Colleen Oakley on Small Towns, Journalism, and the Peculiarities of Grief

USA Today bestselling novelist Colleen Oakley may be obsessed with death, and yet themes of hope and transcendence permeate the four novels she has published in the short span of six years —Before I Go, Close Enough to Touch, You Were There Too, and the newly released The Invisible Husband of Frick Island. Her work has been translated into 21 languages and has garnered accolades that would be the envy of any novelist, including being long-listed for the Southern Book Prize and appearing on the recommended reading lists of Library Journal, People, Us Weekly, O Magazine, Real Simple, Publisher’s Lunch, and Bookbub. Now living in Atlanta, Oakley is a former magazine editor (for Marie Claire and Women’s Health & Fitness) whose articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Parade, Ladies’ Home Journal, Redbook, and elsewhere. She draws on her journalism experience for the intellectual curiosity and thoughtful attention to research which keep even the most peculiar aspects of her fiction — dream telepathy, telekinesis, skin-to-skin allergies, and bereavement-fueled hallucinations — grounded in a wholeheartedly believable world.

I first met Oakley in 2019 as a fellow Pulpwood Queens Book Club featured author, being welcomed into the annual gathering of the largest read-and-discuss book club in the United States. More recently I had the welcome opportunity to chat with Colleen about her fascinating fourth novel The Invisible Husband of Frick Island, its real-life influences, the lessons of her impressive writing life to date, Pat Conroy, and also Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  

In your Author’s Note, you share a bit about your family’s history visiting Smith Island, Maryland, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. At what point did this isolated real place so capture your imagination that it inspired the setting of this new novel?

Definitely from the moment I stepped onto the island more than two decades ago, I was captivated. I have always been an overly curious person when it comes to other people’s lives (which is really just a nice way of saying I’m nosy), but I wanted to know more about the people on this remote island. Why did they live here? How did they live here? Even getting groceries seemed a huge task. What would my life be like if I lived there?

Fast forward to a few years ago: I stumbled across a newspaper article from Australia, where a woman was in such denial that her husband had died, that she left him in the bed in her house when he died — and continued living her life not acknowledging his death, until a neighbor noticed an… odor. Now, I know that’s morbid and awful, but to my novelist brain, it was fascinating. Grief is all over the map, and there is no guidebook for how to deal with it, so it made sense to me that someone might be so broken by her husband’s death that it would be easier to just pretend it didn’t happen. And that’s when the idea for The Invisible Husband of Frick Island was born — a widow who believes her husband is still alive, right beside her, and an entire town that goes along with it (minus the rotting body of course, because, ew). And I knew I needed to set it in a remote locale, where a town could kind of get away with doing that, so to speak. Immediately I knew the perfect place — my own fictional version of Smith Island. And better still, I knew I’d be able to answer some of those many questions I’d had about life on the island so long ago.

What makes small towns such robust settings for fiction? Are there other small-town novels which you adored as a reader?  

It’s all about the people. Peculiar people are everywhere, but in small towns it’s harder to hide. People know all your quirks, and the skeletons in your closet, and generally, they love you anyway (even if they talk about you behind your back, which is a given). And not only are people fiercely loving and protective of their own in a small town, but they share a collective history — group memories and knowledge that add so much color to any story. Like how everyone on Smith Island knows about the year it was so cold the entire Chesapeake Bay froze over from the mainland all the way to Smith Island, enabling a fox, that is not indigenous to the island, to run across 12 miles of frozen tundra and end up on Smith. Did that really happen? Who knows? But it’s gospel to the people who live there.

Some of my favorite small-town works that I grew up loving are the classics Our Town, Fried Green Tomatoes, To Kill a Mockingbird, Anne of Green Gables, and my all-time favorite (which I hadn’t even considered to be a small-town novel, but it absolutely is): Their Eyes Were Watching God.

In your novel, a young widow, Piper Parrish, has lost her waterman husband, Tom. And her grief seemingly manifests as her continuing to live her life as though Tom is still with her, circumstances which her fellow Frick islanders embrace as well in acts of comfort. What compelled you to want to write about this kind of deep mourning and grief? And how did you arrive at this particular scenario of shared pretense?

The themes of grief and death can be found throughout my novels, even when I don’t intend to write about them — which my best friend would tell you is because I’m obsessed with death. That may be true, but I would argue that death is what gives life its meaning. So, like most other novelists out there, I write partly to figure out what in the world we’re all doing here on this strange spinning rock, and for me, it’s about finding joy, not just in spite of all the terrible things that happen, but in the midst of them.

As for the shared pretense — I’d be remiss not to mention one of my favorite movies, and a definite inspiration for this book: Lars and the Real Girl. It’s a movie about a socially awkward man and his girlfriend, who happens to be a blow-up sex doll. People in the town at first don’t know what to make of it, but slowly come to accept her — and him. It’s just beautiful and so quietly funny. I don’t know if there’s a better example of true love and kindness than embracing someone when they’ve gone off the deep end, rather than judging them. Not to mention, it makes for great comedy.

As visiting reporter Anders Caldwell delves into Piper’s condition, he learns about post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences. How did you come to learn about PBHE, and what kind of research did you do on this aspect of your novel?

Similar to Anders in the book, I Googled it. I knew there had to be a term for seeing dead people (and not in the Sixth Sense kind of way), and I was right! I delved into the psychological condition in my research, but also people’s personal stories. It actually happens quite often, people seeing or hearing a loved one after they’ve passed—maybe not always to Piper’s degree, however.

Anders is drawn to journalism because he aspires to be like Clark Kent. (Not Superman, mind you. Clark Kent.) What’s at the heart of his motivation as storyteller — initially and as it evolves through the narrative? Who was your own inspiration to become a writer?

