The August pick for Real Simple’s No Obligation Book Club, The Book of James, was full of secrets and suspense. In his final moments after a fatal car accident, Nick utters words of warning to his wife, Mackenzie, and urges her to find someone named James. Stunned, she travels to Philadelphia where she learns of Nick’s untouched inheritance and meets his strange mother, Cora. Mackenzie moves in with her hoping for answers, but in the process discovers the sad and twisted history behind her husband’s childhood. Author Ellen Green fills us in on the making of her debut novel.
What sparked you to write The Book of James? Can you pinpoint one moment?
It started as a kernel of an idea out of the blue—what if a woman’s husband dies and he has this whole past she knows nothing about? Initially I thought the mother-in-law might show up at the funeral. That might have been interesting, but the idea was ditched after the first draft. I work in mental health so my thoughts immediately went to “crazy mother-in-law.” It developed from there.
Cora’s house was pretty spooky. Where did you draw the inspiration?
In the first draft Cora’s house was just a regular house. Then in the second draft my imagination went wild. I based the house off of Greylock mansion, which is located in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. Then I took liberties. I traveled through Chestnut Hill for work and saw the mansion, wondering what the inside looked like and how history had played out within the walls. The house got bigger and scarier with each rewrite. So much so that I had to stop writing when it got dark out or if there was no one else at home.
What was the most difficult scene to write?
One was seeing the death of James through Cora’s eyes. My hope was that I had created enough sympathy for Cora throughout the book so that the reader would understand her choices. The actual writing of the scene was difficult. I kept thinking, is there a better way to do this? Does it have to be this way? James had a horrific life and that upset me. I think I had to rewrite it about 10 times. I was never happy and maybe I’m still not. But I had to move on so I could finish the book.
What was Nick referring to specifically when he asked Mackenzie to “find James”?
In a literal sense he meant the grave, but I think he wanted Mackenzie to confront his mother and bring what happened to light. Finding James would mean finding the grave, yes, but it would also mean completely exposing Cora for everything she had done to James and to Nick both.
Explain the alternating Cora and Mackenzie chapters.
The book was first written as just Mackenzie’s story. The only thing the reader got of Cora was through Mackenzie’s eyes. I was working with an editor who suggested adding Cora’s story and weaving it in. The story really opened up for me when I did that. Afterward the story wasn’t so much about Mackenzie, she was just an instrument for bringing the entire story to light. It became about both women who had suffered incredible loss.
Did Cora have anything to do with Nick’s death?
I wanted her to. I wanted her to have staged the accident intending to kill Mackenzie, but killing Nick instead. I thought it was terrific irony. It was intriguing but maybe stretched credibility a bit. I couldn’t really imagine Cora arranging this entire thing from a distance and making it work.
How do you picture Mackenzie’s life after the final book scene?
Ah, funny you should ask. I’d written an epilogue where Mackenzie goes back to the house eight years after the story has ended and she has inherited it. We find out that she is married to Dylan and has a son—yes she named him James. Mackenzie makes some discoveries in the house that leads her on a DNA hunt to discover Nick’s parentage. I loved that epilogue but it didn’t work out. I will always imagine Mackenzie returning to Maine, sorting out her life, making peace with her father, and finding happiness with Dylan.