About Rhiannon Navin
Rhiannon Navin grew up in Bremen, Germany, in a family of book-crazy women. Her career in advertising brought her to New York City, where she worked for several large agencies before becoming a full-time mother and writer. She now lives outside of New York City with her husband, three children, two cats, and one dog. Only Child is her first novel.
Knopf Q&A: A conversation with Rhiannon Navin
Q: Was there any specific event in your life or idea that gave rise to ONLY CHILD?
A: Shortly after my twins Frankie and Garrett started kindergarten two years ago, they experienced their first lockdown drill at school. That same afternoon, I found Garrett hiding from the “bad guy” underneath our dining room table. That crushed me. I am a mom of three young children and the shooting at Sandy Hook left me reeling. That morning, when twenty-year-old Adam Lanza marched into Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed twenty children and six adults, I had dropped my oldest son Samuel off at school like I did every day. Samuel was in first grade then — the same age as many of the young victims — and until that horrifying day I believed his school was a safe place for him. Since then, every single time I walk up to my children’s school, a quick “what if?” crosses my mind: What if a shooter tries to get in through the front door? Why is the back gate open; what if an intruder got in through there? As parents, we already have a long list of worries and fears for our children that keep us up at night. We shouldn’t have to add “my child could be gunned down at school” to that list. I am heartbroken that our children are growing up in a world where they have to learn how to hide from “bad guys.”
Q: Did you always know you would tell this story in Zach’s voice?
A: Yes, from the very beginning. When I found Garrett hiding under the table from the “bad guy,” I began to wonder: What would it be like for him to have to live through an actual shooting? And how would he navigate what came afterwards? I wanted ONLY CHILD to offer an authentic, but unencumbered look at the devastating effect a horrific crime like a school shooting can have on those who are forced to live through it, and those who are left behind: the siblings, parents, family and friends. I chose the point of view of a young child deliberately because I believed it would offer a chance to tell the story in a way that wouldn’t be skewed or biased in any way. I didn’t want my own views regarding gun control to bleed into the story; I wanted readers to come away with their own conclusions. Zach’s a thinker, an observer; his wheels are always turning. He takes in so much of what goes on around him.
Even when you’re certain he couldn’t possibly have overheard a conversation, guess what? He heard every word. And he processes situations, emotions and information in such an innocent, yet often incredibly wise way. So, I put myself in his shoes and began to imagine the story.
Q: What were the particular challenges (and joys) of writing such a young narrator?
A: While writing ONLY CHILD, I used my own kids as my focus group for how Zach might act or speak. In a way, the process of discovering Zach’s character and writing his story brought me closer to them because I paid more attention and watched them intently for clues: What are they thinking right now? How are they processing, expressing themselves? I call my kids by the wrong name all the time—even the cats’ names sometimes—and because I hung out with Zach so much while they were at school, I even called them Zach once or twice. They were very confused.
I have to say that I enjoyed spending so much time with Zach. Even though his situation is so heart- breaking, it was amazing to watch him use the resources of a six-year-old boy to put himself, and eventually the adults in his life, on a path to recovery and healing. But writing from Zach’s point of view was challenging, too. I had to make sure he sounded authentic and believable, but at the same time his voice had to be compelling enough for adult readers to want to spend the entire three-hundred pages with him without growing tired of hearing his voice. Another challenge was to get enough of the plot points and background information across to keep the story moving along without feeling forced or jammed in. Through Zach, the reader had to find out important information about the shooting and overhear enough interactions between the adults to understand what was going on beyond Zach’s little horizon.
Q: I imagine parts of this book were difficult to write, especially the opening pages. True?
A: Very true. Many scenes were incredibly hard to put down on paper. Because I always had my own family in mind, the emotions I felt were so real and so forceful that they often knocked the wind right out of me. I was petrified for Zach in that opening scene he had to spend hiding in the closet. I was crushed for him as the story progresses and he is largely left alone to navigate the traumatic experience he went through and the terrible loss he had to endure. And I was profoundly sad, for Zach and his parents, too. Melissa was such a difficult character to write, because of course I had to put myself in her shoes, imagine myself in her place. What if one of my children were taken from me in such a horrendous way? I felt her devastation and her inner struggle like it was my own. I often emerged from a writing session feeling completely gutted and disoriented. I had to pull myself together and splash some cold water on my face before my kids came home on the school bus. Writing that last scene left me a complete mess. I cried through the entire time it took me to write it.
