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Mother Is Just a Heartbeat Away

By K.L. Romo

“If the pandemic had taught her nothing else, she knew that life—a life, or even normal existence—could disappear with little warning.”

Bestselling author Zoje (ZOH-yuh) Stage never intended for her newest thriller, MOTHERED, to be a pandemic story. But as the quarantines and social isolation continued, living with the pandemic seeped into the story, and provided a catalyst for examining a strained mother/daughter relationship.

Before the pandemic hit, Grace had a fulfilling life—she was a hairdresser. But then “the lies” started, along with the virus. They extended the quarantines repeatedly, with her boss Barbara finally deciding to close the salon.

Now, without a job or income, Grace fears she might lose the house she just bought. When her mother, Jackie, calls repeatedly, Grace finally answers the phone. Her mother’s most recent husband died, and Jackie proposes she move in with Grace. They could share the mortgage and keep each other company during isolation.

On one hand, Jackie’s income would help pay the mortgage. But on the other, Grace fears she might go insane if she lives with her mom.

Stage with a stack of MOTHERED author’s copies.

As Grace and Jackie try to survive each other, Jackie discovers Grace’s shameful secret—she catfishes people online. No, not for romantic reasons. She’s created her online personas to help young women who need advice, and Grace loves being able to come to their “emotional rescue.” But as far as Jackie’s concerned, Grace is just a liar.

Then thoughts and dreams about Grace’s deceased twin sister, Hope, keep infiltrating her brain. She’d taken care of her highly intelligent but very disabled sister her entire childhood until Hope died when they were teens. Jackie soon accuses Grace of something so horrible, it couldn’t be true.

As the two women try to navigate their existence together, Grace suspects she might just be losing her mind, her brain unraveling as her insomnia continues.

Here, The Big Thrill catches up with Stage to talk about her inspiration, why she included a cat in the story, how trauma from childhood can haunt a person, and why mother/daughter relationship stories are her specialty.

What was the inspiration for the story and characters in MOTHERED?

The sad (ironic?) truth? In early 2020 (pre-pandemic), I was floating novel ideas to my agent when I made a comment in jest about an idea I had while standing in my mother’s apartment—that if the two of us ever lived together, one of us wouldn’t survive. My agent thought I could turn that into a great novel—which both horrified and intrigued me.

It was obvious to me that if I were going to explore that sort of mother-daughter dynamic, it would have to be with a mother and daughter who were completely fictitious and bore no resemblance to people in my life. Maybe this is the ironic part: the other idea I’d suggested was a pandemic story!

Stage in February 2023.

I’ve read that publishers might not be open to COVID stories, but yours really isn’t about COVID, per se, but more about the emotional turmoil and loss of optimism during the pandemic. Why did you choose this subject to write about?

It wasn’t intentional. I started writing the novel in late April 2020, and my thought was that a pandemic would be a background element, something that had happened in the novel in the recent past. Remember when we kept thinking that in another few weeks or months it would all be over? But the pandemic lingered and crept into my story, and once it rooted itself, I realized it was the perfect reason for Grace and Jackie to keep living together past the point of no return.

Including a cat in the story is cute, but it seems like you were giving a shout-out to your own cat, who kept you sane during the pandemic?

Ha, I hadn’t even considered that! Honestly, I decided to give Miguel a cat so I could reveal other layers of Grace’s character. And Coco-the-cat has a personality (and appearance) that differs greatly from my two cats (so Tilly-Leguin and Hamish can never accuse me of basing a character on them.)

What inspired you to write about the relationship between mother and daughter thrown together after years apart, and the secret between them?

Mother/daughter stories are totally my jam. I hate to say this, but the complicated relationship I had with my mother has probably provided me with nearly endless creative fodder, as it is the relationship dynamic that I contemplate more than any other. I also know from experience that a daughter’s desire to connect with her mother never goes away, even when the dysfunctional foundation is irreparable.

Zoje Stage
Photo credit: Gabrianna Dacko

Why did you include catfishing in the story?

For two simple reasons: I wanted to give Grace a hobby and a bad habit, and catfishing for her is both—and since it makes her seem duplicitous, it makes readers question how trustworthy she is (even as she claims noble reasons for catfishing.)

The other reason is I like to watch certain kinds of reality TV (and documentaries) to examine human behavior and psychology, and catfishers are very interesting to me. Despite the damage they cause, most of them are insecure and lonely rather than vindictively cruel.

Stage signs books at the Getaway launch event at Riverstone Books.
Photo credit: Jen Green

What about the trauma a child suffers when caring for a disabled sibling, and why did you want to write about it (especially with people treating the sibling as an angel when she really wasn’t?)

The thing I wanted to explore with that element of the story is the misconception that a disabled child can’t be ambitious and mischievous. Grace has to put up with all of her sister’s crap, just like all siblings do—though in Grace’s case, she also shoulders a sense of responsibility on both a physical and an emotional level.

Long before she became a catfisher, it was her disabled sister Hope who was the more duplicitous member of the family, and that became its own burden for Grace. Exploring the dual presence of good/evil qualities in a person is at the heart of what I do as a writer, so most of my characters—including Grace and Hope—display aspects of that.

How are screenwriting and novel-writing the same, and how are they different?

Now that I have experience writing novels, I think I write much better screenplays than back in the day. Back then, I looked at my scripts as blueprints for films I hoped to direct; I know now they were too spare. With novels, it was obvious that I had to give readers the complete picture—I have to be the cinematographer, the production designer, the writer, director, editor, all the actors, etc. And yes, when I started writing novels, I thought of the elements this way, because considering it in film terms made the process a little less intimidating.

What advice can you give other writers?

There are so many potential levels to this. At the macro level, I’m a big believer in writing the novel you want to read—first, please yourself as a reader. On a more micro level, one effective way to add suspense and urgency to any story is to include unanswered questions—a large one that drives the main story arc, and small ones within the chapters.

Will you give us a hint about your next novel?

I would love to, but…I’m way too superstitious. Not a single person has read my work-in-progress yet, so I’m not sure if it will ever be published. I always love the books I write, but finding a home for them in the real world is rarely a straightforward matter.

Stage signs a copy of 2018’s Baby Teeth.
Photo credit: Jen Green

To combat boredom during isolation, did you learn to tap dance with the virtual Happy Tappers Club?

The Happy Tappers Club came into existence because of the pandemic. Prior to that, teacher and choreographer Carrie Mitchell had been posting beginner tap dance videos on YouTube, and a lot of us started following her, looking for new “pandemic” hobbies. Once Carrie tried out Zoom for her studio classes, she realized there were more of us out there who’d love to take virtual classes with her, so she created the Happy Tappers Club. I had never tap-danced before the pandemic, and now I’m addicted and still take two classes a week.

Tell us something about yourself your fans might not already know.

I’m obsessed with my animal neighbors. I live in the city, but my house abuts a small ravine, which is home for deer, birds, squirrels, groundhogs, rabbits, shrews, raccoons, chipmunks—all of whom I keep an eye on and casually feed. (I started with a birdfeeder, and then discovered “everyone” loved the black oil sunflower seeds.)

I’m especially attached to a deer pair, Button and his momma, as Button suffered several injuries during his first months of life; it makes me so happy when they visit (and I got extra critter feed to help the deer through the winter.)

K. L. Romo
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