Interview, The Good Father
Q. What inspired the story for The Good Father?
A. Nearly every morning, I take my work-in-progress to a local coffee shop and spend a few hours working there. One day, a man and little girl walked into the shop. I had many of the same thoughts Erin had when she first spotted Travis and Bella: What are a man and little girl doing in here on a weekday? Is he her father? Could he have kidnapped her or be abusing her? The little girl was absolutely adorable. My novelist’s mind got to work right away, wondering what I would do if the man asked me to watch the girl while he went out to his car and never returned.
Q. So are Travis and Bella based on this man and his little girl?
A. Not at all. The man and his daughter were my inspiration, but I intentionally avoided getting to know them (they became regulars at the coffee shop) because I didn’t want to create characters that resembled them in any way. I’ve learned over the years that using real people as models for my characters can be very limiting. Once I had the characters of Travis and Bella firmly fleshed out, though, I allowed myself to interact with the man and his daughter. They probably thought I was pretty unfriendly before!
Q. Why did you pick a suburban parking lot as the setting for much of your story?
A. That is a little strange, isn’t it? I first planted the coffee shop, JumpStart, in a small North Carolina town, but as the story grew, I knew I wanted an area where Travis could park his van and feel anonymous. The Brier Creek shopping center, with which I’m very familiar, popped into my mind and I knew it was the right location. It’s so enormous that no one would stand out, yet everything a person could need is right there. My imagination quickly cooked up the coffee shop in a distant corner of the massive parking lot. Logically, that would not be a very good location for business, but it suited my story well.
Q. Did your background as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist have a role in the creation of The Good Father?
A. My former career always has a role to play in my writing, but particularly so in The Good Father. I dealt with the grief of parents who’ve lost a child both in my hospital and private practice work, and that’s an experience that will always be with me and influence my writing. Erin and Michael have different styles of grieving, and this is very common when parents lose a child. Those different styles are often hard to reconcile.
On the other hand, although I worked in the adolescent unit of a children’s hospital, I hadn’t worked with heart transplant patients, so my account of Robin’s experience came from a massive amount of research.
The strongest influence my former work has on my books, though, is in the area of character development. I always suggest young people who want to write consider studying psychology. There’s no greater background for understanding their characters.
Q. What factors come into play when you begin creating characters?
A. I think about two things: what motivates this character to do the things she does and in what ways will this character grow throughout the story? Robin, for example, moves from being a dependent young woman who doesn’t stand up for herself to someone willing and able to take on a powerful family. When we first meet Erin, she’s paralyzed emotionally by the death of her child, but over the course of the story she’s moved to take action and begins to heal through that action.
Q. Would you say your books are more character driven or plot driven?
A. Both, I think. As I mentioned above, I usually start a story with a situation: A man asks a woman to watch his little girl for a few minutes and then disappears. But once I have the situation in mind, I begin to think of the who will play the roles of the man and the woman, and I intentionally create characters who will have the most difficult time dealing with the situation to increase conflict and tension. So the woman in the situation turns out to be Erin, who has recently lost a little girl and has intentionally pulled away from other people as she grieves.
Q. Hurricane Irene destroyed parts of the North Carolina coast during the time your story is set. Wouldn’t that create a good number of construction jobs for Travis?
A. It was ironic that, shortly after I typed “The End” on the manuscript, Hurricane Irene did indeed create work for someone like Travis. I considered changing the dates of the story, but decided to leave them as is. In my fictional world, Hurricane Irene never happens.
Q. Why did you make Michael a games inventor?
A. I was listening to an NPR interview with alternate reality games inventor, Jane McGonigal, who talked about games being a resource for solving real world problems. I was fascinated by her ideas—they made me view collaborative computer games such as those you find on Facebook—in a whole new way. I contacted her about Michael’s grieving game idea to be sure this was a realistic concept and she responded positively. It wasn’t until I was deep into the writing that I saw the parallel myself between Michael’s collaborative game and Erin’s support group. For anyone wanting to explore Jane’s take on games, check out her website at www.JaneMcGonigal.com.
Q. Did you have a good father? What would he have done in Travis’s position?
A. Intriguing question! I had a great father. He was a school principal, a true academic who inspired me to read, research, and learn. I’m having trouble, though, imagining him in Travis’s situation. It’s absolutely impossible for me to picture him stepping outside the law. Yet like Travis, he was the sort of man who took great pride in supporting his family, so there’s no telling what he would have done to keep us fed and clothed. It’s hard to predict what someone would do in that sort of situation, which was precisely what inspired me to write the book. I wanted to put a good man in those dire straits and see how he’d react.
Q. What was the hardest part for you in writing this story?
A. Well, writing a novel is always hard for me and even though The Good Father is my twenty-first book, it was no easier to write than my first or fifth or fifteenth. If I had to pick one element that I found difficult in writing this story, though, it would be deciding what Erin would do when left with Bella. If a child was left with me in that way, I would call the police and/or protective services. That may be my social work background—I’m not sure. It was hard for me to imagine a sane woman not making that choice. I had to remember though, that Erin is not particularly sane when left with Bella. She’s in such emotional distress and has such conflicted feelings about Bella being in her life that I was able to convince myself that she would not contact the authorities. Once she does, she backs out for reasons I feel are believable.
Q. What was the easiest part of writing this story?
A. Bella came to me very easily. I spent some time with children her age (so much fun!) to remind myself what four-year-olds are all about, and she nearly wrote her portions of the book herself.
Q. How can readers get in touch with you?
A. I can be reached through my website at www.dianechamberlain.com, (where Bookclubs can sign up for a speakerphone call). I’m also active with my readers on Facebook: www.facebook.com/Diane.Chamberlain.Readers.Page