I was working on my second novel (In Search of Che) and had reached page 100 when the story came to a screeching halt. I felt like a person trekking through a forest who’s lost sight of the trail. You look everywhere, but alas it’s gone. The muse had forsaken me.
But, likewise, one never knows when inspiration will strike or how or why. On January 10, 2008, I ran across an article in the Washington Post, titled: “A Deadly Web of Deceit.” I’m one of those people who have always had a slightly macabre interest in mysterious disappearances and fishy murders. So how could I pass up a headline like that? Perhaps I should have been a detective. But I stray. I’m sorry.
I soon discovered this story wasn’t at all about a murder or a disappearance. A large photo accompanying the story was of a girl’s bedroom and a forlorn looking man sitting on her bed, piled high with pillows and stuffed animals. The caption read: “If Megan had taken her life with…guns I had in the house, I’d be in jail,” says Ron Meier, here in his daughter’s bedroom. “But they did it with a computer and are walking free.” Now I knew that tragedy had struck and it sounded like an awfully sad story, but one I was destined to read.
I read the article – I’ll explain its contents under “Why” – but after finishing it, I knew I wanted to write a novel about a girl who commits suicide, or at least contemplates it, because of cyber-bullying. That social media had become a prevalent form of communication intrigued me, especially because I was very unfamiliar with it back in 2008, and that it would cause someone to take her life, well, that, in part, led me to write Saving Phoebe Murrow, which is about exactly that. A cyber-bullying incident that leads a beautiful, vulnerable teen girl to attempt suicide. No spoilers. I can’t tell you whether she succeeds or not. Of course the novel is about other things as well. It’s about mother-daughter relationships, about infidelity, about mean girls, and about the self-destructive habit of self-harm referred to as cutting.
Perhaps most importantly, Saving Phoebe Murrow is not a fictionalized version of the Washington Post story, but I was most definitely inspired by it.
Okay, now a few more details. The Washington Post story featured 13-year-old Megan Meier (of Missouri), who took her life after a group of teens cyber-bullied her on MySpace in 2006. She was a few weeks shy of 14. The episode was led by a good-looking, 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. His last words to her were something like: “Why don’t you just kill yourself?” And she retorted, “For someone like you I think I would.” And then she did. Tragic. I could hardly imagine how her parents felt.
In the end, however, Josh Evans turned out to be a woman named Lori Drew, a 47-year-old neighbor and the mother of a former friend of Megan’s. She had used Josh Evans as a phony profile on MySpace to find out what, if anything, Megan was saying about her daughter, Sarah. I couldn’t believe that a woman would do such a thing to a child. How could she?! Almost instantly, I knew I wanted to write a novel to understand why. I had also begun hearing about other teens who’d committed suicide as a result of being cyber-bullied. What was this phenomenon all about, I wondered, and why was it so destructive?
If you’ve ever been bullied, or kids were very mean to you in your youth, try to imagine having to endure such treatment 24/7, which is what can happen on social media.
All this I set out to explore in my novel.
Though I read the story in 2008, it wasn’t until 2011 that I found myself making a commitment to write another novel. (I’d written my first, un published to this day, some years earlier.) In June of 2011, I had to choose between trying to forge ahead with the 100 pages of In Search of Che or to begin to move down this new path. During the interim, between having read the Megan Meier story, and 2011, characters had come to me on occasion, as had some plot ideas, interactions and conflicts between them, all of which I’d dutifully kept in a new folder on my computer.
Once I decided on moving ahead with Saving Phoebe Murrow, I couldn’t believe how quickly the story flowed from my pen (i.e., computer). The first draft spilled out of me in about nine months, then I spent a few more years revising and revising. In 2015, I was most fortunate to find interested publishers in the US and the UK, and the rest is history. I’m so grateful to my publisher in the US (Upper Hand Press) and in the UK (Twenty7 Books, an imprint of Bonnier Zaffre) for making a dream come true.
The last thing I’d like to add is that I contacted Tina Meier, Megan’s mother, after I finished the novel, and asked her to read it. She had started a foundation – The Megan Meier Foundation – after her daughter’s death to try to prevent cyber-bullying and suicide. She is an inspiration to us all, and after she and I spoke I decided to include information about cyber-bullying in the back of the book and also to donate a portion of the proceeds to the foundation.
HERTA B. FEELY, besides being a writer, works as an editor, writing coach and ghostwriter. Her short stories and memoir pieces have been published in anthologies and literary journals. In the wake of the James Frey scandal, Feely edited and published the anthology, Confessions: Fact or Fiction? She was awarded the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and an Artist in Literature Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for The Trials of Serra Blue. She has also received an award from American Independent Writers for best published personal essay for a piece on immigration, titled “The Wall.” In Saving Phoebe Murrow, Feely continues her commitment to activism on behalf of children. A graduate of UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University, Feely is also the co-founder of Safe Kids Worldwide, an organization dedicated to saving children from unintentional injuries, the leading killer of children in the United States. She has two sons and lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and cats (and many orchids).
Saving Phoebe Murrow is available from all major book retailers and your indie bookstore. Released by Upper Hand Press (US) and Twenty7 Books (UK).
Linda K. Sienkiewicz is the author of In the Context of Love, adult contemporary fiction about the need for women to tell their stories without shame.
– 2016 Eric Hoffer Book Award Finalist
– 2016 USA Book News Best Book Finalist
– 2016 Readers’ Favorite Finalist
– Great Midwest Book Festival Honorable Mention
Angelica Schirrick had always suspected there was something deeply disturbing about her family, but the truth was more than she bargained for.