Friday, January 29, 2016

Carla Buckley's THE GOOD GOODBYE

“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.


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  2. Carla, what exciting news about the movie deal!

    While it's difficult to pass up a well-written book, sometimes the plot line veers too close to the painful realities of life. At the beginning of last year, it seemed as if every book I picked up had a child in peril or a dead child at the heart of its plot. Sometimes, no matter how well the book is written, it's a struggle to keep reading . . . .

  3. Anything with a serial killer, I leave on the shelf--especially if the chosen victims are children. The subject matter is too dark for me because I realize there are actually people that sick and twisted in their minds and souls and I don't want to read about them.

  4. I'm with FChurch - The minute an author tortures children, I stop reading. Not big on killers who leave their female victims "posed," either. Having said that, I also am not crazy out books with endings that are too pat and 'happily ever after.' I like a little ambiguity (like there is in life) and hold the rose tinted glasses.

    Carla congratulations on the book. It sounds wonderful. And that's so great about the movie deal.

  5. Carla, hurray! And you know how much I love this book. Congratulations on your mad success! And we will have a Jungle Red movie night, that's for sure!

    And life's coincidences are so..unnerving. As I was finishing my new book, my husband, out of the blue, got a case that's SO connected to it. The first he's ever had like it. SO strange. "Here's all my research," I said. I already had everything he needed to get an overview of it. Chilling. And, (because it's all about the book :-) ) as you said, so connecting and instructing.

    I'm off to the airport..see you when I arrive! And again Carla, hurray. See you at Craftfest?

  6. The thing is, in THE GOOD GOODBYE, the two girls aren't dead -- they're struggling to live. So there's hope! The one book it seems everyone read was ROOM -- could _not_ do it. Couldn't even pick it up. And the movie? Um, NO WAY!

  7. I have no children but I can't bear to read any book that involves harm to children. Recently I borrowed a library book by a favorite author. As I started to read it, I realized that one of the children was going to become a captive of a violent person. The book went back to the library, unfinished. I love that author and I am sure the book is well-written, but I can't read that sort of thing without having nightmares. I'm not putting myself through that any longer.

    Last year I read a thriller that I loved so much that I reread it not too long afterwards. I won well-deserved awards. Since then a dear relative had an experience much like those of several of the characters, and it did not end well. It's going to be a long time before I can reread that book a third time.

  8. "IT" won well-deserved awards! Yikes! Didn't mean to imply that I, as the reader, deserved awards for reading it!

  9. Carla, welcome and congrats! I don't usually read thrillers but this sounds compelling. I love that you've included your former homes into the book and your haunts in Georgetown.

    I can't read anything too scary. I did force myself to read SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, because I knew I could not bear to see the movie, and with reading, I can stop along the way or skip what's too hard.

    By the way, Hank, I did not read ROOM, but saw the movie this week. It was terrific! so tense and moving. We'd been in the theater about 10 minutes when I began to feel horribly well I should have!

  10. What I really loved about THE GOOD GOODBYE were all of the relationships — and by having different first person narrators and time jumps, you get to see why things are the way they are (with a family with estrangements and lots of secrets). Also, can I just say I really stink at the "whodunnit" part of being a reader? I had a theory about the arsonist in THE GOOD GOODBYE and was completely wrong...

  11. Hi Joan, I know what you mean. It was years before I could read WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN because it touched a nerve--what if one of my children turned out to be emotionally troubled? Looking back, it seems crazy I would worry about that. Maybe it was all the lack of sleep.

  12. Hi FChurch--I don't write about serial killers, but I guiltily admit that I'm fascinated by TV shows that feature them. It's the exploration of madness that hooks me. Maybe, as a writer, I'm always asking what drives someone to make a terrible choice.

  13. First, note to self: Do not read before the first cup of tea. Because all I saw was Jungle Red Writers: Goodbye" and thought NOOOOO!

    Second, Carla I love that line. Brilliant. That line alone will probably get me to pick up this book.

    Subject matter I won't read? I'm not sure there is one. I don't like when children and animals are gratuitously injured/killed, but it won't automatically turn me off a book. It's more how the subject matter is handled than the subject itself. However, I rarely re-read something like that. Once is enough.

  14. Hi Hallie--thanks so much for having me here today. I'm such a fan!

    I totally agree with you about tidy little endings. I like to give my readers some room to bring their own interpretation to how things work out. When everything's tied up neatly, It feels like the author's way too present, manipulating the puppet strings. Life's messy--shouldn't books reflect that?

  15. Hank! Thanks for being an early reader of The Good Goodbye--I'm still squealing with delight. Maybe you can hear me over the airport hubbub?

    I'm so intrigued by your story/real life coincidence--maybe we can talk about it at CraftFest this summer? Or sooner?

    Very coincidentally, the movie deal was announced yesterday in DEADLINE: I admit I got absolutely no writing done. It's not too early to start thinking about what to wear to the Academy Awards, is it?

  16. Dare I admit that, despite its subject matter, ROOM is absolutely one of my favorite novels of all time? Emma Donoghue was so honest in her depiction and her world-building so compelling, that I'm glad I pushed past my initial reservation to read it.

  17. Hi Deb Romano--it's great to meet you here! Do you mind my asking what it was about the thriller you read and reread that initially appealed to you so much?

  18. Hi Lucy--thanks for having me here today and for the warm welcome! I haven't seen the movie version of ROOM but plan to. I think my reluctance has been because I didn't want to disturb my own imagining of the story by seeing it on the screen. Does that ever happen to you? Still, I've heard such good things about the film and I think Donoghue wrote the screenplay, so I will have to get over myself. :)

  19. Lol, Mary! Thanks for your feedback about the opening line. It came to me as I was writing and I set it aside to percolate, unsure of where it fit. I'm so glad it resonated with you!

    I'm with you--I don't like gratuitous violence or sex. I always feel manipulated by the author (or film director.) But if something emerges from the storyline or character arc that feels genuine, I'm along for the ride. (Though I admit to sometimes skimming paragraphs or holding my hand over my eyes!)

  20. OK, so maybe I should try to read/see ROOM? Still........ I also have issues with Stephen King's IT. Because scary clowns. Evil clowns really, really scare me.

  21. Susan, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. I didn't know who the arsonist was when I started the novel. I figured it out as I got to know the characters (and WITH the help of our amazing editor). Please tell me she has you revise as much as she does me? Lie to me, if you have to.

    And I'm so glad my characters resonated with you. It's like sending your child to kindergarten that first day: what if no one plays with her on the playground? what if she has to sit alone at the lunch table?

  22. Yes, Susan--read ROOM! But I couldn't read IT either. I was halfway through the book when I realized I had an issue with scary clowns. Who knew?

  23. Carla, Our Mutual Editor has me revise so much! I was afraid it was just me! Yes, and I loved your characters. I loved how they participated in the same events and yet had such different view on "what happened." So true to real life and so fascinating to see the thoughts in various character's heads.

  24. Carla, THE GOOD GOOD-BYE sounds like a true tour-de-force. I adore reading novels with shifting (and shifty) perspectives and unreliable narrators.

    I, too am going to have to read it while peeping between my fingers. Serial killers, apocalyptic disasters and terrorists with suitcase nukes are light reading for me. The only thing that makes me really afraid is a child in jeopardy. Because, of course, when I'm reading, it's always MY child.

  25. Hi Julia! Thank you so much :) You know what always stops me cold and forces me to put down a book? When an animal's in jeopardy. There are two novels I read recently in which THE DOG WAS KILLED. I'm still mad.

  26. Oh, animals in peril? A WORLD OF NO! No, just no. No. I remember seeing the film I AM LEGEND and thinking, "I will never put myself in this position again."

  27. Oh, Susan, me, too, on I AM LEGEND. ARgghh!!! Especially since we have German Shepherds, but I think it would have been unbearable in any case.

    But I also think that it's a little weird that most of us can't bear to read about animal harming, but we can read books where terrible things happen to people.

    Carla, congrats on the book and on the fabulous movie deal!!!

    I'm not usually a big reader of thrillers, but your book sounds irresistible. I have to find out what happens to the girls! And I loved reading about your process, and the real-life bits you worked into the novel.

    The one thing I really, really don't like to read is a whole book, or big parts of a book, from the killer/psychopath's viewpoint. Ugh.

  28. I quit reading Stephen King because the nice people got killed and their dogs. When he came out with Cujo that was it! Subject matter can certainly make me squirm. If it is well written and a good story I can get past it, usually. One thing I cannot do is watch movies set in the Vietnam war. I think Good Morning Vietnam is the only exception. I can't watch movies set in the Iraqi war either. It is too close for comfort. Anyway Carla, your story sounds pretty interesting to me. I don't have any personal issues with dorms or fires, but I have spent too many damn hours in hospitals with family members. But that family is not my family, so we are good.

  29. Has anyone else seen Making a Murderer? I tried to watch, but when the guy (forgot his name) confessed that he killed the family cat, I said to myself, "OK, he's guilty and I don't need to watch any more of this."

  30. Hi Deborah--it's so great to e-meet you here!

    I think the reason I can't read about animals being hurt is because they count on us--with those huge trusting eyes--to protect them and keep them safe. It's like when I brought my first baby home from the hospital and looked down at her looking up at me. All of a sudden it hit me how completely dependent she was on my taking care of her. Of course, I'd taken care of babies before (I practically paid my way through college babysitting) but this little person counted on ME completely. If I didn't show up to do the job, who would?

    Back when I was trying to get published, coming up with all sorts of protagonists (female implosion experts and firefighters and art experts), i never thought that what would break me out would be talking about the two things I took for granted: motherhood and suburbia.

  31. Hi Pat D--setting is so important, isn't it? I promise you--I keep the hospital scenes to a minimum. There's only so much beeping machinery and linoleum floors a person can take! The novel I'm currently working on takes place on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and I'm getting carried away by the salt and the sand and sunny skies. I sometimes have to reel myself back from the shore to focus on what's going on with the characters.

