When A Fictional Marriage Goes Very Wrong: An Interview With Jessica Strawser, Author Of 'Almost Missed You'

03/27/2017 09:57 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2017

Almost Missed You begins with an event so startling there is no possible chance you’ll put the book down. A woman named Violet is vacationing with her husband Finn and her little son Bear, luxuriating in the bright beauty of the Florida sun and sand, her mind drifting in lazy, grateful reminiscence. In one of those fantastic meet-cute situations, she and Finn had first encountered each other on a trip to this very beach—thrown together during an emergency in which there’d been no chance to exchange information. In a show of inexplicable cosmic irony, they managed to dodge one another in a series of near-misses over the next few years, until finally the stars aligned and they met again.

This time, nothing intervened: they now have a peaceful, stable marriage and the immeasurable blessing of a baby. But something unspeakable must have happened to Finn in the time before they reconnected, because when Violet returns to her hotel room after a morning spent drowsing and reading and remembering on the beach, they’re gone. Finn and Bear are gone, every trace of them vanished from the room—and from Violet’s life.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Strawser’s writing is creative and engaging, skillfully weaving the past into the present as she draws her characters into a dense thicket of moral dilemmas, buried secrets, and blackmail. I don’t want to give too much away, but every character does something that surprised me--especially near the end, which has some significant curveballs. An addictive debut novel!

So let's meet Jessica! By day, she's the Editorial Director of Writer’s Digest magazine. By night, she is a fiction writer, and by the minute, she is a proud wife and mom to two super sweet and super young kids in Cincinnati, Ohio. Visit JessicaStrawser.com to learn more, or follow her on Twitter @JessicaStrawser.

KM: Almost Missed You is a masterpiece of plotting. Told from the perspectives of three of the characters—Violet, Finn, and their friend Caitlin—it spans two time periods and three main locales. Tell us a bit about your writing style—did you outline this manuscript in all its complexity, or did it occur organically as you wrote? How did you come up with the idea for the book?

JS: When I started the first draft, I had a few key points I wanted to hit along the way – more of a very rough sketch than an outline. Part of the fun in writing the story was finding out the answers to the questions the characters were facing as I went—it was exhilarating and a little scary not having more of a map, but somehow, it all pieced itself together.

As for how I came up with the idea, my husband has been getting a lot of questions about that! Kidding aside, I think we all have those moments where everything in our lives seems so perfect, even if just for an instant, and we’re struck with a fear that it’s too perfect—the old “nothing gold can stay.” I found myself imagining one young family’s world crashing down in a way that was both ordinary (in the characters) and extraordinary (in the circumstances).

I’ve also always been drawn in by the idea of fate, of what’s meant to be, and the significance so many of us place on some sense of that. Go to a 50th wedding anniversary party, and chances are people will still be asking the bride and groom how they met, as if there’s some secret significance to it. I wonder whether we place too much emphasis on the wrong things, sometimes, in our prospective mates and our eventual partners, and so I loved the idea of building a story around a chain of events that would both challenge and celebrate the role of destiny in our relationships.

KM: To my delight, your settings alternate between Cincinnati, Asheville, and rural Kentucky, which just happen to be three places I’ve lived or spent significant time. In my opinion, you nailed each place, imbuing them with such realistic detail I started to worry you’d somehow accessed my memories. How did you choose your locations? Do you view places differently as a writer than you did prior to writing a novel? 

JS: Thank you so much—what a huge compliment! I’m originally from Pittsburgh, but I moved to Cincinnati for a job a few weeks after my college graduation, met my eventual husband later that same year, and have been here ever since. I think coming here as a transplant at that stage of young adulthood enabled me to get to know the city on an independent, neighborhood-by-neighborhood level: I moved every time my lease was up for the first four or five years. Now, as a parent, I’m still discovering places I never had occasion to seek out before. I’m so happy to have had the chance to set a book here, giving a nod to some of my favorite spots.

Of course, both Kentucky and Asheville are a simple road trip away, and especially as a nature lover I’ve spent many weekends visiting both. There’s very little not to love about Asheville in particular—the artwork, the mountains, the food, the people—and I stop there any chance I get.

KM: Let’s talk about Finn, Violet’s husband. Without giving too much of the story away, he does something utterly unforgivable in the novel. And yet, your portrayal of him is nuanced enough that he doesn't come across as an irredeemable villain. How hard was it to create a storyline in which his actions were believable and understandable?

JS: In setting out to tell a story that delved into layers of love and fate, an irredeemable character was the furthest thing from my mind. I like the idea that we’re all unreliable narrators, whether or not we intend to be, inherently telling the stories of our lives through our own filters. To get the whole story of any relationship, I think you need to come at it from both/all sides, and you might be surprised to discover the differences between them. Anger without sympathy might be the easier, cleaner emotion, but it’s hard not to feel for Finn.

KM: Caitlin faces a wrenching predicament when she has to choose between a crushing betrayal of her best friend and her own family’s well-being. Did you ever consider an alternate decision for her?

JS: You know, I considered alternates for a lot of the characters and plot points, but I can’t say I didn’t always have a basic sense of what Caitlin was going to do. One of the wise, successful writers I’ve been fortunate enough to interview for Writer’s Digest (*waves enthusiastically at Lisa Scottoline*) said something that really stuck with me about how in her view, plot and character are the same thing, because action reveals character. I always felt pretty clear on who Caitlin is, and so when it comes to what she does—well, that’s who she is.

KM: Was it easy to choose the title?

JS: I had a different working title the whole time I was drafting and revising, but I never really loved it. After polling my beta readers and presenting them with some other options, I ended up settling on Almost Missed You just before going on submission, and it stuck!

KM: In your day job, you’re the editorial director for Writer’s Digest magazine. Tell us a little bit more about your background and your literary influences. What spurred you to writing fiction?

JS: I’ve always, and I mean always, been a voracious fiction reader. In high school, I was co-editor of the school newspaper and ended up pursuing journalism, which was a nice close cousin—I got to write, and hang out with other writers, and study language and story structure and how to serve an audience. Working for WD for so many years has been a dream job for me: In part because I did (and still do) feel an irresistible pull to our articles and books and classes for and about fiction writing. It’s like an on-the-job crash course, reading those techniques and insights over and over again, and it was only a matter of time before I decided to try it myself.

KM: And finally, what are you working on now? 

JS: Revising another stand-alone book club novel, due out from St. Martin’s Press next year!

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