“Two if By Sea,” Jacquelyn Mitchard’s latest novel, is not “a Jacquelyn Mitchard book,” according to the author. But in many ways, she concedes, it is.
The book begins with a tsunami and the action ramps up immediately as the main character, Frank, a retired Chicago cop, rescues a boy whose family is swept away. The boy, Ian, holds secrets that slowly become revealed after Frank adopts him and brings him back home to Wisconsin.
“It’s not what people think of as a Jacquelyn Mitchard book,” the former Madisonian said when reached by phone just before the book’s release. “It’s an adventure that has really robust elements and takes place on three continents. There are forces of evil in it. It’s not a domestic drama in some essential ways, but it’s recognizably a book that belongs to me.”
“Two if By Sea,” the first book from Mitchard since her financial ruin at the hands of a corrupt adviser in 2011, has already gone into a second printing. Mitchard moved with her family from Madison to Cape Cod, and she has since proved her resiliency by landing a teaching job at Vermont College of Fine Arts and writing a book that, she says, feels as much a part of her as her 1996 blockbuster “The Deep End of the Ocean.”
Q: The last time you were in the State Journal was in 2011 when you talked about your financial difficulties.
A: I was open about that. That resulted in people hating my guts all over the Midwest. But we can definitely see the light at the end of the tunnel. We can see a time in which this won’t be the seminal fact of our lives. We moved away from Wisconsin four years ago as a result of this financial burndown. “Two if By Sea,” for me, is the proof to myself that I am going to be able to survive this. I feel closer to it than any other novel that I’ve written since “The Deep End of the Ocean” for that reason, in part because when I wrote “The Deep End of the Ocean,” I was a young widow. It proved to me that I was going to be able to survive that as well.
Q: What inspired you to write “Two if By Sea”?
A: I saw a photo of a Christmas tree that was in a flood; it was under water but the lights were still burning. That image stayed with me. When I thought about it again, and the characters of Frank and Ian started to come to me, it was also a meditation about what would be more threatening to people: Someone who was capable of extraordinary evil, or someone who was capable of extraordinary good. Someone who could do extraordinary good is much more threatening because it’s not expected. If there was a kid like Ian, who could make people behave as their best selves simply by wishing for it to be so, who wouldn’t want to either stop that kid or control him?
Q: The book starts out with a tragedy.
A: That’s what Jackie Mitchard books are. You gotta earn your good feelings. These are not stories about how people took a vacation and had a really good time.
Q: A tsunami is a pretty dramatic way to start a book.
A: You’re never supposed to start a story with weather, right?
Q: Is that a rule?
A: Yeah, it is. Like, “It was a dark and a stormy night.” But if you break that rule really decisively it’s OK.
Q: Go big or go home, right?
A: Indeed. That should be the epigraph for “Two if By Sea.” It really is a story about being all in. It’s about putting all your chips in and fighting for the best.
Q: What’s the Wisconsin angle?
A: The horse farm where Frank was born and grew up is outside of a mythological Spring Green. Madison will always be home to me. I confess I don’t miss the extremes of temperature and the mosquitoes, but I miss everything else. I miss that broad streak of Midwestern decency.
Q: You said that when you were vulnerable and honest about what you’d been through four years ago, people hated you for that?
A: If you write about losing millions of dollars in an investment theft, the reaction of people is to say, “Boo hoo, I never had that kind of money.” I was really hurt by that. I felt terrible because I’m the first person in my family to graduate high school. I’m a plumber’s daughter from the west side of Chicago. I worked extraordinarily hard for the money. It seems that people have believed that the success of my first book was like a lottery win, like I didn’t do anything to cause that to happen. That made me really sad. People say, “I have a thick skin.” That’s not true for me.
Q: You say that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel?
A: I do feel that way. My husband and I have begun the process of paying off our last debts. I have a new book coming out, I have another book in the works and a lovely job as the editor in chief and curator of a realistic young adult imprint, Merit Press, and I teach. My life has started to stabilize. If I have one material ambition in life, it’s to have a bathtub. When I think about my house in Madison … it was a trauma to leave that house.
When I look back and look at the small things what I really regret is all the baths I didn’t take. Now we have a concept bathroom in our house in Cape Cod, it’s like a bathroom at camp that’s shared by eight other people. That’s my material ambition, I want to have a tub big enough to stretch out in. That’s not too grand.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: Of course I look forward to coming to Madison as a homecoming, but it’s also a comeback. I left town four years ago in despair. Now I feel as though I’m proud of being able to see people and not have my head hanging down. I don’t think people should ever be ashamed that something happened to them that was not their fault. Particularly when the issue is money, you can’t help but feel as if you’re somehow stupid and you’ve made choices that no one else would make. If life is long enough you end up forgiving yourself. It’s taking me almost 59 years.