Skip to main content

Interview: August 17, 2007

August 17, 2007

Elizabeth Joy Arnold's debut work of fiction, PIECES OF MY SISTER'S LIFE, explores the dynamic and complex relationship between twin sisters, and the one event that could potentially shatter their bond. In this interview with's Alexis Burling, Arnold discusses how her fascination with the ways in which people cope with hardship prompted her to write this novel, and reveals the inspiration behind much of her main characters' interactions with one another.

She also sheds light on their evolution over time, elaborates on the book's theme of forgiveness and shares details about her upcoming novel to be published next summer. What inspired you to write PIECES OF MY SISTER'S LIFE?

Elizabeth Joy Arnold: It has always struck me how completely differently people can react to hardships in their lives. What makes some people react with anger or get depressed and despairing, when some people are able to find whatever strength it takes to push through whatever life hands them? I wanted to explore this, taking it to the next level by using two people with identical backgrounds (and DNA!) but with personalities that are markedly different, seeing how they’d react to the same sorts of adversities and showing how both ultimately triumphed and learned from their experience.

BRC: Why did you choose to write the narrative alternating between past and present? How do you think the story might have been different if you wrote it chronologically from start to finish?

EJA: Many of the plot points, the dramatic events that shaped the twins’ lives, happened when they were young, and I think a lot of the suspense comes in knowing, from the present-day sections, that something traumatic must have happened in their past, without knowing exactly what that might have been.

Besides just increasing the element of suspense, I wanted to make the maturation and growth of the twins’ personalities over time more obvious, while showing how their distinctly different temperaments remained essentially the same. Interweaving the two timeframes, I think, brings the core of their character to the forefront. I think it’s also much more dramatic to see the contrast between the vibrant younger Eve paired directly against the ailing Eve in the present-day sections.

BRC: The two main characters are twins. Are you a twin? If not, did you do any research about what it is like growing up a twosome?

EJA: I’m not a twin, but I did read several books written for and by twins that described not just the incredible bond, but also the struggles they can go through for independence. I do have a sister, and much of the writing and many of the interactions between Kerry and Eve came from the intensity of my relationship with her. Since the novel came out, I’ve had many people, most of whom are not twins, write to tell me how much Kerry and Eve’s relationship reminded them of their own relationship with their sisters, so I think Kerry and Eve’s experience is something almost anyone who has siblings will relate to.

BRC: Justin is so shrouded in mystery, I get the sense that he did love Kerry in the beginning (before everything happened) and that he grew to love Eve (after everything happened). However, it’s hard to tell with whom he really wanted to be, if either of them (or both!). How do you think Justin’s character affected the story?

EJA: Gosh, this is a great question, and one I really struggled with while I was writing. Justin did love both Kerry and Eve, although in very different ways, and in my mind he was torn between them from the very beginning. I think a lot of his character is summed up by a line in the epilogue, which says that he wanted to be the hero in all his stories. I see him drawn to both twins because he wants to protect them, not strictly because he’s a good person, but also because it helps reinforce the image he has of himself as a good person.

Kerry is so obviously smitten by him and seems at first more needy, which greatly appeals to his sense of chivalry. But as time goes on, and Eve starts on a spiraling path of self-destruction, she’s more obviously in need of rescuing and therefore becomes even more appealing to him. He manages to deal with his betrayals by convincing himself he’s not the one at fault and that he was doing the right thing all along.

I don’t, by the way, see Justin as a bad or a manipulative person. Love can be an extremely complex and confusing emotion, and I think he was as confused by his feelings for the twins as they were by their feelings for each other (and as really everyone is by deep love for another person).

BRC: At one point early on, Justin, Eve and Kerry are having a conversation about types of people. Justin says, “I think there’s two kinds of people, contented souls and restless souls… I’d rather have passion than peace any day.” Do you think the world is limited to two types of people? How would you describe yourself --- contented or restless?

EJA: It would be somewhat simplistic to say everyone falls into one extreme or another (the happy homebodies versus the kind of people who bungee jump), but I do think everyone falls somewhere along the spectrum. I definitely know people who are happy with the things life brings them, which I think would be a wonderful, peaceful way to live. But I think if I were completely contented, I would never have become a writer. It’s the restlessness in me that made me want to delve into lives other than my own, look into my characters’ minds to see what makes them tick, and write in an attempt to experience things I’ll never get to experience on my own. I’d say I’m a mix of the two, though, because I’m happiest curled up on the couch with a book (and I can guarantee that I’ll never, ever, ever try bungee jumping).

