The following questions were posed to me by a specific book group that had read December, but they are representative of the general sorts of questions I’m often asked about the book, especially regarding the nature of Isabelle’s silence and the seeds out of which the novel grew.
–Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop
Q: Did you battle with any OCD issues growing up?
A: When I was a teenager I struggled for years with anorexia. This was a very difficult time for both me and my parents and was actually the seed out of which December grew; I wanted to examine the impact something like anorexia has on a family, and not just the afflicted person. I chose silence for Isabelle rather than anorexia, or bulimia, or self-mutilation, or addiction, because I felt that readers would be less likely to have pre-conceived notions about it. I actually wasn’t familiar with selective mutism until after I started writing the book; Isabelle’s silence was, for me, a metaphor for any number of ways an adolescent girl might react to the difficult process of growing up. I know you are reading “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” next, and I heard David Wroblewski interviewed recently. In his book, he makes up a kind of dog rather than having retrievers, say, or Labradors or poodles, for the same reason as I chose silence for Isabelle; he said he felt that if he chose a type of dog with which people were familiar, they would come to the page with a certain bias.
Q: Did you do a lot of research on selective mutism in preparation for this book? Is total silence both at home and school relatively rare?
A: My initial intent in writing this book was not to explore selective mutism specifically as much as it was to examine the impact of something like it generally on a family; in fact, I hadn’t heard of selective mutism until after I had started writing and my mother sent me an article about it from the New York Times because of the similarities between it and Isabelle’s silence. And while there certainly are similarities between selective mutism and Isabelle’s silence (and in response to the second part of your question), Isabelle’s silence is a bit more extreme than that of selective mutes, who, if they refuse to speak at home, say, will speak at school, or vice versa. Also, an important distinction between selective mutes and Isabelle is that selective mutism (as defined by the Selective Mutism Foundation) is characterized by the failure, as opposed to the refusal, to speak in select social settings. Isabelle refuses to speak in ALL settings.
Q: Which parent did you have more compassion for . . . the doer mother or the escapist father?
A: I had compassion for both. When a child is troubled, I think parents can have any number of reactions to the situation, whether, like Ruth, they choose to tackle the thing head on or, like Wilson, they cook up unrealistic, escapist schemes such as going to Africa. In Ruth, I wanted to depict the desperation a parent might feel when faced with something like this-a desperation only heightened by the nagging fear that she is somehow responsible. Ruth is convinced that Isabelle’s silence is somehow her fault, the result of something she, as a mother, either did or did not do. Partly because of this, she is all the more aggressively eager to make things better, to right the wrong, though sometimes her eagerness has the opposite of the intended effect; sometimes, she only makes things worse.
In Wilson, I wanted to depict the sadness and disbelief a parent might feel, as well as the helplessness. It pains Wilson to see Isabelle this way, and it pains him to feel unable to help her. He deals with her silence indirectly, “helping” her by setting up a zip line or planning a trip to Africa, partly because (and this pains him perhaps the most) he cannot face dealing with her directly. He dreads their lunch together, and hates himself for it; unlike Ruth, he is not good at carrying on a conversation with a wall. I think both parents love Isabelle enormously, and although their reactions to her silence might be at times wrongheaded, they are only human, and they mean only the best.