Skip to main content

Interview: March 2012

Carole Geithner’s debut novel, IF ONLY, follows 13-year-old Corinna as she deals with the heartbreak of losing her mother to cancer. Despite being alienated from her peers, including her best friend, she gradually finds support and manages to get through eighth grade --- while finding out some deep secrets about her mother along the way. In this interview, conducted by reviewer Sarah Rachel Egelman, Geithner shares her inspiration for writing the book and sheds some light on her protagonist. She also touches on her experience as a social worker and mother, talks about writing from a teenage perspective, and gives a glimpse into what she’s working on next.

Question: Your debut novel, IF ONLY, is about a young teenage girl who loses her mother to cancer. How did you decide on the specifics of the story? (for example, how old your protagonist would be and how her parent would die). Was there a particular event that inspired the story, or were you drawing more broadly on your career in social work?

Carole Geithner: My decision to make Corinna, the main character, 13 years old was influenced by several things. I had been working a lot with groups of kids in that age range at the time I began writing. My own kids were also in middle school and early high school, and they provided colorful examples of school dilemmas. In addition, it was important to the story to have a graduation scene, and that narrowed the options for what grade Corinna was in. 

I didn’t want to give a lot of specifics about how Corinna’s mother died, because I wanted the story to be relevant to kids who had experienced all kinds of loss. I chose cancer because that was how my own mother died, and I could remember my own reactions to that painful journey.  

I also drew on my career as a social worker listening to people’s stories --- adults who as kids had been told verbally or silently not to mention the deceased person’s name, to get over it, to move on, who had not been allowed to come to a funeral, who had been lied to about the cause of death, who had struggled with feeling responsible for the death, who felt guilty about things they did or did not say or do, who never had a chance to mourn. And I was moved to write for the kids I had worked with who were so eager to know that they were not alone, who wanted to know that other kids had gone through and survived something similar.

Q: How would you describe your protagonist, Corinna Burdette?

CG: Corinna is a spunky, creative, soccer-playing, chocolate-loving only child who adores her dog, worries about her stomach aches, is having a crisis with her best friend, and wants to have her normal life back.

Q: Corinna is a typical 13-year-old girl experiencing some extraordinary challenges. What ideas were you hoping to explore in telling her story?

CG: I wanted to show that grieving kids are kids first, grievers second.  I also wanted to shine light on a topic that has been kept in the shadows –-- grief and loss –-- and to show the healing power of mourning, of remembering the person who died, of communicating about the hard stuff even though it feels so awkward and we tend to avoid it.

Q: Corinna, in her grief, feels isolated from her old friends and hyper-aware of her new status as someone without a mother. Is her loneliness and sensitivity typical to this type of emotional trauma?

CG: Yes, but I need to explain. She feels set apart from her peers, even when they are with her, because as far as she knows, they haven’t experienced anything similar. This shows how you can feel lonely on a deeper level even while having friends and family all around you. Corinna also struggles with her attempts to protect her father and peers (and her mother, when her mother was still alive) by not showing or sharing her feelings, which adds to her sense of being alone.

Q: Can you describe Corinna’s relationship with her father --- the tensions and the love they experience after Sophie dies? 

CG: Each of them is trying to do their best, to mourn in their own way, to get through the days. Corinna needs her dad to start doing some of what her mom did for the family --- from cooking proper meals to talking about girl issues --- but he is struggling with his own grief. It takes time for him to be less numb and more engaged. Corinna and her dad do love and need each other, even through the anger and misunderstandings. They are also trying to protect each other. When and how much should they talk about Sophie? Is it okay to have fun and take breaks from their grief? How can they keep her memory alive, keep her a part of their lives, while still moving forward? They have to grapple with these very difficult questions.

Q: Your depiction of these teenagers seems effortless. Was capturing the tone and slang of teens easy for you?

CG: Thank you. It certainly helped to have constant exposure to teens as a parent and social worker, while carpooling, at home, in my bereavement groups, and volunteering at school. I also asked some teens to read my manuscript and help me correct any out-of-date references or slang. 

Q: Life begins to shape itself into a new normal for Corinna over the course of a year. How important were normal teenage activities for her in feeling better?

CG: Participating in normal activities was hugely important, but at the same time, Corinna didn’t want to be pushed or guilted into doing things before she was ready. Each person has their own way and own timetable for how they go through grief.  Corinna was gradually able to find some ways to integrate her mom and memories of her mom into her new “normal.”

Q: Japan occupies an important place in IF ONLY as a land and culture that Corinna’s mother loved. What do Corinna and her father gain by visiting Japan? Have you traveled to Japan or studied the language? 

CG: I lived in Tokyo for two years and studied Japanese. Even after two years, my ability to speak and read Japanese was very, very elementary. I really couldn’t read the buttons on the high-tech toilets and I made all kinds of mistakes! 

When I lived in Japan, I was struck by the Japanese approach to death and grief. They have many rituals that promote mourning and staying connected to the loved person who died. In addition to learning about some of those rituals, Corinna and her father’s trip to Japan gave them a shared adventure and a new source of connections to Sophie’s past. 

Q: Many children’s books deal with the loss of a parent or begin with an orphaned or grieving child. Why do you think that is? Why is that theme so pervasive in children’s literature?

CG: Yes, the death of a parent is a classic premise for an adventure or survival story. I think it’s so pervasive a theme because it is every child’s fear –-- that they will be alone at a time when they need care and protection. Through fiction, whether a fairy tale or a novel, the young reader can enter scary situations alongside the protagonist, fight the battle, and succeed alongside the protagonist, all within the safety of the story. As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim said, “Real life is not all sunny,” and we want to know how to survive should the worst happen.

Q: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?

CG: I’m working on a YA novel, featuring a 17-year-old girl who has given some heartfelt advice to her best friend that doesn’t turn out well. The protagonist must struggle with that whole disaster as well as a haunting family secret that gets spilled during a family celebration. I don’t yet know about the timing of when it will be wrapped up, as I’m still having a great time writing and being surprised by my characters.