Ann Napolitano, DEAR EDWARD

Ann Napolitano, DEAR EDWARD

In this special weekend re-release, Zibby interviews New York Times bestselling author Ann Napolitano about Dear Edward, a transportative, haunting, and surprisingly uplifting novel about a twelve-year-old boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash. It is now streaming as an Apple Tv+ series starring Connie Britton.

Zibby: “This book is a huge sensation. It’s a December 2019 Book of the Month Club pick and a Read With Jenna Pick. Ann spent 8 years writing this riveting novel, and I got to talk to her about the beautiful storyline, the writing process, her family, and more.”


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ann. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Ann Napolitano: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Of course. Dear Edward, huge sensation already. Read with Jenna Today Show pick, Barnes & Noble, Book of the Month Club, Books-A-Million, so amazing.

Ann: I know. It’s very exciting and strange.

Zibby: Congratulations.

Ann: Thank you.

Zibby: I’m not at all surprised because it’s so good. You spent eight years writing it. Tell listeners what Dear Edward is about.

Ann: It is about a twelve-year-old boy named Edward who is the sole survivor of a plane crash. There’s two storylines in the book. The book starts with Edward and his family, his brother and his parents, and several other passengers that we get to know boarding a flight in Newark Airport which is bound for LAX. At the end of the first chapter, the flight takes off. Then the second chapter starts later that same day after that plane has crashed. Edward wakes up in the hospital, and he’s the sole survivor. For the rest of the book, I alternate the two timelines. We do the arc of the flight and the crash and then the arc of Edward’s life after the crash and how he figures out how to go on.

Zibby: What inspired you to write this book and come up with the story for this? You had said you never thought you would write about a plane crash. Tell me how this all came about.

Ann: I’m a nervous flyer to begin with. Fictionally, both as a reader and a writer, I generally tend to gravitate towards quieter stories. I don’t read thrillers, generally, or things with explosions or crashes. It’s unlikely in all manner of speak. In 2010, I became obsessed with a story that was in the news. There was a real plane crash. There was a flight from South Africa bound for London. It crashed in Libya. There was only one survivor. It was a nine-year-old boy, a Dutch boy. They found him buckled into his seat a half mile away from the rest of the wreckage. He had a punctured lung and a broken leg, but he was otherwise fine. Everyone else in the flight, including his parents and his brother, had died immediately. Obviously, it was so sad. They had a picture of him in the hospital. He looked so beautiful and broken and small. I was like, how could this boy go on? How do you go on from that? He just lost everyone that he loved his whole life. His aunt and uncle came and adopted him. They did an amazing job of protecting his privacy from the first minute, so I couldn’t know that he was going to be all right. Very quickly, I knew that I was going to have to write a version of this story and try and create a set of circumstances in which a little boy could be okay, a way that with the kindness of others propelling him and the passage of time, that he would find a place where he wasn’t ruined by what happened to him, but he was rebuilt.

Zibby: Your sons were one and three at the time that you wrote this book and are now ten and twelve. How do you think the relationship between your boys affected the relationship that you wrote about in this book between Edward and his brother?

Ann: I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but obviously, seeing this little boy in the hospital and then having two little boys at home was part of the emotional connection I had to the story. The other part that I became aware of was that — my sons were one and three. I feel like when they’re that age, they’re like drunk bear cubs. They’re not really people yet. They’re just tumbling all over the place. One of them is wearing a bucket on their head. The other one is sobbing over something you can’t even understand what they’re talking about. Your job is to keep them alive until they have a little more sense and to laugh at them and kiss them because they’re adorable, but they’re ridiculous. You don’t really know about who they’re going to be as people at that age. When they get a bit older, you can start seeing what their skill sets are or what their disposition is. When they’re one and three, the only thing that I really knew about them was that they were deeply in love with each other. My husband and I have nothing to do with that. They’re still deeply in love with each other. It’s kind of unusual. When my younger son was born, for my older son, it was like they were being reunited instead of introduced. They just are soulmates. Although, I don’t like that term. As I started writing about Dear Edward and that world, their love sort of baked into the story. Before I had children or maybe even if I didn’t have the children that I have, I would’ve thought that the loss of the parents would’ve been the most searing blow. I realized that it actually was the loss of his brother because he loved him so deeply. Also, you’re meant to grow up with your sibling. We leave our parents when we go to college or have our adult lives. That’s part of the natural progression, but you’re not supposed to lose your brother or sister. That love and that loss really baked itself into the story.

