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Drives Like a Dream

"Porter Shreve once again demonstrates his talent for creating richly complicated characters and then for giving them the kind of second chances that we all wish we could have in our own lives. Drives Like a Dream is impossible to put down." — Margot Livesey

"Peppered with an assortment of memorable characters, this entertaining novel effectively combines a tale of loss and letting go with an examination of a large industry's past." — Library Journal

About the Book

"Out with the old, in with the new…Make this year's model just different enough so that last year's seems shabby and dull. Keep the wheels ever rolling…Lydia had little patience for that old comparison between cars and women and yet she couldn't help thinking, with increasing irritation, that her latest book mirrored her own life in uncanny ways."

Lydia Modine, an automobile historian who is writing a book about planned obsolescence, finds the subject of her current project hits a little too close to home in Porter Shreve's new novel, Drives Like a Dream. Sixty-one years old and about to come undone, Lydia is a woman who has poured her heart and soul into her family, only to feel utterly abandoned by them. Her ex-husband is about to marry a woman half his age. Her three grown children have all flown the coop, and she feels especially alienated from her only daughter Jessica. Her latest book about Detroit's car industry has hit a dead end.

Following the motto that desperate times call for desperate measures, Lydia schemes to reassemble her fragmented family through a series of lies intended to lure her children home to Detroit, in the hope that they might stay for good. The secrets pile up, and all the while Lydia is attempting to solve a mystery about her own father, an esteemed car designer for General Motors who may have been hiding secrets of his own. As the drama (and hilarity) unfolds, Lydia is forced to refashion her whole notion of family, old and new.

Drives Like a Dream is a story for any mother who has struggled with the empty nest blues, and for any daughter whose mother has driven her just a little bit crazy. (Porter Shreve amazes with his ability to get inside a woman's head!) And for anyone who is interested in the twilight of the age of the automobile and the conspiracy theories that surrounded it, this novel makes for the perfect read.

About the Author

Porter Shreve is the author of the acclaimed novel The Obituary Writer, a New York Times Notable Book in 2000. Coeditor of six anthologies, his work has appeared in many publications, including Witness, Northwest Review, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times. Shreve has been on the English faculty at the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He now directs the creative writing program at Purdue University. For more information, please visit: www.portershreve.com.

A Conversation with Porter Shreve about Drives Like a Dream

How did the idea for Drives Like a Dream originate?

When I began the book I was thinking a lot about displacement. I'm the oldest of four siblings in a close family and at the time I sat down to write my second novel, we all lived in separate cities. My mother was in D.C.; my father was in Houston. I had one sister in New York, another in Providence, my brother lived in Denver, and I was in Ann Arbor.

We were a scattered clan, like a lot of American families, and I wanted to write about that in some way. So I guess the story began with my own sense of detachment and longing for a family that I knew would never quite be whole again.

While the book was inspired by my own situation, it's not autobiographical. I gave the central viewpoints to the mother and daughter. It seemed to me that these two characters — Lydia and Jessica — took the strongest positions on the idea of family and also had the most invested. Lydia was a big dreamer who believed in that increasingly quaint idea of the nuclear family, and Jessica seemed to be searching for an alternative that would take into account her own need for independence. This mother-daughter counterpoint proved to be the engine that drove the book.

The whole novel goes back and forth between Lydia and Jessica. The men in the story are mostly secondary characters. Were you comfortable writing from the point of view of women?

I didn't set out to write a book from two women's perspectives. I was just drawn to the tension between the mother and daughter. Nor did I think about it until I described the novel to friends and they brought up this question. It's a writer's job to imagine the lives of others and try to understand as much as possible about people.

It's also true that I grew up in a house with a strong-minded mother at the center and many women all around me. I have two sisters with whom I'm very close. Two of my widowed grandmothers grew up in the house with us, and on top of this we also rented out rooms wherever we lived, and more often than not our boarders were women. So I spent my childhood at the kitchen table listening to women talk.

I was fortunate to have three women as my primary readers — my editor, Wendy Holt, my mother, Susan Shreve, and most of all my wife, Bich Minh Nguyen, who read the novel line by line dozens of times and gave me countless suggestions, not to mention the title.

It's a memorable title. How did your wife come up with it?

I'd run about a thousand hopeless titles by my editor. I knew that cars and driving had a central place in the book and wanted to tie that in somehow, but all I could come up with were lines from pop songs like "Who's Going to Drive You Home." My wife was getting tired of hearing so many bad titles, so one day she turned to the automotive section of the newspaper and read a few of the classified ads aloud. "Toyota Corolla. Good Condition. 60,000 miles," and so forth. But nothing was speaking to us. Finally, in frustration, she put down the paper and said, "Aren't they supposed to come up with something catchy — you know: 'Drives Like a Dream'?" A second later we both had that aha moment.

The novel is about a dreamer who also happens to be a car historian, who over the course of the story is driven by her dream of keeping her family together. The plot is propelled by a lie and a secret that Lydia keeps from her kids, so the false promise of that hucksterish phrase "Drives Like a Dream" also seemed to fit. Titles are a killer. I just got lucky — or rather, I married well.

You mention this secret that Lydia keeps from her kids. Can you say more about that? How did you get the idea for the secret?

Even before I knew I was going to set it in Detroit and use cars as a backdrop I had one idea for the book. This goes back as far as graduate school in 1996. I wanted to write about a mother of adult children who have all moved away and whose absence creates such a void in the mother's life that she goes to extreme measures to try to bring them home. Initially I had Lydia feigning a terminal illness. She's old-fashioned in a lot of ways, and the choice seemed to fit her character. But as I sent her to her sickbed and brought her kids in from far-flung places to gather around her, I became depressed. I hated that she was telling such a brutal lie, and I was actually losing sympathy for my central character — which is something a writer can never do. So I made a drastic adjustment, and I threw a hundred and fifty pages into the trash.

