The bestselling author talks about the true story that inspired her new book The Sound of Glass, which may be her best novel yet.
Scroll down for chat & giveaway details.
The image of a suitcase falling from the sky came to Karen White as she sat down to write her latest novel. After seeing the true story of Jack Gilbert Graham, the man responsible for the 1955 bombing of United Airlines Flight 629, on a “Crimes to Remember” TV program, she became mesmerized by the story. Eyewitness accounts said first responders had given farmers flashlights to look for survivors. By dusk, all the fields appeared filled with the blinking lights of fireflies.
White researched the tragic flight that killed all 39 passengers and five crew members on board, along with the history of the man responsible for the crash. As it became clear to investigators that the explosion of the aircraft was not caused by fuel, they discovered dynamite was used to purposely bomb the plane. It all came down to a certain piece of luggage belonging to a woman named Daisie King who was traveling to Alaska to visit her grandchildren.
Investigators began to take a closer look at her son, his financial troubles and history of disagreements with his mother — and a motive began to emerge. Jack Graham had placed an appliance timer set to 60 minutes with a bomb attached in his mother’s suitcase. His intent was to kill her and collect the life insurance.
As all good writers do, White took the basics of this notorious crime and turned it into her latest novel The Sound of Glass. The plane crash setting of Denver, Colorado, became Beaufort, South Carolina, and the target a Mr. Henry P. Holden. White weaves in complicated family relationships, a history of domestic violence, a woman looking for a new beginning and a love story in her version of events.
An unholy tremor rippling through the sticky night air alerted Edith Heyward that something wasn’t right … She’d barely slid from her stool when the sky exploded with fire, illuminating the river and the marshes beneath it, obliterating the stars, and shooting blurry light through the milky glass of the wind chime. The stones swayed with the shocked air, singing sweetly despite the destruction in the sky behind them. Then a rain of fire descended like fireworks, myriad balls of light extinguished as soon as they collided with water into hiccups of steam.” – Prologue
She says Merritt Heyward, the woman looking for a new beginning, was the first character that came to her. Recovering from the loss of her husband, Cal, two years before, Merritt travels to Beaufort upon learning she has inherited his family home. She leaves her own home in Maine and heads South with plans to start over and possibly gain insight into her troubled husband’s past.
White admits that Merritt isn’t very likable in the beginning and creates a sort of culture clash by introducing her too-young stepmother and Southern belle Loralee Purvis Connors. She says Loralee’s character — and her unwavering positive attitude despite a desperate situation — was inspired by friend and fellow writer Shellie Rushing Tomlinson. “We had lunch together and when she started talking, I realized that was Loralee’s voice,” she says.
‘I understand. I do. I’m a widow too. It’s hard to lose the person you thought would always be with you … But it’s not the end. My mama used to say that when you lose something from your life it just means that you’re making room in your heart for something new.’
She wished Merritt would throw a big caterwauling, screaming-and-jumping-and-throwing-things kind of tantrum. It wasn’t good to hold everything inside, even if you were from Maine and thought you were supposed to.” – Loralee, Chapter 9
As these two women butt heads and ultimately learn from each other in the present day, White creates a parallel story of Edith Heyward, Cal’s grandmother who was home the night the plane crashed. Edith recreates crime scenes for the local police as a hobby, and her character is based on Frances Glessner Lee, a woman who revolutionized the study of crime scene investigation in the 1940s and ’50s.
White calls her the “mother of modern forensics” and explains why she channeled a fascination with the real-life person into the character of Edith. “In Edith’s generation, women didn’t become police detectives,” she says. “Her art hobby kind of fell to the side, but this is her one way of using her talents in a way that she found very self-fulfilling.”
We peered closer, amazed at the intricate details of each little room, from the miniature furniture with tiny tubes of lipstick and a perfume bottle, shoes with untied laces, and dressers with half-closed drawers. Tiny people with real hair and eyelashes lay in odd positions in the various boxes, or, in one box, sat slumped over in an upholstered chair whose plaid fabric was faded in the way one would imagine a real chair that sat near a window might be.” – Merritt, Chapter 10
Like Merritt, Edith is the victim of domestic violence, but she doesn’t let it define her. White hasn’t touched on this subject before but says she wanted to show that women back then had even less recourse than they do today. Although it was difficult for her to write some of the book’s violent scenes, her goal was to show a feeling of powerlessness.
As Merritt begins to rediscover her voice with the help of Loralee, her stepbrother Owen, brother-in-law Gibbes and a little nudge from Edith beyond the grave, she is forced to confront her own past along with the terrible secrets that drove Cal far from home all those years ago.
“Facing your fears can be the hardest thing to do,” says White. That’s the message she wants readers to take away from The Sound of Glass, but you’ll also find yourself researching Frances Glessner Lee, Jack Gilbert Graham and that original story of that suitcase falling from the sky. Just like the real-life version of events, White’s story is hard to forget.
See our travel guide to Karen White’s Beaufort here.
Chat with Karen White on Friday, June 12, via Twitter from 1-2 CST using the hashtag #southernlit. We’ll also be giving away a copy of The Sound of Glass during the chat, and you must participate for the chance to win.
Vote for The Sound of Glass as your favorite summer book cover here.