Small town mystery of a missing woman and her children has everyone on edge and the truth that is revealed is even darker than anyone could imagine.
NOT THAT I COULD TELL (March 27, 2018) is Strawer’s sophomore novel, and it’s certainly no slump. I feel like this title shows a significant growth on her part, in her astute suburban politics, page-turning goings-on, and her down-to-earth, girl-friend like narrative style. NOT THAT I COULD TELL IS darker than ALMOST MISSED YOU, but not a thriller, per se, yet I raced through to the dark and carefully plotted end.
Just Named Book of the Month Selection for March 2018!
Kristin Kirkland seems to have everything together. She’s cute and well-liked, going out of her way to help other mommies at preschool, volunteering in the classroom, and those twins–Abby and Aaron! But when she and the kids go missing, the tightly knit community of Yellow Springs, Ohio is on edge. Where did she go and why didn’t she tell anyone? Not to mention she’s estranged from her soon-to-be ex-husband, who is an affable and successful OB/GYN.
The neighbor women rally, searching out clues as to what happened to their friend. Or, is she really even a friend? The women soon realize they don’t know much about Kristin–everything was discussed at an arm’s-length, superficial level. An investigation ensues, but there are no leads, and only so much the police can do.
In NOT THAT I COULD TELL, we get an authentic slice of suburban life with various families and parenting styles, but is mostly focused on young motherhood(women raising babies through preschool, though there is one precocious 12-year old, whom I could relate to having one myself).
I particularly liked the diary-like entries from the missing doctor’s wife, Kristin, as well as the ephemera at the beginning of each chapter.
The ending brings a twist which I honestly didn’t see coming, though a more astute reader might. I found NOT THAT I COULD TELL a riveting read about suburban drama, lessons centered around love, friendship, and the power of community.
“Equal parts mystery and female bonding, this riveting tale asks the question: Can we truly know our neighbors? The compelling cast of characters is led by the fiercely protective Clara, the endearing, naïve Izzy, and the inexplicably vanished Kristin. Their distinctive paths lead to powerful lessons about love, connection, and community.” – Cynthia Swanson, New York Times bestselling author of The Bookseller and The Glass Forest
Please join me in welcoming Jessica Strawser back to the blog couch!
Leslie Lindsay: Jessica, I’m curious what the inspiration was for NOT THAT I COULD TELL? Was there an event, a character, or setting that was haunting you?
Jessica Strawser: Haunting is probably the right word. I lost a close friend to domestic violence almost a decade ago. In a very loosely associated way, I felt pulled to write about the issue from the distance at which most of us experience it—from that arm’s length perspective of a neighbor or friend who doesn’t really know for sure what’s going on behind closed doors, and frankly may never know. How much responsibility should we feel for one another?
L.L.: I think it’s fair to say that this novel is much darker than your first. [Read my 2017 interview with Jessica here] Was that intentional on your part, or did it evolve organically?
Jessica Strawser: While it deals with some dark subject matter, I think it’s ultimately a hopeful story, or at least a thoughtful one, ultimately showing positive sides of humanity even in dark circumstances. That was my ultimate focus, and so it didn’t feel dark to me as I was writing it.
L.L.: Similarly, what can you tell us about being in the ‘pressure cooker’ as you say, in terms of writing that second novel? Is it really as hard as others say?
Jessica Strawser: In my experience, at least, it was, simply because—even aside from the pressure—what began as a passion or hobby quickly turns to the business of juggling various projects at various stages, and the distractions from the creative process itself can become overwhelming. My years of work as an editor trained me well for the more methodical parts of managing my to-do list and my calendar, but creatively speaking there’s certainly a whole new set of interruptions, challenges and, yes, expectations.
L.L.: What can you tell us about the setting, Yellow Springs, Ohio? I hadn’t heard of it before picking up NOT THAT I COULD TELL, but I found myself looking up the town on Google. Are you personally familiar with it? And what is it about small, idyllic towns that intrigue us so?
Jessica Strawser: I’ve spent many weekends in Yellow Springs—camping in the state park (the “Sunday morning moment of Zen” hike that Izzy seeks out in the novel is one my husband and I stumbled upon ourselves), trekking to the springs, biking the old railroad trail, and enjoying the shops and restaurants. It’s my kind of place. This story required a close, contained environment where the events would reverberate beyond just the main characters, and so when I started thinking in terms of small towns, Yellow Springs immediately came to mind. It was a nice place to live in my imagination for the year-plus I spent writing this book.
L.L.: NOT THAT I COULD TELL takes a dark situation and pulls the community together, but there are also some who feel alienated (Clara’s son is asked not to attend preschool till things ‘die down;’ Dr. Kirkland is asked to take a leave of absence) Can you talk about how some experiences unify, but others polarize, and how some have the power to do both simultaneously?
Jessica Strawser: I think very few situations are only one or the other, because even collective experiences filter through individual lenses.
There’s some subtext in the book stemming from a tragedy in Benny and Clara’s backstory, and how it has continued to impact the couple in curiously opposite ways. In their case we see the aftereffects, but in the disappearance that sends the present action of the story in motion, layers of something similar are peeling back in real time. I think that’s true to life.
In the course of crafting Dr. Kirkland’s story line in particular, I spoke with a real doctor about what bearing public speculation about private indiscretions might have on a professional practice, and he was very clear that in his personal experience opinion tended to be split, even in somewhat clear-cut cases where a doctor’s license was stripped for good reason.
L.L.: And the ending! Did you have that all mapped out first, or were you just as surprised as I was? Also, both your novels end at an ocean. Any significance there?
Jessica Strawser: I actually did know the ending from the start in this case, which was new for me—though I had only a foggy idea of how I was going to get there. Getting from Point A and Point B was the adventure! And I hadn’t even noticed that about the ocean. I guess I just love the way it makes me feel: The perspective of being so wide open in the world, and of being able to see as far as humanly possible until the earth curves away from you.
L.L.: Everyone in Yellow Springs was sort of obsessed with their missing friend…what’s obsessing you these days? For me, it’s how to structure my next project, which could go a multitude of ways!
Jessica Strawser: Aside from my next novel, which is due to my editor quite soon, I’m borderline obsessed with my new Instant Pot right now (I’m a little late to the party on this one, I know!). When my family gets busy the way it is now, between my amped-up book schedule and spring sports, it’s easy to let healthful meals slip, and I’ve been loving experimenting with quicker, easier ways to eat well.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of NOT THAT I COULD TELL, please visit:
- Join Jessica’s Email list
- Read my 2017 Interview with Jessica on her debut, ALMOST MISSED YOU
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: By day, Jessica Strawser is editor-at-large for Writer’s Digest magazine, North America’s leading publication for aspiring and working writers since 1920. By night, she is a fiction writer with a debut novel, ALMOST MISSED YOU, new from St. Martin’s Press (named to the March 2017 Barnes & Noble Best New Fiction shortlist!), and another stand-alone book club title, NOT THAT I COULD TELL, forthcoming in 2018. And by the minute, she is a proud wife and mom to two super sweet and super young kids in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Her diverse career in the publishing industry spans more than 15 years and includes stints in book editing, marketing and public relations, and freelance writing and editing. Having served as WD’s chief editor and editorial director for nearly a decade, she blogs at WritersDigest.com and elsewhere (if you’d like a guest post, contact me!), tweets @jessicastrawser (please do say hello), enjoys connecting on Facebook, and speaks at book clubs, libraries, writing conferences and events that are kind enough to invite her.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press and used with permission. All images retrieved via web on 3.6.18. Image of BOTM from ,suburban street image retrieved from, beach image from image of yellow springs retrieved from ]