This reading group guide for Going in Circles includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Pamela Ribon. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Recently separated (while still technically a newlywed), heartbroken Charlotte Goodman must choose between a severely conflicted marriage and the terrifying prospect of single life. While searching for the “right” thing to do, she struggles to drown out the voices of her overbearing mother, self-righteous boss and cynical co-worker. In such an uncertain phase, Charlotte is desperate enough to try anything that will bring her strength, confidence and answers. Under the guidance of an eccentric new friend, she finds that salvation in the unlikeliest of places – Roller Derby.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1.) Discuss Charlotte’s tendency to imagine John Goodman narrating her life as a way of coping. Is this method effective? What does it mean that she is ultimately able to shed his voice and live in the ‘first person’?
2.) In her first meeting with the psychiatrist, Charlotte insists, “Of course there’s one right way. One way is wrong, and then there’s one way that’s right” (67). Does this prove to be true in the end? Which other characters might or might not agree with this statement? Do you agree with it?
3.) Observing Petra’s plastic surgery at one point, Charlotte notes that, “Petra is trying to freeze herself as an image that exists only in her head, and unfortunately she is losing this battle” (74). Do you think that Charlotte might be guilty of the same crime? What are the consequences of attempting to live in limbo?
4.) Discuss Charlotte’s assertion that the idea of ‘soul mates’ is depressing because it means that, “We’re all just human puppets dancing on the invisible strings of an unknowable creator” (77). Do you agree or disagree?
5.) When faced with the task of creating a pseudonym for herself, Charlotte claims that there is, “something intriguing about the concept of losing my real identity” (120). Discuss the ways in which this alter-ego in fact helped Charlotte regain her ‘real’ identity. What was particularly empowering about her experience as Hard Broken? What name would you choose for yourself?
6.) Discuss Ribon’s choice to make Matthew a character with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Do you see a larger theme of control recurring in the lives of other characters? Which ones? How so?
7.) How does Jonathan’s ability to salvage his marriage inform Charlotte’s failure to do so? How are the two cases different? Similar?
8.) In her description of a ‘transition’ in roller derby, Charlotte notes that, “When it’s over, you’re still skating in the same direction, but you’re facing the other way. You’re going forwards, facing backwards” (156). How is this process paralleled in her personal life?
9.) Discuss the effect that both Charlotte’s fight with Francesca and Andy’s disappointment in her friendship have on helping Charlotte escape her overwhelming grief.
10.) What is the significance of Charlotte’s miniatures? How do they help her to find order amidst chaos? Why does Matthew’s destruction of these miniatures lead to the destruction of their marriage? How does talking about this moment help Charlotte make her final decision?
11.) Discuss the irony involved in Matthew’s comment that the hallway light is out. How does it signify a finite end to the relationship for Charlotte?
12.) In Francesca and Charlotte’s debut in the rookie roller derby tournament, Charlotte is able to successfully deviate from the ‘plan’ and take the lead. How does this triumph mark a transition in her attitude towards life?
Tips for Enhancing Your Book Club
1.) Visit Pamela Ribon’s popular blog at www.pamie.com. She started it in 1998 and was nominated for a Lifetime Achievement Bloggie award in 2006.
2.) Check out Roller Warriors, a 7-part documentary series covering the 2008 Kansas City Roller Warriors, as well as the recent Drew Barrymore film Whip-It!, based on the YA novel Derby Girl, written by fellow L.A. Derby Doll alumna Shauna Cross.
3.) Support your local roller derby league! Visit www.derbyroster.com to find out where the action is in your area.
4.) Already a derby girl? Be sure to check out Rollercon! (www.rollercon.net)
A Conversation with Pamela Ribon
1.) Where did you get the idea for this novel? Was there a particular scene that you envisioned first?
It started out with a very different story, one still stemming from the concept of “Well, I don’t have the kind of money needed to have my own Eat, Pray, Love healing experience. What do I do to get out of this sadness and confusion?” In earlier drafts, the main character had made a huge mistake, and was starting from zero with absolutely everyone in her life. That story was more about trying to determine good relationships from bad. At the time I’d just started up with the Los Angeles Derby Dolls, and my agent was fascinated with what I was physically and mentally going through just to learn how to play. She’s the one who suggested that Charlotte’s story could take a similar direction. I joked, “You mean I should write Eat, Cry, Shove?” And it sort of took off from there.
2.) How is this novel different from (or similar to) your previous novels?
It’s similar in terms of dealing with changes in your important relationships– your partner, your family, your best friend… I’m interested in the roles we take on for other people in our lives, and what happens when the power shifts, when the players in the game disobey the rules. The biggest difference between this novel and anything I’ve written before is that I’m writing about sports. I have a whole new respect for people who can describe the action in a game both accurately and passionately -- sports reporters, color commentators, J.K. Rowling. That woman invented an entire sport and we all read it and said, “Yep. Got it. Brooms and magical glowing shuttlecocks. To the Quidditch match!”
3.) What drew you to roller derby? Are any of Charlotte’s experiences in the arena based on your own?
My sister and I used to watch roller derby on cable television when we were little. Back then it was as fake as the WWE, but we didn’t care. We didn’t understand a single thing that was going on, but we liked how fast they went on their skates, and how they’d knock the crap out of each other.
