June 29, 2011

A Year and Six Seconds Book Group Extras

A Year and Six Seconds


On the eve of her sixth wedding anniversary, Isabel Gillies found herself on a plane with her two toddler sons in tow, flying away from Oberlin, Ohio, and from her husband Josiah—her boys’ father—back to her parents’ apartment in New York City. Her husband had just left her for another woman, and she had nowhere else to go.

Isabel’s next months were a blur of midyear schooling logistics, mentally replaying her crumbling marriage late at night, struggling with guilt about separating her sons from their father, and living in tight quarters with her own parents. Soon enough, Isabel found herself flying back to Ohio to divide up the belongings in her dream house and go before a judge to end her beloved marriage.

Determined to start shaping a new life for herself and her boys, Isabel began to push away from her divorce and pull herself back into the world. Slowly, step by step, Isabel opened her mind and began to imagine the rest of her life.

She forged ahead and unexpectedly, just a year (and six seconds) after her divorce, she found herself in love again. Picking up where her previous New York Times bestselling memoir, Happens Every Day, left off, A Year and Six Seconds is the humorous, brave, and romantic story of Isabel’s efforts to throw out the shattered pieces of her old life and begin anew. She stumbles, she falls, she makes mistakes, she succeeds; in the process, she zeroes in on her very self, taking honest measure of who she is, and, as Carl Sagan said (and as Isabel quotes in the book’s prologue), “Understanding is joyous.”

Discussion Questions

1. Isabel opens A Year and Six Seconds by asking, “Did you know that it only takes six seconds to fall in love?” and closes the book by declaring, “Good love—good love holds it all, and finally, it held me.” Given what you’ve read and what you’ve experienced in your own life, how would you define six-second love and good love? What other kinds of love do you believe in?

2. Isabel experiences both wonderful highs and crushing lows while working through her divorce and opening herself up to love again. What moments made you feel most hopeful for her? What moments discouraged you the most?

3. Despite working hard and doing her best in a difficult situation, Isabel often describes feeling guilty, abnormal, and like a failure. Is she being too critical of herself in these situations? Where’s the line between feeling like a failure and actually failing?

4. Discuss the significance of Isabel and her sons moving in with her parents in New York. On the whole, did the close-quarters arrangement bring more frustration or support into the family?

5. Discuss Isabel and Josiah’s efforts to insulate Wallace and James from the divorce. How successful were they? What’s an appropriate barometer for success in this situation?

6. Discuss Isabel’s self-confessed tendency to indulge in dramatic and impulsive behavior. Which of these moments surprised or shocked you the most? Discuss also any moments where you felt Isabel employed particular sensibility or restraint. On the whole, do you buy Isabel’s self-identification as a drama queen, or do you think she is being too hard on herself?

7. Consider Isabel’s observation “There seems to be shame in saying that you want love. There is greater shame in saying that you need it” (p. 88). Is love a source of pride or a source of shame? Do people not only want, but also truly need, romantic love?

8. Isabel describes the time when Peter offered to sit with her while she fired her babysitter as the “defining moment” of their relationship—how, in that moment, she knew that marrying him was the right thing to do. What other defining moments did Isabel have? What defining moments have you had in your own life?

9. How did Isabel’s definition of family change from the beginning of the book to the end? Discuss times in your life when you’ve had to define—or redefine—family for yourself. What surprised you the most?

10. When you consider the book as a whole, do you think its message is that everything happens for a reason, or that faith, trust, family, and friends can get you through painful times that would have been better avoided? Discuss times in your own life when you felt grateful for the way a negative situation resolved itself—or when you wish something hadn’t happened at all, regardless of the positive outcome.

A Conversation with Isabel Gillies

Q: A Year and Six Seconds must have been emotionally taxing to write. How did you shape your writing process so that you could revisit difficult moments and still stay sane? How did the writing experience change from your first book, Happens Every Day, to this one?

Well, I have to say it was a harder book to write than Happens Every Day, and at some points quite taxing. With Happens Every Day, I sort of threw up. I wrote exactly what happened during a certain time, and every so often jumped back in time to my childhood. With A Year and Six Seconds, I had to make a clear (I hope it’s clear!) story out of a very large, hazy, and confusing time of my life. I really had to muck around in my child- and young-adulthood and see if any dots connected, and make links to the most upsetting thing that has ever happened to me or my children—my divorce. At the same time, when they write the history of the world, my divorce certainly won’t be in it. I wanted to give the book a lighter tone, not so self-serious. I wanted to write a love story, a romantic love story, but also the love story of my family. I don’t know, I must have written a thousand pages and put things in and taken things out. My editor, Barbara Jones, was marvelous.

Q: Did you purposely omit any details or stories from your book? How did you balance telling your story honestly with concealing information that could potentially harm or offend? When you look at the final book, is there anything you wish you’d taken out, or anything you wish you’d left in?

Oh, well, what goes hand in hand with memoir is hurting feelings and offending! I hate that part and I never want to hurt anyone’s feelings, ever, but I know I have, and do. I’m sure there are a ton of things I should have put in and a ton I should have left out.

Q: You describe a moment when a Chase Bank teller helped you easily open up an account with only your maiden name. Did you have many other moments like this one, where you got the feeling from a total stranger that they understood your situation and wanted to help you?

Oh yes! There was one woman I met in the park—I probably should have put her in—who was so wonderful, almost otherworldly. It was pouring rain, and huge puddles had formed in the park, so I took the boys out in slickers and boots and let them jump to their hearts’ content. This woman and her sister were also in the park and got a hoot out of watching the boys in the yellow raincoats drench themselves. We started talking, and she guessed that I was a single mother. She was so kind and understanding. She, too, had been a single mother. She told me about how hard she had to work, but that she got her two children through life and that I would, too. She then told me she had just been diagnosed with cancer, and made me so sad because she was so brave and elegant. It just made me feel like people can get through a lot. I truly hope she made it through her illness. I’ll never forget her.

Q: You don’t refer to your parents by name in the book. Was that decision made with their privacy in mind, or was it an editorial choice? How did you decide which other people to assign names to, and, for those people, how did you decide whether or not to use their real names?

I get asked about names a lot and, you know, I don’t know how I do it. I didn’t even know that my parents were never named in the book until just now! I think you can instinctually feel if it’s a good idea or not to give someone their real name. And of course, if there is ever any question, you can just call them up and ask.

Q: You talked often about feeling guilty for exposing your sons to divorce, for burdening your parents with your own problems, and even for wanting to find love again. Looking back, do you feel that you were being too hard on yourself, or do those emotions stand the test of time? If you could go back to those moments when you felt such strong guilt, what advice would present-day you give to your younger self?

Of course I felt guilty about burdening my parents! It was a huge undertaking for them, and an unexpected one. I don’t think I was hard on myself; I think at the time I thought I should be on my own, but as we all say, shit does happen, so I wasn’t on my own. I needed their help. I will always feel guilty or bad for burdening my kids with divorce. It’s just so hard on them, even if they have a happy and blessed life, even if they have adjusted, even even even. No matter how you slice it, divorce is tough on kids. And I don’t think I felt guilty for wanting love again, I just felt a strong desire to do the right thing by everyone. I think what you learn is that it’s work getting back on your feet the way you want to. You have to make a lot of decisions, and take action, and be organized, but you have to be supple, too, and remember to appreciate what you do have even if it is seemingly small. I don’t know that I would handle things any better or worse now, so I don’t think I have any advice for the thirty-five-year-old Isabel.

Q: Now that you’ve written two books, would you consider yourself a writer first and an actor second, or the other way around (or both equally)? How do you balance being a mom with your writing and acting careers?

I write every day and I don’t act every day, so I do consider myself a writer now more than an actor. However, I find the process of acting and writing—the creative process of getting what is inside, out—very similar, even though the mediums are different. I also put a lot of work into trying to be a good mother, wife, and friend, but again, sometimes that can feel similar to acting and writing, because what you are trying to do is communicate feelings in the best way you can. I guess what I am saying is that everything feels connected and of a piece. However, it’s not all about feelings and process; sometimes it’s about spell-check and peeling endless carrots. I feel very lucky that I get to do any of these things.

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