Next to Love: An Open Letter from the Author

Read what author Ellen Feldman has to say about her new book, Next to Love.
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Ellen Feldman

The idea for Next to Love had been germinating in my mind for years before I dared to write the book. I use the word dare, because while the novel is not autobiographical, it is personal.

The first inspiration was a group of young men from a small town in Virginia called Bedford. In the 1930s, they enlisted in the National Guard together, were called up together, trained together in both this country and England, and were in the first wave of G.I.s to hit Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Nineteen died within minutes. Another four before the day was out. The loss was staggering, enough to break the heart of the entire town, as one of the protagonists in the novel observes.

But here is a heart-wrenching footnote to the tragedy. Because D-Day was such a massive operation with a huge loss of life, the chaos took weeks and months to sort out, and the telegrams informing families of deaths did not begin arriving until six weeks after the fact. But lack of word had not kept those at home from continuing to correspond. For months after the world-shattering telegrams arrived, letters kept coming back, unopened and stamped with a single black word: DECEASED. Each returned envelope brought fresh grief.

But the men in Next to Love are not the Bedford Boys. I saw those young men from Virginia, the women who waited for them, and the children who never got to know them as emblematic. They were my way into a story of a country in upheaval and individuals struggling to forge new lives.

The same is true of the second inspiration for the book, which came from two women, one whom I knew as a child, another, the mother of a friend, whom I only heard about. Both lost husbands in the war, but they reacted in diametrically opposed ways. The first canonized her husband. Though she ultimately remarried, the marriage was not happy and she spent her life mourning the man she had lost. The other remarried immediately. I'm not suggesting she did not grieve, but she was determined to get on with her life. Her late husband became a dark secret. Her child never knew what her father looked like until she stumbled across a photograph in her teens. But once again, these women were a starting point. Once I began getting them down on the page, they became my own creations.

Another fictional character who grew from real life origins is Mac, the doctor who is so scarred by his war experiences that he can never again practice medicine. His story was so much a part of my unconscious that not until I was more than halfway through the book did I realize the wounded doctor I was writing was based on the uncle I had loved in my childhood.

One character in Next to Love, however, has no real-life roots. In fact, the birth of Babe, the third friend at the heart of the novel, is a complete mystery to me. She simply sidled over one day while I was working, said let me deliver the telegrams, and refused to go away. And that is one of the great joys of writing fiction.

 

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