What Happened to Goodbye

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In Sarah’s Words

The idea for What Happened to Goodbye came from one thing: change. Change beyond your control and change within it, and how closely the two are related.

In high school, I was never happy with myself. I didn’t like my hair or my clothes or my personality, and I was convinced that if I just managed to be different, somehow, everything else would be different as well. I can fully remember several Sunday nights thinking, “Tomorrow, when I go to school, I’m going to be a totally new person.” Which was, um, sort of hard to do in a small town where you’ve known everyone since you were in kindergarten. Still, I was fascinated with the idea of totally reinventing myself. I think I still am, and it’s why I’m a writer. I get to be someone new every couple of years, if only for three hundred pages.

Mclean, the narrator of What Happened to Goodbye, has good reason to want to be someone else. Her parents’ marriage has recently imploded in light of her mother’s affair, making it feel like life she’d known before doesn’t exist anymore. Her mom wants to her fold into her new family—complete with new house, siblings and everything else. Instead, she chooses instead to hit the road with her dad, a restaurant consultant, and begins a series of transformations. In every town and school she lands, she creates a new personality and a new name. Then, when it’s time to go, she sheds whatever girl like she is like a skin, and moves on.

In Lakeview, where she has moved as the book begins, she’s already got her name picked out. But then, through a series of events, it becomes clear that it won’t be so easy, this time, to leave everything—including herself—behind.

What Happened to Goodbye is my tenth book. Just writing that honestly blows my mind a little bit. Ten? How did that happen? You’d think, that by this point, writing would be easy. Or easier. But in truth, this one was one of the hardest yet. I’m not sure why this is, and I’ve long ago given up trying to figure out why some novels come so easily, and others are like crawling up a hill backwards in the dark, blindfolded. (So to speak.) All I know is that I got halfway through this book, then took a sharp left turn and got completely lost. The entire second part of it was initially totally different: different characters, different plotline, different ending. When I finished, I was relieved, but deep down I knew it just didn’t feel right. When my agent agreed, I backtracked, ripped out the last two hundred pages or so, and began again. The girl I’d created, at least in the second part, wasn’t real enough, and I like Mclean, had to return to square one and somehow find my way back to her. It wasn’t until I figured this out that I was able to do just that.

Of course, as a reader, you shouldn’t really know about any of this. Ideally the story exists neat and clean, without any of the mess and stress of its creation evident on the page. (At least, I hope it does.) But for this novel, which is all about what we are versus what we seem, it feels appropriate to fill you in. Good books, like our true selves, aren’t instantly created or perfectly crafted. They are messy and frustrating and flawed, which are exactly the same things that make them real. Mclean figured this out eventually, and I did too. Did it make me a whole different person? No. But it did change a small part of me, which in turn altered the way I saw the world. And that, all these years later, is exactly the kind of change I’ve learned to love.