Based on a true story, Pamela Gwyn Kripke’s debut novel, At the Seams (Open Books, 2023), explores the mystery behind and impact of a family member’s death. The narrator, a precocious eight-year-old, is haunted by the death of a newborn who would have been her uncle, and she tries to make sense of her family’s repression of the events. This is a story about how far we’ll go to protect our loved ones.
Kripke has written for The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and New York Magazine, among other publications. Her works of fiction and creative nonfiction have been published or are forthcoming in Folio, The Concrete Desert Review, The Barcelona Review, The MacGuffin, Round Table Literary Journal, and more.
Sheryl Zedeck Katz interviewed Kripke about the book, her family’s experience, the impact of loss on three generations of women, and how the cycle was finally broken. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sheryl Zedeck Katz: I read At the Seams with a different mindset than I would have for fiction. I allowed it a level of authenticity that changed my reading experience. What made you choose the label, “based on a true story,” as opposed to “memoir”? How much of the book is fiction?
Pamela Gwyn Kripke: The story started out as a memoir. I was the young narrator whose mother casually mentioned she had a brother who mysteriously died at four-days old, and no one ever talked about him. That’s all I knew. I let it go until I went through a horrible divorce. The first time my daughters left me to stay with my ex-husband, something struck me about loss. Not that it’s the same in any way, but that’s when I remembered the death of my mother’s baby brother. That was over fifteen years ago. When I started researching, I found out a lot of things my mother didn’t know. For example, I found a death certificate and the baby’s name, which my mother never knew. I couldn’t get enough of the truth about why the baby died to keep the book as a memoir. When I started writing, no one was alive to talk to about what happened. So when I wrote about my grandparents’ feelings and what they did or didn’t do, I embellished them. The mother in the book, I made a bit of a villain. That also is fictionalized.
SZK: What made this the right time to write the story?
PGK: After I first researched my uncle’s death, I published an essay, A Family Mystery, Unraveled for the Huffington Post based on finding the death certificate. But a bigger story always stayed in the back of my head. I had time during the pandemic, so I did it.
SZK: Did your mom have any issue with you writing the story?
PGK: We didn’t see my mom for two years during the pandemic, and after that, her health rapidly declined. She knows I wrote a novel but can’t understand what it’s about. I don’t know if she would be happy about it. When I first found the death certificate, I told her to go to the cemetery, but she wasn’t interested. No one ever talked about him. He was not a part of her life. It was that simple to her.
SZK: I expected the book to be about a secret, but it also explores how it affects the mother, grandmother, and daughter. Was that the same experience in your family?
PGK: Yes and no. I realized that there must have been an effect on my grandmother and wondered if the loss made her the way she was because she was a little fragile later in life. She devolved emotionally and unraveled when they moved away from us to Florida. We all thought Grandma was a little batty, but it was more likely the result of her dealing with her grief alone. In the 1940s, they didn’t see therapists like they do today. My grandfather kept it quiet and gave her a perfect life to distract her, but she was a human being who lost a baby. Maybe she cried privately. We don’t know. When someone doesn’t deal with loss, it gets passed down in a certain way. My mother was this purposefully sheltered, doted-upon only child. I imagined a person raised that way could become self-absorbed. In the book, I created the grandmother, who didn’t deal with her loss, to raise a daughter affected by the loss and how that impacted the granddaughter.
SZK: The first line of the book hooked me immediately. “As a child, my mother fell asleep listening to the adults at the end of the hall.” I pictured her in bed listening and sorting through the boring and juicy talk as she drifted to sleep, and I wanted to know what she heard. What advice do you have for writers on how to start their stories?
PGK: Jump into the action. I coach writers, and I often have them cut off the first five sentences and start on the sixth of what they’ve written. You want to begin with the thing that’s going on. In my case, the way the story came to me is the way I started. I’ve always connected the story to the picture of my mother in my head. She’s a young girl, lying in bed and hearing this story. I also thought it was a powerful image because it connected to me hearing the story at a young age, just like my mother.
SZK: I also noticed your writing style has a lot of short sentences. I felt like it punctuated the story’s emotions. Was that the character’s voice or your style? Do you think that style comes from your journalism background?
PGK: I think that’s my style. The rhythm of writing is important; I will often follow a long sentence up with a short sentence so it feels right to me. Some of the shorter sentences relate to a connected thought. Imagine your brain just attaching to another related thought—it would make sense that it’s not fully expounded upon. If someone else wrote the book, it may have been closer to 300 pages. Journalism trained me to be economical with words. You have to say what you want to say, with all the layers and meaning, in a certain number of words. Don’t say it in twenty if you can say it in fifteen words.
SZK: Would you say there isn’t much of a difference in your writing style when writing as a freelance journalist or a novelist?
PGK: It’s funny, but no. When I was in journalism school, I had gotten back an assignment with a big “F–see me,” written on it. The “F” was for the factual error I had made. The professor said I had a distinctive voice and people would be interested in reading my work. Whether I was writing about cement or the presidential election, she encouraged me to always write with precision. If I made an error, I would lose my readers’ trust. In a thirty-year career, I’ve never gotten a fact wrong. What she said about me having a distinctive voice has sat with me. My first essay was published in the Chicago Tribune when I was 28, so I got the confidence early. Regardless of what I’m writing, I never doubt what I put on the page.
SZK: You did a great job of showing the complexity of marriage and parenting and, more specifically, dealing with the question of how much of ourselves we share with our children. The young narrator struggles with two secrets, one she’s told and one she overhears. If a child is so distressed over something, no matter what mistakes someone’s made, does the parent have an obligation to reveal a secret to ease that child’s pain?
PGK: It depends on the age of the children. With my divorce, my children were very young, and it was a constant decision in my head: what to say, what not to say, when to say what I want to say, and how I should say it. If it will help the child understand and make their life easier and not hurt them, then I would only give them enough to understand or satisfy their curiosity. It can be ever-changing based on what they need to cope. In the book, the mother shares her husband’s secret (no spoilers) with her grown daughter so she can make up for not realizing the extent of her daughter’s struggles with what she’s learned.
SZK: Towards the end of the book, the mother tells the daughter, “We didn’t dwell on much back then, not like mothers today.” Do you see major differences in how we raise children today?
PGK: Of course. For example, divorce wasn’t as prevalent. Times were different. When the narrator grows up, she and her mother have very different views about marriage because they have unique experiences.
SZK: Somehow, the family is close, and the narrator has a strong connection to everyone in her family. It surprised me that despite the secrets, family is important to all of them. Why did you choose for their secrets not to destroy them?
PGK: I wanted to show the impact of a bad thing happening to a tight-knit family that was doing everything right. They would never fall apart, but be impacted in certain ways. The narrator has close relationships with her family members, but she learns things that make her see them all differently. And then, she grows up to understand that a relationship with a person isn’t just one thing.