An EXCLUSIVE AUTHORLINK interview with ANN NAPOLITANO
Dear Edward: A Novel (The Dial Press, 6 January 2020)
by Columnist Anna Roins
Dear Edward: A Novel was a NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER for eight weeks.
One summer morning, 12-year-old Edward Adler, his beloved older brother, his parents, and 183 other passengers board a flight in Newark headed for Los Angeles. Among them are a Wall Street wunderkind, a young woman coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, an injured veteran returning from Afghanistan, a business tycoon, and a free-spirited woman running away from her controlling husband. Halfway across the country, the plane crashes. Edward is the sole survivor.
Edward’s story captures the attention of the nation, but he struggles to find a place in a world without his family. He continues to feel that a part of himself has been left in the sky, forever tied to the plane and all of his fellow passengers. But then he makes an unexpected discovery – one that will lead him to the answers of some of life’s most profound questions: When you’ve lost everything, how do you find the strength to put one foot in front of the other? How do you learn to feel safe again? How do you find meaning in your life?
Dear Edward is at once a transcendent coming-of-age story, a multidimensional portrait of an unforgettable cast of characters, and a breathtaking illustration of all the ways a broken heart learns to love again – Amazon
AUTHORLINK: Ms Napolitano, thank you for sharing your time with us to talk about Dear Edward. It has been described as a novel that illustrates our stunning vulnerability to random, tragic events, and our inability to protect ourselves and the ones we love. However, it’s a surprisingly uplifting book. It’s not just about a plane crash and loss. It’s also about the choices we make and how to lead meaningful lives by acknowledging how there is beauty in tragedy and love in grief. What is it about these themes that compelled you to explore it in your writing?
“I wanted to explore how we move through personal tragedy…”
NAPOLITANO: We all go through difficult periods in our lives—perhaps your mother dies, or you lose a job that you considered to be your identity or your biochemistry changes and you’re saturated with depression. What happened to Edward was catastrophic, of course, but if you’re living in one of those smaller moments, it can still feel so devastating that you can’t see your way to the other side. I wanted to explore how we move through personal tragedy, and how we can find meaning in that experience. A horrible event can break you, or you can become more—more human, more compassionate, more wise—in order to get to the other side.
AUTHORLINK: Excellent. Dear Edward is based on an actual flight tragedy in 2010 where an Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A330, flying from Johannesburg, crashed short of the runway at Libya’s Tripoli airport. All passengers perished except for a nine-year-old Dutch boy. Incredibly, rescuers found the boy still strapped in his seat nearly 800 meters away, alive but with multiple fractures to his legs.
You said once, “His aunt and uncle did an amazing job of protecting the Dutch boy’s privacy once he was released from the hospital, but that meant I couldn’t know that he became okay…I needed him to be okay, so I had to write my way into believing that was possible. (LJ Library Journal, 22 November 2019).
In Dear Edward, you decided to align his recovery with the psychological framework known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Can you tell us a bit about this?
NAPOLITANO: I struggled for years to find shape, or a believable arc, to Edward’s storyline. I had to walk such a careful emotional line, that at times I found it paralyzing (for me as the writer, and for Edward). I think my husband had the idea to align his growth to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and that through-line made real sense to me. Maslow portrayed the hierarchy as a triangle, with physical survival being the wide bottom of the triangle—deeply necessary to us as humans—and the thin point on top being self-actualization.
AUTHORLINK: Perfect. We have something in common…Just after your junior year of college, you contracted the Epstein Barr virus which wiped out your immune system. You were ill for about three years, which caused you to take extra time to finish your course. This sort of happened to me too. We understand this experience helped you to relate to Edward during the writing of this book, as he learns to exist in an alternate reality this tragedy has created for him. Is that correct?
NAPOLITANO: Yes, when I returned to college for what should have been my senior year, I was only able to take a half-load of classes, and I was essentially there because if I’d stayed home on my parents’ couch I would have been terribly depressed, as well as sick. So, I was in a dorm filled with twenty-year-olds, but I felt eighty. I had very little energy, and a compromised immune system, so I had to be very careful about how I moved through my days. I learned, around my friends, to fake normalcy during that year. I would think: what would a normal twenty-year-old do now? Laugh? Ask a question? Gossip? This sense of otherness helped me relate to Edward. I could understand, in my bones, that even though he was twelve-years-old when he moved in with his aunt and uncle, he was also no longer a kid. He was something else entirely.
AUTHORLINK: Yes. There are two timelines in Dear Edward. One about Edward’s life after the crash, and the other about the characters on the plane doomed to die using an omniscient third-person narrator. What made you decide to structure the book in this way and to use this notoriously tricky POV? Was it always staged this way from the beginning?
“I knew—almost as soon as I knew I had to write about Edward—that the two storylines had to sit side-by-side..”
NAPOLITANO: I knew—almost as soon as I knew I had to write about Edward—that the two storylines had to sit side-by-side. In part, this was because I thought that if something this absolutely devastating happened to a person, he would carry it with him for the rest of his life. It wouldn’t be a matter of whether he was able to set that trauma down, it would be a matter of learning to bear its weight. That’s why the two storylines alternate, and have (roughly) equal space in the novel. And perhaps because I saw the structure as inevitable, I found it to be a creative positive. I had two arcs I was following at all times, and that kept me on track. I’m not naturally good at plotting, so this rigid framework filled in where my natural talent was absent.
And the POV came naturally—I love going into the heads of different characters, so I had to write the book in a way that allowed that to happen. There was a certain scope required to tell the story.
AUTHORLINK: It was really well done. Dear Edward took eight years to write. We understand your other two books also took a few years to complete. Can you tell us a bit about your writing, research, and editing schedule each week? Do you aim for a particular word count each day? Do you have any writing quirks?
“I do have a trick for the middle of the writing process…”
NAPOLITANO: When I was beginning to think about this book, my husband suggested that I spend a year taking notes, reading, and researching before I actually started writing. Writing sentences is perhaps my favorite thing to do, and I am very good at making things up. However, writing is more intuitive than cerebral for me; in my prior novel, A Good Hard Look (Penguin Press, 7 July 2011), I had struggled with the plot and struggled to pull the narrative into the shape of a book. I ended up having to cut hundreds of pages I’d written. My husband’s suggestion was a reaction to watching me write that novel; he thought I should engage my problem-solving brain before I began to make up stories willy-nilly. I found that year of note-taking frustrating because I couldn’t write pretty sentences, but he was right. Beyond that stand-alone year, I write most days of the week, but for how long, depends on how busy I am in the rest of my life. I do have a trick for the middle of the writing process, though, which I think I stole from Ann Patchett. Because it takes so long for me to write a novel, I hit an inevitable wall of despair about four years in, when the end is not in sight, and the book is a mess. At this point, I commit to writing for five minutes a day. Once I’ve written for five minutes, I put an x on my calendar, and my job is to see how many x’s in a row I can string together. Of course, many days I write for longer than five minutes, but I have to do five minutes. I use this practice to pull myself through the rough spots.
AUTHORLINK: Okay, terrific. Love that advice by Ann Patchett! Do you proofread and edit all your work, or do you get someone to do that for you? How many proofreads and edits do you go through before you show your work to your agent and editor?
NAPOLITANO: I met two writers in graduate school, Helen Ellis and Hannah Tinti, and we have been each other’s first readers for something like twenty-three years now. They are the only ones to read my work until I consider it done (as done as I can make it), and then I give it my husband and my agent.
AUTHORLINK: How wonderful. Did you always want to be a writer? What made you decide to sit down and start something? How many novels did you write before you were published?
NAPOLITANO: I decided I wanted to be a writer in fourth grade, after spending forty-five minutes making up sentences for a vocabulary assignment. I was shocked by how much time had passed—it had felt like five minutes—and I thought to myself that inventing sentences and stories was magic. I think I started a novel the next day. I wrote two novels (proper ones, written when I was an adult) that were never published. I didn’t sell a novel until I was thirty-one years old, at which point I just assumed I would never publish a word.
AUTHORLINK: How did you find your agent and are you still with him or her? How do you think you have evolved creatively?
“I think I am a stronger writer now than I was twenty-five years ago, in most ways.”
NAPOLITANO: My initial agent, Elaine Koster, died shortly after I sold my second novel (A Good Hard Look) to Penguin Press. I reached out to a shortlist of agents to ask if they would be interested in taking me on, even though they wouldn’t make any money from me for a while (if ever). Happily, the amazing Julie Barer at The Book Group agreed to represent me. I have been with her for eight or nine years, but the first book she sold for me was Dear Edward. I think I am a stronger writer now than I was twenty-five years ago, in most ways. My weaknesses are still my weaknesses, but they’re less debilitating than they used to be. Every book is challenging in a different way, though. It’s not like the books get easier as you become a stronger writer, unfortunately.
AUTHORLINK: Okay, good to know. What are you currently working on? We understand it has something to do with basketball. Are you able to tell us a bit about it? Did it start with an ‘obsession’? Is it hard for you to be slotted into a genre?
NAPOLITANO: I never think about genres, as a writer. I don’t think it’s helpful to consider that kind of thing, at least not until the book is done. I feel like I have a story to tell, and I simply try to write it in the most effective way possible. I became obsessed with the history of basketball, and racism within basketball as a mirror for racism in our society, a few years ago, and somehow, that will factor into the new book I’m writing. All I can really say other than that at this point is that it’s set mostly in Chicago in the present day.
AUTHORLINK: Sounds great! And now for some light-hearted questions to conclude: –
- What advice would you give to your younger self?
I was incredibly shy as a young person and really felt like my voice did not need to be heard. I wish I had been more willing to take up space in a room. I was too deferential to people older and more powerful than me, and now that I am older, I know that’s silly. None of us knows anything, and sometimes using my voice and point-of-view would have been of value to me, if no one else.
- Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?
In theory, I would love to spend the day following Flannery O’Connor around her farm in Georgia. But Flannery is very intimidating, and she would probably be mad at me for writing her into a novel (my second book, A Good Hard Look), so I wouldn’t actually want to do that unless I could be invisible.
- If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. I guess because when I read it, everything in me cried out: YES. Yes to the older, physically-plain main character, yes to the nerdy study of moss, yes to the sex scene in the cave and the large canvas of the book as a whole. It’s a wonderful, wonderful novel that resonated with me.
AUTHORLINK: Ms Napolitano, thank you for your time today. It was wonderful discussing Dear Edward with you and your writing process. We wish you and family good health and your continued success!
NAPOLITANO: Thank you.
About the Author: Ann Napolitano’s new novel, Dear Edward, was published by Dial Press in January 2020. She is the author of the novels A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach. She is also the Associate Editor of One Story literary magazine. She received an MFA from New York University; she has taught fiction writing for Brooklyn College’s MFA program, New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and for Gotham Writers’ Workshop. In November 2019, Ann was long-listed for the Simpson/Joyce Carol Oates Literary Prize.
Dear Edward has been published by Dial Press in the United States, and by Viking Penguin in the United Kingdom. The novel currently has twenty-two international publishers.
A Good Hard Look was published in the United States by Penguin Press. The novel appeared on the Southern Independent bestseller list, on one of NPR’s Best of 2011 lists, and was also an Indie Next Pick and an Okra Pick.
Her first novel, Within Arm’s Reach, was published in the United States by Crown Publishing, in the United Kingdom by Time Warner Books/Virago, in Spain by Ediciones Salamandra, and in Germany by Verlagsgruppe Droemer Weltbild. The novel was adapted and staged as a theatrical production in New York City in 2014.
Ann lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.
You can find out more about Ann at https://annnapolitano.com/, https://www.instagram.com/annnapolitano/ and https://twitter.com/napolitanoann