Interview: February 9, 2012
In Nicole Baart’s new novel, FAR FROM HERE, Danica Greene embarks on a journey from Iowa to Alaska in search of her pilot husband, whose plane has gone missing. But her world is shattered when she discovers that he wasn’t flying alone, and a young woman is missing too. In this interview, conducted by Bookreporter.com’s Bronwyn Miller, Baart explains how she developed the idea for the book over many years. She also shares how her devastating experiences trying to have children inspired Danica’s emotional pain, talks about the nonprofit organization that she co-founded, and gives us a preview of her next novel.
Bookrepoter.com: On your website, you mentioned that the genesis of the story in FAR FROM HERE came from a friend of your father’s who went missing in Alaska. How long have you wanted to write about it? At first you planned on making the story a mystery. At what point did you realize it morphed into something else?
Nicole Baart: I’ve been wanting to write this book for as long as I can remember. Years ago I started tinkering with a storyline that rather closely resembled a thriller. It is an undeniably gripping story --- people don’t often disappear off the face of the earth. But when I started writing FAR FROM HERE in earnest, I kept going back to the lives of the people left behind. As a wife and mother, I found myself experiencing the story from the other side of loss. How could you possibly go on if someone you love vanished without a trace?
BRC: The novel addresses both sides of loss --- those who are lost and those they leave behind. What is it about those left behind that makes them an intriguing subject to write about?
NB: What intrigues me about the people left behind is that we can all relate. We’ve all experienced the loss of someone we love; we’re the survivors who have to somehow make it through. I loved writing about Dani’s journey because I felt like she was a sort of everywoman --- we can all sympathize with her struggle. But her particular loss is also a heart-wrenching worst-case-scenario, and that hopefully gives readers enough distance so that FAR FROM HERE is not too emotionally difficult to read.
BRC: Dani is struggling to cope with her husband’s disappearance and the reality of their marriage. Did you ever find yourself thrown into a situation that called for as much strength and hope as Dani’s did? If not, what was your reference for this?
NB: A few years after the birth of our first son, I experienced four miscarriages. Three of the four happened well into the second trimester of pregnancy, so each loss was physically and emotionally devastating. Those years of constant loss and heartbreak nearly wrecked me. But my husband and I found hope in the adoption of our second son, and then when we least expected it, I got pregnant one last time. With the right balance of daily injections, medications and prenatal care, we managed to keep the baby. Each of my three sons are a miracle in their own way, and they all give me a compelling reason to look for hope in even the darkest of circumstances.
BRC: Dani has always been a caretaker --- to Etsell, her mother and two sisters. How did being Char’s youngest child inform her personality?
NB: I think that Dani wears her personality like a costume. By the time she came around, there was only one role left to play in her family, and she had no choice but to fill it. Char is the irresponsible one, Natalie is the smart one, and Kat is the wild one, so someone had to take on the responsibility of holding them all together. I believe Dani’s nurturing spirit is one of the things that drew Etsell to her in the first place. She exudes a certain stability that was appealing to him.
BRC: Char expresses her concern for Dani when she says, “You have to be better than okay. You’re the only one who got out intact.” Is it fair to say that Char realizes she might not have been the best mother to Dani, Kat and Natalie?
NB: Absolutely. My kids are still very young, but I already worry about all of the ways that I’m screwing them up! Char isn’t quite so introspective, but it’s certainly not lost on her that her eldest (Natalie) has all but forsaken the family, and her middle child (Kat) is self-destructive and rather lost. Dani is the only one who had a relatively normal, by-the-book life (before Etsell went missing), and I think Char took a certain pride in that. In knowing that she was capable of producing a well-adjusted young woman in the midst of all the chaos of their home.
BRC: The story is told from Dani’s point of view in some chapters, and from third person-omniscient in others. Why did you choose to tell the story in this manner? Was it difficult to switch back and forth between voices?
NB: I actually really like writing my books from varying viewpoints because I feel like it gives the reader a richer experience. In FAR FROM HERE, I wanted my readers to understand Dani’s reactions to her marriage and the loss of her husband, but I knew that dwelling inside of her head for the entire story would be exhausting. I decided to write shorter chapters from her perspective for the sake of intimacy, and to draw back a little for the long chapters so that there was room for the unfolding story. It was a bit difficult to switch back and forth at first, but I soon found that I looked forward to taking a break from each perspective when it was time to move on.
BRC: Dani works tirelessly on refurbishing the table that Hazel got her, which becomes a sort of work therapy for her, where she can pour all her energy and grief into, and in turn, the table becomes sort of a metaphor for her life --- a little scarred up but still beautiful with plenty of charm. As a busy mom and writer, do you have time for any crafty hobbies like furniture restoration?
