Barbara Claypole White is the author of the new novel The Promise Between Us. Her other novels include The Unfinished Garden and Echoes of Family. She is originally from England and now lives in North Carolina.
Q: This is the second book you've written that deals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), an issue that affects your family, and you've noted that your "learning curve continues." Why did you choose to focus on OCD in this novel?
A: I've wanted to write more OCD since creating James Nealy, the hero of my debut, The Unfinished Garden.
However, I didn’t find the right story until a heartbreaking incident rippled through the OCD community. A teacher was brave enough to post in one of our closed—supposedly confidential—support groups about her battles with unwanted thoughts of harming children. Her comments were leaked to her employer, and she was fired.
I was mad, I was upset, and I decided to channel my emotions into a story that would illuminate a corner of OCD that carries unbearable shame.
Most people assume OCD is about compulsive behaviors, such as hand washing. For some people, it is. For many others, however, the anxiety OCD generates is purely mental and easily hidden.
OCD is an allergy to life that creates irrational fear in the absence of true threat. That fear is generated through repetitive, intrusive, obsessive thoughts and images.
A horrible thought—I could drop my baby—isn’t a fact. It doesn’t make you dangerous, but it will torment you, especially if it morphs in a fear that whispers, “What if I want to drop my baby?” And that is the postpartum OCD voice.
I was already messing around with the story of a mother who’d run away because of undiagnosed mental illness, when I realized my heroine was trapped in postpartum OCD. I welded the ideas together and found my premise: Can you be a good mother if you abandon your baby?
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: I had various working titles, none of them memorable, and kept circling the word “promise” because much of the story grew out of a childhood promise.
Then I asked: What’s this story really about? A small group of good people who make bad decisions for the best reason: to protect a child. Once they get beyond the baggage of the nightmare situation they’ve created, they discover that between them, they’ve got loads and loads of potential—or promise.
Q: You tell the story from various characters' perspectives. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you move things around as you wrote?
A: I write chronologically, but I'm a big re-writer and end up cutting and adding scenes. Originally, I had three POVs: from Katie, Callum, and Lilah. Then it became obvious that Maisie needed a few chapters, and once I released Jake on the page, he took over. I love that readers watch the same story unfold from multiple angles, each with a different perspective.
Q: Why did you choose to make your character Katie a metal artist?
A: I found Katie at the hair salon, while admiring a piece of metal art from local artist Jackie MacLeod. Once I’d interviewed Jackie and learned about welding, I understood how the process quietened the noise in Katie's head.
It was important to me that readers understand Katie’s bravery. Fear of a Winnie the Pooh lamp shorting out set the story in motion. Learning to tackle fire was the ultimate exposure to that fear. It proved Katie’s a fighter.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A story based around the idea that family never forgets, and not in a good way.
Maggie King, 10 years clean and sober, is on an impossible mission to erase the shame she heaped on her prominent North Carolina family. Committed to becoming a forgettable nonentity, Maggie has no social life and finds joy in her job as the social director of a memory care home.
At night, she posts reviews to her anonymous book blog and keeps a scrapbook dedicated to celebrities who’ve committed suicide. She calls them “the fallen.”
But when she connects with a tortured teen through work, Maggie stumbles into the world of cyber bullying. And discovers her spectacular history of failure has the power to change lives…if she takes it public.
Did I mention the hero runs a craft gin distillery? As you can image, the field research continues to be tough for a gin-lover.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Check out my website for my social media links and information about my books. Thank you, Deborah!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barbara Claypole White.