Like a film director who wants to see how an old classic will hold up to modern life, Ivy author Erika Raskin has kept an eye on the people in her novel, Best Intentions, for nearly three decades.
She began the novel when she lived in Richmond, in the days when her husband was in medical school. She didn’t suddenly snatch her characters from the early days of Madonna and plunge them into the post-truth era, but instead trotted them out from time to time to refine some of the details, in the wake of each fresh rejection by a publisher.
Sure enough, they still ring true. Best Intentions was published in August by St. Martin’s Press and introduced to Crozet at a MudHouse reading sponsored by Over the Moon Book Store. In the span between the book’s beginning and its publication, Raskin moved to Ivy, raised her children, wrote dozens of articles and essays, and published her first novel, the award-winning Close.
Raskin claims there was a mischievous invisible hand guiding her beginnings as a novelist. The lack of an available parking space at VCU on the very day she was to start her master’s degree in social work forced her to change her mind and become a writer.
But really, she admitted, it was always in the cards. Her mother, Barbara Raskin, wrote the very popular and funny Hot Flashes, published in 1988, and it quickly became a best seller.
The other family business was social action, and she grew up in D.C., surrounded by leaders in the civil rights and anti-war movements. Her brother, Jamie, is a U.S. representative from Maryland’s 8th District. Raskin herself has been outspoken in her articles about disparities, negligence and greed in healthcare.
It’s a subject she knows something about, not only from her own undergraduate education and her husband’s work (he’s an anesthesiologist). She also draws on her own painful personal experience and that of close family members who were given the wrong drugs, recommended for dubious procedures, not informed about their options, and exposed to lapses in medical hygiene. This informs her novel, the story of a heroine who takes a job in a hospital, hoping to use her social work degree and to provide practical counsel to young mothers.
It’s a bit of a juggling act, she said, if you want to remain true (but not too true) to the idea of writing about what you know. She advises young writers to make sure their fiction remains fictional. In a Publisher’s Weekly article, she suggests capturing the essence of the truth from your experiences but to avoid legal fees and potential poisoning at family dinners by not writing about characters or situations too close to the real ones.
As to advance plotting: “Are you kidding?” she asks. I don’t even know what’s in my purse. I start with a general idea and let the characters decide the plot.”
In Best Intentions, the heroine is Marti Trailor, a likable and loving mother who ends up in a tragic situation, full of mystery, murder, deception and drama. Raskin believes her best talent is in understanding on a deep level the back story of her characters: what they might choose to wear, or to have for dinner, whether they chew their fingernails, are shy at parties or outspoken when confronted with unfairness.
“Fundamentally, the complexities of our characters are what determines what happens in real life,” she said. “It’s the same in fiction.”
She knew from the start that Marti adored her children, would have a sense of humor, was “dancing on the edge of her marriage,” was able to see systemic problems and would want to fix the things that she saw as fixable.
Raskin will use her ability to create complex characters with full histories in her next book, a collection of linked short stories centered on a Charlottesville hotel.
She doesn’t regret her distance from a major urban area. She’ll soon move from her Ivy home to a smaller home in North Garden. “I won’t leave the area, though,” she said. “It feeds my soul.”