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:
We 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 mother. She’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.
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.