Lisa Howorth’s family continues to live through the unthinkable: Her nine-year-old stepbrother was murdered on Mother’s Day in 1966. The case remains unsolved. That’s decades of false leads, the isolating stares of neighbors who just didn’t know what to say and at least one fictionalization of the family tragedy.

“The crime, a nine-year-old old boy murdered on Mother’s Day, has been written about before,” says Howorth. (It’s the basis of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend.) “Writers take people’s stories all the time, but in this particular case I did feel like...this is a story that we get dibs on,” she says, referring to her own family. “Everything’s in the public domain now, right, so you can’t fault somebody for appropriating something but I think there’s a kind of protocol that should be observed. It made me more concerned with telling the whole story—our whole story.”

Family history may be the catalyst for her debut novel, but that’s not the whole story: Flying Shoes isn’t the memoir Howorth once thought she would write. Nor is it true crime. “I would say it’s the story of a woman who leads, in some ways, an ordinary life, maybe a little eccentric, in a town that’s very complex and eccentric. This cold case comes up and she has to face it again, reluctantly, and go back to her home in Virginia to deal with her family and the crime, but there are a lot of side stories,” says Howorth. “I’m interested in talking about death—there are two other deaths in the novel—and how it affects those left behind.”

Mary Byrd Thornton is a smart but scattered stay-at-home mom in small-town Oxford, Mississippi, who receives a call from a detective determined to solve her brother’s cold case. He invites her to Richmond to hear some new information, maintaining she “won’t be sorry” to make the trip, that he may be able to offer some “closure.”

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“I will be sorry, she thought, and what the fuck is closure?” Howorth writes of the unwelcome intrusion. In this case, Mary Byrd, who occasionally blows off steam by popping pills or having a quiet affair, goes for broke: “That’s when she went back to the dishes and picked up a piece of the crappy Corelle she used to feed her animals and children because of its alleged indestructibility and threw it hard at the floor, where it shattered in an almost-satisfying way, just as she had always expected it would.”

In Flying Shoes, tragedy is often offset by the deeply, darkly funny. That’s what draws in Howorth as a reader, writer and bookseller (she co-founded Oxford’s famous SLH Coverquare Books with her husband, Richard, in 1979). “One thing I want to say about humor—not just in southern literature—it’s the reason I’m so crazy about Irish and Russian literature. Those writers really know how to deal with dark humor and tragedy,” she says. “That’s so appealing to me. It’s not so interesting to talk about being beaten down by a tragedy. I’m much more interested in the ways that people pull of out of it and deal with it.”

Mary Byrd’s coping mechanisms aren’t always legal or moral but the fact is, she tries. “In spite of seeming kind of ditzy, she’s still very engaged in life and her family and friends, and her town, and she’s big-hearted—let me say soft-hearted. She’s soft-hearted but she’s also very tough, and she’s always struggling to understand what’s going on around her. I think that’s her best characteristic: She wants to examine everything. She pays a lot of attention. She doesn’t always get things right...but she’s a struggler, and I like strugglers. She’s always looking for answers, never really expecting to find any,” Howorth says.

Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.