Empathy and the Wisdom of Children: An Exclusive Q&A with Rhiannon Navin
Rhiannon Navin’s debut novel Only Child is a dazzling, tenderhearted debut about healing, family, and the unexpected wisdom of children. Described as a “heartbreaking but important novel” (Real Simple), it tells the story of first-grader Zach Tyler and his family as they embark on a healing journey in the wake of tragedy. Navin approaches Zach’s story with remarkable compassion and honesty, and she was kind enough to answer a few questions about her hopeful new novel. Keep reading to learn more about how she got inside the mind of her six-year-old narrator!
Reading Group Center: How would you describe Only Child in twenty-five words or fewer?
Rhiannon Navin: Only Child is about grief, perseverance, and the wisdom of children. Overcoming tragedy, young Zach leads his family to a path toward healing and forgiveness.
RGC:Only Child follows one family as they grapple with the devastating consequences of a school shooting, a rampant and hotly debated issue in the U.S. How do you see your novel in conversation with current events?
RN: I hope my story is able to contribute a perspective to the conversation that perhaps many haven’t considered before. My intention was to emphasize the devastating effect a horrible crime like a school shooting can have on those who are forced to live through it and those who are left behind: the siblings, parents, family, and friends. The issue of gun control is such a controversial one, but I believe that everyone— no matter what their convictions—will be able to empathize with little Zach’s experience. My novel is not a political book, but it’s meant to make my readers feel empathy and compassion and perhaps nudge them to reconsider the convictions in some cases.
RGC: The bookis told from the perspective of a six-year-old. Why did you choose to frame the story this way, and how did you get into the mindset of such a young narrator?
RN: While writing Only Child, I used my own kids as my focus group for how Zach might act or speak. My twins were exactly Zach’s age at the time and I paid close attention and watched them intently for clues: What are they thinking right now? How are they processing, expressing themselves? Whenever I was doubtful as to how Zach might speak, what kind of words he would choose, I asked my children. I would ask them in German: How would you say this in English or how would you describe that? Zach’s voice grew directly from my children’s voices.
RGC: Only Child treats an incredibly fraught topic with a remarkable amount of compassion and honesty. As a mother of three young children, did you struggle with writing a story about a family in crisis? What did telling this story mean to you?
RN: Writing this story was an emotional roller coaster. It was very cathartic in many ways, because I was able to confront many of the worries I had for my own family. But there were scenes that were tough for me to write. I wrote Only Child with my own family in mind, pictured my children in Zach’s position and myself in Melissa’s. This really intensified the emotions I felt while writing this story manyfold. I often emerged from a writing session feeling completely gutted and disoriented. I had to pull myself together and splash some cold water on my face before my kids came home on the school bus. The hardest scene of them all was the very last one. I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say, I was a blubbering mess by the end of it. I actually took a picture of myself because I’d been ugly crying for over an hour and looked awful.
RGC: What is the primary message or lesson that you hope readers take away from the book?
RN: I began writing Only Child without an agenda. I simply needed an outlet for all the fears and worries I am experiencing as a mother of three young children. I lie awake at night worrying about their safety while at school. Writing my story was a way for me to work through my fears. It was never my intention to get up on my soapbox and shout out my views on gun control. Instead, I wanted my story and my little protagonist’s experience speak for itself. I hope my readers will consider the importance of our children’s voices, be reminded how much wisdom and emotional depth our children possess. In this busy world we live in, this important truth is often forgotten, I think. I hope my readers will find themselves in a hopeful place when they reach the end of my book. Maybe they will even feel inspired to take action to be part of the solution, to make sure their child or their neighbor’s child or the child across town doesn’t have to become the next Zach.
RGC: Which authors or specific works have influenced your writing?
RN: I don’t know if I can point to any author and say he or she has specifically influenced my writing. I’ve been an avid reader my whole life, thanks to my book-crazy mother, who’s always made reading a priority in my sister’s and my life, and I think all this reading in aggregate has prepared me to write my own story. You take a piece of everything you read with you and it shapes you as a person and a writer.
RGC: Imagine you’re part of a book club discussing Only Child. What is a topic or question you would like to pose to the group and why?
RN: Some readers have told me they initially shied away from reading Only Child because of the subject matter. Once they hear the words “school shooting,” they back away. But most often, if and when they did pick it up, they realized that the book is not a typical school-shooting book. In fact, in my story, the shooting scene is over by page ten. I’d like to ask the book club members if they think the school shooting could be substituted by another tragic event. What aspects of the story would change and which would stay the same?