ALL THE NUMBERS by Judy Merrill Larsen
the summer of 2005 Judy Larsen was invited to New York to the Random
House/Ballantine offices, and while visiting there, she was introduced to
Bev Marshall, author of Walking Through Shadows, Right As Rain, and Hot
Fudge Sundae Blues. After Bev said how much she loved All The Numbers, she
asked Judy if she’d answer a few questions about her novel over a cup of
coffee. Judy agreed, and soon the two authors were settled in a nearby café
sipping coffee, chatting like old friends. Here are a few bits and pieces of
their conversation that afternoon.
Bev: I’ve already told you how much I loved All the Numbers, but
I didn’t tell you that I actually stayed up until 3.a.m. reading it. I
just couldn’t go to sleep until I knew what was going to happen to poor
Judy: Well, I’d say I’m sorry you lost sleep, but I’m not. What a
thrill to know you couldn’t put it down.
Bev: I’d bet I wasn’t the only reader you kept up late, and I’d
also wager that I wasn’t the only one who wants to know if this was an
account of a personal experience. Have you suffered the loss of a child?
Judy: Thank God, no. But I think most parents have had those
scary trips to the emergency room when you hope your child just needs a
few stitches or those moments of terror when your toddler is lost in a
crowd, and you try to remember what he was wearing. As a mother, one of
the most frightening moments I had was when my first grader was hit by a
car. I was frozen for a few seconds. I didn’t want to run out and check
on him because I was so scared of what I might have to face. He turned
out to be fine, but of course I didn’t know that yet.
Bev: Thank God for that! So was your son’s accident the
inspiration for All The Numbers?
Judy: Not exactly. I think I’d been dreaming it up for years—
ever since I became a mother and learned that overwhelming, awful truth
of how much I loved my sons, how much I wanted to protect them, and how
in so many ways I was powerless.
Bev: I’m a mother, too, so I know exactly what you mean. What was
so very chilling to read was the contrast between this idyllic scene at
the lake and the horror that followed. I could visualize that scene,
hear the jet ski approaching. I’m guessing you’ve spent some time on a
lake yourself. Am I right?
Judy: Yes. Just like Ellen, I’m lucky enough to have a best
friend who has a lake house and we go there often. The story came to me
one summer day on her dock in Lake Ripley in Wisconsin. We sat there,
sipping wine and talking as her daughters and my sons played in the
lake. A jet skier went by. And I started to think, what if? What if one
of the children had been a bit farther out? What would that do to me as
a mother? To our friendship? To the other children? The story flowed
Bev: Speaking of flowing. I think you should give out boxes of
tissues with your book to wipe all the tears that your readers will
shed. I used up an entire box myself.
Judy: You know I hear that from everyone who reads this. Even
men. And I find it very gratifying that I am able to elicit that kind of
emotional connection with my words. I still catch myself tearing up when
I reread certain parts of the book, and it’s good to know I’m not the
only one sniffling.
Bev: Like most authors, I have great empathy for my characters,
and I’m sure that you do, too. We live inside their bodies as we write,
so how on earth did you manage to survive writing about Ellen’s pain?
Judy: Well, it was hard because I did relate to Ellen so closely.
There were days I was just exhausted for and with her. And my poor
sons—they were the same ages as Daniel and James the summer I wrote the
first draft, and they’d be headed to the pool and I’d be hollering after
them, don’t go in too deep, and be careful and what I really wanted was
for them to sit inside where I knew they’d be safe and sound.
Bev: I know what you mean. I feel the same way about my grandson
every time he goes to our pool.
Judy: So there never comes a point when we get to relax? I hadn’t
even thought about worrying about future grandbabies, Bev.
Bev: Nope, you never stop worrying. Motherhood is a lifetime
profession. But besides understanding the fears of us mothers (and
grandmothers), you seemed to know so much about the stages of grief and
all of the complex emotions a mother would feel after the death of her
child. How did you know this, Judy? Did you consult professionals or do
other kinds of research about the subject?
Judy: Again, I think the only research I did was forcing myself
to imagine the very worst. I think that’s how I cope with fears—try to
go all the way through to what would I do. Who would I call? I wanted
Ellen to have honest reactions. That’s what always intrigues me when I
hear or read about real-life accidents and tragedies. I always want to
ask the survivors—what’s your new normal? How long did it take you to
get there? I remember reading an article about Elizabeth Edwards and she
said how after her 16-year-old son was killed she just watched the
weather channel day after day after day. And I thought, yeah, that
sounds about right, I could see myself becoming almost catatonic.
Bev: I think that’s so brave of you, to vividly imagine the worst
happening. That’s probably why I thought this novel was a personal
experience. You also captured exactly how I think a teenage boy would
react to all of the events that occur in the novel. I know that, like
me, you are a teacher, and I’m wondering if your perceptions of Daniel
were based on your interaction with your students?
Judy: I think it was based on both my students and my sons. I
really find those early teenage years, especially with boys, to be such
a fascinating time. They aren’t little boys anymore, but they don’t have
the confidence and swagger they’ll have in a few years. There is such
sweetness there, but also a coolness or distance. I always describe my
ninth grade students (mainly the boys) as like puppies. They mean well,
but their feet are too big. And for Ellen, Daniel is becoming someone
Ellen doesn’t know—partly because she’s so wrapped up in her pain, but
also because that’s part of the growing up process.
Bev: I love that analogy of the boys’ feet and puppy paws. And
while we’re on the topic of students and school, I noticed numerous
references to numbers and the Capitol throughout the novel, which seemed
to me to have symbolic significance. Did you consciously work these
references into the text, and if so, how did you perceive their
Judy: Did my English students feed you this question, Bev? I love
symbolism, but I know there are always a few of them who sit and shake
their heads thinking, “she is so making this stuff up.” What’s funny is
that with the references to numbers, that was very intentional, but the
references to the Capitol were not conscious at all. I thought the idea
of numbers might tie in to things making sense—you know x + y = z. And
of course for Ellen, those familiar patterns have been completely
destroyed—what she is looking for are new patterns, new rules. Now that
I think about it, the Capitol references kind of tie in to the same
idea—you know, structure, order, rules.
Bev: Well, now I have to ask you if you were consciously
conveying a message about organ donation to your readers. I was really
surprised by Ellen’s reaction to donating James’s organs.
Judy: Let me say right off I am a huge believer in organ
donation. My card is signed. I want to encourage everyone to become an
organ donor. But I also think, that at least for me, donating organs in
the face of losing a child wouldn’t bring relief right away. It
certainly wouldn’t prevent me from offering my child’s organs, but it
wouldn’t lessen my agony. This just fit with how I thought Ellen would
react. She’s not noble in her grief. She just hurts, and there’s not a
thing in the world that’s going to lessen that hurt other than time.
Bev: And I suspect that even time can’t heal the grief but only
lessen the pain one must feel after losing a child. As I read the novel,
I saw that Ellen’s reaction to that pain was to focus her thoughts and
actions on revenge. She directs her rage toward Ben Buchanan and the
manufacturers of jet skis. But Ellen experiences a complete turnaround
in her sympathy for the Buchanan family, and she agrees to allow Daniel
to jet ski. Did you foresee this happening, and if so, did you view
these “epiphanies” as part of the healing process?
Judy: What I liked was how Ellen, initially so stuck in her grief
and rage, gradually is able to look outward. I think that’s how she
heals, and probably how we all heal. When all we can see is our own
pain, that’s a very narrow vision. As Ellen sees things more
broadly—through Daniel, through Ben’s mom and others, she is able to
forgive and move on. So yes, all that is part of her healing.
Bev: And Ellen’s healing is revealed beautifully in the last
scene. Oftentimes I’m disappointed by the endings of novels, but the
ending of All the Numbers was just perfect. Did you know the outcome of
the trial and the denouement for Ellen when you began writing or was
this ending a surprise to you?
Judy: I knew she would ultimately forgive Ben—but I didn’t know
all the specifics of how that would come about. That’s one of the things
I love about writing—my characters let me know who they are as I write.
It’s fun to have those moments where as I’m writing I am also thinking,
“Hmmm, I sure didn’t see that coming.”
Bev: Oh, I know, I know. Oftentimes my characters surprise and
delight me. I think they’re all a lot smarter than I am. So you didn’t
know what the final scene would be?
Judy: I did know what the final scene would be—Ellen and the
others, standing on the dock, spreading James’ ashes to the wind. The
challenge was getting her to that point. I knew there would be a trial;
I knew that Ellen would lose her “blood thirst” for Ben Buchanan. What I
didn’t know was how she would get drawn into the mud—how she would be
made to look guilty. That came in one of the later revisions.
Bev: Speaking of revisions, are you hard at work on another
Judy: Yes—and it is completely different from this book. I
promise you won’t need any Kleenex.
Bev: I don’t mind buying another box, but what is the new novel
Judy: It’s a romantic comedy about a woman in her thirties who
has had it with dating—and with shaving her legs. So she decides if she
quits one she can quit the other too. Then of course she meets a great
guy—but she’s taken a stand and doesn’t want to back down. It’s called
Bev: I love that title, and I’ll bet nearly every one of your
female readers can relate to razor burns. I know we both have to go
soon, but I have just one final question: My readers are always curious
about my writing habits, and I’m sure that your readers want me to ask
you about yours. What’s a typical writing day like for you? How often
and where do you write? Do you have a special talisman or ritual that
helps you write?
Judy: I don’t know how typical it is, but a good writing day for
me starts with me taking a long walk with my dog—often I’m the first one
up, and this not only gets us some exercise, but it’s some time I can
think about where my characters and I might be going that day. It’s a
way for me to focus and get inside my characters’ heads. Once everyone
in the house is off to work or school, I try to write for a few hours.
This is my most productive time. I write my first draft (and make most
of my revisions) in longhand—preferably sitting on my front porch with a
cup of coffee, so my talismans would be a stack of new legal pads and
some good ink pens (not ball point). I really like writing in
longhand—it seems more intimate.
Bev: I knew you had a dog! Judy thanks so much for sharing all of
this with me. I know you have to go back home, but I’ve had so much fun
I hate to leave. Let’s plan to meet again somewhere soon. I have a
feeling we’re going to become good friends.
Judy: Absolutely, just tell me where and when. And even more, I
think our characters (and maybe even our dogs!) would be buddies too.
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