Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
“Backstory: Emily Listfield on her novel, Waiting to Surface.”

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Though Waiting to Surface is a novel, it is based very closely on a my real event in my life – my husband’s disappearance. Though writing it was cathartic for me, as a mother, I was concerned the entire time I was working, about what the effect on my daughter would be. Writers are often faced with the dilemma of how to balance their creative needs versus the desire not to hurt the people in their lives … but when children are involved it is even more difficult.

At the time the events described in the novel occurred, I was the features director of Self Magazine. My husband, George Dudding, was a sculptor whose work had been bought by everyone from Si Newhouse to the Metropolitan Museum. We had been married for ten years and our daughter, Sasha, was six. My husband had gone down to Florida to visit a friend. He was depressed and we were going through a rocky period.

I was sitting in my office on an August morning when the police in Florida called to tell me my husband had disappeared essentially without a trace. At the time, they thought he had probably drowned. There were indications that he was suicidal. But… they couldn’t find his body. The coast guard had scoured the shore by helicopter and found nothing.

Within a couple of days, the police changed their minds. They believed a body would have washed up and that my husband was alive someplace. The coast guard totally disagreed and said that because of the tides that night, if he had gone out just 100 yards, his body would have been washed out to sea. I hired a private detective who after weeks of work came to believe that George had died either accidentally or intentionally, but that his body would never be found.

To me the hardest part was coming to accept that I would never really know what happened that night. Every night Sasha would ask what the detectives found out that day. I do believe he died that night, and that’s eventually what I told her. She was young enough to accept it without question.

Waiting to Surface is about that first year, from the initial phone call to learning how to live with that uncertainty and find love again. I waited a number of years to begin writing, and when I did, I promised Sasha that she could read it when it was published. This October, when it came out, she was thirteen. The time had come. I was incredibly anxious as I explained to her that this was my version of what happened but she had every right to form her own narrative. She told me she was very proud of me for writing it and couldn’t wait to read it. When we got home that day, I asked her if she would like to read it now. I had worried about this day for years, imagining every outcome. But Sasha turned to me and said,

“You know, Mom, I think I’m going to read Harry Potter instead.”

I had to smile. She will read the book when she is ready. As a mother and a writer, that is the best possible outcome.

By Emily Listfield.

Amy Stockwell Mercer is a freelance writer living in Charleston, SC with her husband and three sons. An MFA graduate in Creative Writing from Queens University, she writes about art and artist profiles for Charleston Magazine, The City Paper, Charleston Art Mag, and Art Papers. Amy also writes about living with chronic illness, and is finishing a book about women with diabetes for Demos Health. When she needs to get out of her own head, she teaches college students how to write the 5 paragraph essay. You can read more of her writing at her website.

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