March 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm, by Cherise Bathersfield
Entertainment journalist Thelma Adams’s novel Playdate, just out in paperback, explores the minefields of modern marriage with humor and sass. But Playdate is no empty romp. In addition to parenting precocious pre-teens, the protagonists—couples Lance and Darlene and Alec and Wren—are dealing with complex issues. Lance, an unemployed weatherman, is married to Darlene, a restaurateur, who maintains an inappropriate flirtation with her restaurant’s financier, Alec, who is married to Wren, a yogi, who is having an affair with Lance. Got that? If that love quadrangle weren’t dizzying enough, a fierce forest fire is menacing their comfortable upper-middle-class California enclave. We asked Adams to talk about the game plan behind Playdate.
You’ve been a film critic and entertainment writer for almost 30 years. How did that experience inform your first novel, which is about marriage and relationships?
I am a married film critic and entertainment writer with relationships. Some of which, I confess, are a little convoluted. This novel began as an idea for a screenplay: What if we melded Warren Beatty’s handsome rootless philanderer in Shampoo with Michael Keaton’s overwhelmed dad in Mr. Mom? It seemed like a funny concept. However, as it turned out, I’m a prose girl. The movie idea morphed into a novel.
With his sensitive nature and commitment to parenting, Lance is the heart and soul of the book. But he’s also having an affair. Was it hard to construct a sympathetic cheater?
Making Lance sympathetic without demonizing his wife Darlene was one of the great challenges of the book. Personally, I am the daughter of a relatively sympathetic cheater. My dad was no saint, but he was no demon either. I was a daddy’s little girl who adored her father, and growing up we had this kind of very easy, affectionate, unconditional love. And then, when I was in my early twenties, I discovered that I’d lived in a house where a pattern of infidelity on my father’s side gutted my mother. Being daddy’s little girl was suddenly a difficult position to have within the family politics. And, on top of that, when I found out about my father, I was still crying over a post-college live-in relationship with a serial cheater with whom I was crazy in love. That’s a long time ago, but fidelity, and understanding how infidelity molds a family, and a relationship, has been central to a lot of my writing. In the end, I came to understand my father, which is not exactly the same as forgiving, through my love for Lance and [his daughter] Belle.
California and its distinctive socio-economic, political and meteorological climate is almost another character in the book. Was there a special reason you chose that state as the book’s setting?
I was born and raised in California. However, my parents were from out-of-state, so I was always a bit of an outsider. A visit with my family inspired me to write this story. I know Southern California well, but by the time I was writing the book I had an outsider’s objectivity.
As for the meteorological events, they grew more powerful as I revised. In the movie Shampoo, the domestic story is set against a political election. As the election heats up, the anti-hero’s love life gets more complicated, leading to his inevitable crisis. I wanted that kind of external backdrop, and I wanted the events to unfurl in a short number of days, so I created a fictional Santa Ana that ultimately expanded, through research and opportunity, into the Witch Creek Fire.
Some of the scenes featuring Wren and Lance during their adult “playdates” are quite graphic. Did you have any qualms or difficulty in writing those sections?
Oh, I had qualms. I had difficulty. And the book came out when I had tween and teenaged kids, so that added another layer of mortification. My son, 16, and daughter, 12, couldn’t read my book though I have a row of copies to the right of my desk. And I am horrible talking about sex. Ask my husband! I’m either completely tongue-tied and inept, or abrupt and graphic. But I learned that I’m much better writing about it because I force myself to be specific. I don’t let myself fudge or pad. Also, when I first began writing sex scenes, I wanted to show what sex was like from a woman’s perspective, rather than a romanticized, or an idealized male point-of-view. When I saw the opening scene of the movie Bridesmaids, I felt a smile of recognition because those girls were trying to do the same thing, to share the women’s perspective, but in a much broader, slapstick way that I could definitely appreciate. The earth doesn’t always move.
Obviously, wildfires are all-too-real in California, but I was wondering if there was also a symbolic meaning to the fire in Playdate?
There’s that old Fiddler on the Roof lyric from “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” sung by the daughter that’s fitting: “playing with matches, a girl can get burned.” These parents, who are following their bliss and not putting their children’s needs first, are taking a huge risk with their kids, and the integrity of their families. Certainly, the Witch Creek Fire intensifies the conflicts in the book. And the fact that the characters believe they are immune from the danger because they live near the coast reflects the fact that they also feel immune from the ramifications of their individual actions. When a father cheats, he doesn’t just satisfy himself, he also betrays the trust of his wife—and his children. And there are real consequences to that.
At the same time, I tried to remember that children play with matches. Wildfires strike every year. Husbands and wives stray. Children’s lives are shaped by adult realities beyond their understanding. Life is often lived amid crisis and recalibration after crisis. So, I treat the situation that my characters create with empathy and understanding and a generosity of spirit that’s available to an author, but perhaps not to a betrayed spouse or a child.
Belle, Sam and Max, the children in the book, maintain their innocence throughout the story despite the sordid adult lives around them. What was your rationale there?
I love those children as if they were my own creations, which they are. Belle is a stew of me as a kid and my son and daughter as they grew up and passed through that awkward age just before adolescence. She’s smart. She’s funny. She’s sensitive. She’s fragile. And she acts like she knows a lot more than she really does. She’s definitely a product of that generation of parents that treat their children as friends (I’m guilty of that, too!), and doesn’t build strong parent-child boundaries.
These children are pre-pubescent, and despite Belle’s wisdom beyond her years, she still doesn’t get what is happening around her. Children really believe in the sanctity of their parents’ marriages, and that’s what makes divorce so crushing. They are incapable of seeing their mother and their father as separate individuals with their own arcs.
Marriage in your book is difficult, complicated and flawed. Were you trying to make a statement about modern marriage?
Hmm. That’s like a test question: marriage is a pit of snakes— agree or disagree. I guess I think, despite being married to a terrific man for 25 years, that marriage is “difficult, complicated and flawed” some days or even months. And sometimes it’s easy, smooth and a primary source of connection. I look at our kids and think: “that’s us, together, that’s what we’ve made under this roof.” And that makes me sublimely happy.
Now, my father used to say: “marriage is a flawed institution.” That made his cheating somehow grander than a personal decision to step out on his wife. And yet consider the alternative: Being a single mom isn’t easy; nor is being a single dad. If you want children, it’s not easy to be childless. If you want a partner, it’s not easy to be single. What’s easy?
The changes of the past few decades have reshuffled the deck, creating great opportunities, and muddying the waters of traditional marriage. It’s chaotic, and to a certain extent it’s liberating for women and men. On the other hand, someone still has to get pregnant and go through labor, and someone has to earn a living, and someone has to clean up the mattress when the kids spits up in the middle of the night.
So, my statement about modern marriage is a work in progress. When I figure it out entirely, I’ll give you a Yoda answer. In my book, the marriages hit a rough patch. Do the couples live happily ever after? You decide.