I shouldn't give the secret away entirely, but I can say that it has something to do with a certain self-absorbed new-age kind of guy named Norm. After Lydia's kids rush home to help her and as she tries to keep them at the house, a certain amount of chaos ensues. Lydia had been stuck in her life, and sometimes when you're stuck only a tempest will get you going again. Lydia creates her own tempest, and out of that half-accidental, half-purposeful creation she is finally able to change.

Drives Like a Dream is a family novel, but it's also about cars. Talk a little about the role of cars in the book. Are you a big car guy? Did you always want to write about cars?

I have to admit that before I began the novel I had only a vague interest in cars. I've driven some spectacular jalopies, like the 1971 Datsun pickup my uncle gave me for my seventeenth birthday. It had 250,000 miles on it, and literally on my third turn out of the driveway the steering wheel fell off in my lap. Until the car I own today, I'd never bought wheels that were less than eight years old.

I had originally planned to set this book about family dislocation in Washington, D.C., where I grew up. But I was still trying to figure out the characters and I had doubts about the setting as well. Perhaps both were a little too familiar to me. So as I reimagined the characters I also moved the setting to Metro Detroit. The city was in the midst of celebrating its 300th anniversary, so I found a tremendous amount of historical material.

Why Detroit?

Well, I was living nearby, in Ann Arbor. I'd already made frequent trips to Detroit, which I'd found an incredibly interesting city, about which not enough had been written. Detroit is where the car proliferated, a city that put all of its chips into one industry and lost. When the Big Three left Detroit, the city slowly died, and I began to see that in a way my central character — a car historian — also feels a profound absence, bordering on a kind of death, when her three children leave.

She feels abandoned, much in the way Detroit was abandoned by the car industry. Even in the opening scene in which her family returns only briefly, for her ex-husband's remarriage, she's beginning to recognize that one part of her life is over. She's working on a book about planned obsolescence — out with the old model, in with the new — and as we notice the parallels between her life and her work, she's unwittingly looking to redesign and revitalize. She stumbles quite a bit along the way, but over the course of the novel she does reinvent herself.

What kind of research did you have to do for the book? Since your protagonist is a historian, you must have been particularly concerned about getting the facts right.

I did double the research on this novel. I spent a lot of time in Detroit getting to know that city. I also spent many months studying the history of cars, particularly car design, and its impact on the landscape. The period that interested me most was just after World War II when the Big Three were transitioning from a war economy back to a civilian economy. Several entrepreneurs tried to start their own car companies during that little window of time, and one — Preston Tucker — was almost successful.

The trickiest thing for me as a novelist was figuring out how to make the history integral to the story. At first, Lydia was just a car historian, and I couldn't find a way to blend her subject matter into the book. I'd write large blocks of history that never quite meshed with the story. But eventually I realized that Lydia's father should be a car designer working under Harley Earl at GM in the glory days of the Fifties. And when Preston Tucker started to interest me I found a job for Lydia's father earlier in his career at the Tucker Corporation. My book was about family secrets, and I needed to discover a mystery at the heart of the narrative. I finally found it in Lydia's father's relationship to Tucker.

You write on your acknowledgments page that you "have invented characters and, on occasion, altered the history to fit the narrative." How much of the car history is true, and how much is fiction?

Nearly all of the car history is true. Everything about GM and Ford and even the smaller car companies comes from authoritative accounts, biographies and histories. The most significant fictional element I've included is the character of Lydia's father, Gilbert Warren. While he does resemble a composite of certain mid-level executives in the design department at GM, he's an invented character. No one by that name, appearance, or personal history ever worked at Ford, Tucker, or GM, so anytime Gilbert collides with certain real-life historical figures — Preston Tucker, Harley Earl, Alfred Sloan — it's fiction. I needed this connection in order to give Lydia both a research project and certain unfinished business. In working out her relationship with her father, the workaholic car designer, she comes to discover a number of things about herself.

Do you have any connection with Preston Tucker himself or any other real life figures in the book? Why the interest in Tucker?

I have no direct connection with Tucker, but my interest grew after visiting the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum, a wonderful place that I just had to put in the novel. The museum has a life-sized replica of the Tucker "48." As someone who has lived and has family in the car-cradle states of Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, I've known a number of idealists who remind me of Tucker. A favorite great-uncle of mine sold parts for Ford in Detroit and shared a similar ebullience. But probably more than anything else, I was drawn to Tucker because he had such a steep rise and fall. The idealist, the big dreamer, is irresistible for a novelist, especially when the dream and reality end up so far apart.

Praise for Drives Like a Dream

"Porter Shreve once again demonstrates his talent for creating richly complicated characters and then for giving them the kind of second chances that we all wish we could have in our own lives. Drives Like a Dream is impossible to put down." — Margot Livesey, author of Banishing Verona

"Porter Shreve has always had a keen feel for a story and an instinct for what is interesting in the world. He is a wonderful and accomplished young writer." — Lorrie Moore, author of Birds of America

"Heartbreaking, funny, deeply felt, Drives Like a Dream takes us on an old-fashioned motoring tour through the life of a remarkable family. At the center of this splendid novel is Lydia Modine, a stubborn, passionate, scheming matriarch — and unforgettable. For all of its beautifully crafted surfaces, make no mistake, Porter Shreve writes, as Chekhov said, 'out of his characters' psychic wounds.' He is a fine, fine writer indeed." — Howard Norman, author of The Haunting of L

"Peppered with an assortment of memorable characters, this entertaining novel effectively combines a tale of loss and letting go with an examination of a large industry's past." — Library Journal

"Clever and biting fiction that also serves as an amiable account of the Detroit car industry." — Kirkus Reviews

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