Helen Klein Ross’ most recent novel, What Was Mine, is a compelling, suspenseful novel that has no secrets and is told from the point of view of 15 different characters. The story is about a woman named Lucy who had faced infertility who ends up taking a baby from an IKEA store. She raises this baby for 21 years, and it is at that point that the girl finds out her true identity and confronts Lucy and goes off to find her birth mother. This summary caught my interest immediately and made me eager to go to see Helen Klein Ross.
The discussion at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA. was between Claire Messud, a New York Times bestselling author, and of course Helen Klein Ross. Helen started off by talking about how she learned to write and gave some lessons that I think can be helpful to all writers.
Her first words were, “A lot about writing I learned from reading.” To me this makes sense because reading is a way of teaching, we can see how others do things to decide how we are or are not going to do something. She also said that she never really understood how many people go into writing a novel and now appreciates that, because all of the people that helped her with the book offered different views and judgments. Helen said the biggest lesson she learned through telling a story was to “listen to the character.” Advice I’m sure any fictional or even non-fictional writer should take.
This story is unique in the sense that it is not a mystery, we know that Lucy took the baby so there is no surprise, like life the only question is how people will react. As Claire pointed out the novel is like life where there is no clear cut villain and hero. Lucy is not a bad person and Marilyn, the baby’s mother, is not a saint. Helen points out that through the story and by seeing the events unfold slowly from Lucy’s eyes, we as readers sympathize with her, almost forgetting that what she did was completely twisted. Helen points out that the “act was one of craziness, but its believable, and the character was not crazy.”
When asked how she came up with the idea for the novel from originally a short story, Helen explained that she had to “build a story world…where this was believable.” So she set it in 1990, before technology, and told the story from multiple points of view, “where the reader could justifiably sympathize” with each character. And to make the story relatable, and understandable she shows the psychological movement of the characters throughout the story.
Helen firmly believes that “almost all of us are capable of almost anything” and she wanted to show that through Lucy. However, she also believes that as humans, we are strong enough to overcome even the most tragic thing and can move on with our lives, which is how she metaphorically granted Marilyn “Grace” as described by Claire. A belief that I am not sure I follow, because as a daughter who is so close to my own mother, I doubt that any sane, loving mother would be able to fully recover from losing a child.
Despite that disagreement, I did find Helen to be very real and in-tune to real life, which is why this novel should be a success and I certainly learned a lot from her. She believes that we “only have one story to tell,” and she believes her’s is motherhood, and feels accomplished with this novel. She encouraged to “write what you know” because fiction is a conduit of truth, and if we do that, then we can all be successful.