Coming Home by Lois Cloarec Hart is a very personal book; much more than most readers could guess. Lois was so kind and answered some of Jae’s questions about the backstory:
Coming Home is a very personal story for you. Would you like to tell us a bit more about that?
At the time I began this story in 1999, I was housebound caring for my husband, BJ, who had multiple sclerosis. Unlike Rob in Coming Home, BJ lost most of his cognitive and physical function. The humour and intelligence that had always been so large a part of his personality were gone. He was no longer my best friend and beloved companion—he was my patient. Because my life revolved around his care, I didn’t see many people outside of medical personnel for the last couple years of his life. But I had an online friend with whom I exchanged daily e-mails. She wrote Xena fanfiction, and after months of exchanging e-mails, she finally cajoled me into trying my hand at writing. I was already beta-reading for her, and now she did the same for me. She taught me the basics and encouraged my stumbling attempts. It was a fun way to escape my daily life. I never intended to do anything with the story—it wasn’t fanfic or even uber, so I didn’t think it had a place in the Xenaverse, but when it was complete, my friend convinced me to post it online. The reaction was immediate and astonishing, and within ten days I was approached by RAP to publish it. You could’ve knocked me over with a feather, but it changed the course of my life.
There are two great joys associated with the book. One is that I met my wife-to-be when she was assigned to edit it for RAP. The other is that BJ lived long enough to see it come out and had enough clarity to recognize his photo as a young fighter pilot in the background. BJ never read the book and wouldn’t have been able, by then, to comprehend it if I’d read it to him. But BJ was Rob, and the stories Rob tells are BJ’s real-life adventures. The greatest compliment I ever got on the story was when my stepson told me I’d captured his dad perfectly. I knew long before I wrote the book that I was gay, but while the story is definitely a lesbian love story, it’s also a tribute to a wonderful human being who shared my life for twenty-two years and just happened to be a man.
On the surface, your two main characters couldn’t be more different—Terry is a 27-year-old lesbian with a degree in literature/creative writing, a rambunctious family, and a large circle of friends, while Jan is a 39-year-old housewife who lives a pretty isolated life. What draws those two women to each other?
Initially, a common love of books paves the way, but that swiftly becomes a small part of their friendship. As a budding writer, Terry is fascinated by unusual characters. In the beginning she regards Jan and Rob as a single unit. She likes and admires both of them, and the island of peace in her noisy, crowded life, which they provide her, fosters her creativity. She’s utterly unconscious of when her feelings toward Jan begin to evolve into love, though her friends see clearly what she does not. And for Jan, Terry is a diversion from her solitary life with Rob. She’s not unhappy with her life in the least, but Terry opens a window to a whole other world—one of laughter, fun, and a network of new friends. Jan, too, is clueless about their deepening relationship and for a long time sees Terry as being good for both her and Rob.
For me, it’s hard to name a favorite scene. Right now, it might be the leaf fight scene, but it might change the next time I read Coming Home. Do you have a favorite scene?
It’s difficult to name one scene because I like different scenes for different reasons. The scene where Jan helps Terry during her bout with flu is special because it marks the beginning of Jan’s awakening. The dinner scene when Terry inquires about Jan “doing laundry” and the scene where Terry has to deal with the consequences of Michael’s parents’ visit always make me laugh. The scene on the side of the mountain when they acknowledge their love and the boundaries they have to live within because of Rob is definitely a favourite. And yes, I like the leaf fight scene, too.
Which scene in Coming Home was the hardest for you to write?
Hands down, the scene when Rob’s soul visits Jan moments after he dies. When I began writing Coming Home, I didn’t have a clear ending in mind. I wasn’t sure how I was going to resolve the relationship issues because I just couldn’t bring myself to let Rob die. At the same time in my real life, I was cognizant that BJ was coming to the end of his life. That awareness was a relief, and it was agony. He’d lost all quality of life, but his unbelievable will kept him fighting to live. To write Rob’s death meant acknowledging that BJ’s time was drawing to a close. I wrote it in tears; I still read it in tears all these years later. The scene was also a bit of wish fulfillment as I’d have given anything to have another coherent conversation with BJ. Ironically when I wrote it, I based Rob’s appearance at the foot of their bed on my grandfather’s appearance to my grandmother shortly after he died. When BJ died, he did come to me a day later, though not in the exact same manner.
Another scene that chokes me up to this day is when Rob’s friends salute him with the missing man formation. After BJ died, his old friends and brother pilots held a final mess dinner for him in my home town. They dressed up in their finest kit, drank toasts, and told stories, and it was the perfect way for them—and me—to honour his memory. That they went to so much trouble showed me how much they loved him. It was their equivalent of the missing man formation and meant the world to me. I actually used part of Jan’s letter to Rob in my eulogy for BJ. It seemed fitting because when I wrote Jan’s words, they came from my heart.
