Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Conversation With Judy Merrill Larsen

By Kim

I first met Judy Merrill Larsen when I interviewed her about her association with the Fiction Writers Co-op, and now we both belong to the Facebook group for Writer Unboxed. Her novel, All the Numbers, sat unread on my Nook for over a month because I had been warned about how many boxes of tissues I would need. One night, after a particularly frustrating day with my youngest daughter (age five), a day when I knew I had blown many things out of proportion, I decided the one who needed the attitude adjustment was me. After the kiddos and my husband were in bed, I stockpiled tissues by the couch and dug in.

By page sixty-seven I forgot how argumentative and sassy my child was, and how anxious I had been to have her asleep and out of my hair until morning. I left a great white mountain of wadded up Kleenex on the coffee table and slipped into my daughter’s room. As I stroked her hair, she smiled in her sleep and murmured that she loved me. This opened the floodgates again, of course, and I spent half the night with her sleeping in my arms.

All the Numbers is not an easy read. It will take any mother, or anyone who has ever dreamed of being a mother, to a horrible place. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but it is. Save this book for a frustrating night like I had. Stop reading where you must and go hug your kids. Make sure to open the book again the next day and let Ellen’s nightmare slowly morph into a story of hope and forgiveness.

About All the Numbers (from the book jacket):

“How much do you love me?” Daniel asked his mother.

“I love you all the numbers.”

What begins as a sunny August afternoon on a bucolic lake turns into a tragedy when a Jet Ski swerves fatally close to shore. It’s a day Ellen Banks could never have prepared for, a day no mother should ever have to live through.

The moment her son James is killed, Ellen must face the unimaginable while trying to remain strong for her older son, Daniel, who witnessed the fateful accident and blames himself. Ellen’s shock and grief soon give way to defiance as lawyers and policemen who once vowed to support Ellen’s desire for justice succumb to political pressure and back away. Still, Ellen is determined to see the reckless young man pay for his crime and to heal her family’s deep wounds. But first heal herself.

An unforgettable journey of power and emotion, All the Numbers poignantly depicts a woman’s reckoning with her own vulnerability and finding in the wisdom of motherhood the redemptive grace to begin again.

About Judy (from the author’s website):

Judy Merrill Larsen was born in Whittier, California in 1960, and grew up in Northbrook, IL, Upper Saddle River, NJ, and Dunwoody, GA. She attended University of Tennessee (Knoxville) for two years before transferring to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she graduated in 1982 with a degree in English and Secondary Education. She taught high school English in Madison for three years before staying home with her two sons. In 1991 she moved to Kirkwood, MO, outside of St. Louis where she received a Master’s Degree from Washington University and taught for twelve more years, first at McCluer North High School and then at Kirkwood High School.

She taught high school English in Wisconsin and Missouri for fifteen years. Her debut novel All the Numbers was published in 2006; she is currently at work on her second novel. She currently lives in Kirkwood, MO with her husband and their five children."


WWW: Welcome to What Women Write, Judy! I have to say, I don’t cry often while reading books, but I absolutely sobbed during certain sections of yours. How did you survive writing that hospital scene?

JML: Oh, man, that hospital scene was a killer for me. But, I knew I had to get Ellen to the end. I couldn’t leave her there, so I made myself get through it so that she could ultimately get to the dock. But, I won’t lie. I cried when I was writing it and I cry anytime I read it.

WWW: You captured Ellen’s pain so believably that I quickly searched for interviews to find out if you had personally lost a child. Thankfully, you have not. Did you interview mothers who had or research the topic in other ways?

JML: You know, I think as moms, we always live with that fear of something happening to one of our kids. And we’ve almost all had those moments of utter terror—when they get lost or are sick or whatever. I pulled a lot from when my younger son was hit by a car when he was in first grade. The ambulance ride, the nurses and doctors rushing in. He was fine, thank God, but for a few moments I wasn’t at all sure he would be. So, I forced myself to explore the what-ifs. And go all the way to those depths. That was my research.

WWW: What is your opinion on organ donation? Jet skis?

JML: I’m a huge supporter of organ donation. I now have friends whose lives have been saved because someone was generous enough to donate during the worst moments of their lives. So I urge everyone to donate. But I also think that for me, in the moment, it wouldn’t bring me any solace. I’d do it, but I’d hate that I was in that position. Jet skis are another matter. They terrify me. I’m sure they are a blast, but I won’t ride or drive one. My sons? That’s another story. I know they’ve ridden on them, but never in my presence and never with my blessing.

WWW: I absolutely love the title. Can you tell us how you came up with that?

