By the time Elizabeth Kelly published her first novel, Apologize, Apologize!, at 56, she’d written seven or eight full books, and thought of herself as a novelist since she was a kid. “I was swaggering around like Martin Amis for years with no justification,” she says.
In her early 20s, Kelly, who lives in Ontario, became a magazine journalist, and quite a successful one. “But then suddenly, in my 30s, it was like a switch went on, and I started writing,” she says. She kept working as a journalist and editor—not to mention as mother to four kids, plus cats and dogs—as she wrote those first novels, writing around her work schedule and despite rejection. “I guess it was the arrogant seven-year-old who was still convinced that this is what I was supposed to be doing,” she says.
Her new book, The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, follows 13-year-old Riddle Camperdown (who narrates from her 30s) as she struggles with whether to disclose a monstrous secret she’s witnessed, and deals with the implications of her silence. Revelations bloom from Riddle’s parents, too: Each has a complicated past with a third party, Michael Devlin.
The novel’s spark was the idea at its heart: seeing something you know is wrong, knowing you should act on it, and yet being unable to do so—“because I am the world’s biggest chicken,” Kelly says. She grew up in Catholic schools, which “was like going into an Irish gulag. Like a nightmare. Every aspect of your life you had to filter though this moral conscience: Was it right? Was it wrong?” she says. “So I think that haunts me a little bit.”
The heavy themes in the book come to us in hilarious banter—particularly between Riddle’s parents, Camp and Greer—and delicious language: “He sounded the way a graham cracker tastes,” or “I was persuaded that curmudgeonly complaint lent me a certain gravitas that belied my age,” or “My mother had such an arch delivery that someone once asked her at a funeral if she was being sarcastic when she expressed her condolences to the family. When she intended sarcasm, she peeled the bark off trees.” It’s no surprise that Kelly finds such verbiage an almost visceral pleasure.
That last quote also points to a foundational dynamic: Camp and Greer are, for much of the novel, so preoccupied with their own lives and wit that they don’t delve into what’s troubling their daughter. But Kelly doesn’t define them as narcissists—“They’re self-absorbed, but they actually can see other people’s points of view”—and, in some ways, is drawn to their parenting style. “She’s being intellectually challenged all the time,” Kelly says of Riddle. “You see a lot of parents who do everything as they’re supposed to do it, but they forget to be fun, they forget to be interesting and their kids are bored.”
Kelly herself is far from a self-obsessed mother. “I’m way too preoccupied with my kids,” she says. “If my kids are upset, I’m upset.” Perhaps Greer occupies some fantasy world: What would it be like not to be so invested? On a more basic level, while she wrote, Kelly was highly entertained by Camp and Greer’s antics. “I like larger-than-life situations when I’m writing,” she says. “I will never write a domestic novel or a quiet novel, or you kill me if you ever see that I’ve written something about divorce or what’s troubling me at the breakfast table. It’s not interesting to me at all. I can go next door, I can walk down any street corner and hear all about that.”
Riddle, like the protagonist of Apologize, Apologize!, is the sane one in a cast of kooks. But while Kelly grew up in a large family—three sisters, one brother—she doesn’t share Riddle’s sense of standing at the eye of a tornado in any literal or rigidly autobiographical sense.
“I think in some ways, novelists have just found a way of talking about their dreams in a way that’s palatable,” Kelly says. “My report cards used to always say, ‘Elizabeth wastes so much time daydreaming,’ but really, what else is writing at its heart? In many ways, it’s the execution of a daydream.”
Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York.