Bestselling non-fiction author Jaclyn Paul will release her first fiction novel titled She’s Not Home on April 25th using the pen name Lena George. As a fan of Jaclyn’s Order from Chaos: The Everyday Grind of Staying Organized with Adult ADHD, which I eagerly shared with one of my children who lives with ADHD, I was excited to learn she’d ventured into fiction. I read the ARC of She’s Not Home several months ago and found it to be a masterfully written exploration of loss, friendship, and complicated family dynamics, and an excellent book club selection!
Synopsis: Sheryl already lost one daughter by being the fun parent. She’s determined to do it right with her other daughter, no matter how much Mariana whines about one chance for a normal night. But all Mariana wants is to escape the shadow of her sister Sheena. She’s tired of being seen as the daughter that survived and missing out on experiences she shouldn’t have to fight for—like senior homecoming. So when Mariana discovers the truth about how Sheena died, she runs away. For the first time, Mariana is faced with the reality of making her own choices, while Sheryl is left to contend with losing another daughter.
I’m so pleased to feature Lena today on BCB and learn more about her latest writing adventure! Following this interview, you’ll find a series of BOOK CLUB QUESTIONS that can be used as discussion prompts.
She’s Not Home is told in alternating points of view between seventeen-year-old Mariana and her mother, Sheryl. Did you always envision the story this way? What factors contributed to this storytelling choice?
I originally envisioned this book as much more Mariana’s story. In the first draft, she was the only point-of-view character. The ending was very different, too. Overall, I feel the early drafts of She’s Not Home were centered almost exclusively around Mariana’s journey and how she grew into herself. It probably would’ve targeted a young adult audience.
However, early beta readers suggested Sheryl felt too one-dimensional. We needed to understand more about her motivations and inner life for Mariana’s actions to feel justified. This led to a lot of exploration and experimentation on my part. I reconsidered what the book was even about.
In the end, this story is about our bonds to the places and people we call home. It examines our obligations to each other, the depths of hurt we can cause, and the many paths back from a terrible mistake. Sheryl is a complex, heartbreaking character, yet she hides her vulnerability under a controlling and often contemptuous exterior. Giving her equal weight as a point-of-view character allows readers to experience some powerful moments Sheryl would never reveal to another living soul.
She’s Not Home changed a lot from first to final draft. Sheryl’s character and point of view probably drove most of that change. For all her flaws, I love her so much. I think she helped transform the book into the story it was always meant to be.
The book opens with an evocative description of the setting, a rural Pennsylvania town called Red Hill. Is this a real town? As an author, what role did place play in your creation of this story?
Place is everything in this book. I think of the setting almost as its own character. Red Hill isn’t real, but the Pennsylvania settings are all based on where I grew up along the Delaware River in Upper Bucks County, PA.
I feel fortunate to have grown up somewhere so beautiful. However, some of the very things that make my hometown so picturesque also make it dangerous. My high school class was around one hundred and forty kids. We were seventeen when the first of us died in a car crash. It happened the summer after our junior year. Her name was Emily, and she was a friend and coworker of mine. By the time we were all turning twenty-one, I think more than five but fewer than ten of us had died on those roads. Too many.
The overlook Mariana and her friend Cat like to visit is based on a state park and popular rock climbing spot around the corner from my childhood home. It has claimed its share of lives, too. As a kid, I got a dark feeling whenever I saw the fire trucks speed by and turn up that road without the water tanker in the summer. It meant there was no fire, and someone had probably gotten hurt on the rocks.
I love my hometown. The natural landscape played a huge role in my life, from early childhood until I left for college. However, now that I’m a parent, I realize how hard it must’ve been for our parents to let us drive off into the unknown every day. I also wonder how it affected us, to grow up surrounded by roadside (or cliffside) memorials to young lives taken far too soon. You can see my fascination with that dichotomy woven all through She’s Not Home.
Is the story a fictionalized version of something real as well? Is there a “you” character in She’s Not Home, or someone based on one of the classmates lost to an actual car crash?
You know, there really isn’t. I can see parts of myself in several characters, but that’s true of any group of people I know well. The more significant a character is, the less they are “based” on anyone in real life. I think all authors are magpies to some extent: we hoard a lifetime of little details that catch our eye, and the right reader can spot where we’ve patched one into a story. But those details never fit into the same single character or scene in the story as they did in real life.
There are some great characters in the supporting cast of She’s Not Home. Do you have a favorite minor character?
