The Art of Saying Goodbye started with something that really happened many years ago in a suburban neighborhood where I once lived. A woman in her mid-forties -- the beautiful one with the lovely children, the one who was always nice to everyone, whom everyone loved and admired and envied a little -- was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. Two months later, she was gone. Afterwards, I was haunted by how strongly, and how differently, the neighbors reacted. We didn't all know her well. Some were close friends. Others knew her for a long time, but only casually. It was the kind of situation where they might have said, "Oh, this is too bad, but it's her tragedy, not mine, I don't need to think about this." But that's not what happened. Everyone was affected far more deeply than they thought they'd be. And everyone was changed. That's what the book is about -- four women who learn and grow in the shadow of a neighbor's illness, who learn to say goodbye not just to their friend, but to their old, less mature selves.
My novels often deal with characters facing tragedy of some sort, and how dealing with that changes them. My first novel, Safe Passage, was about a family waiting to hear the fate of a son stationed at Marine headquarters in the Beirut airport when it was bombed by terrorists in 1983. As in The Art of Saying Goodbye, it centers on the family back home, not on the boy overseas. If he doesn't come home, this is a very personal tragedy. For the women in The Art of Saying Goodbye, it's a tragedy one step removed. Exploring why their response is so powerful was a way of looking at the same question from a wider angle -- the shock and sorrow, the guilt (she's sick; I'm so glad I'm not), the shame, the reluctance to visit, the profound sense of helplessness.
For me, very definitely, writing about difficult subjects is a way of keeping them at arm's length. I have a writer friend who tells her students to write about what keeps them up at night. I believe that's not only good advice, but that the exercise of writing about it objectifies the material, makes it logical, puts the emotion on paper instead of inside the writer's head. Cathartic, sure, and maybe a little more. Healing.
The wonderful thing about feature writing back when print newspapers were more important than they are today was that you got to interview real people and write about them the same way you would if you were writing fiction. I'm not talking about making up anything. It was more a matter of sitting down face-to-face (no online interviews in those days), and looking and listening. You learned to sense when you were hearing something important, you learned to see the furrow between the brows, to pick up on the cadence of the speech or the colloquialisms, and to hear when those were just as significant, maybe more significant, than the content of what was being said. And you learned to put all that down on paper. So when you turned to writing fiction, you already had those skills.
The story is loosely based on some devastating wildfires that overran sections of Southeastern North Carolina in 1986. I was certainly never a firefighter, but at one point, the fires were literally burning at the end of the block where I lived, on a day when I had my own four children and two of my nieces at home. It was terrifying. Talk about writing about what keeps you up at night! Three different firefighters helped me with the book. One of them lent me a stack of training tapes that taught me more about modern firefighting than anything else. Another pieced together the timeline of the actual fires, and a third walked me through all the fire scenes from the firefighter's point of view. Later all three of them read through the fire sections for accuracy. They were amazingly generous. Without their help, I couldn't have gotten very far. But it was still painful to write. I had a terrible case of bronchitis the whole time, and in one of the few Twilight Zone moments of my life, it went away the week I finally finished the book and stopped breathing all that imaginary smoke.
One thing I learned early on from my firefighter contacts was how intent they were on being macho-men. They would volunteer all kinds of technical information, -- but emotional? No. It seemed a source of pride with them to describe even the most devastating fires in the flattest possible language. What was it like? Oh, we knocked it down in about ten minutes. . . Oh, it was goin' pretty good when we got there. . . Oh, it was kind of nasty. But we got hold of it. Were you ever scared? . . . Oh, yeah. Sure . End of discussion.
If I'm working on new material, I write in the mornings, a little bit right after I wake up, and then again after walking the dog and eating and checking e-mail, and I work for just a couple of hours. If I'm editing, I can do it most any time of day, and I can work for much longer if I need to. When my children were in school, it was easy to stay on schedule because I knew when they'd leave and when they'd come home, and I had a sense of how precious the writing hours were, so I was pretty disciplined. Now I could eat bon-bons all day and no one would care, so it's easier to be lazy. Once I get to work, I'm always happy to be there. But beginning is hard. I have a theory that if I had to meet someone for lunch every day at,1:00, I'd get a lot more done.
My novel, Takedown, is a young adult book about a high school wrestler. Since the only things I knew about wrestling came from watching my sons in high school, I got a lot help from my family,which made the book great fun to write. The other books for children were written for a company, Homecourt Publishers, that has as its goal making learning fun for students and teaching easy for teachers. It's such a good philosophy, what writer wouldn't be pleased to be involved? Three of those books, The Power of Sharpe Thinking, for elementary students, are modeled on the old Encyclopedia Brown solve-it-yourself mysteries, except that the sleuths are middle-school twins and the solutions have to do with the science standards they're learning. I've never had such a good time.
A comic novel about two women living in an active adult community where tall flowers, bird feeders, disobedient dogs, and especially children are forbidden . . . until an errant teen drops her two-month-old son at her grandmother's house and much of the community is drawn into the effort to keep him from being discovered.
Takedown is about a wrestler who is diagnosed with epilepsy during his senior year in high school, when he thinks he might have a chance for the state championship. That's a heavy topic. But I think when I write for younger people, the voice is often lighter.
My grandchildren are too young to read my books. Most of them are too young to read at all. But the oldest of the gang is ten, and she's a bookworm who's been writing her own stories for years. I think one advantage of having a grandma who's a book writer, as they put it, is that it demystifies the process. If grandma can do it, so can I. And they can, and do. As to my grown children . . . my daughter and my youngest son read my books. If the other two do, they don't tell me about it, although years ago my oldest son gave me a lecture about my calling one of my short stories "literary" when what I really meant was "boring." He was absolutely right. I rewrote it, and it was published in Seventeen and then reprinted in two or three other places. Out of the mouths of babes . . .
We've covered an awful lot. One word to the aspiring writer -- it's a tough market these days, a changing one, sometimes a scary one, but with so many more pportunities than there were years ago (take it from a writer who started before anyone ever heard the word blog ) that if the writer stays strong enough to shrug off the frustrations and take the joy from the writing, where it has always been -- it's an exciting, vibrant time.