BRC: Gillian is caught in the crossfire of Eve’s illness. She loves her sickly mother, but also has the healthy identical alternative in her aunt. In your eyes, what does Gillian symbolize to the rest of the characters?

EJA: To Kerry, Gillian symbolizes the child she’s always believed she should have had with Justin and the life she’d always thought would be hers. Imagine how hard it must be for her, seeing how even Gillian’s appearance shows a mix of her own and Justin’s features! More importantly, though, I think both sisters see Gillian as a symbol of the innocence and happiness they lost after their father died and a sign of hope for the future.

BRC: Without giving anything away, it is clear that Kerry, Eve and Justin have a lot to get over in their lives…and a lot to forgive in each other. Do you think it’s possible to forgive and forget? Do you think they could in the end?

EJA: Really, one of the major themes in the book is the power of forgiveness. The twins deal with the events of their childhood in a much different way from Justin, both realizing they need to face their monsters in order to get past them. Justin, on the other hand, told the twins at one point that they should hold what they wished had happened in their minds “until it became the truth.” This is really the way he lives his life, trying (but ultimately failing) to forget the pieces of his past he regrets by reshaping them in his own mind.

BRC: Eve is introduced with very destructive behavior, but it is clear that over time she changes and feels remorse for her actions. What is the importance of this evolution in character?

EJA: Eve’s actions come purely from her own pain and her sense of betrayal, first from the loss of her mother and father and then from the growing distance she senses after Kerry becomes involved with Justin. Because she has such charisma, it’s hard at first to see how very vulnerable she is, but in the end I believe she’s even more vulnerable than Kerry. Throughout the story she’s clearly hurting, even though her words don’t show it directly, and really most of her actions are self-destructive rather than malicious. It's really been so interesting and wonderful to hear different readers’ interpretations of Eve’s character, but the vast majority has been incredibly sympathetic to both twins.

With that said, I think her growth is shown most strongly in the way she comes to terms with what she’s done, realizing the mistakes she’s made and finally being able to ask Kerry for forgiveness. This is something she never would have been able to do when she was younger. I think lots of people go through this same shift in the way they look at their anger, gaining maturity and distance from it so they can accept responsibility for their part in whatever they’re angry at.

BRC: In the Epilogue, Kerry says, “Regret changes nothing…forgiveness of yourself is like forgiveness of others, it takes distance and growth and time.” What would you like readers to take from this sentiment?

EJA: Also in the epilogue, Kerry states that she doesn’t believe in villains, only in mistakes. And I think it’s true that most of the things we’ve done wrong in our lives are not a result of being bad or immoral, only mistakes we’ve made. With distance it becomes much easier to see this, in the same way it’s easier to forgive others than it is to forgive ourselves.

As for regret, in itself it’s a pointless emotion. There’s no sense in wishing you could change the past and erase whatever you’ve done wrong. I think the only healthy way to escape that regret is to find a way to forgive yourself and realize you did the best you could at the time. It’s a difficult process that involves facing head on the things you wish you could change, almost flipping them inside out to see what was behind them and then trying to make peace with yourself.

BRC: PIECES OF MY SISTER'S LIFE is your debut novel. Did the story change at all from when you first started writing it to its final draft?

EJA: All the core elements were in the story from the beginning, but it definitely grew deeper over time as I got to know the characters and began delving into their lives. Some of the subplots also changed substantially. For example, originally the role of the twins’ mother was a very different part of the story.

I also played around with the time element; I always knew I wanted to include scenes from two different timeframes, but I experimented a good deal with the proper placement of chapters and plot points until I found a structure that felt right, deepening the storyline without distracting from it.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

EJA: My next novel, PROMISE THE MOON, tells the story of a Marine family from the perspective of both a woman, Natalie, and her daughter, Anna, dealing with the suicide of Josh, their husband/father. In an attempt to help Anna and her younger brother heal, Natalie begins writing them letters from their father, pretending they were written from heaven, but then starts to realize what a huge mistake this lie was. As the story progresses, both Natalie and Anna separately begin to learn secrets about both Josh’s past and piece together the reasons behind his suicide. Anna also uses these secrets in an attempt to convince her family that she, too, is communicating with her father.

PROMISE THE MOON will be released in the summer of 2008.