Tolstoy wrote in his novel Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." When we think of family dynamics and the poignant mix of affection and dysfunction present in lifelong relationship, we understand why novelists, poets, playwrights, and creatives in general mine the undercurrents of human unhappiness that sometimes transform into resilient joy. This was the case when I began my novel SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER. I knew the themes of the novel would be survival, forgiveness, redemption, secrecy, and the ties that bind. But I wasn't yet certain if the secrets of the Stone family would crumble or shore up the foundation of the love they felt for one another and their shared life in music.
I was wrestling with dynamics of light and dark. As the painter David Salle wrote, "The subject exists inside of its shadows. That's part of the way we see the subject. It's not about dragging something out into the light, some glaring gaze. It's about something being developed or caressed by shadows, or revealed within shadows, or just falling onto shadow." Standing before Salle's painting Playing, Dreaming, 2015 on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Boston a few years back, I understood family dynamics are similarly marked by positive and negative space interactions. My novel could not solely circumscribe complex characters and their long-held secrets but must explore the effect of one upon the other—changes in fortune and changes within, and their subtleties.
We have the shadow and we have the light.
When plot is taken down a notch, and the narrative becomes voice-driven and language-heavy, the literal and the figurative meet. What is harsh, ugly, or mysterious in the human experience may be illuminated by language. I thought about the power of secrets to drive narrative—the most common of plot points—and about the finer point I wanted to make about human happiness. I made a decision to place the Stone family secrets in the wings, slightly off-stage in the narrative. Yes, we know there is something there, but our priority is getting to know the Stone family—Marley, Andi, and their mother Donna—rather than reading ahead to tease out plot points. We root for our heroines as they seek their way out of the shadows. And when we finally understand what the family has been dealing with, the revelation is the more profound for our connection to the characters and theirs to one another.
The way families connect, as the work of both Tolstoy and Salle observe, that is, despite and through difficulty, underscores a profound human truth. We are each our own unique mix of light and dark. And how we harmonize those aspects (or don't) render what is always a nuanced happiness. Writing family dynamics, the dark elements are where we find a mark in history, a leavening, a moral, the proverbial fork in the road. The Stone women exist, fully and richly, inside their secrets. And we love our characters all the more for what is revealed within those shadows.