Jessica Strawser’s debut novel, Almost Missed You places a glaring spotlight on an unimaginable nightmare. Picture if you will, this scenario. You’re in a beautiful Florida beach, living within the glow of your dream vacation, next to a husband you adore and your wonderful, precious little boy. You bask not only in the warm sun and ocean air, but also in the knowledge that this love you share with your husband Finn is meant to be, you were always destined for one another, starting that day you met as teenagers on this very beach. It was in the stars.
This is a story you’ve told friends, family and acquaintances who marvel in the wonderful and unexpected reality of destiny. You and Finn are living proof, and the result is your solid, happy marriage which gave you your son. “Tonight, after Bear was in bed, they would take that fresh bottle of pinot grigio out to the balcony, and she’d lay her head on that perfect-fit spot on his shoulder as they settled in to watch the moonlight sparkle on the rolling water. Life was good.”
But everything changes in a Sunny Isles minute when you make your way up to your hotel room, already smiling in anticipation of seeing your husband and your son after an afternoon of lone contemplation at the beach. How could you anticipate that behind that door there would be no trace of the two people you love more than life itself, like they vanished into thin air or perhaps they were only a fractal born of your vivid imagination, out of your desire for them to be real?
Violet, Strawser’s shocked-to-the core protagonist, is a character for who we can’t feel anything but sympathy towards the pain and anguish she feels not knowing the whereabouts of her husband and child. Along with her bewildered narrative, we have the alternating POVs of Finn, Violet’s runaway husband and Caitlin, Finn’s longtime best friend and keeper of secrets, a task that turns out to be true for Finn as well.
As the motivations behind Finn’s actions become more clear, but by no means less thoughtless, we sympathize more and more with Violet and her predicament. Strawser uses alternating flashbacks to relay an explanation of Finn’s decision rooted in a painful past, but this doesn’t diminish his lack of empathy and kindness towards Violet, whom he has professed to love, taking from her what she can’t live without: their son Bear.
Finn and Violet are forced to accept new truths about themselves and their marriage, giving way to a completely new significance of “destiny” and “meant to be”. Violet must understand that her story with Finn is not the one she believed, but rather one wrapped in a shroud of unknown mea culpa that is more complex and difficult to grasp.
I spoke to Jessica Strawser about Almost Missed You and the creative process behind Finn and Violet’s story.
What writers have inspired your own work as an author?
I’ve seen reviewers draw parallels between my fiction and Liane Moriarty’s, which is a huge compliment—I adore her books (if only I had that Australian charm!). Maggie O’Farrell is always doing something creative and poetic, I thought This Must Be the Place was her absolute best. I love Jodi Picoult for her intensely readable style and wide-ranging plots and Anne Tyler for her characterizations and humor.
A few months ago, I interviewed Daniel Jones, editor of the Modern Love column in The New York Times. Tell me about your own experience in having your essay published there.
It lived up to the hype, that’s for sure. My piece had a timely holiday hook, so I’m not sure if my experience is typical, but when it was accepted a whirlwind ensued, with a few rounds of back-and-forth on tight deadlines. I had submitted in accordance with his guidelines but it turned out my word count still needed to be trimmed by a few hundred words. Dan made thoughtful suggestions and it was a wonderful experience to have the chance to learn from him.
I had submitted on such a lark that I didn’t properly consider how the essay would be received until it had been accepted—which, funny enough, I’ve heard other writers echo on the Modern Love podcast. It was intensely personal (and sad, portraying a tragedy that was years behind me), full of information that many people who were a part of my life didn’t even know, and when the time came I was more nervous than excited. But I couldn’t have been more overwhelmed by the warm, wonderful reception from friends and strangers alike. I still get notes about that essay today.
The title of this novel is very telling, because it gives a bit of foreshadow into the plot. What made you decide on it?
I love titles that take on new layers of meaning once you’ve read the book, and am happy to have hit on one myself. I initially had a title playing on the concept of Almost and the month of August, which is when the events of the story take place over the course of several years. But it felt a little awkward. I ran a few other options by my small group of beta readers before submitting, and they universally preferred Almost Missed You, as did I. My agent and eventual publisher both loved it and there was never any discussion of changing it.
What was the inspiration for Almost Missed You?
I have always been fascinated by questions of fate, particularly where romantic relationships are concerned—not just “the one,” but “the one that got away.” Not just “what’s meant to be,” but “what might have been.” I wanted to take a couple who everyone thinks is fated in a storied way, and then turn the idea on its head and call everything into question.
All the characters, except maybe Violet, are guilty of some sort of subterfuge or another. Do you think this might make them relatable for readers?
I think we all relate to flaws much more easily than we relate to perfection, whether we want to admit it or not—and when we keep secrets, it’s usually to hide some flaw, either our own or someone else’s. We’ve all worried we might lose someone we love; we’ve all felt desperate; we’ve all done things we’d rather forget, no matter how small. And sometimes something that we initially feel is a small indiscretion can have a snowball effect beyond what we would have imagined.
Bear appears to be the strongest bond between Violet and Finn. Is he also the catalyst that drives Finn’s actions?
I think the book is as much about parental love as it is about marriage, fate and friendship—and that certainly applies to Finn as well as Violet.
Finn and Violet seemingly are meant to be. However flashbacks into their past combined with the narrative of Finn and Bear’s disappearance tell a different story. Would you say Finn and Violet’s connection was more fate than choice or vice-versa?
By design, that is left for the reader to decide—so I wouldn’t want to insert my own views into their interpretation of the story. That being said, I’m not sure I know the answer to that question anyway!
How challenging was it to write from multiple POVs?
Though switching POVs definitely added complexity to the process of crafting the story, it was enormous fun. It’s easier to stay creative and fresh when you’re mixing up your own perspective on your story, I found, even if the writing itself, and especially the revising, is a bit harder as a result.
Which character did you relate to the most?
Though none of the characters are much like me, I related to something key in all of them, I think. Finn is a dreamer (guilty as charged), Caitlin a worrier (guilty again), and Violet has a go along, get along approach to her relationships that I think my younger self especially tended to employ.
This isn’t a linear narrative. It’s told through time jumps from present to past. How did you decide this was the best way to tell the story?
The catalyst for the story is a husband walking out on his wife and taking their son with him—and the answers to what could have possibly led him/them to this point lie in the past, not the present. I wanted to peel back the layers slowly to reveal that all was not what it seemed, and what the truth was from all the characters’ perspectives.
Violet and Finn’s whole history together seems based on a lot of “ifs” and “almosts” that worked very well and at the same time, very badly to bring them to the novel’s starting point. Would you say this is true?
I think all our lives are made up of ifs and almosts—some of us just spend more time dwelling on them than others. The question of timing—whether good, bad, or alternately both—is just as key.
What future projects are you working on?
I have another stand-alone book club novel forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press around the same time next year.