What If Parents Had To Get Licenses to Have Kids? Interview with Author Kristen Tsetsi

Happy New Year!

It’s been a while since I’ve written here but I’m returning to share a conversation I’ve been having with Kristen Tsetsi, author of The Age of the Child, a novel that got me off to a thoughtful start for the year. In her novel, Tsetsi asks a provocative question: what if those of us who want to be parents had to get a license to do it?

Tsetsi’s novel takes place in a near-enough future to recognize many of the conditions that prevail today with a few key differences. She’s given herself freedom to imagine first what would happen if all forms of contraception were illegal and then to explore the natural response to the challenges that follow. What makes the story compelling, though, is how Tsetsi leads us through this world first through a mother, and then through her daughter so that we see how they struggle to live with themselves and each other within the confines of their world. The most poignant moments are the moments of connection and missed connection between each other but also with others. Tsetsi’s spare, skillful prose lets them struggle in front of us so that we become like people behind a two-way mirror. We can see what is happening, why it is happening, and, hearts rising to our throats, want to call out to these people. But they can’t hear us.

When we are through, though, we are thinking hard about things we’ve heard many say and things we’ve thought or said ourselves about children or parenting. We’re tempted into a conversation that we’ve not had with spouses, friends, or acquaintances. This is a book for those who like to dig into a good story but also to be challenged by “what if” questions that evoke a future that may be closer than we imagine. Perfect for book clubs. If you’d like to invite her to join you and your fellow readers, email her here: kris@kristenjtsetsi.com. If you’d like to enter to win a free, signed copy of The Age of the Child, I’ll be drawing a winner from current and new newsletter subscribers. To subscribe, all you have to do is go here: subscribe.

Here is a recent interview I had with Kristen Tsetsi about her novel, her writing process, and her dog Lenny who inspired the name for one of the characters and who inspires me to smile daily on Instagram. Kristen is smart, insightful, and witty as her followers of her blog, Facebook page, and Instagram can testify. She loves doing book clubs. Learn more about her, The Age of the Child, and more of her work at https://kristenjtsetsi.com/.

Q: You’ve mentioned in your blog that the seed for this novel came from a common phrase uttered whenever we encounter a parents we think are making mistakes or violate social norms, “think of the children.” I confess, versions of this has crossed my mind at times. What is it about this that compelled you to write about a world in which the government actually regulates who can become parents and who can’t?

A: Well, it’s hard not to imagine that world when we’re in a world right now in which many people want the government to regulate the choice to not parent. The idea of abortion—and in some cases, hormonal birth control—is so abhorrent to them that it feels perfectly legitimate to create a tiered system of rights: first rights to the unborn. The personal bodily rights of anyone with a uterus come second. It makes sense to them, because they’re “thinking of the children.”

“But there’s a flip side to “thinking of the children,” and it’s the one that concerns itself with walking, talking, breathing young people.”

Obviously banning birth control and criminalizing abortion pose no problem for those who welcome the choice to have oodles of children, but it’s horrifying for someone like The Age of the Child’s Katherine, who discovers that the clinic where she had an appointment for an abortion, one of the last remaining, has been forced by law to close.

But there’s a flip side to “thinking of the children,” and it’s the one that concerns itself with walking, talking, breathing young people.

This is where we as a society are lacking.

Not only do we accept without question that having kids is “just what people do,” but there’s also a lot of pressure out there to conceive (and then to conceive again).

Take, for one of many examples, Kathleen Parker’s Washington Post opinion piece, On Pleasure and Parenthood, in which she writes, “Parenting surely isn’t for everyone, and those who choose to be child-free probably have made the right decision. Then again, it’s hard to know for certain that one doesn’t want children. Many don’t, until they do.” (My response.)

This implication: “All women should want children. If they think they don’t, they should have one so they know for sure.”

As if inviting millions of strangers to bring innocent, vulnerable, helpless human beings into conditions unknown carries the consequent weight of, “You have to try that hot pepper. Oh my god, it’s crazy hot. Try it!”

In my opinion, that doesn’t reflect much thought for the children.

