It was probably inappropriate of me to tell a respected, No. 1 New York Times bestselling author that her book isn’t the type I’d normally read. But that was my preface to telling Annie Barrows that I loved her novel The Truth According to Us so much that I was sad for days after finishing it. All I wanted to do was spend more time with 12-year-old Willa Romeyn, her never-married aunt Jottie, her younger sister Bird, and Layla Beck, a spoiled senator’s daughter, who the Romeyns take in as a boarder when she arrives in Macedonia, West Virginia, during the Great Depression of 1938.
Layla, in all of her Washington, D.C. silk stocking splendor, is in Macedonia to write a history of the struggling mill town as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. And the townspeople are as curious about and suspicious of the stunning beauty as she is about them. After all, everyone has secrets in The Truth According to Us. But perhaps the one who is most intent on discovering those secrets is Willa Romeyn.
“I’d been fooled,” Willa says. “Kept in the dark. Lulled and diverted. But no longer! I resolved to change. Then and there, I made a vow to pay attention, to find out, to learn those truths that the grown-ups tried to hide. I will know things, I promised myself. I will get to the bottom of everything. Starting now.”
One could say that 52-year-old Barrows is starting now, too. Though she first attained authorial success with her Ivy and Bean children’s series and gained acclaim with her co-authored foray into adult fiction, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, she is now starting her solo adult fiction career with The Truth According to Us.
But Random House publisher and Guernsey editor Susan Kamil credits Barrows’ children’s writing experience for giving the author “the insight that brings” Willa “so vividly to life” in The Truth.
And while Barrows admits she doesn’t “feel very good unless there’s a kid around,” she isn’t so sure she agrees with Kamil. “I think Willa, at 12, is just teetering on not being a kid,” she says. “That’s really what her story is—that transition, that liminal phase where you’re moving away from your childhood and seeing the world of adults with these new eyes. So I don’t really think of her as a real kid character. But perha ps it has something to do with my comfort with writing for kids. I’m not sure.”
Willa, who Barrows says “just rolls right out of me,” is the only character who speaks to the reader in first person. Jottie and Bird are written in third person. And Layla is depicted in third person, as well as through the letters she writes and words from the book she’s working on.
The multiple points of view, Barrows explains, “gave me a way to play with the story. But it was also a way to put different perspectives on the same piece of information without boring the heck out of the reader….But it also made it more interesting for me.”
Writing so many characters from so many points of view was a tricky and time-consuming task. “In the children’s book world, you know the ending before you begin,” says Barrows. “And what I thought as I began this book for grownups is that I could pull the plot out of character and so I just wrote character after character. I mean, what we’re ending up with here at 500 pages is a much slimmed-down version of this sort of wild ‘memoir.’ There are dozens more people in this book at various points.”
With the help of her editor, Barrows eventually realized “that I could not just meander aimlessly, gamboling over hill and dale with everybody, dallying with every character that had kept my fancy, that I really needed to come back and come in to the characters I had.”
Five and a half years after starting The Truth According to Us, writing innumerable drafts that eventually stacked 57 inches high (which would be about the same height as 12-year-old Willa), Annie Barrows completed her first solo adult novel.
So when I inappropriately state that her novel isn’t the type I normally read, but I loved it so much that I was depressed for days after finishing it, she graciously laughs and says, “Think how I felt when I had to stop writing it. It was terrible for me. These are my best friends. I love these people.”
“So how did you cope?” I ask.
“I did one bad thing, which was that I wrote more to comfort myself. That’s really bad, because it has to end sometime. You’ve got to let it be over. And then I just moped. I just sort of mourned and moped and hunkered down and didn’t talk to anybody and sulked and then I started a new book.”
“What’s the new book?”
She laughs. “Well, I can’t tell you! It’s brilliant.”
But what I can tell her is that I now know it’s the type of book I’ll read.
Suzy Spencer is a New York Times bestselling author, whose most recent book is the memoir Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality.