What inspired Dear Edward?
It started with my obsession with a real plane crash from 2010. A commercial flight from South Africa to London—filled with mostly Dutch passengers on their way home from vacation—crashed in Libya, and everyone on the flight died except for one 9-year-old boy named Ruben van Assouw. Ruben was found still strapped in to his seat about a half-mile away from the wreckage. Investigators speculated that he’d been sitting near the fuselage and had been ejected from the plane. He had a badly broken leg and a punctured lung but was otherwise fine. Everyone else, including his parents and brother, died immediately. I couldn’t read enough about this story, and I knew fairly quickly that I was going to have to write my way into understanding how this little boy could possibly walk away from this crash, from the loss of his entire family, and find a way to not only survive but live.
What is your relationship with flying?
After doing a lot of research on worst-case scenarios and spending eight years in the heads of characters on a plane that was doomed to crash, I don’t love it. But I do fly, and in promoting this book, I’ve flown more in the past six months than I have in years. When I’m in the air, I feel hyperaware that I’m at 35,000 feet in a metal bus. And half of me thinks that fact is AMAZING, and I’m in awe of the ingenuity of my fellow, smarter humans for inventing a miracle. The other half of me is anxious, though, because I’m at 35,000 feet in a metal bus.
We know at the very beginning that the plane crashes and Edward is the only survivor. Yet we live with the characters on the plane through the whole novel. Was it challenging to pull off that structure?
I knew that the two storylines had to sit side by side, in part because I thought that if something this absolutely devastating happened to a person, he would carry it with him for the rest of his life. It wouldn’t be a matter of whether he was able to set that trauma down, it would be a matter of learning to bear its weight. That’s why the two storylines alternate and have (roughly) equal space in the novel. And perhaps because I saw the structure as inevitable, I found it to be a creative positive. I had two arcs I was following at all times, and that kept me on track.
Why did you choose the passenger characters that you did—the curmudgeonly billionaire, the gay soldier, the libidinous flight attendant and particularly Florida, who remembered past lives?
When I was beginning to think about this book, my husband suggested I spend a year taking notes, reading and researching before I actually started writing. Writing sentences is perhaps my favorite thing to do, and I am very good at making things up. However, writing is more intuitive than cerebral for me; in my prior novel, A Good Hard Look, I had struggled with the plot and struggled to pull the narrative into the shape of a book. I ended up having to cut hundreds of pages I’d written. My husband’s suggestion was a reaction to watching me write that novel; he thought I should engage my problem-solving brain before I began to make up stories willy-nilly.
I found that year of note-taking frustrating, because I couldn’t write pretty sentences, but he was right. A lot of my planning that year went into the characters on the plane. It was an exciting opportunity to choose who I wanted to delve into, because every kind of person flies. I wanted the characters to be very different from each other, and once I sketched out the idea for a character, I would read a book or two in research for him or her. For Crispin Cox—the curmudgeonly billionaire—I read Jack Welch’s Jack: Straight From the Gut (which is unintentionally hilarious). I came up with Florida after reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, inspired by how Gaiman disregards boundaries like time. For Benjamin, the soldier, I read War by Sebastian Junger and also spoke to a friend who is a captain in the army.
You focused on the small details in Edward’s life during his recovery—his wanting to leave the house for nighttime walks and not wanting to sleep upstairs. Tell us about this portrayal of his trauma.
Edward’s first year after the crash, which takes place in part one of the book, felt very clear to me from the start. His focus was on physical survival: Could he eat, could he walk, could he sleep? After his first year, though, I struggled with his chapters. The possibilities for his forward motion felt infinite, and in fact there’s a version of the book in which we see Edward’s entire life, ending when he’s about 75 years old. Eventually (like, after five years of writing), I decided to align his recovery with the psychological framework known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy is shaped like a triangle, and the bottom, largest “need” is for survival, shelter, food and water. It narrows gradually through the need for safety, then love and belonging, then esteem and finally self-actualization. I used these stages as reference points as Edward grew, grieved and healed.
Edward is filled with decency. He refuses to cash the check that’s given to him, he’s horrified when Shay’s mother suspects he’s been sleeping with her daughter, and he rejects some undoubtedly excellent universities because he wants to remain with Shay. His moral compass is unwavering. Were there other versions of Edward in which he wasn’t so upstanding?
Hm. No. There were other versions in which Edward was more boring, though. I wanted to write a book about kind people maneuvering a terrible situation. I had no interest in Edward being immoral, and he felt so soaked in sadness that true anger or rage felt inaccessible from inside him. In the weakest/worst drafts, Edward was too muted, though, and too passive. I had to fight to bring him to his own surface, in order for him to show up in his new life.
You edit a literary magazine and teach creative writing as well as having your own family. How does your writing process work within that dynamic? Do you write at the same place every day for a certain amount of time, or cram it in when you get the time?
Before I had children, I had routines and word count goals and strong preferences for my work environment—in the morning, on my couch, in an empty apartment—but that ended with the birth of my older son. For the past 12 years I’ve written whenever and wherever possible, which I’ve come to feel fine about. It feels like another layer of acceptance that writing is part of me, as elemental as brushing my teeth, and if I only have five minutes to write after brushing my teeth on a given day, I say thank you and take it.
Author photo © Dan Wilde