Summer Reading Special: A Conversation with Margaret Leroy
Margaret: Yes, the documentary planted this little seed in my mind. I thought the idea was so rich in story possibilities—it's a very exciting moment when you suddenly think, "Yes, that's the book I'm going to write," a moment of certainty—but it was actually in my mind for quite a long time. One day, years later, I decided it was finally the time to start.
O: Did you then have to do a lot of research on the topic?
Margaret: First, I read books like Tom Schroder's Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives, which is fascinating. But some of the best ideas often come when you're just talking about a book you're working on and people tell you stories. In this case, I met one parent while I was writing who described how his little boy, when he was 3, used to wake him in the night and sob and say he wanted to go home. He and his wife would tell their son, "No, you are home, you live here," and the little boy would go on sobbing and say, "No, I want to go home." That story was a gift for the book; it became a building block for Sophie's character [the child in the novel].
O: Having heard stories like that, do you believe in reincarnation now?
Margaret: The research certainly opened my mind to the possibility. The process was a journey: I started out just thinking, "Wonderful story idea—wonderful for fiction." Ultimately, I've been left with is this tremendous sense of mystery because I've always believed in the spiritual world—that our existence isn't just what we see, or just what's around us—but reincarnation is a very strange phenomenon. Hearing children say they've lived before now, reading the accounts where they recognize places they've never been and people they've never met—it's actually very hard to refute.
O: There's a focus on independent women in this book, especially Sophie's mother, Grace. Why did you make the decision to have such intrepid females?
Margaret: I like to write strong female characters. The strength in women isn't always shown in fiction. With Grace, I wanted to write about someone who doesn't come from a very privileged background. She's quite lonely, quite unsupported. That sort of character makes a very good protagonist because [you can give her] direction in an extreme situation.
O: At the turning point of the book, when Grace and Sophie travel to Coldharbour, Ireland, the pacing changes. What is it about the location that required this kind of narrative shift?
Margaret: The first part, when Grace is in London, is meant to be claustrophobic and enclosed and domestic and difficult. There's a sense of struggle. And then when she arrives in Coldharbour with Adam, she can breathe more freely. She's surrounded by this very beguiling landscape, which actually, of course, is full of dangers that she doesn't realize. From the very early conception of the book, I knew that Grace was going to have this journey that would take her out of her known world into a different, special world. And I thought of the West Coast of Ireland—even though I'd never been there—partly because I had seen this very wistful look in people's faces when they talked about it. In Great Britain, there's something about the extreme west: It's a place where magic could happen, kind of a Celtic fringe. I actually went to Ireland once I had written the first draft of the book.