I wondered, “What would it look like to put the quality of life of children first, before the biological needs and baby longings of adults?”

After many years of trying it one way, the government in The Age of the Child decides, having seen the results of their legislation, there must be a better way. The only way, as they see it, is licensing.

Which is no problem at all for those who don’t want children (or any more children than they already have), but Millie happens to exist in this time, and it’s a terrible time for someone like her to want to be pregnant. 

Q: I’m sure there are as many situations as there are parents. As you developed your characters and their dilemmas, did you draw on parents or people you’ve observed? Did you find yourself having long thoughtful conversations with friends or friends of friends that yielded insights you ended up incorporating into your novel? How much of yourself and your own experience is in this novel? 

A: Two friends I’ve had for years are parents, and I’ve been lucky to hear them talk to me about their amazing kids from the time they were very young until now (one brother and sister are in their early twenties and the other brother and sister are in their late teens).

One of those friends, I’ll call her Helen, told me a story about a work acquaintance she visited one day after work. While there, Helen witnessed the treatment of her co-worker’s son. The father didn’t feed their son food – he fed him candy fruit snacks. Regularly, as meals. The father, when asked by his wife why he hadn’t made their son a sandwich while she was at work, said he hadn’t felt like it and, frankly, didn’t see why anything about his life or his schedule should have to change just because they had a child.

You’ll probably recognize the Age of the Child character that family inspired.

While writing, I had long conversations with the other friend, Danielle (named in the dedication), about pregnancy, childbirth, and the little things babies do that are unique to their personalities. If I got stuck on a spot while I was in the middle of a scene about a pregnant Katherine, I’d send her a text. I couldn’t have written Katherine’s pregnancy, post-childbirth, or baby-tending without her. Or the book itself, really.

I’ve also been someone’s child but not a mother, which might make it a little easier to imagine (or remember having) a child’s perspective, because it’s free from the filter of parenthood. And as someone who’s never wanted children, I had intimate insight into Katherine’s feelings about becoming a parent.

Q: An author takes risks when writing about controversial subjects or a big idea — the ability to balance the subject or idea with all the elements that make a good story is really important. Luckily, you have found a way to marry both — did you find yourself struggling with this at all during the writing of Age of the Child? Did you ever find yourself considering choices that might serve the idea at the expense of the story or vice versa? 

A: Thank you for saying that!

I think consciously thinking about an issue while trying to write a story could make it too tempting to get hung up on everyone’s political or moral arguments. The preaching from all sides would take over and the characters would get lost. I like to keep whatever the issue is – whether “thinking of the children” or, as in Pretty Much True, trying to put a spotlight on an under-explored wartime experience – in the background of my mind and in the background of the story, too, and to concentrate only on the lives being affected. “This is the situation. What would people do, how might they behave, how would they be personally impacted, in this situation?” That’s all I think about.

“This is the situation. What would people do, how might they behave, how would they be personally impacted, in this situation?” That’s all I think about.’

Q: Speaking as a person who became a parent quite young, I shudder when I think of the possibility that an outside entity could have legally regulated my ability to bear and raise my child. As many mistakes as I’m sure I made – and there are many — I still think I did as well if not better than most. But would I have met the licensing criteria in your novel? I’m far from sure. Have you spoken with readers who find themselves thinking about their parents or their children or their decisions in new ways after reading Age of the Child?

A: Because The Age of the Child only released in November, I haven’t received much in-person feedback, yet, but one reader said it generated a conversation with her husband while they were out for a walk. “We make people get licenses for almost everything else,” her husband said…

“Would you have passed? Only the evaluators know…”

There are so many factors considered for licensing…

Q: The mother-daughter relationships in Age of the Child are fraught. I’m struck by the decision of Katherine, the mother we meet in the first half of the book, to remain emotionally distant from the child she feels forced to have and how that impacts her daughter as she takes on the key role in the second half of the novel. I found myself thinking about the legacy we receive from our mothers and how it is rooted in things that we as children will never understand. Can you share a little of how the four main women in this book were born as characters and how they developed? Did they ever surprise you? 

