The Fall of Lisa Bellows by Susan Perabo 

Tell It Slant  

An exclusive Authorlink interview

By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

June 2017


The Fall of Lisa Bellow
by Susan Perabo

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Susan Perabo’s forte is the plight of regular people, people who do their laundry and play board games, dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Her latest novel, The Fall of Lisa Bellow, features a normal family facing the aftermath of a kidnapping. The book provides a broad canvas on which to explore themes of family, identity and motherhood.

In the novel, popular eighth grader Lisa Bellow is taken from the scene of a robbery. Perabo resists the urge to focus on the kidnapped girl or the kidnapper and tells the story of Meredith Oliver, a rival and classmate who was left behind at the scene of the crime. As Meredith retreats deeper into her own head, her mother Claire struggles to come to terms with her inability to make things better. Perabo discusses the novel’s origin, submitting to the will of her characters and the challenges of writing an unlikeable character.

“I didn’t know I would be a writer until I became one in college..”

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about an early experience where you learned that language had power?

PERABO: I didn’t know I would be a writer until I became one in college. I watched a lot of movies and played sports. I got into writing through a film class in college. I was not a great reader, but the first thing I loved as a reader were the short stories of Raymond Carver. His work showed me that simple language can reveal so much more than I imagined. That a reader could experience a character deeply through spare, simple language was a revelation to me.  I knew I wasn’t going to write long, lush descriptions, but I could do what Carver did. I went on to write many terrible stories trying to write like him.

AUTHORLINK: The desire to write a novel often begins with a questions. What question or questions were you hoping to answer with The Fall of Lisa Bellow?

PERABO: Many years ago I was in a store and someone walked in who made me feel a little uncomfortable. I took a quick look around the store and saw a woman who was younger and better dressed than I was, and I had this awful fleeting thought — well, if something happens, at least I won’t be the one chosen. The thought filled me with both relief and horror, and I had one of those writer “what if” moments, where the thought almost instantly turned into raw material for a story. I carried it around with me for years. So yeah, the question was, going forward from that moment — that moment the character is left behind — what would happen, both externally and (more significantly) internally?

“I was contracted to write a book about Little League, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Meredith and Claire.”

AUTHORLINK: How did The Fall of Lisa Bellow come together for you? 

PERABO: I started writing two chapters, the kidnaping and the flashback with Claire (Meredith’s mother) and Logan Boone (a young bully), five years ago and wondered if the story was a thriller. I’d just finished a short story collection. I was contracted to write a book about Little League, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Meredith and Claire. I wrote to my editor and she said “Write the book you want to write.”

I usually like to know the arc of the story, the stops, what the turns will be. I just sat down and put words on the page without knowing what was going to happen. I knew my characters well enough that I could let them take control of the narrative.

AUTHORLINK: You’re known for your short stories. How does the novel form differ in terms of what it requires from the writer?

PERABO: With a novel you have to have the emotional wherewithal to let the characters take over your life. When I was into this book, I’d be writing and someone would come in and ask me a question and I’d look at them like they were an alien. I was so immersed in the book that people in real life looked like strangers.

It’s hard to have this level of intensity and still keep living your life. It’s the difference between dipping your toe in the pool and jumping in with all your clothes on and knowing you are going to be in there for a while.

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the choice to focus on Meredith, rather than Lisa or Lisa’s mom.

PERABO: I was always more interested in the effects of close proximity to the crime than I was of the crime itself. I was looking at how the ripples of this affected a family that was already in a vulnerable place.

Lisa says three sentences in the book. All we know of her was imagined or assumed by Meredith. Lisa is revealed only to the extent that she reveals who Meredith is. Meredith tries to make Lisa into someone who is misunderstood, but that is all in her head. I figured out that showing Lisa this way was more interesting than exploring who she really was.   

