Oprah Recommends Maplewood Writer’s Debut Novel

By mark-slade February 26, 2011

Oprah Recommends Maplewood Writer’s Debut Novel

Jon Michaud’s debut novel ‘When Tito Met Clara’ is listed by the queen of all media!

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Jon Michaud’s debut novel, When Tito Met Clara, which will be published next week, is one of O Magazine’s 17 “Books to Watch for in March 2011.” The list ranges from memoir to fiction to non-fiction, and includes new and established writers. Maplewood’s own Michaud, whose first novel is set in a fictional community much like South Orange and Maplewood, is pleased to be among them.
Michaud, a six-year Maplewood resident and head librarian at The New Yorker, spoke to Patch last month. He noted that he has borrowed elements of local life for his first novel. Main character Clara and husband Thomas live in a town much like this community, bounded by Fine Fare, Springfield Avenue eateries, and South Orange’s Newstead neighborhood.
However, much of the story also takes place in the Inwood section of Manhattan, and the Dominican Republic. Both are familiar to Michaud, who lived in Inwood with his wife Zoraida, who is Dominican, before crossing the Hudson into New Jersey.
Zoraida Michaud influences every page of this story.When Tito Loved Clara grew from what Michaud describes as “cross-ethnic love stories.” In the 1990s, working at Time Magazine Michaud met a fellow librarian, born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York City. When she brought Michaud home to the family, he was “knocked over by Inwood.” Michaud married into the family, inheriting their stories and access to a favorite meal, his mother-in-law’s oxtail soup.
Michaud, a fourth-generation Italian-American, took stories he had heard growing up, and added his wife’s family experiences to look at “assimilation, what it is to be American.” Specifically, Michaud addresses this question as it relates to main character Clara, planted deliberately in a familiar suburban present.
Clara, who is wrestling with infertility after the birth of her first son, has chosen a middle-class Maplewood-style life. She sets the table with good china daily, a symbol of her aspirations, choices she made in high school. The other title character, Tito, pulls her back to Inwood at the same time. “She traded up,” notes Michaud. “Or she tried to.” But family ties pull hard, especially when, as in Clara’s case, the family sees her as a provider. She has money, a home, stability, and she is expected to share it all.
Michaud based aspects of Clara on his wife, who arrived in this country at age 9. Michaud, son of a diplomat, lived in many parts of the world as a child. He became a librarian, advising aspiring writers to find a skill, craft a profession that “allows you to pay the bills.” Michaud wrote this novel over the course of seven years, writing an hour each night after putting his two sons to bed. As the novel progressed, he began writing on the train to and from work, sometimes sitting in Penn Station to finish a scene.
“It stays fresh,” he explains of writing twice daily, “your subconscious stays on it.” Still, he admits, “It’s not optimal.”  It requires discipline to work, raise children, and write.
Clara is hardly the book’s sole character; indeed, she is rarely alone on a page. The story begins when she brings her niece to the suburbs, to live with her, husband Thomas, and son Guillermo. Clara’s sister, niece, and husband each have secrets of their own, and the connections they have to other characters, including Tito, create a web that seems to overlay both sides of the Hudson, the past and the present.
The characters are rarely silent, speaking English and Spanish, a particular challenge for Michaud. He wanted the reader to “hear” the characters, he explains, without running for a dictionary. He acknowledges that his wife and in-laws helped there, too, flavoring the dialogue with “enough Spanish to keep it interesting.
The Michaud family, themselves firmly rooted in the community, are happy here, says Michaud. Like her husband, Zoraida Michaud is a librarian. Their sons are 3 and 8, the elder a Marshall School second grader.
When Tito Loved Clara will be released by Algonquin Books on March 8. Jon Michaud will speak at Words on March 10. Books can be pre-ordered now.