It’s every parent’s nightmare: One minute you’re strolling to school with your child on a sunny day and the next, your child has been killed in a car accident. That’s the tragic turn of events in Lee Woodruff’s first novel, Those We Love Most, out today (September 11).
Woodruff co-wrote the best-seller In an Instant with her husband, Bob Woodruff, a television journalist who was embedded with troops in Iraq when he was hit by a roadside bomb that left him with traumatic brain injury. Those We Love Most takes a close look at a family tragedy—and the grieving process —through two generations: the parents of the child and the grandparents, exposing secrets and betrayals along the way.
We spoke with Woodruff last week about delving into such a heart-breaking subject, how her own experience with a family tragedy informed her writing and why she thinks there’s a place for books about real experiences in the midst of the Fifty Shades of Grey fad. An edited version of the interview follows.
MORE: The death of a child is a subject most people don’t even want to think about. So, why tackle such a tough topic?
Lee Woodruff: Somebody once said to me—and I think it’s true—that, as a fiction writer, your story finds you. It actually came from a real-life phone call from a friend of mine who has a son my child’s age (he was then 17) and who had hit a child on bike. The child had a brain injury and the parents wanted to talk to someone about what that meant. I remember thinking, wow, in-an-instant all those lives it impacted – the child, the child’s family, the boy who was driving the car, his family. And I thought that would be a really interesting to take one event and then look at it from 360 degrees, how one intersection in time could affect all these people for the rest of their lives.
MORE: Did you ever think the idea of dealing with a child’s death might be too sad for some readers?
LW: When I think about some of the great books that women tend to hop on board with, a lot of them deal with tough subject matter—loss and grief and all the things that we as human beings have to deal with. Women will go through so many things in life, caretaking their own parents, raising their children and watching bad things happen, as they invariably do. A lot of those stories are, in the end, stories of how people work through them.
MORE: How did your husband’s near-death experience inform your writing?
LW: I think every fiction writer does, to a degree, write about what they know. I certainly was on a really familiar basis with grief and what it felt like to be scared and not know what an outcome was going to be like. So, absolutely, there are little bits of me laced in to all of the characters.
MORE: In dealing with Bob’s brain injury, what lessons did you learn about dealing with a scary situation as a family?
LW: I think one is that we are not alone. In every experience, someone has been there before. There’s probably somebody down the road who can offer helpful advice. I think the other is that in your very worst moment, you can tell yourself that it will never get worse that this. And I think, in the end, most humans are built to survive. We’re built to overcome and work through and get through pretty amazing things. We’re resilient.
MORE: The families in the book struggle to make their marriages work after the tragedy, even though they weren’t exactly in a great place before the boy’s death. Can so-called good things result from a tragedy?
LW: I think they can, and in so many ways that’s our family’s story. Obviously, they’re very different situations, but in terms of Bob’s injury and recovery, we had gone on and tried to turn some spotlights on service members and their families. It sort of became the basis for where I wanted this book to end up, which is not all tied up in a bow.
MORE: Marriage isn’t always easy.
LW: I understand the place in the world for the chick lit with the girl in the stilettos who gets the job and the man and all of that, and that’s all great and fine when you’re in your twenties or early thirties. But I think real life, and real marriage, is long and a roller coaster, and there are good periods and bad periods. I wanted to display that without it being this cataclysmic downer book. But I think so many people who have been married for more than 10 years, when the honeymoon is definitely off the road and you’re hitting real things in life—friends getting divorced or having children with disabilities or friends being diagnosed with illnesses or parents dying —those are all the things in life that can either add to or detract from your relationship or your marriage. And this book is a snapshot of people who have stuck it out, who are there and are wrestling with real issues.
MORE: The teen driving the car in the accident talks about joining the military in the book. Was that a nod to your work with the Bob Woodruff Foundation?
LW: It totally was. I wasn’t sure how the book was going to end. I originally had Alex (the teen driver of the car) as a voice in the first draft and I actually loved writing the voice of a 17-year-old surly kid whose life had dramatically changed. In the end, we decided that didn’t really work. But then I hit on this concept that he would choose to go into the military, rolling the dice on his future, throwing himself to fate. It was a little bit of self-punishment, not in the sense that going into the military is a punishment, but we were a country at war when this book takes place, so he knows he’s not going to be sent to some garden area in a time of peace. Then it became, in my mind, a way to continue the conversation about our troops and about the Foundation and to remind people that there are still people serving.
MORE: Do you think the whole Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon will pass?
LW: I think these books have always existed. They were called porn in the past, and you couldn’t get them at your average book store. It’s almost like everyone thinks this is a new genre, when it’s the same old, same old. My theory is the Internet allows things to become these surprise successes in a way that they couldn’t in the past because the funnel was so small. I think the advance of e-readers will mean we’ll have an even greater opportunity to skip across a lot of different genres, and I think there’s always going to be room for titillating sexual stuff. It’s so funny because the Fifty Shades of Grey thing was popping out in my area, a suburb of New York, a little ahead of the curve. I tried pitching it to my network and they were telling me it was never a story they would do —women reading porn. And I was like,You sure? Because I think that this is going to be a tsunami. We did end up ultimately doing the story. Being able to access any kind of thrill on the Internet has made it OK to be sitting there reading it on the subway in plain view of everyone.
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