  32. Susan, I got as far as the fourth episode and couldn't go any further. People have urged me to keep going but it's so painful. It's like I have to prepare myself for the assault.

  33. I loved ROOM. Thought it was brilliant -- the writing and the storytelling. It's a story of survival.

  34. Late today, but wanted to chime in to say that this book sounds great, Carla. There's something special about mixing family dynamics with secrets and more secrets, isn't there? :-)

    I have yet to read or see ROOM, but I'm fascinated. I will at some point. I can't watch scary doll movies -- at all -- like THE BOY that's being promoted right now. Oh hell no -- worse than scary clowns! And sexual sadism, no way. And animals in peril too. There's this one scene in one of Gillian Flynn's novels (not GONE GIRL) that I still can't get out of my head.

  35. Hi Lisa, so lovely to hear from you! I grew up in a family of secrets. I thought it was normal. It wasn't until I started my own family that I thought, wait...

    Which book of Gillian's are you referring to? I admit I read Sharp Objects when it released (thought it was really cutting edge--yes, I went there).

  36. Ooooh, Sharp Objects - if you'd told me what it was about before I read it I'd have said, NOT FOR ME! But it blew me away. That character really got under my skin ;-)

  37. Hi Carla,

    I've been thinking about it all afternoon, and I don't know how to answer your question about why I liked that thriller without getting involved with spoilers!

  38. Hah, yes, cutting edge! I can't remember whether the scene is from that one or the next one ... The pig scene? That scene upset me to end -- made my cry for the bigger animal horror it represented.

    My mom had a huge secret she kept from all of us until after my dad died. Once we learned the truth, I understood her sooo much better. It's like she came into focus. Ooh, that's why this, and that's why that, kind of thing. Secrets fester when they're not given light, that's for sure. (And isn't that precisely why they're such a wonderful storytelling ingredients? :-))

  39. So happy I was feeling better today and felt like getting on the blog today because I would have hated to miss Carla Buckley. I first met Carla when her first book, The Things That Keep Us Here, was out. Carla, I will forever be glad that I stopped at the table where you were seated at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest. You were so sweet and weren't one to overly push your book, but after talking with you a few minutes, I was convinced that I ought to give The Things That Keep Us Here a chance. It's so wonderful when we make great choices in reading, when letting a new author into our lives enriches our lives. Your books are well thought out, so well written, and always touches something deep inside me. I haven't yet had the chance to read The Good Goodbye, due to rather an ironic event, my husband's accident and hospitalization in an ICU Burn Unit. And, the experience you had with your son's accident, Carla, sitting in the hospital room listening to machines and waiting and wondering, it is indeed a nightmare. Something that took me completely by surprise when I first saw my husband in the local ER, before they life flighted him to the burn unit, was that instead of tears streaming down my face, I was hyperventilating, taking in gasping breaths, trying, for some reason, not to cry. Thank goodness someone got me water. You are so brilliant, Carla, at taking those sorts of experiences and creating a a story filled with secrets, hopes, fears, love, and choices. I think it's your choices given to your characters that draw me in the most. The choices and why they make them.

    So, if you haven't read Carl's books, do yourself a favor and read all of them. She is not only a brilliant author, she is one of the nicest people you will ever meet, too.

  40. Oh, Kathy. I'm sitting here, having just read your post, and my eyes are filled with tears. I do clearly remember meeting you that day, the energy with which you came over to talk to me, your enthusiasm and passion for books. I remember sitting there with my lonely book while so many authors around me were surrounded by stacks of their novels, and lines reaching out the door. I'm so very glad you took a chance on me--a brand new author. When I'm staring at my laptop and struggling to find a story, or the words with which to convey that story, I can think of you, and the safe harbor you and readers like you give writers.

    I'm so glad your husband's doing better. I know that when I tackle a topic, I'm touching on people's lives. It comes with enormous responsibility. When I wrote The Deepest Secret, about a boy born with the very rare and very deadly disease, xeroderma pigmentosm, I was acutely aware of the people out there who have to tackle the very real terrors associated with avoiding sunlight. Can you imagine having a child who can never go to the park or walk to school or play in his backyard? It's a privilege to delve into and explore very real struggles, as I'm sure my fellow writers would agree.

    Thank you for your lovely words. I hope our paths cross again, and soon. Please know how much your support means to me. You allow me to do the thing I love the most--tell stories. It's a gift without measure.

  41. Dear Deb--it's okay! I'm sorry if my question tortured you. I was just wondering if it was the story or the characters that drew you back to reading and rereading the novel. It's that age-old question. Why do readers love certain books? Is it the story, or the characters in the story?

  42. Lisa--PIG scene??? If it was in Sharp Objects, I've repressed it entirely.

    I love, love, love your story about your mother. How beautiful, and touching, that you understood her better after you understood her secret. There's a story there...

  43. Hallie, it sounds like you and I share the same reading tastes. What are you reading now that you love? I'm on a non-fiction kick (strangely, NOT for research purposes, but because there's a teetering stack on my husband's nightstand.) I'm always looking for a great read... I guess we all are :)