“The first thing you should know is everyone lies. The second thing is that it matters.”
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I love this line from Carla Buckley's fourth novel, THE GOOD GOODBYE, a captivating domestic thriller about an estranged extended family. They're brought together in a hospital's ICU when two cousins, close as sisters, are burned in an arsonist's fire. No one's sure who set it, or why. And everyone's lying.
I read it in one night — that's how much I wanted — no, needed — to know more about if the girls' survive, what was going on with their families, and who really set the fire. And so I'm happy to have novelist Carla Buckley with us today. (Full disclosure, we share the same editor.)
OK, Carla — I read that THE GOOD GOODBYE is based on a true event? How did you hear about it? Did you immediately think, “Oh, I’ve got to write about that” or did it take a while for the idea to percolate?
Carla Buckley: Hi, Susan! Thank you and Jungle Red for having me here today.
The central twist in the story was inspired by an event that occurred involving two families and their college-aged daughters. At the time, the incident received national attention because it raised so many terrifying possibilities. It didn’t occur to me to write about it until several years later when I was in the middle of sending my own daughter off to college and I suddenly remembered what had happened to those families. I thought to myself, maybe there’s something there.
SEM: While I was reading, I kept thinking of the Winston Churchill quote, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in an enigma” and picturing those Russian nesting dolls. THE GOOD GOODBYE has secrets within secrets within secrets — did you have it all planned and outlined from the beginning? Or did you add as you went along? How many revisions did you do?
CB: I usually have some sort of idea of how my story will play out before I begin. I know the inciting incident, midpoint, climax, and a few key revelations. I spend some time thinking about my characters and what they want—where they’ll begin their journey and where they’ll finish it. Despite all this careful preparation, my story usually falls apart as I begin writing. Choices I’d made reveal beforehand themselves to be improbable, or just plain wrong. I follow many false leads. I eat a lot of chocolate.
But The Good Goodbye proved to be different. Every day I sat down and let the narrator whose turn it was to speak tell her part. What she had to say often surprised me. I wrote more slowly than I normally do (1000 words a day instead of my usual 2000) but what I wrote stuck, and I didn’t end up going back as much as I normally do in compiling an initial draft.
Still, there were lots of revisions ahead of me—as there always seem to be! My editor usually puts me through six or so rounds, but this time, the story more or less stayed intact and I focused on characterization.
SEM: Which leads to my next question — one of the things I love about the novel is that it’s told from different character’s viewpoints, and at different times in their lives, so we as readers are always slightly off-balance. What made you take that approach?
CB: As a reader, I always love it when an author reveals something to me that the characters don’t know. Isn’t that true of real life? Don’t we all know just bits and pieces of one another’s lives, the bits we choose to share? I wanted to play with all the repercussions that can come out of misunderstanding and silence, and so I took a central pivotal event (a fatal dorm fire) and rotated three narrators around it, telling their stories from various vantage points: leading up to the fire and moving beyond it into the future.
SEM: How did you, as the author, keep it all straight?
CB: I kept a journal beside me to jot down ideas as they arose, and threads I needed to follow. I drew diagrams and tracked where I was in the story. I ended up filling three notebooks that, for some reason, I’ve held onto. I don’t know why—they’re mostly gibberish scrawled in different colored inks!
SEM: The details of the worlds of THE GOOD GOODBYE are so very real — the university, the hospital, the family restaurant. Are these places you knew intimately already or did you research?
CB: I made it all up! I’ve lived in a number of cities and as a mom, I’ve had my share of middle of the night ER visits. Arden’s home is the one I lived in when I was a teenager and Rory’s is one of my childhood homes. The restaurant is a mélange of Georgetown restaurants I used to haunt. I did do a lot of research, though, in order to depict the ICU and the girls’ medical conditions, and I interviewed a local executive chef at length.
SEM: How did you put yourself in the mind-frame of contemporary teenage girls?
CB: I have a secret weapon—my three children. They’re often willing to stop and help me figure things out, from their perspectives What am I going to do when they all leave the house? I might have to start knocking on my neighbors’ doors and asking if I can babysit.
SEM: You have teenagers. How do they feel about your books? Do they read them?
CB: Growing up, my kids watched me write eight novels that never got published. They watched the rejections come in, and they were there when I finally got my first book deal. They’ve all read my books—but only in the final, polished form—and they each have their favorite. I think of them as I write. It helps focus me.
SEM: Hey, I heard something about a movie deal? What can you tell us?
CB: I was thrilled when my film agent called to tell me that Marc Platt Productions wanted to option The Deepest Secret with Gregory Crewdson—an extraordinary photographer—to direct and Juliane Hiam to write the screenplay. The minute I saw Gregory’s work, I felt an immediate connection. He explores the same suburban world that fascinates me, and seems to have the same dark viewpoint. Juliane’s written the screenplay, and things are moving along. I’ve got everything crossed…
SEM: What do you want readers to take away from THE GOOD GOODBYE?
CB: Last year, I got the call every parent dreads. My son, away at college, had been in an accident and was undergoing emergency surgery. My husband and I dropped everything and rushed to be with our child. We sat in his darkened hospital room while machines hummed. I was already at work on The Good Goodbye in which the mother of my story also receives a horrifying phone call telling her that her daughter has been in a fire and was now clinging to life. I looked at my son lying unconscious before me. Here was my nightmare come to life.
In the end, my son recovered completely and our lives went on, but I now felt a powerful connection to this mother I was writing about in a way I hadn’t before. I thought of all the parents sitting vigil by their children’s bedsides. We’d do anything to save our children, but some of us don’t get the chance. At its heart, that’s what The Good Goodbye is about: how vulnerable parenthood makes us, but how joyful the journey can be.
SEM: What can you tell us about your work-in-progress, THE RELUCTANT MOTHER?
CB: The Reluctant Mother is about a woman running from her past who crosses paths with a family in crisis and is forced to make some shocking choices. It’s about friendship and love, and most of all, hope arising from unexpected places.
SEM: Thank you, Carla! Reds and lovely readers, as a mom who's spent plenty of time in hospital rooms with my son, this book really hit home with me — and honestly freaked me out a bit. I tend not to read about kids in danger in fiction because I just find it just too scary. (But I'm glad I stuck it out with THE GOOD GOODBYE!) What are some books that are difficult for you to read, because of the subject matter? Do you read them anyway? Do you think it's good to confront these fears? Please tell us in the comments!
Carla Buckley is the author of The Good Goodbye, The Deepest Secret, Invisible, and The Things That Keep Us Here, which was nominated for a Thriller Award as a best first novel and the Ohioana Book Award for fiction. She is a graduate of Oberlin College and the Wharton School of Business, and lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She serves on the board of the International Thriller Writers as Vice President, Awards, and is currently at work on her next novel.