Chris Cander, A GRACIOUS NEIGHBOR: A Novel

Chris Cander, A GRACIOUS NEIGHBOR: A Novel

Zibby is joined by USA Today bestselling author Chris Cander about A Gracious Neighbor, a witty and suspenseful new novel about female friendships, misjudgments, and never really knowing what goes on behind closed doors. Chris describes the brilliant 1917 short story that inspired the novel and then contemplates her protagonist’s actions (can we ever justify a murder!?). Then, she talks about the brutal attack she suffered while studying abroad in Spain, which inspired a career in martial arts and will serve as the premise of her next book, The Young of Other Animals.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Chris. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss A Gracious Neighbor.

Chris Cander: Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here.

Zibby: You had such an interesting inspiration for your novel, A Gracious Neighbor, which you outline in your author’s note. I was hoping you could talk more about the short story that inspired your novel.

Chris: My daughter was then a senior in high school. She came downstairs. She was doing a homework assignment for her English class. She said, “Mom, you’ve got to read this story. It’s so good.” She handed it to me. It was titled A Jury of Her Peers. It was published by Susan Glaspell in 1917. I sat there and read it from first page to the last. She was right. I thought it was amazing. It was an early feminist work. It dealt with these women, the wives of a sheriff and a neighbor who were going to the home of an accused murderess to investigate. The men were going to investigate the murder. The women were brought along to find articles of comfort to take to her in jail. What happened in the story is that while the men were stomping around upstairs at the scene of the crime, the women slowly began to put the clues together. Because of their empathy for what she must have been going through, they realized that, in fact, she had killed her husband, but in their minds, the murder was justified.

They squirreled away the evidence that the men, if they had been smart enough to look elsewhere except for in the bed where the strangulation happened, they would have found it and convicted her. I just thought it was such an interesting idea of how these women started out in the beginning of the story judging her and assuming that she was guilty but not understanding why and then slowly coming to the realization that they were not that different. They were all going through the same kinds of things. A hundred years later, we’re at the beginning of a pandemic. I thought it would be really interesting to look at those same themes from the context of the neighborhood where I was quarantining, where I live and have lived for the last seventeen years. It was a really cool way to examine the changes and maybe the things that haven’t changed in that hundred years since the original story was published.

Zibby: Does that mean it’s the same little league team and everything? Do you have a son on the Diamondbacks or whatever it’s called, Diamond something or other?

Chris: He was on the Diamondbacks when he was seven.

Zibby: I’m like, I bet this is plucked from life.

Chris: There were quite a few things that were plucked from real life. I always am careful to emphasize that the characters were completely imagined and made up based on things that I had witnessed and filed away for a later use but not meant to incriminate any one person or to represent any exact individual.

Zibby: I like how you go back to when they first meet. Minnie and Martha are friends from high school. They knew each other from high school. The way you portray it when this beautiful new girl comes to town with all this mystique around her, I feel like so many people can relate, when the new person comes in and you have all these assumptions. You wonder about what that person’s life is or how glamorous it must be or whatever. Then to see that person sort of go through time — we had this whole funny “peaked in seventh grade” thing for our yearbook. Do you know what I mean? What happens to the shining star, the person with all the intrigue as they age? Does it stay with them, or does it not?

Chris: I didn’t have an exact moment like that in high school, but I felt very much throughout — many qualities that Martha exhibited, I have personally experienced in feeling a little bit out of it, out of the popular group in high school and looking in. It was easy to imagine her imagining the lives of somebody, the new girl, and then having her come back. The whole book is obviously written from Martha’s perspective for a reason. I wanted her to be a little unreliable. I also felt like we are mostly only able to experience the world through our own experiences, our own points of view. I wanted the reader to have the experience of living in Martha’s world and misjudging the people around her the way that she does. Having her characterize Minnie rather than Minnie characterizing herself was an integral part of doing that, trying to achieve that one-sided misperception and how that evolved over time.

Zibby: I think the whole story, even up to the present day when they’re neighbors, the families and everything, it just speaks to how much people assume that they know things about other people from what they see when that’s so not true. There’s so much more. You never know.

Chris: Exactly. Even if someone’s really transparent or forthcoming about their personal details in life, you just can’t know what goes on behind closed doors.

Zibby: It also, of course, examines, when is it okay to take a life? When is it self-defense? What are the boundaries of that? When are you supposed to get help? When are you not? All of those themes percolate.

