FIRST SEVEN LINES:
“At the end of the day, as Isabel stepped through the large glass doors of her law office, a strange thing happened. Outside in the cold, she suddenly felt trapped in a bright cone of light. As if some alien spaceship were training its eye on her.
Uneasily, she gazed into the dark November sky. There was the culprit. A smiling gibbous moon. Or was it smirking, maybe even mocking her?”
Shelf Unbound: What interested you in writing a story about cyberbullying?
Herta Feely: On January 10, 2008, I read a feature article in the Washington Post about a 13-year-old girl who was cyberbullied (on MySpace) and then committed suicide. Her name was Megan Meier. The boy who appeared to be leading the cyberbullying was 16-year-old Josh Evans, who Megan had a crush on but had never met. It turned out, though, that Josh Evans was actually a 47-year-old woman, named Lori Drew, who also was Megan’s neighbor and the mother of one of Megan’s friends, though they’d had a falling out. I simply couldn’t believe a woman—a mother at that—could be so cruel to a young, vulnerable girl. I was also intrigued by social media as the forum for such bullying, and decided I wanted to write a story exploring this new Internet era and how a woman, a mother no less, could do such a thing. I should add here that my novel bears very little resemblance to the Megan Meier story, though it was inspired by that event.
Shelf Unbound: How did you go about creating the character of teenage Phoebe?
Feely: Perhaps what surprised me most in the writing of Saving Phoebe Murrow was how easily her character came to me. Having had sons, I was afraid it would be difficult, but Phoebe’s character just flowed. In every scene it seemed as if someone else was writing her character. I am grateful to the Muse! One more thing though. It wasn’t until after I’d written and revised the novel several times that one of my readers asked me if I’d ever been bullied. Only then did I recall how I had been teased and ostracized in grade school. I believe I drew on this experience, and also on the difficulty I had with my own mother growing up. In many ways, she was like Isabel Winthrop. Just as with the bullying, it was only in hindsight that I realized this, not during the course of writing the novel. Perhaps it was because from the outside there were so few similarities between Isabel and my mother, who was a homemaker, not an accomplished, powerful attorney.
Shelf Unbound: Sandy is a complicated, troubled woman. You were able to write her character as more complex than just villainous—how did you approach writing this character?
Feely: As with all the characters in this novel, they evolved over time. In this instance, I needed a villain, as you say, but I didn’t know what would make her become like this. In my mind I filed away the idea of an “evil,” heartless woman, and every now and then a line or a piece of her story would emerge, which I wrote down. Over time I learned that she had gone through a lot in her childhood and teen years; in particular, she suffered maternal rejection and neglect, and a relationship or two she mistook for love and which deeply wounded her. So she was damaged and vulnerable, which helped me to feel empathy for her. As a result, though, she also developed a survivor’s instinct and all the negatives that might entail. For one, she is cunning. And her default behavior when hurt is to get revenge. This made for an interesting set of qualities and instincts that could play out several different ways.
Shelf Unbound: You also examine marriage in this novel. Was that your plan from the start or did that develop as you wrote the novel?
Feely: I wanted two people in the story, a couple (Isabel and Ron) who see their role as a parent differently and have conflict over this, which is certainly true in many marriages. Often, one parent tends to be more lenient and the other stricter. This was but one difference between the primary couple in this novel, but I was able to use it to advantage to create greater disharmony between the two, which led to other repercussions and problems in the marriage. I did not have a specific plan for their marital troubles and much of it simply evolved, but one thing we learn at the outset is that Ron has been unfaithful and Isabel declares that “actions have consequences.” So we have to wonder what will happen and how will their discord be resolved.
Interestingly, after finishing the novel, people have asked me if this couple stays together, because at the end of the story we don’t know whether they will or not. I have found this question interesting and a little surprising. Some people are adamant they should divorce, while others want them to remain married. I’d love to hear more readers’ reaction to this aspect of the story.
Shelf Unbound: Have you been influenced by any particular writers, and how?
Feely: I’m afraid my answer to this question may not be very satisfying. Throughout my life I have been a voracious reader of fiction. This may sound a little silly, and I say it a bit tongue in cheek, but perhaps even the earliest literature we are exposed to influences us as writers, in which case Carolyn Keene (of Nancy Drew mystery fame) may have influenced me as much as authors I read as an adult. I do love a good mystery (recently I bumped into Ruth Ware) and so in terms of my writing style, I think it does lean toward that genre, even though my book has been categorized as women’s fiction. Also, I have never been one to read all of the books of any particular author, but rather I read one or two novels of many authors and imagine that each one influences me a little. I do have favorite novels and perhaps at some point I will strive to write more like the authors of those novels. In the past few years, I’ve read dozens of wonderful stories. Of these, my favorite three novels were Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. In the realm of popular fiction, I enjoyed Big Little Lies (Liane Moriarity), to which my novel has been compared, Kimberly McCreight’s Reconstucting Amelia, and Herman Koch’s The Dinner.
Shelf Unbound: What do you think makes cyberbullying particularly dangerous, compared to the pre-Internet era?
Feely: What makes it more dangerous is the fact that with social media bullying has the potential to attack someone not just a few hours a day, but 24/7. There is no getting away from cyberbullies. As a result teen suicides have risen. After I wrote Saving Phoebe Murrow, I researched teen suicides that resulted from cyberbullying. I found case after case. It was frightening.
Also, most parents haven’t yet figured out how to deal with their children’s social media habits. It’s an entirely new area of oversight to which parents must adjust. Schools, too, are having to take a more active role, but are they? And what legislation should exist to curb cyberbullying? How will it be enforced? Most adults are having trouble keeping up with technology, but teens embrace this new frontier, much to the chagrin of their parents. A challenging aspect of writing my novel occurred in figuring out what type of “justice” could be imposed on the bully in the story.
At the back of the book, I do provide a little information on cyberbullying resources. One that I would now add (in addition to The Megan Meier Foundation) is the Family Online Safety Institute in Washington, DC.
Shelf Unbound: What do you want readers to take away from this novel?
Feely: A few things occur to me. One is to remember the fragility of teens, in this case, girls, but also how cruel they can be to one another, something that at least in part is learned behavior. It illustrates how important it is for women and mothers to remember that their behavior becomes a model for their daughters and all young women. Another is about social media, of course. One of my hopes is that women’s book groups, after reading the novel, will discuss a variety of parenting issues and how to deal with the social media aspect of their teenagers’ lives. (I have participated in nine women’s book groups thus far – in person or on Skype – most of which had very lively discussions.) And, finally, I hope people ask themselves how we, as a society, need to deal with bullying of any sort? As parents, as teens, as citizens. I hope the novel engages people in such conversations and discussions.