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Dugan’s Novel Explores Love and Loss

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 The Sweetheart Deal by Polly Dugan

An Authorlink interview By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris


Polly Dugan’s novel THE SWEETHEART DEAL begins with an intriguing premise: What if you promised your best friend that if he died you would marry his wife?

The Sweetheart Deal
by Polly Dugan

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What if that promise is made on a drunken evening by a confirmed bachelor whose friend dies in an accident twelve years later? That dilemma is at the heart of a novel that deals with love, loss and what it means to be a family.

The novel begins with the death of firefighter Leo McGeary and reveals its impact on his wife Audrey and his best friend Garrett, who promised to marry Audrey in the event of Leo’s death. When Audrey learns the truth about the pact the two men made it threatens to destroy her newfound connection to Garrett.

The idea came to Dugan out of the blue when she was looking for an idea for a novel, thirteen years after joking with her best friend from college.

“. . . I have to wait for the story to reveal itself to me. If I try to force it the story comes out flat.”

“It started as joke between me and my best friend. She had a real camaraderie with my husband and I said, ‘If I die, you have to marry Patrick,’ said Dugan. She let the idea percolate and then started to build a novel that had compelling characters in a challenging situation with high emotional stakes.

“I have to wait for the story to reveal itself to me. If I try to force it the story comes out flat.

Usually it shows up in my head around three-fourths of the way done, and my job is to give it physical form,” said Dugan.

Dugan is also the author of the short story collection SO MUCH A PART OF YOU. THE SWEETHEART DEAL is her first novel.

“I was very intimidated by the scope of the novel, the larger form. I decide to approach it in sections written from the point of view of each character.” said Dugan.

“I wanted that challenge. I wanted the story to be multi-dimensional.”

She said writing in first person helped her “feel like I was in their skin. It was a very personal, authentic way to serve the story.” Though another writer might have focused on the triangle aspect to enhance the romance. Dugan told the story from the point of view of Garrett, Leo, and Audrey, and the children Brian, Andrew and Christopher.

“I wanted that challenge. I wanted the story to be multi-dimensional. I was trying to show those dimensions with the three boys of different ages with different personalities. It felt like the kind of book I wanted to read,” said Dugan.

The book deals with grief and the new normal that people seek after a significant loss. Her mother passed away in 2003.   Dugan said she isn’t sure she would have written these books if her mother had not passed away. “This gives me a way to channel this experience. I can control these stories in a way that I can’t control life,” she noted.

She started writing THE SWEETHEART DEAL in March 2013 and felt like she was finished in November, Her editor, Judy Clain, wanted 20,000 more words.

“Judy said it was like I was living in a small apartment when I had much larger real estate to work in,” said Dugan. She was told the end came to quickly and spent some time developing that part of the book. Another challenge was making sure the voices of the three boys were distinct which she handled by giving them distinct personalities, ages and interests.

“You have to get the crummy stuff out for the good stuff to come.”

Dugan researched the technical aspects of the ski accident on Mt. Hood, which kills Leo. She also spoke with her parish priest on how he might counsel a widow who has lost her husband unexpectedly.

Dugan advised writers to give themselves the time and space they need to create. “You have to get the crummy stuff out for the good stuff to come. Each subsequent generation of your story should be better than the one before it.”

She also suggested that each writer find the structure they need to allow themselves to write. When she worked at Guide Dogs for the Blind, Dugan would write on her lunch hour. She also kept a voice recorder in her car to capture ideas.

“Writers have to be acute observers of the world. There are things that will stick with you and you need to carry them around until it is the right time to use them,” advised Dugan. One such image came from a friend’s husband who described a premature baby’s hand that was so small he could slip his wedding ring over it. She used that image in the story “Handfuls” in SO MUCH A PART OF YOU.

Being a reader for Tin House, screening submissions, has been another essential part Dugan’s education as a writer. “It helps you develop you own critical faculties,” said Dugan. “It makes you a better writer when you are able to identify common writing mistakes. It makes your own writing tighter.”

She passes on stories that are confusing, don’t have significant emotional stakes or are marred by bad dialogue. She is interested in stories with high emotional stakes that are revealed early, fully formed characters and compelling dialogue.

As for her next project, Dugan is working on a novel length story about one of the characters from SO MUCH A PART OF YOU where two women who live next door to each other discover they have more in common than their friendship.  

About the Author

Polly Dugan lives in Portland, Oregon, and is a reader for Tin House. She is an alumna of the Tin House Writer’s Workshop and the author of the short story collection So Much a Part of You

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Carolina Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.