By Shelley Widhalm
(Guest blog for KatValdezWriter at katvaldezwriter.wordpress.com)
Like the main character in Gayle Forman’s “Leave Me,” I fantasize about packing a bag and going off the grid.
Unlike Maribeth Klein, a middle-aged magazine editor, wife and mother of twins in New York City, I like to stick to patterns and routines, and I like the safety of my dog and my bed. Plus, I wouldn’t know what to pack.
Forman told an audience of about 100 of her fans Wednesday, March 22, about this fantasy she and other women share during “An Evening with Gayle Forman.”
Her talk, held at Hilton Fort Collins, is a part of the Author Series presented by Colorado State University’s Morgan Library in partnership with the Poudre River Public Library District.
“Vocalizing about running away from your family is so taboo,” Forman said. “I didn’t think I was writing such a shocking expose.”
Whispered Escape Fantasies
After her novel published in 2016, women came up to Forman and whispered about their own fantasies of escape plans, driving one exit or riding one train stop past theirs, acting as if their thoughts were shameful and a transgression.
Forman wrote the book as a revenge fantasy following what she thought were serious heart symptoms and a screaming fight with her husband, Nick. She normally writes young adult novels—her publications include “I Was Here,” “Just One Day” and “If I Stay”—but the genre wouldn’t fit a middle-aged character and a story about marriage and motherhood.
“I thought this was mom-porn because of the reaction I got,” Forman said, though she’s read plenty of books about men running away.
In her novel, Forman tells how Maribeth has the tendency to put herself last until she has a heart attack and thinks the symptoms are from the stress of her busy life. Her emergency bypass surgery seems to be an imposition on her family, and fearing her own response, she packs a bag and leaves them hoping her heart will heal.
“I wanted to have a novel about a woman who runs away for reasons she doesn’t understand,” Forman said. “A lot of readers hate Maribeth. They think what she does is unforgivable.”
Forman, mother of two, explained her inspiration for her novel after reading her “prequel” to the audience – her own version of “The Runaway Mommy,” by Jane Kuo Paris, based on the children’s picture book, “The Runaway Bunny,” by Margaret Wise Brown. Instead of being about cute bunnies, Forman’s story, which matched the pictures, described a mother who couldn’t escape her clingy child.
Inspiration for the Novel
Forman detailed her personal back story to her inspiration. Six summers ago, she was on a family vacation, looking up heart attack symptoms to explain her chest pains and to try to ease her worry about her genetic risk factors. Back at home, she underwent testing and found out she was fine, but she had an idea for a novel that she then put away due to life’s busyness.
That busyness, in part, came from being the default parent undertaking most of the parental responsibility, while she and her husband both worked. She’d started out as a journalist and then went into freelance writing as a way to work at home before becoming a novelist.
“My career took off in a way I never expected,” she said, adding that her second book, “If I Stay,” was about to publish in 2009 when she had the chest pains.
Her every day “was tightly choreographed” with pick-ups and drop-offs, making dinner and doing chores, while also working. She had the screaming fight with her husband during a school field day for their children. At that point, being the parent who carried the household load and the emotional load “started to feel insurmountable,” she said.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she’d yelled at him.
Forman and her husband, who had “a summer of uncomfortable talks,” had thought they were “groovy and progressive,” living in hip Brooklyn, raising a multiracial family with the youngest child adopted from Ethiopia and both of them working.
“We internalized so many ideas of gender and money,” Forman said.
The Formans worked out a solution with Nick working at home as a freelancer and their co-parenting becoming more of a relay race, she said.
“It feels more what like modern parenting looks like,” Forman said.
The Book Signing
After the book signing, I asked Forman how many drafts she did of her novel—she said about 20 revisions that included cutting the first three chapters. She had to make other cuts of family scenes, being overly indulgent with those, she said.
“I had so much fun writing about the kids, the husband and the mother, it overtook the book,” she said.
Forman said she tells her children when she’s on tour, “Mommy will come back.”
She doesn’t leave them. Not permanently. Just to escape into the world of the novel.