Q: At the core of your novel, “Water, Stone, Heart,” is a deep and difficult question: “Can a woman who has been sexually abused as a child ever form a healthy and trusting intimate relationship with a man?” How does a man come to write about such things?
A: The standard instruction to any would-be novelist is, “write what you know.” I was once very much in love with a woman who had been abused as a child. I did not, at the time, fully comprehend the terrible weight anyone with that tragic history must bear—partly because she would not talk about it. The relationship did not survive. I dug into the subject and was stunned to learn that experts believe at least a quarter of all women in the U.S. have been sexually abused as children. Relationships are difficult enough to manage and maintain; loving someone who has been abused requires understanding both the pain, grief, fear, and anger the survivor carries and their long term effects on behavior. I guess I wish I knew then what I know now.
Q: Your character, Nicola, seems to swing between “come hither” and “go away” in her relations with Andrew. She also has a wickedly sharp sense of humor. Are these coping strategies?
A: Sure. It’s all about fear. Nicola longs for intimacy, but it terrifies her. When the family in which you grew up is unsafe, when the people who are supposed to be protecting you don’t, and when those same people lie to you (and themselves) and deny the reality you are experiencing, trust and control become major issues in adulthood. In Nicola’s case (and this is true of many sexual abuse victims) she ends up marrying a man who is himself abusive. But even after the abuser is out of the picture, the fear, the mistrust, the obsessive search for what’s true, and the need to control persist. Nicola comes to trust Andrew, but it takes a catastrophe to make that happen. Like many people who carry pain within them, Nicola uses a sharp wit as both a sword and a shield. The sword helps keep people at a safe distance and the shield protects her from having to acknowledge some of her own feelings about others—feelings that might make her feel vulnerable again. What’s interesting to me is that Andrew is similarly armed. His armor is a lifelong habit of approaching every problem intellectually, with rational analysis. They’re both armed to the teeth.
Q: Andrew comes to Cornwall to do something physical rather than intellectual: to learn the ancient art of dry stone wall building. The idea of people building walls runs throughout the story, doesn’t it?
A: It does—both physical walls and emotional ones. And the natural disaster that forms the story’s climax demonstrates just how fragile both kinds of walls really are. At the same time, I think of their collapse as a creative form of destruction. There is always the promise of rebuilding something better. In a sense, even before the disaster, Nicola and Andrew are already survivors—she of abuse, he of betrayal and divorce.
Q: Will they make it?
A: Fans of my last novel, The Long Walk Home, have written to ask me if my next novel will have a happy ending. I think it’s more accurate to say that Water, Stone, Heart has a hopeful ending. But Nicola and Andrew are only just beginning a long emotional journey as the book ends. Nicola will need to learn to trust and Andrew will need to be supportive, patient, and understanding as Nicola comes to terms with her fears. I have a sequel in mind, in part because I want to know how they fare, too.
Q: You’ve chosen a real place—the Cornish village of Boscastle—as the setting for a fictional story. Why that particular place?
A: I’ve known Boscastle for more years than I care to admit. Originally, I was drawn to it by its sheer physical beauty. Then, just a few years ago when I was about halfway through a three and a half month-long backpacking trek through much of southern England, I spent a night in the village again. Two days later, it was very nearly destroyed by a catastrophic flash flood, one of the worst in British history. The way villagers pulled together in the aftermath of the disaster, despite their personal and financial losses, seemed to me a testimony to human emotional strength and to people’s deep attachment to place. I went back and lived there for a month while researching this novel and watched the village rebuild itself. People were wonderfully open with me about their experience. They are brave, resilient, and heroic.