Former North Carolina resident and author Kristyn Kusek Lewis writes about small-town life and a secret scandal in her newest novel, “Half of What You Hear.”
Lewis describes herself as a contemporary fiction author creating character-driven stories.
“All three of my novels have dealt with women asking themselves questions of identity,” she said in a recent phone interview. “For instance, my second book is set in Durham. It’s about a doctor who has done everything according to plan, when her marriage falls apart. She’s asking herself if the life she built for herself is what she wants.”
In “Half of What You Hear,” the town becomes another character. Greyhill is the fictional town based on the area near Charlottesville, Va. There are rolling hills and mountains and dark secrets.
“It’s one of those ‘America’s best small towns to live in,’” Lewis says.
The character of Bess Warner, who was fired her from position as social secretary at the White House, moves with her family to her husband’s hometown. She’s hoping to escape the scandal that ended her career back in D.C. She struggles to regain her footing as she navigates small town gossip and children in their teens.
Lewis, 44, moved to Chapel Hill in her late 20s. She fell in love with North Carolina after sharing a New York apartment with several UNC-Chapel Hill grads. Soon after her arrival to the Triangle, she met her husband, a scientist who worked in Research Triangle Park. The couple lived in Durham and Chapel Hill from 2002 to 2015.
She is also the author of the novels “Save Me,” and “How Lucky You Are.” Her work has appeared in The New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, Reader’s Digest, Glamour, Self, Redbook and Cosmopolitan.
Lewis now lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her family. She took a few minutes to answer questions about gossip, fresh starts and secrets.
Q: Who is Susannah “Cricket” Lane?
A: She is a special sort of outsider, having just returned to town after a decades-long hiatus in New York. She’s the only living descendant of the town’s funder. She left under a cloud of suspicion. She has a real reputation for having seen and done things. She’s a different type of older women. They often get portrayed as the “docile type.”
Q: Can you come home again?
A: People make up their minds about you before you get a chance to show them who you are. If people remember you one way from way back then, it can be hard to change their minds. We change over the course of our lives.
Q: What did you learn about small town gossip from living in the Triangle?
A: We lived in Durham and Chapel Hill for about 13 years and loved every minute of it. I can’t say that I directly experienced “small town gossip” during my time there, but I have certainly been a guest at lunch or dinner in a restaurant when somebody started to tell a story and paused to look around first to make sure there wasn’t anyone within earshot that shouldn’t be overheard! It always amazed me, living there, how while it wasn’t exactly a sense of everyone knowing everyone, there was often a small degree of separation between the various people I knew.
Q: Your character, Bess Warner is looking for a fresh start after her career imploded. Any lessons for those in Washington?
A: What Bess learns after what happens to her with her job is that words matter, no matter how harmless they seem. Lots of people, in Washington and otherwise, could stand to learn that lesson. Working for the White House, optics and how you are seen is so important. I don’t want to spoil what she did to lose her job. You can make a tiny flub and ruin your reputation. How things look is important.
Q: How do you rise above the fray of small town gossip?
A: We’ve all, of course, said things we regret, but I was raised by a Southern woman who always made sure I understood that anything I said had the potential to be repeated, and to keep that in mind during conversation, and now that I’m raising daughters in the era of social media, I tell them the same, and to just always assume that anything they say or write about somebody should be something they would be comfortable seeing on a billboard somewhere.
Q: How does holding on to secrets shape people’s lives?
A: Depending on the secret and what’s involved, secrets can be incredibly damaging. And as is the case with my character Susannah, it can really affect one’s entire sense of themselves and self-worth. That said, I always think it’s important to ask yourself whether it’s worth revealing a secret, and to ask yourself the why behind the reveal, and whether it’s ultimately helpful or your secret to share.
Kristyn Kusek Lewis will talk about “Half of What You Hear,” (Harper Paperbacks, Dec. 31, 2018) at 7 p.m. Jan. 30, at Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill.