Ad Hudler sat down with his 17-year-old daughter, Haley, to discuss their lives and the characters from Man of the House.
Q: Man of the House begins with Violet Menner's entrance essay to Collier Academy. You say that I was your inspiration for Violet. That is the biggest understatement I've ever heard in my life. Dad, I know you fancy yourself a fiction writer, but I mean, come on. Violet is me, down to the "Oh, joy," exact dialogue stolen from my preteen years. What was it like for you writing from my point of view? How did you have to change your writing style to do it?
A: Because I spend so much of my time with you, it really wasn't that difficult. I have spent hundreds of hours driving teenage girls around in the van, so I've certainly got the dialect down. Honestly, Haley, I did have to dumb Violet down a little bit; you have a better vocabulary than most English teachers, but I didn't think that would be believable to the average reader.
Q: Man of the House is set about ten years after its prequel, Househusband. In that time many important things happened to the Menner family. How did you fit all of this background history into the first few chapters of the book without making it seem contrived to those readers who didn't read Househusband?
A: That was the challenge, indeed: making Man of the House a stand-alone book without testing the patience of all my readers who read Househusband. It helped that my editor read Househusband, so she could spot any over- or under-explaining. In retrospect, though, I realize I should have re-read Househusband before writing the sequel because there were some things I forgot. For example, I was speaking at a convention, talking about the sequel I was writing, when one woman in the audience said, "Hey, What happens with Violet now that she has a sibling?" I thought, "Holy Crap!" I'd forgotten that Jo was pregnant at the end of Househusband, and I'd already written 80-percent of the book without the second child. A quick mention of a miscarriage solved the problem.
Q: Knowing that he could have made life much easier for his family by moving out of the house while it was under construction, why do you think Linc Menner insisted that they stay there?
A: Two reasons: First of all, Linc, as I do, has this inexplicable masochistic streak; he likes to test himself all the time. He is definitely not a path-of-least-resistance kind of guy. Second, the novel would have been much more boring if they had been staying in a condo somewhere. Lots of the household tension comes from the family having to live in a construction zone.
Q: I remember that as you were writing the chapters from Jessica Varnadore's point of view, you were worried that she sounded over-the-top, almost unbelievable. However, bizarre, abnormal characteristics are common in the characters in your books. What personality traits did you give Jessica to make her a believable character?
A: I think it helped that she wasn't drop-dead gorgeous, just attractive. I also think talking about how she'd been engaged two other times showed a volatility and zaniness that made her actions believable.
Q: I have noticed that in almost every single one of your books, you like to add in parenting tips and advice. Is this your passive-aggressive way at correcting the child-rearing skills of others?
A: It is no secret that I feel that too many parents these days are too self-absorbed in their own lives, and they try too hard to be their kids' best friends. Parents negotiate with their young children too much. It's perfectly alright - in fact, necessary - to tell a kid, "Because I said so!"
Q: Yes, but you frequently terrify my friends by attempting to parent them. This goes along with your whole philosophy that you voice in Man of the House: it takes a village to raise a child. How has that been working out for you in real life?
A: I'll admit it ticks off some parents, but that's just too bad. I've also noticed that, in your older teen years, Haley, the kids have stopped hanging around this house.
Q: I was happy to see that you included my viewpoint on Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. I am sure that looking back on her book, there are many things she would have liked to change about it. After writing the sequel to Househusband, are there any things you would like to change about the first book?
A: I wish I would have made Jo less one-dimensional. I wish I would have fleshed her out more. But, overall, I still really like that book. I think it's funny, and I think it says some really important things about gender behavior and relations in our culture.
Q: Throughout the book, Violet begins to rely on her father less and less. In fact, she wants to exclude him from certain parts of her life. For example, when Linc takes Violet and her friends to the mall, rather than having him come to the stores with them as she usually would, she asks him to stay behind on the "Man Bench." I know that I, for one, felt guilty reading these parts of the book because I know that I did do things like that. Was it hard for you to relive those moments as well?
A: Actually, no, Haley. You've been so much better than most other teenagers in that department. You rarely appear to be embarrassed by me or your mother, and you generally show us great respect, and we really appreciate that. You didn't even mind when I dressed up in an adult diaper and posed as a baby for your friend's high-school photo project. It takes a cool, confident young lady to weather something like that.
Q: In real life, you began to develop your new masculine tendencies at around the same time our house was under construction and the hurricanes came. How curious. Response?
A: I suppose the book is a little autobiographical in that way. I have undergone some kind of finding-my-inner-male-redneck metamorphosis, and I think it's due to several factors. Those hurricanes did bring out the protector in me. Also, you going through puberty and your mother going through menopause have left me scratching my head several times, accentuating my maleness simply because you were experiencing things I could not relate to. But perhaps the biggest influence in my metamorphosis was my good friend, Hans. We are a good fit, Hans and I. He not only is in touch with his female side, but he also embraces all those very-fun guy traits that I had all but forgotten in the years of being a caregiver. We have cut down trees together. He has taught me how to think like an engineer. We eat at Hooters. The scene in the book where Rod coaches Linc on how to address waitresses as 'hon' and 'babe' happened exactly like that, with Hans. Oh, one more thing: My boots. I bought my first pair of work boots about three years ago. I want to tell you what … putting a pair of boots on changes a man. You're two-inches taller, and you just start to naturally swagger. I've also discovered power-lifting in the last three or four years, and I've gained 30 pounds. That, too, has changed my personality somewhat because people react to me differently now that I'm a bigger man. All these changes have kind of fed each other.
Q: Well, the reason why I brought that up is because I noticed that the language associated with hurricanes, like 'cat-five' and 'cone of uncertainty' seemed to correlate directly with your newfound sense of masculinity. Why would this be? Is this because hurricanes are powerful and unpredictable? Or am I reading too far into this?
A: You're reading too much into it.
Q: You frequently complain about the huge lengths we had to go to in order to protect ourselves from the hurricanes. However, in the book you almost seem to look back on these days fondly. You seem to actually enjoy putting so much time and effort into maintaining a stable environment during a disaster. Why is that?
A: I'm one of the most anal people I know. Preparing for impending disaster appeals to my need to control my environment. I also have this weird feeling that if I over-prepare for something horrible, then it won't happen. It's like, "oh, great, now I've wasted all that time worrying about something." It's as if by worrying about it I can will it not to happen. In a similar way, I personally keep the plane from crashing whenever I am flying. You all need to know that it is my constant worrying while airborne that keeps us in flight. I wonder if there's some Asian yin-yang thing that could explain this.
Q: In Househusband, the book was entirely from Linc Menner's point of view. Only he got a say in what was told to the reader. However, Man of the House is from four points of view. Why did you do this?
A: People cannot see themselves change as much as those around them can. I couldn't have Linc talk about his metamorphosis because he himself doesn't understand it. I needed other characters, those people who were close to him, to observe his actions and comment on his transformation.
Q: Throughout the book Linc tries to hide the small changes he is making in his life, almost as if he's ashamed of them. For instance, he hides his muscle magazines from Jo. Why does he do this? Why is he ashamed of changing?
A: I'm not sure. I think maybe he feels like a traitor for abandoning his female traits that he's practiced for so long? Does he feel as if he's moved over to the competition? But hiding the muscle mags … At first glance, they do really kind of look pornographic, all that bulging, bare skin and all on the covers, and the photo spreads of nearly-naked people. I think most people would agree that the magazines look like they need to be hidden beneath the mattress.
Q: In chapter 22, Linc uses the phrase 'she has a great spirit' to justify his reasons for liking Jessica Varnadore, who happens to be wearing Daisy Dukes when he comes to her apartment. A euphemism, perhaps?
A: I had to be careful in showing that, despite Linc's metamorphosis into manliness, he also remained a caregiver in a woman's world, and by having him notice her "spirit" as well as her boobs, I was able to show he was a man who saw the world both from the female and male perspectives. Also, I'm not sure my female readers would like him to be all locker-room-talky about her. You notice that I never use the "t" word for breasts, even though most men use that word when referring to them.
