Our world (and the 24-hour news cycle) creates events stranger than most fiction. Stories about people trying to live their lives, even under the most challenging circumstances, are the ones that feel most powerful to me, as opposed to, say, the balloon boy, or stupid socialites crashing parties. When I hear about extraordinary people (perhaps living under the radar) with the strength, tenacity and sheer will to survive and do their best for their families, friends and more surprisingly strangers, then I am moved to write about them.
It was such a story that inspired my latest novel, When She Flew. I first heard about the Vietnam vet raising his daughter outdoors in the Oregon woods when I was living in Portland in 2004. The story captivated me as it unfolded with a splash in the media, causing conversation and discussion across the city about what the right thing to do was. It eventually disappeared like all front page news does, but the thoughts and emotions attached to them stayed with me. I never forgot the people, their story, or their struggle, and in 2007 I decided to write a fictional story inspired by them.
I spent the next year and a half meeting with a police officer involved in the case, exploring the woods where they lived, and retracing their steps. I imagined their routines, their needs, their desires and in When She Flew, I cast my version of their experience told from the perspective of the little girl and from a female police officer who finagles her way onto the search team.
When She Flew is the story of Ray Wiggs, an Iraq war veteran, and his 13-year-old daughter, Lindy. They have lived for five years in the woods, off the radar, trying to survive on the meager pension Ray receives as a disabled veteran. He wants what’s best for Lindy, and would rather raise her in the woods than on the city streets, subjecting her to drugs and violence and crime. When Lindy is spotted by a bird watcher, everything changes as the police search the forest to find her, make sure she is not in danger and to take her out of the woods and do the “right” thing by her.
Second generation police officer Jessica Villareal is a single mom. She’s on the police search team that discovers Ray and Lindy, and she feels a connection to the girl, as she is estranged from her own daughter. Through questioning the “forest people,” she begins to question everything she thought she knew about being a mother, about being a cop, about how we raise children and what safety really means. Her definitions of safety and well-being for Lindy take on a new meaning as she battles her fellow officers, society, and the media to do the right thing for Ray and Lindy, and ultimately, for herself.
Two of the questions I am asked most often about this book are “Did you meet the real father and daughter?” and “What happened to them?” I never met them (they left the area back in 2004) and didn’t want to. It was important to be able to create my own characters and tell my perception of the story, not to try to tell a journalistic version of the true story. As to what happened to them, I don’t know. I would like to think they are thriving and in good health, staying out of the 24-hour news cycle, and living the kinds of lives that make them happiest.
When She Flew is Jennie’s fourth novel. She lives in Seattle, WA, and is working on a new book that is also inspired by true events.