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Past Perfect

A Novel
By Susan Isaacs

Reading Group Guide

    Reading Group Guide
    Katie Schottland appears to have it all: a great husband and son, an upscale Manhattan lifestyle, and a dream job writing for the television series Spy Guys. But an unexplained incident from her past has long troubled Katie: fifteen years earlier she was dismissed from her post as an analyst at the CIA with no warning and no explanation.
    When Lisa Golding, a former Agency colleague, telephones Katie out of the blue and asks for her assistance with "a matter of national importance," she promises, in exchange, to reveal the truth about Katie's firing. Lisa disappears soon after, and Katie finds herself drawn from a fictional spy world into a dark, intriguing real-life case of espionage.
    As the body count begins to rise, Katie realizes she might be an assassin's next target but is determined to complete her self-imposed mission. Driven by a need to know what really happened all those years ago, she risks her marriage, her television career, and even her life to finally make peace with the past.
    Discussion Questions
    1. For fifteen years Katie has obsessed over her termination from the CIA. Why was working at the Agency so important to Katie? How much of her fascination with the job stemmed from her interest in espionage novels and films? And why, as Katie wonders, does being fired "still have such power" over her?
    2. The people in Katie's life offer opinions as to why she's so intent on delving into the circumstances surrounding her dismissal from the CIA -- Maddy theorizes that Katie is looking for an adventure, while Jacques suggests it's because her fortieth birthday is looming. What is your theory as to why Katie so zealously pursues answers about her past?
    3. In chapter one Katie reveals that she has had a "lifelong preference for fantasy over reality." At any point in the story, did you question Katie's judgment about the events taking place or the decisions she made? Why or why not? In what ways does her fascination with espionage stories hinder or help during her investigation?
    4. With Nicky off to camp for several weeks, Katie had envisioned using the time to rekindle her "marriage flame." Why, then, does she prioritize her investigation above her marriage?
    5. What is your opinion of Adam? How supportive is he of Katie's search for answers? What do you suppose the future holds for their relationship?
    6. When contemplating why she might have been fired, Katie asserts, "I was confident the decision had nothing to do with Ben." What makes her so certain that Ben was blameless in her termination? How is her visit to Ben's Washington, D.C., office a turning point in how she sees her former boss?
    7. Discuss Katie's relationship with her parents and her sister, Maddy. How much of Katie's concern about being fired from the CIA had to do with their opinion of her? How is Katie now viewed by her parents and sister?
    8. "You've involved yourself in a dangerous business...You know it, but you don't appreciate it," Maddy remarks to Katie. Do you agree or disagree with Maddy's observation of Katie, and why? What basis does she have for assuming Katie doesn't fully comprehend she that might be placing herself in harm's way?
    9. After Jacques and Huff reveal to Katie why she was fired, she has the answer she was seeking. Why, then, does she continue to look into the circumstances surrounding her dismissal? What more does she want?
    10. What motivates Katie to travel to Florida and speak with Maria Schneider in person? What warning signs does she miss during her conversation with Maria in the park?
    11. Discuss the CIA's offer of restitution to Katie. Ultimately, does Katie get the closure she was seeking? Why or why not?
    12. What is your overall impression of Past Perfect? How does this book compare to other novels you've read by Susan Isaacs?
    Enhance Your Book Club
    In the spirit of Ian Fleming's suave spy, James Bond, mix up a round of martinis -- shaken, not stirred, of course. Or, like Katie does in Past Perfect, indulge in hot chocolate and Mallomars.
    Make it an espionage-themed gathering when you discuss Past Perfect and show a classic film, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Three Days of the Condor, or Dr. No.
    Visit www.simonsays.com to watch a video clip of Susan Isaacs discussing her fiction and the writing process.
    A Discussion with Susan Isaacs