Zibby: It took you eight years to write this book. Tell me about the process that was involved and how you structured both the plot and the character development during that time.

Ann: My husband had challenged me — the book before this, another novel called A Good Hard Look, took seven years. I always had considered myself an intuitive writer. I would start with a scene. Then someone would walk in the room and say something that surprised me as well as, hopefully, the reader. It was an act of discovery as I wrote, which I love. It’s so fun. It’s seventy-five percent of why writing is this really interesting, exciting experience. When I was moving like that, I ended up writing many, many scenes and many, many hundreds of pages that I ended up cutting because I would muddle my way, feeling my way through the book. My husband suggested that I take a year as the first part of writing this new book, a year where I didn’t write but I only researched and took notes and thought. Actually, when I write, it’s a very, as I said, intuitive but emotional experience. My brain kind of switches off. It’s very hard for me to come up with critical or analytical or plot ideas while I’m writing. I spent a year just using my brain, which was really challenging because I love writing pretty sentences. All I really wanted to do was dive in and start writing. It was extremely helpful. I interviewed a career pilot. I had to figure out why my plane crashed. As I said, I’m not a plane expert. I never thought I would write about a plane crash. I had to learn a lot. I read a lot of National Transportation Safety Board reports and black box recordings and articles about plane crashes.

Knowing that I had these passengers and that they could be anyone — everyone flies. I could have very different characters than I could have if I was writing about a neighborhood or a set of friends. That was actually really exciting. I consciously chose very different people. Then I read books and spoke to people for each one. Crispin Cox is the octogenarian billionaire who’s on the flight. I read Jack Welch’s Straight From the Gut, which is really funny. It’s not supposed to be funny, but it’s very funny. He has all this spunk. It’s just a very entertaining book. I read that for Crispin Cox. Then I read War by Sebastian Junger for the soldier that’s on the plane. I have a friend who’s in the army that I spoke to. David Foster Wallace wrote a book about math called Everything and Beyond that I read for the pure mathematician. I also have a friend who’s a pure mathematician, so I spoke to her. Then my husband had also challenged me to read outside of my normal genres that year. It was a whole year of experiment. I read during that year, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series. Reading that book and how Gaiman plays with time and space — all the boundaries are gone for him in the most exhilarating way. That made me create Florida, who’s the pastor on the plane who believes that she’s lived many lives. It was all baked into that year. By the time that I started writing it, the plane sections came very easily for me because I knew so much already. Also, it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. They’re trapped in a silver bus, so only so much can happen. The stuff with Edward on the ground was what I wrote and rewrote the most. I knew that he was going to be adopted by his aunt and uncle because that was what had happened to the real boy. Then I knew there was going to be a girl his age who lived next door and that he was going to sleep on her floor. That was all I knew for that when I started.

Zibby: Sorry for all the sirens here, by the way. I am so sorry. If anyone’s listening and in their cars, the sirens are from my recording. You do not have to look behind you to see if there is a policeman chasing you. My apologies. It’s New York City. You did such a great job of capturing Edward’s sense of isolation and loneliness, especially being the sole survivor of this plane crash. Is there anything in your own life that has made you able to tap into these feelings so successfully?