Chris: Oh, yeah. I’ve had people read the book and write to me or ask me, what happened? What happened afterwards? I don’t know. I was writing the novel with the idea that I would end it roughly where the short story ended. In that case, it’s not developed either, what happens to Minnie. Is she convicted? Does she get away with it? Then that moral quandary that you bring up, is it right? Was she justified? Were the women justified in hiding the evidence? I deliberately didn’t answer that question because I don’t know that there is an answer.

Zibby: What do you think?

Chris: I don’t know. I had a lot of empathy for Minnie, the Minnie in the original story and the Minnie that I created, because she was clearly subject to a lot of abuse at home. I don’t know if it was justified. I don’t think I would’ve made that same choice. I don’t go around, in practice, murdering people that wrong me. Clearly, she did. I really appreciated the fact, though, that Martha came to her defense at her own peril. Even though it’s not explored in the book, there exists the question of, what happens if Martha is discovered having absconded with the evidence that would convict Minnie? I admired her bravery and her choice, but I don’t know that I would emulate it or that I think it’s right.

Zibby: I just interviewed, last week, Deanna Raybourn, who wrote Killers of a Certain Age. I don’t know if you’ve read it. It’s about four sixty-year-old women who had forty-year careers in, essentially, CIA-type activities killing people and how when one person was recruited, she said, okay, you can make me a killer. They said, oh, you have that in you, but it’s just us to take it out. When I was talking to her about it, I was like, “How do you know you’re born a killer?” She’s like, “Everyone has something for which killing is completely justified.” I could say, oh, my gosh, I would never kill someone. She was like, “But wouldn’t you kill for your kids?” I was like, “Oh, well, yeah. For my kids, no problem.” Then you take somebody like Minnie, and it doesn’t make someone a killer, but if you’re literally fighting for your life or self-defense or when you’re so trapped and your whole life depends on it, you end up having to do things that maybe you don’t feel you’re capable of. Then how do other people put that together with their perception of you as a person? Maybe it’s just this underlying thing. Not to say we’re all out there being murderers. This is coming out wrong. When put in a certain situation, we all have to do that.

Chris: I think what you said is very true about, and what the other author — that book sounds amazing. I’m going to read it. Most women would say that they would kill for their kids. It’s funny how we’ll flip a switch from, “No, I could never do that,” to, “Oh, you’re going to hurt my kids? Just watch.” I also am a self-defense instructor and a martial artist. It’s kind of interesting that we’re talking about self-defense and, what lengths would you go to? I’ve actually spent a great deal of time, probably more than the average writer, thinking about the lengths that I would go to and under what circumstances. Part of the reason that I became a martial artist is because I was attacked when I was nineteen. I had to fight my way out of that situation. It changed me forever. I didn’t kill my attacker. I’ve often wondered if I had not been able to get away and I’d had to keep fighting, how far would I have gone? It’s true that in that moment when it’s life or death, there’s a switch that goes. It gets flipped. I didn’t mean to take this dark turn in this talk about A Gracious Neighbor.

Zibby: No, it’s all linked. Wait, that’s terrible that that happened. Can you tell me what happened? Where were you? What happened?

Chris: I was studying abroad in Spain. Actually, it’s interesting because this was the — I had been carrying this around forever and not having written about it but having talked about it a lot. I use the attack itself as scaffolding model for how an attack will occur when I teach these classes. I decided last year that I was ready to examine it a little bit more closely. It’s become the basis of my new novel, the one that I’m working on now, The Young of Other Animals. It’s not entirely about the attack, but the attack is the precipitating incident in the story between a mother and a daughter. I was in Spain when I was nineteen. I was at a restaurant with a group of friends. I was willingly lured away by someone who overheard me talking about wanting to make a phone call. I say willingly lured away because he was eavesdropping on my conversation and knew the weakness in my armor, which was that I had broken up with this guy. He was back in the States. I desperately wanted to make a phone call. He offered to take me to a public phone. I went even though there was a part of me that knew that that was not safe. Then it just escalated from there. That I’m here to tell the tale is a good thing, but it was an ugly escape.

Zibby: Did he take you somewhere private? Did he take you to a room?

Chris: Yeah.

Zibby: He did?

Chris: No, not a room. We actually got in his car.

Zibby: No.

Chris: Yeah, I know. Terrible. That’s why I use it in my self-defense classes, because it’s the classic “don’t ever do this.”

