The inspiration for Chris Cander’s novel A Gracious Neighbor (Amazon Publishing / Little A) came from a short story her daughter was assigned to read in high school. “A Jury of Her Peers,” by Susan Glaspell, was first published in 1917 and has become a feminist cult classic. But to better explore the themes that interested her, Cander changed its rural setting.
Texas Monthly: What was it that captivated you about Susan Glaspell’s short story?
Chris Cander: The story was really beautifully, economically done. It’s a treasure of a piece of work. It has a cult following, though it’s not widely known now. I wanted to honor its timeless themes by literally plucking the characters, even their names, out of the story and putting them in a setting that I was comfortable with. I did stay true to the story’s end, but I didn’t have a clear road map for how to get there—I was just writing and figuring it out along the way, trying to think of what the big landmarks would be that would take me a little bit closer to this destination.
TM: Why did you set the book in your Houston neighborhood, West University Place?
CC: In the original story, Martha, the main character, has arrived at the scene of the murder of a neighbor, John Wright. John’s wife, Minnie, is the main suspect, and Martha eventually realizes that she has made unjustified assumptions about Minnie, and she has this awakening. I wanted to look at this dynamic more deeply, in the context of a contemporary neighborhood with contemporary concerns—a neighborhood where people are very close to each other geographically but are also separated by socioeconomic inequality. I love West U. We moved here in 2005, when I was pregnant with our son. It was very much a family-forward community. I thought, “I’m going to find my girlfriends. I’m going to find my in-crowd. I’m going to be a part of something.” And, you know, unlike the modern-day Martha in my book, I did settle in. But I also struggled with some of the women who were more established socially.
TM: In what way?
CC: There’s a certain amount of competition among women, especially when some of them are new to wealth and they want to show it off. It’s interesting to be a part of that, or to be so close to it. I don’t feel in competition with women. That’s not an area of interest to me. I much prefer getting to know people on a personal level. I want to know what you think about and what concerns you and what drives you. Knowing West U so well, because I’d lived there for so many years, made it a perfect place to explore notions of gender loyalty and ask what kind of judgments and misperceptions we make as women and neighbors. I mean, here we are one hundred years since Glaspell’s story was published, and we’ve had the right to vote, and we’ve had women’s liberation, and we’ve had so many social advances, and yet in so many ways, we also still treat each other like s—. I think that disconnection is the root of so much discord. And whether that’s on the scale of a teenager who shoots at an elementary school or a group that fights against another group’s right to enjoy the freedoms that they themselves enjoy, it’s a lack of connection. If they were to know those people as humans and not as part of a group, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to face the kinds of social challenges that we have.
TM: You wrote the book during the COVID-19 pandemic, right? Did that influence your interest in the topic of social isolation?
CC: The idea for the novel came to me just before the onset of the pandemic. And then suddenly we were all isolated. Remember early in the pandemic, when nobody was driving and you could sit in your yard and it was just quiet, and you could hear the birds, and you could hear people talking several houses down? The isolation forced me to look at the neighborhood in a different way, when suddenly there was a need to come together more than ever, and yet we were physically unable to do so because we were told to keep a distance. It’s so unhuman to maintain a physical distance from people for too long. It starts to wear us down psychically and emotionally.
I hate to say that anything good came of COVID, but slowing down and not actually being able to interact socially allowed me to imagine interacting socially. I could put myself in Martha’s shoes because I was yearning for friends, tapping into those feelings of isolation, loneliness, and boredom. And it changed me in a way. I have a new respect for my neighbors because I love the way everybody came together during the pandemic and after, offering support and resources the same way everybody helped each other during the 2021 freeze and during Hurricane Harvey. It was kind of ironic that in the book I was imagining this negative social structure at a time when people were, in fact, coming together and being supportive, greeting each other on their walks and making sure that everybody had enough toilet paper.
TM: And that surprised you.
CC: I now have a greater appreciation for the people who live around me and a reinforced reminder not to make judgments about other people, because what do I know by looking at the exterior of their home? We all do that, especially when we have to drive by those McMansions all the time. I find myself reminding myself to stop and think. As Martha says, we’re all going through different kinds of the very same thing. There’s a scene in the novel when she gets cut off in traffic after lunch with her mother and she gets irate at a driver and then she realizes that it’s a very old man. She suddenly has remorse for her snap judgment. That’s the kind of reaction I think I’ve developed as a result of this book. I’ve evolved. I’m not saying I’m perfect. I’m certainly not. But part of the beauty of writing fiction is being able to dress rehearse other lives. If you read anything or write anything about other people, if your heart is at all open, it forces you to become open to other people.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Houston Is the Perfect Setting for a Novel About Social Isolation and Inequality.” Subscribe today.