An Interview with Barbara Delinsky about While My Sister Sleeps
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 no-brainer.
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 deadly?
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 self-absorption.
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 Sister Sleeps!
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
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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