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Author Q&A: Chris Cander

Cindy Burnett
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A Gracious Neighbor

Chris Cander's latest novel is set in West University Place. (Photo: Emily Burnett) 

Houston author Chris Cander’s latest novel, A Gracious Neighbor, is set in our very own West University Place and was recently featured as a People Magazine’s “Best New Books” pick. Martha Hale is an affable wife and mother who lives in a nice neighborhood with well-kept yards. If only her clumsiness at penetrating the social circles of her neighbors weren’t making Martha so lonely. So she is ecstatic when Minnie Foster, a former high school classmate, moves in next door, and Martha immediately seeks to reignite their friendship, but things do not go quite as she would like. But Martha is not easily swayed.

Chandler Baker, an author who lives in Austin, raves about the book: “A dynamic and insightful storyteller, Cander imbues her work with such poignant character detail, as a reader, I felt I’d all but moved into Martha’s neighborhood. As a documented lover of tales of complicated relationships between women, I must say that A Gracious Neighbor is among the best.”  

Chris Cander is the USA Today bestselling author of the novels The Weight of a Piano, which was named an Indie Next Great Read; Whisper Hollow, also named an Indie Next Great Read, longlisted for the Great Santini Fiction Prize, and a nominee for the 2015 Kirkus Prize for Fiction; and 11 Stories, named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best books of 2013, the winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award for Fiction, and a USA Best Book Award finalist. She is also the author of the Audible Original Stories Eddies and Grieving Conversations. Cander’s fiction has been published in 12 languages. She lives in her native Houston, Texas, with her husband and two children. (Read more about Chris in The Novelist Around the Corner: Writing a story close to home by Andria Frankfort in our July 2022 issue.)

Chris Cander

Chris Cander weaves a suspenseful tale of neighborhood drama in her newest novel, The Gracious Neighbor

Chris answers some questions that I posed to her about A Gracious Neighbor:

What comes first, the plot or the characters?

Characters, always.

Can you share something with me about your book that is not in the blurb?

This book was marketed as a summer read, but (like all my work) it’s a little darker than that. It confronts the unpunishable social and emotional crimes happening to and among women at kitchen tables, cocktail parties, gala auctions, and in little league bleachers. It explores how those petty prejudices and nonviolent, barely perceptible cruelties affect individuals and communities. Everyone in the novel is concerned with how they’re perceived, and how they move through the society in which they find themselves. There’s a constant thrumming tension; it seems like everybody’s looking at each other’s exteriors and peering into their actual or metaphorical windows, looking for their points of weakness. 

What do you hope your readers take away from your book?

Some people who read this book are going to think it’s about them, but it’s not. It’s an amalgamation of conversations that I’ve overheard, of social situations I’ve witnessed as an observer or a participant, of character traits that are so ubiquitous as to be easily stereotyped. Although the protagonist, Martha, makes some questionable choices, I hope readers recognize that in some ways, we’re just like her – we’ve all experienced that same destabilizing fear she has of being on the outside of a group and being judged by those within it.

What was the highlight of writing this book?

I started this book early in the pandemic when everyone was quarantining at home. It wasn’t warm enough yet for the A/C compressors to be running all day, and since I wrote mostly sitting outside in my back yard, I had the opportunity to pay attention to my neighbors, especially those I didn’t know well, in a more sustained way than ever before. I wondered about their lives, how they were spending their time, how they were coping emotionally and physically and financially with our collective circumstances. This intersection of fact and fiction informed not only the way I wrote about my characters, but allowed me to think of my neighbors, both real and imagined, more intentionally and empathetically. 

What was your favorite part and least favorite part of the publishing journey?

I’m always profoundly grateful when readers choose to read something by or about me – but I’d rather not know what they think about it, good or bad. Once a book is out, it’s on its own journey. 

Are you working on anything at the present that you would like to share with me?

I’m halfway through a new novel called The Young of Other Animals.

Share something your readers wouldn’t know about you.

If I weren't an author, I’d be a full-time martial artist. I study Taekwondo, Krav Maga, and Jiu-Jitsu, and teach self-defense to women and girls. My training lineage comes directly from General Choi Hong Hi, the acknowledged founder of modern Taekwondo.

Read more about Chris, her background in Taekwondo, and how she got started with writing, here.  

For more book recommendations and bookish thoughts, see Cindy’s monthly Buzz Reads column, her Thoughts from a Page Podcast or follow @ThoughtsFromaPage on Instagram. Find upcoming Conversations from a Page events here.

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