This reading group guide forOutside the Linesincludes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Amy Hatvany. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. It’s become a bit of a cliché that great artistry can’t exist without some madness. Do you agree with this?
2. Though much is written in women’s fiction about relationships between mothers and daughters, there is less emphasis on those bonds between fathers and daughters. In your opinion, how are they different, and how does a girl’s relationship with her father impact how she develops as a woman?
3. Eden recalls that for years when friends asked about her father, “I’d make up some story of how he lived in New York and traveled the globe looking for inspiration. It wasn’t like he would come back to prove me wrong. And after all, considering the ugliness of the truth, it’s not like anyone could blame me for wanting to lie.” Why do you think Eden lies? Is it because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, or is there something else at work? What role does shame play in abandonment?
4. How did the alternating perspectives of Eden and David affect your reading experience? Did knowing more about David’s darker thoughts and actions make you feel more or less sympathetic toward him?
5. David notes, “The doctor had already decided how she was going to treat him after reading his chart. . . . Not one of them said, ‘David, do you want to be on lithium? Do you want to stop drinking?’ They all assumed that he would.” Had it ever occurred to you that individuals with mental illness may not want to be treated or “cured”?
6. Though David wrote Eden many letters over the years, she never received them, as they were intercepted by her mother. Did you empathize with Lydia’s decision? What would you have done in her place?
7. How do you judge David? Is he responsible for his actions?
8. As a young girl, Eden accuses Lydia of “giving up” on David. She responds, “Maybe . . . [b]ut only because he gave up first.” What do you make of this idea? Is it Lydia’s responsibility to try harder than David? Why or why not?
9. “What did it feel like, I wondered, to have people on the street avert their eyes from you to avoid interaction?” Did this novel make you think differently about how you interact with and look at homeless people?
10. Jack is careful to refer to the people who come to his facility as “clients.” Why do you believe he does this? What do you think about it?
11. “What was he being treated for, anyway? Not adhering to society’s rules? He liked only answering to himself. It was the only treatment plan that seemed to work.” If David isn’t committing any crimes, do you see any problems with him living as he chooses?
12. Jack is wary about Eden’s eagerness to swoop in and save her father, once she finds him in Portland. As you were reading, did you share his hesitation, or did you empathize with Eden’s approach?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Consider reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls as a group. Discuss how being raised by mentally unstable parents, who choose to live life in unconventional ways, impacts both Eden and Jeannette. For these women, do their choices as adults seem to be a reaction to their upbringing?
2. Imagine that you’re the casting director working on the film version of Outside the Lines. Who would you cast in the roles of Eden, Jack, Lydia, David, and Georgia? What about Bryce and Rita?
3. Visit a local homeless shelter as a group—perhaps when the facility is serving meals to its clients. At your next meeting, discuss whether or not reading Outside the Lines affected your experience at the shelter.
A Conversation with Amy Hatvany
Your previous novel, Best Kept Secret,was told exclusively through the point of view of your protagonist, Cadence. What was it like to write from two perspectives in Outside theLines? Did one voice come more easily than the other? I thought jumping back and forth between David’s and Eden’s perspectives would be disconcerting for me as a writer, and in the end, it actually turned out to be invigorating. It kept my mind focused, and maybe even a little more motivated to keep writing. I’d finish one of David’s chapters, and then be excited to find out what Eden’s thoughts and feelings were about the same event or time frame. I think the alternate viewpoints worked out so well simply because this is not solely Eden’s story; nor is it only David’s. It’s the story of who they are to each other.
I was honestly surprised how easily David’s voice came to me. When I began, I thought writing from his perspective would give me a more rounded vision of him and his world, even if I ended up ditching the multiple perspective idea and writing solely from Eden’s point of view. And then he turned out to have such a strong presence in my head, it just sort of took over and I ran with it.
Not only does Outside the Lines switch narrators, the novel also moves back and forth in time. Was this a decision you made before you began writing, or did the story tell itself to you that way?
Moving back and forth in time was another technique I didn’t spend a lot of time considering at the beginning; the idea popped into my head and I thought I’d give it a try and see how it worked. I figured if it was clunky or uncomfortable, it would, at the very least, help organize the plot’s timeline. And then it turned out to be such a fun way to move through the story. Every time I sat down to write, my brain cells were hopping, pushing me to focus on time and circumstance in addition to which point of view I was writing from.
What kind of research did you do for this novel?
When the idea for the book first came to me, I was lucky enough to already be volunteering for a local program that works with the homeless population. I helped prepare a weekly meal and had the privilege of sitting down and getting to know some lovely people. Many were kind enough to share their stories with me; most just appreciated having a warm, safe place to connect with others in their community. Like Eden, I became the “Brownie Lady,” based on the mocha fudge treats I’d bake from scratch each week.
Spending time with this subculture in our society was fascinating, and I learned so much—not only about them, but about myself. I learned that what most people want—no matter where they live—is to be heard, loved, and valued for exactly who they are. Our society spends a lot of time trying to meld us into what it thinks we should be, and I don’t know about everyone else, but when I’m told I “should” do something, I tend to bristle and rebel. But when I’m met where I stand, accepted and loved for just being me, I can find motivation for growth.
Best Kept Secret is about a mother recovering from her addiction to alcohol. Outside the Lines is about a daughter searching for her father, a mentally ill man who is now living on the street. Can you tell us more about why you’re drawn to writing about family dynamics, particularly those in which the parents are flawed?
Hmm . . . maybe that’s a question for my therapist? Ha! Actually, the truth is I’m drawn to writing about family dynamics simply because I believe how we grow up shapes so much of who we become. And flaws are what make characters interesting!
I like to play with the concept of it’s not what happens to us, it’s how we respond to what happens to us that defines who we are. There’s a lot of room for dramatic potential in stories where a parent struggles with something to the point that it impacts the family. I was especially drawn to writing about the father-daughter dynamic in this book because I think it often goes unexamined. That relationship has such an influence on who a woman ultimately becomes, and how we relate to our fathers is often the basis of how we relate to all men.
What led you to the epigraph that you chose for this novel? How does one distinguish between a little madness and too much madness? Where do you think David falls in that spectrum?
I love that particular quote about madness, because from my perspective, it encourages creative risk taking, and the sense of freedom that comes as a result of leaping off the ledge into an entirely different world of writing a novel.
As for how you distinguish between a little or too much, I think when a person’s “madness” becomes a physical threat to other people or damaging to society in general, that’s when it crosses the line. David teeters on the edge of too much, which for me, is what made him so interesting to write about. Take away his madness and who is he? Is he the same person, or just a dulled-out, gray version of himself? Only the readers can decide that for themselves.
Some of the most interesting dynamics in this novel are between Eden and her stepfather and her half brother. What did you draw upon to craft these relationships?
Because I’m remarried, I’m part of a blended family and have witnessed the dynamics of one firsthand. I’m lucky that my daughter adores her stepdad, but I thought a lot of what it would be like if she didn’t. I wondered what would happen if a daughter canonized her birth father to some degree and therefore had a difficult time fully connecting with the man who took over that role. Eden has a complicated relationship with her stepdad: On one hand she appreciates the comfort he brought her mother after so many years of strife living with David; on the other she resents that he is in her life because what she really longs for is David.
I loved writing about Eden and Bryce’s relationship. I’ve watched how my son connects with my stepdaughter—they have a sweet, fun sibling relationship (except when he’s purposely annoying her, as ten-year-old boys will do!). There’s something in how they relate to each other that’s fundamentally different from how my son relates to his sister, and I attempted to capture the strength of that connection between Eden and Bryce.
What made you decide to end the novel with David’s perspective?
I didn’t! I was writing and writing, worried about how I was going to end the book. I knew that David would run away from Eden again, but I had no idea how to find the natural finish of the story. I was a little panicky, to tell you the truth. And then, I wrote Eden’s “final” chapter, and knew that the reader needed to see how David ended up, so I kept going. The idea of him going to get his painting of young Eden and bringing it back to the shelter just flew out of my fingers as I typed—it was one of those rare, wonderful writing moments when I’m not really in charge of what’s ending up on the page; the story was telling itself. David made it very clear to me throughout the book how much he adored his daughter. For me, that was a perfect note to end the book. I wrote that last sentence, tears welled in my throat, and I knew I was done.
You do a wonderful job capturing the experience of mental illness. How challenging was it to do this?
I think the most difficult part of writing David’s viewpoint was to keep the balance between lucidity and his illness. I’ve struggled with depression at certain points in my life, so I pulled from those feelings and amplified them for David. I know what it is to have thoughts spin in my head, so I just took that experience to an extreme. Some of his darker thoughts and behaviors were painful for me to write. I cared about David and was rooting for him along the way, but I also knew I wanted to remain true to who he was.
When is your favorite time to write? Do you have a favorite spot, as well?
The mean, nasty editor who questions the value of my writing lives in my rational brain, so if I can, I like to write first thing in the morning, when that side of my mind is still sleepy and incoherent. But with how crazy busy my life is, that’s not always possible, so I’ve gotten much better at fitting writing into the corners of my day, like “dinner is in the oven, I’ve got forty-five minutes—let’s see how much I can get done!”
My desk is in a main thoroughfare of our house, and most of the time, that’s where I work. I would love a “room of my own” someday, but for now, this spot, along with noise-canceling headphones, is more than enough!
David seems to suggest that his mental illness is just a different kind of normal, a different way of living—yet his mental illness seems to also lead him to abuse alcohol. In your opinion, does this invalidate David’s argument?
I think his argument is simply a way for David to rationalize his choice to live the way he does, and I certainly won’t say that living day-to-day anesthetized by alcohol is “normal” for most of society. But in the end, I think his point that it’s his right to make that choice is valid.
With his steadfast refusal to traditionally medicate himself, I was attempting to illustrate the point that when a person has help thrust upon them, rarely is it well received. Whether it’s alcoholism or mental illness, if the person isn’t on board with getting treatment, it won’t succeed. David chooses to “manage” his illness with alcohol, because it still allows him enough lucidity to be himself. Is that the right choice? Maybe not. But right or wrong, healthy or not, ultimately, it’s his decision.
What do you hope readers take away from Outside the Lines?
I think more than anything, I hope that readers will walk away from the story affected by both David’s and Eden’s emotional experiences. I think it’s easy to feel empathy for Eden, maybe less so for David, but I hope that what I’ve written might encourage readers to see him in a different light.
People who suffer from mental illness are often defined by their disorder, and who they are as a person—the fact that they actually are a person—gets lost amid the diagnoses. Whether or not they agree with the decisions David made, I hope readers will be compassionate and understanding about his right to make them.
What are you working on next?
My next novel explores what happens when a woman who’d previously decided to remain childless falls in love with a divorced father and is suddenly thrust into a full-time motherhood role. Blended families are so common in our culture, and I wanted to delve into those complicated emotional dynamics, especially when one person isn’t exactly sure she should be part of them.
I also have a few more ideas brewing in my subconscious, and I’m working on fleshing those out, too. I’m always a little frightened the concepts for novels will stop coming, but somehow, they crop up in a flash of thought, and I latch on, ready to go for the next ride!