Today we’re lucky enough to have a real-live, published author with us! Kathleen McCleary is the author of A Simple Thing, a novel about family, the demons in our past, and the way we do, or do not, let those demons control us.
The book tells the story of two women, intertwining past and present to reveal the full story piece by piece. The main character is Susannah, a mother of two whose life has recently begun to seem beyond her control. She moves her kids to a remote island in an attempt to simplify and conquer her fears. There she meets Betty, an older woman whose story is told mostly in flashbacks. While Susannah’s story drives the plot, I found Betty’s story more compelling. Her flaws are more subtle, while her relationships are more surprising and unconventional.
I was sent a copy of the book to review, which was very exciting (look for more reviews coming up!). But when I was given the chance to ask the author some questions, I was especially excited. I wanted to focus on her writing process and the intersection of life and art, rather than just asking questions about the book itself. I hope you enjoy the conversation!
How much of your writing is autobiographical? I know that, to a large extent, much of what we write is based on our lives, but how do you draw the line between truth and fiction?
I always come back to the maxim I heard once that says, “All the feelings are facts; it’s just the facts that are fiction.” The emotions in my book are very autobiographical; the situations and events and characters are made up.
I love that quote! What a useful way to think about it! Speaking of made up, at first I thought the remote island (where the book takes place) might be made up. Were you familiar with the San Juan Islands before you started writing the book? Did you travel there for research? If not, how did you write such vivid descriptions of such a unique place?
I’ve been to the San Juans seven or eight times, and my first visit, in 2004, inspired me to write the book. While I was there someone told me about Waldron, an island “off the grid” without electricity or even paved roads. I was lucky enough to meet a woman who had lived on Waldron for 30 years and she invited me to spend time at her farm there. That visit informed much of the novel. I also did a lot of background research and read many, many books on the San Juans. I still have “Wild Plants of the San Juan Islands” sitting on my desk.
How neat that a real woman helped inspire the story. I know inspiration can be a struggle for some authors, especially when it comes to the details. How much do you outline before you begin writing versus just letting the story develop on its own?
I’m pretty firmly entrenched in the “no-outline” camp. I have an idea; I have a very clear idea of what each character WANTS; and I usually have some idea of the climactic scene. Then, I just write. All the forward momentum in my books comes from the characters wanting something they can’t have, and trying to overcome obstacles in order to obtain it. Their desires may be tangible (a house, a baby) or intangible (independence, true love), but the struggle to get what they want drives the plot forward. Sometimes I wander off on a tangent and then have to retrace my steps and move forward again, but so far it’s worked for me.
I know that you have two daughters – how old are they? How do they feel about this book? About your writing in general? Do they read your writing?
My daughters are 18 and 15 now. They do read my writing and have been big supporters of my work. They, of course, look for every possible autobiographical thing they can. I have occasionally used episodes from real life in my fiction, but always ask them first if the events were ones in which they were involved. They wish I wasn’t so grumpy when I’m writing
The main character, Susannah, is what some people might call a “Helicopter Parent”, although she loosens up by the end. Do you find yourself parenting that way or are you more free-range?
I certainly have my helicopter parenting tendencies, although I think of myself as fairly middle-of-the-road now. Learning to let go is an ongoing process. I certainly share Susannah’s fierce protectiveness, but I also have been happy to let my kids snow ski and camp on their own and spend summers away from home, etc. My kids might have a different opinion, but overall I think I’m pretty willing to let them explore the world.
You write about the way that so many American kids are completely booked and over-scheduled, always running from one activity to the next. Do you find yourself doing that with your kids? Do you try to avoid it?
I try to avoid it. I’m a homebody and a bit of an introvert, so being constantly booked doesn’t sit well with me. On the other hand, kids get a real sense of competence and independence from learning to master things, whether it’s a sport, a musical instrument, or playing chess, and I’ve been happy we’ve had so many opportunities to expose our kids to a wide variety of things.
You deal a lot with the relationship between mothers and teenage daughters. My daughter is only 20 months, so I’m nowhere near that yet. But I certainly do remember the struggles my mother and I had during my teenage years. Is the relationship between Susannah and Katie based on any of your relationships, either with your mother or your daughters?
Some of the back and forth dialogue between Susannah and Katie certainly reflects the tone, if not the actual words, of dialogues I’ve had with both my girls. Mother-daughter relationships are at once clear and pure and yet totally complicated. My girls delight me every day. But they also frustrate me, infuriate me, scare me—and I’m sure they feel the same way about me. But I love them and believe in them with all my heart and I know they know that. And that will never change.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!