"How It Ends" by Laura Wiess

"How It Ends" by Laura Wiess







How It Ends (MTV Books/Simon & Schuster; $14)  is the latest novel from Laura Wiess, author of Such a Pretty Girl and Leftovers. Although it is marketed as a YA [young adult] novel, How It Ends is a dark-edged, compelling portrait of love’s power over evil, and adult readers are likely to relate to it on a wholly different level than younger readers will.

Mothers and their high school-age daughters may particularly be drawn to share reading the story of teenage Hanna and her relationship with Helen, an elderly neighbor who has become Hanna’s adopted grandmother. By story’s end, long-held secrets are revealed and illusions are shattered as Hanna moves into adulthood.

Laura Wiess

Here is Laura Wiess, answering questions about How It Ends.

Q&A for Laura Wiess, on How It Ends:

The first half of this book felt like a YA novel for teens, but in the second half, the parts with Louise’s memoir felt like a serious novel for adult readers. Were you ever tempted to change the concept of your book, so that the “novel-within-a-novel,” the audiobook How It Ends, would become your central story, aimed at an older readership?

Hi, Joyce! I’m so glad to be here.

I flirted briefly with the idea back in the beginning, while writing the audiobook and worrying if teen-age Hanna would ever be able to understand how different life had been back then, but then I realized that was exactly the point. Helen was worried that Hanna would not understand, so of course I was worried, too. These were secrets Helen had kept her whole life, and they could never be a casual reveal but if she wanted Hanna to know the truth and not be left with haunting, unanswered questions then exposing her past was a risk she had to take. And since the heart of the story is about the strength of the loving relationship between Hanna and Helen, an unofficial granddaughter and an unofficial grandmother, we needed to know both of them to really understand the Why? behind Helen’s initial decision to lie to Hanna, and then her later decision to confess.

So they had to be woven together, both voices, young and old, because they’re irreversibly intertwined, because they showed up together in my mind and gave each other so much. I needed to explore how grandmothers and granddaughters interact, coming together from different generations, armed with different opinions, experiences and focuses, sometimes clashing, sometimes impatient but also meeting on common ground, and despite their differences, giving each other love, comfort and care.   

Helen’s part of the story starts out seeming like a subplot to Hanna’s teenage self-absorption and romantic angst. But by the end of the book, Helen’s tale takes on great urgency and power. Did its emotional evolution surprise even you, as you were writing it?

In a way, yes, although I pretty much knew right from the start where we were headed and the intense emotions we would be mining to get there. I knew living inside of Helen was going to be rough – it had to be, to be true to her – and it definitely was.

The story’s momentum nearing the end was nerve-wracking, a relentless, no-mercy kind of internal storm there was no getting away from until I’d felt every scene and written every word. That surprised me, how fierce and raw peeling away all the options and facing the inevitable had left me.      

How important was it for you to show the arc of a relationship between characters of completely different generations?

It’s an integral part of the story’s foundation, along with the idea that no one is ever only what you think they are, and that we never really know the private heart of anyone unless it’s deliberately revealed.

There’s an organic rhythm to their relationship, a natural ebb and flow that shifts in accordance with Hanna’s blossoming and Helen’s withering. Hanna is pulling away from her family, making independent (and inexperienced) decisions and searching for her place in an unknown but thrilling new world. Her voice in the beginning of the book is young, excited, and self-absorbed, concerned more with navigating the bewildering maze of love, lust, school, and partying than boring old home life, and so of course it stands in stark contrast to Helen’s more settled, serious one. As Hanna grows and learns, though, her thoughts, actions and her voice matures.

Helen understands the necessity of Hanna’s pulling away (even while she mourns the loss), and is wise enough not to hold Hanna too tightly, or make her feel guilty for leaving her behind. Hanna then chooses to return to Helen because she wants to, not because she’s being forced into it.  She chooses to stay with Helen during a very difficult, heartbreaking time, and making that choice teaches her more about love, life, loss and the depth of her own strength and love for Helen than she ever could have imagined.

