Can you tell us what In Leah’s Wake is all about?
In Leah’s Wake tells the story of a family in collapse. Sixteen-year-old Leah, a high school soccer star, has led a perfect life. When she meets a sexy older guy, attracted to his independence, she begins to spread her wings. Drinking, ignoring curfew, dabbling in drugs—all this feels like freedom to her. Her terrified parents, afraid they’re losing their daughter, pull the reins tighter.
Unfortunately, her parents get it all wrong, pushing when they ought to be pulling, and communication breaks down. Soon there’s no turning back. Twelve-year-old Justine, caught between the parents she loves and the big sister she adores, finds herself in the fight of her life, trying desperately to pull her family together.
Please tell us in one sentence only, why we should read your book.
In Leah’s Wake, about a family in transition, tells a topical story that people relate to, but it’s also about the need for community and connection and, although sometimes sad, offers hope and redemption.
Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?
Leah is a strong young woman, beautiful, smart, a superstar in the community. As long as she lives up to their expectations, she’s accepted, even celebrated. As soon as she tries to take control of her own life, question the rules, spread her wings, she meets resistance. When she chooses her troublemaker boyfriend over a promising college soccer career, and heads down a path of drugs and self-destruction, she rips her once happy family apart.
Justine is twelve, in that awkward stage, not really a child anymore and not quite a teen. Justine is intelligent, faithful, and kind, and she sees the best in people, sometimes to her own detriment. Deeply religious, she sees God as Father and protector – a belief that will be challenged by her family’s turmoil. Her best friend is Dog, the family’s aging pet Labrador. Although only twelve, Justine is left to be the rock as the rest of her family plunges into depression.
ZOE AND WILL TYLER
Zoe and Will are hardworking parents – too hardworking – who love and want the best for their children. Ambitious and strong, Will is willing do whatever it takes to help his children reach their full potential, even if it means alienating them in the process. He can’t sit back, watching his teenage daughter destroy her promising future. Zoe, a child therapist and motivational speaker, is a peacemaker who avoids confrontation, and thus easily falls into depression. Their divided approach to Leah’s rebellion drives a wedge into their marriage.
Rather than listen to their daughter, accept that she’s growing up, that her choices may differ from theirs, and guide her down the path that’s right for her, Zoe and Will try to take control. This is a classic problem between parents and teens. The minute we put our foot down, say no, they can’t do this or that, they tend to focus all their energy in that direction. Zoe and Will’s escalating attempts to control their daughter result in her pulling away. This is a difficult cycle to break.
Jerry Johnson, the police officer, is the only non-family member with a voice in the novel. Jerry’s work as a police officer brings him into frequent contact with the dissolving Tyler family. Though flawed like all the characters, he takes his responsibility for others to heart. He’s the connecting force in this novel.
Leah’s boyfriend, Todd, a former roadie in a rock band, is a modern day James Dean, a rebel without a cause. He’s been arrested for dealing drugs, so it’s easy to blame him for leading her astray; really, he’s a conduit. He makes her feel comfortable and safe and encourages her blossoming independence.
By the time Leah realizes that he wants to control her, too – albeit in a different way – it’s too late. If only she’d realized how deeply her family loves her, she might have avoided the dire consequences she suffers. That’s the central irony in the book – perhaps the irony in many relationships between parents and teens.
Are your characters based on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
Bob Sullivan, the owner of Sullivan Farms Ice Cream, and Dorothy Klein, the beautiful woman who designs the button bracelets Zoe buys for Leah and herself, are real people.
Every other character is completely imaginary. I did borrow gestures, habits, and physical characteristics from real people – the runaway arm belongs to my youngest daughter, KK; my husband is a darker physical stand-in for Will. Of course, borrowing sometimes results in unfortunate assumptions. I’m lucky – my family puts up with my thievery and ignores the conclusions readers draw.
Personality, motivation, and behavior of my characters I’m fully responsible for.
Which character in your book became your favorite?
The characters are all imperfect. They behave badly and they’re sometimes, perhaps often, enormously irritating, and self-involved – but I love them all, for their strengths as well as their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Justine is sweet and caring and kind, so it’s hard not to love her, but I also love Leah. Although Leah drives the parent in me crazy and she can be a real brat, her heart is in the right place. The parents, Zoe and Will, often make terrible choices; despite their failures, they want the best for their children and they act out of love.
Jerry Johnson, the police officer, is the only non-family member with a voice. Though flawed like all the characters, he takes his responsibility for others to heart. I see police officers as the connecting force in communities. Every day they put their lives on the line. To me, they’re our real life heroes. As the connecting force in this novel and for this family, Jerry became my favorite.
What about your lead character makes you go, “Oh don’t do that!”?
At different times, I want to tell every one of my lead characters to stop, think, listen. Hardworking parents, Zoe and Will want the best for their kids. When Leah rebels, rather than listening to their daughter, accepting the fact that she’s growing up and responsible for making her own choices – rather than guide her – Zoe and Will pull the reins tighter. This is a classic problem between parents and teens. The minute we put our foot down, say no, they can’t do this or that, many teens focus all their energy in that direction. Zoe and Will’s escalating attempts to control their daughter result in her pulling away. This is a difficult cycle to break. If only they’d listen, realize how much their daughters love them and how desperately both daughters need them, they could solve their problems before they blow up. That they don’t, perhaps they can’t, is the central irony in the book – the irony in many relationships between parents and teens.
If In Leah’s Wake were turned into a movie, who would be in your dream cast?
Will Tyler – Matt Damon. Mr. Damon exudes fatherly love and protectiveness and he’s also very intense. If his daughter were in trouble, I can picture him going into overdrive, like Will, and doing whatever it takes to pull her back.
Zoe Tyler – Sandra Bullock. I see her as loving, driven and ditzy, a less strident version of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the mom she played in The Blind Side.
Leah Tyler – For the role of Leah, I’d search for new talent. Caroline Wakefield, as played by Erika Christensen, in the film Traffic, reminded me of Leah, in her all-American beauty and stunning transformation from preppy to drug-addicted prostitute. Ms. Christensen is too old for this role, but she’d be the prototype.
Justine Tyler – Abigail Breslin. Like Justine, she’s sweet and dorky and cute. She’s also precocious and strong.
Jerry Johnson – Vince Vaughn. He’s not the guy who walks into a room and gets the girl, but he’s centered and responsible, the rock for the others to lean on.
Todd Corbett (Leah’s boyfriend) – Jordan Masek. Jordan plays the role of Todd in my trailer. Jordan is actually a sweet guy, in real life. But he knows how to channel his inner bad boy. I can’t imagine a more appropriately cast Todd.
Your book is set in the imaginary town of Cortland, Massachusetts. Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?
Geographically, the town of Cortland is modeled after the town of Harvard, MA. In the fall, we used to go there to pick apples. Harvard is stunningly beautiful – with the rolling hills, the stone walls, the orchards. Sometimes, Dave and I would drive there and just ride around. This family is in tremendous pain; they’re struggling. That these fierce struggles might take place in this bucolic setting felt surprising, and that tension felt important to the book.
Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?
Judging from the stories I hear, the social and political climate in the imaginary town of Cortland reflects that in many middle- and upper-middle class towns across the U.S., and perhaps outside the U.S. I’ve talked with parents who’ve expressed frustrations similar to Zoe and Will’s. Culturally – not always or only by their parents – children feel pressure to live up to impossible expectations. When children step out of line, the parents and families often feel judged.
Community plays an important role in setting expectations and shaping and maintaining connections. The expectations, the constant demand to perform, can be overwhelming. In small towns, everyone knows everyone else, by sight if not by name. You can’t hide. If you or a family member is in trouble, everyone knows it. That claustrophobia and the constant feeling of condemnation, being watched, inform the inner lives of these characters and influence their behavior.
I love that you set this story in the environment of a successful, stable family to show that all kids, teens especially, are vulnerable to bad influences, even those from “good’ families. What made you decide on this approach?
We tend to believe that only bad kids from bad families get in trouble, and that’s simply not true. This attitude allows us to distance ourselves – this could never happen to us – and encourages us to cast judgment on families who are having problems. This judgment and, as often occurs when problems escalate, ostracism of the family, only adds to the difficulties they’re already facing. Rather than cast these families out of the community, we ought to support and encourage them.
Why do you feel Leah got so out of control?
I think it was a combination of factors –first, rebellion against outside pressure to conform and achieve. As long as she’s willing to live up to the expectations of others, she’s accepted and even celebrated. As soon as she tries to take control of her own life, questions the rules, spreads her wings, she meets resistance. If we accept kids, allow them more leeway – I’m not advocating total leniency, but rather suggesting that we allow them to make certain choices – they often come around. We may not like their choices – most parents would not want to hear that their child doesn’t want to go to college, for instance – but certain choices, as long as they’re not dangerous, should be theirs.
Rather than listen to Leah, accept that she’s growing up and her choices may differ from theirs, guide her, Zoe and Will pull the reins tighter. This is a classic problem with teens. The minute we tell them no, they can’t do something, they focus their energy in that very direction. The more Zoe and Will try to control Leah’s behavior, the more she pulls away. Escalating attempts to control her result in her getting more and more out of control. That’s a difficult cycle to break.
Do you think Todd was to blame for a lot of Leah’s actions?
Todd is an easy target for blame, but he’s more of a conduit. He makes Leah feel comfortable and safe and encourages her blossoming independence. By the time she realizes that he’s also controlling her – albeit in a different way – it’s too late. By committing to him, she’s pushed her family away. If only she realized how deeply they love her and how desperately they want her back, she might have avoided the truly dire consequences she suffers. That’s the central irony in the book – perhaps the irony in many relationships between parents and teens.
Can you pick a part out of the book that makes us want to scream at Leah?
As a parent, I want to scream at Leah pretty much throughout the book. Although I do feel that she’s a decent person with a kind heart, she’s often a brat. She can be self-centered, belligerent, and rude. Her saving grace is that she has moments of clarity when she realizes this. In other words, she has a conscience. When she hurts people or lets others down – her parents, her sister, her coach, even the girls on her soccer team – she feels guilty. She understands that she’s behaved badly and she pays an emotional price for her negative actions.
Can you pick a part out of the book that makes us cheer for Leah?
While, again, I don’t condone Leah’s behavior, I think she’s right about the rat race and most of the time, I think, her heart is in the right place. Hope’s mother is crass, rough around the edges and has little material wealth, yet unlike her peers – unlike her own mother – Leah sees beyond this. While Hope’s mother is far too lenient, thus contributing to Hope’s behavior, she’s kind to Leah. Leah doesn’t want to be judged and she doesn’t judge others. I love this about her. In “Sisters Redux,” when she shares a cigarette with Justine then reassures Justine afterward and teaches her to dance – in all those tender moments when her true personality shines, I want to stand up and cheer.
Your book is the story of a contemporary American family caught in the throes of adolescent rebellion. Do you feel that they represent the typical American family of today? If so, how so?
In the sense that the Tylers want what’s best for their children, yes, I think they do represent most families. Will and Zoe are invested in providing for and doing well by their children, which means they work harder than perhaps they should. Work takes them away from their children; one day, they wake up and realize that, while they were working, pushing themselves to get ahead and succeed, their eldest child has gone off in a dangerous new direction.
As a culture, we put tremendous pressure on children to succeed, but we define success very narrowly, in terms of money and achievement. Leah recognizes the hypocrisy in the rat race. She’s lived her own version in soccer. She’s pushed herself hard; by most measures, she’s succeeded. Yet success does not make her happy – any more than achievements at work make Zoe or Will happy. Leah sees this and wants to simplify her life. That’s a positive impulse; unfortunately, partly because it’s nonconforming, it takes her in a negative direction.
I think these questions and impulses arise in many children. The more creative and independent their nature, the more likely they seem to be to follow their impulses. They push boundaries, as Leah does. Happily they don’t all follow down the dangerous path she chooses.
As a mother of four this book must have been a little scary to write. Did imagining what is an extreme case of teenagers acting out make you want to hold more tightly to your own children?
With four teenage daughters, I worried constantly. Like Zoe, I used to think, if only I knew everything would turn out well I wouldn’t worry so much. Of course we can’t see into the future, so I was always anxious. You’re right: the teen years are a vulnerable time; nice kids from the best of families sometimes fall in with the wrong crowd.
I had a friend – a smart, caring, wonderful woman – whose youngest was a coke addict; as an adult he was in and out of jail. My friend’s husband would leave money in the car, knowing their son would come by at night to “steal” it. This was one of the most well regarded families in town. The other three children were lovely and grew to be successful adults. You just never know. So, yes, I did want to hold more tightly to my own children – every minute of every day. At the same time, if you want your children to grow up to be independent adults, you have to let go. Defining that line, figuring out when to hold on, how tightly, and when to open your arms and set them free is, to my mind, among the most difficult challenges parents face.
What do you think is the most important lesson to be learned from In Leah’s Wake? What is the key element you want readers to take away from reading the book?
As Dostoevsky says, we are all responsible for one another. Hillary Clinton made a similar point when she said it takes a village to raise a child. By including various members of the community, and by giving voice to Jerry Johnson, the police officer who steps in, I hoped to get this message across. The Tylers have problems, yes, and they behave badly at times, but, even in their lowest moments, they love one another deeply. Though he may not articulate it, Jerry intuitively understands the need for human connection. Unlike others in town, he’s able to see the family members as people, distinct from their problems. It’s also why he doesn’t judge them.
WRITING IN LEAH’S WAKE
What did you most enjoy about writing In Leah’s Wake? What chapter or scene?
In a chapter called “Sisters Redux,” Justine, the geeky, goody-two-shoes little sister, asks Leah for a cigarette. It’s almost painful to see her trying so hard to win her big sister’s acceptance and affection. At first, Leah scoffs; then it dawns on her that Justine is actually serious and her conscience takes over. Leah has made difficult choices and been ostracized for them; for Justine, that path would be wrong. In certain arenas, dorks have the advantage, she thinks.
As she’s about to say no, it occurs to Leah that Justine has a right to make her own choices. With this insight, for the first time since they were young kids, Leah sees Justine as her equal. Despite her reservations, she gives her sister the cigarette. In a sweet moment, later in the chapter, Leah teaches Justine to dance. This love between the sisters was, to me, heartbreaking and special.
What was the most wonderful part about the book that made you know it had all come together and it was the best book you could have written?
Oh goodness (laughing), when I read the book now I see many things I would do differently, things I’d change or try to do better. I’m a perfectionist. I spent years revising the book, changing entire chapters until I hardly recognized the sections anymore. When I decided to publish In Leah’s Wake, rather than throw together a mishmash of chapters written in different stages, I reverted to the original version, edited for a small press that had planned to publish the book in 2006 (unfortunately, the contract fell through). I’d felt at that point that I’d written the best book I could write at the time.
For me, it was less a matter of knowing the book had come together than accepting that the work would never be perfect and forcing myself to let go.
From start to finish how long was the process of writing In Leah’s Wake? What kind of challenges did you face along the way?
I wrote the first draft in three months for my master’s thesis, and then spent two years revising, shaping the characters and getting a firm hold on place. After the novel went under contract with a small publisher, I spent another year working on revisions. Shortly before launch, the contract fell through. For the next year, I revised and revised, and got nowhere. That was definitely a low point. I believed in the book – I’d had a great deal of positive reinforcement along the way – but I had trouble sustaining belief in myself. When I finally put the novel away, I felt as if a weight had been lifted. I started to write again. After a year of misery every time I sat at my desk, I finally began to have fun. Once I gained traction on my new novel, a psychological thriller, Nowhere to Run, I decided to publish In Leah’s Wake as a way, I hoped, of building an audience and platform.