Jacquelyn Mitchard has seen a few things in life and publishing. The author’s 1996 debut, The Deep End of the Ocean, was an immediate bestseller that also happened to launch a new phenomenon in modern publishing: it was the inaugural pick of the Oprah
Winfrey Book Club.
Mitchard has built a career plumbing the depths of human relationships—shattered families, broken communities, frayed romantic bonds. At 68 the author, who sports an auburn bob and looks polished (despite her habit of waking up at 3:30 every morning to write) as she speaks via Zoom from her Cape Cod home, is full of energy. She’s downright effervescent.
Her latest novel, though, is not. From the start, The Good Son (HarperCollins, Jan. 2022) pulls readers into the emotional story of a woman named Thea who struggles to help her only son, Stefan, return to his former life after he’s convicted and incarcerated for murdering his girlfriend, Belinda.
Stefan is 17 when he’s sent to prison. Three years later, when he’s let out, he finds himself in hostile surroundings. Jill, Belinda’s mother (and Thea’s former friend), has rallied the fictional Wisconsin town where they live against Stefan.
The novel starts out as a story about forgiveness, redemption, and unconditional love, but turns into a quiet thriller as Thea realizes she doesn’t know—and can’t help discovering—what actually happened the night Belinda was killed.
Mitchard knows what it’s like to see one’s own fate change overnight. When she first heard that Oprah had chosen to feature her book, nobody knew what the move would do for her career. “Not my publisher, and certainly not me!” she says, laughing at the memory.
The same night her Oprah Winfrey Book Club episode aired, the New York Public Library received 4,000 holds for the book. Viking, Mitchard’s publisher, had to go back to press immediately to meet demand. The novel went on to sell three million copies and spent 13 weeks in the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list. It was later adapted into a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer.
Deep End is still Mitchard’s greatest commercial success. But every novel she’s written since has been a bestseller. Her works have also garnered widespread critical acclaim, earning her, among other plaudits, a nomination for Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction, a Bram Stoker Award, and a Shirley Jackson Award.
“People ask, ‘Is having a blockbuster first novel a kind of curse that’s hard to follow?’ ” she says. “I tell them, ‘Are you crazy? I was absolutely thrilled!’ We’re all standing on the same trap door, and nobody knows when that trap door is going to open. You can’t plan this stuff. Who wouldn’t want that chance, whenever it comes?”
In real life, Mitchard has had her own share of hardships—losing her first husband to cancer when she was 40, and facing myriad challenges along her motherhood journey. (She’s now remarried with nine kids.) She has also shared with humility—writing in national outlets and in another interview with Oprah—the story of losing her fortune. She and her second husband were scammed by a financial adviser, who was later sentenced to 25 years for operating an elaborate $194 million investment fraud.
Mitchard still carries the burden of shame after losing her life savings to someone she trusted. But the weight feels lighter now. “It runs like a fever through everything that I do,” she says. “When we lost our home and our financial security, it caused us a lot of grief and loss. It was unjust. And it didn’t make me a better person.”
She takes a breath and laughs. “But then you come to realize that you really don’t ever have anything except the people you love and your own emotional resilience. It’s about how you respond and who you have with you when you do.”
While Mitchard tends to draw most of her story ideas from real life, she avoids pulling from her own experiences—dramatic as they have been. The Good Son, for example, grew out of a chance encounter she had with a stranger six years ago.
Waiting in line for a coffee in a hotel lobby, Mitchard struck up a conversation with a woman in front of her. The woman said that she was on her way to visit her son, who was in jail for killing his girlfriend.
“I remember it in such detail,” Mitchard recalls. “Her son was messed up, on meth. He didn’t remember committing the crime, but he did. [The woman] said that some time after the girl’s death and after her son had gone to prison, she went to the cemetery to visit the grave—and the girl’s mom was there. She was terrified. But then, she told me, the girl’s mother said to her, ‘At least you can still hug him.’ ”
Mitchard’s heart sank. “I have five sons of my own. I immediately wondered, would you rather lose your own child or have your child locked away? So I asked her, ‘Are you happy it isn’t the other way around?’ She answered. ‘Yes. Because for me, there’s still hope.’ ”
It took Mitchard a long time to come back to the story because it was, as she put it, “so desperately sad.” Can you really love someone who’s done something so terrible? It’s a hard question.
So hard that Mitchard’s longtime agent, Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary Management, wasn’t sure she could get away with telling this story in a way that could make its characters sympathetic. (He admits now he was wrong.)
“I think it speaks to the power of her writing,” Kleinman says. “Jackie works very hard at that. And I think the reason you care about these characters is because Jackie loves them. She taps into grief and the darker sides of human emotion. And she does it with such sensitivity and grace. What could be a really sad story becomes something kind of beautiful, and transcendent.”
Mitchard’s own humble roots and strong ties to family may help explain why she delights in heavy themes, and why she’s drawn to tales of ordinary people straining under the pressure of extraordinary circumstances.
Home was the west side of Chicago, where her father worked as a plumber and her mother was a hardware store clerk. Her parents both had to quit high school to support themselves, and Mitchard was the first member of her “deeply blue-collar ” family to attend college. She made the most of it.
Her only formal training as a writer was three semesters of a creative writing course at the University of Illinois. She learned the rest on the job at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where, for 10 years, she wrote the weekly column “The Rest of Us,” which ran in 125 newspapers nationwide until it was retired in 2007.
Along the way, Mitchard has written through the most challenging chapters in her own life. And she believes that dealing with her own painful experiences helps her understand characters like Thea.
“Some people say that guilt is a useless emotion, but I don’t agree,” Mitchard says. “I think it promotes change and resolution, like a corollary to taking responsibility. Thea may have been mystified by Stefan. But we all bear a certain amount of responsibility for our children. And our choices.”
Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos has written for Forbes, Newsweek, and Working Mother.