NB: I don’t consider myself crafty, but in addition to all of the somewhat cerebral pursuits I enjoy (reading, writing, blogging, etc.), I’m not content unless I’m also doing something with my hands. When the weather is nice, you can find me in the yard for at least an hour every day, planting, watering, pruning and mowing. I absolutely love to garden. And when it’s too cold to be outside, I’m usually working on something in the house. I’ll repaint a room or pick a beat-up piece of furniture to repurpose. I just refinished a little end table in a distressed pale blue paint. It’s gorgeous. It makes me want to paint my kitchen cabinets...
BRC: After Dani gets the devastating news from Sam, she remarks, “I don’t want to live like nothing ever happened. I want to live because everything has.” This becomes a sort of theme of the novel. Which of these characters proved the most rewarding to write about? Which were the hardest?
NB: Kat was my favorite character to write about because she was such a contradiction. She’s beautiful and broken and rather vain, but she has a huge heart and she proves it by being the one person who never leaves Dani’s side throughout the unfolding drama. Kat is one of those people who would never regret the past, no matter how sad and ugly, because every experience contributed to the person she is today. I think she gave Dani the strength to embrace her past --- her whole story, dirty bits and all --- and move on.
The hardest character to write about was definitely Sam. I didn’t feel much sympathy for her, and yet I know that nothing happens without an underlying reason. She did what she did not because she’s a heartless bitch, but because she was lonely or hurt or struggling herself. I hope my readers feel a twinge of compassion for her.
BRC: What would you like readers to take away from FAR FROM HERE?
NB: That hope is never lost. That beauty will always find a way. That love is always worth taking a chance on, even if it doesn’t result in a fairy tale ending.
BRC: Was that the title when you were working on your manuscript, or did it evolve later? What can you share about the selection of it?
NB: Usually my titles come after I’ve written the book, but FAR FROM HERE was titled thus before I wrote a single line. When I was a kid and would look at the photo of my dad’s friend who went missing, my heart broke for him because I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to go disappear so far from home. It became a sort of motif for the entire book, and spiraled into themes of home and finding yourself.
BRC: How much research did you do for this novel? Did you always know where you wanted the story to end up, or did it happen more organically? Was the ending always the same?
NB: I went to Alaska to research this novel, and flew in a bush plane over Resurrection Bay when I was six months pregnant! It was terrifying and amazing. As for the ending, I knew what direction I wanted to take it in, but the final pages were a last-minute surprise to me. I knew that Dani’s story could end one of two ways, and both endings made so much sense to me. So FAR FROM HERE is a bit of a unique experience. I hope my readers love the conclusion as much as I do.
BRC: Your novels often have strong female relationships at their core --- sisters or mothers and daughters. What do you find interesting about writing about close familial relationships?
NB: I always tell my boys: “Friends will come and go, but family is forever.” Whether we like it or not, we’re stuck with our family, and I think that makes for some very compelling dynamics! Blood is a powerful bond, and working through the issues that crop up when characters are forced to exist in that sort of intimacy makes for some fascinating interactions.
BRC: FAR FROM HERE received great blurbs from authors like Joshilyn Jackson, Sandra Dallas and Jacquelyn Mitchard. How gratifying is it to receive such high praise from your peers? Who are some of your favorite writers?
NB: I was blessed to have some of my favorite authors endorse my work! Seriously, I was a huge fan of Joshilyn Jackson, Sandra Dallas and Jacquelyn Mitchard long before they blurbed for FAR FROM HERE. And when I heard what they had said, I could hardly believe it. I floated for days! Some other authors I admire are Marisa de los Santos, Kate Morton, Tana French, Leif Enger, Kent Meyers... The list goes on and on!
BRC: You co-founded a non-profit organization called One Body One Hope. Can you tell us about it and how it came to be?
NB: One Body One Hope was founded in 2007 after my husband and I traveled to Africa to bring home our adopted son. While we were there, we became close friends with a Liberian man who shared with us some of the atrocities that happened in his country during the devastating civil war. We left Africa promising to help him in any way we could... And that friendship spiraled into a steadily growing non-profit organization. Right now we support 54 kids at an orphanage in Monrovia, but we recently returned from a vision casting trip to Liberia and feel that our work needs to be multiplied five-fold. We are passionate about working alongside our Liberian friends and focus on redevelopment opportunities instead of relief aid. To that end we are exploring business and agricultural opportunities, outlets for higher education, and micro-loans for people who are interested in growing their small business.
BRC: What are you working on now?
NB: I’m in the process of editing and rewriting portions of my next book for Howard/Simon & Schuster titled SLEEPING IN EDEN. I actually wrote this book several years ago, and I’m going back through it with a fine tooth comb before we submit it for publication this spring. SLEEPING IN EDEN is a love story and mystery that spans three decades, and it is slated for release in the spring of 2013.