|Photo by Bess Garison|
Q: What inspired you to write The Night She Went Missing?
A: I was teaching a journalism class, and my students and I read a harrowing and beautiful piece in The New Yorker: "How a Young Woman Lost Her Identity" by Rachel Aviv.
After reading about Hannah Upp's very real experiences with dissociative fugues, my mind started cycling through "what if" questions. I ended up with the story of an 18-year-old girl who goes missing, and when she washes up in Galveston harbor 10 weeks later, she can’t remember where she’s been or how she got there.
I decided to place my characters in Galveston because the island is so much more than a beach destination. It's a city with a rich and dark history as well as a modern-day clear division of class structure. When I lived there for a couple of years in my 20s, I also often thought about the fact that there’s only one quickly accessible way off the island, which feels like the perfect setting for a suspense story.
Q: The Publishers Weekly review says, in part, "Bird does a good job dramatizing the extraordinary lengths mothers will go to protect their children." What do you think of that description, and how would you characterize the mother-child relationships in the novel?
A: This description encapsulates the heart of the novel, which is about three mothers trying to right the wrongs—actual or perceived—against their children. Catherine is on a mission to find out where her daughter Emily has been—and who she can blame—while Leslie and Morgan are trying to clear their children from any involvement.
As a mom to three daughters, the dilemma of these mothers and the accompanying emotions they experience are frighteningly easy to imagine.
Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: Though I knew basically what would happen to Emily, I didn’t know how many—or how few—characters would be involved. I also narrowed the point of view from about 10 characters to only five—which is still a lot! I tend to be the kind of writer who writes an unreadable first draft and then revises numerous times in order to shape the novel into something that I hope feels seamless to the reader.
Q: As you mentioned, you tell the story from several characters' points of view--and also along two timelines. How did you decide on the novel's structure?
A: I wanted the reader to feel the immediacy of Emily’s situation—she’s forgotten the past 10 weeks of her life and has no idea where she’s been or with whom—so I wrote her voice in present tense for much of the novel.
It’s important to hear her teenage perspective in order to fill in the gaps that the mothers cannot know. As a teacher, I’m distinctly aware of the fact that I know very little about my students’ social lives and that they hold the key to mysteries about what’s actually happening among their peers.
I wrote the mothers’ chapters in past tense and offered more information about the months preceding Emily’s disappearance because I wanted the reader to feel empathy for each of these women—even if the actions of any given mother are sometimes questionable.
Emily’s process of realization is intentionally separate from the journey the mothers are on, but eventually, their time lines converge as they all begin to put together the pieces of what happened the night she went missing.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on another suspense novel, this one set in the Appalachian foothills of north Alabama where I grew up. The book opens with three sisters hovering around a grave. They’ve returned home for their grandmother’s funeral, and each of them carries weighty emotional baggage with them. In the midst of the preparations, the funeral, and the burial of their beloved “Gran,” a man close to one of the women disappears.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I hope that people will check out my book from their local libraries or local independent bookstores. Also, you can follow me on Instagram @kristenbirdwrites. I post about writing, being a mom, and silly things my students do.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb