Novelist Susan Isaacs says that she wants her women characters to do something out of the ordinary, to be fuller people by the end of the story, "because that's how it is in life."
In her 13th book, "Goldberg Variations" (Scribner, $26), Isaacs has created one tough cookie in Gloria Garrison, the meanest grandmother around. Garrison, who was born a Goldberg, married another and then changed her name, has summoned her three adult grandchildren to her Santa Fe mansion as a kind of Queen Lear to determine which one should inherit her successful cosmetics and fashion empire, Glory, Inc.
We spoke with Isaacs by phone from her home in Sands Point.
Gloria has no internal censor. She made it clear which of her two sons was her favorite, and she's bitingly critical of her grandchildren. Yet she's often quite funny. What interested you about this character?
She's not just vicious -- she's vicious and fun. If she were just perfectly awful and destructive she'd be mildly interesting but not believable. I loved writing Gloria. I loved creating a business. When she takes her grandchildren to Glory, I decided that's where she really lived. Her employees seemed if not to love her, then to like her and joke around with her.
This story, unlike your others, is not that plot-driven. And Gloria's three grandchildren are remarkably patient with her, more than many other 20-somethings might be with a 79-year-old grandma who practically never visited them. Why?
It's not plot-driven, but a lot happens in terms of everyone getting to know each other. Each of them reveals him or herself. Gloria is very good at asking questions. Also, it's the beginning of a reconciliation. I was trying to look at whether there is a possibility of redemption. I've heard of so many people who are so estranged from family -- she hasn't spoken to her brother in years, that one only sees her mother at Thanksgiving.
How did the concept of reconciliation come to mind?
It came on my radar a couple of Rosh Hashanahs or Yom Kippurs ago. The rabbi was talking about what happens when it's more than just words, when it's a long-standing fight. It's really very hard. I've seen all these great interpersonal brouhahas. I always wanted to write about them without doing a roman à clef about my family.
Gloria dishes out some good fashion and grooming tips to her grandkids. How did you come up with those?
Style is not my long suit, but I'm really fascinated by it. My research was watching old episodes of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "What Not to Wear." I also read a wonderful book from the 1950s that I had to keep in my garage for three weeks while it aired out: "How to Be a Model and How to Look Like One."
Who could you envision playing Gloria in a movie version?
In the acknowledgments of "Goldberg Variations" you list several people who made generous donations to charities by "buying" characters' names in the novel. What's that about?
I started it in 1980 at a goods and services auction at my temple. I said I'll name a character after someone. I've given to North Shore Child & Family Guidance [Center], the Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Five P Minus Society to raise money for a syndrome affecting one of my grandchildren.
You have a lot going on. At 68, you serve on various boards, you're past president of the Mystery Writers of America, you've written books, essays and screenplays. What's nearest and dearest to your heart?
I love being a grandparent. I'm one of those you want to avoid -- I pull out the iPhone and say, "Hey, wanna see my camera roll?" As for writing novels -- it's what I've done for 30 some-odd years. I can't suddenly say I'm going to take up golf. I need something in my life. As long as I can write a coherent sentence, I'll keep at it.