Zibby: I know, but when you trust — it’s so easy, these split-second decisions. Then your life goes off in another way. Sure. Some people are really nice and will offer to help.

Chris: Right. Even having gone through that, I still assume that most people are nice and not planning to murder me. I don’t go through life with that expectation. It was just a really unfortunate series of incidents in that particular case.

Zibby: Did he have a weapon?

Chris: He did, yeah. A knife. He held it to my throat.

Zibby: What did he want? Was it a sexual attack?

Chris: He was going to do that, but he was going to murder me first.

Zibby: Oh, Chris.

Chris: I know. Awful.

Zibby: I can’t believe that happened to you.

Chris: I know. Isn’t it weird?

Zibby: How did you get out of that?

Chris: I fought. I had to fight. I had taken one semester of martial arts in college, but I wasn’t trained to fight in self-defense. There was what we were talking about earlier, that instinct that kicked in. It was either going to be him or me. Well, I didn’t kill him, again. He told me that my mother would never find my body. That was enough to trigger an automatic fight response in me because I didn’t want my mother to never find my body. As a mother now, you know how horrible that would’ve been.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. By your own strength, you got out of the car?

Chris: Yes.

Zibby: Did you have to run?

Chris: I did.

Zibby: Do you not like talking about this? I’m sorry. We don’t have to talk about it.

Chris: No, no, it’s fine. I talk about it all the time. It’s totally fine. Like I said, I’m using it in a novel right now.

Zibby: I know, but still. You just ran? You were in the middle of Spain. Had he driven you someplace random?

Chris: He drove me so far out of Madrid. I had no idea where I was. It was late. It was night. I didn’t recognize the streets. He was going really fast. He took me to a warehouse district, is all I know, all I remember. Then I did, I fought him off. I think he was on coke, in retrospect, because he was not as sharp as someone who had planned an attack should’ve been. I was able to fight him off and get out of the car and start running. I ran until I encountered another car, is how I got back, and flagged them down. It was a little old man and a little old woman. I ran up to the car. She cranked the window down just this much. In a panicked pidgin Spanish/English, I said, “See that guy that’s running up the hill? He’s trying to kill me.” They let me get in the back of the car. They drove me all the way back to Madrid.

Zibby: He was still chasing after you? He was running?

Chris: He was coming up the hill.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Chris: I know.

Zibby: I can’t believe you survived this whole thing and that you can just calmly sit here years later and discuss it. Didn’t that change the way — wait, so you got back to Madrid. Then did you go to the police? What happened there?

Chris: I did. I went to the police. I promptly put it out of my mind. That was in 1989. We didn’t talk about things as openly then as we do now. I remember going with my friend to the police station. There was an adult there that — I can’t remember her name, but she was in a sort of academic supervisory capacity — went with us to the police station. I didn’t think to keep a copy of the police report. Recently, I thought, I need to go back to Madrid and go to the police and get a copy of it just to see what I said at the time because I completely put it out of my mind. In fact, when I told my mother — my mom always asks me what I’m writing. I told her about The Young of Other Animals. I said, “It was based on my attack in Spain.” She said, “What attack?” I realized I’ve never told her.

Zibby: No! You didn’t tell her?

Chris: No, I didn’t tell her. I just kind of went on with my life and put it in its own little box and proceeded to become a trained martial artist.

Zibby: Wow.

Chris: I know.

Zibby: So you didn’t really tell anybody? Did you tell friends?

Chris: No. It’s strange because I talk about it so casually now. It didn’t even occur to me that I hadn’t told her. I just assumed that I had at some point.

Zibby: Wow. Were you sobbing? Were you not sobbing?

Chris: Not until I got to the restaurant. My friend Kelly was sitting outside waiting for me. This old man pulled the car up onto the sidewalk so that I didn’t even have to put my foot on the street. I opened the back door and kind of spilled out into Kelly’s arms. I started sobbing at that point. Then there’s whole blank that happens. This whole memory just evaporated beyond that.

Zibby: Isn’t it crazy what the brain can do to protect us from trauma and the effects of trauma and all of that? It’s amazing. You barricade it. Then you can go on with your life. It’s the brain band-aid or something, stitching it back together.

Chris: I know. I want to do a hypnosis session to see if I can bring back some more of the details.

