Twisted Family Values by V.C. Chickering is a sexy gem of a book that spans generations without ever taking itself too seriously. The book travels across decades, going from the 70’s to present, and the period details are great fun: if you lived during those times like I did, you’ll enjoy the music, clothing, and food nostalgia trips.
It follows the twin sagas of Bizzy and Choo, two children of the Thornden family. The Thorndens have money and the reputation and privilege that goes along with it. It doesn’t occur to most of them until about 2/3 of the way through the book that the world doesn’t revolve around their comings, goings, and doings. Bizzy and Choo (actually Elizabeth and Charles, who by the time they are adults go by Biz and Charlie outside of the family) are cousins and best friends, and their seemingly unnatural closeness interferes with their romantic lives.
Image is everything to the Thorndens, or is it? The Thornden clan, underneath its veneer of class, is truly twisted. Nothing is as it seems. Graceful manners and grin-and-bear-it smiles hide a multitude of scandals, even from each other.
At its heart, though, Twisted Family Values isn’t about the prurient value of the scandal. The book isn’t (just) a soap opera, designed to have you turn the page to gawk at the train wreck the Thorndens have made of their lives. (Although truly, that is fun.) It would be tempting to take the book at face value and simply gloat about the superiority of your own morals. No, when it comes down to it, Twisted Family Values is a love story, albeit non-traditional. Its lesson isn’t that that hiding dirt under the rug is inherently evil, but rather that the secrets are the problem. As long as we all know the dirt is under the rug and we’re hiding it together, it’s ok to be co-conspirators against a harsh world. Being honest with the people you care about is what makes a family functional and a relationship work.
I had the great privilege of being able to ask V.C. Chickering some questions about this book after I read it, and she was kind enough to answer in great detail. Here’s the back and forth, verbatim:
Q: One of the fun things about reading Twisted Family Values for me was the period details. I’m about the same age as Biz and Charlie, and I loved the music and food and clothing that changed as they went and it made me nostalgic. Was this an afterthought, or part of the original plan?
First of all, I’m so glad the book was fun. I don’t bake, so if I can bring fun to the party, I’ve done my job. My childhood world was steeped in music, fashion, hors d’oeuvres, and games, so I gave the characters that kind of multi-sensory world, too. Since one of the themes I wanted to explore is how our mindsets tend to be heavily influenced by the times we live in, I felt it important to steep the reader in the decade at hand so they could better empathize with the choices and reactions of the characters at that moment in history.
Q: Another fun thing about TFV was how the advent of cell phones fit into the plot, and the older generation’s refusal to keep up with technology and the way information spreads. Is this something that was inspired by something that happened to you personally?
Not a specific event, per se, but just how amazing it is that we’ve so whole-heartedly accepted current communication technology—even lame-ass late adapters like me—to the point that it’s a struggle for me to remember how we had to carry change for pay phones or leave messages for people on answering machines in order to make last minute plans. I actually had to ask a friend I went to college with how we communicated back then. He reminded me that each dorm floor had one hall phone and whomever heard it ring would answer it then knock on your bedroom door and shout, “Phone call!” Or the cranky dude at the front office would hand-write messages that went in your box. It’s a miracle any of us ever connected, ever.
Q: Class and money and WASP culture are obviously big themes in TFV. Nicknames are symbolic of that class — even the grandparents have nicknames. Considering you use a pseudonym, a ‘literary nickname’ if you will, when you write, does this have any kind of deeper meaning for you?
Only that of separation and distance. Plenty of professions
promote a parallel duality between a professional life and a social one—actors,
writers, research scientists and medical personnel who publish in journals.
Even RBG is probably Ruthie to her childhood friends. Having said all that, I
was 35 when I married and took my former husband’s name. My entire professional
career—everything I’ve ever written—has been credited to the name Chickering.
My first name is Victoria. So to me, it’s not a stretch. But yes, I’ve always
marveled at the inventive nature of the nickname ethos among some cultures, but
it’s not a solely WASPy thing. Russian literature is full of characters with a
bazillion nicknames, and there’s a black comic who has a hilarious bit about
not knowing their own extended family members’ given names. Latin cultures,
forget it—nicknames galore. I think they help to create a comfort level within
a family, within a world, and create separation from a more formal existence.
