Was this a difficult story to write because of the subject matter?
Difficult and challenging, yes, but also a joy and thrill to create characters who grapple head-on with the deepest questions we human beings face.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an obsession with death. I mean, how can anyone not think about death all the time? As a kid, I would lay in bed, imagining my parents in their coffins, my sister wasting away with some exotic disease, my friends burned in fiery crashes. I would really get into planning my own funeral. All the juicy details. What songs would be played? What would people be wearing? Who would break down and beg my forgiveness for not being a good enough friend? And in my bed, I would inevitably wind up sobbing—about the death of everyone I loved and cared about, including me. Especially me.
How can you possibly go on with living when you know you are going to die one day? How do you laugh and fall in love and bother doing homework? I feel that my whole life has been a process of coming to terms with that. And so I created the most dramatic situation I could imagine and populated the landscape with characters who can’t look away from the pressing reality of death.
How did you research things like transplant procedure, medical terminology, and donor family/recipient relationships?
At the start, I knew almost nothing about organ transplantation, other than the fact that I proudly displayed a donor sticker on my driver’s license.
The research was quite a journey that started with a wonderful, dedicated social worker. Mary has worked for decades in the pediatric heart transplant unit of a large children’s hospital and told me so many emotionally dramatic stories about her case load of kids and families.
I wound up interviewing hospitalized children waiting for organs and their nervous, hopeful parents. I hung out at the hospital school and talked to families and kids about life after transplant. One evening, I attended a “reunion” of pediatric heart transplant patients. What a sight— all these kids with their puffy faces from steroids running around in one big room, their parents celebrating this second chance at life.
I also spent many hours crying and laughing with donor families as they showed me photographs and described their decision to donate the organs of their loved ones.
I was very lucky to have several doctors and nurses step up and help me navigate through the medical lingo and technicalities. I also did a lot of reading about the transplant process and watched an awesome video that walked me through an operation. It was like being in the OR.
My most memorable moment was going to the pathology lab with one 11- year-old boy where we both got to hold his old, damaged heart in our hands. I kept the photo we snapped—him, heart, me—on my desk for writing inspiration.
The story is told from many different perspectives. How did you decide who needed to speak and when (and how many different voices were enough)?
I started the story with only a vague, basic idea: A girl would die in the first chapter and I would look at who got her heart.
But once I started researching—wow, what an Indra’s Net I had wandered into. It became apparent to me that there was a larger, more complex story—how one selfless act in a time of tragedy can impact so many lives—from the girl who gets the heart to the boy who loves her to the surgeon who removes the organs to the man who drives the heart to the parents and nurses. Without meaning to sound sappy, I wanted to write a story about our unseen and unspoken bonds to each other and the possibility of redemption that connection brings.
Is there one character from the story with whom you identify the most?
Is there anyone I don’t identify with in some way?
Claire, the gym mom, definitely. My daughter competed in gymnastics for much of her childhood. At each meet, I sat in the bleachers cringing as she stepped up for her turn on the uneven bars or the torture log (my personal name for the balance beam). I had seen young gymnasts, my daughter included, dislocate shoulders, break arms and legs, rip tendons. The opening chapter of this book is my sick, sick mind carrying out my worst fantasy to its conclusion.
I also identify with Amanda’s perfectionism and hidden life, with Dani’s social backwardness and wicked sense of humor. And Milo, of course. He’s definitely a kid who would fall asleep to fantasies of his own perfectly scripted funeral.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished Mary Pearson’s awesome The Adoration of Jenna Fox. I’m slowly perusing a lovely book entitled The Ardent Birder in preparation for my next novel. I think it will have a birdwatcher kid, someone like me who actually does know the difference between a Wandering Tattler and a Longbilled Dowitcher.
I’m also reading something called The Dead Beat, which is a collection of funny, witty, creepy obituaries written by a longtime magazine obit writer.