“An immensely talented writer, Kathryn Mattingly (BENJAMIN, JOURNEY), has a new novel out. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of OLIVIA’S GHOST and can say this is an absolute must read – and a great gift for the upcoming holidays.” Joseph Falank, author of An Unexpected Visit.
While reading Kathryn Mattingly’s newest novel Olivia’s Ghost (for sale everywhere as of Friday) I found myself having a gut-wrenching experience, but in the best of ways.
Jackson and Olivia Porter go sailing on Puget Sound and lose their daughter, Ava, overboard during a sudden squall. During the ensuing weeks Ava’s parents understandably reside in a constant state of shock and grief. Jackson believes their daughter to have drowned, but with no body recovered, Livy maintains that in a flash of lightning she saw someone on a boat pull Ava from the water. Only their daughter was never returned to them, providing Livy with ghastly wonderings as to what became of Ava following this hope of a rescue. This brings about the first cracks in the otherwise sturdy wall of their marriage.
Olivia believes so strongly that their daughter is still alive, she leaves Ava’s Memorial Service in a panic to chase down a girl that resembles Ava. With her mental capacities now in question, Olivia nonetheless decides she cannot remain with Jackson as long as he doesn’t hold a flicker of belief in her maternal feelings about Ava being out there, likely held against her will. For respite, Olivia returns to a lighthouse on the Oregon Coast manned by her father. It’s there that Olivia, who writes for a magazine, delves into the mystery of a ghost that supposedly haunts the stairwell.
A ghost with a message for Olivia.
In the opening I mentioned having a gut-wrenching experience reading Olivia’s Ghost, and here’s why: ever since a wintry afternoon two years ago, when I learned I would become a father, I’ve had difficulty with stories (of all mediums) that deal with children in peril. My wife and I went to the movies the night we learned our little Peanut would be joining the family, and Heaven Is For Real was one of the movie previews. It’s inspired by the supposed true story of a boy who dies on the operating table and claims to have traveled to heaven before coming back. I cried watching it. Yes, I cried at a movie trailer.
Mattingly’s opening chapter of what happens on Puget Sound draws you right into the Porter family. You like them immediately, and you clench and wince with dread knowing the looming clouds mean the worst for this family. You know what’s going to happen, and that almost makes it worse. You’re at the mercy of Mattingly’s striking prose, which puts you right there with this family, at the worst moments of their lives, and you can do nothing to help. You can only observe.
Being a parent, I couldn’t imagine how I’d respond to such a tragic event. And that’s how I approached Olivia’s Ghost – by wondering what I would do, wondering what my wife would do in the face of something so unspeakable.
The other gut-wrenching portion of my experience is that while I can see why Jackson would be stubborn in his belief of what happened, just as much as Olivia is with her own belief, it saddened me to read how the two could not find common ground. Or what common ground they did find was not enough, making separation the only answer.
I wanted each side to fight harder for the other, regardless that their traumatic events had taken a substantial toll. Neither side would give or bend. Escape was the only solace.
Then there are the added… distractions to their marriage, but I’ll leave you, dear reader, to discover the rest for yourself. There is a wonderfully rewarding story to be found here, full of twists and turns, cryptic messages from the beyond, love enduring through impossible sadness and trauma, and, in the end…
Oh, no. I can’t go there. Except only to say that you will be hooked right to the very end. To the last line on the absolute last page.
What Kathryn Mattingly has done here, at least for me, is create a truly psychological experience. Her expertly written dialogue, characters with the best of intentions residing in shades of gray, and scenes painted with only the finest of strokes, turn the real questions back onto you.
What would you do if you were Jackson or Olivia?
How strong is your faith?
How far are you willing to go to get the truth? Is the truth enough?
One only needs to open Olivia’s Ghost to begin discovering the answers for yourself.
Just be warned, putting the book down may be more difficult than answering the questions it raises.
Now a little about the author:
Kathryn Mattingly has taught writing at four different private colleges. Aside from her literary suspense novels and short story collection, Kathryn’s work can be found in numerous small press anthologies and several print magazines. She has won five awards for her fiction, and teaches novel writing at a local college.
Kathryn ~ First, loved the book. I found it powerful, heartbreaking, and ultimately it created a struggle within my own self as to how I would handle the situation Jackson and Livy find themselves in. To say I found your story effective is quite the understatement. What made you want to write this story? How long did it take to put together that first draft and what was your schedule for writing it?
As a parent of four, nothing I imagined could be more horrific than losing a child before your very eyes and not being able to do anything about it, except watch. I’m sure I pulled from novels and movies that touch upon this theme, because I read a lot of books and am quite the movie buff. Sophie’s Choice nearly destroyed me in that moment of first realizing the implications and far reaching effects of such a dilemma.