Q: Relatedly, how did you come up with “Bizzy” and “Choo”?
I was looking for good, solid, olde English Christian names like Margaret, Catherine, Elizabeth, that sort of thing, the nickname possibilities were myriad for each. I used Cat for one of the moms, an old-fashioned 40s/50s nickname for Catherine, before Katie or Cathy became the fashion. I thought Bizzy worked equally well for a curious youngster and Biz the likely evolution for an emerging adult named Elizabeth. Choo came from Choo-Choo Charlie–the name of every boy’s childhood train–which might have been a likely nickname for any tot christened Charles.
Q: Without giving us any spoilers, did you know that the book would wrap up the way it would before you finished it, or did it just happen organically?
Sort of. Initially the story outline I pitched to my publisher in
2016 ended when Biz and Choo graduated from college, but she said they had to
get older. So I wrote another twenty-five years without really knowing how
they’d get to their emotional destination, but knowing they’d arrive
together—if that makes sense. Then, about 7 drafts in, my publisher gave me one
of the more hilarious knots to untangle—or tangle in this case—and I’m proud to
say I came up with the solution on the spot and pitched it to her before our
call ended. “Great,” she said, “go write it.” So, I went back
and weaved in the main plot twist we’re cleverly avoiding in this interview.
The first chapter was one of the last things I wrote and re-wrote. Followed by
the first and last sentences, re-written endlessly.
Q: How was the process of writing this book different than your first, “Nookietown”?
Very. Nookietown was written in July 2011, I think, using the NaNoWriMo challenge of 1,700 words a day for 30 days. That got me to 50,000 words by August 1st, then I wrote another 50,000 more by New Year’s. The writing flowed out of me quickly because I was drawing off the many conversations and personal experiences I’d recently had with marriage, fidelity, divorce, and sexual desire, that it felt breezier to write—especially with the help of many readers over my 11 drafts in 5 years. For Twisted Family Values I came up with the initial story outline in the late 90s after a date with a guy who told me a peculiar story about his teen years. He was so matter of fact about it—and I knew it was common in other cultures and certainly more typical among earlier generations—that I found it a compelling twist to place a similar situation in a well-to-do, current milieu. I didn’t write the first draft until 2016, which happened over a longer period because I was making up pretty much all of it with far, far less to draw from. It was simply harder, slower work for me—a true challenge for me as a writer. I also had fewer readers, drafts, and a handful of hideous cases of vertigo throwing a wrench into my timeline. It felt like a very different process in every way. But at least now I know I’m capable of both.
Q: Anything else you want to tell us?
Yes! My biggest surprise in writing a story that takes place over nearly 50 years, was how incredulous it felt to go back and live in the mindset of a young woman or man living in an era just as designated drivers, AIDS awareness, and concepts of mutual consent were being coined and introduced to the mainstream. I’ve been trying to explain to younger readers that people took inappropriate liberties with their own lives and the well-being of others because there were fewer precedents for saying no and the consequences felt unlikely. It was an incomprehensibly different time for making—and surviving—poor choices, as we’re learning. And therapy was something I only read about in New Yorker cartoons. Hopefully, I’m able to drop the reader into the mindset of the time in such an immersive way that they can understand why the characters respond to situations the way they do. It’s not that they’re being flippant to dire circumstances, it’s because society didn’t assign weight to them at the time. I’m telling you, it’s absolutely astounding how the tables have turned and things have changed—truly mind-blowing for someone my age.
For more information click here for Twisted Family Values on Amazon.
Lori B. Duff is an award-winning author who practices law on the side. Her latest book, “If You Did What I Told You…” is set to be released in the Fall of 2019. You can follow her on Twitter at @LoriBDuff and on Facebook. For more blogs written by Lori, click here. For more information about Lori in general, click here. If you want Lori to do your writing for you, click here.