Erin Healy joins us to discuss her latest release, Motherless.
Melissa: Motherless is a very inventive story. As I was trying to summarize it for my review, I had a hard time putting the storyline into words because I didn’t want to spoil anything. How would you summarize Motherless?
Erin: I describe it as the story of two young adults trying to solve the mystery of their mother’s seventeen-year-old suicide. The narrative structure makes this a complex story—I like your word inventive—but in the end the plot is pretty simple. Of course, you have to read all the way to the end to see the simplicity.
Melissa: Motherless is told from a very unique point of view, which I imagine was quite difficult to write and maintain. What approach did you take to writing this story so that you were able to maintain this point of view without revealing too much information and inadvertently ruining the experience for the reader?
Erin: Initially I aimed to write an omniscient narrative, but I never got comfortable in that ill-fitting wool underwear. It’s an old-fashioned mode of storytelling (think Charles Dickens) that a lot of readers, most editors, and almost all critics strongly dislike. Turns out I don’t like it either. So I tweaked this and created a character who has almost-omniscient powers, which was more interesting to me. And it served my story themes well. So much of Motherless is about the lies we believe about ourselves and the people we love. So my narrator, though omniscient, is also deceived. Which means the reader’s knowledge is also limited. Until we can see people through the lens of truth, we’ll make incorrect judgments about what is happening. This is my narrator’s struggle. And my own.
Melissa: I loved Dylan’s character. In many ways he reminded me of Chase from your earlier book The Promises She Keeps. You have a very gentle and tender way of writing kids with special needs. Talk about how you approach writing these two characters and what are some of the traits you tried to include and qualities you wanted to convey?
Erin: I hadn’t considered their similarities until this very moment. I was the oldest cousin in a family where the boys far outnumbered the girls, and my male cousins are spectacular young men. So maybe I projected my affection for them into these stories. In Chase’s case I was intrigued by the idea (not mine) that because people with autism aren’t constrained by cultural norms (especially social and intellectual) they might have heightened perceptions of God. So I was trying to capture his spiritual sensitivity without calling it that. In Dylan’s case I wanted to express the unique agony of mental illness that runs in families—the fear, the stigma, the desperation to “fix” it. I wanted to show his courage in the face of everything that has been hidden from him, without making the error of portraying him either as a victim or a noble hero. There is mental illness on both sides of my family, so this topic is personal.
Melissa: From Motherless:
“Why do we lie to the children?” someone asked me once.
“To protect them,” I answered.
I love how you use these two lines in this story and it brings up those well-known Sunday School question, was Rahab right to lie about the spies? Is it ever okay to lie? Does the end justify the means? What do you think, when parents lie to protect their children? Is it ever truly protection?
Erin: In light of Jesus’ habit of putting a higher value of human life than on the letter of the law, I would probably say that there are certain times and places when lying is the right thing to do. But I can’t produce universal answers to these questions. In Motherless the parents’ lies both protected and harmed the children. The effects couldn’t be compartmentalized.
I recall saying to a friend once, “I’m so worried about doing the wrong thing and messing up my kids,” and he said, “But you’ve already messed them up!” And what he meant is that even parents who desperately love their kids—and I believe that’s most of us—are going to make mistakes in the name of love. Which is where my desperate need for God’s grace comes in again and again and again.
Melissa: I love the mood of your books. They have this wonderful haunting, melancholy feel to them. Where does this come from and why does it tend to permeate your stories?
Erin: I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I think it’s simply a reflection of my personality. I prefer rainy days to sunny ones, and I’m very contemplative and introverted in general. I love the serious, weighty topics, the one-on-one conversations that go deep. But I’m trying to improve myself! My sister once bought me a bumper sticker that said, “Don’t take life so seriously, it isn’t permanent.”
Melissa: I never know how one of your books is going to end. They’re each so different. Sometimes the ending is messy while other times it’s not quite as messy. How do you come up with your endings and at what point do you know how they’re going to end?
Erin: I’ve only written two books in which I knew the end before I even started writing: Motherless and The Baker’s Wife. These are both mysteries, so it was pretty important that I knew the exact answer to “what happened?” before I started revealing it. As for my other books, the ending usually came to me halfway through my first draft. Then I’d go back to the beginning and write through it all again. The degree of messiness in the endings is usually connected to the story themes. Some tales just can’t be tidied up.
Melissa: Your next book Hiding Places releases in September. What can you tell us about it?
Erin: Hiding Places is the story of a girl who endangers her large family when she hides a fugitive at their historic hotel. This tale deviates in some ways from my previous books: it’s a simple, straight-up, linear suspense novel with no supernatural elements and no complex twists and turns. But I stick with the family themes that are common to all my books. Three different “families” who have all failed each other in different ways come together in a tense confrontation about what it means to protect their loved ones.
To learn more about Erin Healy, visit her website or Facebook page.