Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Randi Triant Interview - What We Give, What We Take

Photo Credit: Fiona Sinclair

Randi Triant is the author of the novels The Treehouse, selected as an AfterEllen.com ultimate summer read, and A New Life. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in literary journals and magazines, including two anthologies of writing about HIV/AIDS, Art & Understanding: Literature from the First Twenty Years of A & U and Fingernails Across the Blackboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS from the Black Diaspora. She lives in Massachusetts.


When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill? 
I was ten years old when I wrote my first story, which was an awful story about a kid who was trapped in a creepy castle and was searching for the answer to the overly dramatic question, What is love? I had no idea why I wrote it, but I was hooked. I loved creating this character who was the exact opposite of me, a kid living in a Long Island beach town with a loving family.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book? 
Working full-time in health media and communications, first at a large public health company and later at a Boston hospital. That took months (years?) away from the book. Honestly, though, anything would distract me: the dog, the mailman, a tree branch tapping at my desk window…my imagining a tree branch tapping at my desk window.

Beyond your own work (of course), what is your all-time favorite book? 
I would’ve said Bleak House by Charles Dickens, but after I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, I think Dickens may have slipped to #2.

Greatest thing you learned in school. 
How important revising my work was and, as part of that, the value of having several fellow students critique my work during and after grad school. For years afterward, I was in a writing group with five other Bennington grad students. We read and gave critiques of whatever we were working on. Cheered each other on in good times and bad. (I’m starting to sound like Dickens…it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…) I still send my drafts to some of the original members for feedback. My novels wouldn’t be the books they are without them and my subsequent revisions.

What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us? 
I’m coordinating a May reading and art exhibition called “What We Give” that explores artwork by and about individuals living with physical or mental challenges. I’m also working on a novel about two women who were childhood friends, but now are estranged as adults, and what happens when one has AIDS and the other decides to go on a cross-country trip with her seeking various treatments, some bogus, some not.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published. 
Teaching writing at Emerson College and Boston College.

In your newest book WHAT WE GIVE, WHAT WE TAKE, can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about it. 
It’s the story of a single mother, a carnival escape artist who makes terrible decisions, and consequently, her disabled son is forced to run away. Ultimately, it’s a story of second chances and rising above family circumstances, however messed up they are.

What part of Fay did you enjoy writing the most? 
How resilient she is. No matter what happens, what bad decisions she makes, and she makes several, she picks herself up and keeps slogging forward through muck and disaster. Most of us would be flattened by the consequences of what she’s done. I would be.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why? 
My character, Fay Stonewell, meeting Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth would straighten Fay out faster than you could say, Skål.

If you wrote a journal entry today, what would it say? 
I really hope the snowplow comes today.

What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives? 
Go to the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company.

Best date you've ever had? 
The time my wife flew us to Paris, somehow got permission for us to visit the Rodin Museum by ourselves after closing hours, then we flew to Marrakech and rode camels to catch the sunrise in the Erg Chebbi sand dunes, finally falling asleep in a Berber tent. Oh, sorry. I thought you asked for the best fantasy date I ever had. It’s safe to say my actual dates have paled in comparison.

What event in your life would make a good movie? 
My eldest brother drowned in a boating accident when he was thirty-four years old and I was twenty-nine. The other five men on the boat all survived. That, of course, devastated me. I fictionalized the story in my second novel, A New Life, in which a woman, who is a reporter, loses her sister to a drowning but it’s not clear whether it was an accident or murder (in my brother’s case it was an accident). She hunts down the survivors to find out the truth, ends up getting entangled in their lives, and things go off the rails from there.

Most memorable summer job? 
The only job I ever got fired from. I was nineteen, home from college for the summer and I had the mind-numbing job of watering all the plants at a very large garden nursery. For three weeks, I forgot to water an entire back section of rhododendrons and nearly killed them all. The owner simply handed me a bunch of shriveled up, almost black leaves and that was that. I headed for the exit.

First Heartbreak? 
My first “real” boyfriend. His name was Randy also. It was doomed from the start.

