Sunday, September 17, 2017

Q&A with Julie Lawson Timmer

Julie Lawson Timmer is the author of the new novel Mrs. Saint and the Defectives. She also has written the novels Untethered and Five Days Left. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Mrs. Saint and the Defectives?

A: This book sprang not from a single thought but from a collection of ideas and images, all of which I was ruminating about at the same period of time. None seemed big enough to carry an entire novel on its own, but combined, they formed the story.

As for the three ideas or images that formed the plot, the first came from a riveting NPR story I heard one day, about a woman who had hidden her past from everyone in her life, other than her husband. It was only when she died that her son, then in his 40s, learned about her history.

The second idea—really a collection of memories—came from my own experiences as a divorcee and single mother. I wanted to write about what it’s like for a single mom to navigate the challenges of raising a son. I also wanted to address the responsibility some single mothers feel with regard to the emotional health of not only our children, but our exes.    

Finally, the third idea—or image—was that of a former neighbor of ours, whom my children, husband and I adored. She was a wonderfully generous, caring person with a last name that began with “St.” and she told us to call her “Mrs. Saint.”

There is a low wooden fence that separates our two properties, and with regularity, Mrs. Saint would step over the fence to see us. She was often dressed very formally, but this never kept her from coming into our muddy yard, where she would be set upon immediately by our two big, slobbery, dirty Labradors.

She frequently brought them bones that she had picked up especially for them at the butcher, and when I would shriek at the dogs to get their muddy paws off her expensive, cream-colored slacks, Mrs. Saint would wave off my concern and say she cared far more about the dogs than she did about her clothes.

She was older—her children are my age—and she was a wealth of information about raising children and keeping up a household. (I have borrowed at least one of her pieces of advice for the fictional Mrs. Saint to use in the book.)

But she didn’t help only my family--she assisted many, many others in our city as well, through volunteer work and other activities.

Our beloved Mrs. Saint died suddenly about five years ago, and although I didn’t realize it until this book came to me, I have for some time, subconsciously, wanted to write something that would honor her. I dedicated the book to her, and because I knew from the beginning I would do that, writing the novel felt like a labor of love from the start.

Q: Did you plan the entire storyline out before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I did less deliberate planning for this novel than I have for my others. The three ideas/images I mentioned all fit together in my mind so seamlessly that once I realized they could work together to form a book, the entire plot sprang to mind.

Suddenly, I saw this fully realized story in my mind, almost like a movie, and my task was simply to write it all down frantically before the image reel faded.

Of course, there was tweaking and tinkering along the way, and as usual, I went through many drafts before I was satisfied with the final piece. But I have never had an entire plot drop into my mind as fully as this one did. I am grateful to have had the experience—it was an absolute joy to write.   

Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel?

A: Oh yes. I do a lot of research for all of my books, and this one was no exception. It didn’t occur to me until after I started answering questions about the book, but if I talk about the exact research I did for Mrs. Saint, it’ll give away part of the story. So, I’ll just say I did a ton of research and leave it at that.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I have many, but my top ones would be: Anne Tyler, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Strout, Fredrik Backman, Jonathan Tropper, Richard Russo, Jess Walter.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My fourth novel, scheduled to come out in October 2018, is about a quirky cast of characters who live in Flint, Michigan, at the time of the water crisis.

Like Mrs. Saint and my other novels, it’s a novel about families of choice (vs. ones created by common DNA), domestic drama (parenting, marriage) and thorny ethical issues.

My research has taken me often to Flint, a lovely city filled with some wonderful, artistic, generous people.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I just sent my “baby” away to university! I always knew this day would come of course, but it’s still unbelievable to me. I have heard about people who go on trips at this point, to reward themselves for successfully nudging their chicks out of the nest, and to cheer themselves up a bit about their empty nest.

Instead, I decided to sign up for training to answer a hotline at a local nonprofit that serves youth in need. I have always wanted to do this, but the training and weekly call commitment are such that I didn’t feel I could take that time away from my kids.

So, I told myself that once my daughter (the youngest) was off to university, I’d join the hotline. I signed up for the training the day after we moved her into her dorm. I may still take a trip, but for now, this is my reward and I’m thrilled about it. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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