Author Kristina Riggle is something of a literary ventriloquist. In her most recent book, “Things We Didn’t Say,” Riggle tells a story from the point of view of six protagonists as they struggle to make it through an evolving family relationship that is brought to a climax by the disappearance of one of the children.
Riggle, a Michigan State University journalism graduate, first used this unusual technique of telling a story with multiple voices in her book “Real Life & Liars,” which saw a family dealing with a crisis over a long weekend in Northern Michigan.
In “Things We Didn’t Say,” the stage is set by Casey, a 26-year-old almost-step-mom to three children and the fiancée to Michael, who has custody of the kids. The children’s birth mother, Mallory, is not a player until 14-year-old son Dylan disappears. Both Mallory and Casey bring the baggage of addiction and addictive tendencies to this story of a modern family.
The other two children, teenager Angel and Jewel, a precocious grade-schooler, play important parts in this novel that stretches out over 48 chapters of alternating voices. Much of it allows the presentation of different points of view about shared conversations. Readers might find themselves turning back to double-check to see who is saying what, even though chapter voices are clearly marked.
Most of the action takes place over a few winter days at the original family home, with the tension rising considerably when Mallory shows up and stays on while attempts to locate Dylan are made. An ex-wife, the current and much younger fiancée and confused but strong children make for one complex story.
In a phone interview from her Grand Rapids area home, Wriggle said she enjoyed upending convention by showing Michael, the head of the family, as a competent dad.
“I wanted to fight the bumbling dad stereotype,” she said. Riggle believes that too often dads are shown in a negative light in movies and on TV. “I like going against the grain in that way.”
She also said she wanted to provide insight into the blended family and how families who have gone through a divorce make it.
Riggle said she very deliberately did not talk to friends who were in similar circumstances about her book: “I thought it would put them on the spot.”
The inspiration for the book, however, did come from a movie and the genesis will have you scratching your head until Riggle shows you how an author’s imagination works.
Riggle said after watching the Cuban Missile Crisis movie “Thirteen Days” she was fascinated how regular American families went on during this terrifying near-apocalyptic experience. She carried that idea around in her head for some time until she saw how she could use it in a novel.
“Since my writing is not so global I adjusted the plot to show how people behave in a family crisis,” she said. “In my book Casey is ready to walk out the door, and I ask how a crisis changes her position.”
She said that for a while she considered writing a historical novel centered around the Cuban Missile Crisis, but said that her previous books have a following and a track record. So she opted for the intense family crisis over a short duration.
“It’s more in my wheelhouse,” she said. She also used Grand Rapids’ historical Heritage Hills neighborhood as the setting.
For parts of the book Riggle drew directly from her background as a journalist working for two Michigan daily newspapers, prior to her career change to become a stay-at-home mom.
Her protagonist, Michael, is a writer for a Grand Rapids daily newspaper and is dealing with the dramatic changes facing the industry.
Riggle said that when she left the newspaper industry in 2003 that “things had not started to fall off the cliff so dramatically.”
“I feel so obsolete and I’m not even 40,” she said.
Riggle manages to weave that feeling into an important aspect of the book, as the family and, especially, Michael deal with a difficult work situation.
Riggle said she now jokes how she left the newspaper business for such a “stable” industry as publishing. She did say certain aspects of publishing, such as social media use, have been beneficial to her as a writer, allowing her to bond with readers and other writers.
She especially likes the idea you can reach out to people anywhere without having to leave home. Riggle recently talked with a mother from Arkansas who just started a blog, adding “there is no way I would’ve connected with her before social media.”
The Internet, social media and texting play an important role in “Things We Didn’t Say,” but so do old-school face-to-face communication and a diary, along with the passions fueled by addiction and teenage angst. As technology infringes on almost every aspect of our life, Riggle shows that some things never change. Personal relationships trump technology every time, and we still like a good story with complex and conflicted characters and a cliffhanger of an emotional ending, all presented in a human scale. Riggle has delivered on all counts.
Author of "Things We Didn’t Say"
7 p.m. Tuesday, July 12
Schuler Books & Music, 2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing