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Interview With Author Kathleen McCleary

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The front page of novelist Kathleen McCleary's website has a simple yet profound statement that sums up the women she writes about, "Because even ordinary women sometimes are driven to do extraordinary things... In her latest novel, Leaving Haven, due in stores in October, we are introduced to two friends, Georgia and Alice, and the complicated choices they make in the name of love. I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathleen about the inspiration for her emotionally complex stories.

Tell us the story behind the story. How did you come up with the emotionally complex storyline for Leaving Haven?

The idea for Leaving Haven began with my agent, Ann Rittenberg. We were having coffee and she said, "I always thought that if I wrote a novel, I'd open it with a woman giving birth, then walking out of the hospital and leaving her baby behind." At that point I was beyond having babies and not particularly interested in writing about babies. But a few months later I was in the car with my husband and all at once the idea came to me. I said out loud, "Oh, my God. I know why she leaves her baby behind." My husband had no idea what I was talking about. But once I had the idea, I had to write it.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing Leaving Haven?

The critical thing for me in writing the book was to try to make the characters relatable, someone readers could understand and like even if they hated the choices the characters made or the things they did.

All of my novels are about ordinary women who are driven to do extraordinary things. In my first, House and Home, the main character is so upset about selling a house she loves that she decides to burn it down so no one else can ever have it. In my second, A Simple Thing, a protective mom moves to an island in the San Juans in a desperate effort to protect her kids from some of the noxious threats of modern life, like online bullying, casual sex, etc. And Leaving Haven opens with the woman who gives birth then walks away. The challenge with each one is to make the reader feel about the characters the same way they would feel about a good friend, that sense of I don't agree with what you're doing, but I love you and I'll go along for the ride.

What is the message you want readers to take away from your book?

I hope readers leave the book with a greater sense of compassion for themselves and others. For me, the message of the book is that we are all fallible, we all make mistakes and we all sometimes really hurt the people we love most. Until you can learn to forgive yourself for your own bad choices, it's impossible to forgive others.

Describe your writing schedule. Do you outline? Any habits?

I'm a hopeless non-outline, seat-of-the-pantser. With Leaving Haven, though, I did make a story "map" for the first time, a kind of stream-of-consciousness drawing on a poster board, that diagrammed the characters' relationships to each other and the journeys they had to go through. It got me unstuck at a critical time. I try to write every day. And I'm a morning person, so that's the time of day I do it.

What books are on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?

My TBR pile is about as tall as I am (although, at 5'1," maybe that's not saying much). Right now I'm reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which I've never read before. The line-up after that includes Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers, Allison Leotta's Speak of the Devil, and Joe Wallace's Diamond Ruby.

Which authors inspire you?

I love the British author Miss Read, who wrote books about the doings of people in a small village in the Cotswolds. She had a wonderful sense of humor, and terrific insight into the small, poignant things that make life so wonderful and terrible. I also love P.G. Wodehouse, who reminds me not to take anything too seriously.

What have you learned from this experience?

In writing this book I really learned how to be a better writer. I can see and feel the improvement in my work with every book I write, and it's very gratifying. I wrote this book on a tight deadline, at a time when a lot was going on in my life, and yet it's my best book yet. With this book I feel I understood writing as a craft, not just as self-expression.

What is your advice for aspiring writers?

Tell the story you love so much you want to spend hours and hours of your life on it. I don't believe you should "write what you know;" I believe you should write what you love, because that passion gets you through a lot of hard, lonely work.

Do you keep a journal?

I kept a journal from the time I was 11 or 12 until I was 36 or 37. Writing is how I process life. I don't keep journals any more, though, and at one point I destroyed most of my journals, except for the ones from my childhood. Now, I process my life through fiction.

What are you working on now?

I've just started my fourth novel, and I'm very excited about it. It's about displacement, about women who, for various reasons, feel out of place in their own lives. One is an older woman, recently widowed, who moves across country to live closer to her adult sons. She feels so lost she decides to hike the Appalachian Trail to try to find a sense of meaning and purpose. Another is a woman in her 40s whose husband leaves her just as their twin daughters are leaving home for college, who heads to the AT for the same reason. And the third storyline in the book takes place in the 1930s and deals with a young woman whose family is displaced when the federal government seizes their property in order to create Shenandoah National Park. The three women and their stories intertwine and connect as the novel unfolds. It's a theme that resonates for me personally, and I'm having fun with all the characters.

For more information on Kathleen McCleary, check out her website. Look for LEAVING HAVEN in stores now.