Judith Guest: Ordinary Person

Renowned author Judith Guest
talks about “the terror of chance,” taking what you want, and falling in love with your characters.

I can vividly recall my first reading of Judith Guest’s Ordinary People twenty years ago, in the bleak midwinter of my sophomore year of high school. When the book’s main character—the mortally depressed teenager, Conrad—fends off the world by narrowing his eyes to “blend everything to gray,” he was speaking right to me. Conrad’s melancholy was achingly familiar, and, like millions of others, I loved him for being frail and angry and strangely brilliant. And so I’m somewhat awed to be in Edina, knocking on the door of the author’s stately brick-and-stucco home.

Judith Guest’s combination of courage, talent, timing, and luck has reaped rewards that are reserved for a very few. Yet Judith Lavercombe (she publishes under her maiden name) doesn’t throw the weight of her fame around. Many Twin Citizens don’t even know that she is a fellow resident, which is odd, considering that she and her husband, Larry, have lived in the same home in the Browndale neighborhood of Edina since 1975. Still, her national recognition, especially for someone who is not considered a prolific writer, is impressively enduring. “The story of you is a remarkable event,” Studs Terkel told her during a radio interview almost thirty years ago. This August, Slate magazine put her on its list of America’s most prominent novelists. But Guest is reluctant to talk about her fame, and she is downright sensible about the fairytale success of her first novel.

Since its publication in 1976, Ordinary People has sold close to ninety thousand hardcover copies and over half a million paperback copies. It’s a standard selection on high school reading lists and an equally likely entry on banned-book lists. It won the Janet Heidegger Kafka Award for best first novel and it brought Robert Redford to the author’s front door looking for a chance to make his directorial debut—which resulted in a film that won four Academy Awards in 1980. And all of this happened to a forty-year-old first-time author with three kids and no agent. Maybe that’s another reason I’m so curious to meet her.

Guest opens the kitchen door and shoos her cat away as she ushers me in. After pouring us some coffee and moving into a shaded front room, she curls into an oversized chair, her suntanned legs tucked aside. Dressed casually in denim shorts and a white sweater, she is strikingly youthful for a woman of sixty-eight-years. Her good fortune is almost palpable. This spacious home, with its intimate stained woods and turn-of-the-century windows, has that lovely and lived-in quality of a place where children were raised comfortably and grandchildren visit frequently. Bobby, a large, scruffy dog with good manners, settles herself at my feet, keeping a protective eye on Guest.

After a bit of small talk about her three sons, her grandchildren, and everything there is to love about Minneapolis, I bring up the question of Guest’s phenomenal success. Immediately, she gets down to what seems to be one of the main points she wishes to make with this interview. “My success is not who I am,” she says, setting down her coffee mug. “I’m not terrifically comfortable with even thinking about what I’ve accomplished in relation to who I am and how I relate to other people.” Bobby raises her ears at the tension and looks up at me warily. “Of course, sometimes I’m forced to think about it, because the person I’m talking to is giving it back to me, which is upsetting and discomforting to me. I would just as soon not be what I do,” Judith explains, picking up the coffee cup again. “I do it, it’s my job. I’m glad I’m successful at it, because it’s allowed me to live very well financially, and give my kids a lot of things. It’s enabled me to do stuff that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. But it’s not who I am.”

Perhaps it’s only natural that the issue of fame touches a raw nerve, as Guest has recently returned from a demanding book tour promoting The Tarnished Eye, a mystery novel based on the real-life mass murder of an affluent Michigan family in the sixties. This tour was tiring, especially for someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy them in the first place. “When the publisher says, ‘OK, we’re flying you here and there, and can you drive here and there,’ I get this sinking feeling in my stomach. I think, ‘Oh my God, why do I have to do this?’ And then my next feeling is, Oh, you’re so ungrateful! Here they’re willing to send you to all these places and help you sell your book, and you’re acting like you don’t like doing it!” she says.

What writer likes the anxiety of not knowing what to expect when she walks in the door of a Barnes & Noble? “If you go thinking there are going to be ten and there are a hundred, it’s scary.” Guest raises her palms and sighs. “If you go expecting a hundred and there are three, it’s aaarrrgh.” She laughs out loud, and then goes on to describe showing up for a television interview in Milwaukee only to discover that the studio had no record of her scheduled appearance. In between segments, the unfortunate host went behind a curtain to madly flip through a copy of The Tarnished Eye. “It’s just totally stressful,” she says. “Sometimes you are being interviewed by someone and you think, if I knew this person they’d be my best friend. Other times you’re being interviewed by a complete jerk.”