A: This is a hard question. I love it.

One thing I want to point out first is that Katherine’s husband, Graham, isn’t innocent when it comes to the shaping of their daughter. I won’t say much more than that—I just want to clarify that his influence is more than ancillary. I made a point of including Graham and Ernie (the fathers) and their respective involvement in order to present them as just as impactful as mothers in their roles as parents. We put a lot on mothers and dismiss the fathers, in many ways, as a society, but that’s a different, bigger conversation.

I’m fascinated by the different perceptions adults and children have of their connections (or lack thereof). One forgettable hour to an adult —hell, one minute of an overheard conversation—can become an indelible memory to a child. An adult going about his or her life without a thought can unwittingly communicate a very clear, very powerful message to a child. I explored that dynamic in both families’ parent-child relationships, with one taking a negative turn and one going in a more positive direction (Lenny and her mother, as I see them, are very close!).

The characters developed out a desire to challenge stereotypes: I wanted a compassionate woman who didn’t want kids, and a selfish woman who did. I also wanted characters who adored their children and everything about parenthood, as well as characters who never “come around” to parenthood, whatever the circumstances. (“You’ll change your mind” is very big with some people, but only if you don’t want children. If you think you do want them, you’re trusted to know what you want.)

You also asked if any of the characters surprised me. I think Millie did. I wasn’t expecting to have such strong feelings for her adult character. Now and then I just want to hug her.

Q: When I meet with book clubs, I’m often asked about my writing process – do I outline the book or sit down and see what comes? How does a book come together for you? Do you write every day? Do you try not to write until you know exactly where you are going? How, if it all, has your process changed since first beginning to write? (And by the way, do are you available to meet with book clubs either in person on via Skype?

A: I try to write every day, but if I wake up one morning and feel nothing but dread at the thought of it, then I won’t. I see no reason to punch my meager amount of confidence in the face with awful writing. Instead, I’ll do the thinking part of writing, which is usually safe, or I’ll pull weeds or clean the house.

I should probably be working on outlines instead of pulling weeds, but I’ve never been great at outlining. I’ll do it in pieces, usually when I’m so lost in the story details that I can’t seem to remember how to move forward. Writing down a basic “this, then that, then that,” gets me back on track, and some details about plot points will get sloppy notes on a random notebook page, but otherwise I’m usually pretty disorganized.

However, The Age of the Child, while lacking a coherent outline, did get 25 little sticky tabs dividing writing journal notes on things like crime and punishment, licensing guidelines, the state of the country in this near-future time, arguments politicians would have, etc. Anything and everything the public could and would react to or be affected by.

And, yes! I am available to meet with book clubs via Skype. I would love to. How fun would that be?

Q: Finally, I want to know how Lenny, an uncommonly intelligent dog with the most expressive ears in all fifty states —  contributed to this piece. Was Murphy the dog based in any way on Lenny? Is she a good writing partner? Was she wounded when she discovered you had not dedicated the book to her? 

Murphy has a tiny bit of Lenny in her, and no, Lenny is not a good writing partner. She’s the worst. If I try to write on the couch, she sits next to me—on my cushion—and puts her nose between my face and the monitor. If I sit at the dining room table, she stands at my feet like a little hippo and stares at me with her ears. She’s very distracting, which is why I’ve become one of those annoying people writing in a Starbucks. But I only get four hours. The afternoon and evening belong to Lenny, who is the best impulse dog adoption ever, our three spectacular cats, and my husband Ian.

Lenny wasn’t too hurt about the dedication. I told her, “Look. You can have a character named after you, or you can get a dedication. What’s it gonna be?”

Q: What is the question you wished someone would ask that, somehow, no one has?

There’s no way anyone could know to ask this, so I don’t blame them for never having asked: “What do you wish you’d done for a writer that you didn’t do?”

While visiting New York City last winter, Ian and I went to the New York Public Library. There was a man sitting outside in a little metal chair, and (I can only assume) his books were stacked on a folding table in front of him. No one was stopping to talk to him or buy his books.

