Drama comes from conflict and tragedy comes in many guises, but when children are involved, the stakes go up. In Rhiannon Navin’s debut novel, children are victims of physical violence but also of emotional neglect. In my quest to find the next book getting early praise and generating excitement, Nicholas Latimer, v-p of publicity at Knopf, didn’t hesitate to send me Only Child. He told me nothing about the book, saying only: “Read the first chapter. If that doesn’t persuade you, I will eat my iPhone.”
Well, I did, and Latimer is safe: there will be no iPhone on his dinner plate.
From the opening line—“The thing I later remembered the most about the day the gunman came was my teacher Miss Russell’s breath”—I was riveted. The narrator, we learn, is a little boy named Zach, and he’s jammed in a dark closet with Miss Russell and the rest of his first-grade classmates. As readers, we are there with him. We hear the sounds in the words across the page: “POP POP POP.”
We are in the hands and head of a child, and the tension of the situation is rendered through childlike observations. Zach realizes that someone has peed his pants and that Miss Russell has spit on his leg: “I stared at the spit and it was there on my pants, a spit bubble, and it was gross.”
And when the children are taken into the nearby church to wait, what Zach focuses on is Jesus on the cross. “I tried not to look at Jesus... and I wished he wasn’t right there in the front. It made me think of the people in the hallway and all the blood.”
I’m not generally partial to child narrators, I have to admit, or to children in jeopardy. I did not read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I did not read Emma Donoghue’s Room, or even Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. (I did, however, think Sebold’s Lucky was a masterpiece, and okay, I have read Huckleberry Finn.) But Only Child has converted me. It’s about the effect of a school shooting on a family and a community; how different members react and how their behavior before the terrible day keeps resonating; and miraculous redemption.
The story line is simple; the emotional fallout underpinning it gives the novel its power. I’m in a quandary here because I don’t want to give anything away. The plot evolves slowly as truths are revealed, and as we become aware that there’s always trouble in paradise—that the world wasn’t perfect before the incident and will never be perfect, but it can be good enough.
The book develops on two levels—the world of the adults and that of Zach. We see through his eyes: at the hospital, he remembers being there at four because of a peanut allergy; he thinks about his Halloween costume and about his brother holding a blanket over his head, scaring him. He takes the emotional temperature of the family, but they discount him at every turn. “Not now, Zach,” is a familiar response to his questions and requests.
Jeff Kleinman of the Folio Literary Management Agency says that he received the manuscript over the transom, and, also caught by the first sentence, he read it in a day. “I took my daughter to buy a car and finished reading it on the computer and started bawling right there.” As an agent, he says, “my job is to find the right editor, and I knew I had to be careful with this one because of the subject.” He adds: “I thought Carole Baron [at Knopf] would be perfect, and she was. She got it immediately, that this was not a book about a school shooting but a book about hope and resilience.”
Kleinman sent the book to Baron in October 2016. Baron says she put it “on the pile and took a peek.” She notes: “I always take a peek, often on my iPad first. I read one page, two, maybe three. If it intrigues me, I print it, but honestly, not that many intrigue me. However, I like to call myself an optimistic cynic. I’m always thinking, maybe this is the one I’ll love. Sometimes I feel like I’ll never love another book, but then I’ll pick up an ARC or a finished book and I’ve fallen back in love.”
With Only Child, Baron says, “I hesitated because of the subject matter, but then the voice captivated me.” She adds: “The book was looking at something tragic from a unique point of view. I felt the same way about The Lovely Bones, but Only Child also brought me back to Rosellen Brown’s 1992 novel Before and After.” (Here, Baron and I really bond—Before and After is a book I’ve never forgotten. We both plan to reread it.)
Baron called Kleinman and said she was interested. She wasn’t the only one, and he told her that he was setting up phone interviews. Baron says she is reluctant to have a first encounter with a writer on the phone. Her preference is for the writer to have seen her written comments on the manuscript before she speaks with him or her. “I like to start on paper so the writer has a chance to think about my comments, about what I’m saying.”
But in this case, the phone call was it. Baron preempted the novel, and, though she won’t disclose the amount, she tells me that it’s substantial for a debut. The agency held foreign rights, and Only Child has sold in 16 territories to date.
Baron and Navin edited the book together by email and phone—not unusual, Baron says, since many authors are far away—and by January 2017, the book was done. “I wanted to get it out early,” Baron says. “I wanted people to have read it before I presented it [at sales conferences].” The book pubs this coming February.
We talk about the nuance of Only Child, how the terror comes through without blood or gore, how the prose is subtle yet transmits intense emotion, and how Zach copes with his loss and fear by using colors to express his feelings: black for scared, red for embarrassed.
Navin is a German native whose background is in advertising and who came to the U.S. for work, met her husband, and stayed. They have three children, and, for the authenticity of a small child’s voice, Navin and Baron used them as an in-house source. “When I questioned a word, we ran it by the children; they functioned as a sort of focus group,” Baron says. “It’s a family of readers. I was impressed with their vocabulary.”
And what made a school shooting the basis for a first novel? According to Kleinman, in the kitchen one day, one of the children was hiding under the table. When Navin asked why, the answer was, “I’m hiding from the gunman.” Navin told Baron that when she dropped her kids off at their suburban school in Westchester, N.Y., she would think about what it meant to leave them. Schools have lockdown drills now, Baron tells me. We reminisce about our own duck-and-cover school days, before we shift to publicity plans. The ARC is in full color, and the announced first printing is 125,000 copies.
Only Child blurs a line between fiction and nonfiction. This thought leads Baron to paraphrase E.L. Doctorow: “There’s no difference between fiction and nonfiction; there’s only narrative.”