Even though Rita Ciresi has been on sabbatical this year, she elects to have me interview her in her third-floor office at the University of South Florida's Cooper Hall.
I wanted to meet at her house to see if it's a mess, like that of the main character in her fifth book, Remind Me Again Why I Married You, due out June 3. Her choice of venue makes me suspect it is.
Everyone who's ever taken a writing class knows it's bad form to equate the author with her character. But in this case, you can't blame me for wondering. The intersection of fiction and real life lies at the center of Remind Me Again. The main character, Lisa Strauss, is a housewife and mother who is writing a novel about infidelity. Though early scenes of this book-within-a-book are wildly, comically overblown, the main characters are suspiciously like the sarcastic, brash Lisa and her mild-mannered husband Eben. Only a few superficial details of their life are changed. For example, Lisa and Eben have a son, whereas the couple in Lisa's book has a daughter. (Ciresi has a daughter.)
"She's going through what every writer goes through," says Ciresi. "She's drawn to her own life's material, but she doesn't know how ... to use it yet."
Lisa's husband, Eben, is mortified that people will think the adultery-minded husband in her book is based on him, and he worries that things he does in real life will end up in her book. At one point, he even frets that the names of her two main characters, Simon and Robin, sound too much like his name. (Much like Rita Ciresi's name resembles that of her character, Lisa.)
After reading the book, you might expect the author to be outgoing, maybe even a little brazen and bitchy — like Lisa. At first meeting, Ciresi seems just the opposite. The way she slouches down in her office chair, her arms wrapped tightly around her, fingers clenched on the loose denim sleeves of her jacket — the way she gives brief answers to questions — she seems downright shy. "I think I'm more like Eben," she says.
The No. 1 question people ask Ciresi is how much of the stuff in her books is autobiographical. "I always wish I had some glib answer. Of course it's real, but people think you just sat down and wrote your life story. ... It doesn't give you much credit for your imagination, for the work it takes to turn a mundane detail of everyday life into a nugget of truth."
Part of the reason people think Ciresi is writing about her own life, she acknowledges, is that she writes "domestic fiction," stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things, like falling in love and getting married and having children. "If you write science fiction, nobody's gonna ask you if you really met that Martian. ... If you write about crime, no one thinks you're a criminal. But if my main character has a big butt, I know people are going to be looking at my butt to see if it's really big." (It isn't.)
For the record, Ciresi says her real husband doesn't worry that people will think he's the well-meaning but milquetoasty spouse in her book. In fact, she says, no one in her family has ever given her any indication that they've taken offense to her characters, who burp, fart, plotz and do other things they probably wouldn't want anyone else to know about.
"Mostly I embarrass myself. People look at you and say 'You're so weird. Why do you hate your mother so much?' I don't hate my mother; my character hates her mother."
On the other hand, she does see the question as a compliment. "It means you created this world and made it seem real."
The world of Lisa Strauss and her husband Eben seems very real, right down to the Froot Loops crumbs and grape Juicy Juice stains in Lisa's car. Even the blurring of the line between fiction and reality feels real. At the beginning, clearly Lisa's art imitates her life. But life begins to imitate art when her husband starts to lust after her friend. Ciresi does not reveal until the final pages of the book whether either man acts on his fantasies.
Ciresi alternates point of view in each chapter, writing one from Lisa's perspective, then one from Eben's. "You get to see what the two are hiding from each other and those moments of miscommunication where she wants to reach out to him and he wants to reach out to her, and they both fail."
It's those moments she's interested in writing about here, and she does it skillfully, often using humor to leaven some very poignant moments.
Male readers will especially enjoy Ciresi's wry empathy for their side of the marriage ordeal. The woman is definitely the emotional clod here, even though she doesn't see it that way most of the time. "She's aware of it but not contrite about it," says Ciresi. "She's got a real mean streak; she's very self-absorbed."
It's a trait Ciresi thinks many writers share. "I'm poking fun at that," she says. "I freely admit it's one of my own issues."
OK, so she does admit there are some similarities between Rita and Lisa.
But I still can't tell you whether her house is a mess.
Senior Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 122.