Like most young journalists (myself included when I was in J-school), he wants to save the world. Or at least do his part to make the world a little better, by exposing corruption, or telling stories that can help people, either by giving them information they didn’t otherwise have, or allowing them to see themselves in someone else’s experience, thereby not feeling so alone. And of course, if he can win a Pulitzer Prize, gain fame and fortune at the same time, even better! I do think Anders is driven more by the accolades that he hopes will come his way at first — and then begins to realize over time that maybe that’s not what’s important in life, after all.

So many people have inspired me in my writing life, starting with the fabulous teachers who all guided me and encouraged me to tell my stories. But I have to say my mom was the reason I became a journalist. One night in middle school, she was yelling at the television at a reporter, because she found most of them horribly rude and disrespectful, and I decided right then and there that I was going to be a journalist. Not because I enjoyed being rude or disrespectful, but because I enjoyed nothing more than rebelling against my mother.

Anders’ father, Leonard, makes a brief comparison between isolated Frick Island  and Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, the site of Pat Conroy’s storied year of teaching in 1969-70, which became the subject of his memoir The Water Is Wide. Years later, on the occasion of his 70th birthday in 2015, Pat referred his time on Daufuskie as “the magic year…I discovered the man I was meant to be.” Did you set out to give your characters Piper and Anders a bit of island magic of their own to help them discover who they’re meant to be?

Yes, I hoped to, anyway. Because much like Pat Conroy, I think there’s something transformative — or at least calming and healing — about being near the water, which is one of the many reasons I’m so drawn to his work. I always feel a little bit more myself, more at peace, when I’m near the water. And while Piper innately understands this magic, Anders absolutely does not, and it was great fun introducing him to it, and watching the island magic slowly win him over.

Anders is an outsider on Frick Island, assigned at first to report on an annual Cake Walk, but he’s led to discover a web of larger, more fascinating and interconnected stories waiting to be told, Piper’s in particular. His experiences with the quirky islanders, and what he does and doesn’t tell them about his increasingly popular podcast, What the Frick, raises one of the great, oft-debated questions of literature: Who has the right to tell whose stories?  As writer and reader, what’s your stance on this question?

Oh, this is such a big, loaded, complicated question that I certainly don’t have all the answers to. First of all, writing is an art form — and in art, I don’t think there should be set rules. You should write the story that is in your heart, that is begging to be told. That said, writing a story and publishing it to make money off of it are two different things. If you’re going to publish a story that is outside of your life experience, you owe it to your subjects and your readers to do your research and get it right. And furthermore, if you are a white, straight, able-bodied person and intend to publish a story writing about the experience of a person or persons in a minority/LGBTQ/disabled group in America, you should probably ask yourself if you are the best person to tell that story, or if you could possibly be taking up the space of a person who has lived that experience and could tell the story better and more authentically. And, of course, in the case of Anders and Frick Island, if you’re going to tell a story about real, living people, it’s probably a good idea to — at the very least — give them a heads up.

In Anders’ final podcast in the novel, he encapsulates what he has learned from Frick Island and what he hopes others might gain from his stories. Without giving away the many wonderful plot twists of your novel, what do you hope readers will most take to heart from their time on Frick?  

Simply that there is more that connects us as humans than separates us.

This is your fourth novel, and you have a fifth underway. What have you learned at this point in the still-ascending arc of your writing life about the craft (or business) of fiction that you wish you knew at the beginning of your writing journey?

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s true of writing for sure — books are a 12- to 18-month labor of love for me — but it’s also true of the industry. Only a very small percentage of published authors are huge bestsellers, and it often takes many years and multiple books to reach those heights in your career. It’s easy to get caught up in wanting the accolades to prove that you are a successful author, and I have to remind myself often why I got into the business, which is for the love of telling a story that people connect to, not to be a New York Times bestseller. Although, the latter would certainly be nice as well. 

Your last novel, You Were There Too, explored the possibilities of dream telepathy—and also had a bit of fun with references to Keanu Reeves. In The Invisible Husband of Frick Island, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has a cameo role. Beyond the intrinsic benefit of good pop culture references, what’s the fun — or hope — for you as writer in these name-dropping additions to your novels?

Obviously, the hope is they will read my books, find me uproariously charming and funny, and demand that we become immediate and lifelong friends. And then I’ll be able to say obnoxious things in public like “well, when Keanu was at my house for dinner the other night…”

The Lake House: the greatest film of our time? Or the greatest film of all time?

The fact that you even have to ask…

Although your novels unfold in many locations, you’re based in Atlanta (which is the setting for a small part of this novel, as well). How would you describe the literary scene in Atlanta right now?

Booming! I feel so lucky to be alive and live in this city at a time when so many hugely talented authors also live here: Tayari Jones, Emily Giffin, Mary Kay Andrews, Becky Albertalli, Christopher Swann, Kimberly Belle, Soniah Kamal, Nic Stone, Lynn Cullen — the list truly goes on and on. One of the things I’ve missed most during the pandemic is local book events, where I get to see these wonderful people, hear them speak about craft, and hopefully let a little of their writing genius rub off on me.

Since this interview is on behalf of the Southern Review of Books, what new books by Southern writers have you read recently, during our pandemic times, that you would like to recommend to SRB readers?

I recently inhaled Joshilyn Jackson’s Mother May I, and I truly think it’s her best novel yet. Not only is it a page-turner, but it offers sharp, insightful social commentary that will make you want to grab someone and immediately discuss when you’re done. I also loved Mary Kay Andrews’ latest, The Newcomer, and perhaps my all-time favorite of the year so far that I’ve been shouting out to everyone who will listen is Richmond, Virginia, author Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife.

Thanks so much, Colleen.

The Invisible Husband of Frick Island
By Colleen Oakley
Berkley Books
Published May 25, 2021