An Interview with Barbara Delinsky about While My Sister
While My Sister Sleeps portrays a family facing a tragic turning
point. Was the writing process different for you this time, or do you follow the
same approach with every manuscript?
The writing process rarely changes. It entails developing a concept into a plot,
fleshing out characters, doing research, and writing for long hours each day.
That said, each book of mine involves very different emotional issues. In the
case of While My Sister Sleeps, the issues of responsibility, family
love, and letting go were particularly vivid. I lived for nine months with the
high emotions that the Snow family experienced in a week. As draining as that
was for me, I am thrilled with the outcome.
Like many of the families in your books, the Snows have a complex way of
coping. Do you have siblings? If so, how did those relationships compare to
Molly and Robin's?
I was a middle child. With sisters above and below, I know of sibling rivalry
and have often written about it. None of us were stars as Robin was, and we had
no family business. But we were as different from each other as Molly and Robin
were, and we vied for our parents' love, just as they did. That desire for
parental approval is universal.
What inspired you to choose marathon running for Robin? Who are the most
athletic people in your life?
Hey, I'm from Boston. We Bostonians take our sports seriously, and I mean
seriously. The annual running of the Boston Marathon is a big deal here. For
many of my formative years, I lived along the race route. I remember cheering
the guys on in the days when, yes, there were only guys. The advent of women was
momentous, bringing huge respect for female runners. Joan Benoit was a total
celebrity. Given that, and the fact that women often hit their stride as
marathoners in their thirties, making Robin a marthoner was something of a
The most athletic people in my life? I'd have to say my kids. While my husband
and I work out faithfully, our kids are the buff ones. Running, lifting weights,
skiing, swimming we're proud of the commitment they've made to being healthy.
What was it like to create Snow Hill? What made it an ideal family business
for this novel?
Creating Snow was great fun! I love plant nurseries. When my kids were little
and I was into houseplants, I used to push their stroller up and down the aisles
of my local plant place. When I describe the pleasure Molly feels in her
greenhouse, I'm describing the serenity I found in the ones I visited. Snow Hill
is, in fact, a composite of those greenhouses. Oh, I did my research and made it
state-of-the-art, but the sight and smell and overall earthiness is what I
remember so vividly.
What makes it an ideal family business for this novel is that different family
members, each with his or her own skill set, can be involved. Charlie does PR,
Chris keeps the books, Molly runs the greenhouse, Robin chairs special events,
and Kathryn oversees it all. Each job reflects the personality of that family
member, adding flavor and consistency to the plot.
Several of your previous novels have featured deception and its unexpected
consequences. What can readers take away from situations such as Kathryn and
Peter's? Or Chris's dilemma over Liz?
Are there many of us who can truly say that we have never, ever held back parts
of the truth, even to people who are near and dear? We're ashamed of some little
piece of our past; we fear disapproval or even outright rejection; we may
honestly believe that the past is better left buried.
I don't see this as deliberate, malicious lying, but simply a failure to tell
the whole truth, and often the whole truth never does come out. Had Robin not
collapsed, Peter's existence might never have been known. Same with Chris's
relationship with Liz, who was fired from her job in part for taking advantage
of the family's focus on Robin.
My message to readers is that, as painful as it may be as much as we dread it
full disclosure can be productive. This is surely the case in While My
Sister Sleeps. Once past the initial shock, the characters are better able
to understand each other. Their relationships become stronger.
What do you hope your readers will learn from Alexis's story? Why was it
important to include a character with anorexia, whose perfectionism became
Anorexia is a real and growing problem, traditionally seen among those in their
teens and twenties, but more recently appearing among thirty- and
forty-year-olds, women and men alike. Though its causes are myriad, it's an
illness that is easy to hide. Our society worships slimness, and until
performance suffers, who complains? We refuse to see the truth until the
situation becomes too dire to ignore.
Such is the case with Alexis. I wanted to illustrate what can happen when a
single-minded focus masks deeper problems, when our drive to achieve dreams has
us overlooking potentially lethal pitfalls. Alexis's situation actually echoes
Robin's, which is one of the reasons I included her story. Another is David's
role in getting help for Alexis. He becomes the guy who is torn between doing
the right thing and keeping still which is Molly's quandary as well, bringing
the issue front and center to the plot of the book.
How did your early work in journalism shape your approach to writing fiction,
as well as the way you envisioned Nick's character?
My early work in journalism made me aware that writing fiction is totally
different from writing news, and second, that I far prefer writing fiction.
As for envisioning Nick's character, he wasn't so much based on people I've
known in journalism as on people I've known in general. When you're driven, you
tend to push the envelope regardless of the field. Occasionally, that means
being insensitive to those around you. I am always dismayed when a reporter
approaches a mom who has just lost two children in a house fire and asks, "Can
you tell us what you're feeling right now?" Nick's character has the kind of
drive to do that, though we do learn that his feelings, certainly for Robin, are
far more complex than they appear at first glance.
In many regards, Nick and Robin are alike both driven to the point of
As a breast-cancer survivor, do you draw on your own experiences when your
characters have to face tough situations?
Definitely. My experience with breast cancer taught me much, but breast cancer
is only a specific. Survivorship has general qualities and there are general
lessons to be learned from surviving: tragedy happens; life goes on; we have to
appreciate the good things we have. Members of the Snow family learn these
things in the course of While My Sister Sleeps.
You've been invited to talk with many reading groups through phone
appointments. What is it like to discuss your books directly with your fans?
The best. I mean, the best. My readers mean the world to me. Their enthusiasm
and undying loyalty have made me the writer I am. When they talk, I listen
which is why the opportunity to talk to reading groups on the phone is so
rewarding to me. Many of these book group members are new to my writing, which
makes my time with them even more challenging. They want to know about me and my
career, as well as about the book they've just read. And their questions can be
tough. But they do get my mind working.
I'm looking forward to hearing the questions they'll have about While My
Where will your next book take you? Have you chosen a setting or a theme?
It's a fair guess that the setting will be somewhere in New England. I've spent
my entire life in New England and do set most of my books there. I'm actually in
a Maine kind of mood. As for the plot or theme, I'm trying to choose between
three that I'd really like to tackle. More to come on that