Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Amy Hatvany talks about SAFE WITH ME, organ donation, single parenthood and why vanilla bean paste is the bomb

Amy Hatvany is not just a terrific author. She's also warm, funny and so supportive that she deserves to be in the Writers Hall of Fame. She's the author of Heart Like Mine, Outside the Lines, Best Kept Secret, The Language of Sisters, The Kind of Love That Saves You and her newest, Safe With Me. I'm so thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Amy!

I always ask, what sparked this particular book?

It actually came from an article I read over a decade ago, about a woman in New York city who was having her home remodeled. She became friendly with one of the workers and as the two of them got to know each other, she shared the fact that her husband was recovering from a kidney transplant. When the worker told her that he had actually donated one of his own kidneys to a stranger the previous year, they compared surgery dates and doctors names and it turned out that the worker was the person who saved the woman’s husband’s life.

I still get chills thinking about the two of them coincidentally crossing paths. The story idea grew from there.

SAFE WITH ME is about so many different things, organ donation, single parenthood, to name two--what was the research like? Did anything surprise you? 

Having been a single parent myself, I didn’t have to do a ton of research around that particular aspect of the book. Organ donation, however, is something with which I haven’t had personal experience, so I was lucky enough to connect with a counselor at a Seattle-based organ procurement organization. She was enormously helpful in explaining the logistics of the process, but more importantly, what clients and the families of those clients go through emotionally. One thing that didn’t necessarily surprise me, but struck me as an immensely profound thought was the fact that the many parents of a child in need of an organ transplant are essentially praying for another child to die so that their child can be saved. As a mother, I was initially horrified by this thought, but as I began to flesh out Olivia in the story, I began to understand it as being just another part of the process. There is grief on both sides, and it’s what happens when those two sides come together that I wanted to explore.

I was struck by something you said, about who we do or do not share the most intimate parts of ourselves with others, and how that sharing creates a bond. Could you talk about that please? 

At the beginning of the story, all three main characters in the story, Hannah, Olivia, and Maddie, ache to find a feeling of safety, both figuratively, and in Olivia and Maddie’s case, physically. They are all in flux, struggling with fear and grief and uncertainty, and it is only after they meet that the dynamics in each of their personal situations begin to change. None of them have an easy time with trust or vulnerability, and I wanted to explore how important that very basic need within us–to have people in our lives with whom we feel safe–is to our survival. The title sprang from that exploration.

SAFE WITH ME is also about deep grief and the loss of a child. You're a mother--how difficult was this to write? 

It was excruciating, really. I had the first scene in my head long before I began writing and it haunted me. The idea of losing one of my children is the most painful thing I could imagine. Not too far into the story, I realized right along with Hannah, who loses her daughter, Emily, that children who lose their parents are orphans, spouses are either widows or widowers, but there is no word for a parent who loses a child. A profound finding, I thought, and totally understandable. The significance of that kind of loss is simply too devastating to fit into one word.

Tell us about your writing life these days. Do you have rituals? Do you outline? Do you have three novels bubbling in the back of your mind or do you take a long time to figure out what you want to write about next. And how do you know when an idea is a good one? 

The only ritual I have is that I must go straight to my desk each morning and begin working. I can’t take a shower or exercise or clean or play with my dogs or the day will be lost to distraction. I get my cup of coffee, plop on my Bose noise-cancelling headphones and either research or write. Both, perhaps, depending on the day.

I’m also not a huge outliner, but I do jot down a three-act structure of a book and the turning points at the end of the first and second acts which propel the story along. Those points give me something at which to aim. Before I begin writing, I absolutely need to pinpoint the larger question I am trying to answer, the overall driving force behind the action of the book. Of course this is usually hampered by the two or three other ideas for novels leaping around in my brain, so I often need to get the bare bones of those stories onto the page before I can truly focus on my current work in progress. I know a story idea is a good one when it won’t leave me alone. When I’m walking my dogs and find myself in an unfamiliar neighborhood because I’ve been so caught up in the idea that I didn’t pay attention to where I was going. When I can’t sleep because characters are chattering in my head. That’s when I know I’ve stumbled upon something compelling enough to build upon.

What's obsessing you now and why?

This is not related to books in any way, shape, or form, but I am completely obsessed with the discovery of using vanilla bean paste in my baked goods. Worlds better than vanilla extract in terms of adding amazing flavor to my creations. I tend to bake when I’m working on an new idea, or waiting for my editor to get back to me on revisions, so I’ve stocked up on this ingredient and have been putting it to great use!

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

I was waiting for you to ask me about what movies I’ve fallen in love with this year, since we share that particular passion! I adored “Enough Said;” Nicole Holofcener is one of the most talented writer/directors working today. Her first film, “Walking and Talking” introduced me to her particular brand of humor and realism and to Catherine Keener, whom I also adore. I talk about Nicole incessantly and can’t recommend her films enough.

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