Liz & Lisa's Book Club: Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer

Five_Days_LeftIf you are looking for a novel that will grip you from the first sentence and leave you wanting more after you've finished, Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer should be the next book you read. And we are giving away a copy of this fantastic debut novel! Just leave a comment and you'll be entered to win! The contest will close on Thursday, August 21st at 8am PST.

The scoop: Mara Nichols is a successful lawyer, devoted wife, and adoptive mother who has received a life-shattering diagnosis. Scott Coffman, a middle school teacher, has been fostering an eight-year-old boy while the boy’s mother serves a jail sentence. Scott and Mara both have five days left until they must say good-bye to the ones they love the most.

Through their stories, Julie Lawson Timmer explores the individual limits of human endurance and the power of relationships, and shows that sometimes loving someone means holding on, and sometimes it means letting go.

Liz & Lisa's Book Club: Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer

First, thanks for having me! Congratulations to both of you on the success of Your Perfect Life!

Photo credit: Myra Klarman

1. How did you think of the idea for FIVE DAYS LEFT?

I lost a friend to cancer a few years ago. In the last nine months, she knew she was going to die, and I could not fathom how it was that she could be so brave in facing her last moments with her family. I was knocked flat, really, by what she was going through, and what it must be like for her to know she wouldn’t be there to see her kids grow up. I decided to write about someone dealing with a fatal, incurable disease in order to both explore the feelings my friend might have had and to honor her bravery, and her life. I chose Huntington’s because I didn’t want (or believe I had any right) to write my friend’s story. Five Days Left is not biographical in any sense.

I wanted to give Mara a break from her difficult situation, and adding the online group allowed me to do that. I am actually a member of an anonymous online group and it’s always intrigued me, how we feel so close to each other and share very intimate things, but have never met. When I was casting around in my imagination for an online friend who Mara could become close to, Scott materialized, as did his job as a middle school teacher and coach. I decided to make Scott a limited guardian (similar to a foster parent, though with distinct differences not important here) because I am a stepparent, and the roles are similar--stepparents and temporary guardians care for, make sacrifices for, and deeply love, children whose future isn’t in our control. I wanted to explore the challenges and benefits of that kind of relationship, since I live with those challenges and benefits every day.


2. Was there one particular storyline that was easier/harder to write and why?

This is a good and straightforward question, for which I have a not-so-good or straightforward answer. On one hand, it was definitely harder for me to write Scott’s chapters because those are obviously from a guy’s point of view, and I am a woman. I had to run bits of Scott’s dialogue or inner thought past my husband a few times, to make sure it passed “the guy test”--often it didn’t, and thank goodness for my husband setting me straight! On the other hand, I found Mara’s chapters very challenging because I don’t have Huntington’s and am not an expert on it, but I was obsessive in my intent to portray it accurately. So, while I was writing her chapters, I was constantly worried about whether I was getting the disease right, double checking my research, calling my experts back to run over something another time, etc. In the end, I loved having two story lines because if I was stuck on one, I could simply flip over to the other. And when Mara’s got emotional, I could switch to Scott’s for a bit of a reprieve--something I hope readers will enjoy.


3. This is your debut novel (congrats as you've received high praise!). Can you tell us a little about your journey to publication? 

Thank you very much! My journey to publication was one of premature querying, many mistakes and, finally, a tremendous amount of luck. I wrote a terrible first draft and pitched it (prematurely) at a writer’s conference in the summer of 2011. Those pitches went nowhere but I met some great friends at the conference, and I figured out that the book needed huge revisions.

After the conference, I rewrote the book and queried it. I was extremely lucky to receive a revise and resubmit request (R&R) early on, from an agent who took the time to speak with me about the changes she thought FDL required. She ended up giving me two chances to revise and resubmit, which means she read the book three times--to this day, I remain blown away by her generosity. She ultimately passed, but thanks to her, I had a much more polished manuscript.

However, instead of querying more, I decided in August 2012 to shelve FDL. It had been a year, I had spent hours revising it and had sent almost 100 queries, none of which led to an offer. I was ready to call it a “practice novel” and move on. So, when I received an R&R from Victoria Sanders later that month, I considered not even responding. Thankfully, my husband urged me to sleep on it and reconsider. I did both, and ended up doing another 6-month gut-and-rewrite.

I sent my revision to Victoria at the end of January 2013. She called five days later to offer representation. Twenty-one days after that, she sold it at auction, to Amy Einhorn, who at the time had an imprint at Putnam. After the long slog of revision and rejection, the speed at which I ended up with an agent and a book deal made my head spin.

In fact, my husband and I were on a (rare) kids-free vacation when the interest started coming in from different editors, and the combination of the tropical location, the freedom from kid-related obligations and the all-inclusive nature of the resort (i.e., bubbly flowing 24/7) already made the week feel dreamlike. When we added daily calls with editors to the mix, it became completely surreal, and we spent the week shaking our heads at each other in disbelief. When we finally returned to the cold, snowy, four-teenager reality of our life in Michigan, we kept asking each other, “Did all of that really just happen?”


4. Have you thought about how you would spend your last five days? Or what have you learned from writing this book? 

Oooh, great question! I have definitely thought about this, thanks to my friend and to the hours I spent getting to know Mara. I have absolutely learned some things about myself through writing Mara’s story. What I have learned is that I don’t have a long Bucket List of things I want to do and places I want to see. I appreciate the existence of the Great Wall, for example, but if I never see it, that will be fine with me. What matters to me are the five people I live with--my wonderful husband and our four amazing children. If I had five days left, I would spend them with those five people, telling them how terrific I think they are, and how much of a privilege it has been to spend these years with them, and hugging them every second I could.

5. Are you working on another book? If so, can you share any details?

My second book deals with estranged families, step parenting and the terrible practice of “rehoming,” where people who no longer want their adopted children advertise them on the Internet. As you can imagine, the wrong kind of person can respond to the ad and the children can end up in awful situations. The book is very different from Five Days Left, but as I expect every book I write will do, it raises a lot of “What would you do?” questions, and it explores different forms of “family” and how families get through (or don’t get through) various challenges.


Thanks again for having me!

Thank YOU, Julie!