Author Laura McNeill talks about how one decision can change the trajectory of your life forever.
What if every single thing went wrong in your life? Laura McNeill wanted to explore how a person could survive a “perfect storm” of circumstances in her new book Sister Dear about a woman convicted of a crime she didn’t commit. Allie Marshall was in the wrong place at the wrong time and has spent a decade behind bars waiting to get her life — and her daughter — back. Out on parole, Allie is determined to clear her name, rebuild her life and reconnect with her now teenaged daughter, who is being raised by her sister, Emma. But Allie’s return shatters the quaint, coastal community of Brunswick, Georgia. Even her parents are keeping their distance, and Emma isn’t ready to give up her spot as “the good sister.”
Refusing defeat, Allie forges ahead to find out what really happened the night she was arrested and a football coach on a winning streak lost his life. Almost everyone in town is against her, including the sheriff who put her behind bars in the first place, and as Allie’s commitment to finding the truth intensifies, what she uncovers is far worse than she ever imagined. Her own sister has been hiding a dark secret — one that holds the key to Allie’s freedom.
McNeill’s follow up to Center of Gravity will have you flipping pages late into the night wanting to find out what happened to Allie and how sibling rivalry can reach such deadly extremes. She promises the twisted family dynamics of Sister Dear make for a great beach read and talks about her inspiration for Allie, why she’s drawn to stories of jealousy and betrayal and the challenges of writing characters in our interview below.
Chat with Laura McNeill on Twitter Friday, June 3, from 1-2 CST (2-3 EST; 11 a.m.-noon PST) using the hashtag #southernlit. And stay tuned for Literary Friday when you can win a beach bag giveaway including a copy of Sister Dear!
EZB: You shared on your blog that Sister Dear was inspired by a friend who made a devastating mistake and went to jail for six months. You gave Allie a much tougher sentence, and she nearly lost everything in prison. How did her character evolve from your friend’s story?
LM: What happened to my friend could have happened to anyone. One mistake, one choice led to decades of heartache and hardship. After I heard my friend’s story, I began thinking about much greater consequences and a more sinister crime. I imagined someone similar to my good friend — someone with her whole life ahead of her, a single mom with a young daughter and a ticket to medical school, a member of a respected family in a small town. I began wondering what it might look like to stumble on a devastating accident and have someone die in your arms. I especially pondered the 10 years behind bars, as the daughter would be a completely different person and not know her mother at all. Once I had developed Allie’s character in my head, I wondered how she would survive and what it would be like for her to return home? More importantly, how could Allie ever connect with a daughter, now a teenager, who believed her mother capable of evil?
EZB: Did you do any research about the dynamics between family members once someone is released from prison? Allie’s sister, Emma, is the only one who visits her regularly, and her parents seem to keep their distance after she gets home, not to mention the relationship with her daughter, Caroline.
LM: I’ve done a lot of research into family dynamics and am lucky to have a friend who is a licensed professional counselor who’s specialty is personality disorders. Her experience and insights have been invaluable. I also watched a long documentary on Lee Arrendale State Prison (where Allie spends most of her sentence). That documentary shed a great deal of light on prison life. I also read blogs and reviewed websites from those family members who are left behind, waiting for their loved ones to come home.
EZB: It doesn’t take too long for the reader to find out that Emma isn’t the loving, supportive sister she appears to be. How did her character come to life, and was she that sinister from the beginning?
LM: Emma was a tough character to write. Sibling rivalry is common, but Allie’s sister takes it to the extreme and holds onto incidents from childhood that mold her into the person that she is when Allie goes to prison. So deep is her jealousy of Allie that her sister’s arrest and subsequent prison sentence is a relief, as she doesn’t have to be in Allie’s shadow anymore. She soon realizes, once Allie is gone, that she can become the “better” sister and have the love of her parents she (falsely) believes that only Allie received. In a sense, she took over Allie’s role as the “chosen one,” steps into Allie’s life and becomes a “mother figure” to Caroline when Allie is sent away. Once Emma realizes that Allie has been paroled, her now-perfect world begins crashing down around her, and she does everything in her power to keep Caroline’s love and scare Allie away.
Her prison sentence changed everyone. Even living outside the imposing walls and curling barbed wire, Emma morphed into someone else. Someone reliable. Responsible. Allie’s rock.”
EZB: You’re a mother yourself. Was it difficult for you to write about Allie and Caroline’s separation and then their struggle to reconnect when she gets out of prison?
LM: It was awful. I teared up more than once when writing the scene in which Allie is sentenced. I don’t have a daughter, but I have two sons and we are very close. It was very difficult to imagine the anguish of that separation.
EZB: How is Sister Dear different from your first novel, Center of Gravity, and what did you learn as a writer going from book one to book two?
LM: Center of Gravity, much like Sleeping with the Enemy, centers on an imploding marriage; a relationship built on lies and secrets, cloaked in what seems the perfect union to everyone outside it. The heroine, Ava, marries a widowed Prince Charming only to find out he has a dark and sinister past. Fueled into a jealous rage over an innocent encounter, her husband files for divorce and custody of their two children, and Ava finds herself in the fight of her life — trying to save her children and herself from the monster she married.
I learn so much with every book. With Sister Dear, in particular, the storyline became quite complicated with four characters telling their points of view. When I wrote the first draft, it was only told from Allie’s and Emma’s perspectives. I realized, though, that something was missing, and it ended up being Caroline’s voice. She is the innocent observer, someone who’s been estranged from her mother for 10 years. I found that the most fulfilling parts of the story were seen through Caroline’s eyes.
EZB: Center of Gravity is also about how jealousy and betrayal can destroy families. Why do you think you keep returning to these subjects?
LM: I like to explore difficult subjects, and in particular, I really enjoy delving into stories in which women face almost insurmountable odds. Ava’s story, in Center of Gravity, reflects real-life experiences that many people have shared with me, readers included. Similarly, in Sister Dear, Allie’s story also reflects human nature and how one decision can change the trajectory of a life forever.
In addition, many of the issues in the novel morph from the town’s focus on high school football and winning championships. The coach, who dies in Allie’s arms, takes some illegal measures to make sure his team dominates any and all competition. In the loss of this beloved man, the townspeople stand to lose those victories. Consequently, everyone, including law enforcement officials, want swift justice, and Allie happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone, even Allie’s family, eventually turns a blind eye to what is true and just.
EZB: Why did you choose Brunswick, Georgia, and the coast as your setting for Sister Dear?
LM: I lived near the Gulf Coast of Alabama until recently, and love the ocean, sand and sunsets. Allie, in particular, finds St. Simons Island a place of respite, perhaps the only place where she can escape the watchful eyes of townspeople. In many ways, the ocean is cleansing; seeing and hearing the waves refreshes her soul and gives her strength to fight for her freedom and her daughter’s love.
EZB: Sister Dear is included on our Summer Reading List. What do you think makes it a great beach read?
LM: Sister Dear is a great beach read for anyone who loves a fast-paced story centering on twisted family dynamics. Told from four different perspectives, the novel though fraught with lies, deceit and secrets, offers a message of hope, forgiveness and, ultimately, redemption.
For more beach reads, view our entire Summer Reading List here.