Drumroll, please. Author Peter Rock has responded to our questions—and has sent a personal message to you, the members of the No-Obligation Book Club. Enjoy!
First, thanks so much for choosing and for reading my book. It’s heartening to think that all that time I spent alone, in Caroline’s mind, might have entertained or provoked people I don’t know. I’m not a person who believes writers have special insights into what their work means or all the answers; much of it is as mysterious—or more so—to me than to a reader. I was there, though, when her words passed through me.
It’s occurred to me that so much of this book deals with my anxiety about being a father. When I wrote My Abandonment I was racing the birth of my daughter, Ida, who is now two years old. And as I write these answers to your questions my wife is about to give me another daughter, so I answer in some haste. —Peter Rock
Q. Why did you feel compelled to write this book—was it just a fascinating tale or did you want to convey a certain message through Caroline’s character?
A. Out of sheer curiosity—I certainly didn’t have a message in mind, but I did want to explore how this girl lived, and who she was, and what became of her. In this I knew there was something about living away from civilization, and also about the incredible adaptability of children. I guess implicit in all this was also how different lifestyle choices or even kinds of families, other than conventional or blood-related or chosen, might be just as workable or happy than the ones with which most of us are familiar.
Q. Did you give readers’ minimal information about Father’s background to cast doubt about her paternity?
A. My first concern when working on this book was to restrict myself to Caroline’s perspective. What did she know? What didn’t she know? How was her thinking limited by Father’s rules (such as not looking back) and also by her age? What could she not remember? So one part of the difficult choice to have Caroline as the narrator was to limit how much could be known about Father—his past, his motivations, his problems. Of course, he reveals himself in his interactions with Caroline, and through his actions, and the books he reads, etc.
Q. In the real case of Frank and Ruth upon which this book is based, did the authorities confirm that Frank was Ruth’s biological father? And when they disappeared, do you know whether Frank continued to cash his disability checks?
A. I believe this was confirmed, yes. My suspicion is that Frank probably is cashing these checks (whether they’re disability or a pension of some kind), and that probably the government knows where they’re being sent, and therefore where Frank is.… (More later, on this question.)
Q. In your story, is Father really Caroline’s birth father? And is he Della’s?
A. A hard question for me to answer. Standing here on the outside, I’d say that this seems unlikely to me. But possible. The main thing for me was that (a) Caroline believes he’s her birth father, and that (b) he also does, even if he’s wrong. (Which is to say that I always believed his motivations were honorable, even if misguided.)
Q. What made Father trust Susan and Paul/Stanley/Leon, but not people in society?
A. I think that Father made a misapprehension here, in that he figured this “mother/son” pair might be somewhat similar, a kind of matching pair, for him and Caroline. I think the fact that he and Caroline were on the move, at loose ends, and outside of civilization also made him have to trust, or reach out. I think he was just looking for some clues, at this point, a direction he might go. Certainly, the world he created in Forest Park was one he could control, but as that world unravels he loses his dexterity (and Caroline can see this happening).
Q. What really happened between Father and Susan? Was Susan entirely to blame (and, if so, was it an accident)? Or was Father, knowing that he’d be leaving Caroline a nest egg, intending to make it easier for Caroline to go on without him?
A. Again, I’m with you and Caroline, outside of the yurt, so I’m uncertain. My sense is that it was an accident. It’s completely unnecessary to be familiar with my novel The Bewildered, but this woman and boy come out of that book, and I think it’s clear, here, that their relationship with electricity is different than most people’s. So my best guess is that Father probably leaned against those exposed wires because Susan was and he thought it was all right, and he was mistaken. I don’t think Susan had evil intentions, but she was definitely pragmatic and self-interested in terms of moving on, taking the things in the sled, etc. I also don’t think Father’s death was a premeditated strategy on his part. I think he wanted to stay with Caroline.
Q. What are we to take away from the experiences of Father and Caroline about trust? Is your overall message to trust oneself first and foremost?
A. I’m not sure if I think of it in terms of messages. Is that what you took away? I’m hoping to let readers make that call, and to involve and provoke them enough that they will do so.… That said, I think trusting oneself is one part of the book; a lot of it has to do with how we understand the world in certain ways and we follow these understandings, hold on to them, despite what others might see as evidence that contradicts them. We survive by understanding things the only way we can.
Q. In your YouTube video, you said you knew what happened to Frank and Ruth, the real Father and Caroline. Was it what you wrote in My Abandonment or something else?
A. I don’t think I said that, exactly—I think what I meant to suggest was that I know what I imagined, and that I was so far into this story I made up that it’s hard for me now to consider another possibility. But of course the actual people’s lives couldn’t have possibly—one hopes—followed the events of my novel.
I should say that I have mixed feelings about all this, having written a novel based on a few facts about real people whom I don’t know. Because these are people who obviously want to be private, who wish to remain hidden. My story obscures much of what might have become of them, but it still draws attention to the real people, wherever they are. And since the book has come out I’ve heard from several people who claim to know where the father/daughter are—they seem to be simultaneously in three different states, and in four very distinct places, distant from each other, so they’re either hiding themselves very well, or multiplying. Other people have asked me for my information in hopes of tracking down the father/daughter, or writing a nonfiction exposé about them, and I’ve tried not to get involved in any of that.
Q. Will you write a sequel about what happens to Caroline? (Hint, hint.)
A. As my earlier answer about The Bewildered suggested, my novels often intersect with each other. Right now I don’t have plans to write a sequel, but I wouldn’t be unsurprised if Caroline shows up again. She’s so busy and she has much to say. And this is one way I think of my characters, as separate from me: I have shone a light on them for a particular piece of time, but when I look away and attend to other things these characters aren’t in suspended animation or something; they’re still out there, doing something, moving toward each other, damaging themselves, falling in love, getting older and stranger.
The novel I’m writing now does start in Boise, with search parties looking for “Caroline” after she’s disappeared from her backyard trampoline. . . .