In A Day Like This, Kelley McNeil writes about Annie, a mother and artist who seeks to unravel the truth of her past after she learns her beloved young daughter never existed.
Annie Beyers has everything―a beautiful house, a loving husband, and an adorable daughter. It’s a day like any other when she takes Hannah to the pediatrician…until she wakes hours later from a car accident. When she asks for her daughter, confused doctors tell Annie that Hannah never existed. In fact, nothing after waking from the crash is the same as Annie remembers. Five happy years of her life apparently never happened.
Annie’s marriage is coming to an end. Now a successful artist living in Manhattan, she’s no longer home in their beloved upstate farmhouse. Her long-estranged sister is more like a best friend, and her recently deceased dog is alive and well. With each passing day, Annie’s remembered past and unfamiliar present begin to blur. Haunted by visions of Hannah, and with knowledge of things she can’t explain, Annie wonders…is everyone lying to her?
The search for answers leads Annie down an illuminating path far from home, to reconcile the memories with reality and to discover the truth about the life she’s living.
Barbara O’Neal, author of When We Believed in Mermaids, praises this “fascinating tale that kept me guessing all the way through,” while Gelndy Vanderah, author of Where the Forest Meets the Stars, calls A Day Like This “like the main character’s life, a blossom that unfolds in fascinating layers.” And Barbara Davis, author of The Last of the Moon Girls extols McNeil’s “beautiful debut” as a book “guaranteed to echo long after the last page is turned.”
I was delighted to speak with Kelley McNeil about vivid memories, the yearning for roads not taken, and her experiences creating captivating stories in real life and on the page.
Your story focuses on such rich sensory details–the evocative, beautiful scent of lilacs from Annie’s house in the country, the hints of shadows lurking at the edges of bright settings, the sound of gravel crunching along a familiar driveway. Was there a particular image or sense memory that led you to begin Annie’s story of the search for her lost life with her daughter?
I take that as such a wonderful compliment, thank you. It was important to me that I make this story an immersive experience for the reader, and to do that I needed to employ all senses. This was particularly true when Annie was visiting her memories of the Yellow House. I tend to have a very sensory-rich memory in general and my memories of scenes from my own life often include textures and scents and colors and I enjoyed calling upon some of these to use in Annie’s story. But in terms of a particular memory, the idea for the book first came to me when I was driving my own young daughter down a similar rural road many years ago. I was able to recall the details of that drive with complete (and very handy) clarity many years later when I placed Annie on a very similar road at the start of the story.
That’s such a pivotal moment for Annie on that country road! As I read A Day Like This, I was really struck by its powerful sense of place. Even as Annie struggles to determine how she arrived at her unfamiliar waking life after her accident, we always have a strong impression of where she is, whether at her Yellow House in the Catskills, navigating her loft and artist’s studio in New York City, or exploring the possibilities London has to offer. How did your own experiences living in different places provide material for Annie’s engagement with her environments?
Funny you phrased it this way because one of the alternate titles I considered for the book was “A Sense of Place.” I’m someone who needs to have intimate knowledge of a location in order to write about it in a meaningful way. In this story, I wanted to deploy descriptive details about Annie’s real and imagined environments in a way that mimics the way we experience them naturally, with an eye towards creating a distinction between the blurry edges of the memory of a location verses the observation of the tangible present. For instance, the New York City and London scenes are more traditional in their descriptions, but I wanted the scenes from the Yellow House to have a dreamy quality to them that placed the reader in a different state of mind–experiencing the emotional markers of a place as much as the physical. To do this, I called upon the psychological differences I feel when I’m visiting each of these locations. In my life, the modern, sharp edges of NYC feel very different to me than the hopefulness and history of London, and both feel dramatically different than the softness of the Catskills where my children were born. All of this informed the way I wrote about each of these environments.