Ann: I had an experience right after my junior year of college. I got sick with a virus called Epstein-Barr. Mononucleosis is the smaller version of it, kind of. Epstein-Barr is the umbrella that goes above that. Having been healthy my whole life and then healthy after that — I was sick for three years. What it did, basically, is wipes out your immune system, so you catch everything that comes near you. You get food poisoning all the time. It’s not fun. I don’t recommend it. I got it after my junior year. I actually went back to college my senior year, but I took a half load of classes. It took me an extra year to finish college. I basically went back to college just so that I wouldn’t be deeply depressed on my parents’ couch. It was more a social thing than an academic thing at that point because my brain was not — I wasn’t able to do the high-level work that I had been doing at that point. I spent that year at college sort of pretending to be a twenty-year-old.

I didn’t have the energy. I would have three hours of energy a day, so I would figure out where to dole it out. Then I would be with my friends. Someone would say something, and I would think, I should laugh at that because that was a joke. I was not one with them. I was pretending to be one of them. For Edward, he’s in a worse and similar situation where he’s twelve, but he’s not a twelve-year-old anymore. If something that absolutely enormous happened to you, it removes you from being a kid, but he was literally still a kid. He had to figure out how to behave as a twelve-year-old even though he didn’t feel like one. I felt I had had that experience before which fit into it and was very helpful. For us, terrible things happen to us that feel impossible to get over at the time, even if it’s a huge breakup or the loss of a parent or even if it’s a grandparent who you love deeply dies. Whatever it is that rocks our foundation is completely individual. We’ve all had those experiences.

Zibby: You include a lot of different people’s stories. What inspires you to come up with all the different stories of all the different characters?

Ann: Part of it is I’ve spent my whole life going on planes and trains, etc., and making up stories for the people around me. I find people innately fascinating. If I go to a music concert or something, I’ll just make up stories about everyone who’s on stage. Twice divorced. I don’t necessarily know. That’s something that I love to do. Also, I feel like what ends up happening with the plane, and the opportunity that we all have around us all the time, is to make connections. We need to make connections. The people who are on the plane, they don’t know that they’re going to die until the very end. They’re having a normal day in the sky. They’re flirting. They’re taking pregnancy tests. They’re worried about their sexuality. They’re going through their life in a very day-to-day way, whereas what’s happening on the ground with Edward is soaked in grief because the terrible thing has already happened. With the people in the air — for instance, this woman Florida befriends another woman, Linda, sitting next to her. There’s real power in that connection because we know that their life’s about to end. It’s so meaningful and sweet that they’ve reached out to each other in what is, for them, a normal day. I feel like it calls to the need for all of us to not only notice the people around us, but be open to having those small connections because they really do feed us.

Zibby: Talk to me a little about how you can form an impression of somebody when you first meet them.

Ann: That’s so interesting to me that you can meet someone and be like, oh, I do not like that person, but you’re like, I literally just met you. What is happening with the electrons between us where I’m picking up something that’s antipathetic to who I am? Or that you meet someone, and you’re like, I want to be friends with that person. It’s just so interesting. It makes life rich and fascinating. It’s like there’s all these emotional microfibers making up all the minutes of our lives. If you become aware of them, it makes life more interesting, but it also — I’m much quicker to love now. I met my editor, and I was like, oh, I love her. I don’t even care if she loves me back because it’s such a boon for me to be filled with love. Whereas when I was younger, I used to get stuck on, do they like me? Does my hair look weird? Am I talking strangely? Am I talking too much? All these thoughts. All the emotional tracks in me now, I think largely just because of aging, are cleared out. I will meet someone and very quickly be like, oh, I love that person. What a benefit for me. I don’t even care if they love me back because I’m the one who benefits from the love.

Zibby: I think the open-endedness that you have Edward feeling — what is your path? He feels like because he survived, that he has something more that he has to do in life. There must be a reason. I’ve been chosen. What should I do? Really, as you point out, he just has to live his life. He doesn’t have to follow a certain path. None of us have a path that we have to really —

Ann: — He’s in this very stark situation where he’s the sole survivor. 191 people died. All the spotlight is on him. In truth, that same spotlight exists on all of us. He has to figure out how he wants to live his life and who he wants to be and how he wants to connect and love and what that looks like for him. It’s only because of the barren landscape that he stepped out of that everyone’s paying attention to that, but we all have the same ownness of each one of us. To be like, this person’s more important than this person is, completely untrue.

