Monday, June 21, 2010

An Interview with Marybeth Whalen

Q: How much of this novel is actually true?

A: The assumption is that a first novel is going to be autobiographical, but in this case it’s not true. While there might be brief references within the novel to things that happened to me or feelings I have had—especially as a mom, friend, wife, etc.—the overall story and situation is completely made up. But the setting … that’s entirely true. There really is a Sunset Beach, North Carolina, and it’s my most favorite place in the world. So it makes sense that I would set my first novel there. I have been visiting the mailbox for years and believe that it is a special place. A place where, as the photographer Lindsey meets says in the book, God hears you better.

Another true aspect about the novel is that I did first visit Sunset Beach, like Lindsey, at fifteen years old in 1985 (telling my age). I have very vivid memories of that trip to this day, which is how I was able to recall the details, the music, etc., of that time. In the acknowledgments, I thanked an old friend of mine, Holly, who took me with her on that trip. I also named the character of Holly after her as a little tribute. She couldn’t have known then that that trip sparked a lifelong love of Sunset Beach for me. When we left that year, I vowed I would come back when I was a grown-up. And I do go back every summer. I also named the characters of Uncle Bob, Aunt Frances, and cousins Bobby and Stephanie after my real aunt, uncle, and cousins, as it is their beach house we stay in every summer. That was my way of giving them a little shout-out.

Q: So the mailbox is real? Do you know who the Kindred Spirit is?

A: Yes, the mailbox is real, but I don’t know who the Kindred Spirit is. No one does. That’s part of the mystery and folklore of the mailbox. If you are ever in North Carolina, I highly recommend a visit.

Q: You have said that the book changed quite a bit from the original to the version we see. How so?

A: In the original, there was a letter to the Kindred Spirit for every year from 1985 to 2004. My editor didn’t feel we needed a letter for every year—that the letters were slowing down the flow of the story, which was true. So we left a few in so that the reader would know that Lindsey was writing letters every year, but not get mired down in every detail of every year as I originally planned. I think we have a happy medium now, a better mix between narrative and the glimpses into Lindsey’s past via the letters.

Also, in the original, Holly died. That seems so weird now because she became so much a part of the story, helping Lindsey process what’s happening to her like good friends do. The story of Holly’s death was told through the letters, so when we pulled those out, we had to figure out what that did to the storyline. I ended up adding her back and I am so glad I did! Oh, and in the very first manuscript, Lindsey’s name was Lucy, but I quickly discerned that she was so not a Lucy. Lindsey suits her much better!

Q: Did you experience a powerful summer romance like Lindsey and Campbell’s that you drew from for this story?

A: No. I had a few summer romances, but none that were enduring like you see in this story. Regardless of whether we’ve had a great summer love, I think it’s a notion that resonates with all women: this idea that we are unforgettable, that we are worth pursuing at all costs. God puts that in our hearts because ultimately He is the great Pursuer, the One who never forgets us. I liked that in this story, Lindsey discovers that about Him first, then finds it in Campbell. She was never forgotten. None of us are.

Q: You deal with a tough subject in this book: a Christian woman in the midst of a divorce and rebuilding her life. What made you decide to focus on this?

A: Honestly, it’s just how the story came to me. I didn’t really think about the aspect of her being divorced until I was well into the first draft and a friend of mine had pretty much the exact same thing happen to her that was happening to Lindsey. What was so interesting is that I went back and read what I had written from Lindsey’s point of view and it was nearly verbatim what I heard my friend saying. I knew then I was on the right track of tapping into the feelings and emotions of what Lindsey was going through in a way that would ring true. We have had so many friends go through this; I know there are women everywhere facing what Lindsey faced. And I often think, But by the grace of God, go I.

Q: You dedicated this book to a friend, Ariel Allison Lawhon, saying that this book wouldn’t exist without her. Why is that?

A: For most of my life I have had story ideas pop into my head. I would see something happen and think, What if …? So when I met Ariel, I was chewing on this idea for The Mailbox, and had been for some time. At that point she was trying to find a publisher for her novel, eye of the god, and she really encouraged me to try writing fiction. I was so nervous about it—I didn’t know if I had the stick-to-itiveness to actually finish a novel. With her continued encouragement, I kept putting words down—though I knew next to nothing about what I was doing. Finally I got about sixty thousand words in and quit. I had written myself into a corner and couldn’t get out. So I closed that file and moved on to other projects. A few months later I received this random email from Ariel encouraging me not to quit and begging me to just finish it. She said, “No one writes sixty thousand words and quits. You have to finish this book.” So I did. If she hadn’t persisted, I am convinced the book would still be sitting in a forgotten file with sixty thousand words written. So that (and her continued friendship and listening to my rambling on a daily basis) earns her a dedication for this book. I also dedicated it to my husband, who puts up with a whole lot when I am writing and deserves a dedication too!

Q: Now that you have written one novel, do you think you will write more novels?

A: Yes, I plan to write more novels. I keep a running list of ideas and add to it often, so I hope that list will keep me going for quite some time. I am working on a new novel that comes out next year and is totally different from The Mailbox. One thing I have learned through this experience is, I will always have more to learn about the craft of writing. I will continue to learn for the rest of my career as a novelist, and my hope is my work will reflect what I am learning with each successive book. That’s the plan at least.

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