Michigan author Lori Nelson Spielman, whose debut novel The Life List (Bantam, 2013) was published in 30 countries and optioned by Fox 2000, has just finished a two-week European tour for her latest, Sweet Forgiveness (Plume). We spoke to Spielman about the novel, out this month, which examines how shaming and forgiveness have become trendy, and very public, rituals.
You've been a speech pathologist, a guidance counselor, and a teacher? How have your previous occupations informed your fiction writing?
Since The Life List was published, I’m often asked if becoming an author was on the life list I wrote as a teen, the list that inspired the novel. I’d love to say yes; what a story that would make. But in fact, I was an adult before I dreamed of becoming an author. I grew up in a working-class family, the first of four siblings to attend university. When I went off to college, my practical mother asked, “A teacher or a nurse, which would you prefer?” I got really crazy and became a speech pathologist! For the final 12 years of my career, I was a homebound teacher, teaching mentally or physically ill students in their homes or at the hospital. My students were typically from single-parent households, living below the poverty level. It was a privilege to enter their homes and get to know their families. It was also eye opening and often bittersweet; it allowed me a glimpse of a life I wouldn’t normally be privy to.
In Sweet Forgiveness characters pass little pouches of pebbles to those they have wronged, asking forgiveness. Was there any real-life inspiration for this?
The idea of the "forgiveness stones" was a combination of a friendship bracelet circulating with some of my young students, and a movie called Pay it Forward. What if, instead of paying forward good deeds, we were paying forward apologies and forgiveness? What if each recipient of the “forgiveness bracelet” was expected to forgive, then pass a second bracelet and an apology on to someone else, and so forth? But a bracelet seemed too public for an act as private as forgiveness. Stones are ancient and accessible. I loved their symbolism of strength, their use in building bridges, but also in building walls, which is exactly what our apologies and grudges can do.
You seem drawn to portraying mother/daughter relationships in your fiction. Why?
Perhaps because I have a close relationship with my mother, or perhaps because I’d always wanted a daughter. The motherly bond is something so intrinsic, so basic and universal. But those mother-daughter relationships can be complex and wrought with conflict. A mother’s role is to nurture, but also to guide and, ultimately, to let go. It gets tricky when one of these roles is off-balance. Expectations and hopes can be crippling when a mother’s goals don’t match her daughter’s. And this makes good fodder for storytelling!
The Life List is a bestseller in several European countries. Why do you think European readers are responding so positively to your novels?
I wish I knew. I only know that my foreign publishers have been extremely enthusiastic and supportive. And I just received more good news: The Life List is number one in Taiwan for the fourth week. As a new author, foreign sales were completely unexpected. I am thrilled and humbled by the way the book has resonated with readers around the world. It’s surreal. I’d say it’s a dream come true, but honestly, it surpasses my dreams.