Tristan. I actually feel a pang of regret from time to time that I did not have Tristan as my actual friend in high school. However, I did have actual friends in high school who others judged, dismissed, or otherwise made unfair assumptions about. There were genuinely bright, good kids who deserved way more respect and kindness than they got — from the kids and the adults in their lives. This probably contributes to my soft spot for Tristan. Plus he’s so often a bright spot in an otherwise heavy moment. There’s a lot to love.
She’s Not Home is your first novel, but you already have a successful presence as a published author of non-fiction work under your given name, Jaclyn Paul. What made you venture into fiction? Does this represent a career shift for you?
This is a funny question, because for a long time I considered myself a novelist who wrote non-fiction on the side. Then I found myself with a bestselling non-fiction book and a lot of readers who knew me as a personal experience writer. Eventually I had to admit the work for which most people recognized me was a lot more than something I did “on the side.”
The truth is, I’ve done personal experience and fiction writing in tandem for as long as I can remember. Since childhood, really. My personal experience writing just happened to get the first break. I’m delighted to see my fiction get its chance at the spotlight because it’s been a part of me since I could hold a pencil. So this isn’t a career shift. I will write more books on both the fiction and non-fiction side. Not because it’s practical, but because it’s what I do naturally.
Does this mean your next project will be non-fiction? What are you working on now?
It would be practical to alternate, wouldn’t it? That’s what I initially tried to do. I’ve outlined and done some initial drafting on two new memoir projects related to my writing for women with ADHD. My plan was to write one of those plus my next novel at the same time.
Unfortunately, I did not have the time or bandwidth to write two new books while promoting She’s Not Home and preparing for the launch. I had to pick one, and I chose the new novel. The structure and ideas felt more mature at the time — more ready. Sometimes I have to follow my instincts, or maybe some would call it my muse, and write the project that is going to come easier instead of the one I think I’m supposed to write.
That said, I’ve had some good ideas for those non-fiction projects lately and I can’t wait to get back to them. Which one actually publishes first is anyone’s guess at this point (and not entirely up to me anyway).
Do your two bodies of work always feel like an either-or that way? Or are there times when the two connect and overlap for you?
It might seem like a huge either-or, especially because I publish fiction under a pen name. However, I write novels to represent people like me. There will always be a somewhat unexpected, or even somewhat hidden, ADHD character. I will always slip in a character who doesn’t conform to the gender or sexual identities people might assume about them. My fiction and non-fiction catalogues have significant overlap for me and they always will. Readers will also see and appreciate this overlap if they’re looking for it. If they’re not, the work stands alone just as well. That’s something I love about representation in fiction.
Book Club Discussion Questions:
- Which character did you relate to the most? Why?
- What does Mariana’s future look like to you? Where do you imagine her ending up?
- We’ll never know for sure whether Mariana and Sheryl actually reconcile. How do you feel about this? Are there questions you wish the book had answered?
- When Mariana and her father have their first real conversation about Sheena’s accident, she falters in her resolve to run away. What do you think might have happened if she did stay? Would Mark have become enough of an ally to her to change anything about their family?
- Sheryl’s approach to parenting changes completely after Sheena and Ben’s accident, while Debbie’s doesn’t seem to change at all. Do you attribute this more to their individual temperaments, or to the fact that one child lived and the other did not? What might have been different had their roles been reversed?
- After Mariana runs away, Cat accuses her of empathizing too little much with the Mauro family’s trauma stemming from the accident. Do you think this is fair? What strengths and weaknesses do you see in their friendship preceding Mariana’s disappearance?
- When Mark walks into the conflict between Mariana and Sheryl, he must choose whether to defend his teenage child or present a united front with his co-parent. Do you agree with his choices that day, including his interactions with Mariana on the ride to Coffee & Cream?
- Sheryl has endured an unimaginable trauma, and she has also inflicted trauma on her surviving child. In Mariana’s place, would you be able — or willing — to forgive her? Why or why not?
- Mariana’s disappearance harms several people close to her. What responsibility do you think she has to make amends for this harm? Does she owe some people more than others?
- Do you think the Taylor family has a better chance of healing from Sheena’s death because Mariana ran away? What other possible outcomes could you imagine?
- Do you think any of Sheryl’s parenting choices following Sheena’s death actually helped keep Mariana safe? How much do you think parenting style plays a role in teenagers avoiding the worst risks and outcomes? How much do you attribute to temperament and luck?
- Friendship plays a key role in this book. Which friendship was your favorite? Which was your least favorite?
Lena George also goes by Jaclyn Paul, bestselling author of Order from Chaos: The Everyday Grind of Staying Organized with Adult ADHD. A native of rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Lena lives in her adopted hometown of Baltimore, Maryland and escapes to the Jersey Shore to write and surf as often as possible. She’s Not Home is her first novel.