Conflicts, flawed characters mark Moriarty’s sophomore novel

Author Laura Moriarty’s novel, “The Rest of Her Life,” is the story about an emotionally strained mother-daughter relationship that becomes even more tense when the daughter accidentally kills a fellow student in an automobile accident. Her first novel, “The Center of Everything,” was published in 2003.

Question: How is conflict important to the writing of this novel?

Answer: This novel has a clear external conflict: the mother of the victim is very angry at the young driver, Kara, and because the story takes place in a small town, Kara will eventually have to confront that anger head on. But I also wanted the characters to have internal conflicts: Kara’s mother, Leigh, is full of conflict in how she feels about Kara and their relationship; some readers are completely unsympathetic with a mother who has any ambivalence toward her children, but I find Leigh sympathetic once I take her backstory into account.

I’m more interested in real, flawed characters than idealized creatures who always do what they should. Leigh is a character who is really trying — who has spent her whole life trying — to distance herself from her troubled origins; but truly leaving them behind her is harder than she realizes. What I love about Leigh is that she never stops trying. She really does want to be a good mother.

Q: How did you put yourself in the role of both mother and daughter, examining their differing points of view or of viewing the situation?

A: I really wanted to explore the idea of people not being able to see themselves — their flaws, their impact on others — clearly. The accident in the opening of the novel occurs because the young driver is so distracted she doesn’t see the pedestrian in the crosswalk. Similarly, people with good intentions can cause “emotional accidents” because they are similarly blinded or distracted. Leigh is trying so hard to be the opposite of her own mother that she ends up repeating her mistakes. I think this dynamic happens a lot, and I wanted to look at how it might feel from the inside.

Q: How did you view Leigh’s marriage?

A: I think Leigh and Gary’s marriage is pretty good. (I think book clubs will have a good time debating this one: some readers love Leigh and dislike Gary; some readers dislike Leigh and love Gary.) The novel catches their marriage at a very strained time, and it brings out their differences, but I think it’s clear they care about one another, and I think each one is good for the other.

Gary has had an easier life than Leigh — he’s affable, supportive, and he gets along with Kara, but he is far less willing to dwell on the loss that the victim’s family has endured than Leigh is. He doesn’t have a lot of experience with suffering, and it makes him uncomfortable. Leigh, on the other hand, habitually sides with the underdog. She has a much easier time connecting with their less popular son, and after Kara’s accident, she is pretty much obsessed with the grief of the other mother, while Gary is mainly concerned with Kara.

Q: How does the abuse in Leigh’s childhood play into the novel?

A: She has spent her entire life making decisions that would give her children a much safer and more secure childhood than she herself had. But when her daughter, reaping the benefits of all this good planning, grows into a very confident, high-achieving young woman, Leigh is surprised to find she can’t relate to her, and yes, I think she’s a little envious of her daughter, even while she’s happy for her.

I think this makes Leigh a flawed mother, but not a terrible one. And Leigh is a very good mother to Justin, who has a harder time socially than his older sister. As a teacher, Leigh has won awards for working with disabled students; that’s great, though she doesn’t see that she is slightly prejudiced against the smart students who seem to have it all. She’s always been more comfortable with people who have to struggle. But the accident forces her to realize that there is no clear line between the haves and the have-nots.

I think she’s lucky to have a daughter smart and perceptive enough to see all this in her mother. Leigh wants to think that only underdogs have compassion and strength, but her daughter repeatedly proves her wrong.

Q: What brought you to the creation of this novel?

A: I always felt bad for drivers in accidents like this. I don’t know anyone who has never made a mistake while driving, but for some people, that mistake haunts them for the rest of their lives. I wanted to look at how a sensitive, idealistic person might deal with this kind of guilt. The scary thing about this kind of accident is that you can do so much damage without meaning to, and I think that’s true of parenting as well. I wanted to investigate how someone might botch up parenting with the best of intentions. Both Leigh and Kara spend the novel trying to make amends for unintended harm.