    Where do you get your ideas?
    I don't think there's been a time since I've been answering questions that I haven't been asked where I find my ideas for novels. I hope my answer is enlightening, although I don't know if it will be helpful. That's because each writer's inspiration is as unique as his or her fingerprints.
    My "ideas" come to me as characters. Before I wrote my first novel, Compromising Positions, I was reading a dangerous number of mysteries a week: three or four. Suddenly, a character popped into my head. Like me, she was a housewife on Long Island with two young children and a husband who commuted into Manhattan. Unlike me, she wanted to find out who killed...well, I had no idea who had been murdered, but since she seemed to be hanging around in my head, I decided to figure out a mystery for her to solve.
    The same holds true for my novels that aren't mysteries. For Shining Through, a legal secretary came into my head wanting me to tell her story -- about being in love with one of the law firm's partners, even though social-class differences supposedly put him out of her league. I wanted to give her some way to prove her worth, to herself if not to him. But it wasn't until World War II popped into my head, a time when ordinary people often displayed extraordinary courage, that I had my story.
    Other writers use the big What If. Something arouses their curiosity and they ask themselves: What if a savvy businesswoman turned stay-at-home mother starts to believe her house is haunted? What if a couple in the midst of a bitter divorce finds themselves snowed in for a week?
    Some authors may get intrigued by a story or situation they hear about on the news or just in casual conversation. Henry James is said to have gotten the idea for Washington Square from a story he overheard at a dinner party. Just a phrase or a word might get the creative juices flowing. "Seduced and abandoned," "Poor little rich girl," "Won the lottery." There are writers who give a new spin to an old work: a fairy tale such as Cinderella, or the biblical story of Job.
    Finally, a would-be writer or an old pro can wonder, What's the book I most want to read that hasn't yet been written?
    Where did you get the idea for Past Perfect?
    Before I wrote Past Perfect, some random ideas were floating around in my head. The first was what a tight grip the past has on the present. For so many of us, a long-ago relationship (a lost love, a callous parent) or an event that happened years earlier (getting fired, being the victim of an unjust accusation) still has so much power in our lives. Friends advise, "You're thirty/fifty/eighty. Get over it." Yet we can't.
    Another idea: Like so many other Americans, I was thinking about Iraq. How did we get it so wrong? More specifically, How did the CIA, an agency filled with supposedly smart people, make such bad calls? In Shining Through, which was set in New York, Washington, and Berlin during World War II, I'd written about America's spy organization, the OSS [Office of Strategic Services]. The CIA grew out of that group, and I'd read a fair amount about its development -- everything from spy novels to books on American foreign policy to memoirs by ex-spooks. So I got to thinking how the Agency had gotten it wrong before: the Bay of Pigs invasion, failing to predict the rapid implosion of East Germany.
    And suddenly I had a new novel. Katie Schottland had her dream job in the CIA -- and then lost it in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She never learned why she was fired, but the pain of that dismissal still plagued her years later. Sure, she had what most people would say was a great life, but...That's one of the joys of writing fiction. Disparate ideas meet and suddenly, whammo. It's rather like falling in love.
    Did you always want to be a writer?
    As a child, I wanted to be a cowgirl. Perhaps that seems odd for a kid growing up in Brooklyn, but even then I had the ability to be anyone I wanted to be -- in my head, if not in reality. Writing was always something I did reasonably well, but it didn't occur to me that I could make a living by it. After college I worked at Seventeen magazine. I began by writing advice to the lovelorn, and after a few years I became a senior editor. I left Seventeen to raise my children, and I worked part-time as a political speechwriter. When my second child was two, it occurred to me that I wanted to write fiction.
    Of all the books you've written, which is your favorite?
    There's a writers' cliché about books being like children. Well, it's true. You love all your children, even the goofy ones.
    Do you write longhand or use a computer?
    A computer and, more recently, speech recognition. I sit there with my headset, and dictate. To me, it's a boon because I speak faster than I type. Also, for some reason, I focus better using this method. Naturally, there's a downside. The program I use doesn't seem too comfortable with a New York accent, even with the extra training I gave it. So when I had the protagonist of my new novel say "I opened the door," what I saw on my monitor was "I opened the Torah." Ultimately, I don't think it matters what method a writer uses. Longhand, typewriter, quill and ink: they're simply tools.
    Do you know the whole story before you start writing? Do you make an outline?
    For me, making an outline is a way to work out the plot, since with me, the characters come first. Also, it's easier to see the structure of the novel that way, and I have the security of knowing where it's going. Sometimes, the outline is a snap. I guess that's when my subconscious has already done the heavy lifting. However, on a couple of books, including Lily White, I took almost a year to work out what was going to happen. Naturally, I was petrified the whole time that I was losing my marbles and/or having the world's most unconquerable writer's block. However, I know many authors who don't bother with an outline, who feel it's too constraining. There is no one right way to write.
    Are any of your characters based on people you know?
    I never consciously pick someone I know and put him or her into a book. The fun of writing, as well as the agony, is in creating a new universe and populating it. Also, I don't want to get a lot of grief from Uncle Joe or my down-the-street neighbor that I didn't portray them in a flattering light.
    To learn more about Susan Isaacs please visit www.susanisaacs.com.

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