Five Days Left is the emotional journey of two people facing life-changing situations and making ultimate sacrifices in the name of love. Debut author Julie Lawson Timmer took time to answer questions about this powerful novel — sure to become a book club favorite — which Jodi Picoult calls “unique, gripping and viscerally moving.”
Between the Covers: Mara and Scott are two ordinary people, living in different cities, pursuing dynamic careers and dealing with marriage and family. Over the course of five days, these two ordinary lives are extraordinarily changed. What was the genesis and inspiration for this story of a woman battling Huntington’s disease and a man battling the foster care system and even his own wife?
Julie Lawson Timmer: A few years ago, a friend of mine died after a long struggle with cancer. She was in hospice for the last several months of her life and she was spectacularly brave in facing what she knew would be her last months, weeks and days. During that time, and after she died, I was consumed with thoughts about what that must have been like for her — to know she wouldn’t be there for her kids’ graduations, their weddings, etc. I decided that writing about someone dealing with a fatal, incurable disease would be a way to explore the feelings my friend might have had. I also felt that exploring and writing about those feelings would be a way for me to honor her, even if the book was never read by anyone else. I chose Huntington’s because I didn’t want, or believe I had any right, to write my friend’s story. Five Days Left is not biographical in any sense.
I wanted to give Mara a break from her difficult situation, and adding the online group allowed me to do that. When I was casting around in my imagination for an online friend who Mara could become close to, Scott materialized, as did his job as a middle school teacher and coach. Technically, Scott and his wife are limited guardians of Curtis, not foster parents. Foster parenting involves months of background checks and classes and applications, etc., while being a limited guardian is a relatively immediate process, at least in Michigan. Given the urgency in Curtis’s situation, the foster system wasn’t appropriate. However, the concept of fostering and being a limited guardian are similar in that ultimately, you are caring for, making sacrifices for and, often, loving deeply a child who isn’t your own, and whose future is not in your control. In this regard, foster parents and limited guardians are in a similar position as step-parents, a role I hold. As a step-parent, I also care for, make sacrifices for and deeply love children whose future isn’t in my control, and I wanted to explore that.
BTC: In telling the stories of Mara and Scott, you explore sensitive issues such as foster care, suicide, infertility, adoption and marital durability. What led you to tackle such powerful topics? Describe the research process involved in ensuring accuracy of the details so integral to these characters’ stories.
JLT: [The research] was the biggest surprise for me about the process. When I first came up with the idea for the book, I actually wasn’t intending to do much research. I thought I’d spend a little time online learning a bit about Huntington’s – which I knew nothing about – and then rely on “artistic license” to fill in the details of the disease in a way that advanced the plot. But “a little time online” is all it took for me to realize how horrible Huntington’s is, and to realize there was no way I could write about it unless I did it as accurately as possible. I thought (and still think) I owed it to the Huntington’s community to get the disease right.
So, I did months of research on my own, and then I talked to some Huntington’s experts to confirm that my understanding of the research was correct, and that I’d represented it accurately in the novel. In many cases, I’d gotten the facts wrong, and I ended up making significant changes to Mara’s sections in order to correct the inaccuracies. I’m certain – and upset – that I didn’t likely get the disease completely accurate, but any mistakes were my fault, not that of the experts.
BTC: Mara’s voice is engagingly honest from the first sentence of the book. The reader is painfully aware of her anger, fear and even joy. How were you able to capture all these emotions and create an authentic portrait of one woman’s struggle against mortality?
JLT: I was highly motivated to get those feelings as right as I could. For my friend, who lived it. And for me, too, as I have certainly spent my share of time, as I imagine most mothers have, thinking about how I would feel if I knew my children would have to grow up without me.
It was a struggle, in early drafts, to keep Mara from feeling overly sorry for herself. But I spent a long time thinking about her, and who she was, and I knew that she was not a complainer. She was a strong, stoic woman who wanted to be treated that way. So, I dialed her down quite a bit and ended up with someone whose thoughts and fears were truer to what I believe Mara’s would be.
BTC: Almost even more surprising is the clarity of Scott’s voice. His love for his wife and foster son are evident as is the anguish he feels when he may lose one or both of them. How difficult was it to write from a man’s point of view?
JLT: My husband is a “guy’s guy,” which is how I’d describe Scott, and I have some close friends who are the same. I suppose I channeled them to a large extent. I did run a number of things about Scott past my husband – character motivation, turns of phrase, that sort of thing – to make sure I wasn’t attributing thoughts or phrases to him that weren’t ones a man would actually have. And there were times when my husband would say, “Uh, no way would he say that,” and I’d have to revise the dialogue. My husband’s help, from character motivation to dialogue to plot issues to making dinner and cleaning up so I could write is something I could talk about for a long time.
BTC: As heartbreaking as the story is at times, you tell it beautifully and manage to keep within the five-day timeline. Share with us your writing process for plotting this carefully constructed dual story. As a debut novelist, working attorney and mother to kids and dogs, how on earth did you find time to sit down and write?
JLT: Thank you for that lovely compliment! As for my plotting process, I am a major plotter/outliner. I carefully plotted how each story would go before I began writing. For an early draft, I wrote Scott’s entire story, and then Mara’s, and then did something close to cutting and pasting to get the chapters to alternate. In later drafts, I realized the story came out better if I wrote each chapter as it appeared in the book, rather than writing all of one character’s chapters at once.
As for the work/family/writing balance, that one was, and remains, tough. I discovered the only time people aren’t looking for me is between the hours of 4 a.m. – 6 a.m. Even then, because my company is global and I’m in the habit of checking email often, I could sometimes end up on calls or reviewing contracts before dawn instead of writing. But most days, those dark, quiet hours were mine, and I found that I could get two solid scenes written in that time. My wonderful husband set coffee every night and often left encouraging sticky notes on the coffee maker for me – something that made a huge difference, especially on cold, dark winter mornings.
BTC: How excited were you to receive such glowing recommendations for your novel from the likes of Jodi Picoult, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Sarah Pekannen? As a debut novelist, what was it like navigating the book world with publishing icon Amy Einhorn, and more importantly, can you clarify the rules of the literary drinking game that you and she created during the course of finalizing this novel?
JLT: I’m so grateful to those authors for taking the time to read a new writer’s book and then give a blurb for it. They’re wonderful. I was beyond excited to see those blurbs and honestly, I’m not sure it’s sunken in still. It’s surreal to think that these authors whose work I’ve admired for years have actually read my book, and that they liked it. I have a writer friend who emails me from time to time and her entire message will be, “JODI PICOULT!” or “CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE!” or any of the other names. When I read those emails, I think, “Oh, that’s right! It did happen!”
I loved working with Amy Einhorn (my same writer friend used to write those emails, too: “AMY EINHORN!”). In Amy’s first editor letter, which listed the various changes she thought I should make, she said the book should be “a five-hanky read” and that although it had made her sniffle a little, it hadn’t made her cry. When I set out to do my revisions, I put sticky notes all over the wall of our home office, to make it easier to organize the plot, and to my daughter’s horror, I added a few sticky notes at various intervals around the room with the notation, “MAKE AMY CRY!” After that, any time Amy emailed to say a certain revised scene had made her cry, I’d announce to my family, “Amy cried!” and we’d all cheer. A few times, I made the announcement at dinner, and we all raised our glasses to the fact that I’d made Amy cry. When I confessed this sordid family practice to Amy, she and I started joking that we’d invented a (terrible) new drinking game.
BTC: I’m sure our readers would love to hear what you’re working on next. Can you share any details?
JLT: Sure. Briefly, my next book is about estranged families, step parenting and the dreadful practice of “rehoming,” where people who no longer want their adopted children advertise them online and then hand them over to people who have merely responded to an Internet ad rather than going through the rigorous process of being qualified to adopt. It is completely different from Five Days Left, but as I expect every book I write will do, it explores different forms of “family” and how families survivel, or don’t survive, challenging situations.