A Conversation with Lynne Griffin, Author of Sea Escape
Q. Sea Escape is inspired by letters your father wrote to your mother. Did anything else from your family history make it into the novel?
So many little particulars from my childhood and the relationship I had with my parents found their way into the novel. For example, I’ve include my parents’ account of the Worcester tornado in one chapter, and the way in which they met in another. Even the names of streets and other locales were borrowed from my family history to give authenticity to the novel. Though the story—what happens to Helen and Joseph—comes entirely from my imagination, friends and family will find a veritable hidden pictures experience as they read.
Q. Did you find it difficult to create fiction out of something real in your life, and not let the “true” story take over?
Yes, the experience writing this novel was different and much harder, its tenets more elusive. The fact that I’d written one novel already was irrelevant. My own mother-daughter story intruded as I wrote. The seeds I borrowed from my own life tended to obscure Helen's viewpoint, and disrupt Laura's story. It wasn’t long before I realized, I was in the way. Letting go, stepping aside to let these women do and say things my mother and I never did or would was the single hardest thing I've ever done. Enormous patience and countless revisions were required to dig to the heart of their story.
Q. You were working on another novel when the idea for Life Without Summer came to you. Was that other novel Sea Escape? Which book did you finish first? Did you work on them simultaneously?
When I found my parents’ letters, after my mother’s death, I went so far as to imagine excerpts of my father’s beautiful writing shining within a novel I might write. In those musings, SEA ESCAPE was born. Still I told myself, you've never written fiction. You don’t know the first thing about taking on such an ambitious project, weaving his words into your story. No matter how much I dismissed it, the idea nagged me. For years it wouldn't leave me alone. Characters were named. Plot lines fleshed out. Twenty or so pages written--pages that would eventually become the last chapter of the novel.
Then the muse staged a coup, insisting she had a different plan for my literary life.
One morning I woke from a restless night’s sleep with a new story in my mind. From beginning to end, the whole plot was crystal clear. I knew the first line and the last line, and those words, in what is now LIFE WITHOUT SUMMER, remain unchanged.
So SEA ESCAPE was pushed aside to make room for another story. Yet not for long. When my first novel went out on submission, I rolled up my sleeves and got back to what started it all; the story that compelled me to write fiction in the first place.
Q. Both of your books have themes of loss and mourning. Is this something that you deal with a lot in your career as a family life expert? Do you think your work has helped you to understand your characters better?
My father died suddenly of a heart attack when I was a sophomore in high school. He went on a business trip with my mother and only she returned from New Orleans. This event disrupted our family in unimaginable ways. I continue to grieve the painful loss to this day. And until my mother passed away in 2000, twenty-five years after my father, she was never the same.
I began writing fiction at forty, after her death stirred up my fear of loss, the stabbing pain of it. Somehow writing to the heart of a story about a grieving woman and a lonely child gave me the chance to sort through things long buried, and to offer hope to others who may be afraid. It became my attempt to comfort those who know loss intimately as I do.
Whatever you call it, a hole, the missing piece, my soul wound, I accept–even embrace–my need to continually make sense of my profound losses. The stories I write, each unique in their way, highlight aspects of grief that are universal. While every person’s journey toward healing is deeply personal, we’re all tied to each other in the collective experience of it. At some point everyone will make its acquaintance. For those who do, I have a story.
Q. Is there one character in the book that you relate to or sympathize with the most?
I’m asked this question a lot, and while I truly care deeply about all my characters—in all their shades of humanity—the one I love the most is Helen. Like my own mother, she struggles with what’s called prolonged grief disorder. A specific kind of depression brought on by loss, that for some reason refuses to follow the typical trajectory of grief. In my years as a grief counselor, I’ve met countless people who simply cannot move through the grieving process. I empathize with Helen, stuck in the past, gripped by the pain. And I have enormous compassion for what my mother experienced after the death of my father. For this reason, Sea Escape is a very personal and deeply emotional novel for me, and Helen, a character I will be forever connected to.
Q. You’re from the Boston area, where the book is set. Was the setting important to you? How does it play a role in the story of these two women?
I grew up in Worcester and later Holden, MA. I’ve lived in and around Boston for most of my life. I live in a seaside town now. The familiarity of these settings made aspects of this challenging story easier for me to write. But the real reason portions of the novel take place south of Boston, on the Massachusetts coastline, is because my parents dreamed of having a home like Sea Escape. Placing the story there was my way of giving that to them.
Q. Does Laura’s story end for you where it does for us as readers? Do you have a future in mind for her beyond the pages of the book?
For me, the end of one of my novels is merely the end of the final scene. My characters are very real to me, so yes, I believe Laura’s story continues. I believe her grief work has just begun. The novel ends with her realizing many things between her parents—and between her and her mother—were not as they seem. Still she chooses to believe in love and commitment and dreams full of promise. It’s who she is. So I imagine Laura will be just fine. She is a lot stronger than she gives herself credit for.
Q. What’s your next project? Are you working on a third novel?
I’m really excited about the next novel I’m working on. Once again, I’m digging to the heart of a family story with overtones of loss, and a strong emphasis on the parent–child relationship. Stay tuned.