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The Deepest Secret Reader’s Guide

By Carla Buckley

The Deepest Secret by Carla Buckley


An Interview with Carla Buckley and Kimberly McCreight

Kimberly McCreight is the New York Times bestselling author of Reconstructing Amelia. She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband and two daughters, where she is hard at work on her second novel, How I Lost Her, which will be published in 2015. Her teen trilogy, The Outliers, will be published in 2016.

Kimberly McCreight: The Deepest Secret is a compelling family drama, but it’s also packed with suspense. Which aspect of the story were you drawn to most?

Carla Buckley: Is it fair to say both?

I’m endlessly fascinated by how families behave under stress, how facing a crisis can bring some families together while others crumble. Being a mother myself, I want to know the answer to the nurture-nature question of how we become the people we are and, once we’re shaped, whether we can change.

Parents are regularly called upon to make tough decisions, often with little warning and no assurance that they’ve made the right choice. What if we were confronted with a terrible dilemma and had only a moment to think—how would we know what to do and what if we made a mistake? Would we be able to forgive ourselves? I hope my readers recognize themselves in my characters and ask themselves what they would do if they had to wrestle with the same issues.

KM: You write with enormous empathy. Do you think that Eve is a good mother? David a good father?

CB: Coming home from the hospital with my first child, the one thing I wished for most was a how-to manual, some magical reference tool that could tell me exactly how to take care of this infinitely vulnerable, impossibly tiny new life with which I and my husband been entrusted. I’d lost both parents several years before and had no extended family to help me figure out my new role as mom. All I had was love and a fierce determination to do the best job I could.

My husband and I ended up having three children so I’ve had my share of emergency room visits and sleepless nights filled with worry and heartache. I’ve watched my children stumble but I’ve also watched them get up. I’ve made plenty of mistakes of my own, and the one lesson I’ve learned—and keep trying to learn—is compassion. To look around and understand that everyone makes mistakes. Everyone stumbles. Everyone’s just trying to do the best job they can. There is no magical parenting manual.

So do I think Eve and David are good parents? I’m not sure I believe there is such a thing. Who gets to decide what constitutes good parenting? I’m more comfortable thinking of them as real parents. They’re just trying to raise their children to be the best they can be, despite hardship and sacrifice, despite a world that offers them very few solutions.

KM: This is your third novel. How is The Deepest Secret similar to or different from The Things That Keep Us Here and Invisible? How has your writing process changed—if at all—over time?

CB: I would say that all my novels have the drumbeat of a thriller with the heartbeat of a family drama. I came to write this way almost by accident.

I’d written eight unpublished traditional mysteries when I decided to change course and tackle a question that had been haunting me for some time: how would I protect my family if the worst came to pass and the H5N1 flu strain in China turned pandemic? That story became The Things That Keep Us Here, a novel set entirely in one family’s living room as a pandemic rages around them. In my second novel, Invisible, I asked myself how much hardship a family could sustain before it broke apart. I set that story in a fictitious northern Minnesota town reeling from a deadly environmental contamination.

In some ways, The Deepest Secret is like both of my previous works. In it, I also follow a family already in crisis forced to their breaking point by a devastating event. I explore the same themes of community and moral obligation; I ask, who are we when no one’s looking—or when we think no one’s looking? But in other ways, The Deepest Secret ventures into new territory for me. There’s no global threat, no impending doom hovering overhead. I focused more sharply on a much smaller scale—eight suburban houses ranged along a cul-de-sac—and to my surprise, found my story expanding into something much bigger.

At heart, The Deepest Secret is about one boy growing up and the impact that one small life can have on so many others. It’s a story about love in all its guises and in the end, love prevails—which is the happiest ending of all.

KM: I imagine the novel has sparked some intense discussion. Have you been surprised by readers’ reactions? Does your own opinion about who is culpable dovetail with reader reactions?

CB: One of my biggest challenges in writing this story was making Eve sympathetic. I wondered whether some readers might not be able to get past the hit-and-run scene, but I hoped they would persevere, if for no other reason than to find out what happened next. What has surprised me, however, is how many readers have sided with Eve, understanding how isolated she felt. They’ve pointed to David’s abandoning his family and Charlotte’s letting her young daughter leave the house in the middle of a thunderstorm. What about Robbie, chasing a terrified young girl through the woods? Owen, for not answering Amy’s plea for help? It’s impossible to say, There. That’s the moment where everything started. I believe that everyone in a community shares responsibility for what happens within it and I’m gratified to know that readers have agreed.

KM: XP is a relatively rare medical condition—what got you interested in this disease? Do you have any personal connection to the subject matter?

CB: When I began thinking about ideas for my third book, my son was fifteen and learning to drive, his first real step to growing up and leaving home. It occurred to me that this normal, turbulent, and always challenging period of a boy’s adolescence would be complicated immeasurably if he had a medical condition. But which one? I turned to my sister, a writer and a physician, for ideas and she suggested xeroderma pigmentosum. It sounded familiar and when she explained that it was essentially an allergy to sunlight, all the bells in my head started loudly chiming.

How on earth do you protect a child from something as ubiquitous as sunlight? I began to imagine a mother whose sole focus was doing just that. Her son could never attend school or play a sport; he would be virtually imprisoned within his own house. I had recently read Emma Donoghue’s Room and I saw the mother in my own story building her son a special world to compensate for the real one he could never investigate; I saw her fight passionately to help him lead as normal a life as possible. I wanted to spend time with a mother like that. I wanted to understand her.