I wrote the first draft of Olivia’s Ghost over a decade ago, and only recently completely reworked the book. When I originally wrote it Terry Brooks (author of New York Times best selling series Sword of Shannara) was my mentor. He loved the premise, but feared certain aspects of the paranormal theme might not suspend my reader’s disbelief unless I reworked it a bit.
I also had a New York agent at the time, Tony Outhwaite, with JCA Literary Agency. He sent the original book out to numerous editors at various publishing houses and the feedback was wonderful. They all loved the main concept, characters and setting, but that paranormal thread still needed work. I finally nailed it by doing a major re-haul of the ghost in the lighthouse, at least if my early readers are any indication. I must say it felt immensely satisfying to finally give this book a proper paranormal plotline that draws my readers in and endears them to the ghost.
My writing schedule for this book was literally 8-10 hours a day, 6-7 days a week (I kid you not) for 8 months straight. That’s because once I had decided to completely rewrite it I began to panic that the book wouldn’t be ready for its release date this fall. So, I put my head to the grindstone and never came up for air. (Well, maybe for a glass of wine here and there.)
As I’ve noticed in your other books, your characters aren’t black and white. Here, both the characters of Jackson and Livy are in states of grief, but Jackson plays the head to Livy’s heart in regards to believing what ultimate fate became of their daughter, Ava. Obviously I won’t spoil that here, but I want to talk about these characters. Jackson’s approach is one of, “It happened, it was awful, but for the sake of what we have left – we need to move on,” whereas Livy refuses to give in to that thinking, trusting that their daughter was indeed pulled from the Sound during the squall by a person on another boat. She needs to find Ava and bring her home.
There is a line Livy says to her photographer friend, Andrew, that goes, “I don’t know why I’m suddenly aware of her (the ghost in the lighthouse) but I am. If my intuition is wrong about the ghost, then it might be wrong about Ava… and I can’t accept that.”
Is this a matter of Livy trying to gain some measure of control over the uncontrollable situation they had with Ava on the water? Or is this just guilt for not saving Ava?
You’re right about my characters not being black and white. One aspect of writing that I enjoy most is showing how a character behaves under pressure, when experiencing a difficult situation. Jackson and Olivia’s self perception as responsible and good parents becomes badly shaken, and they deal with it in different ways. Whereas Jackson chooses escapism (into his work or a bottle of booze) Olivia wants to find her child and resume their once happy life as if nothing ever happened.
Neither of them can justify to themselves the unthinkable – letting their daughter drown in a storm on a sailboat where they believed she’d be safe. All parents believe they can keep their child safe no matter what – right? Well, the truth is that neither of them could save their daughter, so while one is trying to escape from that reality, the other is trying to change it. If Olivia perceives herself to be unstable (and she fears she might be) then she cannot continue to believe Ava is alive and well, and waiting to be found. She feels she has no choice but to believe that the ghost is also real, even though a part of her questions it.
Because I’m so caught up with how Jackson and Livy reacted differently in the aftermath of the squall, and I always like to wonder “What if…” let’s say Ava drowned and they – Jackson and Olivia – pulled her from the Sound. How do you envision their lives would have gone on from that point? Would the issue of their daughter’s death still have put them at odds?
I don’t think so. I think they would have grieved like most parents do when losing a child. It’s a myth that most marriages break up over the loss of a child. Most of them do not. But those with extenuating circumstances often do, and that’s what we have regarding Ava – no body, and a possible rescue seen in a flash of lightning through the pouring rain by Olivia. Now we have her parents at odds as to what they think happened, and we have set the course for conflict between them.
Did you learn anything about yourself in writing OLIVIA’S GHOST?
I realized how much I loved living on the Oregon Coast while having my babies. At the time I felt isolated and a bit resentful that there were not more opportunities for me to connect with other young mothers through organized activities. But now I cherish those years of isolation with my four young children, and the unique environment in which we lived. The beach was literally their playground, and all it took to entertain them was a bucket and shovel. When they were no longer toddlers I ran a school for the ‘Creative Expression of Young Children’ where we did everything kinesthetically through art or theater (I have an art degree).
Above all else the school impressed me with the lengths parents will go to for their children’s welfare. They would even take time off work to do their obligatory day as ‘helping hands’ for art and theater projects. This book, ultimately, is about how nothing can compare to or replace the love we have for our children.
Having no knowledge of boats, the water, or sailing, I found it absolutely frightening the speed at which the squall materialized. Can storms over the water really come together that quickly and without warning?
Yes. Squalls are sudden storms that appear to come straight from hell, stirred by the devil himself. You never know when or where they might form in the ocean. Do most people who sail a lot encounter them? No. But they happen often enough that most people have heard of them, or read about them, and they have happened on Puget Sound. Events such as squalls drive home the concept that we are all victims of fate, regardless of how much we think we have planned for safety or security in our lives. It can be stripped away by one momentous act of something unforeseen. In the end it is our courage (or lack there of) in such situations that truly define us.
Visit Joseph’s website at: www.josephfalank.com