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Author Mameve Medwed talks about her new novel "Host Family."

Symbiotic Relationship


Long before Oprah's Book Club and before, the Junior League of Richmond Book & Author Dinner was drawing avid Richmond readers to its lively yearly discussion of books. This year, the Junior League's 55th annual dinner takes place Thursday, May 4, at the Richmond Marriott Hotel. Paul Duke will host the event. Guests include: Edward Rutherford, author of "The Forest"; Mameve Medwed author of "Host Family"; Richmonder Dean King, author of "Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed"; Steven Varni with his debut novel "The Inland Sea"; and Robert Novak, author of "Completing the Revolution: A Vision for Victory in 2000." The event is sold out.

Medwed, author of 1998's "Mail" and the recently released "Host Family," lives in Cambridge, Mass., the setting for her two novels. Prior to the publication of "Mail," Medwed wrote short stories for more than 20 years and has been published in Redbook, Playgirl, The Missouri Review and other national publications.

"Host Family" tells the story of Henry and Daisy Lewis, a Cambridge couple who have served as a host family for international students studying at Harvard. When a female French student enters their lives, Francophile Henry leaves Daisy for life with la jeune fille. When Daisy meets parasitologist Truman Wolfe things start to look up — until an Italian student shakes things up again.

Style caught up with Medwed in Cambridge to discuss her upcoming appearance in Richmond:

Style: Like the characters in both of your books, you also live in Cambridge, Mass. And like the characters in "Host Family" your family has also hosted students through Harvard's Host Family program. What are some of the challenges of writing about things that are so close to you?
Medwed: The things that are so close to me are actually the irrelevant or superficial things in the novel. I love things that are anchored in actual geography. I use the names of actual places and streets. Except my husband told me I absolutely couldn't use the name of the restaurant where one of the characters in "Host Family" gets food poisoning! These are the kinds of details that make the world very real, that anchor the characters.

And even though we have been a host family, the students that my characters host have nothing to do with the real students we have hosted — it's made up, but real at the same time — if that makes any sense. Everything sort of undergoes a magical transformation.

I like to write about families and families sort of breaking apart and coming together, ... but, in fact, I've been married for 1,000 years to somebody I actually went to nursery school with if you can believe that.

SW: What makes Cambridge a good setting for a novel?
MM: I think Harvard Square is really interesting, even though it has changed and the Gap has come in, there are still the relics of coffeehouses, and independent bookstores that are open until midnight. There are still very odd souls roaming around Harvard Square. It's home to me; it's of endless interest — it's sort of like a bell jar of life.

Also, you have a continual student population. Every four years a new batch of students comes in so its hard to feel like you're growing older.

SW: How did you come up with the theme of symbiosis for "Host Family"?
MM: I started with the theme of host families and wanted to write about what happened when these students from the outside come in and insert themselves into a tightly knit family. I didn't really have a metaphor for it until I read about some parasites in the New York Times. I took it and ran with it and I've become very fond of some of these bugs. As one who took "science for poets" I'm really proud of myself for having inserted some science into my novel.

SW: You teach advanced fiction writing in Cambridge. What are some of the most important things about writing that you have learned in your career?
MM: To keep at it ... you have to keep doing it. To have good readers and to read good writers. I do believe a lot of it can be taught, that the craft [of writing] can be taught, and certain kinds of techniques can be taught, but you have to start with a basic talent. You can tell right away that some people are not going to make it and that others are absolutely going to be stars.

SW: Your short fiction has been published in numerous publications — do you have a preference for short stories or fiction?
MM: For 20 years I wrote short stories — I never even thought about writing a novel. ... Actually "Mail" started out as a story that was in the Missouri Review. A good friend, [the writer] Elinor Lipman, said I had to write a novel; I said, "I don't know how." She told me to take the story and just keep going. Now, after having written two novels, I think I've forgotten how to write a short story. ...

When I wrote "Mail" I was just convinced that nobody would ever want it. I was just writing it for myself ... The reaction to it surprised me. It was auctioned off, four publishers wanted it, and it has been optioned for the movies. I got a two-book contract, so I felt as if I had a safety net for "Host Family," that editors and readers would look at it seriously. I always had the reader in mind when writing "Host

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