Please tell us a bit about your book and what you hope readers take away from reading it.
In Leah’s Wake tells the story of a family in collapse. Sixteen-year-old Leah, a straight-A student and star soccer player, has led a perfect life. When she meets and dates a sexy older guy, attracted to his independence, she begins to spread her wings. Drinking, ignoring curfew, dabbling in drugs—all this feels like freedom to her. Her terrified parents, afraid they’re losing their daughter, pull the reins tighter. Unfortunately, her parents get it all wrong, pushing when they ought to be pulling, and communication breaks down. Soon there’s no turning back. Twelve-year-old Justine, caught between the parents she loves and the big sister she adores, soon finds herself in the fight of her life, trying desperately to pull her family together.
Parents, wanting the best for their children, often push their kids to be perfect – and push themselves to be perfect parents. It’s tempting to believe that only bad kids from bad families get in trouble. This attitude allows us to distance ourselves – this could never happen to us – and creates unhealthy competition. When families have problems, we judge and ostracize them, only adding to the difficulties they’re already facing. The truth is, when problems arise, the fallout affects the entire community. The epigraph from The Grand Inquisitor says it best: “everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything.” As Hillary Clinton famously said, it takes a village to raise a child. For the sake of our children, we must all do our part to be supportive members of the village.
Although the Tyler family is far from perfect, they love one another. Had the community rallied around and supported them, perhaps Leah would not have gotten as lost. Like adults, most teens just want to feel accepted and loved – not for what they accomplish or contribute, but for who they are. I’d be thrilled if my novel inspired readers to suspend judgment, to look less harshly at troubled teens and their families. I think we owe it to our teens, to our communities, and to ourselves to work harder to support and encourage all kids, not just those who conform.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?
LEAH TYLER: Leah is a strong young woman, beautiful, smart, a superstar in the community. As long as she lives up to their expectations, she’s accepted, even celebrated. As soon as she tries to take control of her own life, question the rules, spread her wings, she meets resistance. When she chooses her troublemaker boyfriend over a promising college soccer career, and heads down a path of drugs and self-destruction, she rips her once happy family apart.
JUSTINE TYLER: Justine is twelve, in that awkward stage, not really a child anymore and not quite a teen. Justine is intelligent, faithful, and kind, and she sees the best in people, sometimes to her own detriment. Deeply religious, she sees God as Father and protector – a belief that will be challenged by her family’s turmoil. Her best friend is Dog, the family’s aging pet Labrador. Although only twelve, Justine is left to be the rock as the rest of her family plunges into depression.
ZOE AND WILL TYLER: Zoe and Will are hardworking parents – too hardworking – who love and want the best for their children. Ambitious and strong, Will is willing do whatever it takes to help his children reach their full potential, even if it means alienating them in the process. He can’t sit back, watching his teenage daughter destroy her promising future. Zoe, a child therapist and motivational speaker, is a peacemaker who avoids confrontation, and thus easily falls into depression. Their divided approach to Leah’s rebellion drives a wedge into their marriage.
Rather than listen to their daughter, accept that she’s growing up, that her choices may differ from theirs, and guide her down the path that’s right for her, Zoe and Will try to take control. This is a classic problem between parents and teens. The minute we put our foot down, say no, they can’t do this or that, they tend to focus all their energy in that direction. Zoe and Will’s escalating attempts to control their daughter result in her pulling away. This is a difficult cycle to break.
JERRY JOHNSON: Jerry Johnson, the police officer, is the only non-family member with a voice in the novel. Jerry’s work as a police officer brings him into frequent contact with the dissolving Tyler family. Though flawed like all the characters, he takes his responsibility for others to heart. He’s the connecting force in this novel.
TODD CORBETT: Leah’s boyfriend, Todd, a former roadie in a rock band, is a modern day James Dean, a rebel without a cause. He’s been arrested for dealing drugs, so it’s easy to blame him for leading her astray; really, he’s a conduit. He makes her feel comfortable and safe and encourages her blossoming independence.
