Kim Hooper’s first novel People Who Knew Me persuades the reader to put themselves in the shoes of a seemingly less-than-admirable main character, and ponder on the gut-wrenching threshold of a decision made in the face of tragedy.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001 Emily Morris makes a choice that will change her life forever. She fakes her own death, escapes to California and creates a new identity for herself as Connie Prynne. What nobody knows is that Emily, now Connie, left New York City pregnant with her lover’s child; her lover who was in the World Trade Center at the time the planes hit the towers. Nobody knows that Emily was also supposed to be there, but in truth she wasn’t. Nobody imagines that Emily, unhappy with her marriage and a husband who decides to become a caregiver for his ailing mother against Emily’s wishes, was having an affair much less that she was planning to leave her husband Drew for her lover Gabe, the very day that turned into one of the worst events in American history.
Life however, has a brutal way of reminding us that we can’t run away from our past. When Emily gets diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer, she realizes that she must secure the future of her thirteen year old daughter, even if this means facing the people she left behind all those years ago.
People Who Knew Me is one of those novels that leaves not only a deep impression long after turning the last page, but also overwhelms us with difficult questions. Is Emily Morris a selfish and childish woman, who takes advantage of a terrible tragedy and disappears, forsaking her family and a husband who loves her , a man desperate and in pain who believes his wife dead? Or is she a victim of the circumstances of that day and of her own personal tragedy? I asked People Who Knew Me author Kim Hooper to shed more light on the plaintive topic that her debut novel touches on and give us more insight into the character of Emily Morris and the woman she becomes Connie Prynne, and how the two differ from each other.
What was the inspiration for People Who Knew Me?
There were a variety of inspirations that merged in my mind at one time. I had heard stories of people faking their deaths on 9/11 for insurance payouts and I thought, “What if someone just wanted to disappear?” What if someone was playing hooky that day? Around the same time, I read that one of the most common fantasies is leaving a life behind and starting a new one. When I began the novel, I didn’t know why Emily was leaving. I didn’t know why she would return. Those details came as I wrote the book.
Was it difficult writing a story that has as catalyst one of the most tragic events in our country’s history?
Yes, definitely. I was very emotional writing the scenes of that day. I see Emily’s decision to leave after 9/11 as not just influenced by her personal (or selfish, as some may say) motivations, but also influenced by the horror of that day. The world was in such a raw state right after 9/11. The event shook all of us to our cores. Emily escapes and takes on a new identity in the midst of the shock and confusion of it all. Her story shows how such a dramatic event can lead people to make dramatic decisions as they take stock of their lives. I see the book as showing reverence for that day and how it changed all of us.
Emily is a difficult character to analyze. She comes across as childish and selfish when instead of supporting her husband and understanding his obligation towards his mother, she decides to have an affair. Would you agree with this?
I think she is selfish. She’s young—in her twenties. She lacks perspective. She’s disillusioned because her marriage has not worked out as she hoped it would. Her husband’s business failed, they are in charge of taking care of his ailing mother. It’s a tough position. As a reader, I’m most intrigued by flawed characters. I don’t even like the word “flawed.” I prefer “human.” Most humans are not perfect and make questionable decisions when under certain pressures. I don’t necessarily agree with her choices, but that doesn’t bother me. Reading is an escape, a chance to step in someone else’s shoes for a few days. I just want those shoes to be interesting.
Would you say that Emily made the decision to disappear partly because of the terrible way Gabe died, but also because she couldn’t face telling Drew the truth about the affair? Does this make her a coward or a survivor? Would you say that Emily was truly in love with Gabe or just in love with the idea of a different life?
I think Emily had selfish motives that collided with the chaos of 9/11. I don’t think she would have disappeared if Gabe died in, say, a car accident. She made a very drastic choice in the midst of our country’s worst tragedy. I can’t say that I think she’s a coward or a survivor. Both, probably. And I don’t know if I can answer how she felt toward Gabe. Most of us have had experiences of thinking we’re in love, but we see we were not. It is interesting to wonder what would have become of them if he had not died. Would she have left Drew eventually? When is leaving a cowardly choice, and when is it brave?
Would Emily have never revealed anything to her daughter Claire about her past if she didn’t have cancer?
I don’t think she would have told her anytime soon. Perhaps, when Claire was much older, she may have told her. I can’t imagine there would have ever been the “perfect” time to tell her. At some point, life circumstances would have motivated that conversation. I’m confident in that. I don’t think we can ever truly escape our pasts.
Do you think Emily’s attempt to put things right gives the character redemption in the eyes of readers who might think that what she did is reprehensible?
I’m not sure redemption is the right word. She was dealt cards that caused her to take stock of her life and she made the decision to face the truth, finally. She is older (and, arguably, wiser) by this point in the book and has that desire to make things right for her daughter’s sake.
I have read some of the feedback that the novel has received. One reader said that the cancer is a punishment for Emily for what she did, and I believe Emily herself at one point says this as well. Did you intend for her illness to come across as punishment?
Oh no. Not at all. I have had way too many random losses (and gains) in my own life to think there is rhyme and reason to life. I believe things just happen, regardless if you’re a good or bad person.
The novel leaves many loose ends, and although she reaches an important closure at the end of the novel, it also leaves a lot of questions regarding Emily’s fate. Did you know when you started writing the novel that this is how it would end? Is it preferable to leave things to the reader’s imagination instead of wrapping up the ending a little more neatly?
I wrote several endings and we decided to go with this one. I think the goal of the book is for Emily to come full circle. She starts in New York, then returns. She confronts her past to give her daughter a future. I err on the side of leaving things open for the reader rather than tying up everything very neatly. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how invested people are in the characters though. Everyone wants to know what happens next. I like to ask, “What do you think happens?”
Do you have plans for a future novel?
I have plans for several future novels. So much depends on how well this book does and what my publisher envisions for ‘The Next Book’. We will see.