Author to Author Interview: Melissa DeCarlo and Leah Ferguson, Part Two

Today’s post by Melissa DeCarlo and Leah Ferguson | @meldecarlo and @onevignette

Welcome back for part two of our interview with Melissa DeCarlo and Leah Ferguson. If you missed part one, you can read it here.

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Melissa: Molly, your book’s protagonist, is such a relatable woman but she’s also a bit of a control-freak. This sets her up perfectly as the heroine in a novel that’s all about second guessing an important choice. So did her nature inspire the story, or did the story develop her personality?

Leah: What a great question, Melissa! I think it was Molly’s nature that inspired the story. I know so many women (and, I’ll admit, I might be one of them to a lesser degree. Don’t tell anybody, though) who have anxiety, or feel they can’t keep their lives under control—so try to micro-manage everything, only to feel worse for it in the end. It’s a never-ending cycle for many, and seems to get worse for those women who’ve had children and are trying to juggle more lives than just their own. It made me want to explore a story for a character who thinks she’s years away from that life. I wanted to see what could be in store for an independent person who not only needs to have her life in order, but actually thinks she does—and in one moment, sees it all spinning away from her.

Melissa: I thought you did a terrific job with the unique structure of this novel. You moved the story along at a good pace even as you alternated the two realities.  It seems like writing parallel narratives and keeping everything straight while still maintaining the novel’s excellent pacing must have been a challenge!  That got me interested in your writing process. Can you tell us a little about that, and were there any particular methods that helped you keep everything straight? 

Leah: Thank you so much for saying so! I was very naive when I began working on ALL THE DIFFERENCE: I thought that creating two parallel narratives would feel almost like writing two half-books, which had to be easier than writing an entire, traditional novel, right? (I know: silly Leah.) I sketched out a flowchart-style outline before I began writing the book, which helped me keep the two stories straight as I wrote. I was intent on keeping the arcs of the minor characters consistent no matter what happened to Molly in either narrative, so I also wrote the novel chronologically in order to keep it all straight. I highly recommend plotting out a story to anyone who wants to write in dual narratives—I can’t imagine “pantsing” my way through a story like this, even if the idea of outlining sounds counterintuitive to creativity. As it was, I went through way more many revisions with this book than I think is normal!

Melissa: I loved how you tapped into that perennial tension of career woman vs stay at home mom in this book by exploring expectations put upon women (by others and themselves) once they become mothers. As a mother of small children, did your personal experience help shape this aspect of the story? Any tips for other parents on work/life balance?

Leah: My personal experience of becoming a mother definitely shaped much of the emotion behind Molly’s work/life struggle. I was someone who often held down two jobs during much of her working career (i.e., waiting tables while working full-time for a law book publisher or, later, leading college courses in the evenings after my days in a high school classroom), and when I left teaching to stay at home when my first child was born, I spent a solid year or so struggling with some strange sort of identity crisis that came, I think, when somebody who’s always tried to get to the next promotion suddenly finds herself sitting on a church basement floor singing “Hello, Everybody!” with a bunch of infants in a Music Together class. I remember that feeling of wanting it all and not knowing how to find the balance. I think that’s why you meet so many young moms now who feel like they have to volunteer for everything/recreate Pinterest photos/create the elaborate meals—that drive to succeed has just been transferred to this new need to “win” at motherhood. I’ve fallen into the trap, too, and now that I’m a full-time mom who’s once again pursuing a career, Molly’s story is as relevant to me as it was eight years ago. I wish I had concrete tips for other parents, but I think all I have to offer right now is this: 1. Take your time. It doesn’t all have to be done at once, whether it’s the laundry or that next chapter in your novel. There will be deadlines you have to meet, of course, but don’t create them if you don’t have to. 2. See the joy in it all. Once you stop looking at your life as “have to”s (that is, you have to cook dinner, or you have to finish that project), meeting your goals seems doable. I’ve just realized this, and I’m sad it’s taken me this long: I get to be a mom, and I get to be a writer. Isn’t that fantastic? I write this now on a couch with a sick toddler curled up at my side watching Sesame Street. I could be upset that I’m not getting my work done more quickly, or that my child is being semi-ignored, but I’m finally not: I get to be this person who can do all things, as do you and anyone who reads our books. And that, there, is joy.

Melissa: At one point in your book, we hear Molly thinking, “There’s a happiness to be found in bad timing…if only we can allow ourselves to lose control just a little…” Interestingly, while my book has a theme of letting go of the past, yours has a theme of letting go of control—or perhaps letting go of the illusion of being in control. So, what made you want to write a story about letting go?