“You should go over there and talk to him about his book,” Ian said.

I hate small talk and will always try to avoid it, so of course I didn’t go over there. But now I wish I had. One person being enthusiastic about what you’re offering can make up for hours of people walking by without even a glance, and it would have been so easy to do. It would have cost nothing but a minute of feeling awkward and the price of a book.

Which is not to say he needed me to do that. I’m sure he’s fine. But, you know. You want to give to someone what you think you’d like, yourself.

 And, just because this is my blog and I can post whatever I want to, here’s another shot of Kristen’s editor, Lenny and her marvelous ears:

A Reader Reminds Me Why I’m Doing This

“May I just say thank you for caring about a really big issue. My son has his own story to tell about his re-entry and his attempt at suicide…we still have him. For this I am eternally grateful. And now I have a book to share with other single moms who are looking at re-entry.”
–A Veteran’s Mother

Dear Friends,

Those of you who are subscribers to my newsletter will have already seen this in your inbox (or soon will depending on how eager you are to open email!). I wanted to share it here too because it feels so important to share those moments when we all really connect. I won’t do this regularly but when there is something I think you’ll like, I’ll give it a try.

Here goes:

The lines above came to me a recent Sunday night in an email. I was about to shut down my computer and head to bed, my thoughts already focused on the week ahead with its to-do’s,  anxieties, and promises to myself to just focus on the writing and not worry about reviews or sales or my future as a writer.

Then I saw it. The subject line read, “Your book is helping yet another military Mom.” I opened it. I learned that the sender had not only finished Casualties but had lent it to a friend whose son was due home from San Diego after serving four years in the Marines.  She wrote:

“It made her rethink the times she was planning to spend with him and listen to the things she would normally dismiss.” 

Then she shared with me a bit of her own story: the return of her son, his attempt at suicide, the long road he is still walking. With tears in my eyes, I wrote back and told her how much her note meant to me and how glad I was that she and her son still had each other. In a second note she shared more of her story. With her permission, I share excerpts below because they give us all something to think about:

“We, (family and loved ones) somehow think that things will resort back to “normal” when they return. NEVER will normal have the same definition it had before they left.”

“The person returned to us from deployment is not the same one who left with dreams for making a difference…”

“They come home feeling guilty that they got to come home.”

There were times when I wasn’t sure I was the right person to write this novel. It took so long to finish. When I finally did publish, the triumph of the moment came with ever-growing worries I’d never anticipated. Then I began to hear from readers — not reviews actual letters from actual readers. I heard from members of book clubs who have shared their surprise, their concern, their sympathy and, ultimately, their empathy for families that may not have looked much like their own. Some readers have lost children in all kinds of ways and relived that loss with me. Some simply fell into the story and simply told me they couldn’t put it down. Some have not loved the book, or all of it, but were still glad they read it. And they took the time to tell me this.

Every time I connect with a reader I understand all over again why I wanted to write a story in the first place. Every time someone shares his or her own story with me, I understand even more why I wanted to write this one. They make me want to keep going. I am grateful every day for their gift.

Two new novels for two new winners

With gratitude in mind – and knowing what it means for an author to know her book is out there connecting — I’d like to share the work of two authors who have written novels full of life, conflict, adventure and the opportunity to consider questions that compel attention long after the last page.

First though, congratulations to Jodi and to Cyn who won copies of The Nest and The Forgetting Time after responding to the last newsletter.

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond.  I gobbled this book down in two nights. I loved the story. Loved the protagonist and loved her first love: the continent of Antarctica and the penquins who live there. The premise is frightening: what would happen something like Italy’s Concordia cruise ship accident happened in remote, unforgiving, yet increasingly fragile Antarctica. Bonus: this copy is signed by the author!

Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. This wonderful novel just came out a couple of weeks ago but back in the spring, I was lucky enough to leave a writers conference with two advance copies. I’m reading one (and loving it) and I want to share the other one. “Dreamers” is the story of a Jende, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem who imagines a brighter future for his family after taking a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy couple. This future is threatened by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and forces Jende and his wife to make an impossible choice. Here is what the New York Times book review has to say: “Mbue writes with great confidence and warmth. . . . There are a lot of spinning plates and Mbue balances them skillfully, keeping everything in motion. . . . Behold the Dreamers is a capacious, big-hearted novel.”

