I've just finished Jacquelyn Mitchard's newest, All We Know of Heaven and I was reminded, once again, why she is one of the authors who inspired me to write to begin with. The novel is about two girls who've been in a tragic accident, one dies, one is in a coma, but their identities have been mistaken. Sound familiar? Most of us have read of at least two news stories in the past decade in which this happened.
So what does Mitchard bring to the table with this storyline? I've thought about this extensively, especially since after I finished Matters of Faith and turned it in to my editor, there were several news stories in a row about children dying after their parents chose to pray over them rather than seeking medical attention. (You can read some of them here and here if you wish.)
I'm not just a writer of fiction, I am a heavy reader of fiction. I watch the news, and I read newspapers, and I seek out world news online. I'm fairly cognizant of what's happening in the world, but the news is absolutely numbing to me. There are times that I have to turn the channel, times I have to close the paper, times I have to click over to play fifteen games of four-deck spider solitaire rather than continue the stream of atrocities and heartache our news is filled with. The news is (hopefully!) filled with facts, given quickly, and then passed by without a chance to fully take in the story, without a chance to try to make sense of it, to allow us to feel empathy, sympathy, outrage, wonder, or joy. With the news, there is no range of emotion, there's mostly one or two: horror and desperation come to mind.
With fiction, reading it or writing it, I am able to take my time to process the story. I can get to know the people involved, try to understand their motivations, learn what their loves and fears are. I am able to understand their journey, tragic or joyful, as a fellow human being. The news does not give me that. The news does not give me a human connection. And it never will.
And this is what Jacquelyn Mitchard and some of my other favorite authors have always been able to do for me. Are her novels "the real story?" No. They're novels, fiction, they're not supposed to be factually correct. But they are emotionally correct. And they move me through that range of emotions that I don't get from the very real stories in the news. We need that to stay sane the way we need REM sleep. That is what storytelling has done for the human race since charcoal first hit the cave wall, not just to get information across, but to help us sift through that information in a way that helps us make sense of our own journey through life, that helps us to empathize with our fellow human beings.
And we all need more of that.
Almost every author dreams of having the opportunity to give their mentors their novel, to ask them what they thought, if they did okay. I was lucky enough to have a copy of Matters of Faith make its way to Jacquelyn Mitchard, and even luckier to have her respond with this:
"Kristy Kiernan's "Matters of Faith" was so good and true and real that I forgot I was reading a book. I felt as though I was standing helplessly beside good people whose ordinary family life is slowly, inexorably tumbling into the darkness of the unknown."
She writes a blurb the way she writes a novel, doesn't she? With empathy. I hope I can make readers feel that.