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Screeching tires. The crunch of metal. The shrill of a young girl’s scream.
These were the sounds that had haunted me when I finally sat down to write the book that would become SAFE WITH ME. For months before that day, when I closed my eyes, I saw a mangled bike in the middle of the street, its tires bent, the frame broken, the spokes of the wheel sticking out like porcupine quills. I imagined the mother of the child who had been riding that bike, hearing these sounds, seeing these images just as I did. I put myself in her place, rushing down the stairs and through her front yard only to see that twisted and broken 10-speed. And then, every parent’s nightmare, her daughter lying motionless and bleeding on the ground.
The beginnings of a new story idea are months in the making. There is no magic fairy dust moment where I wake up one morning and rush to my computer, furiously pounding out an avalanche of words onto the page. Inspiration is a more gradual mechanism than that, a pot of water left on top of a slow and steady flame. During this time, this precursor to the actual act of sitting down to write, I’m plagued by uncertainty. Do I have an idea compelling enough to carry an entire book? Will the characters resonate; will readers care about them? And then, more importantly, how should the story begin?
If I find myself staring at a blank page with no image of a scene that should come first, I know I’m not ready to write. I had spent countless hours researching organ donation and domestic violence before I began SAFE WITH ME. I wanted to make sure I got the details right, that I understood the complicated set of emotions that donor and recipient families go through. I wanted to do justice to women suffering in abusive relationships, to show what might compel them to stay, and finally, what would encourage them to leave. While I conducted interviews and took copious notes, that image of a mangled bicycle would not leave me alone. I dreamt about it. I talked about it with my friends who were mothers, watching their eyes fill with tears as I asked them what thoughts they might have seeing their own child’s body thrown from a crash.
I didn’t choose to dwell in this particular image; rather, it chose to infiltrate me. As a writer, I’ve learned to be grateful for the scenes that set up camp and refuse to leave. Because however painful it was to let the image inhabit my mind, there was an equal balance of excitement, knowing I had been gifted the exact right place from which to begin.
We sat down with Amy Hatvany recently to pick her brain about life, publishing, and the inspiration behind her novels.
Amy: I hope so! I’m so interested in how everyday people respond to being placed in challenging, pressure-cooker circumstances. I want readers to be able to put themselves in the characters’ experiences, their mindset and emotions. It’s possible I might write around subjects like these in order to sort out how I might respond; I can walk my characters through the mistakes they make and hopefully learn what NOT to do!
Ariel: I’m always interested in the “ah-ha!” moment that inspires a novel AND the unique challenges that come with any given premise. Can you share what those were for SAFE WITH ME and how you overcame those challenges while writing?
Amy: I actually wrote a poor version of this book over a decade ago, after reading a true story about an organ donor and its recipient randomly landing in each other’s lives without knowing who the other was right away. The writing of that first draft was bad, but the premise stuck with me, so I scrapped everything I had already written and started over. This time, instead of dwelling in a first person account of a mother whose child had died and donated her organs, I decided to include multiple viewpoints to create a better balanced story all around.
As I set out, I knew that in trying to capture the characters’ emotions in the midst of their particular experiences would be a huge challenge. There is a fine line between accurate portrayals and too maudlin description, and when dealing with such tumultuous circumstances as the death of a child, organ donation, and domestic violence, I had to be especially vigilant to include moments of levity and normalcy amid the more grief-stricken scenes.
Ariel: What was the last novel that grabbed you by the throat and wouldn’t let go, the book you’re telling everyone to read?
Amy: ME BEFORE YOU, by JoJo Moyes. It made me laugh, cry, and root for the characters to find their perfect ending. My measure of a good story is always whether or not I would recommend it to my mother to read, and this one hits all the right notes.
Marybeth: And finally, Sweet or salty? Red or white?
Amy: Sweet AND salty, thank you very much! A better combination than salted caramel my taste buds have never found.
I’m almost nine years sober, so no red or white for me, thank you…I already drank my fair share! On a more serious note, my short-term experience with addiction was something that I pulled from in order to accurately portray Cadence in my novel, BEST KEPT SECRET, a mother struggling to come to terms with her alcoholism during a custody dispute for her son. I wanted to address the whole “moms who need wine” culture and what happens when one of those moms crosses the line. Four years after the book came out, I’m still humbled by the notes I receive from readers about this story.