AUTHORLINK: In dealing with the aftermath of trauma, Meredith begins to appropriate elements of her former adversary’s life and attempts to get closer rather than further from Lisa’s experience. I wonder how much of this is based on research into human psychology and how much is invented in service of dramatizing the action.

PERABO: I did zero reading on human psychology. A couple of my readers said this was an accurate portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder, but honestly it was all invented. For me, it grew organically out of the character. I knew where she would go in her head because of the trauma she experienced. As I was writing, I knew it would be imagined, but didn’t know when it would happen, how, or for how long.

AUTHORLINK: I am interested in your choice to have Meredith’s brother Evan dealing with an injury that has left him blind in one eye and may sideline his baseball career.

PERABO: Early in the writing I expected Evan and Meredith would have a more parallel arc, both of them struggling, than ended up happening. I asked a friend who is blind in one eye to tell me what is hard and what is easy to do. When I figured out that Evan would be able to hit a baseball, I had him begin to reclaim his life. This isolated Meredith more and pushed her more toward (her imaginings of) Lisa.

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about Meredith’s mother Claire, who is a dentist and admits to probing the teeth of a child who bullied her son in a painful way.

“It was really difficult to walk this fine line of writing a good mother who makes bad decisions and does horrible things.”

PERABO: When my son was young I felt really overprotective. The smallest slights seemed gigantic to me and I wanted to protect him from those. I remember thinking ‘I hate those kids.’

It was really difficult to walk this fine line of writing a good mother who makes bad decisions and does horrible things. It was tightrope walk. By having her hurt a child I was stacking the deck against her. She isn’t a bad mother, but she makes bad choices. She is trying and she can’t figure out how to be a mother and not feel crazy. I think a lot of mothers feel this way when we realize we have no power to protect our kids. She offers a dramatization of our desire to strike back at the things that hurt our children.

AUTHORLINK: Claire has a redemptive moment at the end of the novel, which I won’t give away here.

PERABO: In some ways I feel that her moment is more important than what happens to Meredith or Lisa. I wrote towards that moment.

AUTHORLINK: You portray the meanness of middle school really well. Nobody is innocent when it comes to handing out scorn or being mean, though there are definite imbalances of power. Did this come from your own experience?

PERABO: I think the middle school experience I described is the way middle school is for most people—anxiety, dread, a little hope and a lot of uncertainty. At thirteen, I couldn’t imagine that the popular people were miserable too. At its core, that age is about vulnerability and the quest to figure out where you belong.

AUTHORLINK: Lisa’s group and Meredith’s group both trash talk each other. It isn’t just the popular kids who are mean.

PERABO: I thought it was crucial to the book that I showed how awful kids are to each other at that age. Maybe they were all bitches, as Claire says in the book.  Maybe that is all you can be at that age? 

AUTHORLINK: Why the two part structure to the book? 

PERABO: At the end of part one is where Meredith commits to living in a world that is not real. The section break is also a time break. The story picks up a few weeks later. It seemed like a natural pause, a chance for the reader to catch their breath. In part two, Evan is in the garage practicing baseball. He’s coming back, rejoining his old life, and Meredith’s further away from hers.

“People who think of the book as a thriller feel cheated. It feels complete to me.”

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your ending. There has been a turn here in attitude, an act of kindness from Meredith to Lisa’s mother.

PERABO: I saw on Goodreads that a lot of people don’t like the end of the book. People who read it as literary fiction weren’t surprised. They knew a character-driven novel was not going to get a plot-driven ending. People who think of the book as a thriller feel cheated. It feels complete to me.

About the Author

Susan Perabo is the author of the collections of short stories, Who I Was Supposed to Be and Why They Run the Way They Do, and the novels The Broken Places and The Fall of Lisa Bellow. Her fiction has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, and New Stories from the South, and has appeared in numerous magazines, including One Story, Glimmer Train, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, and The Sun. She is Writer in Residence and professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and on the faculty of the low-residency MFA Program at Queens University. She holds an MFA from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

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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 Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.