To enter, just respond to this email before midnight PST on Thursday, September 8. I will use an app from Random.org to draw two winners. If you’d like to check out all the official rules, just click here: giveaway rules.

Feel free to let your friends know and join us as subscribers.  Here’s the link to sign up: http://elizabethmarro.com/subscribe/

And if you are in a book club, let’s talk!

Thank you! So good to know you are out there!

Betsy

P.S. And now, here’s your moment of Zen courtesy of…Mr. Beans?

Sunday Sentence: Youngblood by Matt Gallagher

“I took in a deep breath of wet cigarette and watched the green camo nets ripple slowly with the wind, marking time.” – Matt Gallagher, Youngblood

There are small stories in every sentence in this novel, just one of the reasons I slowed down as I neared the end. I didn’t want to finish so soon.

IMG_20160327_145859667

I love reading them, so now I’m joining the #SundaySentence party started by David Abrams over at the Quivering Pen and on Twitter. It’s not a review. It’s not a story. It’s just one sentence I read this week, presented “out of context and without commentary.

Strangers in a Strange Land

Port Angeles seemed like one of the prettiest and wettest places on earth

Port Angeles seemed like one of the prettiest and wettest places on earth

Michael Valentine Smith may have prevented a murder back in the summer of 1974 when my brother and I were stranded in Port Angeles, Washington for nearly ten days. In a Pinto station wagon. In the rain.

It was day five or six. I remember the relentless drumming of water against the car roof. I remember waiting to take my shower in the campground’s bathroom, hoping someone would leave her soap or shampoo behind because I was out. I remember, in a what-the-hell moment, that we spent our last few dollars in an expensive touristy restaurant where my brother and I inhaled giant roast beef sandwiches that came with crisp pickles, french fries, and one little plastic cup of horseradish. I confess to leaving the ramekin of horseradish untouched and waiting for my brother to do what I knew he would do scoop up the cup of horseradish, ask “what’s this?” then, without waiting for an answer, squeeze the entire contents of the cup into his mouth.

We knew each other well, my brother and I. We should have. He’s less than a year younger than me and I have no childhood memories that don’t include him. And, after three and a half weeks of traveling together in the 80-cubic-foot confines of my mother’s green 1974 Pinto station wagon, we’d absorbed knowledge of each other the way our sleeping bags absorbed the water dripping in through the window. Since our — okay, my — second fender bender we had not been able to close it all the way. I knew he’d eat that horseradish because at that point there wasn’t much we wouldn’t eat.

After that meal, we were officially out of money. We had a few more days paid at the campground, a dozen packets of instant oatmeal, some tea, and a can of beans. That would be it until my mother could send a money order from the savings I’d left behind in New Hampshire. Our plan to pick up odd jobs failed when employers realized we were too young to serve liquor and not likely to stay through the summer into the fall. Besides, we smelled like wet socks left to rot in a gym bag for months.

It was in Port Angeles that two events occurred. We had a huge fight and we met Michael Valentine Smith. The argument cleared the air, metaphorically speaking anyway. Michael V. Smith guided us back to each other.

This looks just like the cover of our copy of "Stranger"

This looks just like the cover of our copy of “Stranger”

Want your own free copy to read or re-read? Scroll to the end of this post.

The argument, in hindsight, was long overdue. Friction began to erode our bravado our fist day on the road when I rammed the Pinto into a car in front of us on the Tappan Zee bridge. Other sources: our rapidly dwindling money supply, the question of whose idea this trip was anyway (mostly mine with an unexpected assist from our mother who urged me to take her car, and my brother), and the tyranny of AM radio which alternated between The Hues’ Corporation’s “Don’t Rock the Boat,” and Diamond Earring’s, “Radar Love” until we were ready to gouge the radio out of the dashboard.