My introduction to real roller derby happened just like any other derby girl, I’m sure: at the opening weekend of the Sex and the City movie. I was there with two of my girlfriends, one of whom groaned as she took her seat. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m so sore. I just started training with the Derby Dolls last night and my thighs are killing me.” I was right there beside her at the very next practice. She somehow snuck me in without an orientation or audition (Behold the power of a Derby Wife). In fact, I didn’t see an actual bout until I was already in training for my first Baby Doll Brawl. Come to think of it, almost everything in my life that I love I somehow snuck into when nobody was paying attention. Roller derby, acting, writing, and at least half of the relationships I’ve been in.
I really did break my tailbone. I now know the meaning of the threat, “You’ll never sit right again.”
4.) What inspired you to include Charlotte’s passion for miniatures as a major theme?
The miniatures came out of a number of ideas that were circling my head about solving a problem that has no right or wrong answer. Charlotte feels like her life is beyond her control, that there’s nothing she can definitely hang onto. At some point during the writing of this novel, I found this little clay doll of a girl wearing a backpack and a polka-dot dress. She’s looking up to the sky, her fists clenched and pressed against her chest, just pleading with the world. And I’d been reading about Occam’s Razor, but I’m afraid if I explain that any further, I’ll sound ridiculously pompous. The short answer is: Charlotte is afraid to take control. The miniatures are all hers, and they are her gift. She got scared of where they could take her, but the reality is she’s the one who decides where they go. At first she thinks that a miniature, like Charlotte’s job, has a right way and a wrong way to do it, but as she grows with her work and takes risks, she finds a new direction, a new way to express herself. That’s how she takes control again.
5.) Which scenes were easiest for you to write? Which were the most difficult?
It is hard to tell a story about two people not being able to make things work without someone appearing to be The Problem. I don’t think that’s realistic. People sometimes make the mistake of assigning “weakness” to characters that endure heartbreak. I never understood that. Don’t we all often struggle much longer than anyone else in our lives can tolerate? Sometimes we do it to keep someone we love, sometimes it’s to understand exactly what’s wrong in an attempt to fix it… but I think often it’s just so we feel like we won.
I wouldn’t call any of the scenes “easy” to write, exactly, but I had fun writing about how I think about roller derby. The only problem was after I’d write about a jam I’d get amped to skate. Sometimes I had to miss practice in order not to miss a deadline. Then one time I jammed my finger at practice. I had to keep my finger in a sling for a couple of days, making it so that I hurt myself playing roller derby badly enough that I could no longer write about nor play roller derby. That was the worst.
6.) How were you able to infuse a novel about coping with grief with such refreshing humor?
I’m worried that I didn’t, but I’m even more concerned people will think I wrote that question. So thank you, Stranger I’ve Never Met Who Wrote Question Six. That’s nice of you to ask. I assure you early drafts of this novel were quite devoid of humor.
The voice of John Goodman came out of this struggle. I was trying to find a new way to tell an old story – girl is sad over a boy – without making Charlotte sound either pathetic or bitter. Both Charlotte and Matthew deal with their emotions by detaching and distancing…which is why they’re ultimately doomed. And for both of them we learn that the greater the distance they put between themselves and their problems, the harder they fall when gravity inevitably brings them back to reality. Wait, was this a question about how I made sad things funny? I don’t know. Comedy = distance + time. I didn’t come up with that equation, but it works.
7.) Does your life have a narrator?
Sometimes. When I was little and couldn’t fall asleep, my mom would suggest I tell myself stories until I fell asleep. Somehow that voice continued into my waking life, and would keep me company when I was having some of my most boring moments. And if I’m being really honest, I suppose the narrator started approximately when I gave up my embarrassingly large clique of imaginary friends.
8.) If you were in Francesca’s place, what advice would you give Charlotte?
Get over yourself.
9.) Do you have any plans for another book? If so, what will it be about?
I just stared at that question for thirty minutes and then had a panic attack. Thanks.
Pamela Ribon is a bestselling author, television writer and performer. A pioneer in the blogging world, her first novel, Why Girls Are Weird, was loosely based on her extremely successful website pamie.com. The site has been nominated for a Bloggie in Lifetime Achievement, which makes her feel old. Ribon created the cult sensation and tabloid tidbit Call Us Crazy: The Anne Heche Monologues, a satire of fame, fandom and Fresno. Her two-woman show, Letters Never Sent (created with four-time Emmy winner and Jay Leno Show favorite Liz Feldman) was showcased at the 2005 HBO US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. She has been writing in television for the past seven years, in both cable and network, including on the Emmy-award winning Samantha Who? starring Christina Applegate. Using her loyal Internet fan base, Ribon sponsors book drives for libraries in need. Over the years, pamie.com has sent thousands of books and materials to Oakland and San Diego, sponsored a Tsunami-ravaged village of schoolchildren, and helped restock the shelves of a post-Katrina Harrison County, Mississippi. Ribon’s book drive can now be found at DeweyDonationSystem.org, which has sponsored libraries from the Negril School in Jamaica to the Children’s Institute in Los Angeles.