Like many writers, Guest finds it disorienting to talk at length about herself. “It’s maddening,” she says. “It’s alienating. I’m constantly standing next to myself, saying, ‘Is that true? Why are you saying that? That seems like a weird thing to say about yourself.’ There’s no way around it. I can’t imagine anyone talking about him- or herself that much and not feeling self-alienated.” Somehow Guest is able to say these things without making it seem like she’s terribly uncomfortable with this very interview at this very moment, as her husband Larry moves about somewhere in the other room, the dog keeps watch, and leaves float through the air in the window behind us.

Instead, it seems as if she is relieved to speak plainly about the odd stresses of being a public figure. “I notice when I’m on these trips, I read like mad. It’s the only thing that seems to center me, bring me back to remembering who I am. Or forgetting who I am! It’s more like forgetting. Not being so doggone conscious of everything you’re saying.” This self-consciousness is a burden that was predicted by a best friend of Guest’s, whom she’s known since second grade. When Guest telephoned her to announce that a publisher had accepted Ordinary People, her friend burst out in laughter. “Now you have to be really nice to everyone,” she said. “To prove that you haven’t changed!”

Has Guest changed, given the enormity of her success? Not really at all, say those closest to her. “We didn’t move, we didn’t buy anything significant. This is the way my mom is,” said her oldest son, Larry, a local realtor and screenwriter who was in high school when Ordinary People was published. “I didn’t suddenly have a car, and we didn’t suddenly have a boat. I don’t even know that she made that much money on Ordinary People at the time. She was a first-time author, and she was signed to a very boilerplate kind of book deal which didn’t have a giant advance. They didn’t know it was going to become a movie. But even when more money came, it just made things easier. She is very generous with me, with all of her sons, I think.”
If she keeps fame at arm’s length, Guest surrounds herself with relationships steeped in the bonds of history and continuity. For example, when she received the Mailgram from Viking accepting Ordinary People, she ran to share the news with her new next-door neighbor Linda Lew, who broke out a bottle of champagne. The two remain close friends. “She is very modest,” Lew told me over the phone. “I tout her name more than she does.”

Guest sees herself as someone who prefers the company of friends to the adoration of strangers. “With my friends, I don’t feel pressure to be someone other than who I am,” she says. “The people who really know you—who know your faults and your prejudices, your little weird foibles and your quirks—those are the people who are the easiest to be with, because you don’t have to fake it and you’re not even tempted to fake it. It’s always obvious to me when someone is looking at me with an idea of who I am and hoping that that’s the person I’m going to be. No matter how subtle it is, it’s there, and you want to give them who they really want. But it ain’t me.” Guest still writes most every day. She craves the solitude of being immersed in her work, and during the hustle of her book tour she found that she missed the sustenance that writing offers. “The fame part doesn’t nourish in that way,” she says. “The problem is that it feels kind of good for a few minutes a day, so you keep wanting more of it. But it’s like eating carbs. The more you eat them, the more you want to eat them. If you don’t eat carbs, you don’t get hungry.” She bursts out laughing at her analogy before abruptly concluding: “There. That’s it. That’s all I’m saying about this subject.”

When morning turns to afternoon, Guest and I move from the front room to the side porch, where a breeze flows through the windows and sounds of traffic and children filter in from the nearby avenue. The topic has shifted too, from fame to ideas about ancestry and the bonds between people over a span of time—themes that recur in conversation with Guest as well as in her writing. When she wrote Ordinary People, she was trying to explore the inner workings of a family—their “everydayness,” as she has said. She was also trying to examine the anatomy of depression, with which she has struggled at times. A key question in Ordinary People was how a family might pick itself up and carry on after unthinkable tragedies: One son drowns and the other slashes his wrists.

Themes of overcoming pain and loss thread through her subsequent novels, as well. In Second Heaven, Guest probed the possibilities of an unlikely fresh start for an abused child; and a mass murder comprises the central plot line of The Tarnished Eye, whose detective protagonist is wading through the emotional debris caused by his infant son’s death from SIDS. Readers often assume that the author, in revisiting these themes, is diving in and out of the wreckage of her own biography. When I suggest that many people would expect Judith Guest to bear a close resemblance to Mary Tyler Moore’s portrayal of the cold, controlling Beth in the film Ordinary People, Guest guffaws. “That’s amazing,” she says. “But I think I know what you mean. One time, soon after I had moved here, I had to give a reading. A whole bunch of people were reading that night. I didn’t want to go by myself, so I called up my neighbor Linda. We listened to Michael Dennis Browne, Tom McGrath, Phoebe Hansen—a lot of interesting local writers whom I didn’t know at the time because we hadn’t lived here that long. And then I got up and I read from my second novel, Second Heaven, about when this kid is in juvenile hall. Afterward, Linda told me how a lady sitting next to her turned and said, ‘Oh, what a life this poor woman has led.’ So you just don’t know how people are going to identify you with your characters.”

