Q: You write that your new novel was inspired by your family and your childhood summers. Can you say more about how you ended up writing this book?
A: I began this book in the late 1980s, not long after I completed a master’s degree in fiction writing. At the time, I was living in Virginia with my husband, who was pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia.
As I worked on the novel, I hoped to capture the small working-class Michigan suburb where I was raised, a magical place in so many ways with its abundant lakes and vivid seasonal changes.
I wanted to pay homage to my parents and sisters and preserve the life we’d shared, yet I also wanted to say something about work and play and the darkness of the world that most adolescents begin to perceive as they mature.
Some grim events occurred in our region in the 1970s, as in many parts of America; when you live in a suburb of a metro area, the location is two things at once – a small town and a big city, especially with respect to the news.
During my adolescence, I was a sponge for darkness. It perplexed me, especially in the summer, when the days felt so sunny and promising in Michigan.
Not too long after my husband and I moved back to Michigan, while I was still mired in writing the book and working at a requisite day job, my parents both died, 36 days apart, in February and March of 1993. They were only in their mid-60s.
My father had been declining from multiple sclerosis for some years, but my mother’s death was completely unexpected. My sisters and I were overwhelmed with grief and the demands of raising young children and working jobs while processing our losses.
Our parents had divorced when we were young adults, so we’d already dealt with that sadness, but we felt that in addition to losing these two human beings we loved, we lost access to a catalogue of their histories and experiences.
I knew then that the novel I was writing needed to be about grief as a coming-of-age experience.
It also provided an opportunity for me as an adult author to say, “Yes, I am an adult now, which means losing one’s parents should be something to get over, something in the natural order of things, but I can’t seem to recover. If I memorialize them and their lost dreams in some way through this book, I will lessen the intensity of my sadness.”
Q: As you’ve noted, the book takes place in Michigan – how important is setting to you in your writing?
A: Setting is a key fictional element for me because the word “setting” itself has so many different layers. It speaks to atmosphere, weather, geographical location, topography, shades of light and darkness, country, and continent.
At some point in my teaching career, I used to play the song “The Big Picture” by the Chenille Sisters to teach variations of settings.
From a geographical perspective, I spent the first 21 years of my life in Michigan, venturing to Canada twice and Chicago twice, but I was clearly a Michigander and a Midwesterner.
I probably didn’t label myself as such until after I went to graduate school in Baltimore and realized that the Midwest was known for specific attitudes and characteristics.
I had started writing realistic literary fiction in high school. Since I lived in Michigan, the state was a natural setting for my stories – I followed the oft-touted advice: write what you know.
I had read widely in middle school, high school, and college; in high school I became really enamored with French writers like Victor Hugo, the Alexandres Dumas and Dumas fils, as well as Irish history.
I also read a lot of Leon Uris books, which were set in different locations over the world, and I was a huge consumer of Harlequin romances, also set in various locations.
Yet it wouldn’t have occurred to me to use an exotic setting for my own fiction. I think when you start writing early in life and when you hail from the working class, there is a limit to what you know and/or imagine.
In addition, I did research in college on essays and research papers, but it didn’t occur to me then that people “researched” settings in order to write. I assumed they just absorbed the details of the places they lived.
Now that I’m older and have lived the majority of my life in Michigan, I find that I’m proud of my heritage and my state, with all its treasures and flaws.
I want to capture some of the things I’ve learned about it over the course of my life, so even if I need to do research now to understand things I just didn’t know about my state, I find it exciting to do so.
For example, I didn’t understand until the last decade or so how much the area in which I grew up was affected by several factors coming together – the growth of the auto industry, the transformation of vacation cottages into bedroom communities, the train rail system, and of course, the dynamic of white flight, one of the most troubling aspects of suburban growth.
When I was a kid, I didn’t know about these factors. I knew that I lived on a dirt road in a small house, and most houses in our neighborhood weren’t much to look at. But I could walk to a beach all summer long, and there was nothing quite as breath-taking as that world of sun and cool, dappled water.
Q: Can you say more about any research you did to write the book?
A: The fun part of the answer to this question is that I began the book before the Internet came on the scene, so I did different kinds of research at multiple times while writing and revising the book over the years.
When I first sat down to write it, I wanted to capture what my life was like growing up in this working-class environment in which we had access to an amazing network of small lakes, in addition to the Great Lakes.
For example, the custom for our last day of elementary school each June was for the entire student body to walk single file down the road to a state park where we had a big picnic to launch the summer.
Before the Internet, I read books about Michigan history to augment the sections in which I talked about lakes, much of it eventually cut out of the book. I also read Studs Terkel’s Working.
When I returned to the book after my parents’ deaths and my children’s births, I realized that using the Internet, I might be able to locate information on the MIA who had been a key part of my coming-of-age experience.
Before that point, I only knew what I’d learned one July Fourth when my parents happened to see a feature on the news about his disappearance. Because he’d gone missing on the Fourth, it was important to me that I use his true story, as accurately as I could recreate it. I was able to find more information about him over the years online.
In a similar way, I wanted to make sure I captured the emotional details of the Oakland County Child Killings which took place in the metro Detroit area, though I chose to fictionalize the actual details.
The pursuit for the killer has had so many twists and turns over the years that I knew I would never be able to approximate the details, nor did I want to.
Yet the experience of growing up when that series of crimes occurred in the metro Detroit area really left a mark on me – it was the first time I was so directly exposed to evil.
Over the last few years as I did the final revisions, I also had to go back and research several aspects of the book – from details about Nixon and Watergate to Detroit Tigers information, as well as the release dates on some of the songs I included.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
A: Reminders about the critical importance of communication, the unpredictability of grief journeys, and the powerful value of moments, not only from a mindfulness perspective but also as a distillation of joy and the essence of beauty.