Leah: I loved that parallel in our novels, Melissa: I’m so glad I got to read THE ART OF CRASH LANDING and see the way we addressed the issues of pregnancy and letting go in such different, but emotionally similar, ways. What a treat. I think ALL THE DIFFERENCE was an exploration for me. I’ve learned over the years that a need for control usually stems from insecurity, and often shows up in people who seem to be such confident successes on the outside. I, for one, was someone who struggled with that need for control (and I, too, was someone who was a career achiever always looking to what was “next.” Though now that sounds exhausting even as I type the words): I liked things a certain way, and had expectations of how events or people “should” behave in my life, which created a comfortable, albeit constrictive, means of security for me in those unfriendly waters of my twenties. But it’s also something that doesn’t translate well into a life filled with relationships, and thankfully much of that has fallen away as I’ve gotten older and a bit more comfortable in my own (increasingly wrinkly) skin. That’s what made this story so appealing to write: I recognize the magic of letting go, but how does one get to that point if she’s not ready to face it? How does something like a pregnancy and possible husband and whole new, opulent life force somebody to come to grips with who she really is on the inside? And it’s been neat to hear from readers who either really identify with Molly or really dislike her—people bring their own experience to their reading, and it’s been amazing to me to see how those experiences impact their opinions. Molly has to get over herself a bit and find hope—it was fun for me, as her writer, to help her get there.

Melissa: I loved Molly’s parents with their honest, no-nonsense love for their daughter. It’s clear that they’ve got her back whether or not they agree with the choices she’s made. I thought they were wonderfully drawn, and I’d like to spend some time in their kitchen with a cup of coffee. Did you base them on anyone from your own life or is that the kind of parent you’d like to be for your grown children someday. 

Leah: Thank you so much, Melissa. I love that visual of sitting down with them, too. I can absolutely answer yes to both parts of your question. It’s funny—people often ask me if any part of this story is autobiographical, and I find myself laughing when I say no: so much of this book has been revised from its original draft that almost any inspiration I may have taken from my own life has been edited out. Most of the characters in this book are absolutely, definitely their own people with no help from me…with the exception of Molly’s parents. Both my husband David and I were lucky enough to be raised by parents who never hid their love for us and our brothers, but also expected quite a bit from their children. We are also similar in that we were raised by parents who worked incredibly hard to put food on the table—that kind of work ethic and no-frills upbringing is defining, I think, in all the good ways. That came forth big time in my depiction of Emily and Jack. I purposefully drew Jack to be a hybrid of both my husband’s dad and mine as an homage of sorts: we lost my father to pancreatic cancer when my oldest daughter was two months old, and exactly a year after that my husband’s father passed away. Jack’s kind of strong, unending love came from them, as did his appearance: the crooked smile was my dad’s, the beard was David’s dad’s. The flannel shirt Jack wears is definitely from both of them, as was the need to work with his hands (David’s dad was a carpenter by trade, and my dad was one by hobby). Emily’s actions and ways of speaking are much different than that of our mothers, but that kind of knowing, intelligent love is completely the same. As much as I would like to say that once my own children are out of the house one day they’ll stay out, I do hope David and I will raise our own children to have that kind of character strength one day. I wouldn’t mind sitting around the table twenty years from now with my own grown kids, knowing they’re going to be okay.

Melissa: Although both of our novels have main characters facing the stress of an unexpected pregnancy, in ALL THE DIFFERENCE, you also explore the stress of infertility, by giving Molly a best friend whose marriage is suffering from their struggles to conceive. I loved Jenny as a character, and I loved how you used her fertility problems to once again show us both sides of an issue. I’m always interested in what aspects of a book are planned by the author versus what develops organically during the writing process. With that in mind, did you set out to use the infertility subplot to serve as counterpoint to Molly’s pregnancy as you were first creating this story, or did that develop along the way?

Leah: I did know from the beginning that I wanted Jenny and Dan to grapple with infertility—I wanted their relationship to be this sort of inversion of Molly’s own life for the course of that year: here we have Molly moaning and groaning about getting pregnant, while her friend’s looking at her and thinking she has it all. And on the flipside, Jenny’s all upset about her life not being perfect (and handling it horribly), when she has it all, really—or will one day. I liked being able to zoom in on the lives of these women for the space of this short span of time, while all the while the reader knows that there’s so much more that’s going to happen after we leave them. That’s how we are in the real world, after all: we focus so much on problems that seem so insurmountable at the time, but years afterward look back and think, Ahh. So THATS how that led to this. I remember feeling so lost after I’d lost my job to a company sell-out years ago. But that lost job led to a desire to teach, and to grad school, to the job I had during grad school that landed me in the path of my now-husband, to where I sit now (on the couch with a sweet toddler leaning on my shoulder as I blog with a fellow author. Who’da thunk?). Our problems are so huge when we’re dealing with them, but it takes some time to realize that often, the big problems are just single pieces that will form a really massive, beautiful puzzle.

