In The Done Thing (Tyrus Books, 2016), author Tracy Manaster ’01 introduces us to Lida Stearl, a newly retired widow growing more obsessed each day with her ex-brother-in-law Clarence, on death row for the murder of her sister almost 20 years earlier. We watch as Lida strikes up a correspondence with Clarence while posing as a naïve twenty-something in need of a friend. We witness the rawness of Lida’s pain when she realizes that her niece Pamela, whom she raised as her own, has been in contact with the man she has despised for all these years. And we stand by helplessly as we observe Lida’s obsession, once kept in check by her marriage and her career, spiral out of control—setting in motion a chain of events that threatens to destroy the one thing that matters most: her relationship with Pamela. Library Journal, in a starred review, says, “Manaster has written a deeply human and morally saturated novel, with captivating language. Don’t miss this sympathetic examination of how a tragic incident can irrevocably change a life’s course.” While Publishers Weekly says, “In this engrossing story about the effects that vengeance can have on love, Manaster refuses to take the happy, easy way out, instead leaving her strikingly relatable characters with just enough room to breathe.”
In this Q&A, Manaster talks about the characters she brings to life in The Done Thing.
Q: Where did the idea for The Done Thing come from?
A: The Done Thing had its inception in the worst short story written in the 80-year history of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In an attempt to settle a pretentious bar argument about whether or not a piece could have both a twist ending and emotional heft, I had a proto-Lida—I think her name was Joan—puttering about her house in a state of focused fury, knowing that miles away in Arizona a proto-Clarence was being executed for the death of her sister. The twist was that because Arizona does not observe Daylight Saving Time, she misses the actual moment of his passing.
It was a terrible story. I lost the argument. The twist robbed the narrative of emotional resonance. But the premise was a good one, meaty enough to carry a book, and I began to hone in on Lida: her voice, the world she navigates, the impossible resolution she craves. It took nearly a decade—and everything I learned from writing, editing, and publishing my debut, You Could Be Home by Now—for me to become an adept enough writer to be equal to that voice.
Q: Was it always your intention to create a character like Lida, with whom we empathize, even when she’s at her worst? Was it a creative struggle to keep that balance in mind—the fine line between righteous anger and going too far—as you moved through the story?
A: After the initial “hey, wow, this could be an actual book” inspiration, Lida’s essential character gave me very little trouble. I never worried, as I know some readers do, that she would go too far—there’s too much love there for that. It’s a ferocious, protective, intermittently possessive love, yes, but it grounds her even as it drives her toward moments of toxic decision making.
The challenge of The Done Thing was never Lida; it was getting Lida into the right circumstances, plot wise, so that all her facets refract light. I wouldn’t have been able to do it at twenty-five, when I first worked out the voice. I needed ten years of observing people navigate their lives, every day and extraordinary moments alike. I needed ten years of reading and of picking stupid fights with my husband. I needed to write You Could Be Home by Now, which helped me get a handle on how to fully render and deploy secondary characters.
Early drafts were met with questions of likability, which rankled—in part because it’s rare to see a male narrator dismissed as unlikable. And I—an ambitious, under confident, younger writer—tried to soften Lida in hopes of courting publishers, cluttering the narrative with friends and neighbors. It added unnecessary pages, made a mess of things plot-wise and undercut the loneliness that drives so much of Lida’s decision making. In later drafts, I came to understand that it wasn’t a question of adding more to the story but of doing more with the story I had. I needed to allow other characters, particularly Pamela, Kath and Blue, to be so fully realized that the (sometimes exasperated) warmth of their interactions with Lida vouched for her capacity for the same.
Q: When Lida finds out Pamela has an actual relationship with Clarence, it hits her hard. What do you think is hardest for Lida: the thought that there might be some good in Clarence, the thought that Pamela’s positive feelings toward Clarence somehow lessen her love for Lida or something else?