Q: Well, now that we've finished this question and answer session up, I'm curious about something. How does it feel to be interrogated by your own daughter?
A: It's a pleasure, Haley. And I want to say 'thank you' because I know it's hard to have a father who writes so intimately about his family. I know you must feel very exposed at times, and I appreciate your maturity and self-confidence. And I'm sorry that I admitted to the listeners of National Public Radio that the poop scene from Househusband was real - I just couldn't lie to a national audience like that. Some day, long after I'm gone, I hope these books give you comfort and help you to remember me.
AD HUDLER sat down to discuss his new novel, All This Belongs to Me, with journalist Drew Sterwald over a bottle of sauvignon blanc in the writer's home on the banks of the wide Caloosahatchee River, just a mile from the Edisons' historic winter home in Fort Myers, Florida. Sterwald and Hudler met seventeen years ago when the latter worked as a features reporter at The News-Press in Fort Myers, writing stories about shoes found on roadsides and other offbeat subjects. The two have been low-maintenance friends ever since, picking up the thread of each other's lives through several moves and numerous life changes. For this interview they passed a laptop back and forth as they watched the sun set on a warm, humid winter evening.
Q: In any novel that involves historical figures, the author often blurs the line between fiction and fact. What in your book about Thomas Edison's life is true, and what is the product of your imagination?
A: Most of the details about Mr. Edison himself and the estate in Fort Myers are true. He did indeed have a strange obsession with milk, and he did in fact try to invent a machine that could communicate with the spiritual world.
Q: What about the test tubes containing the famous inventor's final breaths? Did you make that up? It sounds almost too "out there" to be true.
A: As far as I can tell from my research, there was indeed a group of test tubes sitting beside his bed. And when he died, his son, Charles, told the attending doctor to seal the tubes with paraffin. One of these is supposedly in Henry Ford's museum in Michigan. The others inexplicably disappeared. I thought it would be fun to unearth them for the novel.
Q: And what of Mina's life? How much of that is true?
A: The details of her physical life in Fort Myers are, for the most part, true; she did have one of those fat-burning saunas in her room that was powered with bright light bulbs. I can't say the same for her private emotions and thoughts-the journal entries are pure fiction.
Q: Really? The voice you give her sounds so authentic for a woman of that period. How did you develop that?
A: I read many of her letters and travelogues, and I tried to replicate her voice as best I could. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be married to a workaholic inventor who was known to "check out" for hours and days at a time. Maybe he truly was an attentive husband for the young bride, but I doubt if that was true-and thank God because he wouldn't have invented so many wonderful things had he been lovestruck.
Q: Having visited the Edison estate countless times, I'd say your depiction of the place is pretty accurate. I always enjoy the gardens, but I get a kick out of seeing Edison's dentures, too.
A: It truly is one of the most interesting historic homes in America, rich in its abundance of artifacts. (His shoes really do lie beside the cot in his laboratory. And Edison really did plant the first of the now famous royal palms lining McGregor Boulevard, which gives Fort Myers its nickname, "City of Palms.") I live just about ten blocks from the estate, and I ride my bike past it every time I go to the post office. Edison's home has been undergoing a huge restoration project after
decades of neglect, and it's given the staff a chance to make the estate more historically accurate. The fiora is especially fascinating, and the 2004 hurricanes toppled mainly exotic trees that shouldn't have been there in the first place. You can learn more about the place at www.edison-ford-estate.com.
Q: In the novel you ignored any and all references to Henry Ford, who befriended the inventor and moved into the house next store to him in Fort Myers. They're known as the Edison-Ford Winter Estates. Why did you completely ignore the Ford part?
A: Ford's home was added years later to the tour, and I thought it would be distracting to include it.
Q: The Court of Edisonia is another detail that sounds too odd to be true, though you and I and anyone else who lives here knows it's real. Were you worried that the old guard of Fort Myers, which takes these traditions quite seriously, might think you're poking fun at them?