JML: Oh, thanks. I love it too and was so glad the publisher didn’t change it. It stems from my own life with my boys. When they were little, I said it to them in much the same way Ellen says it to James and Daniel. But, I didn’t know I was going to use it in the story until Ellen said it in the ER.

WWW: Do you think you could have done what Ellen did in the end?

JML: I hope I could have. I tried to be as honest as I could with how Ellen handled all of this—which is why I didn’t want her to be all noble. I wanted her to be angry and vindictive and sad. I wanted her to drink too much and start to slip away from her older son because that seemed honest to me. But, I also wanted her to ultimately look outward from her grief and find a way to move forward with her life if for no other reason than to honor James. I like to think that’s how I would be. But I don’t ever want to have to know for sure.

WWW: You were an English teacher for quite some time. Do you feel that teaching made you a better writer?

JML: I do think it did. I love teaching English (and before that being an English major!). Spending 15 years teaching students how to analyze literature and write clearly was invaluable. Being able to immerse myself in great literature day after day was wonderful.

WWW: I have a horrible time trying to balance my writing and family life with two kids. You have five! How did you do it?

JML: It is a challenge, isn’t it? And before you give me too much credit, when I wrote this I just had my two sons—we’re all now a Brady Bunch family (but without Alice, darn it!)—and now they’re all out of the house. I do think one of the biggest hurdles, though, is convincing anyone in my family that I’m working. They see me in my jammies, drinking coffee, with my laptop open and figure they can ask me something or I can whip them up a fried-egg sandwich or drive them somewhere. When I finally turned a little room on the 3rd floor into my office, that really helped. I could say I was “going to work” and shuffle on up.

WWW: What are your writing habits/quirks?

JML: No computer games when I’m in my office. Seriously. That, and good coffee (I even have a specific “writing” mug). I set word count goals for myself—usually I shoot for 1500 words per day. I never stop when I’m stuck. And, at the end of the day, I like to jot out a few notes for where I think my characters will take me the next day.

WWW: What are you working on now?

JML: Well, I’m waiting to hear from my agent about a MS that’s out on submission (and I’ve pretty much got everything crossed). I’ve got three ideas and I’m trying to decide which one to latch on to. So, that’s frustrating. I need to pick one and run with it, but I can’t seem to focus. Maybe I just need to pull one out of a hat or draw straws or something.

WWW: Any advice for aspiring writers?

JML: Don’t stop. Don’t give up. Keep revising. With ALL THE NUMBERS, it took 7 years from when I wrote the first word of the first draft to when it was in the stores. Over 300 agents rejected me. But it just takes one “yes.” Read. I firmly believe that reading other novels is part of my job (what a great perk, huh?). And keep writing.

WWW: Thank you for chatting with me today, Judy, and for your inspiring words. Over 300 agents – WOW! That really proves the power of persistence…

If you (our readers) have further questions or follow up comments for Judy, she has graciously offered to read and respond to any comments left for her on this post.

All the Numbers is available at bookstores everywhere, and also on the Kindle and Nook.


  1. Thanks so much for "hosting" me here, Kim!

  2. Judy, and here I thought I'd persevered to be rejected by about 80 agents! I stand (actually, I sit) in awe, and am adding the book to my queue. Best of luck with it, and Kim, fellow Writer Unboxed'r here, thanks for such a good interview.

  3. Thank you so much for stopping by Beverly! I'm sure Judy will check in soon.

  4. Hi Beverly, Good luck with your own writing . . . and here's hoping you find that perfect agent way before 300!

  5. Cindy Keeling27 May, 2011

    Great interview, Kim and Judy.
    Just curious, Judy... were agents passing because your story needed more revisions? (For instance, Kathryn Stockett has said she revised a lot during the querying process.)

    Best of luck with your sounds amazing!

  6. Hi Cindy! To e completely honest, I think I had no idea how to write a query letter or really how to query at all. This was way back in the dark ages--before agents (or pretty much anyone) had blogs, before queries were done electronically, before there was so much internet access/help. I did flesh out the story more as I waited around to find the right agent, but I wasn't getting requests to even see the MS. What finally happened (5 years after I wrote the first draft) was I worked with an amazing editor at an Iowa summer workshop who offered to introduce me to some agents. I mailed the complete MS out (yes, hard copies, not an e-mail attachment) on Monday morning and Thursday I had an offer for representation. I've been counting my lucky stars ever since.

  7. Cindy Keeling01 June, 2011

    Thanks for sharing your story, Judy. Very inspiring!
    Kudos for "soldiering on" and making good connections. I read somewhere that most great things take about five years. You were right on schedule!

    We really are fortunate these days to have so many informative blogs, books, community, etc, aren't we?


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