A: Everyone She Loved was conceived in the front seat of my friend’s car. We were discussing an article I’d written about two young girls in Arizona whose parents had died within months of each other. From there we talked about how difficult it would be to choose which couple among one’s siblings and friends would best be suited for the job of raising our children. (Where did one couple’s permissiveness slide into overindulgence, another’s consistency into unbearable strictness?) The idea of dying was hard enough, but figuring out which couple would most love your kids in your absence? Intolerable.
We paused in our conversation just long enough for my brain to settle on yet another catastrophic possibility. “You know what would be worse?” I asked. “What if I died and John (my husband) married someone awful? I’d have no control at all!”
Another pause. “Unless,” I continued, “I could get him to agree that if he remarried, my sisters and friends would check out the bride. Make sure she wasn’t some kind of wicked stepmother in hiding.”
Q: Did you know at the start that you wanted to address particular issues?
A: Not really. I just had this character in mind: a lovable, charming, and funny woman who could talk people into seeing things her way, even when her way is slightly over-the-top and outrageous.
Q: You grew up for a time in the South, but ended up moving around a lot. Do you consider yourself a Southerner?
A: Because we moved so often, I never feel like an insider, no matter where I live. Technically, I’ve lived in the South long enough to say I belong, but I have a feeling a real Southerner can count her grandaddy’s grandaddy’s people having come from the same place so far back there are quill marks naming the town in the family bible.
Q: Would you ever create or sign a codicil like the one Penelope draws up for her husband?
A: That is the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. What intrigues me about this codicil is it’s so wrong and yet, so right. If you’re thinking about young children, who could you imagine to better protect them than your most trusted girlfriend? And yet, how would I feel if my husband asked me to sign a similar document but where the committee was made up of his best friends? Suddenly I can imagine feeling just the slightest bit uncomfortable. Insulted even!
Q: One of the driving issues of the novel is Tessa’s eating disorder. What kind of research did you do to understand this illness, and what would you like your readers to take from Tessa’s plight?
A: I’ve known three teenage anorectics, all children of close friends. One of those girls has grown up to earn a master’s degree in nutrition from Tufts University. She’s been extremely generous in sharing her story and her insights with me. I also read scores of books and articles on eating disorders and consulted a psychologist friend at Florida State University when I had questions I couldn’t answer on my own. What’s most important to understand is that anorexia is very complicated. It’s not so simple as “thin people thinking they’re fat.” There’s a whole system of cues and triggers that become obsessive and oppressive. Clearly it has something to do with control, but it’s not easy to decipher or to treat.
Q: Siobhan is one of the most complex characters in the book. What were your feelings for her as you were writing the book? Ultimately, how would you like your readers to judge Siobhan?
A: Siobhan is limited by her need to create a perfectly controlled universe. Everything bad that’s happened to her has been used as justification for not trusting anyone else, and for putting up defenses. She’s bent on being perfect, on not breaking rules, but what she doesn’t understand is that by shutting herself off from compassion, she’s ultimately the loser. Without empathy and humility, it’s impossible to grow, to experience grace, much less wonder. I just keep thinking of bark on a plant that’s gotten so thick, nothing can make its way through, not even sunlight or water.
Q: You grew up in a family of ten kids. How did that affect the way you wrote about Tessa and June’s relationship?
A: It just seems natural to me, to re-create the bond between sisters.
Q: Do you have a close sibling relationship like they do?
A: Absolutely. We’re all close in different ways, but there is a certain protectiveness I feel for my siblings, and they for me. We also suffered through my brother Tommy’s death, and I think that made us tighter as a group and more likely to treasure our time together.
Q: What kind of research did you do for the financial fraud plotline in the book?
A: When I was thinking about the South, and my characters, I was driving back and forth from Tallahassee to Atlanta quite a bit. Every small town I went through seemed to have the same oversized billboards or banners across storefronts: huge, technicolored, and often the only sign of life on the street: TITLE LOANS! PAYDAY LOANS! When I began researching these “industries” on the web, I found out how pernicious the loan terms were, and how trapped the customer becomes in a cycle of debt. From there I became fascinated by “fine print” and how it can represent all these obligations that have become woven together over time.
Q: Was this a part of the book when you initially began writing?
A: Yes. I finished the novel in June 2007, well before the sub-prime crisis was a household word.
Q: Did the current economic crisis influence you at all?
A: Well, when I used to talk about the research I was doing, I think people thought I was exaggerating the extent to which people could be duped into signing documents they couldn’t understand. Most signers assumed that these contracts wouldn’t be standard unless they’d been vetted by lots of consumers before them. It turns out the terms were being racheted up over time without anyone making a fuss about them. I do remember Alan Greenspan saying fairly recently that, even with his knowledge, he found mortgages almost impenetrably difficult to understand.
Q: How do you see Lucy’s character evolving through the story?
A: Lucy is intuitive and empathetic to a fault. When Penelope was killed, she was so busy worrying about the girls and Joey, she put her own needs on the back burner. She took out a mortgage so that she could shut down her bed-and-breakfast, and at that time, in her state of shock and grief, it was impossible to imagine time going by and that balloon amount about to be due. On top of that, Lucy didn’t really think of her house as belonging to her. It was really Penelope’s. It seemed appropriate to Lucy that she draw upon its value when Penelope’s kids needed her. Still, Lucy wasn’t a complete martyr. She loved her work; she considered painting the center of her life. She loved nurturing Penelope’s kids, and was so accustomed to repressing her attraction to Joey, she could continue to do so indefinitely.
Q: Do you relate to her on any level?
A: Yes. I am similarly passionate about my need to write, and I am very intuitive in my responses to things like parenting. I can’t say why I’m doing what I do, but I have a deep-seated gut instinct that, for the most part, we should apply the golden rule to raising children. In other words, we should treat children as we ourselves would like to be treated. This is a somewhat unorthodox view of parenting and you can easily imagine how—in times of uncertainty—it could be displaced by someone like Siobhan, who’s so confident about her more authoritarian approach.
Q: A major theme of this novel is friendship and sacrifice. Do you think friendship comes with certain loyalties and requirements?
Q: Would you do anything to help a friend?
A: Not anything, but my friends know they can count on me for a lot. I think one of the glorious things about friends is that they tend to judge you far more kindly than you do yourself.
Q: If you could choose to be best friends with any character in the novel, who would you choose and why?
A: Tough choice but I think I’d choose Penelope. She is so attractive, accomplished, complicated, and charming. (And of course she’s gone, which makes her immediately the most desirable.) Plus, what would it be like to be taken under her wing? Actually, it’s interesting to me that Penelope is sort of the übermother of them all. Not only does she see her friends’ greatest qualities, but she’s more than willing to use her connections and money to help them achieve their dreams. What’s not to love about that?