Lesfic debut author Kay Acker discusses grief, healing, and axolotls in her new novel Leaving’s Not The Only Way to Go.
I started writing Leaving’s Not the Only Way to Go about a month after my dad died, but the idea had been kicking around for a few months, and by then the two dead dads in the story were already dead.
The story was always about two women whose lives intersect both at work and at a bereavement group. Lauren’s domineering father and Georgia’s best friend, the father of her daughter, were essential to their separate visions of the future, futures that can no longer come to pass, and their relationship is part of a process of healing for themselves and their families. I’ve talked a lot, since my very first pitch, about how these two women, once so certain about what they wanted, have to rebuild their visions of what happiness can be. I’ve also tried very hard to make sure my lesfic novel doesn’t sound like a downer, because there is healing and happiness after grief, and even in the midst of it.
One detail I’ve frequently neglected to discuss is the critter that graces the cover of the book. It’s an axolotl, an aquatic salamander that’s nearly extinct in its native habitat of Mexico but bred in large numbers for scientific study. They’re invaluable test subjects because they have so many stem cells, and therefore a remarkable ability to heal. An injured axolotl can regrown limbs, organs, even parts of their brain—the central location, as we humans understand it, of who one is. Axolotls are an odd symbol to choose for a contemporary romance, and I didn’t choose them intentionally, but they’re apt. Their ability to heal, and our ability to study them, gives us hope that, through science, we can one day find new ways to heal each other.
For example, many scientists who work with axoltols believe stems cells could lead to a cure for diabetes. My dad, as a type 1 diabetic, was very invested in this research. In a book with two dead fathers in it, a book my father will never see, I accidentally chose to include an animal that had been important to him.
Fiction and life aren’t always different things. Sometimes feelings can’t be felt head-on, in the same way they can’t be felt all at once. It takes time to grieve, and sometimes, it takes stories.
Sometimes I feel guilty because I cry more over fiction than I did for my dad. I cried more the fourth time I watched “The Body,” that devastating episode from season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, than I cried for my dad. I cried more writing my lesfic novel than I did for him. But fiction and life aren’t always different things. Sometimes feelings can’t be felt head-on, in the same way they can’t be felt all at once. It takes time to grieve, and sometimes, it takes stories.
One of the many things that crossed my mind while I sorted the piles of books, paperwork, and detritus in my dad’s apartment was, “Are people going to think Lauren’s dad is my dad?”
He’s not. Lauren’s dad, much as she loved him, is (was) thoughtless and cruel, too busy criticizing himself and others to recognize how happy he could have been. My dad read books to me, played with me, loved children, and found fun in everything. He was also sometimes thoughtless, and often so wrapped up in his own lost vision of the future that he let happiness slip through his fingers. They are different people, but the feeling of loss and grief that both Lauren and I have to live with is real.
Many of the details in Leaving’s Not the Only Way to Go, though fictional, are based on real life and the way I feel about it. The bereavement group is also based on a real place I attended as a child. I chose to set my lesfic novel in Vermont because I know the place well. I chose axolotls because they were a random animal I already knew a lot about. That’s the thing about fiction: We make it up, of course, but we start from what we know.
We’re all grieving right now, in shared and separate ways, and none of us know what the future will look like, though we know there will be one. Maybe we don’t need to know more than that. Maybe all we need for now is lesfic stories like Leaving’s Not the Only Way to Go about people who reach out to each other in the midst of a painful present and make their way, together, into an unexpected but beautiful future.