Two Mulvaney children, Marianne and her older brother Patrick, are among my favorite characters from my writing. They abide deep in my heart. I can "see" them so vividly! Marianne is sweet, good-natured, docile, though in her own way stubborn; Patrick is the brainy boy, outspoken, rather a smart aleck within the family, but unswervingly honest and idealistic. He would die for his family. He would - almost - commit a terrible crime for his sister.
I wish I could claim to be as naturally "good" as Marianne. I know that there are girls and women like Marianne. (Her character is based partly on one of my high school friends.) I would like to hope that I could be magnanimous like Marianne, and forgive those who have wounded me, but I'm not sure that this is so. It's enough for me as the novelist to know and take solace in the fact that such individuals as Marianne do exist. I celebrate their generosity and goodness. I reach out to them: Thank you! Your being is an example to us all.
Finally, I have to say of We Were the Mulvaneys that it's the novel closest to my heart. Passages were transcribed in white heat, as in a fevered dream. I was scarcely inventing or imagining, only just "remembering." My writing is so much about homesickness. The rural landscapes and waterways of upstate New York, where I was born and grew up on a small, not-very-prosperous farm north of Lockport. The sights, smells and texture of life in a small town. The intense emotions of high school life, ephemeral anxieties and joys. The wounds that can cut deep, and scar for years, or a lifetime.
In We Were the Mulvaney's animals are almost as important as people. I wanted to show the tenderness in our relationships with cats, dogs, and horses. Especially cats. Marianne's cat Muffin was based on a real cat of that name and everything about him in the novel is, or was, true in life. Marianne's experience is exactly what mine was. Muffin's life was saved for 13 miraculous months. Or, his death was forestalled. Exactly as in We Were the Mulvaneys, except that I was already married, and all the circumstances were different. This is a sentimental confession, but I may as well make it...
And, so to continue in the vein, of sentimental truth telling: "Stump Creek Hill" does exist, under another name, in southern New Jersey. It is an abandoned animal shelter "dedicated to the care of sick, injured, abandoned, and elderly wildlife and domestic animals." Just as this shelter saves the lives of numberless animals, so too, in the novel it saves Marianne from isolation and despair. I wish there were more Mariannes in our midst, and I wish there were more "Stump Creek Hills." In the meantime, we can do our best to support such selfless organizations, and, within a smaller, more domestic compass of activity, we can do our best to prevent the situations that cause such hurt to the innocent.
As Dr. Whitaker West says, "That's the best kind of thinking - wishful."
I'm deeply moved the Oprah Winfrey has selected this novel for Oprah's Book Club, a family novel presented to Oprah's vast American family.