Zibby: Wouldn’t that make it hard for you to sleep? I feel like after I went through something like that, and I have no idea because I haven’t, but that I would be so terrified about everything and every person that it would ruin my life.

Chris: There’s enough time that’s passed that I probably wouldn’t feel that way. Plus, I know I could take care of myself now.

Zibby: So it ends up being just totally empowering. The worst happened, and you got out, so then maybe you don’t fear. Interesting.

Chris: Right. I don’t. I don’t have a fear. If I’m out at night or alone, I don’t have a fear. I’m smart about it, but I don’t have an underlying fear that someone’s going to attack me.

Zibby: How are you using this for your next novel? Tell me about that.

Chris: It’s interesting. We’re going to have to save this interview for that book.

Zibby: Okay, sorry.

Chris: No, no, no. Truly, it starts out with that attack, with the main character, one of the two — it’s binary. It’s the mother and the daughter, Paula and Mary. Paula has just fled from the scene of this attack. I started it with just the idea that, okay, maybe I’m ready to fictionalize this and look at it in terms of that divorce between my personal experience and writing it as though it had happened to somebody else. She’s exactly my age. It was the same year. There were enough similarities that writing it was tense. I still did it. That was the first part of the book that I wrote. Even though the attack itself doesn’t appear in its full description until midway through the book, I wanted to address that right away by writing that part and putting it aside. Then the story evolved to become something different about a mother and a daughter. It was really interesting writing it. Although it was tense, I didn’t have a panic feeling or anything like that. It was just kind of like I was talking about it the way that I do in a self-defense class, only a little bit more dramatically.

Zibby: How trained are we talking with martial arts? Are you a black belt? Can you do anything? I don’t even know the questions to ask in this realm. How advanced are you here?

Chris: I’m a fourth-degree black belt in Taekwondo. jiu-jitsu and Krav Maga and karate. I’m not really fighting right now. I’m on crutches because I blew out my ACL doing a tornado kick, of all things.

Zibby: No.

Chris: I had surgery a week ago today, as a matter of fact.

Zibby: That’s a pretty badass way to blow out your knee, I have to say.

Chris: It’s better than falling off the stairs.

Zibby: If you’re going to do it, that’s way cooler than skiing. I’m sorry you have to go through that. That is really amazing to be, literally, a warrior. You’re like a modern-day She-Ra or one of these — seriously. You don’t hear that very often. That’s amazing.

Chris: I love it. I’ll take that title.

Zibby: You can have it.

Chris: Thank you.

Zibby: My little guy is into martial arts. He did Taekwondo all last year. Now he’s doing jiu-jitsu. I’ve started following all of this with avid interest.

Chris: Good. Does he love jiu-jitsu?

Zibby: He’s liking it. He just started because it’s the beginning of the year. So far, so good.

Chris: One thing that I love about martial arts is that it’s not just an athletic pursuit. It’s really about all the other aspects, the honor that goes into it, the courtesy, the strategy, the intelligence that you develop when you are using these skills for good and not for evil. It’s very cool. I hope he continues.

Zibby: Where do you teach all your classes?

Chris: I used to teach them at my dojang, but our physical dojang closed during the pandemic. We’ve been practicing outside. I do private classes for people wherever.

Zibby: Can you do it remotely or not?

Chris: Not really. It’s very hands-on.

Zibby: I was going to say you should teach — we just started offering Zibby Classes.

Chris: That’d be awesome.

Zibby: A self-defense class, maybe.

Chris: I could give a lecture, but I can’t do the self-defense.

Zibby: Could you do a workshop? Something?

Chris: Yeah.

Zibby: I feel like everyone would need that.

Chris: I love teaching women because I feel like — I’ve had some stories. I’ve had people come back. I’ve been teaching it since 2011, 2013, maybe. I’ve had women come back and say, “What you taught me, the permission you gave me to fight may have saved my life. I had this experience.” I love that the first time that they think about self-defense isn’t during the emergency. If they can do it ahead of time before anything bad ever happens, they might not ever have to know it. It can teach them so much about avoiding circumstances, not just getting out of it once they’ve already happened.

Zibby: I think you should do a little workshop. I think everybody should take it. It’s so important.

Chris: It is. It’s so important.

Zibby: Just an hour or something or however long you need. That would be so useful. Back to A Gracious Neighbor for a minute. Do you feel that examining all these issues has, in part, let you lay some of this to rest, some of these questions of what people are willing to do? Now that it’s written, how do you feel about it, the messaging of it? How is it having it out in the world and all of that?

