On Friday, I shared my review of Barbara Claypole White’s book, THE PERFECT SON. Today Barbara has graciously agreed to a Q & A.–and a giveaway! Use the combox to ask a question or post a comment and you can be entered to win a copy of the book!
Barbara, tell us a bit about about THE PERFECT SON.
THE PERFECT SON is the story of a high maintenance family struggling with forces threatening to rip it apart. My family is a high maintenance family—my son has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—and I used to say it felt as if our family were balanced on a high wire: one wobble, and we’d all come crashing down.
When I created the Fitzwilliam family—Ella, the full-time mom and family rock; Felix, the emotionally disengaged breadwinner; and Harry, the chaotic teen with a soup of issues that includes ADHD and Tourette’s—I did more than wobble their world. I torpedoed it. In the first chapter, Ella has a major heart attack at 47, on a plane coming in to the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. (Interesting aside: this story seed started two years ago when some poor guy collapsed in front of me on a transatlantic flight…approaching RDU.)
Ella’s emotional arc, learning to let go and trust that her special-needs son could cope without her constant guidance, echoes my own journey. On the flip side is Felix, a man obsessed with order, routine, and perfection, a parent who has to learn the opposite—how to engage with his son. Harry, bless him, is always Harry. He’s confident and filled with a sparky joie de vive that gives him more energy than a nuclear power plant. Or, as his best friend Max says, a howler monkey on meth. Max epitomizes one of my favorite themes of the book: that you can’t judge people by one aspect of their personalities. Max looks like a delinquent punk rocker, and sometimes he deliberately acts like one. He’s actually a math genius and a devoted big brother to autistic Dylan. And then there’s Eudora, the Fitzwilliam’s 75-year-old neighbor, a southern horticulturalist with a voice as sweet as strychnine.
It’s almost a given that “women’s fiction” is fiction for and about women. And yet in this book, the focus is on the men loved by one woman, Ella. What made you choose that structure?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. I created the first three chapters for my contract proposal, polished the heck out of them, and wasn’t really sure what happened next. Felix’s journey held the most appeal for me, so I zoomed in on him. Ever since I created James Nealy, my beloved hero with OCD in THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, I’ve wanted to go deeper and darker. That desire led to Felix. Interestingly enough, I’ve been on a riff of writing damaged men, but for novel four, I have a damaged heroine.
Can’t wait! On that topic of “damaged” heroes/heroines: all your books address characters who are dealing with neurological disorders or mental illnesses. What is it about this dynamic that inspires you as a storyteller?
I’m drawn to quirky characters and people with dark corners. They have such potential to shine and show true courage through doing things that most of us take for granted. We talk about the courage of soldiers, policemen, teachers, nurses, etc., as we should, but we rarely talk about the courage it takes to make it through one ordinary day when you’re fighting a private war no one else can share. In THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, James faces his crippling fear of flying for the woman he loves. I cheered through that moment and wanted to write more of them.
I love that: the courage to make it through an ordinary day. Just beautiful! Your writing just glows with hope, which is especially profound given that your characters struggle with conditions that are never going to go away. There’s no magic bullet, no “the strife is o’er” moment to end your books; the struggles faced by your characters are going to continue for the rest of their lives. Is that focus on hope, even when things aren’t perfect, something you consciously aspire to in your writing?
Oh, yes! There aren’t many happy endings in the world of mental illness. Mental illness, after all, is treatable, not curable, and often fatal. It needs to be managed like any other life-threatening disease. But there’s always hope for a better tomorrow. Those of us in the trenches need that hope. It’s also the reason I have a recurring image in my writing of light through the trees.
This novel seems to have just exploded on the scene. What do you think it is about this story that seems to resonate so deeply with people?
Thank you. Since it was chosen for the Kindle First Program in America, England, and Australia, THE PERFECT SON has been exposed to more readers than I could possibly have imagined. Kindle First is a promotion that allows Amazon readers to access tomorrow’s releases a month early, and it’s the reason THE PERFECT SON has been #1 in three categories of Kindle sales throughout the month of June, and the reason I’ve shot into the top twenty most popular authors on Amazon. The book was also selected for placement in over 5,000 Walmart stores, and over 350 Sam’s Club stores. Because I’m darkly quirky—and some of my characters occasionally use the F bomb—I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m fine with that. Reading is subjective, and I’ve found my niche as a writer. So yes, I’ve been quite surprised by the reception the novel has received, but my editor would give a different answer. She would say the book has mass appeal, which is what she believed when she first saw it in manuscript form. While this is a story about Tourette’s and undiagnosed mental illness, it also strips down to a story of a family in crisis. And we’ve all been there.
Your previous books, THE UNFINISHED GARDEN and THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, tell stories of healing found through romantic relationships. With THE PERFECT SON you focus on redemption through the strengthening of a father-son bond. What made you shift your focus? Is this an underdeveloped theme in literature?
To be honest, I find the father-son dynamic far more interesting than the mother-daughter one. I’m fascinated by the inner lives of men. Men aren’t emotional in the same way as women, and much remains hidden and unexpressed. And yet the gift—or the curse—of mental illness is often extreme sensitivity. I’ve found that again and again in my research, and I can say with certainty that my son is very empathetic. He’s an emotional sponge…
You’ve managed to create a page-turner without car chases and explosions. Your fiction is intensely character-driven, and you have a real knack for making us care about your characters. Thanks for taking the time to visit today! Where can we find copies of your book?