Just a week or so earlier, he had turned 17 and I had turned 18. I was old enough to buy beer legally in Denver, a moment I had thought would stamp me as an adult. It didn’t work. Our inherent shyness, acute self-consciousness, and naive lack of planning exposed us for the kids we were. The country had turned out to be so much bigger than I imagined; a thousand miles on a map was a matter of inches. Driving that same distance on strange highways that took us further and further from the familiar mountains of home thrilled me on the one hand and, on the other, dissolved my vague and romantic notions that all we would have to do is get going and adventure would find us. I was embarrassed by the time we reached Port Angeles. Nothing was more painful than confronting my own incompleteness and there was my brother, every morning, every afternoon, every night, a witness to my failures.

It added up to a combustible combination that seemed powerful enough that day to blow the doors off the Pinto.

When we couldn’t trust ourselves to say another word, we reached for our books. Books were our refuge, our allies, and a source of confidence since we’d been little because we’d both learned young, at four and five, during nightly lessons at my father’s drafting table.

After a while, the air stopped vibrating with tension and I remember being aware of the rain, the turn of pages, and my brother’s breathing. And then he laughed.

“What?” I asked him, seizing this as an olive branch, or at least a sign that the storm had passed.

I don’t remember the page he was on or what made him laugh but I saw that he was reading Stranger in a Strange Land, one of three Heinlein novels in a set he’d been given before we left. I’d already started it and wanted to keep going but it was, after all, his book. We started talking about the parts we had both read and then one of us, I don’t remember who, started reading it out loud. We took turns and kept taking turns until we finished it.

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” 
― Robert A. HeinleinStranger in a Strange Land

Here was a character who, like us, was thrown into the deep end of an experience without any understanding of the people, history, culture, or landscape. Without preconceived notions and no self-consciousness, this character’s journey offered a few lessons about what it takes to really see, hear, and learn. I’m not sure we absorbed them though. It was enough to have found a way to talk with each other, to provide comfort and connection in the form of a great story and a trusted voice.

Very little evidence of our road trip remains. The Pinto is long gone. So are the photographs of the waves crashing off the cliffs of northern California, the giant Sequoias, Ben and Ricky Sue who picked us up on the two days we hitchhiked around Vancouver Island and showered us with hospitality in the form of beer and a guided tour, icy blue Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, and many, many campgrounds in the US and Canada. The copy of “Stranger” is gone along with the books that followed, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” and “Time Enough for Love.” Along the routes we took, we lost our fear of driving in cities and some of our shyness. We discovered that the world may be smaller than if feels sometimes when we found a car in Lake Louise bearing license plates from our Coos County in New Hampshire. We learned that fender-benders don’t define the success or failure of a journey and neither does running out of money in places like Port Angeles or, later, Medicine Hat, Alberta.

When I think of this trip from a distance of thirty-nine years, I can see more clearly that when we left on our trip, my brother and I were strangers to ourselves and strangers to adulthood. We wanted to grow up, see life outside the White Mountains which had both shielded and imprisoned us. We were teenagers seesawing between seizing life and wanting life to leave us alone. When we came home, we had a lot of road left to travel but more confidence to do it.

Since then, though, we have never had that much time together and we have never read aloud to one another. If I could get one moment of that trip back, I think I would ask for a stretch of highway somewhere out of the rain. I would be driving to the sound of my brother’s still-breaking teenage voice telling me the story of Michael Valentine Smith and taking comfort in being strangers together.

My brother and me long before our road trip began

My brother and me long before our road trip began

Congratulations to http://fatbottomgirlsaidwhat.wordpress.com! FBGSW commented on this post and that put her in a drawing for a copy of “Stranger in a Strange Land.” With this post, I continue a month-long celebration of journeys and books. Each post will focus on a particular journey and the book that either took me or came along for the ride. Because this month also encompasses my birthday, always a milestone in life’s journey, I want to celebrate by sharing the books I mention here. Each post will come with an invitation to leave your own thoughts and, by doing so, enter a drawing to win a copy of the book or books in that post. It’s a way of saying thank you for the wonderful welcome during my first six months of blogging here. I’ve learned so much and look forward to learning more.  My next post focuses on an internal journey with Katrina Kenison as my guide in “Magical Journey.” 