Q: Tell us a little about the colors Zach uses to describe his feelings and how they inform the novel.
A: I’m a very visual, creative person and to me it’s like Zach says: “the colors come attached to the feelings.” I intuitively gravitated towards art and the use of paint and colors when I tried to imagine how Zach might try to navigate his confusing and lonely situation after the shooting. The adults in his life are initially unable to support him in the way he needs because they grapple with their own grief in different, all-consuming ways, and he therefore becomes very self-sufficient. The scene where Zach begins to paint his “feelings pages” is a central scene in my story. It is the moment Zach begins to find ways, on his own, to confront the trauma he’s experienced and deal with his conflicting and confusing emotions. Once Zach discovers that he can separate his feelings instead of having them “all mixed up,” they seem more manageable to him, easier to tackle one by one. He is able to do something the adults cannot: understand that every feeling is important and valid.
Q: You paint a very real portrait of a marriage—one under great stress even before tragedy befalls the Taylor family. Can you tell us a little about the marriage in ONLY CHILD?
A: Zach’s family is an ordinary family living an ordinary life before the unimaginable happens to them. My goal was to paint a picture of a family that I can relate to and that many readers will be able to relate to. Marriage means two flawed people coming together and trying to make a life together. That’s incredibly hard, even under the best of circumstances. Add children to the mix and it can sometimes feel like a Herculean task to find the time and energy to work on your marriage. I can speak from experience. I’ve been married to my husband, Brad, for almost fifteen years, and we have three very, ahem, lively children. You have your ups and downs, your good times and inevitably some difficult ones. Jim and Melissa are no different. They struggle in their marriage. Jim is a man with high expectations for himself and his family. He feels the stress of a man trying to provide a good life for his family in a competitive environment, and his desire to portray the image of the picture-perfect family to the outside world causes a lot of friction. Melissa struggles with her role as a stay-at-home mother and is overwhelmed by some of the particular challenges of her family. When they face an unimaginable loss, their relationship is pushed beyond any reasonable limit. They are forced to dig deep within themselves to rediscover their foundation as a couple in order to save their family.
Q: Zach is helped by a community larger than his immediate family--his teacher, who gives him a special locket, his aunt, and even (unexpectedly) Charlie, the gunman’s father. How does the world outside his home help him heal?
A: Zach’s parents are caught up in their own grief and unable to give him what he needs in the time immediately after the shooting. But there are other adults in his life who reach out to him and support him in different ways. Zach has a special bond with his teacher, Miss Russell, because they both survived a terrifying, traumatic situation together. Miss Russell gives Zach a symbolic gift that comforts him and helps him as he contemplates the concept of an existence after death. His Aunt Mary is part of his immediate family and witnesses firsthand how the situation in Zach’s home deteriorates rapidly. She is a steady, reassuring presence in his life and steps up in some of his darkest and loneliest moments to provide him with the warmth and support he needs. The empathy Zack feels for Charlie is the catalyst for much of the healing that takes place in my story. It helps Zach himself because he is able to forgive Charlie and eventually lead by example and teach his parents that the key to healing is not hate and vengeance, but love and compassion.
Q: You tell the story of more than one family here, including that of the gunman’s parents. I think this is a form of loss people don’t often focus on in the wake of such tragedies. How did you approach these characters?
A: Whenever I hear about a tragic event like a mass shooting, my first thoughts are always with the victims and their families. They were going about their everyday lives and suddenly their whole world changes in an unexpected, awful instant. But as much as my heart breaks for them, I do also think about the shooter’s family, especially if the gunman is young, like Adam Lanza, and in my novel, Charles Jr.
