"And then what?": Judy Larsen speculates on fear, forgiveness, and story

Judy Larsen is touring the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit this week, talking about her debut novel All the Numbers, published last summer by Ballantine. Judy's got one of those "how I became an overnight success in only twenty years" stories. The beginning we all recognize. The fairy tale ending (which is a very fine beginning) kinda makes us cry ourselves to sleep. We had to start by asking her about it.

Okay, Girlfriend. We promise not to hate you. How did this first novel happen?
I've wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, and I even took creative writing classes when I was in college. But, I got practical for a little while and got a degree in English and Education--so I taught high school for 15 years, all the while thinking I needed to find time to write a novel. Finally, the summer before I turned 40 (my self-imposed deadline), I wrote a first draft of All the Numbers. I then spent the next 5 years revising and collecting rejection letters from agents. In the summer of 2004, I attended a week-long workshop at the University of Iowa. I met an editor there who offered to introduce me to some agents. Within 3 weeks I'd signed with my fabulous agent and about two months later we sold it to Ballantine/Random House.

All the Numbers is a book about a deeply personal journey, but it's not something you personally experienced. Where did the story come from?
The essence of All the Numbers is rooted in the fears that every parent has, shoved as far below the surface as we can push them, but present nonetheless. It traces a year in the life of a family that begins with the death of a child--it's raw and painful, but ultimately redemptive. It's about learning how to forgive and live a life you never thought you'd have to.

For me, those universal fears of all parents first bubbled to the surface the night, four weeks before his due date, that my oldest son was born by emergency caesarean section. Up until the last twenty minutes of it, my pregnancy had been textbook perfect. I’d eaten cottage cheese by the bucketful and not a drop of caffeine or wine had crossed my lips. I’d exercised the appropriate amount, put my feet up when necessary, and taken my vitamins. But still, in spite of my care, with no warning, we both nearly died because my placenta separated from the uterine wall. Nothing could have prevented it; nothing could have predicted it. And I learned one of the immutable truths of parenting--no matter how cautious, loving, protective and concerned we are, no matter how long we breastfeed, how many books we read aloud, or how much we limit TV time, bad things can happen. And then what?

When I forced myself to imagine the worst, I always wondered if I would rise to the occasion or sink into the abyss. When I explored these possibilities through Ellen--who is sarcastic and impatient and cluttered--and madly in love with her kids, I tried to be as fair as I could. I wanted her to eventually rise to the occasion (as I hoped I would), but not until she had wallowed in the depths (as I knew I would).

No matter how mundane we think our lives are, many of us will face extraordinary events at least once in our lives. And when we do, it is easy to think, why me? I played by the rules, I’m not a bad person, so why this? Why the illness or the unfaithful spouse or the tornado? When I read about mothers who have faced catastrophe, I always wish I could get a six-month follow-up. How’d they get out of bed the next day? How long before they started making supper? Did they ever genuinely laugh again?

These were the questions I tried to answer for myself through Ellen.

So now that the book’s been out there for a while, how do you feel about the publishing experience?
I guess I was surprised that complete strangers across the country would stumble across it and buy it. And then write to me about it. Stunning. I had no idea how long it could take. Or all the details. But, looking back, I'm glad I was so naive. I might not have done it had I known it would take 7 years from writing the first draft to it showing up at the stores. Hearing from readers all over the country who have lost a child has been very emotional--and humbling. They've lived through what I only imagined, and then they've written to me or come to my appearances and thanked me for writing my book, for giving dignity to their grief. That's really been amazing.

Last but not least: Who do you love to read?
I'd have to say Elizabeth Berg because she writes so beautifully and honestly about regular people. When I read her, it's always a lesson in how to make simple, daily events mean something. My buddy Bev Marshall is another writer like that. And I better toss in John Irving because of the way he weaves different narratives together and it all makes sense in the end.

Care to share your Top 5 Books?
To Kill a Mockingbird, The Things They Carried, Grapes of Wrath, The Sound and the Fury, and Cider House Rules. Can you tell I was an English teacher for 15 years?

Comments

Great interview, Judy. When you're a parent, your heart is definitely held hostage. It's all about learning to live with fear because it can't be eliminated from the equation.

And I'm a huge fan of Cider House Rules as well.
Christie Craig said…
Colleen and Judy, great post. Thanks for sharing.

CC

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