Updated: Jun 29, 2020
Dear Edward was the June pick for My Night's Book Clubbed and was one of the December 2019 BOTM choices. We did things a little differently this month and held a Q&A with the author. Ann Napolitano was fabulous and shared what inspired Edward's story and her writing process. It gave all of us a better appreciation for the book and was such an interesting insight into the writing and publishing process.
Q: What inspired Dear Edward?
Ann: The genesis of it was that I became obsessed with a real plane crash that was in the news in 2010. There was a flight from South Africa, bound for London, and it was filled with mostly Dutch passengers that were on their way home from vacation and it crashed in Libya and there was only one survivor. It was a nine year old Dutch boy. They found him still buckled into his airplane seat about a half mile away from the wreckage. He had a punctured lung and a broken leg, but he was otherwise completely fine. And everyone else on the flight, including his parents and brother, had died immediately. It was huge news at the time. Very few people remember it now because so many terrible things have happened since then, I guess. But I became, I was immediately obsessed with the story and the things that really fascinated me about it, the first one is probably the smaller one, but in 2010 for the first time social media had become recognizable to what we know it to be today. So the first time, everyone you knew, including your mother were on Facebook, and that had never happened before that. So when this giant international story broke, there were young girls who were the same age as the little Dutch boy who were posting pages of him on Facebook about how cute he was and how sad there were for him. There was airplane aficionados that were speculating on why the plane might have crashed, on the internet. There were news leaks from inside the hospital where the little boy was that said that the president of Libya had called him while in the hospital. Up until then, the news had only been reported to us by the gate keepers, by the journalists, so for the first time, because of the internet and social media, you are getting this 360 view and that was very fascinating to me. The second thing was that accompanying every article or post about the crash, there was this photo, which I found out since then was an unauthorized photo, but a photo of the little boy in his hospital bed with his eyes closed, he's sleeping. He is a really beautiful little boy and he looks so small and so broken and I have two boys. At the time, they were one and three, they were very little. But I would look at this picture of this boy in the hospital bed and think how is he going to be able to climb out of that hospital bed and how is he going to be able to walk out of that hospital without his mom and his dad and his brother? How is that something we could even expect a child to do? And how could he ever be okay again, in any real way? The Dutch boy was adopted by his aunt and uncle and brought back to Holland and they did an amazing job from the first minute of protecting his privacy. They black out the windows of their car from the first time so that the press could not take pictures and they never gave another interview. Which was exactly what they should have done. But I was left with this sort of like obsession and question inside myself and I knew I was going to have to write my way into understanding it. So, in a way, I didn't know if he would be okay so I had to put together a set of fictional circumstances to see if it was possible to write and feel my way there. And that is basically what made me write the book and it took eight years from there, because I am very slow.
Q: What type of research did you do for the psychological and physical trauma that Edward experienced?
Ann: So the first year of the book, I didn't write, I just did research, took notes, and thought about the book. And did reading, as part of the research. So during that period, I had to research a lot. I had to research planes and plane crashes. I had to figure out who I wanted to go into on the plane, which was an exciting opportunity because everyone flies so I didn't have to like, I could follow all these very different people. There is a bunch of writing on sole survivors and survivor guilt, so I read everything there was there. Actually, while I was writing the book, there was a documentary being made called "Sole Survivor," which aired on CNN three years ago, maybe. And it literally is, there are like eight known sole survivors of airplane crashes in the world and one of them goes around the world and interviews the other ones. So, it was right up my alley. They had a kick starter for it and I was like, donate! I need to see this movie. And they didn't interview the Dutch boy because it took place while the movie was being made, but that was really interesting. And a lot of it was trying to feel my way through it, as a writer. The thing that drew me to the initial story was putting myself in that little boy's shoes and thinking, how could he be ok, how is this going to happen. And it was feeling my way forward with him, so a lot of it was revision. Taking steps with him and feeling if they felt true or not, so a lot of it came from, I don't know, whatever it is, I guess empathy and imagination.
Q: Your book showed restraint when it came to delving into the other characters, where there some characters that you wanted to develop more, but showed restraint so that it did not take away from Edward’s story?
Ann: I could have written a lot about several passengers on the plane. I wrote it the way it was written, so I would a plane chapter and then an Edward chapter, and a plane chapter and an Edward chapter. I ended up massively revising the Edward chapters, but I wrote it like that. So I was always writing with this balance weight in my hands where I could feel where the plane chapter was the right size to fit, to not dwarf the Edward chapter. So it was a lot of that kind of a thing. So I just had a sense that I had to keep it lean in the plane chapters. I wrote a lot more about Louisa Cox, I know she's not on the plane, but the widow of Crispin Cox, the oxygenarian billionaire who is on board. I could have written a lot about Florida. I did write a lot more, kind of, about Benjamin. They are all fully realized in my head, it was just how much of it could I fit on the page, that didn't throw the balance off.
