Carolyn Parkhurst is the author of the novel Harmony. Her other books include The Dogs of Babel and Lost and Found. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Q: You’ve said, “It would be disingenuous to pretend that Alexandra’s story is not a close reflection of my own.” How much did your own life inspire this novel?
A: This is my most personal book. I’ve always included bits of my life and my thoughts in my writing.
My son has Asperger’s, and raising him has been a roller coaster of experiences I never thought I’d have. He’s a great kid, but you get plunged into a world of finding the right school, the right doctor, [and balancing] raising other kids.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about autism because I was living it every day, but that was what I had to talk about at that time. It can be very isolating, and it can help to read others’ experiences.
Q: You tell the story from the perspectives of Alexandra and her two daughters. Alexandra’s chapters are told in second person, and the others in first person. Why did you decide on this structure?
A: It’s one of those things writing teachers would tell you not to do, but it felt right to me.
The first piece I wrote was the epilogue. I wrote it in the second person, and I liked it because it had the effect of putting the reader right in her shoes. I liked the intimacy of that. I continued that in Alexandra’s chapters. Alexandra is like me in many ways. Iris is a child, with a different story.
Q: Besides the epilogue, did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear in the book?
A: I mostly write in order. I didn’t know the epilogue would be part of anything bigger. Once I started the book, I wrote in order. I never have the whole story figured out before—plot is harder for me than characters…
Q: How did you come up with the character of Scott Bean?
A: I guess I had the idea of writing about a family joining a cult-like group. I wanted it to be a gray area whether it really was a cult. I knew it happens that thoughtful, intelligent people end up doing things like that.
The key was that the leader be charismatic, someone you could imagine being drawn in by. He was made up of whole cloth. It took me a while to figure out his motives. In the first version, he was too much of a villain, and in the second version he was too bland. I kept working until I had a complex, human character.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m still trying to decide. I’ve started something that may become a comic novel. I don’t want to write anything heavy now—it took me five years to write Harmony.
Q: Anything else we should know about Harmony?
A: When I was writing it, I worried about, would it be OK to be writing so candidly about my own experiences, though it’s clearly fiction and the camp is something I’ve never done. Writers struggle with using real life in fiction.
I was worried about how my children were going to take it. My son really liked it, and that was a huge relief…it led to good conversations in our household, and ended up having a beneficial effect for me and my family, in addition to hoping the book will strike a note with other parents [including those] with special needs kids.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Carolyn Parkhurst will be speaking at the Bethesda Literary Festival on April 22, 2017.