Wednesdays with Writers: What if your neighbor and her children went missing and there were no clues as to where or why? That’s what Jessica Strawser explores in her sophomore novel, NOT THAT I COULD TELL, set in real-life Yellow Springs, Ohio, plus it’s a March 2018 Book-of-the-Month selction

Leslie Lindsay 

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

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! 

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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: 

Order Links: 

Jessica_Strawser_credit Corrie Schaffeld (1)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.

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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 ]

Wednesdays with Writers: What if you were all alone and had cancer? Who might take care of your children when you’re gone? Sally Hepworth explores this, as well as social anxiety, domestic violence in THE MOTHER’S PROMISE. Oh, and Bali, new motherhood, character development…

By Leslie Lindsay 

A powerful and emotionally riveting portrait of what it means to be a family, A MOTHER’S PROMISE is poignant, breath-taking, and authentic, perhaps Hepworth’s best to date. 

I flew through this book, not because the topics touched upon are light-hearted; but because the writing is so smooth, so effortless, so authentic and engaging. But be warned: if domestic abuse (including rough sex), miscarriage, cancer, and social anxiety are triggers for you, by all means, select this book with caution. Still, Hepworth does a remarkable job of presenting these situations in a veiled attempt so that we get the gist of what’s happening, but don’t have to relive every raw moment with her characters.

Alice is a 40 year old single mother raising her daughter, fifteen year old Zoe on her own
; Zoe’s father isn’t exactly in the picture. But then Alice gets sick and is given a grim prognosis, she is befriended by her R.N. and social worker who attempt (sometimes erroneously) to correct the “problem.”

THE MOTHER’S PROMISE is searingly honest, emotional, and not at all sugar-coated. It’s about who one can trust in their network of love and support; it’s about ‘what would you do,’ when there’s not exactly a clear winner. THE MOTHER’S PROMISE reframes what it’s like to be alone, but dependent, it’s about finding that network of support when your own flesh and blood may fail. mother%27s-promise%2c-the

So pull up a chair, grab a cup of coffee and join me and Sally as we chat about writing, THE MOTHER’S PROMISE, and family.

Leslie Lindsay: Sally, it’s a pleasure to welcome you back! I know from our conversation last year about THE THINGS WE KEEP, you tend to get a lot of story ideas from human interest stories you come across in the media and how it might affect your family. (Hint: me, too…it’s my favorite part of the news). And so, this story THE MOTHER’S PROMISE is no exception. Can you tell us a little about what spurred your TTWK Coverideas into action?

Sally Hepworth: Yes, THE MOTHER’S PROMISE was spurred by the news–an article about a single mother, diagnosed with terminal cancer, who was searching for a guardian for her eight-year-old son. The woman’s ex-partner was not in the picture, her own parents had passed away and she was an only child. She didn’t have any friends or colleagues who she felt she could ask. I wondered … how does someone end up so alone? I have a big extended family, so this was hard for me to wrap my head around.  I wanted to explore it in a novel. stack-of-newspapers-high-resolution-image2

The more I thought of it, the more I realized there are many ways a person can be alone. Some people are physically alone, others are alone in marriage or a decision. Some claim to feel alone even when people surround them. Before I knew it, I had begun a total exploration of the ways a person can be alone … and the ways they can rejoin the world, even under the toughest of circumstances.

L.L.: I have to say, I fell into the rhythm of reading about Alice and Zoe so quickly.  They were easy to like, slightly flawed, normal people experiencing the extraordinary (in both regards as Alice has cancer and her daughter has debilitating social anxiety). Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration for each of these characters? And a little, too about the secondary characters: Kate, the nurse, Sonja the social worker, George the psychologist?

Sally Hepworth: Honestly, I didn’t put a lot of thought into the characters before I began writing. I didn’t set out to make Zoe a certain way and Alice another way, I wanted to let them reveal themselves to me as I wrote. The same is true for the secondary characters. I tend to be a planner when it comes to plot but characters tend to unfold organically without too much help from me.

L.L.: You do a lovely job of blending several different storylines and characters, all of which have a hint of dysfunction and a trace of authenticity that has readers question their own situations and whether they made the ‘right’ decisions at the time. Did you set out to write a controversial medical/emotional tearjerker, or did it sort of evolve into that?

Sally Hepworth: I wouldn’t say I ‘set out’ to do anything much other than telling a good story. That is my primary purpose: to entertain. But I think the best way to entertain people in fiction is to make the characters feel real, and the conflicts they face relevant. If I suck the reader in enough to make them question their own situations, I’ve probably done my job properly. 

L.L.: Your knowledge of Zoe’s teen culture is pretty spot-on, but you yourself are mom to three young kids, one just a newborn. Can you talk a bit about how you were able to download-55‘get into the head’ of a 15-year old?

Sally Hepworth: I spent a fair bit of time talking to teenagers for this book–my babysitters, to the teenage kids of friends, the neighbor’s kids—anyone I could. I adore young people, so this was a real pleasure. And I also watched a few teen American movies. But ultimately, I had to just imagine what it would be like to be fifteen and suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder. That is sometimes the most challenging (and interesting) part of being an author—stepping into someone’s else’s reality and being that person (at least for a few pages).

L.L.: What do you hope folks take away from THE MOTHER’S PROMISE?

Sally Hepworth:  That we are better together. Humans are relational beings. We aren’t meant to be alone. Sometimes life throws us hardships to force us to reach out and help one another.

L.L.: We’re early in the year, so what’s on your 2017 “Bucket List?” It doesn’t have to be literary.

Sally Hepworth: We’re building a house at the moment so getting it finished is on my
bucket list. I’ve written all my novels to date at the kitchen table, so it will be lovely to have an office with a wall of bookshelves from which to create. We’re also taking a family holiday to download-56Bali this year, which I’ve wanted to do for years. I’d also love to take a trip to the U.S. to meet my editor and the wonderful folk at St. Martin’s, but as I have a newborn, that might have to be on my 2018 bucket list.

L.L.: Is there something I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Sally Hepworth: How about…How am I coping with new motherhood? Let’s just say this. 2+1=150,0000 kids.

L.L.: Sally, a true pleasure! Thanks so much for popping by.

Sally Hepworth:  The pleasure was mine.

For more information, to connect with Sally on social media, or to purchase a copy of THE MOTHER’S PROMISE, please see: 
Sally Hepworth Headshot_highest res_credit Mrs. Smart Photography.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sally Hepworth is the bestselling author of THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES. New York Times bestselling authors Liane Moriarty and Emily Giffin have praised Sally’s debut novel as “women’s fiction at its finest” and “totally absorbing”. THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES was also the highest selling debut Australian fiction of the year in 2015.
Sally is also the author of THE THINGS WE KEEP, published in January 2016. The Things We Keep was a Library Journal Pick in the U.S. for January 2016, and an Indie Next Pick in the U.S. for February 2016. NYT bestselling author of The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion praised THE THINGS WE KEEP calling it ‘A compelling read that touches on important themes, not least the different forms that love may take.”
Both novels were published worldwide in English and have been translated into over ten languages. Sally is currently working on her next novel. She lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children
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[Cover and author image courtesy of K. Bassel at SMP and used with permission. Teens at cafe retrieved from Wikipedia; image of Bali retrieved from Wikipedia]