A: I'm simply describing reality. If you find that funny, you need to ask yourself why.
Q: Well put. That kind of local color plays a big role in All This Belongs to Me, as it did in Southern Living, your novel about the modern-day South. How important are these quirky, parochial details to your work?
A: Very. Without trying, I find that the settings for my novels almost become characters of their own. I think a sense of place is critically important in the experience of reading a novel.
Q: I think it also gives your books a cinematic quality that readers find easy to relate to.
A: Live entertainment in general. I don't know why. My wife says it's a control issue; I have the power to put down a book and stop reading, but I can't leave a theater or ask the actors or musicians to stop.
Q: But I know you're an avid reader. What do you like to read?
A: Newspapers. I'm married to a newspaper publisher. My father is a newspaper publisher, as was his father and his father. My first job was as a print journalist. You'll notice that all my books have references to newspapers, and my next novel will include a retired newspaper editor. I love newspapers-in fact, many of the ideas for my novels come from the smallest of headlines-because they're nothing less than the daily diary of the human race.
Q: Househusband was largely autobiographical. In Southern Living, you got inside the heads of three totally different women. Who is your alter ego in All This Belongs to Me?
A: While we were waiting for a bus one time in Central America, stranded in the middle of nowhere, a friend of mind decided to play a game to pass the time. She said, "I have a theory that we all are stuck at a certain age in our mind, and that we identify with that age no matter how old we become. What age would that be with you?" The answers for our group of middle-aged friends ranged from twelve to thirty-six. The answer for me was easy: "I'm seventy-six years old. I've always been a fastidious, crotchety old man." So, the secret is out. I am Ellis Norton. Ellis is who I would be if I had never been married and lived a life alone. To not like Ellis is to not like me. In fact, Ellis is just as autobiographical a character as was Linc Menner in Househusband.
Q: Humor plays a key role in your writing. Will that always be so?
A: I don't know. My agent said that All This Belongs to Me was different from my other novels in that it was "smile-funny, not laugh-out-loud funny." So maybe there's an evolution of some sort taking place.
I know it's in me to write a deeply serious novel-and I'm sure I will some day-but the genesis of it hasn't yet bubbled to the surface. To date, I have escaped tragedy in life. My friend, Luanne, calls me the "boy in the plastic bubble." When something awful does occur-and it will-I'm sure it will change the tone of my novels. Humor is only possible when a person's emotional and physical needs are being satisfied. Humor is a luxury.
Q: Where does the name "Ad" come from?
A: My full name is Adrian Wellington Hudler, but I actually got the name by mistake. When my mother was pregnant with me, my great-grandfather and namesake had just died, and my mom promised his wife that, if I were a boy, she would name me after him. The problem was that my mother thought his name was Bill. His wife had called him "Welly", short for Wellington, and people assumed she was calling him Willy. They took it upon themselves to shorten it to Bill. My mom swears she had no idea until they handed her my birth certificate in the hospital, and she quickly truncated it into something she liked.
Q: Food often plays a prominent role in your novels. You even compare one man to a stalk of broccoli and a scar's shape to uncooked linguini. Where does this come from?
A: Meal planning is a big part of my life as a caregiver. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen so it's one of the few worlds I know really well. I'm also a sensual person. I especially notice smells. Perhaps I was poisoned in a previous life. Maybe that's why I smell everything first, as does Margaret, my character in Southern Living.
Q: Let's talk about the role gender plays in your novels. In "Househusband," Linc is a stay-at-home dad who gets in touch with his feminine side. Many male authors have trouble writing from a female perspective yet you chose to delve deeper still into the female psyche with a book in which the three main characters are all female. What were you thinking?
A: Women are generally more interesting creatures than men. Women are more complex. They express themselves better. They're not as linear in behavior and in the way they process information. They are tuned in to subtle nuances. I love women. That said, in the book I'm writing now, two of my four main characters are men.
Q: Were there any aspects of writing from a female perspective that gave you particular trouble?