Zibby: Did writing this book make you a less-nervous flyer? You have a quote in there about how it’s so normal to all of us that we’re just sitting in the sky. That’s just part of our daily lives. Do you feel any better about it? Do you feel like all the research you did on flying makes you less confident?

Ann: I have a list of planes that I prefer to fly on that my publishing house has.

Zibby: If you could just email those to me. .

Ann: I don’t think anyone needs to know this kind of information. I know a lot now, but I feel, actually, pretty much the same as I did before. It is the thing where I think I was always like, oh, my god, we are a bus in the sky. That’s amazing. It’s amazing that humans invented such a thing and that it works and that we do it casually all day long, all year long. I’m also hyperaware that I’m in a bus in the sky. I don’t think we should feel comfortable in that situation. It didn’t give me a phobia. I’m just more aware of the people around me even than I was before. I find it all interesting.

Zibby: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

Ann: Yes, basically. In fourth grade, you would get those vocab lists that would get sent home, the list of words. There was one week in fourth grade where the teacher said, “Now I want you to write them into sentences that connect.” They’re all part of one thing, which had never happened before. I sat down to write the homework. I finished it. I looked up. I thought five minutes had passed, and forty minutes had passed. That was the first time as a child I had ever experienced time disappearing not in play. I just remember thinking, this is magic. Time just went away, and I was doing homework. I think the next day, I started writing a novel about a wartime orphan. I wrote about fifteen pages. Then I wrote about a wartime nurse. That also was about fifteen pages. I think I had very serious literary aspirations from the first minute. I thought it had to be during wartime in order for it to be a serious piece of work. That was always what I wanted to do.

Zibby: Have you always been drawn to fiction only?

Ann: Yeah, I can’t even write short stories. They just got longer and longer. There are pros and cons to all of that. It just means that also, I never published anything until I was thirty years old even though it was my main preoccupation. I worked as a personal assistant. I went to graduate school. I was making a living. I didn’t publish anything for that long because I could not write stories. My first novels that I wrote didn’t get published. It wasn’t until the third novel that I wrote that was published when I was thirty or thirty-one.

Zibby: How did you regroup after those rejections and just sit down and write another book?

Ann: The first novel I wrote was during graduate school. It was terrible. I think for many people, and certainly for me, I had to write a book in order to figure out how to write a book. There’s no way to just know how to write a novel, the pacing and how long it is and how it works. That one was rejected by eighty agents, and so I put it in a drawer. Then I finished graduate school. I was working as a personal assistant. I wrote another novel. That one, I got an agent for, but she couldn’t sell it. I ended up putting that one in a drawer. At that point, I got depressed. I was twenty-eight years old or something like that, twenty-seven maybe. I had never published anything. I had built my whole life around — I was working as a personal assistant so that I had time to write. It wasn’t like that was a career track or whatever for me. My father was sending me pamphlets for law school in the mail. I realized that the only way out of my depression was writing. I started writing again to feel less depressed. At that time, I realized that I was going to write for the rest of my life whether I published or not. At that point, I assumed I wouldn’t. A huge weight lifted because I realized that it was part of me. Even to this day, I won’t stop writing because I am not a whole human being if I’m not writing. It took the choice away from me, which was good.

Zibby: I’m interested how at the beginning of our conversation you were talking about how your husband suggested you do this year and all this. Tell me about his relationship to your writing and how you two work together. How great to have some sort of personal coach of your time and everything. What’s that like?

Ann: He would love to hear that. I have two writers that I’m — Helen Ellis and Hannah Tinti, who wrote The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley and The Good Thief, we met in graduate school. We’ve been each other’s first readers since then. That’s twenty-two years or something like that. They are the only ones who read my work. For Dear Edward, for seven and a half years, they were the only ones who read it. Then I gave it to my agent and my husband at the end. My husband is very helpful with big-picture issues. If I have a problem I want to talk through, then he is very helpful in that way. He is very helpful in looking at and being a problem solver, whereas I’m more in the muck.

Zibby: Is he in the literary world at all?

Ann: No. He used to be a filmmaker. Now he’s a tutor. He’s very academically — he’s brainy, which is not where my brain is, so it’s a very helpful combination.

Zibby: I read on your Instagram about your daily routine and how you sit in your kitchen and have an oat milk latte or all the rest of it. I kept reading, and I’m like, she’s so healthy. She’s having oat milk and a vegan muffin. This is so Brooklyn of her. It’s the whole thing.

Ann: Very, very Brooklyn.

Zibby: You always like to write in your kitchen while the boys are at school?

Ann: That’s the ideal. Ever since I had kids, I write wherever I need to and whenever I need to. I’ve become much more flexible. I used to write every morning first thing and then not let myself leave my apartment until I’d written three pages or something like that. I would hang little carrots for myself through the day to get things done. None of that exists anymore. Then, I was younger. I was more nervous about it and more ambitious in wanting to have a finished product and have it be published. For this book, I loved writing this book even though it was very sad. It was a joyful period for me in the work. I think a lot of it was just that I realized how much I love writing. I let myself love writing without worrying about it. That also lifted other restrictions where it didn’t matter where I was or what time it was. Although, I can’t write at night. I have no brain.

Zibby: I am more a morning person. Do you feel like having a twelve-year-old son as this book is coming out about a twelve-year-old boy is just —

Ann: — It’s so sweet. It only occurred to me recently that he is twelve. He came to both my readings this week. The ten-year-old came to the first one and then was like, “I’d rather go to soccer practice than go to the second one.” The twelve-year-old is very excited. It feels so nice. It just, obviously, worked out that way. It’s a really lovely age where they’re still children, but they’re on the cusp of — they’re so interested in adults — at least, he is — and what we’re talking about and getting information from us so that he understands the world better. It feels very sweet to walk Edward into the world with my son Malachy sort of cheering.

Zibby: That’s so nice.

Ann: It is nice.

Zibby: What do you have coming next? Are you working on anything else?

Ann: I’m in the first-year process for the second book where I’m not letting myself write. Actually, it’ll be a year in February or March. I’m taking notes and thinking and researching. I think Edward and Shay are in it, and it’s ten years later.

Zibby: Ooh, that’s exciting.

Ann: We’ll see.

Zibby: We’ll see. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Ann: When I was young, there was really only MFA programs. Now that’s no longer the case. There’s so many great classes that you can take. I think what I would urge is for people to find a writing community of some kind, even if it’s one or two other people. Helen and Hannah have been the most important part of my writing development. I met them in an MFA program. Now you can take classes. One Story, where I work, has online classes and in-person classes. There’s Gotham Writers Workshop. There’s Sackett Street. There’s Catapult. There’s a lot of national, not just in New York, programs where you can take a five-week workshop. It’s so important to have other people read your work and to read other people’s work. You can learn so much in that dynamic. I think a lot of people close themselves off because they’re worried that it’s not good. They just do it by themselves for fifteen years. You can make so much more progress if you allow other people into that space. I would urge you, if you think it’s terrible, that’s fine. I was terrible. We’re all terrible. Dear Edward was terrible in the beginning. You have to keep going. Having other people look at it and tell you the truth about it is the most helpful thing.

Zibby: Thank you for coming on the show. Congratulations on all the success already just even in the beginning, this launch month. I feel so honored to have talked to you because this book was really one of my favorites.

Ann: Thank you so much for having me on. This was very nice.

Ann Napolitano, DEAR EDWARD

DEAR EDWARD by Ann Napolitano

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