So, I tried to put myself in Charlie and Mary’s shoes and I found that I felt a lot of empathy towards them. While the victims’ families have to deal with their unspeakable losses, the perpetrator’s family is dealing with guilt and shame over their child’s actions in addition to having lost a child. A community comes together and rallies around the victims’ families, while the shooter’s family is ostracized and completely alone with their grief. As a mother, the only thing I can imagine that would be worse than having my child killed in a school shooting would be my child committing one. During his first encounter with Charlie after the shooting, Zach is able to feel and express compassion for him: “I thought about how Daddy was wrong when he said Charlie didn’t get hurt, because he did. His son died, too, so his feelings were hurting about that, like ours because Andy died, except it was worse for Charlie because his son killed his angels and that was worse than just dead.”
Q: This is your first novel. How long have you been writing?
A: ONLY CHILD was my first real foray into the world of writing. I have dabbled with writing here and there since I was in high school. In Germany, you pick two “majors” in high school and mine were German and English literature. An avid reader my whole life, authors are like rock stars to me. I always admired them from afar, but never seriously considered trying my hand at writing myself. I guess it took something that really rattled me to the core to open up the floodgates. It was like this story was already there, waiting for me. I don’t know how else to explain it. I sat down one day and wrote down the opening scene of Zach hiding in his classroom closet in one sitting. The scene just flowed out of me. I scribbled furiously, in one of my kids’ school notebooks, barely coming up for air. And just liked that I was hooked. Writing for me really came along at the perfect time. I struggled with being a full-time stay-at-home mom. I had made a conscious decision to put my career in advertising on hold to be home with my kids, and I consider myself extremely fortunate that our family is able to afford the luxury of a stay-at-home parent. But my brain was craving more, and every time someone asked, “So, what do you do all day?” I died a little bit on the inside. Now I can’t imagine anything I’d rather be doing while my kids are at school.
Q: ONLY CHILD definitely celebrates the power of books. The Magic Tree House books are Zach’s favorites. Why did you decide to include those books as part of the novel? And what were some of the books that you most loved as a child?
A: The Magic Tree House books are some of my kids’ favorite books. We’ve read through the entire series twice in my house, first when my older son, Samuel, was starting to read, and then a second time when the twins were old enough. Mary Pope Osborne created a series that truly is magical, and my kids loved discovering new worlds or different time periods with Jack and Annie. Her books sparked many great conversations in our house and my kids have learned so much from them. When I first started writing ONLY CHILD, I wasn’t planning on including the Magic Tree House books. That is something that happened organically. As Zach began to retreat to his hideout and to find ways to cope with his feelings, books occurred to me as a natural outlet for him because books can be such a great escape sometimes. You dive into another world and get to sample someone else’s life, and you (hopefully) emerge having learned something that you didn’t know or haven’t considered before. In addition to escaping his emotional and confusing life for a little while, Zach discovered valuable lessons in the Magic Tree House books that he wanted to try to apply to his own situation. I did not know the Magic Tree House books as a child. Growing up in Germany, I mostly read books by German authors such as Janosch, Paul Maar, and Judith Kerr. I devoured anything written by Astrid Lindgren. The Pippi Longstocking books are still some of my favorites.
Q: Your bio say that you “grew up in a family of book-crazy women.” Tell us about that.
A: My parents divorced when I was four years old and I grew up primarily with my mom and my younger sister. My mom was a teacher and she really is the most book-crazy person I’ve ever met. I also have two older half-sisters who are avid readers and my stepmom and stepsister, who came into my life a few years after my parents divorced, read constantly, too. So I was surrounded by many women and many, many books! Every wall in our apartment was lined with bookshelves and every birthday and Christmas meant a new stack of books as presents. Before I could read on my own, my mom read to us for hours at bedtime, and then I went on to devour books on my own at a rapid pace. I remember camping vacations on various islands in the North Sea where we would bring one suitcase for clothes and one for books. I am eternally grateful to my mom for instilling the love for reading in me. She is in her mid-seventies now and when she’s not busy singlehandedly teaching every refugee in Germany how to read and write in German, she regularly makes the trip to the U.S. to visit her grandchildren and hand-deliver all the new German children’s books to them, and to visit all her favorite bookstores in New York City.