Barbara Claypole White is the author of the new novel Echoes of Family. Her other novels include The Perfect Son and The In-Between Hour. She was born and raised in England, and now lives in North Carolina.
Q: How did you come up with your character Marianne and with the idea to focus your new novel around someone with bipolar disorder?
A: That’s a great question because my other novels have come from dark what if moments related to my life. Not this one. I’d already abandoned a novel about a single dad with a teenage daughter who has undiagnosed bipolar disorder, when I was visiting my mother in rural England.
A random scene, which had nothing to do with anything I was working on, started playing in my head. It was set in my childhood church, a place that celebrated its 1,000th birthday—yes, three zeroes—when I was a teenager.
An elegant American woman was sitting in the back pew wearing sunglasses while the church ladies did the flowers. They became increasingly concerned about this stranger, until one of them ran off to find the vicar. (He was whacking weeds in the rectory garden wearing ripped jeans and a U2 T-shirt.)
When he crouched down to talk with the woman, he recognized her as his childhood best friend, and said, “Marianne, what’s brought you back after all this time?” She replied, “I’ve come home to die.” Which she hadn’t, and I knew that, but I knew nothing else.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I was agonizing over what to write next. I had to take an incredibly long car journey and as I drove, that scene starting replaying. This time it didn’t stop.
But it was a hard story to find, and Marianne is the most challenging character I’ve written to date. At one point, I was ready to quit. I’m a research-heavy novelist, and my initial research into manic-depression was overwhelming.
But then I started interviewing inspiring women who live with the disease, and they helped me find Marianne’s voice. I love Marianne; I hope readers will too.
Q: In the book, you switch perspectives among four main characters. Did you plan to do that from the beginning, or did that change as you wrote?
A: I’m a fan of multiple viewpoints as a reader and as a writer. The first three drafts were written with three viewpoints: Marianne; Gabriel, my U2 fan and English vicar; and Marianne’s almost-daughter, Jade.
Then my beta reader said, “We need to hear from Marianne’s husband, Darius.” So I added one chapter. When the manuscript arrived at Lake Union, my wonderful editorial team decided readers needed more Darius. I had loads of fun weaving in his voice, and it gave the manuscript a different feel. This is why I love to be edited.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The working title was Missing in Madness, but my publisher felt that suggested a psychological thriller. Finding a new title that reflected the story was tough because nothing I came up with worked as women’s fiction.
We had already batted around a number of titles that included “echo” when the Lake Union marketing director threw out Echoes of Family, and my editor and I both loved it.
My titles have to fold into the story and have direct significance, and
the word “echoes” works on many levels. Marianne runs a recording studio with Darius and Jade—her family—and all three of them prefer to record in older spaces with natural reverb, an echo.
Plus, everything for Marianne goes back to a fatal car wreck she was involved in at 16. The other survivor was Gabriel, and he’s the only person who knows all her dark secrets—including the ones her memory erased. The title actually refers to their story, but that’s a plot spoiler. Sorry!
On a personal level, I think the title suggests that you can always hear the echoes of your past.
Q: The book goes back and forth between scenes in England and the U.S., both places where you have lived. Did you prefer one setting to the other as you were writing?
A: That’s tough to answer because both places have inspired my writing for 20 years. It was a joy, however, to reimagine my childhood village as Newton Rushford.
My 86-year-old mother, who still lives there, named the village, which I love because Echoes of Family is very much my tribute to a corner of England where part of my heart still lives. I guess it’s my echo.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on novel five (technically six since I have an unpublished manuscript). My current working title—but that will change—is The Slightly Insane Mother, which is inspired by The Catcher in the Rye and a line about all mothers being slightly insane. The story is based on the premise: can you be a good mother if you’ve abandoned your baby?
My heroine has something called harm OCD, which is a particularly nasty mutation of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It often hits new moms in the postpartum phase and traps their minds in a never-ending horror movie of physically harming their babies.
OCD is a twisted anxiety disorder that latches on to the things you care about most, often filling you with fear for the safety of your loved ones.
Since my grown son has battled OCD for most of his life, I’m painfully familiar with its impact on families, but harm OCD is, to quote the mother who runs a wonderful online group called Mamas with Anxiety, OCD, and Panic Disorder, “the dirty underwear of the OCD world.” Most mothers battle it in secrecy, isolation, and shame.
When her daughter was seven months old, Katelyn MacDonald had intrusive images of stabbing her baby. Believing that she was a psycho killer, she ran away. Ten years later, she’s done the work to get well and has reinvented herself as Katie Mack, a female metal artist.
One day, preparing for an art show, she crosses paths with her daughter and realizes 10-year-old Maisie MacDonald also has OCD. Katie must then decide how to re-insert herself into her daughter’s life for the same reason she left: to protect her from monsters.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: To receive updates on new releases and giveaways, please sign up for my newsletter at http://www.barbaraclaypolewhite.com. My social media links and email are also on my website, and I’m always on Facebook. Thank you for hosting me, Deborah. See y’all in cyberspace!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb