What if you had to say goodbye to everyone you loved in just five short days? Debut author Julie Lawson Timmer’s riveting novel FIVE DAYS LEFT takes you on a heartbreaking journey alongside a woman who must do just that. Mara Nichols has everything—a wonderful marriage, successful career, and adoring daughter until a stunning diagnosis unravels her entire world. As she counts down her final days, she considers her dwindling choices and wrestles with the decision she knows in her heart is the right one. A parallel story intertwines with Mara’s. Scott, a virtual friend of Mara’s who lives across the country, prepares to say goodbye to the child he was only supposed to have for one year but that has become like a son to him. FIVE DAYS LEFT illustrates in emotionally wrenching narrative, the lengths to which we will go to protect the ones we love.
THE BIG THRILL caught up with Julie and she agreed to answers some questions.
What was your motivation for this story?
First, thanks so much for having me!
A few years ago, a friend of mine died after a long struggle with cancer. She was in hospice for the last several months of her life and she was spectacularly brave in facing what she knew would be her last months, weeks, and days. During that time, and after she died, I was consumed with thoughts about what that must have been like for her—to know she wouldn’t be there for her kids’ graduations, their weddings, et cetera. I decided that writing about someone dealing with a fatal, incurable disease would be a way to explore the feelings my friend might have had. I also felt that exploring and writing about those feelings would be a way for me to honor her, even if the book was never read by anyone else. I chose Huntington’s because I didn’t want (or believe I had any right) to write my friend’s story. FIVE DAYS LEFT is not biographical in any sense.
I wanted to give Mara a break from her difficult situation, and adding the online group allowed me to do that. When I was casting around in my imagination for an online friend who Mara could become close to, Scott materialized, as did his job as a middle school teacher and coach. Technically, Scott and his wife are limited guardians of Curtis, not foster parents. Foster parenting involves months of background checks and classes and applications, et cetera, while being a limited guardian is a relatively immediate process, at least in Michigan. Given the urgency in Curtis’s situation, the foster system wasn’t appropriate. However, the concept of fostering and being a limited guardian are similar in that ultimately, you are caring for, making sacrifices for, and often loving deeply, a child who isn’t your own, and whose future is not in your control. In this regard, foster parents and limited guardians are in a similar position as stepparents, a role I hold. As a stepparent, I also care for, make sacrifices for, and deeply love, children whose future isn’t in my control, and I wanted to explore that.
Mara’s story brings up moral choices of euthanasia and the right to die. Do you have strong feelings on either side of this issue?
I am a big believer in reserving judgment, and refraining from “I would never do this” or “You should always do that” statements when they relate to a situation I’ve never been in myself. For me, a take-away from FIVE DAYS LEFT is that, despite how certain we might be about how we’d act in a given hypothetical situation, we cannot ever know what we would actually do until we’re truly in that position.
Do you feel Mara’s choice was selfish or selfless and why?
This is a spoiler question! But again, I don’t feel it’s my place to judge Mara’s choice, since I have never been faced with that choice myself. I think Mara’s decision was true to her character though.
How much research did you have to do to so expertly write about Huntington’s disease?
A lot! It’s funny, because when I first came up with the idea for the book, I actually wasn’t intending to do much research myself. As a lawyer, I’ve spent decades doing research and I liked the idea of creative writing in part because it would provide a break from that kind of tedious work. So initially, I decided I’d spend a little time online learning a bit about Huntington’s (which I knew nothing about), and then rely on “artistic license” to fill in the details of the disease in whatever way best helped my plot. But the thing is, “a little time online” is all it takes someone to learn how devastating Huntington’s is, and once I learned that, I realized there was no way I could write about it unless I did it as accurately as possible—I couldn’t do that to the Huntington’s community.
Suddenly, I was embroiled in research, and of course, because it wasn’t law-related research, and because the book was inspired by a friend, it wasn’t tedious at all. I did months of research on my own, reading everything I could find. I then wrote a draft of Mara’s story, using what I’d learned to determine how her part of the plot should go. With a draft in hand, I talked to some Huntington’s experts to confirm that I had accurately represented the disease in Mara’s story. In some cases, I had not, and I ended up making many major changes to Mara’s sections in order to correct the inaccuracies. I’m certain (and not happy) that despite my efforts, I know I didn’t get the disease completely accurate. Any mistakes are my fault, of course, not that of the experts.
Scott’s wife is portrayed as self-involved and rigid but her change by the end of the book proves this to be untrue. Is Scott’s perspective of her skewed or did she truly change?
This is another spoiler question! In my mind, she truly changed. She was gazing around one of the rooms in their house, imagining what their future was going to be like, now that she was a mere day away from getting her way (which meant Scott was not going to get his way). And she realized that the future she’d dreamed of included a happy, content, regret-free husband, and that if she got her way, Scott would be miserable and filled with regret. I think many of us find ourselves moved to give up our own vision or dream in order to safeguard the emotions of people we deeply love. That’s what Laurie did.
Did you feel more connected to Mara or Scott, and why?
I happen to be a Type A lawyer and mother who went to Mara’s law school in Dallas, so of course I felt connected to Mara. But I’m a stepmom, too, and that means that, like Scott, I care for, and care about, children who’s future is not in my control. For that reason, I connected with him, too. For me, this made writing both sections equally enjoyable.
The theme of family and the many types of families is strong in your novel. How would you define family?
I define family as a group of people who loves each other. I care far more about the shared feelings of love, loyalty, and support than I do about legal documents like birth certificates and marriage licenses.
Do you draw upon your experience as a lawyer in your writing?
I did, although I didn’t realize I was doing this until I was several weeks into my first draft. Legal training teaches you how to write, even when you don’t feel like it. Lawyers—and particularly those who practice litigation or appellate work—have to write, on a regular basis, briefs that are twenty or fifty pages in length. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration, or insisting on a certain kind of music (or absolute quiet), or giving in to writer’s block and shelving the project. Inspired or not, we have to write the blasted brief, and file it with the court by a certain deadline, or we’ll commit malpractice. So, there’s no staring at a blinking cursor, waiting for just the right words to come. If we can’t figure out how to start the thing, we write the middle first, or the conclusion. When I sit down at my laptop at four a.m., I start typing immediately, and I don’t stop until six a.m. I didn’t realize it until I began writing FIVE DAYS LEFT, but this might be one of the greatest unexpected benefits of my legal career.
When did you discover that you wanted to write?
I had always harbored a secret desire to write a novel. I made a few false starts, but never sustained the effort. And then in 2011, I turned forty-five, and for some reason, that number was a big deal to me—I saw it as a bit of a crossroads. A few months before my birthday, I was talking to my husband about so-called bucket lists, and I realized there was only one item on my list: write a novel and try to get it published. I knew that if I got to the end of my life without having tried, I would be consumed with regret. Trying and failing would be okay with me; not trying wouldn’t be okay with me.
I decided that putting it off—until retirement, or when the kids were all out of the house—would only lead to never doing it, so I promised myself I’d have a draft of a novel on my forty-fifth birthday. When my birthday arrived, my husband and kids and I went out for dinner, but first, we stopped first at a copy center to print my very first (and very terrible) draft. We all watched in awe as the manuscript came off the printer, and then we took turns holding it (a finished manuscript weighs a fair amount!).
How long did it take you to write FIVE DAYS LEFT?
It took me three months to produce a first (terrible) draft, and two years of revisions (including a few complete gut-and-rewrites) to land a literary agent.
What were your biggest challenges while writing this book?
Exhaustion! It’s tough to get up at four in the morning, day after day. There were so many mornings when I growled at the alarm. But I always knew that by the time the first cup of coffee kicked in, I’d be happy I’d hauled myself out of bed and downstairs to my laptop.
Tell us about your journey to publication? Did you experience many rejections?
My journey to publication was one of premature querying, many mistakes and, finally, a tremendous amount of luck. I wrote a terrible first draft and pitched it (prematurely) at a writer’s conference in the summer of 2011. Those pitches went nowhere but I met some great friends at the conference, and I figured out that the book needed huge revisions.
After the conference, I rewrote the book and queried it. I was extremely lucky to receive a revise and resubmit request (R&R) early on, from an agent who took the time to speak with me about the changes she thought the book required. She ended up giving me two chances to revise and resubmit, which means she read the book three times—to this day, I remain blown away by her generosity. She ultimately passed, but thanks to her, I had a much more polished manuscript.
However, instead of querying more, I decided in August 2012 to shelve the project. It had been a year, I had spent hours revising it and had sent almost a hundred queries, none of which led to an offer. I was ready to call it a “practice novel” and move on. So, when I received an R&R from Victoria Sanders later that month, I considered not even responding. Thankfully, my husband urged me to sleep on it and reconsider. I did both, and ended up doing another six-month gut-and-rewrite.
I sent my revision to Victoria at the end of January 2013. She called five days later to offer representation. Twenty-one days after that, she sold it at auction, to Amy Einhorn, who at the time had an imprint at Putnam. After the long slog of revision and rejection, the speed at which I ended up with an agent and a book deal made my head spin.
In fact, my husband and I were on a (rare) kids-free vacation when the interest started coming in from different editors, and the combination of the tropical location, the freedom from kid-related obligations and the all-inclusive nature of the resort (i.e., bubbly flowing 24/7) already made the week feel dreamlike. When we added daily calls with editors to the mix, it became completely surreal, and we spent the week shaking our heads at each other in disbelief. When we finally returned to the cold, snowy, four-teenager reality of our life in Michigan, we kept asking each other, “Did all of that really just happen?”
What is your favorite thing about writing?
I love that writing allows me to create characters and situations that I care deeply about. I also love that it lets me explore difficult situations and relationships, and lets me walk a mile (or three hundred pages) in the shoes of someone very different from me.
Do you have a specific writing routine?
For the first draft of FIVE DAYS LEFT, I stuck to a definite routine. I wrote from four to six a.m. every weekday, before leaving for work, and from four to ten a.m. every weekend day, while the rest of the family slept in. I stuck with this rigid routine until I reached the end for the first time.
Then, when I had one draft under my belt and had to undertake the many, many revisions it took to land an agent, I loosened up completely. At that point, I knew I could write a book from start to finish, and didn’t need such rigidity. So, I constantly changed things up, depending on the day and the situation. I’ve written on a laptop (using either Word or Scrivener) or with pen and paper, using either whatever pen is handy and one of many one-dollar composition notebooks I keep on hand, or using a lovely handmade pen and an expensive “writer’s notebook.”
I’ve written at a very tidy, organized desk in our study, in the wee and quiet hours of morning; in the middle of a messy living room in the evening, while kids talk about homework, the TV plays in the background and the dogs bark; in the car outside a barn in the dead of winter, wrapped in blankets and wearing fingerless mittens while my daughter rides horses; in the rain along a riverbank while waiting for my son’s rowing regatta to begin; on the deck at our summer home in Michigan, loons calling from the lake, a lovely breeze lifting the tree leaves around me and a cold drink nearby and my husband reading beside me, answering my many questions about word choice and character motivation and plotting. (The last is my favorite, but it’s also the one that happens least often.)
What do you do in your spare time?
Ha! I’m a full-time lawyer with four teenagers, two of whom are applying to college this year and one of whom does a million activities and needs to be driven to all of them. “Spare time” isn’t something I have much of! But I do write as often as I can, I read (far less than I would like to), I do CrossFit and I spend time with my husband, kids, and friends, and our two dogs.
If you had to recommend three books to someone, what would they be?
A Fine Balance – by Rohinton Mistry. I was completely captivated by this book.
A Son of the Circus – by John Irving. Another captivating one, as all of Irving’s books are.
Duane’s Depressed – by Larry McMurtry. I love his contemporary works.
Tell us something about you that we won’t find on the jacket cover.
I love CrossFit, though I’m not particularly good at it. I always feel so much better after I’ve been to the gym. Also, I’m a dreadful cook. I have zero creativity when it comes to cooking—it’s become somewhat of a joke in our family. But recently, I subscribed to an online meal-planning service that tells me what groceries to buy, and what meals to serve. It’s turned cooking from a chore to a real pleasure for me, and for the first time ever, the kids are raving about the meals I serve. I wish I’d done this years ago!
What writers have inspired you?
Margaret Atwood and John Irving have been huge inspirations for me.
What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
I would advise focusing on the part you can control—the book—and staying away from the parts you can’t control, like trends, statistics about how difficult it is to get published, dismal predictions about the industry. It’s so easy to get mired in all the information, and to squander hours on the Internet, chasing after the final word on what’s hot in your genre, which agent is looking for what thing, et cetera. Write the best book you can.
Are you working on another book?
Yes, I am, but I would rather not reveal more than that until I’ve reached “The End.”
Where can readers connect with you?
Julie Lawson Timmer grew up in Stratford, Ontario. She now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with her husband Dan, their four teenage children, and two badly behaved labs. She is a lawyer by day, a writer, mom/stepmom, fledgling CrossFitter, and dreadful cook by night. FIVE DAYS LEFT is her first novel.