Take the typical litany of teen problems — boys, weird cousins, celebrity crushes. Then add issues like adoption, a family land dispute and a parent with a chronic illness, and you see what protagonist Molly Arnette is up against in Pretending to Dance, the new novel by Diane Chamberlain. The Raleigh-based author will read at Malaprop’s Saturday, Nov. 7, and at the Swannanoa Library Sunday, Nov. 8.
The book takes place in two time frames: present-day San Diego, where Molly (at 38) and her husband are considering an open adoption, and Swannanoa in 1990, where Molly (at 14) lives on 100 acres with her extended family. In the North Carolina setting, despite a mounting battle to develop the rural property and Molly’s father Graham’s struggle with progressive multiple sclerosis, the teen is mostly focused on purple Doc Marten boots and the boy band New Kids on the Block. Everything changes in one summer, though, and decisions made in 1990 come back to haunt Molly 24 years later.
When considering a location for a novel, “I think, ‘Where is it that I want to know more about?’” Chamberlain says. She was intrigued by Asheville but needed a country setting where important parts of the plot could play out. Chamberlain’s friend, local artist Barbara Fisher, suggested Black Mountain or Swannanoa. The latter, Chamberlain points out, “is fun to say.”
In researching Swannanoa, the author used real estate websites advertising properties similar to Morrison Ridge, the Arnette family’s land. But when it came to details to round out 14-year-old Molly’s world, Chamberlain turned to Facebook. “I have almost 19,000 followers, so when I have a question, I go to them. … They helped me figure out, in 1990, what kind of things Molly would be interested in [and] what she would be saving her money for,” she says. “They really get into the spirit of things and help me with research.”
Other aspects of the book draw from Chamberlain’s own experiences. On Oct. 6, the novel’s release date, the author published a blog about her older sister, Joann, who lives with multiple sclerosis and inspired the character of Graham. “It felt good to be able to tell her story,” says Chamberlain. “I wanted to shine a light on it, but I didn’t want it to be depressing — that was a challenge.” In fact, the novel’s wheelchair-bound patriarch is warm and humorous, and, because Chamberlain chose to write about his plight through the eyes of a sheltered young girl, the disease is presented as less of a hardship, more of a daily norm.
Graham is also a child psychologist. Before turning to writing full time, Chamberlain was in the clinical social work and cognitive behavioral therapy fields, working both in hospitals and private practice. That wealth of knowledge not only informed Pretending to Dance, but many of her previous 23 novels. Issues of parenting, disabilities, family secrets, grief and troubled relationships recur throughout Chamberlain’s work. “I tend to write heavy — I can’t write funny to save my life,” she says. Actually, while the people in Pretending to Dance must deal with challenges, the novel is also heartfelt, fast-paced and often fun.
“I do want my characters to triumph, but they need to struggle first,” says Chamberlain. “I want the end of the book to be uplifting.”
It’s an apt sentiment as the author’s own career is a triumph following a struggle. She says it’s taken her a very long time to build the kind of readership she would have liked early on. “If I didn’t like writing, I don’t think I would have stuck with it,” she says.
But Chamberlain’s relationship to her craft goes much deeper than fan appreciation (of which there’s a great deal, these days). An avid outliner, she says that she carefully plots the details of each novel at the beginning but, “as soon as the characters are in place, I throw the outline away.” It’s the characters who run away with the story, making it their own, Chamberlain says. “You know when you dream, and you have no control over the dream? To me, [writing] is tapping into that part of our brains.”
She adds, “That’s when the real creative part is happening.”
WHO: Diane Chamberlain presents Pretending to Dance
WHERE: Malaprop’s, Saturday, Nov. 7, at 7 p.m. malaprops.com
WHERE: Swannanoa Library, Sunday, Nov. 8, at noon. avl.mx/1vn