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Jessica Strawser says debut novel offers a lot to talk about

| Sunday, April 2, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Author Jessica Stawser
Corrie Schaffeld
Author Jessica Stawser
'Almost Missed You' by Jessica Strawser
'Almost Missed You' by Jessica Strawser

Jessica Strawser's debut novel, “Almost Missed You” (St. Martin's Press, $25.99), does not fit squarely into any genre. It's being marketed as women's fiction, but it's not a cozy mystery or steamy romance. It's a thriller, but there's no violence or gore. A crime is committed, but it's hardly a police procedural.

Even Strawser, a graduate of Moon Area High and Uniontown native who is the editorial director at Writer's Digest Magazine, is hard pressed to define it.

“A book club book is kind of a good way to sum it up, because there's a lot in there for a book club to talk about,” says Strawser, who appears April 6 at Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley.

There are so many surprising and varied elements in “Almost Missed You” that it's almost impossible to write about without giving away spoilers. A brief summation would include a man disappearing with his son while on vacation, leaving behind a frantic and devastated wife. There's a subplot about a Craigslist ad, a bit of upper versus lower class friction, and at least one tearjerker moment.

Strawser, who lives in Cincinnati, says she's always been fascinated by the idea of fate. In the novel, she explores this by way of how the main characters meet, how they are perceived, and how they identify themselves.

“I started the novel playing with the idea of a couple who everybody thinks is meant to be, and even the people in the relationship think they are meant to be,” she says. “They appear to be the perfect couple. Then I got the idea to turn the lens on the story so that things aren't what they seem to be to everyone else. I think particularly we place a lot of importance in how people meet, finding the one. I think if you attended a golden anniversary party, 50 years into a marriage, people would still be asking the couple ‘how did you meet.' ”

Strawser's experiences at Writer's Digest proved to be boon as she worked on “Almost Missed You.” In addition to writing advice columns for neophyte writers, she also has interviewed writers such as Alice Walker, David Sedaris and Anne Tyler.

“You realize they're just regular people,” she says. “It makes (writing) seem very doable, and I think writers are some of the most generous people out there. They all can remember so clearly what it was like in the early stages, starting out, collecting rejection letters, writing late at night when their kids are sleeping, which I do, or early in the morning, which I do not. … It's just really encouraging to talk to them as people. It kind of makes (writing) feel less daunting.”

Less formidable, perhaps, but writing still takes effort, execution and perseverance. Strawser worked on “Almost Missed You” for five years, during which she had two children. She wrote when she had the time, forging ahead without an outline. She added insights gleaned from a retired FBI agent and a pharmacist friend.

But mostly Strawser just wrote, trusting the process and believing in her story.

“I pieced it together one puzzle piece at a time,” she says. “I would always write what was most vivid to me, even if I knew it didn't come next in the story. Somehow, it just all came together.”

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