It took Nancy Runstedler seven years to turn blank pages into a store-ready novel. While it started out as a fun fantasy for teens, by the end of the long creative road it became an homage to her beloved mother, a fun peek at history, a verbal salve for the difficulties of loss and, most of all, an adventure for both the writer and her characters.Beautiful Goodbye was meant to be short and sweet, a steady start for the budding writer and lifelong book enthusiast. It was already something much more by the time it reached the shelves.
“Ironically, between the time I wrote this book and it came out in stores I lost my mom. And, I don’t know if I’m any wiser but I think I now have a better understanding of the feelings you go through. My mom ended up being my own beautiful goodbye. The world works in very strange ways,” said the Wellesley-born author this week while working at the St. Clements library for the day.
The novel is set in a modern village, not unlike many here in the townships, and features an adolescent named Maggie, who while grieving the loss of her father, is taken on an unexpected time-travelling adventure through a magical Ouija board. Maggie, her brother and best friend are swept up in the fervour of the First World War where they must help the young Hope Evalyn Lewis through the chaos of wartime.
“It started with the Ouija board aspect. When I was a teenager I had an experience with one and it’s never left me – I’ve never forgotten it … freaked me out. I thought this was a really unique opportunity to write something different because the market is so flooded with werewolves and vampires. I thought, ‘I want to write something different and it has to mean something to me,’” Runstedler said.
When her mother Margaret Evalyn Runstedler died at age 69 shortly after the book found a publisher, Runstedler renamed the main character Maggie (formerly Claire). There are many other personal touches. For one, Hope’s middle name Evalyn, which is also shared by Runstedler, her mother and her daughter, and the novel’s librarian, Ms. Menkle, is modelled after a Wellesley Village librarian who fostered Runstedler’s love of books as a child.
Today, Runstedler continues to see her mother as the main influence for her work.
“To me growing up, authors were kind of like rock stars. It never dawned on me that it was something that I could do. But the more years I spent around books and then started working in libraries and reading thousands of books, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I can do this!’ I still didn’t tell a lot of people, but I told my mom from the start and she was always very, very supportive. She was my biggest supporter,” she said.
Runstedler’s fictional teenage characters are put aside for now, as the author focuses on her second book, a venture spurred by her mother’s example and lifework in the Wellesley community. Inspired by Catherine Ryan Hyde’s adult novel Pay It Forward, Runstedler wants to bring the real stories of youths making a difference to kids. Runstedler is exuberant about the non-fiction book featuring real youths across North America making extraordinary strides towards social change.
The idea of having two books published in the same year (Pay It Forward Kids: Small Acts Big Changes comes out in October) is still fresh. The opportunity for a second published work gave Runstedler a renewed sense of purpose, she said.
“I can’t let my mom have died for nothing; I can’t let her kindness stop. I have to carry on in her name. I started living my life differently. I’ve always been a good person I think, but I wanted my life to mean more.”