As Lori Nelson Spielman sits at her desk, working at her laptop, she can stare through the open slats of her office’s plantation shutters and watch the deer and blue heron step beneath the oak trees in her backyard. “It’s kind of a nice way of calming me down on those stressful days when the words aren’t flowing,” she says.
The days were very stressful as the No. 1 international bestselling author of The Life List wrote her second novel, Sweet Forgiveness, the story of TV host Hannah Farr, who is forced into a journey to forgive her mother and reveal the secret that has kept them apart for 20 years.
In part, the idea came when Spielman, a former guidance counselor, noticed school girls giving each other friendship bracelets. “And it struck me—it’s just such a sweet thing that they just wear their friendship right on their wrists for everyone to see.” She then started thinking about adults exchanging bracelets too and wondering what their bracelets would signify. Forgiveness came to mind.
“I have friends who have had falling-outs with family members and refused to speak to them and then conversely there are those people who forgive horrible atrocities with such grace, so I liked that idea.”
But she felt a forgiveness bracelet seemed too public for such a private act. Instead, the author thought a pouch of forgiveness stones would work—if someone received a pouch of stones they were asked to forgive the person who sent the stones “and then pass along a second pouch, offering an apology to someone that they hurt—kind of a pay it forward or a chain letter of forgiveness.”
Once Spielman had the concept, she needed a lead character and a setting. “I knew it needed to be a public figure because she was going to be outted,” which would start the character on her journey to forgiveness. “So I came up with the idea of this morning talk show host. I love New Orleans. It’s one of my favorite places, and I thought it would be a fun place to set a novel. And so Hannah Farr became the talk show host of a morning show in New Orleans.
“The other setting in the book is northern Michigan, which is near and dear to my heart because I’m from Michigan, and it’s a beautiful area up there. And so that’s where Hannah then travels to meet her mother again after a 20-year estrangement.
Still, Spielman struggled with Hannah. “I wrote so many versions of this book,” she says. “I would write it and scrap it. I would write it and scrap it. I think she finally came alive for me, when—”
Spielman changes direction in mid-sentence, as if she’s reluctant to make her point. But in fact, she’s digressing to explain one of her stressors in writing the book. “I grew up Catholic, and I’m one of these people pleasers. I don’t have grudges that I hold on to. I’ve done my fair share of hurting people, like I’m sure we all have, but I don’t really have any deep-seated anger or issues like that. So the fact that [Hannah] has not spoken to her mother in two decades seemed very odd to me.”
In other words, the author couldn’t relate to her main character. And then Spielman clearly states her number one stressor while working on Sweet Forgiveness: “As I was writing, I got breast cancer.” In January 2014, she had a double mastectomy.
“And I think it wasn’t until then that I sort of could channel some of that anger, and writing Hannah was kind of cathartic. And in the end I had to forgive just like Hannah did—had to forgive my body for kind of betraying me and Hannah needed to make peace with her past.”
Though Spielman doesn’t hold grudges, she does have regrets, such as rejecting one of her Catholic school friends when Spielman transferred to public school in the seventh grade. And she rejected her simply because her new friends didn’t like her old friend. “And as I wrote the book, I thought of her.” After all, the catalyst for Hannah’s forgiveness journey is a pouch of stones she received from her middle school nemesis.
“I feel very ashamed of that—that I did not speak up for my friend.” Though Spielman apologized to her friend years ago, only after her book was completed did she give her a pouch of forgiveness stones.
And she hopes more than anything that Sweet Forgiveness inspires people to make peace with their past, “because holding grudges and shame are heavy burdens.”
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.