The story behind the story

When we launched my new blog this week we lost my old postings. But one post I'd saved was from last July, when I talked about how I came to write A MILLION MILES FROM BOSTON. I'm reprinting it here because it is the only thing I've written that somewhat captures what I went through in writing this novel. I never thought I'd figure it out. It's a true miracle! In the late 1980s I started a dog walking service in Chicago called The Tootsie Roll Stroll. My husband and I had just moved there from Connecticut for a three-year-stint with his job. My dog business was a way to make money while I went to graduate school.

On sunny, summer days, I loved walking dogs along the lake. On rainy, cold, snowy days, it was the pits. I walked a lot of dogs – smart ones, dumb ones, beautiful ones. But the dog I remember most was Whitney, a yellow Labrador who lived in a fancy apartment on Lake Shore Drive.

I walked her for an hour every day. When her parents went out of town, she stayed with me. She was the smartest dog I’ve ever met. Sit, down, come, fetch, stay. You name it. She waited for me outside the corner grocery store, never taking her eyes off of me through the window. She ran next to me in downtown Chicago, off leash. We bonded. We connected. She would follow me with her eyes, waiting for commands. Amazing! We had a great time together.

I’ve thought a lot about her over the years, especially when I started Lucy’s story five years ago. I knew I wanted to write about a girl who had lost her mother. But how? I’ve always been fascinated by how children internalize trauma, the way they cope and adapt. As an English lit doctoral candidate at NYU in the early ‘90s, I studied psychoanalysis and became familiar with concepts such as transitional objects, unconscious desires, magical thinking.

And I thought, what would Lucy’s story be if she had a transitional object, someone like Whitney? And so I came up with Superior, Lucy’s faithful companion, who brings Lucy back into the world after her mom dies.

From the beginning this was the hardest novel I’ve ever written. I had so much I wanted to talk about: memories, special summer places, longing, nature, fear. I knew what would separate Lucy’s story from other dead mom books would not only be the complexity of the characters but how and if I could put her loss into a larger context.

But what would that be?

Then one day, making grilled cheeses for my middle daughter and her best friend, I listened to them talk about the most annoying boy in their class. I’d heard about this boy for years, how he called them names, teased them, shot rubber bands at them. But what surprised me that day was how they reacted when I asked if they knew why he did these things. He’s a jerk, they said. Plain and simple. When I suggested that this boy (who I knew nothing about) might be unhappy and taking it out on them, they looked at me as if I had two heads.

This kind of reaction isn’t unique to Emma and Rebecca. I started noticing it over and over again in the kids I knew, the assumption that people’s behaviors define them. It’s a rare kid who has the innate ability to look below the surface, to make that connection between what’s happening in another kid’s inner and/or home life and how he/she acts in the world.

And so I came up with Ian Richards, a kid who seems the opposite of Lucy. Confident, funny, mean, popular. He made the story hum, snap, move forward. Not only would Lucy learn that he’s more complicated than she imagined, but somehow he’d help her understand all that had happened to her. But how?

I couldn’t put it together.

At a particularly low point in my writing, when I couldn’t figure out what it is that I wanted to say or how all of these seemingly abstract pieces would fit together, I was introduced to a very interesting woman. She’s a psychotherapist who works exclusively with women who have lost their mothers and she agreed to talk to me about her experiences.

A lot of what she told me made sense. How girls who have lost a mother would forever feel a profound sense of loss. How they’d always hate the stepmother (initially). But this really struck me: how kids always “create” a story to explain events that happen to them. And they do this in order to make sense of it and to protect themselves from pain, from the unknown, from feeling different.

This gave me a way to not only tie Lucy and Ian’s stories together, but to include the reader as well. Because no matter how severe the “trauma” is, all of us tell stories to protect ourselves.

As a mom, reader and writer, I’m most interested in the inner life of a kid. So it was really important to me to get the inner lives of my characters in A MILLION MILES FROM BOSTON just right.