As Annie moves through those intensely meaningful environments, and searches for echoes of her daughter Hannah, she comes to learn there are key forks in everyone’s roads, experiences or events after which a person’s life can continue in one fashion, or diverge into a different timeline. I’m curious about your own writing process as you developed this magical realism infused narrative. Was there any fork in the road you planned to pursue but left unexplored? Or is there a part of Annie’s story that you investigated in writing but decided to leave out of your manuscript?
There were so many ways I could have taken this story and the ideas of what could explain the disappearance of her daughter–so I went down several rabbit holes before deciding on the way the story would go. Ultimately, I wanted it to be a story about intuition and the exploration of what happens to a person when the concrete facts that are being presented to them contradict what they feel in their gut. I did a deep dive into the fields of mental illness, the supernatural, and scientific theories–all of which I would have loved to include much more of in the book (and almost did!) But when I began to weave all of those theories together, and saw the intersections that occur between them, I realized I could braid them together in a cohesive way without going too far down any one path, which was a turning point in my writing process. But I will say that I found a lot of fascinating real-world accounts and urban legends about the theories presented in the book and would have loved to include more of them! Fortunately, some talented editing helped remind me that it would have taken away from the emotional heart of Annie’s story.
I’d love to hear more about that emotional heart of the story. There’s so much yearning in this book: between Marcie and Annie, estranged siblings who wish they had the close relationship they experienced as children; between Annie and Graham, spouses who have grown far apart but still care deeply for one another. Annie longs for her daughter Hannah, but also wishes she could better understand her mother, herself an artist who struggled with realities just out of reach. Could you tell me more about how longing for the past, or longing for what might have been, speaks to you as a writer?
I’ve gotten dozens of emails in recent weeks from people who say the book has made them look at their own life choices with renewed hope or compassion for the past. I think it’s a fairly universal condition to wonder what might have been or to have a wistful feeling toward roads not chosen. I’ve always been a huge fan of these types of stories and was excited to write one, myself. I also think we tend to have a rose-colored recollection of the past and often remember it in ways that actually may have never been the reality. This creates a natural kind of longing that I wanted to capture in the pages of the book. When I came across the Welsh word Hyraeth, I learned that it means something similar to these ideas of enigmatic longing, so it became a kind of touchstone that provided the essence for Annie’s story.
Annie’s longing is so palpable, and I loved how many of the clues Annie discovers take the form of actual artwork she (or her alternate self) has created. There’s one scene in particular I think readers are going to find riveting, in which Annie’s artwork and her questions about her daughter connect in an electrifying moment. How did Annie’s identity as an artist help propel your story through its mysteries?
The subject of the artist’s imagination was so much fun to work with in this story. I had originally had an idea about a woman who paints seemingly imagined locations that turn out to be real, and from there I blended that idea into Annie’s world. By giving Annie the profession of an artist, it opened up a fascinating new portal to work with in terms of the story–blurring the lines between imagination and reality and the mysterious source of artistic inspiration.
You came to write this story with professional inspiration of your own. I’ve read you worked in entertainment before you turned your focus to writing, promoting concert tours and theatrical events. There must have been so many moving parts to consider in that career! How did managing complicated events in that earlier work prepare you to manage the complex details of a novel?
Working in entertainment tours and promotions definitely requires the ability to juggle a lot of balls at one time and to keep things very organized! But more importantly, I think it requires a bit of storytelling in its own right–to capture the emotion of an event and sell the promise of that experience to the audience so that they want to buy a ticket. When presented well, a night at a concert or the theater evokes a wonderful source of escapism–much like a great book.
Kelley McNeil is the author of the upcoming Fall 2021 novel, A Day Like This. She worked in the entertainment industry, promoting concert tours and theatrical events prior to turning her full attention to writing. A native of Pittsburgh, she spent a number of years living in the Catskills region of New York. These days you can find her in South Florida most of the time and London the rest of the time – usually accompanied by good music, a good pen and her daughters bopping along nearby. Find out more about her and her work at https://www.kelleymcneil.com/