Tracey Garvis Graves is the author of the new novel The Girl He Used to Know. Her other novels include On the Island.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Girl He Used to Know, and for your characters Annika and Jonathan?
A: My inspiration for The Girl He Used to Know was a song called “Same Old Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg. It’s the one about running into your old lover in the grocery store on Christmas Eve, and it’s one of my favorite songs.
Unlike the lovers in the song who go their separate ways at the end, I wanted to write a story about a couple who once loved each other, and I wanted to see what would happen if I gave them a second chance.
I wanted Annika to be a character who couldn’t change, no matter how badly she might want to. This meant that Jonathan would have to accept her exactly the way she was, which was something he struggled with at times.
I thought it would be interesting to view Annika’s experiences through the lens of someone on the spectrum and to show the extra challenges involved. I also thought it would be wonderful to walk alongside Annika as she fell in love for the first time.
It’s hard enough to take that leap, and it was really hard for Annika due to the way others had treated her in the past. But I think it made her relationship with Jonathan extra special.
Q: You tell the story from both characters' perspectives--did you always plan to do that?
A: Yes, absolutely. When Jonathan and Annika first met, they weren’t really a match at all. He thought she was pretty, but he also thought she was weird.
Jonathan’s bruised ego after she beat him at chess was really the driving force that made him seek her out again. Because he was nursing his own wounds and was new to the school, Annika became an unexpected source of healing.
Jonathan also took the time to get to know Annika and by doing so, realized there was so much more to her than his first impression. He gave Annika unconditional love and support, which was a brand-new experience for her.
Annika loved Jonathan with her whole heart because no one before him had ever given her a chance. He became a safe harbor which allowed her to let down her guard and trust him.
Showing both perspectives gave the story a layer of depth I wouldn't have been able to achieve if it had only been shown through Annika's eyes.
Jonathan did not have to change as much as Annika, but he still had to adapt to the challenges of their relationship and showing his acceptance made him a more endearing character.
Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?
A: I read five or six books about being on the spectrum. I read countless online articles and blog posts.
I especially loved blogs that included the perspective of a neurotypical spouse. I remember finding a love letter online that a man wrote to his autistic wife listing all of the ways in which her autism enhanced their marriage.
It was really eye-opening to read these accounts from neurotypical spouses and it made me happy to see that they cherished the gifts their neurodiverse partners gave to them.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
A: I hope readers will understand that everything Annika does in the book is filtered through the unique way she looks at the world. There is no right or wrong; there is just her perception. Readers may not always agree with or understand why she makes the choices she does, but I hope they can be objective about her reasoning.
The same goes for Jonathan. There are times when he’s frustrated with Annika, but he does his best not to try and save her. She is also one of the few people in his life who have ever loved him unconditionally, and he realizes that it’s one of her best qualities.
I hope readers will understand that the 9/11 sections were not meant to capitalize on a national tragedy but to show just how far out of her comfort zone Annika had to go in order to reach her goal of finding Jonathan.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: All of my books fit within the tagline I came up with a few years ago which is “contemporary fiction with a happily-ever-after.” I focus heavily on relationships and the female main character's journey, but I also need a happy ending that includes a romance.
My current work-in-progress really focuses on how the relationships we have with other people shape our lives and the relationships we enter into in the future.
In this particular case, both the hero and heroine have been married before and are getting a second chance at love with new people. Their backstories heavily influence their choices and decisions and it's created a wonderful opportunity for me to explore relationships in a way I haven't thus far in my writing career.
I think this book will be very relatable to a lot of women.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I'm more active on Instagram than I am on Facebook or Twitter, and signing up for my newsletter on traceygarvisgraves.comis a great way to stay in the loop regarding anything writing-related.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Tracey Garvis Graves.