A Q&A With Bill Clegg, Author of September’s #1 Indie Next List Pick

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Photo by Christian Hansen

Bill Clegg is the author of Did You Ever Have a Family: A Novel (Scout Press/S&S), the top pick on the September 2015 Indie Next List.

In Clegg’s debut novel, a tragedy stuns the small town of Wells, Connecticut. In a single moment, on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, June Reid loses her entire family — everyone she holds dear. After June leaves town to try to cope with her devastation, an interconnected web of people affected by those who were lost emerges. As each begins to explore their impossible grief, they also search for solace.

“It has been some time since a book has affected me quite the way this novel has,” said Jenny Lyons of The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury, Vermont. “The writing is beautiful and the mystery at the heart of the book will keep readers riveted. This is the sort of work scholars are referring to when they explain why literature and the novel are so vitally important to our understanding of the human condition.”

Clegg is a literary agent in New York City and the author of the bestselling memoirs Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days (both Back Bay Books/Little, Brown). He has written for the New York Times, Lapham’s Quarterly, New York Magazine, The Guardian, and Harper’s Bazaar.

Bookselling This Week: Following the success of your memoirs, why did you decide to write a novel? 

Bill Clegg: I started writing the novel during the writing of Portrait of an Addict. Going back into my childhood and my years growing up in a small town caused me to re-examine where I was from. Through college and my 20s in New York, I actively turned my attention away from that time and that place, and so in my mid-30s, it was like seeing it with new eyes. And I began to write about what I saw. The name of the town Wells came up early and so it began right away as fiction.

BTW: Praise for your memoirs has noted the honest and brutally real way you shared scenes from your struggle with addiction.  What was it like for you to create a work of fiction?  Did you draw on any of your own life experiences?

BC: It was much different and driven by curiosity, unlike the memoirs, which sprung from memory. [For the novel] I drew on feelings but not events or incidents from my own life. 

BTW: Did You Ever Have a Family revolves around a single tragedy that sends ripples of grief through the lives of the story’s many narrators. Why did you choose to tell the story from multiple points of view?

​BC: June was the first character to come into view and I wrote her sections in the third person from the start. But I began to wonder what the people in Wells thought of her and why she’d leave. I started writing what they’d say as a way of understanding who June was and what she meant to the town. Most of those early voices didn’t make it into the novel but they were how I began to see the place and the people who would figure at the center of the story.

BTW: Independent booksellers across the country nominated Did You Ever Have a Family to the September Indie Next List, and many of these booksellers had the opportunity to meet you at Winter Institute 10, earlier this year. How have indie booksellers played a role in your life, both professionally and as an author? 

​BC: Oblong Books in Millerton, New York, was my North Star in high school and college. I was shy and never introduced myself but I scoured their tables and shelves and found nearly every book I read then there. Also, it’s where all my music came from — Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, Neil Young. They played these guys, and so that’s what I listened to. Oblong is still my bookstore — just not the one in Millerton. They have a store in Rhinebeck, which is where I spend many weekends and part of the summer, and since I rarely have time to go shopping in the city, Oblong remains the place I buy books. In fact, I introduced myself to Suzanna [Hermans, the store’s co-owner] this past weekend for the first time. I was nervous!