In the realm of communication, I continue to be amazed at how much people can just shut down emotionally to others when they are in conflict with themselves, especially adolescents.
Most young people I know have friends they talk to, and my own kids talked to me and their father quite a bit, just as my sisters and I talked to our parents.
Yet there still seem to be these boundaries that get erected whether from parent to child or vice versa with respect to whatever idiosyncratic issues.
As a result, we end up hearing about things that happen – from small, insignificant miscommunications to huge tragedies, and often the problem occurs because one piece of information was hidden either intentionally or inadvertently.
I try to be respectful of my adult children and not pry, but sometimes I think there is value to just asking the one bold question, or even making a bold statement in the form of a joke, to get kids to open up about whatever.
I was extremely close to my mother and asked her some things that other kids would never dream of asking. Yet as an adult, when I look back at information I withheld from her, I’m surprised at why I made the choices I made. And parents can often use lessons in opening up themselves.
Maybe kids need to articulate a surprising question or thought to wake their parents up to their needs or their struggles. It’s the only way we can hope there is someone there to help us if and when things fall apart.
There are no guarantees, of course. Growing up is hard. Losing a family member is hard. There is no right or wrong way to grow up or grieve.
But communication is key. And when a family is going through grief together, the members need to communicate, yet there are no definite timetables for that communication to take place.
As for a takeaway about grief, I want to reinforce the idea that it’s incredibly hard work, and it may go on for a long time.
When Elisabeth Kübler-Ross came on the scene with her research about the stages of grief, it was powerful for people to recognize the complexity of the process.
And even after her work was out there, we had additional learning, reinforcement of the idea that yes, there are stages, but those stages don’t necessarily come in a linear step-by-step order.
Sometimes one’s pain doubles back and creates a regression. A quagmire. I try to honor those unpredictable blips, and I want to encourage other people to recognize that they must do grief in their own way; people are different, so we are going to all grieve differently.
Finally, with respect to the value of moments, I have realized that whether you’re living out your life or living out your grief, there is a kind of two-part value of the moments.
From a mindfulness perspective, we know that it’s helpful to stop and breathe. Pay attention to our breathing. Take ourselves out of the headiness of our thoughts and value the lived moment.
In addition to that idea, which has helped me quite a bit with both depression and grief, I think there is this tangible world of objects from which many of us derive comfort. Tactile objects that are an extension of our memories.
As a person with packrat tendencies, I found it difficult to get rid of all my parents’ things. So many other people go through this same dilemma. I try, as many people advise, to hold on to the memories. Yet I often go to moments, and I can sometimes capture them with objects.
I still have a small copper-plated pitcher that my mother used to use to pour distilled water into the iron when she ironed my dad’s shirts in my childhood.
My sisters and I all did half-day kindergarten, which meant we came home, at lunch, watched The Donna Reed Show, and then went to take a nap in my parents’ room while my mother ironed.
The memory itself brings me joy, yet having that pitcher around makes the moment particularly concrete and meaningful.
Photos do the same thing, certainly; they provide details of the past and aspects of the loved one we’re missing. But for me, it is so soothing to concentrate on objects as totems of another person’s life.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Over the course of my adult life, I started three other novels, all of them related to family dynamics in one way or another.
In recent months, I’ve decided to return to one about my mother’s early adulthood. She was the youngest of seven kids, and only 18 when her mother died. When her father remarried, the new, younger woman became an evil stepmother of sorts.
By then, my mother was a civilian working for Selfridge Air Force Base in Mt. Clemens, Michigan. Her bosses asked her to go to Germany with the Air Force to do secretarial work. As a result, my mother escaped her life in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, and became a world traveler at a young age.
She spent two years in Germany after World War II, witnessing the aftermath and reconstruction but also experiencing an independent, adventurous life, travelling around Europe on her weekends and learning about the world. She sent home lots of letters.
I view that time as the most exciting period of my mother’s life, and obviously, I wasn’t there, so in writing the book, I’m doing an odd reverse time-travelling, cheering my mother and her risk-taking, her independence, and her educational process, since she would never have the opportunity to go to college.
That’s the true story from which the book springs. As a writer, I’ve been fascinated for years with my mother’s birthplace in Mt. Clemens, a town known for its mineral baths in the 1940s.
Thus, while part of the novel takes place in Germany, part of it takes place in Mt. Clemens and Detroit. The main character, Mattie, has a sister who remains in Mt. Clemens, working at a hotel that offers the feature of the baths, less popular in the 1950s (the story’s setting in time) than earlier on.
The fictional sister is envious of her travelling sibling and burdened by having to negotiate with the father and his duplicitous wife over the care of another sibling, a brother, who lost a leg in the war and needs to find a place to live while rehabilitating. Part of the brother’s story takes place in a Veterans Administration Hospital in Allen Park, near Detroit.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: In the early summer of 2020, on the way back from an appointment with the oncologist, my husband and I stopped in the old neighborhood and walked around, taking pictures of my childhood beach and the nearby canal.
It was a day not unlike the sunny days I describe in the novel, providing a rich, nostalgia-tinged experience. We ran into a few people who called hello from their yards, and one woman provided an update on people she knew whom I might have known in the past.
Hearing old family names and stories about the lake and walking on the dirt roads (some of them now paved) made me feel that I’d come full circle.
After we got back home to East Lansing and viewed the pictures, I sent them to my artist friend, Barbara Hranilovich, who was working on the book’s cover.
Though she created other images and the publisher’s team considered some designs, I can’t tell you how pleased I am that Barb’s vision of my childhood beach graces the cover of the novel, 30 years in the making.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Dawn Newton.