Kristan Higgins and I recently met up during an icy morning in Seattle. We settled in with warm cups of coffee in a corner of a beige-and-gilt hotel dining room to talk about her books, the two types of firefighters (no, it's not "hot" and "not hot"), and how her characters find their true selves through changing and difficult circumstances.
Amazon Book Review: When people ask you about your newest book, how do you describe On Second Thought?
Kristan Higgins: It's the story of two sisters who have never been particularly close before, and their circumstances force them together after a tragedy of one sister and the breakup of another.
The tragedy is that Kate, who is a newlywed and who met her husband last year at the age of 39 after pretty much deciding she was good being single forever, is widowed after four months of marriage in a sort of freak accident.
I got the idea for [the book] a long time ago when I read an obituary, which is one of my morose hobbies. [Laughs] There was a line that said something like "Although he only met his beloved, Jane, last year, their love was profound." And it was like a stake through the heart. That's so tragic and beautiful. And I thought, "What would it be like to have embarked on this new life and have everything that you wanted—your husband and a home and the potential for children—and then be stranded there? And who comes through for you?" I liked that theme of the book, too, that it's not always who you expect.
The sisters find that with each other. They have a really cool dynamic—a really complicated one too because they are half sisters. They've always had this sort of tension between them, like, "We can't really be close because our mothers were rivals." They are never enemies. But they never really clicked.
I think it's pretty clear that Ainsley's first relationship [with Eric] was not going very well. If you had had Nathan not die, did you see Nathan and Kate's love as being far more healthy, long-term, than Ainsley's?
Yes. I think that Ainsley and Eric have a not-uncommon dynamic to their relationship, where one person is the star and one person is the fan. Eric definitely thinks of himself as the star, and Ainsley thinks he's wonderful. And he is wonderful in a lot of ways. He's loyal. He's considerate. He's selfish, but he's not ungenerous either. She's so innocent. She thinks, "He loves me, and that's all I need." The respect part hasn't really dawned on her. But Eric really took her for granted, and obviously when the chips are down with Eric, you can start to see his true colors there in his self-aggrandizement.
But yeah, Kate and Nathan had a really lovely relationship. After he dies, Kate learns something about him that starts to make her question, "Did he love me as much as I thought he did? Were we as happy as I thought we were?" Her grief becomes more complicated. And in the back of her mind, too, even when she's at his wake, she has the simultaneous thought of "I love you so much" and "I wish we'd never met" because they'd only known each other for eight or nine months. If someone had said, "You can marry this guy but he's going to die on you before you get pregnant, would you do it?"—I think she probably would have said no. Just too high a cost.
What I loved so much about your book is just how complex the characters are. One of the characters who seems very simplistic in the beginning is Daniel the hot firefighter.
Yes, Daniel. [Laughs] He's a character who has the opportunity to rise to the occasion, and he does. He is Daniel the hot firefighter with the Elite Rescue 2 squad in Brooklyn. (And yes, I did get to interview those guys.) He's been burned himself and hurt more than he wants to admit by his divorce, so he hangs out with women who are very easy and undemanding. But one of my favorite moments in the book is when he shows up at [Kate's] husband's wake. He's maybe the only person from her old life [in Brooklyn] who makes the trek. She's so surprised to see him; it really buoys her. I loved writing him. I loved taking that dopey beefcake kind of guy and giving him more depth and heart. And I think he's still a simple guy, but in the best ways. My husband is a firefighter. I say they are either wonderful husbands or absolute horrors. [Laughs] And Daniel seems like one but is maybe the other.
Do you have firefighters in a lot of your books?
I wrote a hero who was a firefighter in Just One of the Guys. And I think that's it. Daniel will be the second. It's a little too easy for me to write a firefighter hero, being married to one. And I don't want to write a firefighter series—I think that's a little too pat. It is fun to be able to use stuff that my husband has experienced. And he definitely consults on any kind of first-responder scene for me. So that's helpful.
Yes, yes. I married well.
What themes do you come back to in your books?
I think every one of my books has the theme of You're more than you know. I love that Winnie-the-Pooh quote: that you're braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. I think that self-acceptance and stepping into your full personhood is a big theme in all my books. To leave behind the ideas that your childhood branded on to you. When [my characters] break through those kind of notions, that's their real point in the story. To come out better, bigger, braver, and maybe a little more raw. Having been so hurt through the events of the book, they come out better. They come out better having been broken and then put back together. I think all my books have that.
Interesting. I like who I am, but sometimes I think, "Is this who I'm always going to be?" I hope not. I hope there's still room for change. No, not even just "room for change" but the drive to still find out things about yourself.
I agree that you do evolve, that you should keep trying to evolve and do better and be more. And to come into your full potential as a human. What a great feeling that must be! And what's so great about fiction is that everybody—just about everybody—has the opportunity to change and to grow. Even one of the less likable characters in the story, Candy the stepmother. She's not all that she seems either. She comes across as very brittle and judgey—and she is—but she also loves Ainsley, somewhat begrudgingly. She always took good care of her, and she comes through into her next phase of life too. She finally lets go of the past and takes a step into the future. Most of my characters do. Very few are not redeemed. I'm an optimist.
Do you see On Second Thought as being a departure from your previous novels?
One of the things that I feel like I'm doing now is writing romantic women's fiction instead of romance per se. I don't know that I ever wrote the classic romance, because all my characters have always had more than just the relationship going on, and the goal has always been more than just getting the guy. It's getting to the point where you deserve the guy, and to choose the guy who deserves you. But a lot of people ask, "Oh, are you only writing women's fiction?" And I'll say, "Oh, I'm really not writing anything differently." The books are packaged differently. They took the dogs off the cover. But it's still me.