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A group of neighborhood women enjoy a kid-free night around a backyard fire-pit. By the next morning, one of them is gone. It looks like she’s left of her own volition, uprooting her children and disappearing without a trace, but as the investigation throws suspicion on the soon-to-be ex, it’s clear there’s more to the story. Jessica Strawser’s new release Not That I Could Tell is populated by real, believable women, navigating their own full lives, while trying to understand that their friend and neighbor may have carried a terrible secret. Deeply engaging and thoughtfully written, this powerful novel explores domestic abuse from the perspective of the victim’s friends and family. I’m so pleased to welcome Jessica Strawser to BCB today!

Tabitha Lord: I used to hear cases on the news where a man had killed his wife, sometimes his pregnant wife, stunning his family and the community. They’d say that everything looked normal from the outside, or that he had everyone fooled, but I was always skeptical. How could someone not see something was off? And then one of my friends married a sociopath. He was handsome, intelligent, and charming, and he could convincingly lie right to your face. How did we not know this about him? What did we all miss? But none of us suspected, until his actions made it impossible to deny. She’s years away from that traumatic relationship, thankfully, but we all know she was lucky to get out relatively unscathed. I understand now how it can happen, and I think that makes these scenarios even more horrifying. Often you don’t know until it’s too late. Your story really captured the turbulence and collateral damage that these people leave in their wake – the doubt, the suspicion, the terror, the broken families. What drove you to tell this kind of story?

Jessica Strawser: I had a close friend who wasn’t so lucky, unfortunately—though I don’t know that I would use the term sociopath to encompass domestic abusers in a blanket way. Notice, though, that you and I both had personal connections to a victim and a victimizer, and that’s more to the point; I’m sad to say that I rarely share with anyone that I lost a friend to domestic violence without them chiming in, in sympathy, with their own story about a friend, or a neighbor, or a family member.

I wanted to write about the question of domestic violence not from the inside, but from the perspective that more of us share—from arm’s length, where we may, or may not, have suspicions but also may never know what’s really going on behind closed doors. Given how common these situations are, I don’t think we speak nearly enough about what, if anything, those of us in that position can or should do.

TL: The narrative is told from two perspectives, Clara’s and Izzy’s, both neighbors of the missing woman, Kristin. We hear Kristin’s voice in short, first-person chapters. How did you decide from which perspectives the story should be told?

JS: Once I had the arm’s length perspective in mind, I wanted to choose points-of-view that would illustrate how all characters view situations through the lens of their personal experiences—which is to say that they can have quite different takes on the same thing. Clara and Izzy certainly do. It was also important to me that the missing woman have a voice, a chance to tell her side of the story, because that doesn’t happen often enough in real life.

TL: I love the community of friends you’ve created in the book! My tribe is so important to me, and I think you’ve captured the strength, compassion, messiness, and love inherent in a female friend group. Was there a character in the story with whom you most identified? Did you model anyone from your real-world friends? Did you have a favorite supporting character?

JS: Oh, thank you! I love this ensemble cast, too—it’s been so wonderful to see readers connect with them as fully as I did. They’re all purely fictional, and I don’t know that I have a favorite, but it’s been especially fun to see how many people have been drawn in by Hallie, the precocious 12-year-old in the neighborhood who, through her naiveté, simultaneously serves as a counterpart to some of the more cynical adults while inadvertently stirring up more trouble for them.

TL: There are two minor story-lines in the novel that involve sisters. I’m very close with my sister, but I know that these relationships can often be complicated. Can you talk a little about the “sister” threads in the book and the ideas you were exploring through them?

JS: I don’t have a sister, but (no offense to my wonderful brother!) I sometimes wish I did—I have a number of friends who are close with their sisters in a way that can make the rest of us feel as if we’re missing out on some wonderful lifelong inside joke. All close relationships are complicated, though, aren’t they? It was only natural in writing about any strong group of women to have their sisterhoods, in family and in friendship, come into play.

TL: Not That I Could Tell is your second novel. Can you discuss the difference between writing your debut novel and writing the next book?

JS: I’m an organic writer, so I’m learning that every book is different. I wrote my debut, Almost Missed You, by piecing together a puzzle bit by bit, sometimes out of order. With Not That I Could Tell, I knew the ending, and found I rather liked writing toward something—even if I didn’t have much of a map as to how I was going to get there.

TL: Can you talk a little about your very interesting writing career? What are some of the highlights, besides novel writing?

JS: I think it’s smart for any writer to diversify—to learn what it takes to write not just a good novel, but a meaningful essay, a solid article, an engaging blog post. Different outlets feed my creativity in different ways while reaching different audiences, and I’m grateful to have landed in a place where I can shift my focus at will and as needed.

TL: There’s some criticism out there that no one ever asks men about balancing kids, career, home, personal health etc. But today is a day off from school and the kids want rides to their friends, my son’s baseball uniform needs to be washed by tomorrow morning, I have a friend in the hospital, several deadlines to hit, and a voice in my head telling me that the next book won’t write itself! I wouldn’t trade my life but it does require some serious planning. I suspect you work under similar conditions. Do you have any words of wisdom to offer around career-life balance?

JS: I think it’s absolutely a fair question—I just wish that men were asked it too. I do indeed work under similar conditions. I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the years in physical therapy for a chronic knee issue, and my regimen always includes various types of balance boards. I think it’s helpful to think of figurative balance in that literal way: You don’t find a center and stay there, much as we’d all like to. All of your muscles are engaged. Things start to tip one way and you have to lean the other, then back. I think the trick is to be kind to ourselves when we have to lean one way and find that it’s at the expense of something else. All of us are just doing the best job we can of staying upright.

TL: Do you have another project in the works? If yes, can you share a little?

JS: My next novel with St. Martin’s Press is tentatively titled Forget You Know Me, and I’ll be turning it over to my editor shortly for publication in 2019. It’s another stand-alone women’s fiction/suspense blend.

TL: Thanks so much, Jessica. I look forward to reading it!

Jessica Strawser is editor-at-large for Writer’s Digest, where as editorial director for nearly a decade she became known for her in-depth interviews with such talents as David Sedaris and Alice Walker. She is the author of the novels Almost Missed You, named to Barnes & Noble’s Best New Fiction shortlist (March 2017), and Not That I Could TellBook of the Month selection and B&N Best New Fiction pick for March 2018 (both from St. Martin’s Press). She has written for The New York Times Modern Love, Publishers Weekly and others, and is a popular speaker at conferences and events. She lives with her husband and two children in Cincinnati.

 

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Tabitha Lord
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