Sarah Pekkanen Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Sarah Pekkanen

Sarah Pekkanen

How to pronounce Sarah Pekkanen: PEHK-uh-nehn

An interview with Sarah Pekkanen

Sarak Pekkanen answers questions about the timely topics explored in her 2015 novel, Things You Won't Say

You cover some timely issues in this new novel. What was the inspiration for this book?

Fifteen years ago, I was a new reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper. One of my first big assignments was to write an article about police officer Harold Carey Jr., who died in the line of duty. As I conducted interviews, the story that unfolded stunned me: Minutes before his death, Harold had been eating breakfast with a group that included Officer Lavon'De Alston, a close friend who'd encouraged him to join the force. Then a summons came in from their dispatcher: An officer was in trouble a short distance away. Few calls inspire such urgency among the brothers and sisters in blue, and the officers sprinted to their vehicles and sped, sirens blaring, to help.

At an intersection a couple of blocks away, the van being driven by Harold's partner collided with the cruiser being driven by Lavon'De. Harold died at the scene. Lavon'De, who was badly injured in the crash, was devastated. She couldn't sleep. She couldn't stop thinking about Harold, the big, lovable man who'd nicknamed her "Shorty" and gobbled the rest of her pancakes when she couldn't finish them. Her anguish—as well as her sensitivity and strength—made a deep impression on me. It was wrenchingly unfair: How could this happen to a police officer who was committed to helping people, to doing good, to saving lives? How could she endure the pain and guilt? Although the circumstances in my novel are different, my newspaper article "Officer Down!" was the inspiration for this book. Retired Baltimore Police Officer Lavon'De Alston was one of the first recipients of Things You Won't Say.


Did cases such as the shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson play into your decision to write this book? How do you handle this issue with care in a fictionalized setting?


No. My deadlines require me to turn in my manuscripts a full year before publication, so Things You Won't Say was already in the copyediting stage when Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. I did ask the copy editor to add a brief line referencing the Ferguson shooting before my novel went to press because a white police officer shot Michael Brown, who was a black teenager. In Things You Won't Say, Michael Anderson, a white police officer, shoots Jose Torres, who was an Hispanic teenager, and some of the questions that arose for characters in my book—Would Anderson have fired if Jose Torres had been white?—echoed some of the questions swirling around the Ferguson case.

My characters and their feelings are imaginary. My book is fiction. That said, I don't believe authors should shy away from tackling controversial topics. There were several possible endings for my book. As a novelist, I tried to choose one that was gripping, thoughtful, and unexpected. Obviously, it should not be viewed as reflecting any personal opinions I have on similar cases in our country.


Why did you decide to have Jamie Anderson, the wife of the accused police officer, be a narrator?

I'm always curious about the stories behind the headlines. When we hear about a politician being charged with something untoward, I immediately think of his or her family. The spouse and children are often invisible casualties. It's the same with a police officer, or minister, or doctor—or anyone else accused of a crime, whether or not they are high profile. The ripple effects are deep and wide-reaching. I wanted to explore the private emotions of a wife who was desperately trying to hold her family together in a very public crisis, so I knew I had to give voice to Jamie.


Jamie's sister, Lou, is also a narrator. Why do you decide to include her point of view?

Lou is someone who is more comfortable around animals than people. When disaster strikes and Jamie needs her help for the first time, Lou has to find a way to break out of her small, contained life and support her big sister. I gave Lou the job of an elephant keeper at a zoo. As a vegetarian who has two beloved rescue pets, I understand the debate about whether certain animals--or any animals--should be kept at a zoo. Yet as a former journalist, I'm also compelled to try to understand both sides of any issue. I don't think I could have written about Lou if her elephants were forced to live in cramped conditions, but Lou works at a zoo where there are miles of trails for elephants to roam. I talked to a few zookeepers during my reporting for this novel, and was struck by the deep love they felt for their animals. They don't earn much money, and they work long hours. I came away convinced that the keepers I spoke with cherished the animals in their care. Still, I personally believe the debate is an important one and that all animals deserve humane, stimulating, and spacious living conditions.


Do you plot out the ending of a book before you write it?

I knew the broad outline of Things You Won't Say, but some of the twists and turns were unexpected, and for me, that's the best part of writing.


Is the ending of your book intended to be hopeful or tragic?

It's never an uplifting story when a young man is killed—and when so many outrageous circumstances played into his death. As Lucia Torres, Jose's mother, says: "Do you know my son was stopped and threatened by a cop when he was walking in his own neighborhood? Told to get home and stop causing trouble or the cop would give him real trouble? Tell me that didn't happen because of the color of his skin. You have no idea what this world is like for our brown boys."

Mike Anderson, Jamie's husband, was a good cop. A fair cop. An honest cop. I personally believe most police officers are like Mike. Yet, as in any profession, bad and corrupt officers exist—and although Lucia is a fictional character, I also believe her statement has the unfortunate ring of truth.


What's in store for you next?

I'm happy to say I'll be publishing a book a year through 2018 with Atria Books. I'm currently at work on my next manuscript, but I always love to hear from readers. You can find me on Facebook or Twitter, or you can contact me via my website, www.sarahpekkanen.com.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by this Author

Books by Sarah Pekkanen at BookBrowse
The Wife Between Us jacket Things You Won't Say jacket The Best of Us jacket
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