A tragic event close to home, a throw-away remark, and a personal trait I’m not especially proud of led me to write this novel.
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About six years ago, my mother’s best friend’s grandson shot two fellow teen-agers at point-blank range, tossed their bodies in the trunk of a car and set the car ablaze. My mother is no longer living and I’ve lost contact with her friend. But I can tell you, this young man is from a gentle, close-knit family. Our families knew each other for years; the young man’s uncle was my ninth-grade boy friend. The news grieved me — and terrified me. If something like this could happen in their family, it could happen in any family; it could happen in mine.
We all want to distance ourselves from tragedy. We read obituaries and search the details to try to uncover an explanation. No wonder this happened to those people, we tell ourselves. They’re different from us. That man died from lung cancer because he smoked. I don’t smoke. That woman was kidnapped because she ran out of gas on I-85 at 3 A.M. I’d never drive alone on the expressway in the middle of the night. Their house caught fire. We would’ve had the wiring checked.
But when something happens to a family that is so like our own, we realize we’re only a hair away.
I did not tell this family’s story. I actually don’t know the young man who committed the murders, or his mother — and I haven’t seen his father since we were kids. I invented a family for my book, and my fictional family told me their own fictional story. But my grief, my intense emotion over what happened in that wonderful family I once knew helped fuel the writing of my novel.
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While I was working on my first novel, a sentence popped into my head. I knew it didn’t fit that novel, so I stored it away in my notebook. Here’s the sentence: “Everything in our house has been broken and glued back together.” A friend had admired an antique white porcelain pitcher in my kitchen and I told her it once belonged to my mother and that if she looked closely, she could see it had been broken many times and glued back together. “In fact,” I added, “everything in my house has been broken and glued back together.”
I decided to invent a family for whom that sentence would be true. It became the opening of my new novel. Later it was moved to the middle of the novel. Then it was bumped to the end. Now I’ve deleted it altogether.
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Early Leaving is the story of a woman who is so protective of her son — over-involved, suffocating — that the only way out for him is to disappoint her profoundly. And he does. At eighteen, Early Smallwood commits murder. The novel opens the night before his sentencing. His mother, Kathryne Smallwood, begins to probe the pieces of the past, to see if she should have seen the end coming. Was there any point where she might have come between her son and what lay in wait for him? Or was it just the randomness of fate and its consequences? Was she the cause? All she ever wanted was to keep him safe and happy. Isn’t that what every mother wants?
Kathryne Smallwood is the mother I might have been if I hadn’t reined myself in. She is obsession in the extreme — my own worst nightmare of myself. It’s easy for me to live for the lilt in my son’s or daughter’s voice, the sign that tells me they’re all right. I wanted to explore that overbearing part of myself — the part that smudges the line separating my children from me. I hope the emotions will be recognizable to other women.