Author Betty Culley drew on personal experience to create her debut YA novel, Three Things I Know Are True. It’s the moving story of Liv, whose daredevil brother, Jonah, requires round-the-clock care after a terrible accident with a loaded gun found in their neighbor’s attic. Writing in free verse, Culley tells Liv’s story from a place of courage and authenticity. She spoke to BookPage about how her own background as a home health nurse informed the book, her choice to employ verse rather than prose and what she hopes readers will take away from Liv’s story.
You’ve worked as a pediatric home hospice nurse. Your descriptions of Jonah’s medical situation are extremely detailed and seem drawn directly from your experience. How did working in pediatric home hospice influence the way you wrote about Jonah?
Great question! In my work I saw that, however limited a child was in what they could physically do, they still had a great capacity for joy, humor and connection to other people. Jonah has a lot of machines that help him get through the day, but they aren’t what defines him as a person.
Jonah’s medical needs determine everything about Liv’s family’s home and schedule: They rarely eat hot meals, their kitchen is taken over by nurses and middle-of-the-night caretaking tasks interfere with their sleep. How did working in pediatric home hospice influence the way you wrote about Jonah’s family?
I came to home nursing after hospital nursing, and it was so different to be right there with the child’s whole family in their own environment. Like the nurses in the novel, I was often present for birthdays, meals, family outings and doctor visits. I didn’t only get to know the “patient”; I got to know the siblings and the parents and often the grandparents and other extended family and friends. I saw the effect of the child’s illness on everyone around them, and how the families worked to make the most of the time they had. The dedication of my book says “For those who find the beauty in a life they didn’t choose or expect,” because that’s what I saw those families do.
Liv has amusing names for Jonah’s medical equipment, including Food Truck, Suck-It-Up and Zombie Vest. Did you make up these names or have you heard others use them? What’s the funniest, strangest or most fitting name you’ve heard for a piece of medical equipment?
These are all made up! Probably the most fitting name I’ve heard for a piece of medical equipment is something called “No-no’s.” They are pediatric arm immobilizers used for short periods of time to keep children from reaching up and touching areas on their face, etc., that may be healing from surgery. But I didn’t make that one up!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Three Things I Know Are True.
Caretaking is often an adult responsibility, but your novel has a teen protagonist. How did you decide to tell this story for teens and through the voice of a teenager?
The devotion of the siblings I saw in my home health work inspired this novel. Like the scene where Liv lifts Jonah into his wheelchair, I saw children younger (and smaller) than their sick sibling do that as part of their care for them. I saw them, by necessity and default, take on adult responsibilities. I was touched by the strength of these siblings and knew from the start that it would be Liv’s voice telling the story.
Three Things I Know Are True is written in free verse. What inspired you to choose this form?
The novel started as prose. Then one of my writing friends (shout-out to Sally Stanton) read the beginning pages and suggested I try it in free verse, as my prose tends to be pretty spare anyway. Once I switched, I just loved how the form worked for the story and couldn’t imagine writing it any other way.
Cases like Jonah’s are constantly in the news. Is Three Things I Know Are True based on any particular case, or a conglomeration of cases?
Though I’ve cared for children with severe brain injuries, Jonah’s story is not based on any particular case. Sadly, there are so many similar incidents that sometimes I’m asked if the novel is based on a certain one, including tragedies that have happened here in Maine.
Gun control is a running issue throughout your novel, but characters themselves never take a stand—the only direct comments come through bumper stickers and letters to the editor. Why did you choose to address this issue in this way?
Another great question! I didn’t want this book to be a polemic. I wanted it to be about the soul of a girl dealing with an unthinkable tragedy and to simply let the reader see Liv’s world through her eyes. I hope that story, in all its elements, speaks for itself.
Your novel takes place in a small town in Maine where an abandoned paper mill sits on the banks of a river. Is this setting similar to your own home?
I live in a very small town about ten miles from the Kennebec River. My husband logged with a draft horse for many years, selling the wood to the local paper mills. The setting in the novel is something you see in many of the towns near me—shuttered brick buildings with tall smokestacks standing empty on the banks of the river. There’s also an absolutely stunning eddy in the Kennebec, where the river turns, like the place where Liv and Clay meet in secret. I got a lot of inspiration from visiting the eddy during the writing of the book.
Liv and her neighbor Clay play a game called “Tell Me Three Things” in which there’s only one rule: You have to tell the truth. Have you played this game? What three things were your favorite to hear, or to tell?
I haven’t played this game, so I’m grateful for the next question to have my turn!
What three things do you know are true?
- I am so happy Liv’s voice will be heard.
- I appreciate everyone who has helped me achieve a lifelong dream.
- I really hope you love this book.
Author photo by Sarah J. Truman.