We’re thrilled to have Sarah Pekkanen and Kathryn Craft with us today in the first of a two part interview in which they discuss their new novels, THINGS YOU WON’T SAY and THE FAR END OF HAPPY. At the heart of each novel is a woman who finds her life upended when her husband picks up a gun. Both novels are compelling, provocative, and complex. We’re certain you’ll never look at those on the ragged edge of tragedy the same way again. Up first Kathryn Craft interviews Sarah Pekkanen about her sixth novel, THINGS YOU WON’T SAY. And we hope you’ll join us again on Thursday for part two.
Kathryn: I understand you trace the genesis of Things You Won’t Say back to a shooting you covered as a journalist for the Baltimore Sun fifteen years ago, in which an on-duty female officer was badly injured in a crash that killed her mentor. Yet for your fiction you chose a male officer (Mike) to suffer from actions taken in the line of duty, and gave his stay-at-home wife (Jamie) the main point of view. Tell us about how you made these choices. Did you ever consider making the police officer a female?
Sarah: I chose Jamie to narrate because I’m always interested in the people just beyond the spotlight, since they seem to have the most interesting stories to tell. Whenever we see a politician standing up on stage, facing a sex scandal, I’m curious about not only the stony-faced wife beside him, but about the children and other family members who are invisible casualties. I was drawn to the story of a woman who is desperate to keep her family together and is fighting a grueling private battle amidst a very public crisis, which is why I knew I had to give Jamie voice.
Kathryn: In keeping with your title, the characters in your book have trouble articulating what’s on their minds and in their hearts. Tabitha the elephant was such a great character for extending this theme because of the way Lou had to intuit her behavior and look for signs. I have to wonder: was the choice of Jamie’s sister’s occupation as an elephant keeper a conscious metaphor for “the elephant in the room”? If not, why the choice of elephants—do you have a special love for them?
Sarah: One of the best things about writing books is that I get an excuse to explore subjects that make me curious. For my second novel, Skipping A Beat, for example, I wrote about a woman who sees scenes from her life reflected in the world’s great operas. I knew nothing about opera, but was able to dive into research, attending workshops for opera singers at the Kennedy Center and reading autobiographies of singers like Renee Fleming. Before writing Things You Won’t Say, a friend sent me a link to a YouTube video showing an elephant painting a picture of a flower by holding the brush in its trunk. I was captivated by the intelligence and sensitivity of this great creature, and wanted to learn more. I spent some time at my local zoo, and interviewed elephant keepers, and read as much as I could about the animals. As with many of my characters in the book, there is much more to elephants than meets the eye!
Kathryn: Some of our country’s greatest novelists, from Hemingway to Steinbeck to Tony Hillerman and Jennifer Weiner, were once journalists. You may recall that it was your coverage of the Columbine shootings that made me believe I could sustain tension in my 12-hour time frame for The Far End of Happy while delving into the backstories of my characters, a technique you used to amazing effect in your article. What were some of the benefits of journalistic training as you transitioned to writing fiction, and what were some of the challenges in making the leap?
Sarah: The most valuable trait I picked up as a journalist is discipline. I can’t imagine telling my gruff old city editor that I was feeling blocked and couldn’t get in my story about the city council meeting – he would’ve picked me up and tossed me out of the office! I learned to write under any conditions, too, since newsrooms are always crowded and noisy. That helped immensely, since as the mother of three boys, my house is always crowded and noisy! Sometimes I yearn to go away to a writer’s retreat, a place with an all-white room where the coffee is hot and the sound of the beach filters in through the windows… but I’m glad I don’t require a place like that to create my novels, otherwise I’d only write one every twenty years!
Kathryn: You are amassing quite an impressive body of work, Sarah! I’ve read two of your novels, which were very different in nature—The Best of Us, a college reunion story set at a luxury villa in Jamaica, and your forthcoming Things you Won’t Say, a more serious, ripped-from-the-headlines story. In this era of author branding, what do you think is the “Sarah Pekkanen” ingredient you bring to each of your books? What do your fans respond to the most?
Sarah: Thank you! All of my novels are stand alone, yet there’s a common thread linking them. They all center around the important relationships in a woman’s life. My first book was about sisterhood, the second about marriage, the third about new friendships, the fourth about old friendships, the fifth about sisters-in-law, and Things You Won’t Say focuses on the wife of a police officer, the officer’s ex-girlfriend (and mother of his oldest son) and the wife’s sister. Women have such rich, complex, sustaining relationships, and I love exploring the nuances. I always want to insert compelling plots into my novels, then let my female characters work their way through the crisis, often leaning on one another as they do so.
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How far would you go to save your family?
Every morning, as her husband Mike straps on his SIG Sauer and pulls on his heavy Magnum boots, Jamie Anderson tenses up. Then comes the call she has always dreaded: There’s been a shooting at police headquarters. Mike isn’t hurt, but his long-time partner is grievously injured. As weeks pass and her husband’s insomnia and disconnectedness mount, Jamie realizes he is an invisible casualty of the attack. Then the phone rings again. Another shooting—but this time Mike has pulled the trigger.
But the shooting does more than just alter Jamie’s world. It’s about to change everything for two other women. Christie Simmons, Mike’s flamboyant ex, sees the tragedy as an opportunity for a second chance with Mike. And Jamie’s younger sister, Lou, must face her own losses to help the big sister who raised her. As the press descends and public cries of police brutality swell, Jamie tries desperately to hold together her family, no matter what it takes.
In her characteristic exploration of true-to-life relationships, Sarah Pekkanen has written a complex, compelling, and openhearted novel—her best yet.