Guest admits she has been lucky. She spent her childhood in Detroit and the surrounding area with her parents and four younger siblings—two sisters and two brothers. “We moved around a lot,” Guest says. “I went to a lot of grade schools in Detroit. Dad had many interesting reasons for moving. When I was eight, we moved to Oscoda, Michigan, because he had started a paper company—cutting down trees and making and selling a special kind of saw. I don’t know what ever happened to that saw as a business. But anyway, Mom didn’t like it up there; she said she was a city girl. So we moved back to Detroit. We lived with my grandparents, then we moved to an apartment, then we bought a house. But through it all, we had this family cabin that my dad built on Lake Huron, and where we always spent summers with our mom. We still own it, we five siblings. Now I have my own cabin about twenty miles down the road, but I still go down there all the time whenever any of them are there. It’s like the ancestral home.”

Guest seems a master at keeping tradition going, at staying in touch, and sticking with pursuits over long periods of time. She keeps close ties to her siblings, her children, her grandchildren, her childhood friends, her neighbors, her editors, her former editors, her pets. She and a friend have led the same annual women’s retreat for eleven years. She holds a writing seminar every year with Rebecca Hill. She goes on a yearly vacation with her sister and a few friends, each time picking out a place in Michigan they’ve never been to before. She is a founding member of a small, distinguished group of seven who call themselves the Women of Pilford Pines—a shrouded reference to the way the group originated with four women “pilfering” small pines for their own gardens from areas of dense overgrowth in the woods. Subsequently, the group mandated that in order to join the Women of Pilford Pines, new members had to steal something that would enrich their lives in some significant way, and feel no remorse for doing so. Like the other members of Pilford Pines, Guest is a passionate gardener of the rough and natural genre. She’s also devoted to sewing and opera and cooking and reading and traveling. And, lately, politics.

On the day of our interview, Guest has been writing a response to a request from Slate magazine, on her opinion of the presidential candidates. She gets up to fetch the official request and read it aloud: “There’s an election coming up, and Slate would like to know what you think about it. Our staff has drawn up a list of about fifty prominent American novelists—I went, ‘Well how can you turn that down, you’re one of fifty prominent American novelists!’—and we would like to hear your frank response to the following question: Which presidential candidate are you voting for and why?”

Guest thinks she just wants to say how she feels: that she loves this place, her country, and is surprised that so many people in it feel differently than she does. Most of her friends are Demo-crats, but some very close ones are not. “And I don’t know how to talk to them about politics anymore,” she says, looking into the distance, then snapping back. “It’s not just, ‘oh well, you like to-may-toes and I like to-mah-toes.’ It’s not like that for me anymore. It’s way more important than that. So we just don’t talk about it, basically. I’m not about to change friends after forty years of friendship. I’m not. But I don’t understand how people can vote for a man who’s so arrogant and so dumb and so scary.”

“Ours was not a political household, when I was growing up,” Guest’s son Larry told me. “But now, for better or worse, it’s a topic of conversation a lot in my family. I think my mom’s political activism simply comes straight from who she is and how she encounters the world. In Ordinary People, Conrad says at a certain point, ‘Life is a big deal.’ I think he’s responding to something the therapist is telling him, to relax, not take everything so seriously. And I think that is how my mom is feeling about the political world right now—she is not happy about the attitude that some people take, that this is a contest that’s kind of fun, it’s our side against your side and I hope we beat you guys and you wanna place a bet on it? I don’t think she understands that, and, frankly, I don’t either.”

“In a way, I’m grateful,” Guest muses as she ticks off everything she feels is nefarious about our current administration, which has catapulted her to a new level of political action. “It’s like, well, it’s about time. I’m sixty-eight years old. I should have been thinking like this for a long time. I feel as if I have to say what I think,” she says. “And it’s not always comfortable or easy. You can be in situations where you’re going to tear the social fabric if you say something. I’ve never been one to tear the social fabric. Now I feel like, well, you’d better do it. You’d better stand up for what you believe and say what you think. So that’s what I’ve been doing. I put a lot of money into the Kerry campaign, I read everything I get from MoveOn.org, and I do about a third of the things they ask me to do. My sister Marjorie said to me once, ‘I know you don’t like being this famous person, but you are, so how about just hanging out your coattails and letting people ride, ride, ride.’ And that is fine. That, to me, is what fame ought to be used for.”

Guest’s latest novel is about murder at its grisliest, with a protagonist sheriff, Hugh DeWitt, whom Guest claims to have “fallen in love with.” The story itself is a satisfying blend of genres, dark but artfully restrained, with enough character development and emotional substance to draw me in and with enough crime and mystery to satisfy my Agatha Christie-addicted daughter. The Tarnished Eye isn’t climbing the bestseller lists at the moment, but, like Guest’s other post-Ordinary

People novels, it has been praised by critics and—if the public commentary on Amazon and other bookseller websites is any indication—it’s been enthusiastically received by readers. All in all, this is something of a surprise, considering that crime writing seems a leap for the author best known for her insightful rendering of everydayness.

In fact, Guest has long been fascinated by murder. In that 1976 radio interview with Studs Terkel, she talked about the “tyranny of chance” in considering whether the victim of a particular murder could just as well have been the person who reads a report about it in the morning paper. When I remind her of this statement, she says, “I might have said that, but it doesn’t sound original; it doesn’t seem like my thought. I was probably thinking of Iris Murdoch. She has a phrase that goes, ‘There is no order in this world, there is only chance, and the terror of chance.’ Now, that seems very true to me, and very compelling.”

Also compelling is the question of what pushes an individual across the line. “The idea of why a person would commit a murder still draws me to read every single article about murder in the newspaper,” Guest tells me. “I just try to figure out what drives people to that extreme of behavior, to that point where they can’t see any other options in between. My friend Rebecca, with whom I wrote Killing Time in St. Cloud, did a book tour with me. And people would ask us, ‘You guys are straight novelists, what would ever make you want to write a mystery novel, a murder mystery?’ Rebecca would say, ‘Well, our other novels are about people who try to solve their personal problems in any way they can short of murder, and in this book we just decided to go right to the whip.”

The Tarnished Eye draws its title from a line in the novel Diana of the Crossways, by George Meredith, and its plot from the unsolved 1968 murders of the Robison family—Richard, his wife, Shirley, and their three sons and daughter—at their summer cottage in Michigan. Their corpses were discovered about a month after the killings, which were particularly brutal. Guest remembers reading about the killings at the time. “I was so fascinated with the case, and still am. I just needed to figure it out, and the fact that no cops ever did was intriguing,” she said.

During the Robison investigation, police made connections between the oldest Robison son and John Norman Collins, a clean-cut and suavely good-looking Eastern Michigan University student who was eventually convicted for the murder of eighteen-year-old Karen Sue Beineman, an EMU freshman. Collins, known at the time as the “Ann Arbor Co-Ed Killer,” was implicated superficially in fifteen murders and, as outlined in the book The Michigan Murders, is considered by authorities to be responsible for at least seven and probably nine horrifically brutal murders of young women between 1967 and 1969. “When I heard that those two were roommates, it just clicked for me,” says Guest. “How strange is it that a serial killer who has murdered all these women is also the roommate of this son of the family that was murdered at the same time? How likely is it that there would be no connection, that it would be pure coincidence?”

In 1970, Collins was sentenced to life with a twenty-year minimum behind bars. Guest thinks he ought to be questioned now about the Robison killings, since he’s incarcerated and thus readily available. “The lawyer from Scribner [her publisher] asked, ‘Hopefully he’ll be in for a long time?’” Guest recalls. “I said, ‘yeah, hopefully.’” Indeed, one has to hope that Collins’s history of attempted escape by tunneling out of prison will help to eliminate any possibility of parole. “They tried and convicted him for the last murder, because they knew they had enough evidence to convince the jury on that one. But they are totally convinced that he murdered those other girls.” For her part, Guest is convinced that Collins also killed the Robison family. Meanwhile, the publication of The Tarnished Eye piqued the interest of many others close to the real case. Guest notes that the Robison investigation focused on the father and the suspects who knew him. “It just didn’t make sense to me,” she says. “So in my book, the wife is having an affair, and the guy she is having an affair with becomes one of the main suspects. I’ve already heard from people who knew the Robison family who are saying, ‘You’ve slandered her name! She would never have done that, she was a wonderful woman.’ And you have to keep saying, it’s a novel, it’s a novel, I’m not writing about the real Robisons. It’s a tough distinction for people. It’s tough for me sometimes, especially having gotten to know Tom Mair like I do.”

Tom Mair lives in Traverse City, Michigan. “I was Randy’s best friend from age two,” he told me, referring to the twelve-year-old Robison boy who was killed. “I had been invited to go with the family on the same trip north when they were murdered.” This is just the sort of terror of chance that has fascinated Guest for decades. “Tom was actually supposed to have been on this particular vacation,” Guest tells me, but his dad was a steelworker, and the steelworkers in Detroit were on strike at the time, and so instead of taking their vacation in August like they usually did, they decided to take it in June.

