December: Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop Answers Your Questions

After finishing this suspenseful novel, most of us were left with questions about Isabelle’s illness and why she eventually spoke. Author Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop answers them. —Amanda Armstrong

Q. When Isabelle has a very realistic dream of an African tribesman attacking her father, was she hallucinating? Or was she still dreaming? And was this some kind of message or omen about the trip to Africa?

A. She was still dreaming. Although it wasn’t in the scene, they did look at the slides from Africa before Isabelle went to bed, and so the images they saw were fresh in her mind—she has an active enough imagination that it sometimes doesn’t shut off in sleep! My purpose in including that scene was both to show the power of her imagination and also to show how, despite her real terror, and despite the fact that she could have summoned her father if she’d only just called to him, she was unable to, so trapped was she in her silence.

Q. Did you know or have a personal experience with someone with selective mutism? And is that, in fact, the disorder you ascribed to Isabelle?

Q. Isabelle’s decision to not speak is a type of quiet “temper tantrum.” Why did you chose to have her not speak as opposed to another way of “acting out”?

A. This is a combined answer to the questions above. 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 bulemia, or self-mutilation, or addiction, because I felt that readers would be less likely to have preconceived notions about it. I actually wasn’t familiar with selective mutism until after I started writing the book (my mother sent me an article about it from the New York Times because of the similarities between it and Isabelle’s silence); 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.

While there certainly are similarities between selective mutism and Isabelle’s silence, 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. I felt that Ruth and Wilson must have had a strong relationship to be coping so well with Isabelle’s illness. Others disagreed. What was your intention when developing their relationship?

A. I felt a great deal of compassion for both parents; as I got to know those two characters, their relationship developed sort of organically on the page, and while I suppose the nature of their relationship is subjective, depending on the reader’s interpretation, I thought it was a strong one.

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 inadequate 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.

Q. Do Ruth’s parenting struggles come from your own experience as a parent?

A. Unless you count my experience raising a Saint Bernard, no!

Q. When Isabelle finally speaks she yells “Dad.” How did Isabelle’s relationship with Wilson play a role in her silence and her eventual breaking of that silence?

A. Isabelle’s first word surprised me as the author as much as it surprised her. I did not have an outline for this novel; each chapter grew organically out of what happened in the last, and while I always knew that Isabelle would speak, I did not know how or when or why until she called out for her father. For a while, I thought it might be that she would speak out on behalf of the dog, Maggie, perhaps if she found her very ill in the woods or something, but then Wilson was getting into that elevator, and Isabelle was afraid for him, and felt responsible for him, and the only way she could stop him was to use her voice. And when she did, it seemed right to me.

Her second word was more considered. I had to think about it. If you have been silent for nine months, and suddenly your silence has been broken, what happens? Do you resume speaking as if you’d never left off? Do you retreat back into your silence? I had to imagine myself into Isabelle’s position there in the lobby: She’s terrified, she’s got a very bloody nose, she’s just spoken, she’s totally overwhelmed, then there’s Uncle Jimmy, the source of her fear, standing there with a large knife in his hand. “F***” seemed the right response, for a few reasons. I don’t think Isabelle, at age 11, would necessarily throw that word around easily, but in this case, she’s afraid, and she can get away with it; she’s spoken now, so she throws caution to the wind and says what she wants—but what’s also her natural reaction to the situation. Also, importantly, she is her mother’s daughter. Ruth isn’t sparing in her use of expletives, and so it seemed natural that Isabelle might take a cue from that.

Her first word is for her father, her second is after her mother.

Q. You left the ending somewhat open-ended. Isabelle speaks, but it isn’t fully clear why she stopped speaking in the first place. Did you do this on purpose?

I didn’t intend for there to be a specific “reason” for her silence, as I said before—it was more of a reaction to growing up. As for the open-ended nature of the ending—will she keep on speaking or won’t she?—it seemed too soon for the characters to have any answers.