A: The only parts that were hard for me were writing about makeup and the research I had to do to describe what a female orgasm feels like. I thank my wife and female friends for their candor.
Q: You began your writing career as a journalist, albeit one drawn to offbeat subjects, such as the love lives of lizards and why single shoes wind up on roadsides. What caused you to change genres? Do you find your newspaper and magazine experience help you as a novelist?
A: I was drawn to fiction because I was home taking care of a child and it was the kind of writing I could do in the wee hours of the morning. Being a journalist has helped me a lot in that journalists are armchair anthropologists. They're taught to scrutinize and look at culture from afar.
Q: One technique you used as a journalist seems evident in your books. You draw the reader an intricately crafted world, created from lots of small details woven into the narrative. What attracts you to them?
A: I'm obsessed with visual details. At writer's conferences I sometimes even teach a seminar called "Collectively Creating a Character." I truly believe the details people surround themselves with - whether they use an electric toothbrush, the kind of car they drive, what they cook for breakfast - these things are more telling than what a character will say because frequently what we tell others are wonderful little lies. I like including details about characters because it lets the reader decide for him or herself very slowly what that person is like.
Q: What prompted you to write Househusband?
A: I was at a writer's conference, talking in a small group about character development, when the topic somehow turned to potty training. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by about ten women who were watching me with great interest and laughter. "Your life is hilarious," they said. "This is the novel you need to write first." I replied, "I I do not want to write about my life. My life is Mr. Rogers and Big Bird and folding the red load. Why would I want to write about my life?" Nudged by my friends, I reluctantly agreed.
Q: What research was necessary to write the book?
A: Life in a woman's world. Period. I compiled my research at the McDonald's Playland by my house and in the line at the grocery store and over beers and wine with my good female friends. People have wondered how I managed to portray women's feelings so accurately. The truth is, these feelings were my own. I guess I've learned that many traditional female traits and behaviors, including so-called "women's intuition," are actually survival skills learned on the job.
Q: So are you saying Househusband is autobiographical?
A: I'm saying it's emotionally autobiographical. Yes, many of the father-daughter scenes truly did happen - including that awful one in which Violet tries to hide her poop - but the plot is fiction, and the character of my wife is actually three people rolled into one. My wife, however, says Linc Menner is Ad Hudler to the bone. I, of course, disagree. I'm a control freak, I'll admit, but not nearly to the degree that Linc is.
Q: Given the fact that you were a stay-at-home dad and primary caregiver while your wife successful scaled the corporate ladder, it's not difficult to see where the inspiration came from for "Househusband." What was it that motivated you to write about women of the Deep South?
A: Southern Living was actually the first book I started to write. I was inspired by the beauty and weirdness of Macon, Georgia, where we lived for five years. It was the first time we had lived abroad. It was a culture I found fascinating because of its gentility, its attitudes about gender behavior, its openness in discussing racial issues, its food, its plants. I hope to live in the South again sometime.
Q: If you could give the men of the world an important insight about their wives' lives, what would it be?
A: Women will not always express their true desires verbally. Be sensitive enough to read their body language and to note patterns of behavior. Also, compliment, compliment, compliment! At least weekly, try something like this: "Honey, I don't thank you enough for making sure I have a clean, starched shirt every day." Remember, men, that your world would fall apart without them.
Q: Okay, but I've also heard from some people that you've recently been discovering your male side. Is this true?
A: Yeah, and I'm not sure why. For the past few years I've been obsessed with lifting weights. I've also taken to wearing work boots and am eyeing with jealousy a friend's new Toyota Tundra pickup truck. I'm not sure what's going on here, and my friends and wife are skeptical. Maybe this is reaction to living in a traditional woman's role for the past fifteen years. My wife guesses it's tied to an increase in testosterone created by all the strenuous exercise. I'm really wondering how and if this is going to affect my fiction.
Q: You're a voracious reader, seeking out esoteric titles and challenging writers. What authors do you find most influential and inspirational?
