It's rare to find a novel that's a beautifully-written piece of literature -- and as riveting as a thriller. You Believers is that book. The fascinating story deals with professional searcher Shelby Waters' attempt to help a mother find her missing daughter. As readers, we are treated to the points of view of everyone from the victim to the murderer, and we get to really think about the role faith -- and our beliefs -- play in each of our lives.
I am still haunted by sections of the book, like, "It can happen like that. You think you're going home. And some picture of your face ends up on a grainy black-and-white flyer tacked to a phone pole. Your image fades in sunlight. The thin paper sign of you tatters, fluttering in the breeze. Strangers pass by, study your face for something familiar, think maybe they've seen you somewhere. But they haven't. You are a stranger. You are lost."
After interviewing author Jane Bradley, it's no surprise that the story is so intense and moving. I will be thinking about both the book and the story behind it for a long time to come -- and I believe you will, too.
Lois Alter Mark: You Believers is such a unique and powerful book, I couldn't put it down. What do you believe?
Jane Bradley: This is a very hard question because the answer changes daily. Sometimes I smile with a deep soothing faith in some force that brings what needs to happen just when it does happen. Yes, as my faithful Church of God sister says: "God doesn't always come when you want him, but he always comes right on time." She notes, "Sometimes God just says no." I envy and admire her faith. I try to climb into her secure world and stay there, but I can't. Sometimes, like when I hear of a brutal murder of a friend, I think the world is a cruelly and casual place where anything goes. My mother always said, "If you can think it, it happens." A scary thought for me, but it means any good thing can happen too, I suppose.
I think the substance of our beliefs can be a wonderful gift and yet also a danger. There have been times I was burdened with very cynical and despairing beliefs, when I didn't believe in anything but myself. And sometimes I've doubted that. But with age and experience and survival of some pretty rough times, I've come to have great faith in our own power to control, if not our lives, at least how we respond to the good and the god-awful that can happen to us. I like to have a belief in some kind of ultimate design to things, but the concept of chaos as the rule sits squarely on my shoulders. I often think we impose/create patterns to give meaning to. I often tell my students that life really has no plot, but through writing fiction we can have a good time imposing some kind of order and meaning.
Yes, beliefs are important and I would like to think that all faith rested on believing that we -- and God, for those who are believers -- are here to make the world, the human experience, a better thing. I would like to believe that with faith we can evolve into calmer, more enlightened, and forgiving beings. I do think self-reflection and knowing what you believe is important, and I think being open to new views of the world and being ready for change is necessary for spiritual and emotional survival. You Believers was my own spiritual wrestling match. Unlike Jacob, I wrestled a devil (Jesse) along with not one, but a couple of angels. With each character, I wrestled through various ways of thinking and how those ways of thinking shape our souls, our minds, our actions. Yes, I do tend to think positive, and, yes, I do have very cynical cold, cold days. I walk a line between hope and despair quite often. It's this conflict that is at the heart of my book.
LAM: Can you talk a little about the significance of the title?
JB: Early in the novel when Jesse sneers, "You believers . . ." and goes on to taunt his victim about her stupid positive thinking, her chosen openness and vulnerability to the world as being the cause of her demise, I knew that line was the title of the book. Yes, that was a part of me sneering in Jesse at that moment. And then I spent the rest of the book working to prove his stance to be small-minded, wrong. Being open to the world is a very good thing. Giving a ride to, and following the instructions of, a car-jacker is not. My characters, their actions, and the plot all prove Jesse Hollowfield wrong. Faith, hope, belief and that business of "putting feet on your prayers" are concepts I live by. And I'm a happier, calmer woman for that.
LAM: There is so much raw emotion in this book. How did you come up with the idea for the story? Is it based on any real-life events?
JB: Oh, yes, it's based on a real life event. When I was looking for a house to buy in Toledo I met a realtor, Penny Carr-Britton, who said I had a lot in common with her daughter, Peggy Carr, who had been car-jacked and murdered in Wilmington, North Carolina. Every time we looked at a house, Penny brought me more information about her daughter's life and horrible death, as well as all the police and legal proceedings that followed. I knew this was a novel in the making but also knew it was too rude to ask to do so. Then, the night before we closed on the house, I had a dream that Peggy came knocking on my office door, stumbled in, slid to the floor, looked up at me and said, twice, "You have to tell my story." I sat up straight in bed, startled, but knowing I had to ask. When I did, her mother smiled and said, "That's what I've been trying to get you to do."
All the basic plot points in the book are true. A young woman was carjacked in Wilmington. A mother stayed in that city where her daughter disappeared until she could bring her daughter home. A woman who devoted her life to searching for the missing and comforting the loved ones left behind helped the woman stay strong, find a place to live in Wilmington, and do what she could to help find her daughter. Another young woman was later attacked and survived, a miraculous event that led to quite a development in the plot. And that's all of the plot I'll give away here. But the characters are all fiction and some are completely made up to flesh out the story line and to contribute to themes I wanted to address. For example, there was no wise janitor to help Billy with his grief. I made up that janitor and I really like that guy.
LAM: Every character rings true and brings a vital and individual perspective that adds so much to the book as a whole. Which character was hardest to write? Which do you feel the most empathy for?
JB: In truth, all the characters who were inspired by real characters were VERY hard to write. I had to forget what I knew about the real people in order to protect their privacy. And I had to make up things about these characters that would satisfy the real people in some way. The mother, Livy, was easy. I have a daughter who's been in a great danger that lasted for years. I know how it feels to worry about where your daughter is and whether or not she is all right. I knew those feelings to the core, but thankfully, my daughter came out just fine. The really hard thing for me to do was go to the place -- and really exist in that place -- where the daughter doesn't come out all right. That was a hell to walk through. The easiest character to write was Jesse. And that scares me a bit. I said, above, that I know for myself that cynical sneer at the world which feeds Jesse's anger. I dreamed him almost every night until I finally got to a place in the book where Jesse got what was coming to him. The dreams instantly disappeared. The hardest character to write was Shelby.
LAM: What's amazing about You Believers is that it is so suspenseful and such a page-turner even though the reader knows who the murderer is from the beginning. Why did you decide to forego the "who done it?" aspect of most suspense novels? What did this help you accomplish in your overall message?
JB: I never thought of this as a "who done it?" novel. I've never read one. I respect the genre, but it's not my interest. I'm a literary writer with two story collections and a novella out there. I never intended for this to be "crime fiction" even though it was inspired by two horrific crimes. I think I simply connected with the mother of the real victim and with the real woman, Monica Caison of Community United Effort: CUE, who dedicates her life to searching for the missing and comforting the loved ones left behind. My original focus was to write about the ripple effects of a murder and explore how the ones affected by the murder get through the awful and not only endure, but grow.
My agent helped me to revise and set the pacing that helped make the novel a real page-turner. I give her much credit. My message in the novel is the very one I intended from the start, and you'll see that message all through the book and particularly at the end when the mother and the searcher are planting beautiful things in a place where a horrific event occurred. Hell happens every day for someone. My concern was how to make peace with a world that randomly, sometimes brutally, throws hell at us.
LAM: How difficult is it to write scenes like the one in which a young girl is attacked? Are those as painful to write as they are to read? How do you get yourself through them?
JB: That scene where the girl is attacked was absolutely the most difficult scene to write. The real story of what happened to that girl is far more brutal than what I wrote. I knew too much of what had really happened that day to the girl -- and her mother. It was very hard to get the ugly facts out of the way so that I could write a scene that someone could stand to read. Again, my agent helped me tremendously in toning down the violence of that scene. I have two beautiful daughters; I was quite sickened and terrified by the place my mind and heart had to go in order to get through that scene. I had to live it to get through it, and that was quite exhausting to the core. But somehow, knowing the girl made it, with the help of what appears to be an intervening spirit, helped me get through it. She made it, and yes, so could I. I will be amazed all my life by that real young woman who survived.
LAM: As terrifying as a scene like that is, you somehow have managed to create a really beautiful and uplifting story about the strength and resilience of the human spirit, and the role faith plays. How have you seen that in real life?
JB: Oh, my, now we are getting personal, and so I will. I grew up in hellish conditions, surrounded by drug abuse, sexual predators and parents who were too caught up in their own diseases of the mind and body to care about what happened to us as children. I've seen a lot of horrific things up close. I've been sexually abused by numerous family friends, with the consent of my mother. I've swept up more blood and teeth than any girl should ever have to do. I've witnessed horrible violence in my family home. I have four siblings, and out of the five of us, only my brother and I have made it to have sane, healthy lives. I feel very lucky. But even in the hell, I often felt a deep spiritual connection that would see me through to the end.
At the age of five, I was a very precocious girl and an excellent reader. Before first grade, I had read all of the Grimm's and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. In these tales, children are often neglected and put at great risk. But forces of nature and luck intervene to help the children through -- most of the time --to a happy ending. So I'd say that my faith truly began in fairy tales. And Shirley Temple movies. I adored those movies. I looked strikingly like Shirley Temple when I was young. I somehow think I so identified with her and her ability to keep that smile on her face and soldier on, in spite of some desperate situations. I believed in the myth of Shirley Temple land: keep your chin up and a smile; don't give up; be good; be very, very good. And things will work out in the end. Little Shirley never went through anything close to what I went through as a child. But somehow I put myself in her world and refused to let the horrible things around me rule my vision of the world. I think this was and is a gift. I don't know how I got through, frankly. But I know stories and movies had a lot to do with it. No surprise then that I grew up to be a writer. Writing still is my method of making sense of the world. But now I don't just read and watch; I'm doing it.
LAM: Shelby Waters is a great character. She's strong, compassionate and I'd love to hear more from her. Any chance of this becoming the first book in a series about her?! And, I have to say, when I looked at your author photo on the book jacket, my first reaction was, "Wow, she is Shelby!" Do you see yourself in her at all?
JB: Oh my goodness, Shelby is absolutely and consciously me. So I thank you much for that kind remark. She was my most difficult character to write. The real woman is so strong, so dedicated, intuitive and smart, well, I don't think my book fully does justice to her. I tried. The real Shelby is a private woman -- she had to be. Everyone daily wants her full attention. She also happens to be married with five kids. I do not know how she does it. Writing her character had me quite stuck in writing the book for a very long time. Then, by chance, I lost two sisters and my dad in a very short period of time. I had to move down South for awhile to raise one of my sister's daughters. I was in deep, deep despair and was burdened with raising a very disturbed and grieving girl, and I learned my own daughter had a fatal disease. I felt as lost as I had felt as a child. And no there was no grown-up around to take care of my problem for me. I thought much of the mother of the real victim in my book and I thought much of the real searcher.
In the process of handling my sister's estate, raising her daughter, trying to keep her safe from a stepbrother who truly wanted to kill her and trying to save my own daughter, I found myself thinking about what the real searcher, Monica Caison, does. She stays steady, never panics, uses her brain, instincts and amazing energy, and she gets the job done. It was then I realized that in my book I would be Shelby. Her character is absolutely me, but she happens to be doing Monica Caison's job. I'm honored and impressed by the fact that when you saw my photo, you saw Shelby. Yep, you'd be exactly right on that. And, yes, she will be in the next novel, The Snow Queen of Atlanta. In this next book, I'll get to draw on one of those fairy tales that so inspired me as a child, and Shelby will have another woman to search for as she gives advice and comfort to another grieving and lost loved one left behind.
LAM: Can you give us a preview of the next book?
JB: The Snow Queen of Atlanta looks at the story of two sisters who grew up in their mother's drug house. One chooses the life of drugs and the other chooses the saner, safer life of education. The drug-dealing sister runs into serious trouble and the straight sister will be on a mission to help her sister -- with the help of Shelby Waters.
LAM: Totally unrelated, but I saw your new dog on Facebook. He is adorable! Will he be showing up in any books?
JB: Thank you for asking about my rescue, Jake. He was abandoned in a house across the street from me and was starving. His owner had somehow trained him not to bark and not to get into the very large and open bag of food sitting in the kitchen. He was starving with a huge bag of open food in the house. Not a good sign. A neighbor told me about the dog being left in that house last Saturday afternoon, and by the evening he was mine. He's come a long way in feeling safe and secure. I'm absolutely in love with this dog. I've wanted a blue tick coon hound all my life -- my childhood best friend's daddy raised and hunted with them. I'm pretty stunned that he's been across the street from me for six months and abandoned for three months, just waiting and hanging in there for my rescue. Now the entire street thinks I'm some kind of saint for taking on a very LOUD and soon to be big dog. Will he appear in a book? I don't plan on it, but man there were a lot of dog references in You Believers, so who knows?