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Q&A with Author Erin Celello

LTSToday I’m thrilled to be featuring an interview with Madison author Erin Celello about her latest novel, Learning to Stay (NAL/Penguin 2013), which, as Erin describes it, explores “the question of what happens when one person in a marriage becomes someone fundamentally different.”

In Learning to Stay, what triggers the change is a traumatic brain injury that the husband, Brad, suffers while serving in the Iraq war. The injury dramatically alters his personality, transforming him from a thoughtful and patient man into someone who requires much more care than his wife, Elise, can provide while also keeping up with the demands of her career as a lawyer.  I’m not yet finished with the book–so no spoilers here–but Erin is an author who tends to pack a lot of action and emotion into her early pages, so already I’m hooked.

Q: What inspired you to write Learning to Stay?

ERIN: I’ve always been intrigued by relationships and marriage – why some succeed, or simply survive, and why some unravel – and what the balance is between staying true to oneself and to the person with whom you once exchanged vows, because so often, over the course of a marriage, people change. And not all couples are adaptable as others in the face of that kind of flux. This was a topic, a question, that was addressed with great humor and insight in a memoir I read years ago called Where is the Mango Princess by Cathy Crimmins, and I’ve been looking for a way to explore it through fiction ever since. When, a few years ago, the media began reporting on Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress as the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I knew I had my story.

Q: What is the most challenging part of the writing process for you?

ERIN: All of it. Really. As Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing. I love having written.” That’s true of me. I find that the only part of the process I love is the beginning, when I’m enthralled with my premise, my characters – when I’m still getting to know them. But that part is fleeting, and the rest of the process is a slog, filled with much angst and many moments of self doubt. I used to feel as though every time I wrote something halfway decent, that was it – the well had run dry. But then I read somewhere that Bono felt much the same way whenever he penned a new song, and I felt a little better. I learned to trust the process a little more. Now, the angst and doubt is still there, but it’s more like sharks lazily circling my little writing raft instead of snapping at it.

Q: Did you learn anything surprising during the research process for this book?

I was surprised on a nearly daily basis, both by the horrific statistics of suicide and intersections with the criminal justice system related to returning veterans, and by the severity of some of the situations the families of these soldiers found themselves in upon their loved one’s return home. Not all who served in Iraq or Afghanistan experience difficulties – some come back and readjust just fine – but for some, the situation is much more dire than Brad and Elise’s. It’s a case of truth being stranger than fiction. I could never write some of the stories of so many military families as they’re actually happening across this country; my editor, or a reader, would likely say, “That’s too much. All that could never happen to one person or family.” But it does, and it is.

Thank you, Erin, for stopping by Glossing Over It! I couldn’t agree more with that Dorothy Parker quote.