  • 1. Still Life by Sarah Winman
  • 2. Writers & Lovers by Lily King
  • 3. Sisters by Daisy Johnson
  • 4. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
  • 5. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
  • 6. Plain Bad Heroines by emily m. danforth
  • 7. Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford
  • 8. Matrix by Lauren Groff
  • 9. Borges and Me: An Encounter by Jay Parini
  • 10. Spring Cannot be Cancelled: David Hockney in Normandy by Martin Gaylord
Journey to writing WHAT WE GIVE, WHAT WE TAKE
In elementary school there was another student my age who had contracted polio years before and was confined to a wheelchair. Eventually, he was able to walk with braces and crutches, and later with just crutches. I always wondered why his parents hadn’t signed him up for the vaccine because at that time virtually every kid had been vaccinated.

Later, when I was in grad school, I finally decided to write a short story about it as part of my thesis. The short story had some of the same elements as What We Give, What We Take, but it only focused on the son, Dickie, as a teenager with polio in the immediate days after Fay leaves him with an abusive boyfriend and goes to Vietnam.

Then, one of my thesis advisors told me she liked the story about the boy, but what about that mother? How could she leave him in such a terrible situation? That started me thinking that what I needed to write was a novel. The story was too big for a short story.

I wanted part of the story to follow Fay when she goes to Vietnam, but I only knew a little about the war. I had to do research and eventually, through that rabbit hole, discovered that the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which was started by the Quakers, had run a rehabilitation clinic in Vietnam that treated kids. On a lark, I wrote to AFSC’s central office and asked if they had any documents from the sixties from that clinic. Surprisingly, they invited me to go through their files, which included incredible film footage and photographs that helped in describing the fictional compound where Fay goes.

Over the next year I wrote a draft, but it wasn’t working. I tried writing it in third person, although I really wanted to keep the first person narrative I’d used in the original short story. But I hadn’t fully decided on whether I was writing Dickie’s story from the eyes of a teenager (when Fay left him) or from the adult Dickie’s perspective, so it was a total disaster.

I ended up putting that draft in a drawer, then ten years later, I took it out. Dickie and Fay just kept haunting me. I decided Dickie needed to be forty years old and looking back on his teenage years because I was most interested in how he’d become so isolated as an adult from everyone. I added two other misfits: Laurence Jones, an eccentric artist that Dickie meets after he runs away from Fay’s abusive boyfriend and Spin, a gay man dying of AIDS, who Dickie ends up living with as an adult. I’d lost my best friend and several other friends to AIDS and quite a bit of my writing had been (and continues to be) focused on AIDS issues, so Spin was born from that. Both Laurence and Spin became as crucial to showing Dickie’s crippling emotional development as his childhood with Fay.

I kept working on the structure of showing Dickie and Fay’s separate but parallel lives. Over the next ten years I worked on the book, then threw it back in the drawer, only to take it out and do another draft, throw it back in the drawer, and so on. I imagined it was like delivering a baby yak—a lot of sweat and tears and shouting. Finally, about a year ago, I gave it to my wife to read and she encouraged me to send it to my publisher. If she hadn’t, it probably would still be sitting in that drawer.

In 1967, Fay Stonewell, a water tank escape artist in Florida, leaves for Vietnam to join the Amazing Humans—a jerry-rigged carnival there to entertain the troops—abandoning her disabled teenage son, Dickie, to the care of an abusive boyfriend.

Months after Fay’s departure, Dickie’s troubled home life ends in a surprising act of violence that forces him to run away. He soon lands in Manhattan, where he’s taken in by eccentric artist Laurence Jones. Fay, meanwhile, is also facing dangerous threats. From the night her plane jolts onto a darkened Saigon runway, she is forced to confront every bad decision she’s ever made as she struggles to return to her son. But the Humans owner is hell-bent on keeping her in Vietnam, performing only for war-injured children at a hospital, daily reminders of the son she’s left behind.

Decades later, Dickie is forty, living in a Massachusetts coastal town with a man who’s dying of AIDS, and doing everything he can to escape his past. But although Spin may be giving Dickie what he’s always wanted—a home without wheels—it seems that the farther Dickie runs, the tighter the past clings to him.

Ultimately, What We Give, What We Take is a deeply moving story of second chances and rising above family circumstances, however dysfunctional they may be.

You can purchase What We Give, What We Take at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you RANDI TRIANT for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of What We Give, What We Take by Randi Triant.


  1. The worse job I ever had was McDonalds

  2. All my jobs have had good and bad aspects to them. I guess planting bamboo in the pouring rain when I was a landscaper was not one of the better days I've had at work.