Melissa: I found it interesting that it was though your blog and then through NaNoWriMo that you finally decided to take the leap and become a novelist. What would you say to other bloggers who love to write but balk at the idea of taking that leap?

Leah: I just came home from a writer’s retreat in which a bestselling author, Darynda Jones, told us that everything good comes “from the other side of fear.” I am taking that advice and tucking it into my pocket to look at whenever I need it, and will happily tell any other writer to do the same. I was afraid of pursing writing for so very long. It’s what I wanted to do, and what seemed to come naturally to me, but there was always that question: what if I failed? If I don’t make it at that, what do I have left? It was almost like writing was the really pretty-looking present I never opened because I was afraid I would mess up whatever was inside. What a horrible way to live! I probably won’t attempt another NaNoWriMo again, only because my writing is better when I work more slowly, but it was exactly what I needed to kick me in the rear end, force me to work toward that goal, and realize that oh-my-gosh-YES, I can do it. Here’s the deal: it is very, very scary to throw yourself out there and not know if you’re going to land in the net or go splat on the ground. I’m as terrified of someone reading my book as I am thrilled by it. It’s just how it goes. But the thing is, if you feel like you want to, even a little bit, doesn’t that mean that you might be supposed to? That writing might be the thing you’re supposed to do? If that’s the case, it would be a darned shame to let that calling go unfulfilled. There will never be the ideal time to write. But my goodness, how much more colorful will your days become if you do it anyway.

Melissa: Of course you knew I was going to ask this…so explain your love of (or Molly’s love of) Fleetwood Mac?

Leah: Haha! I LOVE this question. Will I disappoint you if I said that the Fleetwood Mac was a choice I came to after lots of deliberation? I knew I wanted Molly to have this love of music—choices that helped develop her character and reinforce certain points of the story as they appeared. I also knew that I wanted these choices to be strong female singer-songwriters (hello, Liz Phair!), or bands led by fierce female vocalists (Florence, of course). I wanted them to be more of an indie persuasion, to show that Molly wasn’t just going to do what was assumed of her (you know what I mean since you’ve read the story!). And selfishly, it was fun, because my own love of music runs deep (though my literary agent laughingly tells me that I am a woman thoroughly stalled in the ‘90s.). But the Fleetwood Mac references came around because I was searching for a way to tie Molly back to her dad, and those roots and values set down by her family when she was a child (That’s why Molly’s baby is named a certain way). And with that, I wanted a band led by strong female vocalists. Fleetwood Mac was what I finally set my sights on when I realized how all the back-and-forth love interests in the band could also be a subtle allusion to Molly’s struggles. That and there’s so much good music to draw on. But that’s a given!

Melissa: And, Leah, just between us (because there’s probably no way to ask a question about this in without it being a spoiler) but I wanted to tell you that I found it very satisfying the way you worked in the Frost poem in the title and its parallel to your story. I think most people misunderstand that poem, thinking it says that his life did change because of taking the “road not taken,” when in fact the poem says the exact opposite as did you book, seeing as how she ended up in the same place either way. Awesome job!!

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All the differenceNew Year’s Eve. A time for resolutions. A chance to make a change. And for thirty-year-old Molly Sullivan, a night that will transform her life forever…

All it takes is one word—yes or no—to decide Molly’s future. As the clock counts down to midnight and the ball slowly begins to drop, Molly’s picture-perfect boyfriend gets down on one knee and asks her to marry him. She knows she should say yes, especially considering the baby-sized surprise she just discovered she’s carrying. But something in her heart is telling her to say no…

Now, Molly’s future can follow two very different paths: one where she stays with her baby’s father, despite her misgivings and his family’s unreasonable expectations, and one where she ventures out on her own as a single mother, embracing all the hardships that come with it.

And by the time the next New Year is rung in, Molly will know which choice was right—following her head or listening to her heart…

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is the author of THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS (2014), FLIGHT OF DREAMS (2016), and I WAS ANASTASIA (2018). Her books have been translated into numerous languages and have been Library Reads, One Book One County, and Book of the Month Club selections. She is the co-founder of SheReads.org and lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her family.

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