Parents often try to protect their children from pain and loss, to shield them from the realities of illness and death. Do you believe it is important for children to grow up understanding that tragedy is an unavoidable part of life?

Children are going to experience pain and loss whether they’re protected or not,  so how tragedy is handled within the family may be just as important, if not more so, than the tragedy itself. To what degree is it explained or exposed? What is the nature of the tragedy, how many questions are answered, and to what level of detailed truthfulness? What is the truth, and how is it handled?

Hanna’s parents understand that life is not always pretty and perfect, and while it’s painful to watch their daughter struggling, they remain in the background offering discussion, love and support while allowing Hanna, through her visits with Helen, to discover this hard truth for herself.

So while I’m a fan of kids not having to tote around giant, overflowing plates of pain and tragedy before they have to, I also believe there needs to be a balance so that a decent range of coping skills can be developed. Overprotecting kids can be just as stunting as shoving them into the middle of a harsh, bitter, bare bones world with no protective filters or support, and expecting them to just be able to deal with it.  

Does Hanna, in listening to the audiobook, deliberately avoid realizing the truth of Louise and Peter’s story?

There’s no doubt that Hanna has the ability to only see what she wants to see at any given moment – Seth being the prime example – but on the flip side she’s also sitting with a grown-up, a woman she’s loved and trusted since she was five, someone who has never let her down, who has always been there with the answers, a calm, trustworthy, reliable old lady she believes she knows, someone who has already shared her (false but believable) happy past and who has never really given Hanna any reason to doubt her.

So why would she think there was another truth? The idea that Helen might have lied, much less written a book confessing isn’t even on her radar. The thought alone is incomprehensible.

Well, consciously, at least.

By the time the audio book ends however, she’s absorbed so many lifestyle similarities and thinly-disguised truths that when she wakes up that next morning with a dark sense of foreboding and a persistent, throbbing headache, she’s teetering on the verge of a staggering realization, and that one last shock brings everything into focus.    

Families often keep secrets that are glossed over or deliberately hidden from children. Yet children are expected to keep no secrets from their parents. Over the course of the book, Hanna keeps many secrets from her parents, who are consistently kind, understanding and supportive of her. Is Hanna correct in believing that even such good parents as hers would not understand all of her actions, and therefore she is justified in keeping them secret? Do you believe secret-keeping is not just normal but necessary for maturing teens? Can some secret-keeping be a healthy part of growing up?       

Well, some of us learn (usually the hard way) that sharing everything we do with our authority figures will get us in trouble, so we develop craftiness and learn to edit the info we share as a form of self-protection.

No matter how understanding Hanna’s parents are, their job is to dole out measured doses of freedom while still trying to keep Hanna relatively safe, and from doing herself irreparable damage.  So if Hanna’s goal is to hang out at a keg party in the woods and drink, and she knows that if she tells the truth her parents won’t let her go, or will follow her around beforehand nattering about safe sex and date rape drugs and drunk driving, then why in the world would she ever tell them the truth?

No, better to reach her goal via kid-logic (a thought process I both love and am simultaneously unnerved by), which is armed with the blithe, convenient insistence that ‘Nothing bad will happen,’ and believes that keeping secrets, omitting specific information, contorting facts and flying under the radar is necessary in the quest to get what or where she wants to be.  

I think developing discretion in what you reveal is normal and healthy, and in a perfect world no secrets kept would become the deadly kind. Unfortunately that’s not always what happens, so maybe some secrets should be shared before they turn toxic, and do more harm kept than they could ever do revealed.    

There’s a balance here somewhere, and I think it’s different for everyone. Helen shared her secrets only twice in her life but because she confided in people who loved her, was not scorned or ridiculed for them. She took that big chance because she had to. The lies and the poison of their legacy had become more than she could bear, so the risk of telling the truth was worth whatever happened in the end.  

 Thank you, Joyce. It’s been a real pleasure being here, and I’m so glad you enjoyed How It Ends.

P.S.  I had a huge fan moment when I read your Sarah Bird interview. I absolutely love her work. She’s one of my all time favorite authors. Great stuff!