Mair first heard that Guest had written a book based on the case when a reporter from the local paper called him. He immediately ordered a copy online and purchased another from the local bookstore. It took him a couple of days to pick it up and start reading. Once he did, he took it in small bites. “I was cautious because I didn’t know where she got her information, or how the story would be told in fiction. The point she makes in her book—that the infamous Ann Arbor co-ed killer was connected—shocked and surprised me the most. Partly because this angle had appeared before, and partly because she hadn’t disguised it much. I wasn’t sure this book would help or hurt the investigation.”

Mair eventually contacted Guest through her publisher, and the two set up a breakfast meeting in Traverse City while Guest was on her book tour. “I came to the bookstore the night before and introduced myself,” Mair said. “I only stayed long enough to hear her speak a few words. It was emotional for me to hear her speak. There was a crowd of people, strangers, who would be hearing a story I was close to. I left. But then at breakfast, there was a certain level of knowing about the case that was a sort of intimacy. We had both looked in on another family and we saw how ordinary and how naive people can be. This story still scares me.”

Mair’s website, UnsolvedHomicides.com, contains information about the actual crime and the status of the investigation, and it offers a reward for tips. “He really hopes the book will help someone remember something or come forward with something new,” says Guest. “He’s so intense, and that made me feel very intense about it, too.”

She finds that the notion of the Robison murderer being locked up in prison without anyone looking closely at him is eerily sad. “I thought it was so amazing that Tom reached the same conclusion I did. They really limited the search immediately and only focused on Mr. Robison and his acquaintances and his business connections.” Guest asked Mair if anyone had ever confronted John Norman Collins about the Robison murders. “Tom said, yes, and what Collins said was, ‘A) I’m not talking to anybody until I can talk to my lawyer, and B) I don’t want to talk about that case.’”

Guest is more than a hundred and fifty pages into her next novel—a roaring start for a writer who’s known to take her time (after the tenth year of writing Errands, her fourth novel, she finally stopped counting). White in the Moon, whose title comes from a poem by A.E. Housman, will be a follow-up to The Tarnished Eye and will again feature detective Hugh DeWitt. “I love Hugh,” says Guest, fetching a folder containing a stack of green paper that is her work in progress. She offers to share the Hausman poem, but happily agrees to read from the novel as well. She flips through the folder to a particular scene, where DeWitt is complaining to his wife, Karen, about their adolescent daughter’s boyfriend:

“Bad enough he’s a biker, now he’s a Catholic biker.”

She turned from the sink to look at him. No words, just the look.

“Karen,” he said patiently, “we’re not Catholic.”

“We’re not anything. We’re lapsed Lutherans. We don’t get to be prejudiced.”

“I’m not prejudiced,” he said. “It’s just…fish on Fridays, Catechism on Saturdays, Mass on Sundays. It’s too much organized religion on a daily basis. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Is what you learned about it in grade school all that you know? They don’t eat fish on Fridays anymore, not since Vatican II.”

“Oh, great. That’s a relief. Do they still go to confession? Do the girls still have first communion and dress up in fake wedding dresses with veils so they can marry Jesus?”

“Becky isn’t marrying Zach,” Karen said. “Or Jesus.”

In the next room, Larry can tell we’re wrapping up. When I’m gone, the Lavercombes will take a nice afternoon bike ride together. Maybe later, Guest will work a little on White in the Moon. When that’s finished, she can return her attention to the sequel she had once begun to Second Heaven. “It’s kind of nice having that going and having this going. I’ve got my work cut out for me for the next ten years. And I like that.”

It’s odd, in a way, that this attractive, fortunate, highly regarded writer looks forward with such chipper anticipation to the chance to spend her next ten years in fictional worlds of carefully constructed chaos rife with violence and dysfunction. But it makes perfect sense to Guest, who can’t leave alone the inexplicable variations in how one individual or the other deals with the terror of chance in a world without order. “I think human beings manufacture order, because we need it. We manufacture religion, because we need it. You need something to get you through.”

What about Guest, who manufactures disorder, but whose life looks from all angles to be one in which most everything has fallen neatly and blessedly into place? “I think living the blessed life is the luck of the draw,” she says. “You don’t get control over the cards you’re dealt—whether it’s fatal illness, death, accidents—but we do have control over how we face those odds, how we play the cards. Some people with awful cards can be successful because of how they deal with the tragedies they’re handed, and that seems courageous to me. That’s what interests me, more than the fate of the blessed life.”