“Next Big Thing” Blog Tour

As I mentioned last week, there’s a viral blog event going around called “The Next Big Thing” in which writers give a glimpse of works in progress by answering a set of questions. I’ve been tagged by two fellow writers. Rae Francoeur is author of the memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair.” Find out about her Next Big Thing. In addition, I’ve been tagged by Matt Coyle, author of the thriller “Yesterday’s Echo,” due out in May. Click here to read more about Matt and his book. I’ve tagged three folks too and you can find out more by clicking on their links at the end of this post.

And for some insight on my “Next Big Thing,” read on.

What is your working title of your book?

Casualties.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I started with an entirely different story, about a woman who leaves. That’s all I had: her name, her face, and her departure. I knew that everything leading up to her departure was rooted in a past I needed to uncover. When I realized that she lost her only child, I realized I was writing one of my about my worst nightmares with the idea that if I could figure out what would happen under the worst conditions for my characters, I might learn something. There is nothing that happens to Ruth, my protagonist, that couldn’t happen to any one of us.

Environmental factors played a role too. I live in San Diego, a nexus for the military, defense industry and civilians. You learn quickly that there are no real boundaries between these groups. Individuals — neighbors, strangers, family members — cross from one to the other as they make difficult decisions and try to do what is right for themselves, their families and the country. What can often be invisible elsewhere in the country is very visible here.

What genre does your book fall under?

I aimed for what editor Amy Einhorn calls, “the sweet spot between literary and commercial.” This is a novel that a book club could sink its teeth into.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 

This is fun!

Ruth: Julianne Moore. Helen Hunt. Diane Lane. Cate Blanchett.

Casey: Aaron Eckhart. Dennis Leary. Willem Dafoe. All three are a little too old to play Casey but all of them can play that combination of intelligence, seediness, and heart that would bring Casey to life. I love them all, by the way…

 What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Before single mother and defense industry executive Ruth Nolan can bury her only child, a Marine who has committed suicide, she must choose whether to salvage what remains of the life she has built, or risk it all by helping war-zone contractors harmed by her firm’s negligence.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am seeking representation and have been excited about the initial reception. We’ll see where that leads. I am open to all possibilities.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Too long!!!! The first scenes in what became my first draft are dated 2003. However, what I consider the real first draft happened in 2007 when I tossed out 600 pages. What remained formed the heart of the book that has emerged.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Like Kristin Hannah’s Homefront, Casualties brings to life the cost of war paid by those who fight and those who wait for them, but goes further, delving into the largely invisible world of the defense contractor and the tragedy of military suicides. The story, however, is not a story of war, and the book does not advance a political agenda. Like the novels of Ann Patchett (State of Wonder), or Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behavior), Casualties keeps the focus on the conflicting desires of its characters and the choices they must make.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My husband was the one who inspired my confidence and challenged me making it possible for me write full time for the past two years. He has never wavered in his confidence in me and I draw strength from that daily.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Ruth’s story is only one of the stories told in this book. When she flees from her California home with her son’s ashes, she encounters amputee and would-be conman Casey McInerney, a veteran of the first Gulf War with his own demons. As they journey across the country, they force each other to face the grief, guilt, and fear that have governed their decisions for longer than either of them realizes. They help each other take the first steps toward making peace with themselves and the ghosts of those they’ve lost.

Now I have some wonderful writers for you to check out. Next week, or very soon, they will be posting answers to questions about their latest projects as part of the Next Big Thing blog tour.

Pamela Hunt, freelance writer and author of “Walking on My Hands,” a blog in which she shares her journey toward “learning to live with grace.” She’ll talk about her novel, a work-in-progress.

Gail Chehab, author of The Echo of Sand” and, most recently, “Simple Gifts.”

Melanie Hooks, screenwriter and freelance writer, will discuss her work-in-progress. (Link to come. Stay tuned!)