Family: Husband Greg, Children Taylor, Lukas, Gracie, and Olivia
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How did you come to live in Catawba County?
We moved here in 1999 for my husband’s job. He was an army physician prior to moving here to start a nephrology practice.
Any particular reason you picked Catawba County?
I think the easy answer is it looked like a good place to raise a family, and it's beautiful. The mountains are beautiful. I love the different seasons, but after living here for a while, I think the reason we've stayed is because it's a great place to develop close relationships with people.
Tell us about your family.
We have three girls and a boy. Our oldest daughter just got married in March. She went to Davidson for undergrad, and Wake Forest for grad school. Our son just graduated from Carolina, and he's going to Georgetown grad school to study public policy. Our third daughter is going to Gardner-Webb and our youngest will be a junior at Hickory High.
How did you get started writing?
I grew up in a tiny town in Illinois that had 1,400 people. There were 36 in my graduating class. I started covering sports for the local newspaper in eighth grade, and realized then, I loved to write.
What inspired you to write your first novel, WITH LOVE FROM THE INSIDE? What is it about?
I actually wrote the novel thinking nobody else would read it so I was quite humbled and surprised when it was published by Penguin Random House. The novel is about a woman on death row trying to reconcile with her daughter before she is executed.
I’ve always been intrigued by the decisions people make, and how we end up where we do. I was very interested in the women on death row. How did they get there? And most importantly, are any of them innocent?
How much of the writing process goes into research?
This novel required a lot of research. I needed the characters to be authentic so I wrote letters to the 56 women on death row asking questions about their lives. There are women on death row who look like they could be sitting beside us in this coffee shop. I wanted to figure them out. What decisions did they make that put them there?
The primary reason I write is to give voice to people who have lost theirs. I felt like there's a whole lot more we can learn from these people rather than calling them monsters or just saying, "You're on death row now. Goodbye." I found out a lot of things I didn't think I would find out, and it changed my perspective on the whole death penalty process.
Tell us a little bit about your writing process.
For my first novel, I wrote when I could find the time. Now, writing is my job. I’m writing a second novel for Penguin Random house so I have deadlines. I write every day in the same place.
When you approach writing, are you a seat-of-the-pants writer, letting the story flow naturally, or do you outline?
For my first novel, I wrote where the story led. I didn’t know if Grace (the woman on death row) was going to live or die until I was driving to my office one day. I was on 127 sitting at a stop light. I was thinking about the way I thought I was going to end it, and I realized I couldn’t end it that way because that's not what would really happen.
I mentioned that I wrote to 56 women on death row when I was writing this. When I finished the book, there were 54 on death row. One was executed, Kelly Gissendaner, in the state of Georgia. She didn't kill her husband, but she was having an affair and her boyfriend actually murdered him. He got life in prison and she got the death penalty. By all accounts, she made a spiritual transformation when she was in prison. She helped others, including helping prevent a few suicides. Her children had to make the decision to either attend her execution or attend the final appeal, and they chose to keep fighting for her. She was executed without their presence. That was heartbreaking. The other woman was actually exonerated. I think she sat for 22 years on death row. There was overwhelming evidence that she was innocent, so she was exonerated – but she still spent 22 years on death row.
This might be a hard question to answer, but people always say, "Write what you know." What part of this story came from you and what you know?
I'm a mother of three daughters. I thought about what lessons I would want them to know if I was dying. And what things, as a mother or as a woman, I would kind of redo if I had a chance. Like not worrying about what size jeans you wear, or realizing there's always going to be someone prettier in the room, somebody not as attractive, somebody smarter, somebody not so smart. It’s knowing we each bring our own value to the table no matter what we do with our lives. We’re valuable because of who we are and who made us, not because of the values that society places on us. So I thought about it from that perspective. Teaching my girls how to be authentic in what they're called to do.
