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Q&A with Susan Perabo, author of The Fall of Lisa Bellow

April 27, 2017

The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo is a thoughtful and powerful novel about the spiraling effects of two random calamities on one ordinary family. With her insightful depiction of growing up and parenting, written with delicate humour and skillful characterisation, Susan Perabo delivers a touching, elegant story in an original way.Susan Perabo is the author of the collections of short stories, Who I Was Supposed to Be and Why They Run the Way They Do, and the novel The Broken Places. Her fiction has been anthologised in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, and New Stories from the South, and has appeared in numerous magazines, including One Story, Glimmer Train, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, and The Sun. She is Writer in Residence and Professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, and on the faculty of the low-residency MFA Program at Queens University

Better Reading spoke with Susan Perabo about inspiration, imagination, and what comprises wonderful storytelling:

the-fall-of-lisa-bellow-9781471163418_hrWe loved The Fall of Lisa Bellow. What sparked the idea of this story about a teenage girl who is the one left behind when two girls are held up by a masked gunman, and one abducted, in a bungled robbery?

Often times a story starts cooking in my mind with a question. Usually it’s a “what if?” question. Most of the time, these questions die pretty quickly on the vine, after a minute or an hour or a day or a week. But sometimes a question lingers, and that’s when I know there’s likely a story there. I walked around for a lot of years with this particular “what if” — long enough that I started attaching different sets of characters to it. What if it was two strangers on the floor of that sandwich shop? What if it was two friends? It took me years to figure out that it was Meredith and Lisa.

 

The novel takes us into the mindset of this thirteen year old girl, Meredith Oliver, after the cool/mean girl at her school, Lisa Bellow, is taken. Was it a challenge to write these characters?

I spent a long time with Meredith in my mind before I started writing, so she was not difficult to write. Lisa was more of a challenge, primarily because she’s in the present action of the book so little, and I got to know her mostly through the perspectives of the other characters. It sounds strange to say, since she’s my character, but in many ways Lisa wound up being a collection of other people’s ideas about Lisa. In the end, she’s still something of a mystery to me.

 

We love the character Claire Oliver, Meredith’s motherShe’s at times darkly funny and she’s suffered so much in the space of a year between Meredith’s ordeal and the earlier devastating accident of her son, Meredith’s older brother. Claire is in some ways the most sympathetic character in the novel – did you intend this?

I’m so pleased that you find Claire, at least “in some ways,” the most sympathetic character in the novel. Not all readers have felt that way. Some find her a very difficult character to understand, and certainly difficult to like, because she’s so emotionally inept… and also because of that darkness you mention. To me, Claire’s weaknesses make her a more sympathetic character. I believe she’s a good person who has lost her ability to trust her own instincts, especially in regard to mothering. She spends much of the book flailing. But I really believe her heart’s in the right place. 

 

1440845_hr-minClaire and her unfailingly cheerful husband, Meredith’s father Mark, are bewildered by Meredith’s behaviour after her ordeal, with Claire smothering her daughter but trying hard not to. Do you think this is a common dynamic between mothers and teenage daughters? 

I think maybe the hardest thing about being a parent is figuring out how to protect your children (both emotionally and physically) without smothering them… especially because for the first several years of their lives, there’s really no such thing as smothering. When they’re little, you don’t have to strike a balance because all there is is protection. That’s pretty much your sole job. And then suddenly — or it seems suddenly, anyway — you’re supposed to back off. But there are no rules for backing off. How far is far enough? How far is too far? The moment you figure it out, the line moves. And the line moves pretty drastically when your kids face unexpected challenges, like the challenges Evan and Meredith both face in this novel.

 

Meredith suffers from ‘survivor’s guilt’ after being the one spared in the abduction and yet she also assumes that the abductor took Lisa Bellow because she was the ‘hotter’ girl. How much is that a modern teenage girl’s way of thinking?
Honestly, I think anyone in Meredith’s situation would think this. I think if those two characters were forty years old, the one left behind would wonder what it was that made the abductor choose the other woman. That’s what initially fascinated me about this dynamic. It’s survivor’s guilt, definitely, but it’s a particularly corrosive type of survivor’s guilt, because — as horrible as it sounds — there’s something actually insulting about being the one left behind in this instance. The one left behind simply can’t help but wonder what it says about her, about her appearance, that she wasn’t chosen. Perhaps it’s worse for a teenager, because everything is anxiety-inducing as a teenager, because you’re always feeling like there’s something wrong with you, but I do believe that it’s not solely a teenager reaction.
After Lisa Bellow’s abduction, her friends start to befriend Meredith even though they’d previously shunned her and Meredith is happy to fall in with them and abandon her own nerdy friends. Was this a natural progression in the social hierarchy of these teenage girls do you think?
I think Meredith becomes friends with Lisa’s friends because she wants to be closer to Lisa. Also, I think she wants to be around people who don’t know her and don’t particularly care about her as an individual; I think that takes some pressure off her, allowing her to slip further into her imaginary world and away from the people who are her true anchors in the real world. I think this is why she “abandons” her friends. I don’t think she’s trying to move up in the social world. I think she’s trying to disappear from the world she’s always known.
There’s an interesting family dynamic that develops in the novel, with all the different relationships in the Oliver family changing over its course – sister–brother, mother-daughter, etc. Did those developments transpire as you wrote or did you plan it that way?
I planned virtually nothing in this book. I had only the initial concept. I spent a lot of time thinking about these characters, getting to know them, before I started writing in earnest — in hopes that they (Claire and Meredith especially) would chart the course of the book. And they did. Their relationships developed organically. It sounds a little cheesy, but honestly sometimes I felt like I was just watching that family, not creating it. They spoke, and I wrote down what they said. They acted, and I wrote down what they did.

Purchase a copy, start reading the opening pages, or read our full review and find out why we loved it so much!


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