Interview: September 28, 2012
Bookreporter.com's Amie Taylor talks with Rebecca Coleman about her new work of fiction, HEAVEN SHOULD FALL, in which a woman who puts her life on hold for her baby and husband ends up sacrificing much more than she ever anticipated. In this interview, Coleman discusses the characters of Jill and Cade, where the idea for the book originated, and the pressure to deliver following her debut novel, THE KINGDOM OF CHILDHOOD.
Bookreporter.com: HEAVEN SHOULD FALL is a riveting read. How did you come up with the premise of the book?
Rebecca Coleman: Thank you! The seed of the idea first entered my mind when I visited the blog of an acquaintance --- a very artsy, talented, independent-minded woman who lives with her family on a farm in Indiana. On it she had a photo of herself lying on the ground aiming a rifle. It struck me as a writing prompt: "why is this beautiful woman lying on the ground shooting an AR-15?" But at the time I didn't have the answer. Then, last year, I had dinner with a friend who is a former soldier, and she told me the story of her then-husband coming back from Iraq with PTSD and how devastating it was. And those two elements came together to become the story.
BRC: Jill and Cade make a very unlikely pair. Which character did you conceive of first? Or did you conceptualize them both together from the start?
RC: I conceived of Jill first --- while I was reading the blog of a friend who lives on a farm in Indiana and saw a photo of her lying on her stomach shooting a rifle. It was such a thought-provoking photo --- who is this woman, and why is she firing that gun? Jill's characterization grew out of that. But I don't know that she and Cade are such an unlikely pair. Inside Cade is still the farm kid who grew up around girls like Jill. It might not be the side of him he wants people to see, but it's still there.
BRC: Knowing the type of home and family that Cade came from makes it intriguing that he was able to have such high aspirations for himself. How do you feel that he was able to break out of the mold that trapped the rest of his family?
RC: I feel like much of adult life is a direct reaction to the family in which a person is raised --- either doing just the same things because you were taught to value them, or doing nearly the opposite because you so strongly believe your family did things the wrong way. One of my best friends grew up in a home where there was hardly any food available because her mother couldn't be bothered, and now that she's a mother she shops at Whole Foods and cooks amazing meals and bakes with her kids. I think Cade is just a person operating by that model. He sees how his parents' way of doing things failed him and his siblings, so as an adult he turned and walked in precisely the opposite direction.
BRC: Jill is a strong character whose ability to rise above personal tragedy is amazing. What made her so different from the members of the Olmsted family?
RC: She's willing to confront grief head-on. She's not interested in reimagining it as anger or, God forbid, seeing the loss as unfair. In my own experience, it's impossible to move on after a death as long as you frame it in your mind as something the universe did unfairly. That's what it really boils down to --- that Jill's approach to grief is to keep pulling herself forward, while the rest of the Olmsteads want to walk in circles until they've worn themselves into a trench.
BRC: The storyline featuring Elias is heart-wrenching; you've presented a realistic portrayal of the suffering that many veterans of war suffer. Did you interview any recently returned veterans who were able to give you insight when it came to creating this character?
RC: My husband has a buddy who was in Afghanistan --- still is, I believe --- and twice, while he was home on R&R, we went out to a burger place with him. Each time I sort of cornered him and started shooting questions at him --- what's it like there, what do you wish people understood, what do you think of the Afghan people, questions like that. That was very helpful, but so were the online posts and video journals posted by soldiers. In those, they're speaking their minds directly and not adapting it to me as a writer or because they perceive me in a certain way. So I found that equally helpful, to sort of "listen at doors" in that way, and hear what they wanted people to know.
BRC: Do you have any connection to the area of New Hampshire where the story takes place?
RC: I have spent time in that area, yes, and fell in love with it. My last book, THE KINGDOM OF CHILDHOOD, was partially set in the region just south of there. It's wild and gorgeous, and the history comes out of a fiercely independent spirit that I love. There's a very interesting contrast between the lushness of the forests and the strangely beautiful decay of the Victorian buildings, and I thought that made a good underpinning for the story. Everything is vibrant and falling apart at the same time.
BRC: Did you make any significant plot revisions during the writing of the book, or did you pretty much know where you were headed when you began writing?
RC: Not major changes to the plot, no, but there were some pretty big changes to Jill's motivation, and in interesting ways. In the original version her relationship with her mother was very different --- very negative --- and my editor kept handing it back saying, "I feel like you're not digging deep enough emotionally. Give me more." I finally realized that my own relationship with my parents had improved since I first conceived the novel, and when I tried to think hard about a distressing relationship with a parent, my brain said, "No." I was burned out on it. So I looked in my emotional toolbox to see what else I had, and I saw that, well, I can write about longing for an idealized version of family. That, I've got. And longing is a very powerful emotion, so it was a change that worked.
BRC: Did you find it difficult to immerse yourself in such a mentally and emotionally dark world for several hours each day in order to write the book?
RC: Yes. I don't think I quite knew what I was getting into. At first it was very exciting to write about this current, important topic, and about two-thirds through the book it hit me that sheesh, this is really brutal stuff to write about. I wanted --- perhaps needed --- it to be hopeful at the end, and it is. But along the way it could get harrowing.
BRC: Did you feel any pressure to live up to the success of your first novel, THE KINGDOM OF CHILDHOOD, when writing this one?
RC: I felt like some of the things I was praised for in that book --- the emotional layers, the subtexts --- were very hard to duplicate in such a short period of time, and that gave me a lot of anxiety. I took so many risks with KINGDOM because I had nothing to lose, but after you've written a book that's generally well received, you have everything to lose. So yes, the pressure can get intense. At times I felt like I needed a volleyball with a handprint on it, like Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away. It would have Stephen King's voice telling me just to put my butt in that chair and think about the damn story.
BRC: You seem very comfortable tackling difficult emotional scenarios in your writing. Do you have any training in psychology or psychiatry that helps you create such complex characters?
RC: No, just extensive on-the-job training in crazy families. I think that, with each character, I go in with a set of givens: nobody is entirely evil or entirely altruistic. Everybody has something they want, and everybody is haunted by someone or something. And everyone has a specific image of someone they are afraid of becoming. If you know the nuances of those things, you have your character. In HEAVEN SHOULD FALL, even Dodge, who is a pretty awful guy and a stereotypical ignorant redneck in many ways, has glints of decency --- and the mom, Leela, who is generally very good, has moments where in her heart she shows no mercy. I think that's realistic. It would be convenient, in a story, to not include those complexities in a character, but it wouldn't be authentic.
BRC: What are you working on now, and when can we expect to see it?
RC: Right now I'm finishing up WONDER GIRL. It's about a trio of former child prodigies --- Emilia, Jake and Finn --- who are reunited by a crisis and decide to go on a vision quest together. As you might anticipate, it doesn't go smoothly. It should be out next fall. I've really enjoyed writing it, so I can't wait.