A: I like Margaret Laurence, Anita Brookner, Robertson Davies. I have an affinity for Canadian writers. I think they are deeper, more thoughtful. They remind me of the older Russian writers. The books I read are usually more high-brow literature than I'm capable of writing. I would loved to write a book like How Green Was My Valley - which is one of my favorite books of all time - but I can't. Not yet, anyway.
Author interview - Ad Hudler Househusband
Q: There have been role reversal stories before - Mr. Mom, Mrs. Doubtfire. What made Househusband different, a story worth telling?
A: Though comical, Househusband takes a more serious look at the emotions surrounding a primary caregiver's life. The other big difference is that my character, Linc Menner, is never a bumbling, stumbling idiot at home. Indeed, he succeeds at the task immediately. He's also more in touch with his female side, as many men are today. If Mrs. Doubtfire or Mr. Mom were filmed today, I think the characters would be more androgynous simply because society has evolved, and men have become more comfortable in nurturing roles.
Q: What is it that makes readers believe that Linc understands the female perspective?
A: The big sign is the way he thinks to himself when remembering everything he has to
get done. Many, many women readers have remarked on Linc's tangential inner thoughts and said, "That's me! That's how I think!"
Q: You've said this book is emotionally biographical. Can you explain that?
A: I meant that some of the plot never happened to me: My caregiver never sold drugs out of the house, and my neighbor never hit on me, and my mother never ran away from home. But all the feelings that Linc Menner experienced … the low self-esteem, the anger, the frustration and happiness … these were - and are - things I feel every day as a caregiver.
Q: Did you know how the book would end when you started it? Was it a case of writing what you know or knowing you wanted to write about something to discover its meaning?
A: Throughout writing the book, I had no idea whether Linc would go back out into the working world or decide to stay at home. I chose the latter because I didn't want readers, especially women, to say, "Oh, OK, so he's not one of us after all. So he gave only lip service to sacrifice."
Q: What do you hope women take away from reading this?
A: I want women - mothers especially - to feel good about what they do, to realize that at least one man out there "gets it" and appreciates all that they do. I wanted Linc Menner to validate their emotions and frustrations.
Q: What do you want men to take from it?
A: I'm not sure. I didn't write the book for men.
Q: What is it that intimidates people about Linc?
A: I've been surprised by the number of mothers who have been intimidated by Linc Menner's domestic prowess. Face it, he's a domestic God. He makes us all look like slobs and bad cooks and bad disciplinarians. He does everything we promise ourselves we will do - cleaning under the beds, turning off the TV and pulling out the macaroni and gluing it to make art projects.
Q: Can you talk about how Linc's mother's e-mails came to be part of the book?
A: Those come from a short story titled "Carol's Upgrade," which was originally published in a literary review called Acorn Whistle. I included them when my agent and I realized that we needed to break up Linc's intense ramblings and rantings and ravings. I also liked how the mother provided a different voice of longing. The characters in Househusband all want something, but they're not sure what that is.
Q: Do you think society is growing more tolerant of the man-as-caregiver role?
A: Absolutely. It's common now to see dads with newborns and toddlers. I realize now I made a mistake in writing the book; I should have set it in the past, say 10 years ago, when stay-at-home dads were a more foreign element on the domestic landscape. I started caregiving for my daughter in 1991, and few of us were doing it back then.
Q: How does it affect your own social life?
A: Our dinner invitations have gone down 150 percent. People will not invite me to their homes. They'll meet me at a restaurant but they won't cook for me. They think I'm Linc Menner, and they're intimidated by him. Wouldn't you be?
Q: In your house, who chooses the bedspreads and sets the table for guests?
A: Carol, my wife, sets the table, and she does a good job. As for decorating, I do most of it, though Carol has to sign off on anything real obvious, such as a bedspread or new rug or wallpaper. She has no time to shop, so I often take a Polaroid camera with me (I have yet to overcome my technophobia and purchase a digital camera).
Q: With a daughter heading into the teen-aged years, is it still cool to be a stay-at-home dad?
A: So far, but stay tuned. Her friends think I'm cool, but I think that's because I'm a joker and good listener, not because I'm a man.