Q: The character of Shay is such a light in Edward’s life, and rather unexpectedly too. What inspired you to create that character and have her enter Edward’s life in that way?
Ann: I only knew a few things when I knew I was going to write this book. Two things that I knew, was that I was going to have these chapters side by side and I was going to follow up with the plane and Edward on the ground. The only thing I knew about Edward was that he was going to be adopted by his aunt and uncle, probably, obviously because in my brain the Dutch boy was adopted by his aunt and uncle. And I knew there was going to be a girl his age who lived next door and he was going to end up sleeping on her floor. This was just like an idea that I had and I was just like, it seemed like a weird idea, where I was not sure why or maybe that was just going to go away. But when he went to his aunt and uncle's house after being in the hospital, Shay and her mom show up at his door the second morning that he is there. It was kind of like Shay just blew into the room as herself and I was like, oh I can see, I can see that this is going to start an engine that is going to be important to the book. So I didn't know who she was going to be until she came in, but she really operated as a force of nature for me. And she was a lot of fun to write. And she was a completely necessary breath of fresh air for Edward and for all these grown ups who are tip toeing around this little boy who has been going through this terrible thing. And also, because she is a kid, she is not going to tip toe around him anyway and if he is boring her, she is going to jettison him. I felt like there was this different communication that starts between them. And also, she's a weirdo, like she's been alone her whole life, and he's a weirdo now too. So, in a way, he is like the only kind of person she could have become friend with, so he ends up giving her something she also benefits from, so it is a very even relationship. So it was very fun to write. She was really fun to write.
Q: What inspired you to write the section with the letters from the victim's families?
Ann: I didn't know that was going to happen. It showed up, that bag of letters showed up in a fairly early draft of the book and I was surprised, but it never went away. I was always looking for places where what happened on the ground could touch what happened in the sky and vice, versa. And also, for those letters, I felt like if my husband was on a flight and it crashed, and everyone on that flight, except for one boy, survived. I consider myself to be a very sane and level headed human being. I would probably put a Google alert on that little boy's name for the rest of my life, because I would be invested in what happened to him next because he went on when the person I loved and all these people didn't. I would be curious. I feel like if you were not completely level and sane and you are in the grief of the aftermath of losing your person, I could totally imagine that person writing a letter and just wanting to make this connection and reach out and touch in a way this person who was with their person at the end. And try to ask for some help and, you know like, it is very clumsy because they are in their grief. But it felt emotionally correct to me. And also, Edward doesn't find them until later because earlier in the book he wouldn't have even been able to deal with opening the letters, much less making sense of them. By the time he does find them, you know it is really a catalyst for him to realize that this is happening to other people too and that there are these connections to be made, even if they are strange and inappropriate, that open doors for him. He finds out about Jordan's girlfriend and things like that. So they sort of give him access to this life that he is working his way toward.
Q: How did researching trauma and writing the intense scenes for the book affect you as the writer?
Ann: Well, weirdly, this book was the most joyful writing experience of my life. It seems very ironic and even incorrect. It took me awhile to understand why. Some of it is because I am older and I have been writing longer, so it's like, I don't want to say I am better at it, but I am not fighting it in a way that I sort of maybe used to when I was younger. But also, what I realized fairly early, the only chance that Edward had of maybe being okay was if the people around him where nice to him. So I ended up writing, all the time, in this atmosphere of kindness. Where the principal and his aunt and uncle and everyone is stepping towards him in these very human and flawed ways, but pushing kindness at him. And since I was writing from the viewpoint of Edward, I was in this world where people were being kind to each other. And it ended up being this very nourishing and delightful world to write in. So I really didn't feel the, I felt like I was writing a story that mattered that there was tension in life and death and love and grief and everything. But I didn't feel depressed. I didn't want to stop writing it actually. I probably wrote it for a year and a half longer than I should have.
Q: What are you working on now?
Ann: I do this thing now, where for the first year, starting with Dear Edward, I don't write, I just think about it and do research and take notes. Because it helps me use, I can't use my cerebral brain when I'm actually writing, so I have to set aside a distinct period of time where I am using my actual brain and reading and all that kind of stuff. So that finished in March, so about a month ago I started writing the book that I have been thinking about and taking notes on for a year. I have no idea how to talk about it yet. It is set in Chicago. So I was obsessed with the plane crash that lead to Dear Edward, my obsession this time for the last, I don't know, three or four years, has been the history of basketball and racism in basketball. As I didn't know why with the plane crash initially, I don't really know why, but it is playing a role in this book. And I am enjoying so far. I am hoping to write this book faster than Dear Edward.
Q: What are you currently reading?
Ann: The Mirror in the Light, If I had Your Face, and Writers and Lovers.