Long Wait Over Kelly's Fifth Novel Finally Completed
BY KAY GRISMER
Special to The Pilot
Kool-Aid stains on counters. Orthodontic elastics floating out of the dryer from pants pockets. ChapStick tubes scoured hollow. Three place mats instead of four.
For a mother who has lost her teenage son to a tragic car accident, everything becomes a "landmine." Every day, every conversation, every errand is riddled with "sabotage." Everything becomes a reminder that her son is simply, suddenly, not there - and that everyone else has gone on living.
"By Accident," the fifth novel from award-winning Greensboro author Susan Kelly, portrays a year in the life of a woman after the death of her son. It is, says Publishers Weekly, "a delicate novel of grief and recovery that takes readers deep into the mind of a grieving mother."
On Wednesday, May 19, at 4 p.m. Susan Kelly will return to The Country Bookshop in downtown Southern Pines to discuss her newest work of fiction.
"We are so happy to have Susan back," says Beth Carpenter, book-club coordinator for the bookshop. "She was here in 2006 with her wonderful novel 'The Last of Something.' It's been a long wait, but well worth it when you read 'By Accident.'"
"People write for a million reasons," Kelly says, "but my two main motivations are that I want to tell a story - about an accident, an individual's life - or I have something I want to say - about loss, or marriage, or children - and therefore invent a story in which I can say it. Though it isn't intentional, most of my stories tend to involve letting something go - a relationship, a town, childhood, innocence, a time of life - which involves a heart-hurt. Not a broken heart, but an aching heart. I call this 'necessary sadness.' It's a bittersweet but necessary sadness that goes hand in hand with a loss of illusion. My novels are coming-of-age novels no matter the age of the characters.
"I love ensemble fiction," Kelly adds, "in which a number of characters, rather than just one, face challenges. Interesting characters are just that - interesting characters with 'issues,' - not a story. There has to be a dilemma."
In "By Accident," Laura Lucas, 40, struggles with the loss of her son, Whit, who just graduated from high school, and the impact his death has on her surviving child, 10-year-old Ebie, and on her marriage to her husband, Russ. When 28-year-old Elliot, a fun-loving transient arborist, moves in next door and befriends her and her daughter, Laura's relationship with him becomes complex during the time of "transition" between grief and recovery. "Is there a time limit on sadness?" she asks. "You're not sad, you're just optimism-impaired," he responds.
Kelly also examines the role of men and women as unmarried friends and grief in a marriage. Is Laura's relationship with Elliot just "friendship," as she insists, or is it, as her husband suggests, "transference or replacement or displacement behavior or projection. Some unhealthy sort of self-therapy."?Or has it evolved into something more dangerous?
Most of the story is told from Laura's point of view, but the mixed emotions Whit's loss brings are also seen through his sister Ebie's eyes. Can she refer to herself as an "only child" now that her brother is dead? How does she deal with her parents' opposite reactions to his death? "It's like Mom wants Whit alive at home, but dead in public," she says, "and Dad wants him alive outside, with other people, but have him dead at home."
All of Kelly's fiction has been lauded for her detailed description and smooth, believable dialogue.
"My best asset," she says, "is that I observe everything. I am addicted to the ordinary. What people ahead of me in line at the grocery store have in their carts is as interesting to me as why a marriage breaks up or siblings go to war with each other. I write down everything and every memory. Everything goes in a file, and if you can think of a noun, I probably have a file for it: nature, food, school, names, kids, settings, characters. When I write, I go through these files and look for details I'd otherwise have forgotten. But there's some degree of autobiography in nearly everything I write, particularly in specific details of a scene. I've had three children, so references to children are often taken from real life."
Susan Stafford Kelly is a native of Rutherfordton. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and received an master's degree in fine arts from Warren Wilson College. Her first novel, "How Close We Come," was the first winner, in 1997, of the Carolina Novel Award, a prize for new fiction from North and South Carolina.
Kelly and her husband, Sterling, have three adult children, and now live in Greensboro where they are "bona fide empty nesters."
For information, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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