Coming Home has a great cast of minor characters, all of them wonderfully three-dimensional. Have you ever thought of writing a story about any of them?
I did, actually. I spun Marika off in her own story, Broken Faith, which picks up moments after she sends Terry to talk (and more) with Jan in the last chapter. Terry and Jan make guest appearances in Broken Faith, which gave me the opportunity to show how their relationship flourished after Coming Home ended. The reader gains additional insight into the events of Coming Home through Terry’s and Jan’s interactions with the main characters of Broken Faith.
It has been about 14 years since you first wrote Coming Home, right? How did it feel to revise the novel after so many years?
It has been fourteen years, and so much has changed. Revising the story was a deeply moving experience for three reasons. I was able to bring my first book to a much higher standard because of all I’ve learned about writing in the intervening years. But as satisfying as that was, the second reason is more powerful. Fourteen years ago, I didn’t have an inkling of all the ways Coming Home would change my life—of the people I would meet through that story, including my wife and some of my dearest friends; of the places I would go, particularly spending half of each year since in the Deep South in such an unfamiliar culture; and of the joy of my new profession—one I’d never anticipated or planned for. I’d been aware since childhood that I could make words work for me, but to create a story, whether short or novel length, from whole cloth is a truly rewarding experience. I’m not a driven writer, by any means. But the more I practice the craft, the more I love it. The third reason is purely emotional. In revising Coming Home, I revisited a difficult time in my life, but it was a time that shaped who I am and who I’ve become. It’s a rare day when I don’t think of BJ anyway, but rereading all I’d written about Rob brought back a flood of memories. I loved our life together; I love my life now. Coming Home reminds me to honour the old life as well as the new.
The importance of family—by blood and by choice—plays a big role in Coming Home. Is that a common theme in all of your novels?
It is. Next to my wife, my family and friends mean everything to me, and that’s reflected in my stories. Just as Emily and Gord did in Coming Home, my parents always had an open place at our table and in our home. We were never surprised to come home from school and find extra kids in the house who had fallen on difficult times and needed a place to stay for a while. It was a rare holiday dinner when places weren’t set for others to join our family. That’s still the case to this day though the mantle of hosting has shifted from my mom to the next generation. I still see old friends all the time when I return to my small hometown, and sixteen of us get together every two years for a weekend away to celebrate our friendship of almost fifty years. Romantic love is wonderful. I revel in it in real life, and it’s what I write and what I enjoy reading. But the love of family and friends is just as soul-enriching and just as vital for a happy life.
When Jan found herself falling in love with a woman, her change in sexual orientation didn’t seem to be a big issue for her. Why do you think that is?
Jan knows that as much as she loves Rob, something was always missing from their relationship. But for many years she suppressed that awareness and got on with her life. When Terry gently prods, Jan is honest about her lack of sexual fulfillment, and during the course of the story she makes two oblique references to other possibilities. The first is when she recalls an incident during her time in the military. A post-victory celebration with her softball team might have involved a same-sex encounter. She doesn’t go into details, but it’s clear that she’s not unfamiliar with the concept of women being attracted to other women. It’s also evident in that scene that she was aroused by her proximity to Terry’s naked body. The second reference is when she surprised Terry by acknowledging that Rob was not her first lover. Again, she doesn’t go into details because they move on to more important matters, but it’s not hard for the reader to infer that perhaps more happened during that post-victory celebration than is laid out in the narrative. Jan goes through a lot of angst once she understands that she’s fallen in love with Terry, but not because it’s difficult for her to accept loving a woman. It’s because her loyalty to Rob is paramount, no matter what she feels for Terry. She can’t just leave Rob. He depends on her care every minute of every day, and she does love him. She could never live with herself if she abandoned him.
Do you plan to revisit the characters of Coming Home in a subsequent book?
I don’t have any plans to, but I know better than to say a definitive no since my muse does not always share her future plans with me. That said, because Coming Home was so deeply personal, it’s less likely that I’ll revisit Jan and Terry than characters from my other novels.
What are you working on now?
Some days it feels like twenty things at once, but that’s only because I’m easily lured away from writing by bright and shiny distractions. I actually only have two projects underway. I’m rewriting and expanding an older novella, The Lion and the Lamb, into a full-fledged novel. Concurrently, I’m doing research for a new novel set in Atlanta during the era of the civil rights movement. That one will feature my characters, Ruby and Hazel, from two of my short stories, Coming Attractions and Country Mouse.
Thank you very much for sharing this with us, Lois.