The little boy in the story is actually a real boy in my life. My husband and I were working in St. John's Hospital in Springfield, Illinois. This little boy had been left there by his parents. They were unable to care for him because he had severe special needs. He was my therapy patient, and he became my buddy. After we got married, we had to move away. Writing about him was very healing for me, because it allowed me to work through leaving him behind, knowing he was there all alone. That was a true part of the book.
It’s great to write what you know. But if you only do that, I think it takes away the learning we get when we're researching and writing. I obviously didn't know how it felt to be on death row, but I learned about that and I feel like I'm a better person because of it.
Your first book is published, and you’re going on book tours, doing interviews, people are starting to recognize you and know more about you. How has your life changed?
I love what I'm doing. I'm passionate about writing. I've been given the validity to continue to do that, which has been a huge career goal for me. I'm fortunate that I can continue and hopefully have a long career with Putnam and Penguin Random House. I guess the biggest compliment, to me, is not so much doing the book tours and the interviews. It's when people come up and say, "I've read your book and it caused me to look at this person in prison differently."
A man from New Zealand e-mailed me and said, "I'm a 76-year-old widower living in this beautiful country. I've recently lost my wife and most recently my dog. So I read a lot. And I just want you to know that a good book is hard to find and I didn't want your book to end because I just felt such warmth and caring." It was just a beautifully written email. Those are the things that have changed me the most, realizing words have such an impact for good. I hope I can continue to write to give voice to people who have lost theirs.
Having fans has to be a hard concept to adjust to at first. It must be surreal.
It is fun. But at the end of the day, I still have to load my dishwasher, wash clothes, and cook dinner. Having four kids keeps you humble and focused on what is truly important.
As a writer, do you see yourself fitting in a specific category, a pathway, a genre, a theme?
What I wrote has been described as a high-stakes family drama. Once you start writing a type of story, it’s what’s expected. For me, entertainment value is secondary. I want people to think about the characters in the books for a long time. I want them to wonder, are we judging people appropriately? Have we walked in their shoes?
What was it like to work on your story with an editor? Did you find they were more of a guiding hand? Or did you feel you had to compromise things to meet their vision for getting the book published?
With this book, I didn't feel like I had to change anything to fit the vision at all. I have a character, Roni, who was on death row. She is my favorite character in the book because she was a compilation of the women that I wrote and read about. When she attempted suicide in the book, I had her die because I had read an article by a man in prison that really impacted me. He said, "There are suicides that are happening all around me all the time and you don't hear about that on the nightly news. The people here are so insignificant that you don't ever hear about them." My editors said, "She can’t die. The story will be too sad and the character is too important.” And I agreed. That was the only major part we had to tweak.
Is there anything else you want to share about your life here?
We love living here. We love taking advantage of everything Hickory has to offer. There's a lot of culture offered here. It's a beautiful place to live, raise a family, and get involved in volunteer work. There are many opportunities. It’s progressing culturally. People have really good hearts here, and they reach out. It’s easy to see where people are struggling if we open our eyes. There’s such a good sense of community here; we're able to do things collectively to help people.
Do you find that you get a lot of support from people here for your writing?
Yes! At my book signing at Barnes and Noble, I think there were over 200 people there. I feel the Hickory community has been so supportive. I love to go to area book clubs. I’ve probably done 25 of those in the area. I did not realize there were so many book clubs in this town.
Do you have a tribe of fellow writers in this community? Or is it more of a solo thing for you?
It is a solo thing for me right now. Not by design. When I first started writing the book, I felt so vulnerable. I didn't let anyone read it. Not my husband, not my kids. I kept it close to me. Now, I think it would be very valuable to get in a writers' group to pitch ideas.
The way I collaborate with other writers is being very open to people asking me about the process. I want to give a hand because somebody did that for me. I want to tell them what it's like, or let them know about conferences or classes I’ve taken that are helpful, or share things about publishing. I’m always open to helping other people pursue their passion.
Interviewed on July 31, 2018