Leigh K. Cunningham was looking forward to spending a relaxing evening at home, ordering pizza and avoiding what had turned into a cold and miserable evening. One of her friends had arranged a girls’ night out. “I was told I was being anti-social and this, apparently, was highly undesirable like having a foot fungus,” Leigh said. So she agreed to join her friends and had a miserable time. The good news? She found the theme for her new book, Being Anti-Social, a humorous, insightful, biting, and sometimes poignant look at relationships – with lovers, friends, and family.
Doing research for her novel, Leigh found that she was not alone in wanting to be alone, occasionally. “I read a lot of posts in various forums from people who do not enjoy social situations; they are happy being alone and they’re happy being at home,” she said. “Unfortunately, family and friends, and society, often think there is something wrong with this and feel compelled to fix what is not broken.”
Leigh’s protagonist, Mace, is not easy to like, which makes her all the more fascinating to follow. She’s brutally honest, makes her share of mistakes, drinks too much Merlot, and carries on love-hate relationships with most of the people in her life – her close friends, her mother, and her older sister. Leigh skillfully creates characters that are believable because they are all too familiar. “If you have had a friend in your life, you’ll know how this works – it’s universal,” she said. We all know an Amber, the model look-alike (in this case, Elle McPherson), who always has men craving her attention; Erin, “fine in small doses,” Sophie, a smart woman who has yet to figure out how to save her marriage, and Kimba, whose idea of a holiday is to travel to Thailand and clean out elephant enclosures “shoveling bowling balls of dung.”
Leigh, an Australian living in Singapore, describes herself as a born “people watcher,” who is constantly on the lookout for traits, body language, dress, expressions, and mannerisms that she can incorporate into her characters. “You never know when [what you see] will be just right for a character or storyline,” she said.
Mace’s relationships with her siblings are no less difficult. She battles her older sister, Shannon, for her mother’s affection, dislikes her older brother’s wife, “Alexis the cow,” can’t compete with her eldest brother, David, who is wildly successful, yet adores her brother, Jason and her younger sister, Lauren, the baby of the family, who still lives at home. “I’ve always found it curious that siblings can be so incredibly different that you would not ever guess they were from the same parents, so throw all of those unique personalities and relationships together for the holidays and you’re bound to have some moments when you wish you were on a deserted island with Wilson,” she said. (For those who don’t remember, Wilson was the soccer ball that kept Tom Hanks’ character company in Cast Away.) There’s a wonderful paragraph in Being Anti-Social, a sampling here, that expertly captures sibling love and rivalry:
“I might never understand families, even after watching The Family Stone. It seems odd to me that individuals are born into a relationship with others, and are bound together for life by an indiscernible and enduring umbilical cord. They were there in the beginning before husbands, friends, or anyone else. They saw you in your pajamas, knew when you had new ones, slept beside you in a caravan bunk, and scared you with horror stories. They were there when the guinea pigs had babies and when they died. They fought with you over whose turn it was to wipe-up, set the table, put away…. They were there, brothers and sisters, to witness the earliest part of a life and the foundations of a future not yet known to anyone.”
The love of Mace’s life was Ben, her “perfect husband,” who left when he found out that Mace was having an affair with Joshua. Before she could make it up to Ben, he died of leukemia. “It has always intrigued me that people who are very much in love still cheat, and the people involved often don’t understand why they do it,” said Leigh. “Mace had everything with Ben, but had an affair with a work colleague – a man she was not even attracted to. She knew it was a mistake, but the affair continued for several months. Perhaps it was the thrill, excitement and risk because her life otherwise was risk averse. She paid a hefty price for a thrill; in hindsight, it was the ultimate price – her happiness and life’s possibilities with Ben.” (Leigh said she has been married to her own “Ben” for 29 years.)
Another love interest enters Mace’s life (we won’t spoil the fun here) yet she is ambivalent about entering into a relationship. “She’s pragmatic, and has come to realize that people create problems in her life, whether it is work colleagues, her family and friends, or her relationships with men,” Leigh said. “Life is easier when it is simple and free of complications, which can be achieved by being alone.”
Mace’s most complicated relationship by far is with her mother. “Some women have wonderful relationships with their mothers – they’re best friends and their mothers play a pivotal role in their lives,” said Leigh. “For others, it’s a constant battle of wills and spending time together is out of obligation and duty and not because you want to; if that person was not your mother, she would not be someone you would have in your life. This is Mace’s challenge – to find a way to connect with her mother before it is too late.”
Our advice: when reading the letter Mace receives from her mother, have plenty of tissues handy. “It’s sad to know that two people whose lives are entwined at this level – mother and daughter – cannot communicate their feelings and that only in death, in a posthumous letter, will any of it be understood,” said Leigh, who admitted that writing that letter was very emotional. After her own brother died, Leigh said she discovered many things about him that she never had the chance to discuss with him. “There’s a lot of baggage in families, and a lot of relatives don’t speak to each other,” she said. “I think a good way to resolve those terminal issues is to write that person a letter as if you or they are about to die. What would you say? How can you heal the hurt?”
Leigh is a huge Oscar Wilde fan—”my mentor and life coach”—and she weaves Wilde’s wry observations into her story for maximum effect. When discussing gossip, she includes this gem from Wilde: “My own business always bores me to death. I prefer other people’s.” Or when she is asked her age, she recalls Oscar’s advice “never to trust a woman who tells her real age for a woman who would tell one that, would tell one anything.” Leigh added: “Surprisingly, there was an Oscar Wilde quote for just about every occasion in the book. I never had to create a storyline in order to use a particular quote; the quotes just fit, and each time it was such a joy to find my story and Oscar’s words merging in this way. I had more of a problem reducing the number of apt quotes.”
Leigh said she wasn’t planning a sequel to Being Anti-Social (her other three books are Rain, The Glass Table and Shards), but letters from readers make her think there’s more to Mace’s story. “I’ve been really surprised by the response from readers to Being Anti-Social – so many people identify with Mace, whether it is Mace herself, her family, friends or men issues or just the need to be alone,” she said. “One lady wrote, `I just read your book, Being Anti-Social and I am Mace. I’m 15 years older and prefer Cabernet to Merlot, but other than that she could be me. I no longer feel so alone being a single woman who enjoys being alone. I am very glad I came across your book. Thank you for unwittingly writing my life story!’”
Leigh K. Cunningham