Are mother and daughter aware that they share this trait?
In my fiction, I strive to keep my language spare, but I am attuned to the pace of a sentence, a paragraph, a passage, to the inferred meaning of a word and its emotional effect. Language moves us. Language changes us. At one point, Jane remarks how she has learned through her Scrabble games with Ada that “some words can work more than one way.” In Game of Secrets, I wanted the lens to be continually shifting, to reveal another side of the story, another perspective on a given moment, situation, exchange. It can be unsettling, to recognize how many different versions of truth there are. In the novel, Marne resists finding a common ground with her mother yet, despite the divide between them, they are strangely similar—Jane’s childhood obsession with writing in the margins of that library book; Marne’s excising passages from books she loves like ‘Ezekiel eating the scrolls,’ which later evolves into her origami. Jane’s loss is tempered by time—not forgotten, but altered—and similarly, as Marne allows herself to soften, to consider things differently, she comes to see the parallels between her mother’s life and her own. When she takes the photograph of the girl on the bridge down from the wall to examine it more closely, superimposed on that image of the girl her mother was, she sees her own face reflected in the glass.
Infidelity begins as a secret. Marne’s lost brother is a secret between mother and daughter. The Varicks have other secrets, as well as one Huck keeps close to his heart, unable to articulate it. How does the habit of keeping secrets increase the private isolation of your characters? Why do they cling so tenaciously to their “secrets”?
Secrets—whether they are exposed to daylight, or kept hidden—have always fascinated me. And to my mind, secrets are key to strong storytelling. They are the things that strike closest to the heart, things we often cannot look at head-on, and yet they move us, drive us. Even buried or barely glimpsed, they impact our lives in ways both explicit and oblique.
My characters, and the secrets that they keep, always come to me before the story—the sense and burn of them—they drive the story. Even early on, I know things about them: about what they want, fear, hide, remember, dream, what they will not let themselves dream, long before I know their names or the details of their lives.
But this question of private isolation—to me that is a slightly different issue—and speaks more to Yankee stoicism, and the culture of the town where Game of Secrets takes place.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing Game of Secrets? The most rewarding?
The most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of writing Game of Secrets were actually one and the same. Game of Secrets was an unusual book for me in that I felt like I was continually being overturned. I knew in my gut that I had to stay open to that. Again and again, I would discover some new element that was not in my original vision of the novel, and often in consequence, the arc of the story would change, and I would have to let it change.
I wrote what I thought was the ending of this novel early on, and I fell in love with it. It became that kind of horizon a strong ending can be, that drives you, day in and day out, to create the 300 pages leading up that moment, that turn. What I did not expect and could not have foreseen, was that in fact the ending I wrote early on was not the climax. The most powerful revelation was something I was writing toward without even realizing until all at once, I did.
In the same way you include lines of poetry or words created on a Scrabble board, you reveal your characters in fragments, like the pointillist style of painting, your characters more intimate and accessible because of this technique. How did creating Game of Secrets impact you as a writer?
A mosaic narrative, fractured in point of view and time, feels to me more intrinsically true to the way we experience our lives. In Game of Secrets this structure also mirrors the playing of the Scrabble game where disparate pieces, letters, are arranged into words, which in turn are arranged into a grid that, like a novel, has a cogent order of meaning and weight. The shifts in point of view allowed me to explore the thematic question at the heart of the novel: how well can we ever really know another person? I lived in that question—ate slept and dreamt it—while I was writing this story. There is never one character I identify with more than another—what I love about writing fiction is that there are so many places to hide. Sometimes what is most autobiographically true, I will give to a character that on the surface appears the least like me. I strip-mine things, that way, from my own life, torque the details and let that emotion or exchange assume a different life on the page. I often feel that in my fiction, I am driven by what I cannot say. Every book I have written has started with some dark secret I can’t quite bring myself to tell, and so I tell it on the slant, through the story.
What writers have had the most profound impact on your work? What attracts you to particular writers?
Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Marguerite Duras. David Malouf, Michael Ondaatje, Edna O’Brien, Yasunari Kawabata, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Rhys. These are the writers whose novels kick open windows in my brain and somehow never fail to change me in some slight, vital way with each re-reading.
In the books that I love most, structure—no matter what form it takes—serves the voice of the narrative. To me, voice and cadence are critical elements of creating strong fiction. Rhythm draws a reader through a story. The meanings of words touch the mind—the twists in plot engage the intellect—but that cadence calls forth a deeper more intuitive connection to the lives of the characters. A shift in rhythm allows a reader to feel a shift in thought, a change of heart, that breath-caught-sharp moment of a revelation.
Every six months or so, I need to leave my work for a week or two—oddly, this is never easy for me—but it clarifies my seeing, it clarifies my vision of the story. During that time I walk the beach and the woods with the dog. And I read. Often it is poetry I am drawn to—W.S. Merwin, Mary Oliver, Rilke. I don’t know what it is about poetry that does its work on me. But it’s like entering another element. It’s like breathing different air. Poetry is not what I write. But it’s deeply intrinsic to why.
Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
Trust your own voice, trust your own instincts, learn your own process. Writing is a discipline, no doubt. Writing takes persistence. Drive. Writing is working and reworking a passage, a page, reworking the structure and arc of a story until it breathes.
Yet there is that other ineffable, essential and immutable aspect of the process—what is mystical, obsession, inspiration, doubt—all of which to my mind are only different turns of the same coin.
For me the early months of a novel, are breathtaking, feverish—it’s like being in love; it’s like having the flu—and even though I can’t always see how the disparate pieces will fall into place, I have come to have faith in that particular state, which is often beyond the reach of intellect and coming from an altogether different side of mind. There is doubt—sometimes piercing doubt—(will this all work out? can I pull it off?), yet that uncertainty—when you write into it—can be as galvanizing and as necessary as the dizzying rush of inspiration that is so much easier to adore.
Dawn Tripp graduated from Harvard and lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two sons. She is the author of the novels Moon Tide and The Season of Open Water, which won the Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction.
Contributor Luan Gaines interviewed author Dawn Tripp, author of Game of Secrets (see accompanying review), about
her book for curledup.com. Luan Gaines/2011.