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Colleen Oakley's grandma inspired the intergenerational friendship in her new novel

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Remember this scene - Thelma and Louise staring over a cliff as the cops close in behind them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THELMA AND LOUISE")

GEENA DAVIS: (As Thelma) Let's not get caught.

SUSAN SARANDON: (As Louise) What are you talking about?

DAVIS: (As Thelma) Let's keep going.

SARANDON: (As Louise) You sure?

DAVIS: (As Thelma) Yeah.

KELLY: It is the ultimate tale of female friendship on a road trip. And the novelist Colleen Oakley uses it as inspiration for her own tale of female friendship on a road trip. Her new book is "The Mostly True Story Of Tanner And Louise". Colleen Oakley, welcome.

COLLEEN OAKLEY: Thank you so much, Mary Louise. I'm excited to be here.

KELLY: I love that you took "Thelma And Louise," which is also one of my favorites, and decided to run with it or drive with it, I guess...

OAKLEY: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...As the case may be.

OAKLEY: Yes.

KELLY: What is it about that movie that made you want to dig in with your fiction?

OAKLEY: I like to think of Thelma and Louise as the fiercest, greatest female duo on the big screen. They are so iconic. And I just remember watching that movie as a 14- or 15-year-old girl, and I just love how they capture kind of the zeitgeist of where we were as women at that time.

KELLY: Let's go from there to your characters and how they fit into all this. Your Louise is 84 years old.

OAKLEY: Yes.

KELLY: She has a bad limp from a bad hip. And at first, she comes across as this harmless little old lady, which she is not. Introduce us to Louise.

OAKLEY: (Laughter) Louise is an 84-year-old who has, I like to say, lived many different lives, as I think if you're lucky enough to get to that age, I hope that you get to live many different lives. And one of those lives perhaps put her on the wrong side of the law. And all of that starts to catch up to her in her old age. And that's what sets off this tale.

KELLY: Yeah. That word perhaps - perhaps put her on the wrong side of the law - is doing a lot of work there 'cause that's part of what we're trying to figure out as the book unfurls - is quite what she must have done.

OAKLEY: Exactly.

KELLY: All right. And then your other main character, Tanner, at the other end of her life, at 21-years-old, and yet convinced her best days are behind her. Explain.

OAKLEY: Exactly. So Tanner is 21. She thought that she was going to be this big professional soccer phenom. She's at Northwestern on a soccer scholarship until she has a career-ending injury. And so she's really trying to figure out who she is and what her life is going to look like now, with a pretty big side of anger and a chip on her shoulder about it all.

KELLY: Yeah. So they become - as this road trip moves them across the country, they become unlikely friends - very different personalities, 63-year age gap. Why did you want to explore that - a friendship that spans a few generations?

OAKLEY: Yeah. The thing that really inspired this book was my own relationship with my grandmother, who was one of my very favorite people on Earth. She was a lot like Louise. She was very pragmatic. She had her, you know, two fingers of vodka every day at 4 p.m. She was bitingly sharp and funny and had kind of an amazing life in her own right. And our relationship really took off when I became an adult in my young 20s, and we really started to relate to each other and bond. And so I really wanted to pay homage to that a little bit and also just explore what that intergenerational friendship looks like.

KELLY: Your grandmother had Parkinson's, and your character, Louise, has Parkinson's as well. And I wanted to ask about how that played into your story. I wasn't aware that in addition to other symptoms, Parkinson's can cause a person to conflate real with make-believe. And in your fiction, you give that to Louise. So we're not quite sure what she actually may have done or not done, and we're not quite sure if she knows what she may have done or not done through her long life.

OAKLEY: Exactly. And my grandmother dealt with that quite a bit. So it's not just the Parkinson's, but it's really the concoction of medication that doctors prescribe to combat the symptoms...

KELLY: OK.

OAKLEY: ...Of Parkinson's. So in my grandmother's case, she started saying some really alarming things on our phone calls together. She said - one time, asked me if I had sent a check for $10,000 to New Jersey. And I said, what for? And she said to cover my gambling debts. And so some of the more outrageous things that she started to say, my novelist wheels started turning. And I thought, you know, what if my grandmother had kind of this other secret life that none of us in the family knew about, and it was just starting to come out toward the end of her life? And that's what really inspired the idea for Tanner and Louise.

KELLY: For the record, did your grandmother have thousands of dollars in gambling debts in New Jersey?

OAKLEY: Not that we know of...

KELLY: (Laughter).

OAKLEY: ...But she's not here to defend herself, so we'll never know for sure.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: I want to give listeners a heads up that my next question is about sex. And we're going to talk about it frankly. You have a sex scene. It's one of the few I have read between lovers in their 80s. And the backdrop is Louise has picked up a guy in a bar on the road and invited him back to her motel room. She is widowed. Leonard, the man she's met, has also lost his wife. Would you read us a little bit from this scene?

OAKLEY: (Reading) When he finished unbuttoning her cardigan, Leonard carefully helped her out of it and draped it neatly on the bed that was nearest to them. Then he leaned in and gently kissed her in the soft spot where her jaw met her earlobe. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the sensation, the warmth that radiated through her. A flicker of anticipation fluttered her stomach. She opened her eyes. I have a bad hip, she said in Leonard's ear. My right one, so take care.

(Reading) Leonard lifted his head and allowed a few inches of space between them. He grunted. I have a bad everything. Everything? Louise popped an eyebrow. He grinned, that sweet Ken mischievous grin, and Louise's heart squeezed. She could see something of the boy Leonard used to be - a boy who had learned to rely on his wit and charm to woo a girl rather than overt good looks - in other words, the very best kind, like her Ken. She felt simultaneously warm and sad. Well, not everything he said. Thank God, she said, and reached for the hem of her cotton blouse, slowly lifting it up and over her head.

KELLY: Colleen Oakley, it's funny, and it's sweet, and they're so gentle with each other. How did you approach writing this scene?

OAKLEY: You know, it was really, really important to me to have a sex scene between 80-year-olds, which might sound bizarre. But I think in our society and our culture, we tend to almost discard older people. You know, we don't think of them as whole people. And I wanted to show older people as having whole, full lives, which includes desire, which includes sex, which includes all of these wonderful things. That's the human experience.

KELLY: Let me circle us back to where we began in the road trip, because it sounds like a lot of this book was inspired by people you know or things that may or may not have happened in your life. Have you ever taken an epic all-female road trip?

OAKLEY: I've taken quite a few. My mom actually goes with me on the road trips when I go on book tour. So we kind of have our own little Thelma and Louise, although we do tend to stay on the right side of the law.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: At least that's your story. I mean...

OAKLEY: Exactly.

KELLY: ...We may...

OAKLEY: Exactly.

KELLY: ...Never know.

OAKLEY: You'll never get it out of me otherwise.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Colleen Oakley about her new novel, "The Mostly True Story Of Tanner And Louise". Colleen Oakley, thank you.

OAKLEY: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.