Monday, October 19, 2009

Read this Book; When She Flew

When She Flew by Jennie Shortridge is the kind of dark, involving novel I happen to love. Based on true events concerning a Vietnam vet raising his young daughter in the woods (and succeeding at it), When She Flew delves into questions about family, society and love itself. Thanks, Jennie for answering my questions.

I know that this book is inspired by true events, which you have fictionalized. What were those events? Did you speak with any of the people involved? Do they know about the novel and have they read it? And where are they now?

In 2004, Portland Police found a Vietnam vet raising his twelve-year-old daughter in the woods. The girl was healthy, articulate, home-schooled and reading far above her grade level. A doctor’s exam ruled out abuse. The police sergeant in charge was a single dad at the time, and he felt strongly that the two should be allowed to stay together rather than be put through normal channels that would separate them until the father was determined a fit parent. The sergeant broke protocol and took them to a shelter for the night, then found them a home on a friend’s farm.

I wanted to write a story about these events, but I didn’t want to write about the actual people involved, for their privacy. Plus, like any fiction writer worth her salt, I wanted to make it a story of my own imagining. I contacted the police sergeant, and after emailing for a while, convinced him to have lunch with me. I took the train from Seattle to Portland for this lunch date, and by the end of it, he was excited by the project as I was. He’d never given interviews to anyone during the case, and had turned down media requests from Good Morning America, the Today Show, and others.

I spent the next year emailing him questions about everything from how he felt during certain events to what cops wear on their duty belts, how long their shifts are, what equipment is in a police cruiser. We hiked into the woods one hot August day and found the encampment the real people had been living in. His input was invaluable to my writing about the story in a real way, even while fictionalizing so much of it.

The real father and daughter left the farm after only two weeks, worried that the media was trying to track them down. I wouldn’t have wanted to talk with them even if I’d had the chance to, though. I wanted to reinvent characters that were nothing like them, because I sensed how exploited they already felt.

The novel seems to me to be a lot about how we define home and family, and how the norm is not the only way to do it. Can you talk a little bit about that?

This seems to be a topic I examine in almost every book: what constitutes a family? What makes a home? This father, who deals with his own post-war issues, is able to create a home off the grid for his daughter and do a pretty good job of ensuring she’s well cared for. He takes her to church every Sunday, to the park once a week so she can play with other children, and educates her beyond her grade level. The fictional police officer in the story, Jessica Villareal, wonders if she’s done half as good a job with her own daughter, who is now estranged from her. I don’t believe that there’s only one “right” way to do anything, especially when it comes to home and family.

There’s juxtaposition in the book between what society might think is best for these people and what they feel is best for themselves. Ray, the disabled Iraqi veteran refuses to go to the places allocated for the homeless, and Lindy lives in the woods with him rather than going to a foster home—and yet, they both have rich lives. How good a job do you really feel society does when it comes to ministering to people?

I think it’s one of the most difficult challenges our society faces: how do we best care for those who are in need? And what if those in need don’t want the help? I would not presume to say that those who work in social services aren’t doing the best they can, because there are so many factors at work: political, financial, legal. There are heros and scoundrels in every profession. The aspect of the true story that really intrigued me was how the police sergeant decided to try to help these people in a decent, caring way rather than by the book, even though he might have to face the ramifications of that decision.

When She Flew says a lot about daring, and gaining release from damaged pasts. Jess, the police officer who feels she has lost everything important to her, doesn’t want to disturb or uproot Lindy and Ray. Lindy and Ray dare to live outside in an Oregon forest. Do you think we ever can escape our pasts? And should we?

I think we escape, or rather transcend, our pasts when we dare to do something courageous, as Jess does in the story by breaking the rules. She sacrifices everything she previously held sacred, but it’s the pain of losing her daughter that drives her, and ultimately, reconnects her to that daughter.

Your tagline on Redroom is “striving to reveal truth and beauty, while telling a good story.” So, how does one do that?

Well, the key word is striving! It’s my life mission, and one that is a work in progress. Fiction seems the best way to reveal the emotional truth, in my estimation, if not the actual truth, and to point at the small and fleeting moments of grace we miss in real life, but recognize when reading about them. We all have this sense of what is meaningful, but sometimes it helps to be reminded of it in a surprising way, while reading a book, watching a movie, talking with a friend. I feel that’s my job as a writer, to point those things out while unraveling a story the reader feels emotionally invested in.

What does your daily working life look like?

With the publication of four books now, it’s different every day. I used to wake up and take my second cup of coffee into my home office and write all morning, but these days it’s more complicated. I eke out writing time when not working on promotional efforts or organizational housekeeping, when not trying to keep up with social networking and correspondence and requests and book groups and all of the things that make my life rich and full, but short on writing time. I write on trains and planes, in hotel rooms and lobbies and coffee shops. I need to do better at all of this, but I think I’m like everyone else right now, just trying to keep up with so many new things and technologies, and still tap that creative vein on a regular basis.

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

What’s next? I’m now working on a novel about a rare condition called “dissociative fugue,” and what happens between an engaged couple when one of them experiences it. I believe it’s my first true love story.

1 comment:

Robin Antalek said...

The author brings up an interesting conundrum of modern society when she asks, "what if those in need don't want the help?" It raises the question, certainly,do we help because we see someone in need or because we are in need of helping? And then, what does that mean when the offer of help is refused?
From your interview it sounds like the author may have found the answer. Looking forward to this read.