Interview: April 8, 2015
Holly Brown is a practicing marriage and family therapist, in addition to being a recent debut author. Her first book, DON’T TRY TO FIND ME (now available in paperback), is a gripping psychological thriller about one family's search for their missing daughter and the very public campaign that will expose their darkest secrets. In this interview with The Book Report Network’s Alexis Burling, Brown discusses her decision to place the mother-daughter relationship at the center of her story (a move that is somewhat atypical for the genre) and how her writing is informed by her work as a therapist. She also talks about runaways, reinvention, and why she believes nobody is ever truly beyond redemption.
The Book Report Network: What served as your inspiration for writing DON’T TRY TO FIND ME, which your publisher describes quite accurately as a “suspenseful and gripping debut for fans of RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA and GONE GIRL”?
Holly Brown: I was fortunate enough to catch an interview on NPR with a man named Tony Loftis. Years ago, his teenage daughter ran away, and he successfully used a social media campaign to bring her home. Now he teaches other parents how to do the same at findyourmissingchild.org. I was interested as a mother and a therapist, but what engaged my novelist’s brain was when he said that parents should proceed with caution if they have any skeletons in their closet. Plenty of ideas started percolating in terms of the secrets both mother and daughter could be keeping, and soon I was off and running (and writing).
TBRN: The book is written from both Marley’s and her mother’s perspective. Why the decision to tell Marley’s story this way? Did you ever toy with a different structure…say, adding Paul’s perspective or as a straight whodunit mystery (without Marley’s side of the story explained)?
HB: I wanted to write a page-turner that was built on family dynamics. To me, it was always a mother-daughter story. Rachel and Marley are reflections of one another, though they don’t realize it for most of the book. I felt the best way to explore that was by contrasting their voices and their perspectives. I liked playing with the difference between what we think we’re projecting to others and how they actually see us. Also, I could create blanks that get filled in by the other character (but not all at once; I must keep the suspense going).
TBRN: In the beginning of Marley’s journey, she often thinks about her mother. At one point, she says, “I bet she didn’t even know when it happened, that she lost me.” As a mother yourself, does this type of thinking terrify you? What does it say about parent-adolescent relationships and how they might evolve (or devolve) over time?
HB: I’m a family therapist, and sometimes what I see in the room between parents and children is terrifying --- the depth of disconnection and misunderstanding. And mistakes. It’s impossible not to make mistakes as a parent. But when I’m able to help families bridge all that, it’s tremendously hopeful. What’s lost can be found. I believe that.
TBRN: Call me crazy, but Marley’s mom seems woefully out of touch with her daughter. When she realizes that Marley is gone, the first thing she does is start fretting about how she didn’t “like” enough of Marley’s posts on Facebook. Is that really what parents think is the key to their children’s hearts these days? Is it a less-than-subtle jab at how social media has spiraled out of control in judging popularity and relationships?
HB: Yes, Rachel is definitely out of touch with her daughter. In terms of the Facebook posts, I think what Rachel means is that she should have more explicitly made Marley feel liked, as well as loved. When I was growing up, parents said that a lot: “I always love you, I don’t always like you.” But kids really want to feel both. Moreover, they want to feel understood. Rachel is realizing that she doesn’t understand Marley at all, and she’s afraid that now she’ll never get the chance. So, no, I wasn’t actually jabbing social media in that particular passage (though there are plenty of other jabs in the book, since I do believe that teenagers’ self-esteem is often compromised by the constant evaluative aspect of social media).
TBRN: The Internet can be quite beneficial --- to find out what’s happening in the news around the world, to reconnect with old friends, etc. But it can also be a haven for nasty criticism --- anonymous criticism, as you illustrate in Rachel’s semi-takedown by Twitter and Facebook trolls. What is it about being anonymous that makes critiquing something so compelling and, well, easy?
HB: Anonymity is protection. You can be nasty and no one thinks less of you. Sometimes other people seem to think more of you: When you make a rude remark online, other people might give you kudos for your cleverness. There are a lot of people out there struggling with their own sense of inadequacy, and trying to raise their self-esteem at someone else’s expense. The problem is, knocking other people down is a pretty temporary fix.
TBRN: In a press release for FindMarley.com, Paul writes: “Your kids go to parties and you can’t know for sure what happens; they date, and you can’t know; they Facebook and text and you can’t know. You try to have open communication, but in the end, you have to trust and hope. Trust, but monitor.” This quote brings up an interesting debate, and it’s a theme that runs throughout DON’T TRY TO FIND ME. Where does trust come into parent-child relationships in matters involving technology and social media? Isn’t monitoring a signal of distrust?
HB: Teenagers have to deal with a lot of complicated issues younger than their parents did (and some issues that their parents never had to deal with at all). Blind trust is simply not an option, in my opinion. I advise parents to be transparent with their children: Make it clear that you will be monitoring, long before you detect problems, and that it’s because the world is not always a trustworthy place. Your goal is to help your children become competent and confident, able to know their own minds and make healthy decisions. Often parental involvement is a relief for teenagers. It’s a scary prospect to be alone in the world, without guidance. It’s all in how you offer the guidance.
TBRN: Rachel feels a lot of guilt for not confiding in her daughter about her own personal problems. As her creator, I’m interested in how you perceive Rachel’s guilt. Do you think she should’ve been open and honest with her daughter about everything? What do her actions say about the pressures of being an unfulfilled parent in light of her urge to protect Marley from harm?
HB: I think that disclosures have to be pitched to the developmental level of the child, and some things children simply shouldn’t be privy to. It’s not about one conversation but a series of dialogues wherein Rachel could have learned what Marley was noticing and what conclusions she was drawing. In the absence of information, a teenager’s mind can go all sorts of places that may not be helpful for her current and future relationships. As parents, we wish we could be paragons of happiness and fulfillment, but it doesn’t always work out that way. So we can do the next best thing: we have to try to improve ourselves, and be as transparent as is appropriate while we do it. Hopefully, we model how to overcome difficulties.
TBRN: Marley and Kyle both invent new selves when they meet each other on the bus to Chicago. In a way, Rachel is also inventing a new self by continuing her relationship with Dr. Michael, as is Paul with his “savior” complex. Escape, avoiding accountability and reinventing new selves seem to be a theme in DON’T TRY TO FIND ME. Would you agree?
HB: I definitely agree. I think reinvention, in and of itself, can be a positive; you just don’t want to team it with the other two (escape and avoidance of accountability).
TBRN: Marley's escape is also a story about a sick Internet predator who coerced an underage girl to willingly come live with him, then manipulated her into staying. When crafting the scenes between Marley and B/Brandon, what research did you do to ensure their authenticity?
HB: I did a fair amount of reading into the Catfish phenomenon (as chronicled in the documentary and the MTV show). As a therapist, I don’t work with sexual predators myself, but I’m familiar with the tenets of sex offender treatment. I have worked with victims of trauma. While I believe that B is sick and is a predator, I didn’t want to discount his humanity entirely. That was a difficult line to walk. I’m portraying a person engaging in reprehensible behavior, but I don’t believe he’s necessarily irredeemable. Damaged people inflict damage on others, and my line of work is about trying to undo that damage.
TBRN: As the story moves forward in time, Rachel seems less and less credible. Was this slow decline intentional? How do you hope your readers perceive Rachel throughout the story?
HB: As a writer, I don’t think the goal is ever to make a character less credible over time. I was trying to show Rachel unraveling for reasons that I hope become clear as the book progresses. My hope is that readers see a woman who has to fall apart in order to find her strength again, a version of hitting rock bottom before fighting to resurface.
TBRN: Paul is such an interesting character. Though he’s in the background most of the time and a slippery, claustrophobic presence, there are times when it’s tempting to almost feel sorry for him, especially given Rachel’s actions. Might you share your intentions for Paul as a character?
HB: Paul is a character who keeps his emotions (and intentions) close to the vest. Therefore, it’s easy for others to project a lot onto him, and what they project is largely contingent on their own emotional states. I did have empathy and sympathy for Paul, like I did with all the characters. Even when my characters are behaving badly, I know the psychological underpinnings, and that keeps me invested in them.
TBRN: Marley’s evolution throughout the novel is, perhaps, the most profound. She’s so independent yet so terribly needy at the same time. What were your hopes for Marley throughout the story, and how does she reflect your thoughts on child runaways in the real world?
HB: There are certain common reasons why children run away (family dynamics, school problems, mental health issues, substance abuse, attention-seeking, pregnancy, etc.), but even within those categories, the individual stories can be extremely varied. So Marley isn’t a composite of others; rather, I envisioned her as a person driven by her own unique pain and circumstances. My hope was for her to stop defining herself in opposition to her mother and to become a fully realized individual.
TBRN: Before Marley runs away, she swipes her mom’s iPod by mistake one day to go running, thinking it’s her own. Surprisingly she realizes she likes some of her mom’s music: Hüsker Dü, the Church, etc. That’s some old-timey punk and prog rock music! Are you a fan?
HB: That’s the one part of the book that’s a little bit autobiographical. “To Be in Your Eyes” was one of my favorite songs when I was Marley’s age. I used to lay on my bed and play it over and over, making up music videos in my head. I loved to intensify emotion at that age. Now that I have a three-year-old, I have intensity enough.
TBRN: In the Acknowledgments, you share that you have five unpublished novels. What’s the story behind that?
HB: You don’t miss a thing! The story is, I wrote books, I queried agents, and no one wanted to represent them. Now I reread them, and I can see that either the concepts are flawed or the execution is. With my agent and/or editor’s guidance, I might attempt a revision someday of one or more of them. But right now, I’m enjoying developing new ideas.
TBRN: In addition to writing fiction, you’re a marriage and family counselor and practice emotionally focused therapy. What is EFT, and how does your “day job” inform the content of your writing and your writing process?
HB: EFT is based on attachment theory --- the idea that secure emotional bonds are essential for loving relationships. We all need to feel that other people reliably have our backs, and we need that from birth. If we don’t get it, we’re likely to have a hard time trusting later. So EFT is about creating those secure attachments between partners. Attachment theory is a cornerstone of my therapy work, and it’s also present in my novels, if you know to look for it. My writing is informed by therapy in that I spend three days of my week immersed in the stories of my clients, and that hones my empathy for the other two to three days I spend immersed in the stories I’ve made up.
TBRN: Tell us a little about your PsychCentral.com blog. Where do you get your ideas for posts?
HB: Sometimes it’s things that I’m mulling over in my own life and family; sometimes it’s what I’m seeing with my clients. It could be what’s in the zeitgeist. One of my more popular posts, for example, was on the slut-shaming phenomenon.
TBRN: You have a new book coming out on July 7th called A NECESSARY END. Might you give your readers a hint about what they can look forward to?
HB: It’s domestic suspense that hinges on the question: How far would you go to get what you wanted? Thirty-nine-year-old Adrienne wants to be a mother, and this time, she won’t let anything stop her. With a husband who’s ambivalent about fatherhood and a hot 19-year-old birth mother who has an agenda of her own, what could go wrong?