Author Q&A:
Meg Howrey

They’re Going To Love You

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Carlisle Martin grows up dreaming of being a professional ballet dancer, like her mother Isabel, as much as she looks forward to the precious few weeks a year she gets to spend immersed in its world in New York, with her father Robert. There she stays at Bank Street, with him and his troubled partner James – a ballet teacher who mentors Carlisle both creatively and intellectually.

As a young adult struggling to find her place in the dance world, Carlisle returns to New York where James and Robert’s relationship is under threat. When James asks her to carry out a task for him, she takes the chance to please him but worries she is betraying her father.

Nineteen years later the consequences of Carlisle’s actions still reverberate, even as she’s become a sought after choreographer. When a phone call comes from New York, the fateful events of her life unravel.

Told through shifting timelines, They’re Going To Love You is a powerful story of family, legacy, love, ambition and forgiveness.

Tell us about your own career as a professional dancer, its legacy on your life and how it informed the character of Carlisle.
I had enough of a career as a dancer to explain the lack of cartilage in my knees these days, but a small enough career to experience imposter syndrome when someone refers to me as a ballerina. I trained seriously, from a young age, and was invited to join Joffrey II in New York when I was 16. Over the course of about 15 years, I performed with other ballet companies, in a Broadway National Tour, and with the Los Angeles Opera. When I wasn’t doing these things, I was reading books.

The idea for this novel came from imagining a central conflict, a love affair that is a betrayal and results in a separation. A book that had something to do with what we protect, or fail to protect, in those we love. About how we can make things out of broken pieces and also become guardians of our own damage.

I came slowly to the idea of making the people of this book dancers. I’d already written a novel, The Cranes Dance, set very much in the world of ballet, and I wasn’t interested in repeating that kind of behind-the-scenes setting. So, this book has a different lens.

Carlisle is a woman in her forties, a choreographer, a working artist doing what working artists do: teach, take weird gigs, hustle. We see how the careers of her parents and her mentor James have imprinted on her, how her own ambitions have been thwarted and then reimagined and reignited. I’m always interested in female ambition – what it looks like from the inside, how it’s received on the outside. I liked the idea that you could have a coming-of-age novel where the coming of age happens to a woman in her forties.

Women are traditionally the focus of classical ballets but they are under-represented in choreography – an imbalance Carlisle is determined to challenge after dancing in Alex’s shoes. Are efforts being made to redress the balance in ballet and do you think better representation of women behind the scenes would translate to what audiences see on stage? 
A person currently involved with the classical ballet world is the one to answer this, but from an observer’s position, I would say yes. I’m seeing more and more diversity in programming, in management, in representation on stage, both for women and for other gender representations, and for people of colour. If ballet is not to become a museum relic, this is the only way forward.

The contemporary timeline of this novel is around 2017, when all of this is just beginning, and we also visit a younger Carlisle in the 1980s and 1990s, at a time when ballet’s hierarchies and gatekeeping were largely unquestioned. I’m not sure the moment when Carlisle begins to see herself as a choreographer is a moment of determination. It’s more a bemused recognition. This is who she is. It’s been inside her all along. But is there a place for her? How does she make it happen?

Why does The Firebird present challenges to Carlisle as a choreographer and what’s the significance of the story of the ballet to her own?
It’s a moment when Carlisle’s presented with a tremendous job opportunity but it’s something that, at least initially, feels like the exact wrong thing. She’s got a dying father and 19 years of estrangement to reckon with – she’s not into remaking a magic bird ballet from the early 20th century.

An earlier draft of the book had much more about the history of The Firebird, and I eventually, thankfully, shelved almost all of it (with apologies to Stravinsky). Readers can make their own connections, but I think perhaps where the ballet really touches the emotional entanglements of the novel is that the conclusion of The Firebird is a lifting of all enchantments. And the transformation of monsters into people.

Are mothers and daughters the unrealised theme in They’re Going to Love You?
The major events of the novel centre around Carlisle’s relationship with her father and James, and so a theme of mothers and daughters was never a centred goal. That said, Carlisle’s relationship with her mother does shift throughout the course of the book, and I think we see a new connection being forged. I’m always interested in the different expectations we seem to place on mothers versus fathers. And the time it can take us to understand our mothers.

If there’s an unrealised theme of this book, I’m voting for the cats of Bank Street. We meet a succession of them at the rather fabulous apartment where Carlisle’s father and James live. “Muscular white cats, of indeterminate breed” which are all named after the murdered Romanov children. They really deserve their own story. I’m sure they would agree.

James says he never wanted children because he didn’t want to pass on a family legacy of depression. But is the family legacy of dance Carlisle is born into as much of a pressure on mental health?
James has more than one reason for not wanting children, and he’s a gay man who has lived most of his life in a time where that option was difficult, at best. The mentorship he offers Carlisle is a tremendous gift in many ways, as is the legacy of dance she receives from her parents. I think she both honours her family history and wrestles with the consequences.

To be sure, dance is a job with significant physical and emotional pressures, but this is not a story about how ballet wrecks people. The major conflicts of the book are personal. They are, as Carlisle notes, “undanceable truths”.

How did the Aids pandemic specifically affect the New York dance world and what is its legacy?
The answer to that is not within the purview of this novel, where the story is being told by someone who was a young person during the worst years of the pandemic, and in the position of an outsider, an observer, who sees the damage and the toll without being able to comprehend it fully. I was interested in how surviving Aids was a different kind of trauma. The loss – and the guilt, the fear, the anger – plays out in certain ways in the lives of Carlisle’s father and his partner. I did not attempt to portray a legacy at large, but a legacy for this particular family.

In her family, romantic relationships and her art, Carlisle feels that she is never the person anyoneloves best. Will professional success be enough to fulfil her?
Professional success is a moving target and is not the same thing as the kind of deep engagement with her work that Carlisle is always after. That kind of engagement too, isn’t about fulfilment. Every artist comes to terms with forever being in pursuit. As for the rest? Carlisle has forged a career from many places inside herself, including pain, but I think the laying down of that pain and coming to an understanding of what forgiveness means in her life will be the thing that carries her into her future.

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