Hi Julie! Thank you for agreeing to do an interview here at Doing Dewey. I’m very excited to get to chat with you! Could you please start by telling us a bit about your debut novel, Five Days Left?
Hi, and thanks so much for having me!
Five Days Left tells the story of two people who have five days left with the ones they love. Mara is a Type A lawyer living in Plano, Texas, with her adopted daughter and her husband. She’s been diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, and she’s considering taking her own life, to spare herself and her family from the horrible future the illness will bring. Meanwhile, in Royal Oak, Michigan, Scott is a middle school basketball coach who has five days left with Curtis, the eight-year-old boy who’s been living with Scott and his wife for the past year while Curtis’s mother is in jail. Scott has grown to love his “little man,” Curtis, as if he’s his own son, and he can’t bear the thought of saying goodbye to him. Scott and Mara are both members of an anonymous Internet parenting forum, and they have become friends, even though they don’t know each other’s names. The book takes place over these five days, and we see Mara and Scott in their own lives in Texas and Michigan, but we also see them interact on the forum.
What inspired you to write about a difficult topic like Huntington Disease?
A friend died of cancer a few years ago, and I struggled a great deal with the injustice of it. I couldn’t stand the unfairness of her missing out on seeing her children grow up, and I couldn’t conceive of how brave she was about it in her final months. I hoped that writing about someone dealing with a fatal, incurable disease would be a way to explore the fear and anguish my friend might have experienced, and I hoped, too, that it might be a way for me to honor her, even if the book was never published. I chose Huntington’s because I didn’t want to write my friend’s story. Five Days Left is not biographical.
I always love hearing about the story behind a book, especially those which involve medicine or science. Did you have to do a lot of research for your book? If so, could you tell us a bit about your research process?
I always like hearing about those kinds of stories, too, and I’ve been a fan of Jodi Picoult for a long time because of her emphasis on research. But funnily enough, when I first came up with the idea for the book, I actually wasn’t intending to do much research myself. As a lawyer, I’ve spent decades doing research and I liked the idea of creative writing in part because it would provide a break from that kind of tedious work. So initially, I decided 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 whatever way best helped my plot. But the thing is, “a little time online” is all it takes someone to learn how devastating Huntington’s is, and once I learned that, I realized there was no way I could write about it unless I did it as accurately as possible–I couldn’t do that to the Huntington’s community.
Suddenly, I was embroiled in research, and of course, because it wasn’t legal research, and because the book was inspired by a friend, it wasn’t tedious at all. I did months of research on my own, reading everything I could find. I then wrote a draft of Mara’s story, using what I’d learned to determine how her part of the plot should go. With a draft in hand, I talked to some Huntington’s experts to confirm that I had accurately represented the disease in Mara’s story. In some cases, I had not, and I ended up making many major changes to Mara’s sections in order to correct the inaccuracies. I’m certain (and not happy) that despite my efforts, I know I didn’t get the disease completely accurate. Any mistakes are my fault, of course, not that of the experts.
After I realized that artistic license wasn’t something I could allow myself to rely on, and that research for a novel is far more appealing than legal research, I became excited about getting the facts right in all the other sections of the book. This led me to research, books, articles and experts on infertility, education, limited guardianship, and even the process and timing involved in high school athletes getting athletic scholarships.
It’s enough before the release date (Sept 9th) that I haven’t read Five Days Left yet at the time I’m writing these questions. I’ve been reading many fantastic reviews though and can’t wait to get started myself. One thing most of the reviews have in common is the recommendation that the reader have a box of tissues handy. I’m curious, did you initially set out to write a book that would make people cry or feel strong emotions? Or was that simply a necessary consequence of your subject matter?
Thanks–I hope you like it, if you do get a chance to read it! Yes, in it’s final form, it might be best sold with a package of tissues (I must point out that there are occasions for “happy tears” too though, not just sorrowful ones). It wasn’t like that when I first sent to my editor, Amy Einhorn. But she sent me an editorial letter listing her suggested revisions, and one of them was that she felt it should be “a five-hanky read.” My initial draft had made her sniffle a little, she told me, but 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 keep track of my planned plot changes and, to my daughter’s horror, I also put up some sticky notes that said, “MAKE AMY CRY!”
This became a sick joke, in fact, and something I mention in the Acknowledgments section. Any time Amy called or emailed to say a certain revised scene had made her cry, I’d announce to my family, “Amy cried!” and we’d all cheer. Sometimes, I made the announcement at dinner, and we’d all clink glasses and say, “To making Amy cry!” When I confessed this sordid family practice to Amy, she and I started joking that we’d invented a (sordid) new drinking game.
Do you like to read very emotionally moving books yourself? And do you have any favorite authors you’d recommend?
Yes, I do. I enjoy reading books that present a picture of real life as I’ve experienced it. And in my experience, life has involved joy and hope and happiness, but it has also involved fear, pain, betrayal and loss. Among the many authors whose books I have loved are Margaret Atwood, John Irving, Jodi Picoult, Timothy Findlay and Larry McMurtry.
Is there a particular message you’d like readers to take away from your book?
I’m happy if readers take away something very personal to them; I don’t want to instruct people about how to interpret the book. But some of the things I take away from the story are these: Despite how certain we might be about how we’d act in a given hypothetical situation, we cannot ever know what we would actually do until we’re truly in that position. “Family” doesn’t require the same DNA–it only requires love. Finally, although the Internet can be rife with issues, it can also serve for some as a source of understanding and community.
Where can people find you online to learn more about you and Five Days Left?
I love talking to readers online and would be thrilled if people found me. I’m on Twitter (@JulieLTimmer), and I have a website (www.julielawsontimmer.com). The website has a contact page for reaching me, or people can email me at Julie@julielawsontimmer.com. Looking forward to connecting!