We’re delighted to feature our own Marybeth Whalen, along with Ella Joy Olsen, as they discuss their new books on the blog today. We’ll be back with part two of this author-to-author interview on Monday. And if you’ve not yet had a chance to read Marybeth’s novel, THE THINGS WE WISH WERE TRUE, now would be the perfect time. Yes, we’re biased (*wink*) but yes, it’s also really that good.
ELLA: As I was reading The Things We Wish Were True, I quickly became aware of deeper currents under a placid surface. Case in point, you seamlessly juxtaposed the festive atmosphere of a neighborhood swimming pool in the heat of a small-town summer with a near-drowning. Many seemingly idyllic scenes added to the ongoing tension. Was this sense of foreboding your intent? Did you know you were writing a thriller when you put pen to paper? Or did you have to turn-up the suspense in second or third drafts?
MARYBETH: It’s funny because I still don’t consider it a thriller! I would call it women’s fiction with an element of suspense. And yes, I liked creating this idyllic setting while weaving in these “all is not perfect” elements– just to put the reader on edge and point towards what is to come. I’ve taken some flak for the 4th of July scene being a little rough but that scene is in there for a purpose– to show that, while this neighborhood seems peaceful and sweet, there are some undesirable things going on.
ELLA: I loved the scenes at the pool: juice boxes warmed in the sun, the heat of concrete through a wet swimsuit. These details resonate with my own childhood and with the hours spent at swim lessons when my children were little. I’m always interested in a writer’s process. Did you grow up in a tight-knit town? And did you visit a local pool to collect some the most visceral details? Let’s talk inspiration.
MARYBETH: I actually live in a neighborhood I spent a lot of time in as a kid. We’ve lived here 16 years and we’re at the pool a lot so those details weren’t hard to come by! I grew up in a suburb of Charlotte NC and never left. So I understand the ins and outs of small town life and the pull that home has on you– whether you like it or not!
ELLA: This story is told through six voices: Cailey, Zell, Bryte, Jencey, Lance, and Everett. Cailey’s was the only voice written in first person. Would you consider her the main character or the character closest to your heart? What was the first voice that came to you? Which character was the hardest to write?
MARYBETH: I get the question about Cailey being the only one in first person a lot. And the only answer I have is I just wrote her the way I heard her in my head. She told me her story, and I wrote it down. (And yes, it freaks my husband and children out to know that I hear from people who aren’t really there. But they’re quite real to me!) And yes, she was nearest and dearest to my heart and I think that is reflected (perhaps unfairly– sorry, other characters) in the story. As for hardest to write, I think just making sure Bryte and Jencey were distinct characters was my biggest challenge. They were from similar backgrounds, both moms, of similar ages, etc. and I didn’t want them to be interchangeable. I had to work at that.
ELLA: The novel is full of twists and turns. Some I saw coming (effective foreshadowing), but many I didn’t anticipate, at all. Did you plan these plot twists before you wrote, or did they come to you as you explored your characters? Are you a Pantser or Plotter? Can you speak again to process?
MARYBETH: I did plan the plot twists. The fun part about this book was I was able to take several story lines I’d been thinking about for a long time and sort of just throw them all into one story. So some of the things that happen were things I’d been wanting to do in a story for quite a while. I definitely plot my books– but also enjoy the fun of the little surprises that happen along the way too– the things the characters have up their sleeves that I do not know when I sit down to write.
ELLA: If I were to pull a theme from this book, in my perspective, it would be innocence lost, but also new beginnings. Maybe a comprehensive word for both concepts would be redemption. If you were to give this novel a big picture meaning, what would it be? And why?
MARYBETH: You hit the nail on the head when you said redemption– all of my stories have to have that or I can’t write them. I live in the real world and I write about real world stuff. The good, the bad and the ugly. But I also believe in hope above all. If you read the author’s note at the end of the book, I explain the hope in this particular story.
ELLA: I think the entire novel harkened me back to youthful relationships. I was intrigued by best friends Bryte and Jencey and the first love between Jencey/Bryte and Everett. I think childhood loves and friendships can crush a person more fully than those forged in adulthood. Why is this, do you think? And if this question doesn’t hit too close to home, did you draw these emotional details from personal experience?
MARYBETH: The old saying, “You never get over your first love” makes for a nice theme to explore in a story. With this one, a long time ago I heard about a girl I used to know who went on to marry a boy who was very popular in high school, but she wasn’t. And I always wondered about that– how she felt to be married to someone who was out of her league when they were young. And how that informed the marriage dynamic as adults. So I just wanted to play with that. Like I said, in this story I was able to dig into several things I’ve thought about for quite awhile. As my husband will attest to, I’m always thinking!
In an idyllic small-town neighborhood, a near tragedy triggers a series of dark revelations.
From the outside, Sycamore Glen, North Carolina, might look like the perfect all-American neighborhood. But behind the white picket fences lies a web of secrets that reach from house to house.
Up and down the streets, neighbors quietly bear the weight of their own pasts—until an accident at the community pool upsets the delicate equilibrium. And when tragic circumstances compel a woman to return to Sycamore Glen after years of self-imposed banishment, the tangle of the neighbors’ intertwined lives begins to unravel.
During the course of a sweltering summer, long-buried secrets are revealed, and the neighbors learn that it’s impossible to really know those closest to us. But is it impossible to love and forgive them?