Taylor Jenkins Reid finds the hope in heartbreak in her touching debut novel, Forever, Interrupted
In Forever, Interrupted, Taylor Jenkins Reid traces the whirlwind romance of Elsie and Ben. Mere six months after they meet by chance in a pizza shop, they wed, but their marriage ends almost before it begins when Ben is involved in a catastrophic accident. Inspired by Jenkins Reid's fear of losing her real-life love, the book is a moving exploration of grief, but also at times a very funny look at how it's possible to move forward even when faced with tragic circumstances.
Why write a book about grief?
The death of a loved one is my biggest fear, the thing that sometimes makes me terrified of life. So I wanted to take that fear and find the hope in it. I wanted to explore a moment in someone’s life where they truly believe they cannot get out of bed and tell the story of how, despite everything, they put two feet on the ground and stand up.
I’ve always been drawn to books that make you bawl your eyes out, ones that really get into the depths of sadness and find the tenderness and hope — so I knew I wanted to bring some of that to a story of my own. As for this particular story, I eloped myself and was shocked at how intense the feeling was and how overwhelmingly in love I was. I became terrified that I would somehow lose this happiness I’d just discovered. It was a very real emotion for me so I decided to start there and mine that fear to find a story. That’s where Elsie and Ben started to develop.
What research, if any, did you do, and what did you find out that you thought was interesting/want to incorporate into the book?
I remember my mom called me after I’d told her I was starting this book and she said, “You’re never going to believe this but I just met a woman who eloped with a man she barely knew — she was blissfully in love — and then her husband died a few months later.” It was a very surreal moment. My mom asked if I’d want to talk to her and I said that I’d love to, but somehow, she couldn’t get back in touch with the woman. I took it as an omen that what I was writing about was real, but I was going to do it from my heart as opposed to real world research.
You were writing about grief from the points of view of a mother who lost her son, and a new wife who lost her husband. What were the differences, would you say, and how did you try to convey them?
I think the biggest difference is that Susan doesn’t have anything to prove. She was Ben’s mother. There is only one person that can be Ben’s mother. She has earned her grief and is respected for it. The legitimacy of Elsie’s grief is called into question throughout the book, not only by other characters, but by Elsie herself. Does she have the right to be this sad? Was she really the love of his life? Also, Susan will never have another child but Elsie may go on to have another husband. That is something they both struggle with in their own ways.
What was the most difficult thing about writing this book?
I knew the book had to begin with Ben’s death, but I had a hard time figuring out how I was going to make the reader understand just exactly what Elsie had lost, in losing him. I didn’t want to start the story with them meeting in a pizza shop and everything is great for half the book and then he dies. That structure didn’t work. So I had to figure out how to have him die at the very beginning and still show you who this man was. Once I realized I needed to tell the two stories concurrently, it all came together. Everything after that felt easy.
You, yourself, had an encounter with a man in a pizza shop that you very loosely spun off into this book. Are there any other similarities between occurrences in your real life and those in this book?
Hahaha. I didn’t even think of my pizza shop encounter! The big similarity between the book and my real life is that I did meet someone and we did fall in love and get married very quickly. However, the details of how it happened — Elsie and Ben’s dates, their rapport, their friends and family — that is all their own.
Which character are you most like and how? Not at all like and how?
I think I’m probably somewhere between Elsie and Ana. I’m not as quiet as Elsie, and not as showy as Ana. I’m more introspective than Ana, but I’m way more scattered than Elsie. I will say that Elsie losing her keys is a trait she inherited from me. I don’t understand how people keep track of where their keys are at all times.
Did you know how the book would end when you began writing it or did you just start of writing and explore the possibilities as you went along?
Once I figured out the structure for the book, I knew the trajectory for both stories. I knew how they would connect and play off of each other, but I had no idea what the details would be. Sometimes I would find myself writing things I never expected.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I know this book is about heartbreak, but I really hope people read the last page of this book and feel hope. Both Susan and Elsie, these women in so much pain, live to see a better day. That is my favorite part of the human spirit.
What’s next for you on the writing front?
My second book is called After I Do. The story focuses on a married couple that has been together for a long time. They have fallen out of love and decide to take a year apart to reassess their relationship. It’s about family, life, and friendship as much as it’s about love and marriage.
What books and authors do you love and why?
I will always and forever read anything Curtis Sittenfeld puts her name on. I’m a big, big fan. Same goes for J. Courtney Sullivan and Jonathan Tropper. I just read Therese Ann Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and loved every minute of it and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is perhaps the most moving book I’ve read in a decade.
This interview has been edited and condensed.