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A Q&A with Lesley Kagen

You became a first time novelist at the age of 57. Have you always wanted to write or is it something that came out-of-the-blue?

Whistling in the Dark
I was one of those kids who teachers told, "When you grow up, you should be a writer." I loved books as a child and was drawn to words, especially poetry, and would stay up late at night under my covers writing my thoughts in a little red diary. My first foray into letting others see what was on my mind was at the age of ten when I wrote a script for 77 Sunset Strip. My mother, bless her soul, sent the pages off to Hollywood for me. Every Friday I would wait in front of the television set to see my dialogue coming out of the mouths of Stu, Jeff and ginchy Kookie Kookson the third. That early disappointment may have been what spurred me to pick another profession. I went into acting. And then later, restaurant life. Motherhood. It wasn't until my daughter went away to college and my teenage son showed absolutely no interest in me except for my skill at sliding a pepperoni pizza into an oven that I found the time to write my first novel, Whistling in the Dark.

Whistling in the Dark became a New York Times bestseller. It's set in Milwaukee where you grew up. Your second novel, the national bestselling Land of a Hundred Wonders, is set in Kentucky. Were you concerned about portraying a small southern town and its characters accurately considering your background?

Land of a Hundred Wonders
Some writers can set their work in a place without having to experience it, but it's very important to me to feel grounded in a story. To have tasted the food, to become part of the culture and know the language of a certain place if I'm going to make it feel authentic. I rode horses competitively when I was a kid. I grew up in a barn listening to horse trainers and grooms and judges who hailed from Kentucky. The way they spoke, the stories they told, it's part of my life, part of who I am and still is.

Likewise for my book Tomorrow River. My daughter went to Sweet Briar College just outside of Lynchburg and graduated from Washington and Lee law school in Lexington. I spent a lot of time in Virginia over the years, lucky me. The Shenandoah Valley is one of the most beautiful spots on Earth.

The settings may change but your stories are told from the viewpoint of children, or in the case of Land of a Hundred Wonders, from the eyes of a childlike young woman. Why do you chose children as narrators? Is it difficult to write in their voices?

It feels natural for me to write in a kid's voice. Maybe it's because I'm getting older and coming full circle, I don't know. Childhood seems close to me now. Kids' honesty, their unique way of viewing the world, their direct way of talking, their enthusiasm... I yearn for it. I set my books in the 50's and 60's for the same reason. It was the time I grew up. I know it. I feel it. I can still smell it.

You mentioned that it's important for you to have experienced a setting before writing it, does the same hold true for your characters? If so, what was your inspiration for Tomorrow River?

Tomorrow River After living in LA for a lot of years, the earthquakes and mudslides, the gangs, it all began to feel scary and overwhelming. So my husband and I came back to Milwaukee and bought a house in a nice, safe suburb. Having experienced quite a bit of trauma growing up, it was my mission in life to keep my kids safe. How we fool ourselves. I knew better. As a parent you might be able to protect your children from outside forces, at least for a while, but the real danger lies within.

Within a few months of moving into the subdivision, my son brought home a friend. I knew something devastating had happened to the boy. When you experience great loss, I believe you can sense in others that profound sadness. I asked around to see if I could find out more about the boy. I learned from a neighbor that a few months before we moved in, the father of my son's friend had killed his wife in their home where the boy now lived with his grandparents.

And a couple of years ago, a business acquaintance of my husband's, a man we both knew fairly well and would never suspect for a minute was violent, strangled his wife and dragged her onto the family room couch. The next morning, when their two young daughters tried to wake Mommy, the husband told them that she was still sleeping and not to bother her. He made them breakfast and drove them to school. Had lunch with a friend. Later that afternoon, he called 911 to report that his wife had been murdered. Of course, the police saw through his story immediately.

I could not get these kids heartbreaking stories out of my mind. What damage does it cause to a child's psyche to know that one of the two most powerful people in their life took away the other from them? How do they proceed with their lives?

The exploration of their feelings is what I attempted to do in Tomorrow River. I wanted to understand and hopefully, in some small way, remind others that children are vulnerable. We must stand guard.

All of your books deal with significant loses yet you manage to weave both humor and hope into the stories. Why?

Because all of us deal with loss in one way or another in our lives. We lose our loved ones, our jobs, our health. Humor and hope for a better day are the only things I know that transcend pain.