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Suicide's Undertow

Writer grapples with personal experience of a husband’s darkness.

Source: Sourcebooks

“On October 20, 1997, my husband committed suicide after a daylong standoff.” This is how Kathryn Craft opens her note to readers of review copies of her second novel The Far End of Happy (following The Art of Falling). The incident itself is true, but she approaches it through fiction, hoping to find something positive.

“Difficult life events require time to process,” she states.

The tale covers the entire day spent in a stressful state, with relatives, friends, news media, and law enforcement officers coming in and out as her inebriated husband holes up with a gun. The lead character, Ronnie, must consider how her sons will react to their father’s act of self-destruction, but there’s also the immediate demand of farm animals to be fed. She can’t get to them, and this reinforces the sense of powerlessness.

The narrative also flashes back to earlier times for all of the key characters, including a mother and mother-in-law, as secrets are revealed and motivations clarified. There’s tension on all sides.

Craft is a careful writer, but also poetic in all the right places. Several times, a provocative image seals (even steals) the scene, such as a branch swinging in “violent indecision,” which foreshadows the primary characters. She also knows how to hide things, forcing us into opinions about characters that will inevitably change. That's what I call having a reading experience.

We immediately feel her distress over the direction her marriage took, and want to learn more. Craft knows how to make us turn the page.

But this blog isn’t a book review so much as an opportunity to probe the mind of the author. Although Craft explains why she fictionalized the book in “A Conversation with the Author” at the end of the novel, I want to take it further. My questions are below, in italics:

You do a masterful job of combining the stories of several complex characters, which infects readers with a multitude of conflicting emotions about the events, past and present. I know that you wrote this over a period of time, having to take breaks. What was it like to go back into that world after having a breather?

I am so very glad that I ended up novelizing this story. In between fiction projects, I had drafted a memoir of my marriage that included the standoff, but then my imagination snagged on the more fictional notion that the standoff needed to be front and center in order to honor the incredible turning point it was in the survivors' lives, for better or worse. That's when I got the idea to constrain the story to twelve hours, a technique used widely in suspense and thrillers but not so much in women's fiction.

The two mothers, Beverly and Janet, are fictional, as was their relationship. But my husband's mother (now deceased) had been an enigma to me. The only time she ever showed true emotion in my presence was after her husband died and she let me hold her as she cried. So imagining what might have happened in her life to bring her to that moment allowed me empathy for a mother to whom this might happen—and I found it was that empathy that was important, not the fact that this mother wasn't exactly her.

The big surprise was my love for Beverly. She was the last character to flesh out in my mind but her backstory allowed me to wring so much more meaning from those twelve hours.

And for me, that's the point of all this. I'm aware that most turn away from suicide in every way. They move away, try not to think about it, don't talk about it. But I have to. I mean, this was my life. I have to make something of it.

Were there times during the writing that you really HAD to stop and move away from it? How did you extricate yourself, emotionally?

No, I pretty much lived the past year in 1997 with a different husband, qualifying mine for sainthood. I recall one night, after writing a heart wrenching scene (which means it was about my children), I wanted to go to a Philadelphia synagogue to hear author Jillian Cantor talk about her novel Margot, a reimagining of the life of Anne Frank's sister if she hadn’t died in Auschwitz. At the last minute I discovered it wasn’t just an author’s talk, it was a Yom HaShoah service to commemorate the six million Jews that had been killed by the Nazis in World War II.

If the horrific and seemingly senseless loss of one life isn’t enough to crush you, add six million more. I was a wreck and there was no way I could pull myself together to get to the service, even though that may have been exactly what I needed. I was pretty fragile for a few days after and knew I needed time to recover. Again.

For me, feeling the intense sadness and horror isn't the dangerous thing. Oddly, being married to the man I chose was more dangerous.

Do you hope this form of expression will alleviate the burden of memory, and would you recommend it to other people as a healing force?

I believe it so much that for the past eight years I've been teaching a workshop called Healing Through Writing. Story allows us to create order from chaos, to contemplate and seek meaning, to reach around in the darkest corners of our lives for the seeds of hope that allow closure.

As Lisa Cron says so beautifully in her book Wired for Story, "Story, as it turned out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to."

That said, I have not been burdened by my memories. From that first night after my husband's death I have sought to own them, madly reshuffling my expectations to deal with the realities. The boys and I stayed on the farm until they were in college and faced it down, together. It seemed the only way through.

Does recounting aspects of the story still make me cry? Of course. But the sadness I sometimes feel is not a burden, because it was equal to my love for the man I married, the sons we made, and the farm we renovated—that, even the day after his death, was still the perfect place to raise them.

I see that you added a Reading Group Guide. How would you market the book to reading groups?

The Sourcebooks Landmark imprint is aimed toward book clubs. They have a page at their website devoted to clubs that introduces the books, rates their intensity, and even offers food and drink pairings. They offer special deals to clubs organized through bookstores. I have a page at my own website for book clubs as well.

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