Chris: I love that it’s out in the world. I loved the experience of writing it. It went really quickly compared to my previous novels. One of the things that I took away was what we mentioned earlier about not judging people and not assuming that we know what’s happening behind closed doors. I always thought I was pretty enlightened and pretty generous in my assumptions about people. When I was writing it, I realized that, no, I pretty easily fall into the trap of making a snap judgement. It gave me an opportunity to examine that quality in myself and to try to make adjustments. Ever since I was in the throes of writing the book, I’ve consciously decided not to assume that I know something about people. It’s an old cliché, but it’s true, that everybody’s going through something. To default to that instead of anything else is how I’m making an effort to be more generous in that way.

Zibby: Is that why you’ve taken to interviewing other people, finding out more?

Chris: What do you mean? Because I interviewed you for that Real Simple story?

Zibby: Yeah.

Chris: I’ve done that kind of freelance writing for years. I’ve always loved interviewing other people. I love finding out their interesting stories and histories. No, it hasn’t reflected in that way because that hasn’t really changed so much, but just in my own personal day-to-day interactions with people and trying to be more open-hearted about everyone in my relationship with them.

Zibby: That’s wonderful. Just going backwards in time for two seconds, how did you begin your novelist career? How did you get that started?

Chris: I’d, like you, always wanted to be a novelist. I started out writing nonfiction for magazines for years. I always had this in my mind that I wanted to tell a longer story. I didn’t have one in mind in particular, but I knew that it was something that I wanted to try. I didn’t feel confident that I could do it because I had not been trained. I didn’t study creative writing. I wasn’t even a real student of literature, not officially anyway. I didn’t feel like I was qualified. What it was that finally triggered it was a dream, of all things. I woke up from a really vivid dream in which I had been taken by some sort of chaperone or guide or something to a house. It was for a reading. It was like the Ghost of Christmas Future, almost. We went into this place. Nobody could see me, but I could see everybody else. There was a table and a beautiful candelabra and stacks and stacks of books. The guide beckoned me over and said, “I want you to look closely at these.” They were all stacks of books with my name on them. Have you ever had a lucid dream where you become aware of the fact that you’re dreaming? In the dream, I turned to this guy and said, “Can you get me something to write with? I know I’m going to wake up, but I at least want to copy down the titles and see what I’ve got ahead of me.” He said, “You don’t need to write anything down. Everything that you need is already inside of you.” I woke up.

Zibby: I got the chills all over.

Chris: I know, right? I woke up, and I started writing my first novel that very next day.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, wow. What a story. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Chris: Get yourself a Ghost of Christmas Future.

Zibby: Have the best dream of your life.

Chris: Yes. Have the best dream of your life, and then just boldly go forward. Drawing upon what I just said, I was holding myself back because of lack of confidence. I became confident as a novelist by writing novels. I think that people don’t have to wait until they’re credentialed to actually begin the practice and the art of writing because it takes both. It takes tenacity. It takes a lot of time, a lot of revision. Just the way that a pianist would never dream of going on stage without many years and many, many hours of practice alone, I think that writing takes the same kind of discipline. I would say don’t expect the first manuscript to be magical enough to get risen to the top like cream. Just expect that it’s going to take a lot of time and work. Eventually, the people that continue to practice it will get better at it and will get other people interested in their work. Start now.

Zibby: I love that you said the way to gain confidence as a novelist is to get practice writing novels. It seems so obvious, but it’s such amazing advice. That’s the way to do it. You just have to keep doing it over and over. Then you’ll feel better. You’ll be better.

Chris: We didn’t know how to become mothers until we had a baby.

Zibby: Still honing that craft every day.

Chris: Me too.

Zibby: Chris, thank you so much. I have so much respect for you. Really, I’m so impressed in so many ways, not just the book, but your approach to life and determination and discipline and all of that and getting through that horrific thing. Hats off to you.

Chris: Thank you. I feel the same way about you. I have so much admiration for everything that you’ve gone through and what you continue to develop and achieve. It’s awesome being able to be on your side and watch it happen.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks so much.

Chris: Thank you.

Zibby: Have a great day, Chris.

Chris: You too.

Zibby: Bye.

Chris: Bye.

A GRACIOUS NEIGHBOR: A Novel by Chris Cander

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