A: Lida’s clever enough to know that love for one person isn’t diminished by love for another; it isn’t pie. She’s able to share Pam nicely (enough) with Blue, Kath and the rest of the Claveries. But those loves reflect enormous success on Lida’s part. Despite the trauma of her past, Pamela is capable of love, openness and commitment, and that’s a source of enormous pride for her. Pamela’s connection to Clarence, in contrast, is an attack on the competence Lida prides herself in. She reads it as a threat. She’s terrified at not having protected her child from a known danger. Her insecurities about her parenting resurface: Is Pam pursuing her father because there is a need that Lida isn’t meeting? A need that Uncle Frank was unable to meet? And there’s also the inescapable bloom of guilt for what she’s initiated with Clarence, and a horror of being found out.
I never saw the revelation of the good in Clarence as a revelation to Lida (to the reader, maybe, but never Lida). Part of the reason she has been unable to move on is that Clarence is known to her. She saw him parent Pamela. She saw him, for a time, well-matched with her sister. Her burning question isn’t why he is evil. It’s how can he be both, and what that says about what any of us may be capable of.
Q: Lida’s grief and anger were kept in check for years, when she was busy focusing on other things (her job, husband, raising Pamela). Once she has the time, her bitterness and anger reign free—and she almost loses everything. What does this say about the value to controlling our own worst impulses?
A: Within the framework of The Done Thing Clarence is the one who gives in to his worst impulses wholly, and I’d be surprised if people, weighing his actions against Lida’s, come down on his side, however unsettling it is to have an intimate, first-person glimpse of Lida edging ever closer to the unforgivable. And she does edge awfully close, in part because her wounds have had decades to accrue emotional interest. Denial of or distraction from whatever darkness twists through you is a far better choice than giving free reign to it, but in Lida’s case (and in general) it isn’t ideal. Acknowledging the ugliness diminishes its sway, as does, perhaps, losing it on the world in small, passive aggressive bursts, as I imagine Lida would have done in a narrative without the murders, or a version of the book where I treat my poor characters more kindly. There’s a difference between corralling and repressing, and while the former is a better way to comport yourself in the world, the latter makes for better fiction.
Q: When did you know what Lida would or wouldn’t say at Clarence’s hearing?
A: That scene was easily the book’s most often revised one. Part of that was due to the blocking; I had dozens of tense people in a small and explicitly ordered space. But part of it was that I knew as early as the third chapter of the first draft that this would be the novel’s most pivotal chapter. Given the subject matter, there was definite risk of setting myself up for a coin flip of an ending, one that reduced the outcome to heads—Clarence is executed—or tails—Clarence is not executed. There’s tension there but limited potential for surprise on the reader’s part. The emotional fulcrum needed to lie elsewhere if the book was to have complexity worthy of its characters.
I also knew the book would be unsatisfying to writer and reader alike if I never brought Lida and Clarence face to face, and that he would never consent to a meeting had she carried on with her original intent. It sounds a bit like logic problem or an algebra equation describing it like that, and there is a touch of that to my plotting process. But more than anything it comes down to trusting in the voices you’ve created. Know your characters well enough and the rest will follow.
Q: From inception to final draft, which character changed the most? The least?
A: From the start, Lida has always been Lida. I remember writing that moment in the first chapter when she says, explicitly, what she wants (“I wanted to see him. I wanted to hear him complain about the grub.”). Just like that, I had her figured out. It was such a joy to have a character so fiercely propelled into the narrative—and toward her own less than perfect choices—that I was able to write the rest of the book, over the course of many drafts and many years, in absolute fealty to that voice. Plotting was a challenge, balance was a challenge, marshaling my stable of secondary characters was a challenge, but from page three of draft one Lida was absolutely herself.
Kath was the character who changed most as I revised. She started as a nonentity, solidified into a bumbling, cheery foil, had a brief stint as an explicit rival, and finally became a much needed friend for Lida, as well as a tantalizing glimpse into the kind of person Lida might have been in another, easier life.
Q: Real life is messy. Lida is looking for closure but she never really gets it. Did you always know that there wouldn’t be a tidy ending for Lida (or for the reader)?
A: In the penultimate draft I cut a line I loved for being too pat and self-indulgent. It was one of Lida’s mother’s sayings that encapsulates the takeaway nicely: Closure’s a thing for jars and simpletons. It’s a good message, one Lida herself would absolutely approve, but as a writer and reader I resist tidiness. A book resonates less with a message neatly spelled out, and lingers more when that message is built, or felt, or intuited.