Five Days Left is the emotional journey of two people facing life-changing situations and making ultimate sacrifices in the name of love. Debut author Julie Lawson Timmer took time to answer questions about this powerful novel — sure to become a book club favorite — which Jodi Picoult calls “unique, gripping and viscerally moving.”
Between the Covers: Mara and Scott are two ordinary people, living in different cities, pursuing dynamic careers and dealing with marriage and family. Over the course of five days, these two ordinary lives are extraordinarily changed. What was the genesis and inspiration for this story of a woman battling Huntington’s disease and a man battling the foster care system and even his own wife?
Julie Lawson Timmer: A few years ago, a friend of mine died after a long struggle with cancer. She was in hospice for the last several months of her life and she was spectacularly brave in facing what she knew would be her last months, weeks and days. During that time, and after she died, I was consumed with thoughts about what that must have been like for her — to know she wouldn’t be there for her kids’ graduations, their weddings, etc. I decided that writing about someone dealing with a fatal, incurable disease would be a way to explore the feelings my friend might have had. I also felt that exploring and writing about those feelings would be a way for me to honor her, even if the book was never read by anyone else. I chose Huntington’s because I didn’t want, or believe I had any right, to write my friend’s story. Five Days Left is not biographical in any sense.
I wanted to give Mara a break from her difficult situation, and adding the online group allowed me to do that. When I was casting around in my imagination for an online friend who Mara could become close to, Scott materialized, as did his job as a middle school teacher and coach. Technically, Scott and his wife are limited guardians of Curtis, not foster parents. Foster parenting involves months of background checks and classes and applications, etc., while being a limited guardian is a relatively immediate process, at least in Michigan. Given the urgency in Curtis’s situation, the foster system wasn’t appropriate. However, the concept of fostering and being a limited guardian are similar in that ultimately, you are caring for, making sacrifices for and, often, loving deeply a child who isn’t your own, and whose future is not in your control. In this regard, foster parents and limited guardians are in a similar position as step-parents, a role I hold. As a step-parent, I also care for, make sacrifices for and deeply love children whose future isn’t in my control, and I wanted to explore that.
BTC: In telling the stories of Mara and Scott, you explore sensitive issues such as foster care, suicide, infertility, adoption and marital durability. What led you to tackle such powerful topics? Describe the research process involved in ensuring accuracy of the details so integral to these characters’ stories.
JLT: [The research] was the biggest surprise for me about the process. When I first came up with the idea for the book, I actually wasn’t intending to do much research. I thought I’d spend a little time online learning a bit about Huntington’s – which I knew nothing about – and then rely on “artistic license” to fill in the details of the disease in a way that advanced the plot. But “a little time online” is all it took for me to realize how horrible Huntington’s is, and to realize there was no way I could write about it unless I did it as accurately as possible. I thought (and still think) I owed it to the Huntington’s community to get the disease right.
So, I did months of research on my own, and then I talked to some Huntington’s experts to confirm that my understanding of the research was correct, and that I’d represented it accurately in the novel. In many cases, I’d gotten the facts wrong, and I ended up making significant changes to Mara’s sections in order to correct the inaccuracies. I’m certain – and upset – that I didn’t likely get the disease completely accurate, but any mistakes were my fault, not that of the experts.
BTC: Mara’s voice is engagingly honest from the first sentence of the book. The reader is painfully aware of her anger, fear and even joy. How were you able to capture all these emotions and create an authentic portrait of one woman’s struggle against mortality?
JLT: I was highly motivated to get those feelings as right as I could. For my friend, who lived it. And for me, too, as I have certainly spent my share of time, as I imagine most mothers have, thinking about how I would feel if I knew my children would have to grow up without me.
It was a struggle, in early drafts, to keep Mara from feeling overly sorry for herself. But I spent a long time thinking about her, and who she was, and I knew that she was not a complainer. She was a strong, stoic woman who wanted to be treated that way. So, I dialed her down quite a bit and ended up with someone whose thoughts and fears were truer to what I believe Mara’s would be.
BTC: Almost even more surprising is the clarity of Scott’s voice. His love for his wife and foster son are evident as is the anguish he feels when he may lose one or both of them. How difficult was it to write from a man’s point of view?
JLT: My husband is a “guy’s guy,” which is how I’d describe Scott, and I have some close friends who are the same. I suppose I channeled them to a large extent. I did run a number of things about Scott past my husband – character motivation, turns of phrase, that sort of thing – to make sure I wasn’t attributing thoughts or phrases to him that weren’t ones a man would actually have. And there were times when my husband would say, “Uh, no way would he say that,” and I’d have to revise the dialogue. My husband’s help, from character motivation to dialogue to plot issues to making dinner and cleaning up so I could write is something I could talk about for a long time.
BTC: As heartbreaking as the story is at times, you tell it beautifully and manage to keep within the five-day timeline. Share with us your writing process for plotting this carefully constructed dual story. As a debut novelist, working attorney and mother to kids and dogs, how on earth did you find time to sit down and write?
JLT: Thank you for that lovely compliment! As for my plotting process, I am a major plotter/outliner. I carefully plotted how each story would go before I began writing. For an early draft, I wrote Scott’s entire story, and then Mara’s, and then did something close to cutting and pasting to get the chapters to alternate. In later drafts, I realized the story came out better if I wrote each chapter as it appeared in the book, rather than writing all of one character’s chapters at once.
As for the work/family/writing balance, that one was, and remains, tough. I discovered the only time people aren’t looking for me is between the hours of 4 a.m. – 6 a.m. Even then, because my company is global and I’m in the habit of checking email often, I could sometimes end up on calls or reviewing contracts before dawn instead of writing. But most days, those dark, quiet hours were mine, and I found that I could get two solid scenes written in that time. My wonderful husband set coffee every night and often left encouraging sticky notes on the coffee maker for me – something that made a huge difference, especially on cold, dark winter mornings.
BTC: How excited were you to receive such glowing recommendations for your novel from the likes of Jodi Picoult, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Sarah Pekannen? As a debut novelist, what was it like navigating the book world with publishing icon Amy Einhorn, and more importantly, can you clarify the rules of the literary drinking game that you and she created during the course of finalizing this novel?
JLT: I’m so grateful to those authors for taking the time to read a new writer’s book and then give a blurb for it. They’re wonderful. I was beyond excited to see those blurbs and honestly, I’m not sure it’s sunken in still. It’s surreal to think that these authors whose work I’ve admired for years have actually read my book, and that they liked it. I have a writer friend who emails me from time to time and her entire message will be, “JODI PICOULT!” or “CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE!” or any of the other names. When I read those emails, I think, “Oh, that’s right! It did happen!”
I loved working with Amy Einhorn (my same writer friend used to write those emails, too: “AMY EINHORN!”). In Amy’s first editor letter, which listed the various changes she thought I should make, she said the book should be “a five-hanky read” and that although it had made her sniffle a little, it hadn’t made her cry. When I set out to do my revisions, I put sticky notes all over the wall of our home office, to make it easier to organize the plot, and to my daughter’s horror, I added a few sticky notes at various intervals around the room with the notation, “MAKE AMY CRY!” After that, any time Amy emailed to say a certain revised scene had made her cry, I’d announce to my family, “Amy cried!” and we’d all cheer. A few times, I made the announcement at dinner, and we all raised our glasses to the fact that I’d made Amy cry. When I confessed this sordid family practice to Amy, she and I started joking that we’d invented a (terrible) new drinking game.
BTC: I’m sure our readers would love to hear what you’re working on next. Can you share any details?
JLT: Sure. Briefly, my next book is about estranged families, step parenting and the dreadful practice of “rehoming,” where people who no longer want their adopted children advertise them online and then hand them over to people who have merely responded to an Internet ad rather than going through the rigorous process of being qualified to adopt. It is completely different from Five Days Left, but as I expect every book I write will do, it explores different forms of “family” and how families survive, or don’t survive, challenging situations.
A hound who has gone mute because he was chained outside with no shelter. A Lab-pit mix who is afraid of sticks. A Rottweiler who was dumped from a moving car and chased it as it sped away. A deaf dog who was given up by her owners when a new baby arrived. A Scottie who was left behind in an abandoned apartment when the owners were evicted. A young woman who has left behind a troubled past and is determined to start anew. These are the colorful characters who make up Ellen Cooney’s The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances.
When Evie sees an online ad for becoming a dog trainer, she sees it as an opportunity to reinvent herself. She heads to The Sanctuary, an isolated mountaintop shelter where dedicated volunteers take on the most tragic cases of dog neglect and abuse; there the animals are trained for potential adoption, or in some cases, trained for jobs at the shelter itself. It is readily apparent that the dogs are not the only damaged ones: Staff members, like the authoritarian innkeeper Mrs. Auberchon and the gentle teenager Giant George, suffer from problems in their pasts.
The narration of the novel switches from omniscience to Evie’s point-of-view, where the reader is treated to her extensive notes and new glossary for training terms. Items on her list include words like “Patience. Working on it” to “Real. You cannot be fake with dogs.” As Evie makes mistakes and processes them through her glossary, we root for her to come into her own as both a trainer and a person.
At the heart of this story is the idea that we humans are not so different from the dogs we love: We all want to be praised for a job well-done, we all want to belong to a pack and we all want to be loved. Dog-lovers who barked for fiction like A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron or nonfiction titles like Jim Gorant’s The Lost Dogs or Oogy by Larry Levin will find The Mountaintop School for Dogs a wonderful warm “tail” of redemption and perseverance.
Everything changed for Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard, when he sold his services to Mab, Queen of the Fairies, to save his daughter. He's been not quite dead, trapped in Fairy politics and sent on a wide variety of suicide missions. That was the easy part. Nicodemus, Knight of the Blackened Denarius and one of the cruelest enemies Dresden has ever faced is back in town, planning a major heist. And Harry's stuck working for him.
By turns Skin Game by Jim Butcher is a ripping heist novel, a hilariously goofy urban fantasy, with enough touching moments to give real weight. Butcher has won the ability to write gripping, fun and magical crime novels, and he's fought for that ability in this very series. It's not recommended to start with Skin Game if you're going to read the Dresden Files series because too much of the book is dependent on things that have come before. I don't recommend beginning at the first book either, because Butcher didn't really find his footing until the third. Start with the third book, Grave Peril, because the Dresden Files are a journey. Characters grow, wrestle with themselves, face up to things they don't want to deal with. There's a whole lot Dresden doesn't want to deal with, from dragging his friends into danger to stronger and stronger deals with dangerous and inhuman powers. Life has a tendency to get a whole lot bigger than the people living in the Dresdenverse.
If this were a movie, it would be a summer tent pole, a certified blockbuster. It has huge, explosive action, romance, comedy, true love, and cute animals. There are double and triple crosses and rivalries that zoom along. It would be better than anything you're going to see in the theater this year. But it gets even better if you haven't read the rest of the Dresden Files, because now you have an entire book series that's better than anything you're going to see in the theater, and it's still building up to even bigger things.
Amidst the commotion of V-J Day, 8-year-old Wally Baker is enjoying the sights and sounds of a joyous Brooklyn celebrating the end of the tumultuous war; shopkeepers are handing out candy and toys, school friends are marching with tiny flags attached to pencils, and everyone is smiling, laughing and dancing in the streets. Wally’s mother, Stella, is stoically guiding her to her grandmother’s house among the boisterous throng of people, and Wally wishes to be a part of the party. What Wally doesn’t know is that this day, one that changed the lives of so many, will change her life and that of her family forever.
Elizabeth Gaffney’s When the World Was Young is a novel of war and its aftermath: both in wars fought overseas and by the intimate secrets that divide a family and people from themselves. Each character–from Loretta, the housekeeper who is more like a second mother to Wally (without receiving the acknowledgement that she is), to Ham, Loretta’s son, to the Baker family’s odd boarder Mr. Niederman–has something to hide, and finds war-time to be the perfect cover-up. “How many other sins and secrets had been papered over by the war?” wonders Mr. Niederman. But after the war, how can those sins and secrets stay hidden?
Ultimately, the novel is Wally’s story. We follow her from an 8-year-old girl obsessed with entomology to a young woman who hasn’t quite left her childish outlook behind, even as both her world and the world at large have changed over time. Sexism, racism, family crisis, suicide and other injustices shape her character, and she walks the line between being pitied and admired. Readers who are looking for a novel of definitive time and place will love the descriptions of post-WWII Brooklyn brownstones. Fans of multi-layered character novels and historical fiction, like those of Barbara Taylor Bradford and Penny Vicenzi, will welcome this new novel.
Tessa Harris’ fourth entry in the Dr. Thomas Silkstone mysteries examines the ethics of scientific research and the tenuous laws governing slavery in Georgian England.
It is 1783, and for most doctors in England, bloodletting is still the preferred treatment. Philadelphia-born Thomas Silkstone is a gifted anatomist and physician whose modern treatments prove controversial. Considered a rebel and an upstart, he is welcomed by some and vilified by others. Highly respected by more progressive scientists, Thomas has been chosen by the president of the Royal College to identify and catalog almost 200 different species of Caribbean plants which may contain unusual life-saving properties. The scientists involved in the expedition have died during the voyage and their notes have disappeared. This greatly complicates Thomas’ daunting task.
Examining the exotic plants introduces a whole new world to Thomas; at once fascinating and repellant. The Caribbean is the home of some of the most brutal slave plantations on earth. Called upon to treat a slave-owning planter visiting London, Thomas discovers a dark world of fear, exploitation and magic. Has an ancient ritual brought about the mistresses’ mysterious illness, or is there a medical explanation? Is it possible to bring the dead back to life, or is it mere trickery and deceit? As Thomas ponders these questions, he discovers that the eminent anatomist Hubert Izzard is suddenly obtaining an abundance of fresh corpses to dissect. In Georgian England, no person of decent family would turn over their loved one’s body for dissection. Then, Thomas learns that all of these corpses are the bodies of African slaves. Suspecting foul play, Thomas is determined to unearth the truth and achieve justice for the most vulnerable victims of all.
Tessa Harris has created a thoroughly researched work which brings to light a little-known aspect of English history and law. This complex tale of ambition and greed is capped by an unexpected ending. The Lazarus Curse is sure to please fans of Imogene Robertson’s Gabriel Crowther and Alex Grecian’s Dr. Bernard Kingsley.
One of the most anticipated debut novels this fall is The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith. The novel centers on a family living in a small coastal town in North Carolina at the end of the 18th century. Anita Shreve praises the novel, saying that it will give readers “several hours of pure pleasure and a rare glimpse of grace in a fictional world.”
Smith recently answered some questions for Between the Covers readers about The Story of Land and Sea and the fascinating inspiration for her novel.
Between the Covers: What inspired you to write The Story of Land and Sea?
Katy Simpson Smith: The germ of the story came from a trip I took to Beaufort when I was living in North Carolina. It’s a beautiful historic town [with] a graveyard chock full of interesting stories. One of the graves that most arrested me had a marker that read “Little Girl Buried in Rum Keg”—no name, no date. Imagining this girl’s life led me to all the other characters in the novel.
BTC: Will you tell us a little bit about the research that went into creating this story?
KSS: I have a background in history and particularly studied the late 18th century when I was writing my dissertation in graduate school. For that project, I read so many letters and diaries and record books that the language of the time period became an almost natural rhythm in my head. That’s, of course, the hardest leap—trying to imagine not just what these people ate and wore but how they formed their ideas. But I also had to research all the small things, too: the various parts of a ship, the stages of yellow fever, the movements of the Continental Army. This is probably one of the most enjoyable parts of writing for me.
BTC: Parent-child relationships play an important part in the novel. What do you think it is about that relationship that makes it so compelling even though it’s such a common theme in fiction?
KSS: I think families are something every one of us can relate to; we’re all born into them, for better or worse, and the presence or absence of parents, siblings, grandparents, etc. can shape how we respond to our environments. Family is the lens through which we interpret what happens to us. The interactions between parents and children are so various and weighted with meaning that we could write fiction for another thousand years and never exhaust the subject.
BTC: You have earned a Ph.D. in history as well as a MFA, so writing a historical novel seems like the perfect way to combine your interests. Did you always want to write fiction?
KSS: I’ve been writing since I was tiny! Stories about fairies, stories about little girls with a dozen siblings, mawkish poems. I think it just took me many years to realize that making up stories could be more than a secret passion. Taking that first step from history to fiction was remarkably scary, but it turns out that doing what you love really is the best feeling in the world.
BTC: The Story of Land and Sea is your debut novel. What has been the most exciting thing about the publishing process? Has anything surprised you?
KSS: Everything has been pretty exciting, but I think I was giddiest when I flew to New York to meet with editors. Not only did I get to walk around New York, feeling like an awestruck country mouse, but I discovered that all these big-time publishing people aren’t scary at all—they’re simply regular people who love books an awful lot, just like me. As for what’s been surprising, again, it’s kind of everything! I hope one day that I’m an old hand at all this, but I can guarantee it’s going to take a long time for the novelty to wear off.
BTC: What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
KSS: I’m actually working now on my second novel, which is also historical and set in the South. It’s been good to have a project to bury my head in during the craziness of the publishing process!
Matthew Thomas is a New Jersey high school English teacher who has spent the past decade writing his first novel We Are Not Ourselves. A labor of love well worth the effort, his debut is being heralded as the next major American novel.
The story begins in the early 1950s with Eileen Tumulty, the American daughter of two Irish immigrants. Eileen’s hard-working, barroom-preaching father is trying his damnedest to provide while shunning racetrack bookies. Her mother, reeling from a miscarriage, spends her days drinking herself into a quiet stupor to quell the pain. Eileen is left without anything to call her own, and vows to become empowered and successful as she grows up. We Are Not Ourselves is Eileen’s story as she searches for the American Dream in New York City.
After college, Eileen takes a well-paying job in a city hospital and marries Ed Leary. Ed is a scientist and professor at a community college whose dedication to academic integrity keeps him in the classroom and out of the Dean's office, where Eileen wishes he would be. After months of failed conception, Eileen and Ed are graced with Connell, who grows up pudgy and struggles with body image issues amongst his classmates. Against Ed’s wishes, Eileen decides to move the family out of their comfortable apartment in Jackson Heights and into a large, dilapidated house in the upper-middle class suburbs. She hopes that tasking Connell and Ed with evening home improvements will help bring the family closer, but Connell is preoccupied with developing renown at his new school and Ed is seemingly inundated with his studies. While Eileen achieves her childhood goal of working domesticity, the Learys are not nearly as cohesive as she wishes. Her efforts to bring them together only cause more tension, which, when combined with the everyday tribulations they experience in their personal lives, stress everyone into a state of crisis.
Thomas asks in We Are Not Ourselves if it still counts as the American Dream when it comes with so many hitches and broken promises, and he does so through an incredibly well-developed cast of characters and with beautiful, insightful prose. Contemporary fiction enthusiasts and readers who enjoy deep characterization should not miss this wonderful debut.
Anthony Breznican, senior staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, is trying his hand at fiction writing with his debut novel Brutal Youth. This omniscient view of a parochial high school demonstrates how vicious adolescence can be, and what lengths people will go to hide their secrets.
In a parochial school where sins are so pervasive that they fill the halls, the students just try to make it through the day while administrators work to save the school for another year. On Davidek and Stein’s introductory visit to St. Michael's, the halls are so full of tension that a student snaps and begins throwing objects at other students while fortified on the roof. It’s Davidek and Stein’s quick thinking that allows them to save a fallen student and, due to their efforts, they’re bonded in friendship.
Despite their abysmal first impression of the school, both students find themselves enrolled for their freshman year. The novel follows their first year of high school from freshman hazing to dysfunctional families and even relationship woes. An omniscient narrator is able to show how anxieties trickle down in the school from administrative setbacks to pressure on teachers who let off steam by cracking down on students who then turn on the freshmen.
This bold debut takes an interesting look at a subject that’s all too relevant in today’s society where bullying runs rampant. The setting of a parochial school is a thought provoking choice as well because expectations are different for public school versus religious establishments. However, the reader will quickly discover there’s not a whole lot of difference other than the dress code and course offerings.
A devastating pandemic wipes out the human population in Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel Station Eleven. Kirsten Raymonde was just 8 years old when it happened, but she was one of the lucky ones. Now, she is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a band of artists and musicians that wander from town to town, keeping the works of Shakespeare alive. Her comfort lies in two issues of a gloriously detailed comic book and a glass paperweight that was given to her just before the pandemic began by fellow actor Arthur Leander who died on stage that night while performing King Lear. In a world torn apart by disease, the things that matter most are memories and people.
Station Eleven is a lyrical dystopian novel with compelling and complex characters. The plot transports the reader forward and backward in time, meaning you meet many of the characters at different times in their lives. The central characters connect in ways that become more apparent throughout the course of the novel, and each shines with their own intensity. These connections become more important as the characters face their own mortality and the mortality of those they care about. They hold on to memories of the past, clinging to the world that was as they are forced to face an uncertain future. Although this is dystopian literature, the prose is both graceful and thoughtful and will appeal to a much wider audience. The characters, themes and style would make this a good novel to discuss with book groups.
When Richard Simnel invents the locomotive, it's Steam Engine Time in Ankh-Morpork, the greatest city of the Discworld! With financial backing from Harry King, King of the Golden River and Moist von Lipwig, the Disc's wiliest civil servant, everyone and everything is on the move. A bid to get seafood that's still fresh spawns the tourist industry. But where there's change, there's people who don't want to change, and the budding rail has to fend off attacks of Deep Dwarves.
As a story alone, this is solid material, but Terry Pratchett remains one of the greatest living satirists. (He's also better than quite a few who are dead.) With Raising Steam, he looks at societal change driven by technology bringing people together. At the same time, it's an homage to rail culture, engineers and all the people who make the transportation industry go. It's also a blistering indictment of people who try to burn the world down rather than letting their neighbors move on with the times. "Tak does not require that we think of him, but he does require that we think."
At the same time, Raising Steam is also clearly the book of a man struggling with Alzheimer's. It remains a wonder that Pratchett can still write at all, much less as well as this. His earlier books may have been stronger (a few plot threads appear and vanish in Steam, never to be seen again), but it's still a gem. Written with the understanding that any book he turns out could be his last, he gives us a chance to check in with old friends throughout. The Discworld may be a long-running series, but every book stands alone while providing bonuses for the fans who have read the books that came before.
Raising Steam is a reminder that big things often start with little things. Here they start with a load of octopus on a midsummer's day.