Of all the things that inform Lee Woodruff's worldview -- marriage, motherhood, journalism, and war -- the most significant is that everything can go to hell in an instant. In fact, that was the title of her first bestselling book (co-authored with her husband, ABC's Bob Woodruff), an account of the prelude to and aftermath of an IED explosion in Iraq in 2006 that critically injured the newly named anchor of ABC World News Tonight and changed their lives forever.
Those We Love Most, her third book and first novel, debuts this week and again centers on one of those in-an-instant moments, this time when a young mother pays attention to a text on her cell instead of the path of her young son's bicycle as he approaches an intersection.
And in both these books, fiction and nonfiction, these searing accidents bring about healing and an eventual peace and beauty that reflect Woodruff's own strength and soul, and her considerable skills as writer. She tackles the difficult subject matter with an astonishingly light touch, exploring every parent's worst nightmare with grace, warmth, and even some well-earned smiles.
Three years ago I interviewed Lee along with Amy Dickinson and Wendy Burden, two other friends who had written memoirs that included serious loss. As Those We Love Most prepares to hit bookstores this week, I caught up with Lee and was happy to pick up where we left off.
Update us on your life today.
First and foremost, always, I'm a mom. It's what I'm most proud of. It's what I always put down as my occupation on the doctor's form. Secondly, the Bob Woodruff Foundation takes up a big chunk of my time, along with my work on CBS Morning News [Woodruff is a contributing correspondent], and finally there is life on the road -- appearances on behalf of the foundation, as well as for the books. And then there is miscellany -- you know, the dentist...
How different was writing fiction from writing the memoir and personal essays?
It's so different and so much harder to write fiction. In a memoir you know the storyline and the plot and how it ends, but in fiction you are just creating this thing out of nothing. The conversations have to sound authentic, the dialogue has to sound real, and that's not easy.
But isn't there also a freedom from reality, creating characters the way you want?
In the story you can have the characters do whatever you want them to do. You can have them have an affair, a sex-change operation. You can play fast and loose with those facts, but if you think about it, that has to also track and ring true. And while sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, you know what the guidelines are, where the margins are.
In fiction there's a tendency to go too far. It's easy to go overboard and not make it sound authentic, because you can make them do whatever you want them to do. I didn't necessarily know how the story would end when I started it, but I knew I wanted the characters to end up in a healing place. The point of the book was to show that bad things can happen to people, and the point was resilience -- not all tied up in a nice bow, like some chick-lit is, though. I prefer books that are about how life really is and not how I wish it would be.
In the foreword to the book you mention a real-life accident involving a teen driver striking a young boy, and you acknowledge the loss of a child whom you call "Prince Liam." How much did these real stories influence your book?
The original idea came from a phone call I got in a hotel room after a young kid had been hit by a car driven by a 17-year-old kid, which was my son's age at the time. I was struck by the story of the kid who got hit, the kid who drove the car, the mother of the kid who got hit and the one driving the car, and I thought, "God, what a nightmare!" You could really tell a story from all those perspectives. And then, at the same time, a really good friend of mine had a young son who was valiantly battling a neuroblastoma, and I was one of the people she was sharing this ordeal with.
I didn't want to mirror these stories. The point isn't about Liam, who died, or the kid who got hit by the car, who lived, happily. Rather, it's a fiction story spurred by the archetype of loss. I don't think there is one of us who hasn't imagined losing a child, and I felt I was justified to write about it. I had certainly gone through my own shit. And I'm careful how I say this, and I don't want anybody who has lost a child to feel worse, but it is the worst thing that can happen to you. As awful as what happened to Bob was, the worst thing by far would be to lose a child.
How did you make yourself go there and imagine such a loss?
I think what I have learned on the road and meeting all kinds of people with brain injuries, and veterans with other injuries, as well, is that most people are survivors. You will survive the worst thing in the world that can happen to you. You will. I did, and I'm no Joan of Arc, and every day isn't Doris Day.
You lose a certain innocence as you see things happen to people around you, but the message that I really wanted this book to leave with people is: You are going to have to work at it. Some days you're going to have to fake it. You'll never forget what happened, but you can come through it.
Another theme of this story is infidelity. Why?
I wanted the main character to have a secret. Beyond losing a child, it seemed more layered if she was also flawed, and that the loss broke a family open in its truest way. I also thought it was sort of interesting that the father and the daughter would both have this heredity of deceit, which in fact was the original title of the novel.
I really wanted her to have been distracted by something at the moment at which he was stuck -- in that way that we are all distracted. What if in that one moment you took your eye off the ball, and you paid for that moment forever?
There is a real echo here from your first book, In an Instant, how one moment can change everything. Why did you bring it to this novel?
I have been on the road talking about what happened to us for the last few years, and that makes me the go-to person when anybody gets a head injury or that kind of life-changing event and knows me in any shape or form. Someone always calls me and says, "Can my friend call you? Can you talk to them?" It's a big part of my life, and I'm so happy to be that person who can maybe help talk someone down off the ledge and tell them that they will come through this.
It's like a secret society, the millions of people who are out there walking around the grocery store every day while the rest of us are just picking out our carrots and just can't wait to get back home. These are people who are walking around as I did once and wonder, "What the hell? All these people's lives are normal, and my life was just blown up." These people are all around us, we just don't know it, and they are in pain, and we don't think about it, and I think that looms large in my psyche, and I wanted to give that process its voice.