Yvonne Cassidy is the author of the new novel How Many Letters Are in Goodbye? She also has written the novels What Might Have Been Me and The Other Boy. Born in Ireland, she is based in New York City.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for How Many letters Are In Goodbye?, and for your main character, Rhea?
A: One of the things I found in writing novels is that it’s different parts of my life and consciousness, and they go in a blender.
For Rhea, the idea of her being homeless came from my own experience working with homeless people. I teach writing to homeless people, and had curiosity about what it would be like, [especially] for a girl from Ireland.
I wanted to write a gay character for a while, but not a “gay book.” It irritates me how fiction can be [put] in these genres—it’s just part of somebody’s story.
Rhea’s character—she came alive to me. I got to know her: a tenacious, resilient, sometimes funny, frustrating girl….
Q: Why did you decide to write the book in the form of letters?
A: Books written through letters or a diary format always appealed to me. The intimacy with the reader was not there in other types of fiction. When I was at the start of the book I was not always sure what it [would be]. I would sit down and scenes would come out. I realized these are letters, written to someone.
Then the question was, Who are the letters written to? I remember the day it hit me: She was writing to her mom. I already knew her mom had died.
It scared me a little. The first two novels were written in straight narrative. Can I do this? I read a lot of books written in this format, and thought I could do this.
Q: Relationships among members of a broken family are key to the novel. Why did you choose to focus on this, and what do you hope readers take away from the novel?
A: I like to explore relationships. One reason I write is to explore that, and understand that. I felt the idea of a nontraditional family across two continents gave me more room for Rhea to experience different things.
In my writing, the characters are taking me to places. It really grew. I’m not sure in the beginning I knew what she was doing in New York.
In terms of what the reader takes away, what I love is if I do a book club and meet readers, I like when readers have different opinions of the characters.
I like to write characters that are well rounded; even if you don’t like them, you understand them. I like readers coming away not necessarily thinking of heroes and villains of the book, but understanding the complexity of the situation and maybe reflecting on situations in their own lives.
Q: Rhea is a teenager. Did you see this book as being for adults, or young adults, or both?
A: I didn’t really think about it as I was writing it. It was part of a book contract with Hachette, and it was thought of as an adult book. It had a teenage narrator [and was] a coming of age story. In Ireland, it was published as that.
When I came to the States, myself and my agent thought long and hard about it. She thought it was more for the YA market over here. [We decided,] Let’s just put it out there and see who gravitates toward it. It was the YA editors who were interested right off the bat. It’s funny to have it [in] different markets. I see it as both, as a crossover…
Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way? It sounds as if you were figuring some things out as you went along.
A: For me, I don’t think I have yet had an experience where I knew where it would end when I start. The process is more organic. I got a sense of the ending about midway through—this is good, I know where I’m going!...
I got a sense of the ending and wrote toward that. I would normally work up a few drafts. For the most part, as I’ve written more novels, I get closer to where I want to be the first time out. I’m getting more efficient!
Q: The novel takes place in New York and in a suburb of Dublin. How important is place in your writing, and do you think this story could have taken place somewhere else, or only in those locations?
A: Place is a big thing in my writing. I have yet to set something in a place I’ve never been. It’s very important for me to have first-hand experience of the place, so the character can feel it.
The Dublin suburb is a place I didn’t know well. Every time I was visiting home, I’d be driving 12 miles to the other side of the city.
A sense of place is important. I don’t know if it could be set anyplace other than New York. It’s her experience of New York—she’s drawn toward [the city] in large part because of her mom, but the whole city [fascinates] her.
The fact that she’s from Ireland—I like the juxtaposition of the two. I often write about Irish characters who find themselves somewhere else.
Q: And why did you set the book in 1999?
A: There are a couple of reasons for that. I wanted Rhea’s teenage growing up in Ireland at a time I knew well. She’s younger than I me, maybe five years, but I wanted it to be of a time when things like being gay were something she [would not] have been out about at school.
And even practical things—if it was set today, how social media would have influenced her, how she would have been found. To a certain degree I didn’t want to get into that. I also wanted it in pre-9/11 New York as well…
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a new novel, I’m Right Here, which will be published in Europe in January of next year. I’m not sure yet of the details in the U.S.
It’s a very different story—it’s two intertwined stories, one of a young girl in Brooklyn who starts to have memories of someone. It’s a slave girl on a plantation in the 1850s. Their lives intersect. It’s got more of a historical dimension as well. It’s a point of connection they have, and the influence they have on each other.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb