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Great expectations don't weigh down Melville's great-great-great granddaughter

TORONTO – Great expectations don’t weigh down the great-great-great granddaughter of literary giant Herman Melville.

If anything, first-time novelist Liza Klaussmann says the legacy of her legendary forefather has instilled a focused drive to define her own voice and pursue her passions.

“It’s like a benevolent ghost, really,” Klaussmann said Monday during a brief stop in Toronto to promote her debut novel, “Tigers in Red Weather” (Random House of Canada).

“I don’t identify with him nor do I sort of fight against him. It’s nice. He’s great, he’s a genius — I don’t sort of pretend to be in that crew. How can you live up to that?”

The 36-year-old former journalist credits the “Moby-Dick” author with inspiring her entire family with a fervent love of reading, noting that “books were flowing out of the house” as she grew up.

Even family meals were inextricably linked to literary passions, she chuckles, recalling a strange habit of her mother’s that kept her and her brother attentive at the dinner table.

“My mom would read to us while we ate dinner but if we stopped eating she stopped reading,” says Klaussmann, an affable blond with a slight New York drawl.

“That was the way she got us to eat our dinner. (We were) just huge book lovers, all of us.”

Family figures prominently in Klaussmann’s first novel, a sultry, noir-tinged drama that’s set in the decades immediately following the Second World War and at a sprawling summer home not unlike the idyllic Martha’s Vineyard retreat Klaussmann spent her summers as a child.

The tale unfolds around two beautiful women — the impulsive, dark-haired Nick and her more delicate, sandy-haired cousin Helena. Both are about to embark on married lives that will take them on starkly divergent paths but ultimately return them to their sun-dappled family estate, called Tiger House, over several key summers.

Nick’s handsome young husband Hughes is on his way home from the war in Europe, although he’s no longer the man he was, while Helena is off to Hollywood to reunite with her dashing filmmaking beau Avery, who may never have been the man he purported to be.

Their story is told from the vantage point of five narrators, including Nick and Helena’s children, Daisy and Ed. The arrival of each new voice reveals increasingly dark tones that gradually cast a pall over their glittering and glamorous gin-soaked nights.

These are individualistic characters who follow their desires until they end up almost self-destructing, says Klaussmann.

“A lot of the main characters — either on purpose or by accident — end up sort of hurting each other,” she notes.

“They sort of collide with each other because of their own sort of innate desires and they’re kind of carnivorous in a way.”

A brutal murder shatters their tranquil seaside home but the full impact is not felt for many years.

“The murder is more of a catalyst for uncovering secrets and deceptions that have been going on and it also mirrors the kind of emotional violence that is happening inside that family,” says Klaussmann.

Released earlier this month, the book is already a sensation in the publishing industry. “Tigers In Red Weather” sparked a heated bidding war and has been sold to 19 territories, a rarity for a first-time author.

The London-based Klaussmann laboured over the novel while working for the New York Times business blog as their overnight news editor. She admits to “temper tantrums and tears” as she undertook the sprawling tale, which she says was also heavily influenced by the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

She says luck, as well as the glittering subject matter, has played a great role in getting her book so much attention.

“It happened to coincide with this insanity over ‘Mad Men’ which I do not think they’re obviously alike at all but I mean, I get it,” she says.

“People want to ride that wave to a certain degree and I think that’s perfectly understandable. It came out when we were also having just kind of a fantasy obsession with looking backwards, you know, and the economy’s terrible, what are we looking forward to? Not a lot right now so it’s always comforting to look backwards during those kind of epochs.”

Although she spent more than 10 years as a journalist, Klaussmann says she long dreamed of becoming a novelist. Her belated bid came in 2008 when her grandmother died.

“My grandmother was an extremely complicated person. You either loved her or you hated her and when she died all those feelings became amplified within the family,” she says, noting that inspired much of what became her anti-heroine Nick.

“And that really got me thinking about how we can hate people we love — how, in a family, just one unit, we all have these disparate visions and points of view, that there’s no sort of objective truth in this story of a family. And so when you have such a divisive character in there it can really sort of fracture and fragment the family unit.”

Klaussmann describes the book as “one-third Fitzgeraldian, one-third Gothic and one-third noir,” readily admitting to also drawing inspiration from Raymond Chandler’s hard boiled crime writing and southern Gothic fare.

The characters of Nick and Daisy, meanwhile, are a loving tip-of-the-hat to Fitzgerald, she acknowledges, with Nick derived from Nicole Diver of “Tender is the Night” and Daisy drawn from Daisy Buchanan of “The Great Gatsby.”

Actually, the book is filled with references to inspiring literary figures.

“I guess that’s kind of common in a debut,” she shrugs. “I think you’re still sort of enthralled to all of these people who sort of brought you to this spot, you know.”

The title, “Tigers in Red Weather,” comes from a Wallace Stevens poem, “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” and were the first words Klaussmann says she wrote down for the book.

“These people want to break out of this sort of homogeneous moment in their life, they want to be different and they want to have all these sort of unique qualities,” she explains, admitting she shares those ambitions herself.

“They want their unique qualities to shine.”