By the time Leah realizes that he wants to control her, too – albeit in a different way – it’s too late. If only she’d realized how deeply her family loves her, she might have avoided the dire consequences she suffers. That’s the central irony in the book – perhaps the irony in many relationships between parents and teens.
Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
Bob Sullivan, the owner of Sullivan Farms Ice Cream, and Dorothy Klein, the beautiful woman who designs the button bracelets Zoe buys for Leah and herself, are real people.
Every other character is completely imaginary. I did borrow gestures, habits, and physical characteristics from real people – the runaway arm belongs to my youngest daughter, KK; my husband is a darker physical stand-in for Will. Of course, borrowing sometimes results in unfortunate assumptions. I’m lucky – my family puts up with my thievery and ignores the conclusions readers draw.
Personality, motivation, and behavior of my characters I’m fully responsible for.
Q: Your book is set in Cortland, MA. Can you tell us why you chose this city?
Geographically, the town of Cortland is modeled after the town of Harvard, MA. In the fall, we used to go there to pick apples. Harvard is stunningly beautiful – with the rolling hills, the stone walls, the orchards. Sometimes, Dave and I would drive there and just ride around. This family is in tremendous pain; they’re struggling. That these fierce struggles might take place in this bucolic setting felt surprising, and that tension felt important to the book.
Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?
Judging from the stories I hear, the social and political climate in the imaginary town of Cortland reflects that in many middle- and upper-middle class towns across the U.S., and perhaps outside the U.S. I’ve talked with parents who’ve expressed frustrations similar to Zoe and Will’s. Culturally – not always or only by their parents – children feel pressure to live up to impossible expectations. When children step out of line, the parents and families often feel judged.
Community plays an important role in setting expectations and shaping and maintaining connections. The expectations, the constant demand to perform, can be overwhelming. In small towns, everyone knows everyone else, by sight if not by name. You can’t hide. If you or a family member is in trouble, everyone knows it. That claustrophobia and the constant feeling of condemnation, being watched, inform the inner lives of these characters and influence their behavior.
Q: Who are your favorite characters in the story?
My characters are all imperfect – they behave badly and they’re sometimes, perhaps often, enormously irritating – but I love them all, for their strengths as well as their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Justine is sweet and caring and kind, so she’s easy to love, but I also love Leah. Although Leah drives the parent in me crazy, her heart is in the right place. The same applies to Zoe and Will – they often make terrible choices; despite their failures, they act out of love.
In the novel, Jerry Johnson, the police officer, is the only non-family member with a voice. Though flawed like all the characters, he takes his responsibility for others to heart. I’ve always admired Gail Mullen Beaudoin, a police officer in Chelmsford, MA. Gail brings strength, dignity and grace to a very difficult job. I see police officers as the connecting force in communities. Every day they put their lives on the line. To me, they’re our real life heroes. As the connecting force in this novel and for this family, Jerry is my favorite.
Q: Do you have a favorite line or excerpt from your book?
In a chapter called “Sisters Redux,” Justine, the geeky, goody-two-shoes little sister, asks Leah for a cigarette. It’s almost painful to see her trying so hard to win her big sister’s acceptance and affection. At first, Leah scoffs; then it dawns on her that Justine is actually serious and her conscience takes over. Leah has made difficult choices and been ostracized for them; for Justine, that path would be wrong. In certain arenas, dorks have the advantage, she thinks.
As she’s about to say no, it occurs to Leah that Justine has a right to make her own choices. With this insight, for the first time since they were young kids, Leah sees Justine as her equal. Despite her reservations, she gives her sister the cigarette. In a sweet moment, later in the chapter, Leah teaches Justine to dance. This love between the sisters is, to me, heartbreaking and special.
Q: If In Leah’s Wake were to be turned into a movie, who would you love to see play what characters and why?