Authentic characters and a strong sense of place drive Lisa Duffy’s second novel, This is Home (Atria, 2019). Following up on her debut, The Salt House, Duffy’s new book is about Quinn, a woman struggling to understand why her husband, a soldier with PTSD, has come home, but inexplicably has gone missing. Alone, Quinn moves into the bottom floor of a triple decker north of Boston, where she meets Libby, the teenage girl who lives upstairs. Libby is a motherless girl trying to find her voice and her place in the world. Through alternating points of view from Libby and Quinn, we meet the rest of the cast, a slew of family and friends who feel entirely real and lovably flawed. This is Home is a heartfelt novel of discovering where we belong and the search for the true meaning of home.
Publisher’s Weekly gave This is Home a starred review, saying: “Intensely real and deeply emotional, Duffy’s rich novel is worth savoring from the very first page.” We couldn’t agree more. Dead Darlings is pleased to bring you this interview with Lisa Duffy.
What inspired you to write This is Home?
The initial idea came from several things that happened at the same time. I read an article about a National Guard unit that had deployed multiple times to a combat area overseas. My daughter was graduating from high school around then. She knew a couple of people who were joining the military. And a friend of mine was battling a serious illness and raising children while her spouse was deployed for a year. All of these things raised questions in my mind. What happens when a person joins a reserve or guard unit, perhaps for extra pay, and suddenly, a combat situation becomes a reality? How might that change a person? What happens to the people left at home? What sort of dreams are put on hold? What challenges arise from being apart from each other? Quinn and Libby arose from these questions and the story began there.
The novel’s chapters alternate between two points of view—Libby’s and Quinn’s. Why did you choose to focus on these two and not any of the other compelling characters, like Libby’s policeman father, Bent; or her friend Jimmy; or one of Libby’s aunts who live in the same triple-decker?
Libby’s character has some of my own childhood in her storyline. I grew up in the middle apartment of a triple-decker outside of Boston. My father was a policeman in my hometown. We had family members living on the first floor for various stretches of my childhood. It was noisy and crowded and I didn’t always love it. Of course, it took growing up and moving away to see how much of it made me who I am today. Quinn appeared in the first chapter in Libby’s POV in a very early draft. I knew immediately that she was going to need her own space on the page and in this story.
Libby’s chapters are in first person; Quinn’s are in third. Tell us a little bit about your thinking behind that choice.
Even though Libby is only a teenager, she has a great sense of herself. She knows who she is, and her voice sometimes is almost a stream of consciousness. There is a closeness that worked well in first person. Quinn is the opposite. She’s a grown woman, but she’s put her life on hold while her husband is gone for years and years. When he disappears, she’s on her own, and she has to get to know herself and figure out what she wants for her future. She lacks a sense of identity, so third just worked better for her.
From reading your bio, I assume you never served in the military. How did you research what it was like in Iraq for Quinn’s husband? How did you learn about PTSD and what it’s like to be the wife of someone struggling with it?
There are so many stunning books about war that I could’ve spent a lifetime reading and researching, lost in these stories. Journalists Sebastian Junger and David Finkel have done amazing work surrounding military service. I was also fortunate to have a circle of people willing to talk with me about their personal experiences in the military. I’m forever grateful for their honesty and candor in talking about the difficulties of both serving and coming home.
You reference Tim O’Brien’s short story collection, The Things They Carried, in your new novel. Did this book influence your writing?
I don’t know how you can read that book and not be both heartbroken and inspired at the same time. That’s the role O’Brien’s book plays in the novel. It’s a connection point between Libby and Jimmy. One that serves to connect their ideas of war and identity and humanity.
Since Dead Darlings is all about novel writing, we’d love to hear a bit about your process. Do you know the plot and the characters from the beginning…or do you invent as you go?
I tend to discover the story as I write. I’ll have some broad ideas. But nothing works until I find a voice and follow it. Word by word, line by line. It’s never a process of visualizing the cast of characters or the plot first, and then writing. It’s finding them by writing the story.
This is your second novel. How was writing This is Home different from writing The Salt House? I think we’d all like to think it’s easier the second time? Is it?
I don’t know if I’d say it was easier. I think I’ve grown as a writer to understand my process and trust that if I put the work in, the story will come. Some days, it’s easy. Other days, not so much. But I don’t give more power in my mind to the easy days. I trust that the process, for me at least, is going to include writing days that are just hard, and I might not make much progress, even though I may be at my desk for a lot of hours. I have a quote on my office wall from Amelia Earhart. “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.” Of course, she was probably talking about flying solo around the world. Not sitting alone in a room making stuff up. Still. It helps to look at her words when I feel like bashing my head against the desk.
That’s a great quote…and so true! When you’re not bashing your head on the desk, what are you working on these days?
I’m working on my third novel, My Kind of People, releasing from Atria next summer. It’s about class, identity and betrayal colliding when a young girl is orphaned in a close-knit island community off the coast of Massachusetts.
About Lisa Duffy: Lisa Duffy earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her short fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the founding editor of ROAR, a literary journal supporting women in the arts. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children.