A Conversation with Bestselling Author Alyson Richman
February 1, 2019
From the #1 international bestselling author of The Velvet Hours and The Lost Wife comes a novel about a teacher who learns the value of life's darkest moments from a student who can't take a single day for granted.
The Secret of Clouds centers around the transformative and powerful bond that develops between a twelve-year-old boy who is born with a rare health condition that prevents him from attending school with other children, and the young teacher who is called to his home to tutor him. While Yuri, the child of Ukrainian immigrants, is searching for a lifeline to the world outside his doorstep, his teacher Maggie is striving to find the best way to make his life as full as it can be.
What compelled you to write this particular story?
The Secret of Clouds was initially by a story a dear friend and teacher shared with me, about how every year she assigns her third-grade class to write a letter to their eighteen-year-old selves, and she holds onto those letters until the week they graduate high school - a decade later. One year, she tutored a child who was too sick to attend school, but she still gave him the same writing assignment as the rest of her class, keeping his letter with those from her other students. When it was time for him to graduate, emotional and poignant memories of those home-tutoring sessions returned to her, and she realized just how deeply this one particular student had transformed her. I was immediately struck by this profound and life-changing connection between a teacher and their students, which can transcend time and distance, and I wanted to explore that more deeply.
A great teacher can leave a lasting, life-long impact on his or her students. Did you have a teacher who inspired you to reach your greatest potential?
I always say that The Secret of Clouds is a love-letter to those teachers from my own childhood who helped me become the writer I am today. There are many who stand out for me, but it was my sixth-grade English teacher, Mr. Swink, whom I always return to, as he was the one who first encouraged me to keep a writing journal and fill its pages with poetry and short stories. I can still hear the lilt of his Southern accent saying to me: "Alyson, when you're a writer...", and never "if you ever become a writer." Mr. Swink passed away far too young, at the age of only thirty-eight, and I carry his memory with me every day. He introduced me to so many authors who I still adore, and he made me think about the importance of every word I put down on a blank page. I've tried to pay tribute to him with every book I've written so far, but never more so than with this new book.
Each character in the novel - Maggie, Yuri, and Katya - are interesting in their own ways. Which character do you relate to the most?
As will all of my novels, I purposefully try to create characters who are unique and genuine, and I imagine them each having their own colors and textures. Maggie is written in a warm palette, with her Italian-heritage, her openness and her deep love of food. I think that's probably the type of character that I'm drawn to as a friend in my everyday life. Katya, the former ballerina with the harsh childhood back in the Soviet Union, is purposefully drawn in a cooler palette, and her true emotions aren't readily apparent. But beneath her icy, often stoic veneer, the heart of a mother burns fiercely. Katya's love and dedication to her son, Yuri, makes her the character that I ultimately relate to the most, because that love between a mother and child is closest to my heart.
Was there a character that was especially easy or difficult to write?
This might make you laugh, but it wasn't a particular character that was most difficult to write. Instead, it was all of the baseball-related elements in the book that provided the biggest challenges for me! My own son has played baseball since he was eight years old. He doesn't just love the physical aspects of it, he also relishes the mental complexities of the game, including all of the strategies and unexpected plays that could suddenly alter the final outcome. That said, I've never understood how anyone could enjoy a game that has the potential to run three-hours, and sometimes even longer! I used to joke around with my son that the amount of time it took to get him there early for a pre-game practice and then to watch the whole game, I could have flown to Paris! But on a more serious note, I wanted to better understand why this sport so captivates the hearts and minds of millions of die-hard fans. I interviewed people of all ages on why they love baseball. It was really interesting to learn more of what made this sport so special to them, as it inspires such devotion and passion- and a deep sense of nostalgia- in its fans. So much of this research helped Yuri become a more credible twelve-year-old boy, while at the same time, helping me appreciate why my son loves baseball so much.
Setting plays an influential role in many of your novels. The Secret of Clouds is largely set where you live in Long Island, NY. What made you choose to set part of this story in Ukraine?
Because all of my previous novels have so extensively woven in a historical theme, I again wanted to create a backstory of a part of history that I felt needed to be explored more in contemporary literature. When my son was an infant, his first babysitter was a nurse from Ukraine. She shared with me her stories of the accident at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986. I'll never forget her describing how, for three days, no one in the area knew about the accident, so they were all outside sunning themselves in the unseasonably hot weather and bathing in the now unusually warm waters of the local river. Babies were born with rare cancers and heart defects akin to what my character Yuri has. Countless health problems related to the radiation leak still plague the Ukrainian population. I wanted to illuminate this trauma in my novel. Weaving together the story of the letters of the Long Island school children and the history of Chernobyl was the perfect way to explore the themes that were important to me.
You're well known for writing historical fiction, but this is your first novel with a contemporary perspective. Tell us about that decision.
The decision was not planned. Truly, I was so moved by the beautiful story my friend had told me about a teacher and her student and the letter that became a permanent artifact of their friendship, that's where the first seeds of the novel began. I hope I'll always remain an author who pursues stories in which I will learn something from the research and development of the book, regardless of whether it takes place in more contemporary times or in the past. In the end, I hope that my thirst for answers is conveyed through the pages I write.
What kind of research did you do to help inform the novel?
The research was divided into two parts: the Ukrainian research, which involved interviewing Ukrainian immigrants who were in their native country when the Chernobyl accident occurred and learning about how they eventually came to America. Maggie's character also required a significant amount of research, because I wanted to ensure that I accurately described the curriculum that was being taught in Long Island schools in the 1990s. For example, the creation of the Writer's Notebooks that Maggie assigns to her student, was an initiative started through the work of literacy educator Lucy Calkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and I learned about that through my teacher interviews. It was truly one of the highlights of my research, being able to have these wonderful teachers all relay their personal histories with me, and learn about what had drawn them to their profession and the special bonds they've created with their students over the years.
What do you hope readers will take away after reading The Secret of Clouds?
I hope that after reading the novel, the reader will pause for a moment and remember at least one teacher who might have left a permanent fingerprint on their life. The funny thing is that when I have explained the book to many of my teacher friends, their universal response is always: "but make sure you emphasize how much our lives have also been changed by our students!"
So it's exactly that beautiful dance of mutual impact between teachers and their students that is at the core of The Secret of Clouds.