KM: Your descriptions of the Lattimore family’s day-to-day life are so vivid. What kind of research did you do medical or otherwise to so effectively capture their experience?

CB: XP is an extraordinarily rare disease passed on by both parents in which a person’s skin and eye cells cannot repair the deadly damage done by ultraviolet radiation. Most parents don’t realize they’re carriers until their child is diagnosed, usually by the time their child is two years old. But by then, the damage has already been done. The average life expectancy for someone born with XP is twenty years. Though doctors understand what causes XP, they can’t prevent it and there is no cure.

In order to understand the disease itself, I scoured online resources (there are two parent-run organizations, one in the U.S. and the other in the U.K. that offer general information to caregivers), read numerous medical research papers, and interviewed dermatologists and dentists. Combined, this gave me a basic foundation upon which to build. Then I began to put myself in Eve’s place to imagine what I would do if I had to keep my child safe from sunlight.

KM: Secrets play a significant role in this novel. Is there one character whose secret you see as being the most significant—in other words, the deepest secret?

CB: In many ways, the titular secret is Eve’s. Her decision to keep silent about the hit-and-run is what sets everything in motion, but as I wrote, my story evolved into something more than a mother’s dilemma. It became about the terrible cost of keeping a secret. After all, we all keep secrets, even from those we love the most—sometimes, especially from those we love the most. We can have desperately good reasons for keeping something to ourselves. But secrets can nibble corrosively at a family’s well-being. They can leach into the homes of our friends and our neighbors. They can rip apart a community.

: Did you know from the outset where the characters in The Deepest Secret would end up? Did the conclusion surprise you?

: I’m a plotter. Before I start any story, I structure it into four acts and figure out the turning points at each critical juncture, which for me occurs every fifty pages. Doing so keeps me focused as I write and helps me create a taut suspense through line. Therefore, I always know exactly where my story starts and ends.

Or at least I thought I did.

The ending for The Deepest Secret eluded me for the longest time. As I wrote, I realized that the ending I had initially decided on didn’t answer the important questions about the characters I had begun to know. The first draft I submitted to my editor included the caveat that I was still working on the ending. I hoped her feedback would help me find it. Six drafts later, we did indeed uncover an ending that made me happy and one I hoped left the reader at a satisfying place.

: Can you tell us a little bit about your next project? Because I can’t wait to read it!

: Thanks, Kim! My next novel, The Good Goodbye, is the story of two young cousins after they arrive at a burn unit following a devastating college fire, and that of their families and the mystery which ultimately brought them to that moment.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. How do you think Melissa’s and Tyler’s involvement in the crime (Melissa as a suspect and Tyler planting evidence) impacted Eve’s actions? Would she have confessed if her children had not been involved?

2. Eve’s efforts to guard her son from light are sometimes considered excessive—by her son, her husband, and her neighbors. Notably, Eve’s determination to prevent Sophie from installing outdoor lights on her house leads to a neighborhood fight. What do you think of Eve’s protective instincts? Does she take things too far, or is she behaving as any concerned parent would?

3. At one point, Holly asks Tyler “Do you think it’s better to have dreams and lose them, or not have dreams at all?” How would you respond? What do you make of Holly and her relationship with Tyler?

4. David wants to move the family to Washington, but Eve -considers this impossible given Tyler’s condition. Is David’s desire to move selfish, or is he looking out for the family’s best interests?

5. What sacrifices does Eve make for the sake of her family? Are they necessary? Is it worth it?

6. Describe the relationship between Tyler and Eve. In the end, Tyler’s desire to protect his sister led him to make questionable choices. How are his choices similar to Eve’s? How are they different?

7. Discuss the nature of secrets. Is it human nature to keep secrets? Do our secrets define us? Is it human nature to want to know the secrets of others and to confess our own? Do you believe that all secrets eventually come to light? What is The Deepest Secret?

8. Tyler learns some surprising truths about his neighbors during his nighttime wanderings. How do people change in the moments during which they believe themselves to be alone? During unobserved moments, are people more themselves? How much of life is a performance, and to what extent are we defined by the external perceptions and behavioral expectations of others?

9. How much did you sympathize with Eve? Would you feel differently about her actions if she had not been texting at the time of the accident? What if Tyler had not been burned while playing basketball with David? Would you have felt differently about Eve’s behavior if Melissa had been the one to hit Amy?

10. How would you describe Eve’s relationship with Melissa? Melissa’s needs in her family are often viewed as secondary to Tyler’s, given his illness. How do you think this attitude impacted her psychologically? How did it affect her relationships with Tyler, Eve, and David?

11. It seems clear by the end that a number of people played some role in Amy’s death, including Charlotte, Robbie, and Eve. Who, if anyone, do you hold responsible?

12. What do you consider appropriate punishment for the driver in a hit-and-run accident? Can there ever be extenuating circumstances, such as Tyler’s condition, that justify fleeing the scene of a deadly accident? If so, what are those circumstances?

13. Toward the end of the novel, Charlotte says, “If it were my Amy—I’d have done just what Eve did.” What do you think of this statement? If you had been in Eve’s position, how would you have acted on the night of the accident? In the weeks following?

14. What did you think of the conclusion of the novel? Did it end as you expected it to? Were you satisfied?

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