By MARYANNA ANTOLDI
Arts & Culture Editor
It takes a certain amount of courage to write a novel inspired by true events. In fact, it is especially laudable when said novel tackles the physical and mental hardships that arrive with a cancer diagnosis. This is exactly what Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) alumnus Joseph Barone’s “Bebette” focuses on. The novel tells the story of a young cancer patient named Lily, whose illness takes a toll not only on her health but also the mental stamina of her family. To escape, she creates an imaginary friend named Bebette, who takes her on an enthralling journey about life itself and how to conquer it.
Barone graduated from FCLC in 2006 with a degree in psychology. Since then he has written a total of five novels. “Bebette,” released in May, is an utterly captivating look at the innocence of a child, the importance of family and the beauty of life itself.
I got to speak to Barone about his inspiration behind the story, the conflicting roles of the imagination and the struggle to teach about life itself. Here’s what he had to say:
MARYANNA ANTOLDI (MA): After reading “Bebette” I am really curious if there was an inspiration behind writing the story. Was anyone the inspiration for Lily as a character?
JOSEPH BARONE (JB): So, to be honest with you, I had a few different inspirations behind the emotional reason behind finishing [“Bebette”]. I started it several years ago…for my mother, but I finished it for my wife. My mother got cancer a few years ago and it just kept coming back. Her name was actually Claire [the name of Lily’s mother in the book]. I decided to write this book for her. We kind of worked on the concept together and I basically wanted it to help her on the journey that she was on—which was a terrible but mostly beautiful life-altering journey. She passed away in 2013, but she never realized how strong she was until she had to fight this thing. I was so inspired by that and so in love with her strength that I wanted to write this for her to make her feel better and parallel to an extent the journey she was on. She wound up getting sicker and sicker, and I didn’t at the time feel like I had a reason to finish the book. So, I started the first few chapters while she was alive and we worked on them together. But last year, my wife was pregnant with our second child and I thought to myself “I want to finish this book, because I want to see how it ends.” I realize that life can be sad and I wanted to explore and take the story to the conclusion that I originally envisioned.
MA: That was beautiful, thank you for sharing that. So, it’s obvious from the novel that Lily is also suffering from cancer and the story focuses on her coping with her illness and finding her inner strength. I am also curious to know why you chose to tackle such a serious topic from the lens of a child?
JB: I wasn’t familiar with anything that had done that before. I self published a few books and always tried to have a different spin on a subject that has been only spun one way. I also, since I originally wanted to write this for my mom, I wanted to have a completely innocent take on what was happening. I wanted to focus on the purest kind of emotion of life. Unfortunately, I have seen kids on my trips to Sloane Kettering [hospital] with my mother. It is the saddest thing in the world. I thought to myself “There are so many people that go through this.” We don’t want to think about it or talk about it, but it is everywhere. We all know somebody whose life was touched or sometimes destroyed by cancer or other tragedies. I wanted to use a child as the vehicle to really explore what it means to live. If anyone understands how to live, it’s a child. I think that tackling cancer from an older point of view, it is hard not to get cynical. The person is older and has all these expectations of life which may get shattered. I felt like I knew Lily as I was writing her, and she was not like that at all. I basically wanted to write this and say, “We should all try to be like Lily.”
MA: I think that Lily is such a strong character and that stems partly from her huge amount of optimism and innocence, like you said. But she also has an imaginary friend named Bebette who seems to guide her through her journey with cancer. Why did this concept of an imaginary friend fascinate you?
JB: The inspiration for Bebette was a childhood friend that my mother had that she would always talk about. She was a little girl with a bonnet in her hair and was always happy, but that was all I ever really knew about her. She never reconnected with her, but she would talk about her. The more I explored Lily, [an imaginary friend] made so much sense. Lily had to leave everything she knew and loved and she was sick when she moved to her new town. She couldn’t make new friends, so I thought to myself, “What would a girl do?” If you were depressed and cynical, you wouldn’t make an imaginary friend. You would wallow, which is a totally normal reaction. But you cover yourself up and wait for things to get better or worse. As I put it in the book, you “float like a stick on water.” But I thought Lily wouldn’t do that. Lily would make somebody up to play with. And having known that her mother had a friend named Bebette, why couldn’t she be the same person to lift her up like she did [Lily’s] mother. To an extent, Lily knows that Bebette is imaginary, but she’s hoping that she’s real. But reality hits hard sometimes, and sometimes the pillars of hope we build up turn out to be a house of cards…sometimes they are stronger than we ever thought they are. Life is full of ups and downs and I wanted her to explore that with somebody else.
MA: Another idea that is prevalent in the novel is the idea of family, specifically between Lily and her late grandpa, Tony. There is a special emphasis on their relationship—Lily vividly remembers the lessons he instilled on her, she constantly thinks about the last conversation she had, and she even pictures his imaginary wonderland in her dreams. Why did you choose to make him such an integral character in the novel?
JB: I never met either of my grandfathers. I know if the daughter is the apple of the father’s eye, she must be the golden apple of the grandfather’s eye! I felt like it would play better to show a love between a little girl and a grandfather who meant the world to each other—to have both of them be sick, to have him go through it first and have Lily see that and get an idea of how to face things. I think that’s what my mother’s journey was like for me. It forces you to bond, to be with each other and talk with each other, and really have a normal conversation. You think to yourself “Maybe there’s not that many left.” I make mention that there is always a last conversation with someone you love—what’s it gonna be like, when’s it gonna happen. It paralleled my relationship with my mom. The way she faced her cancer, and the way she faced dying was very inspirational. As terrible as she felt, she just wanted to be here for as long as time would have her. And I thought it would be good to have a figure like that, an experience like that for Lily.
MA: And, continuing with Grandpa Tony, he introduces Lily to this idea of “Hide-Land,” or a place where you could escape to when you are tired of reality. Lily spends most of the story trying to find his Hide-Land, but the result is not exactly as she planned it to be. Why did you base most of the novel in this fictional location?
JB: Awesome. Awesome question. I feel like often we all do that, whether we realize it or not. Hide-Land can be a placeholder for a future that we all hope or wish for, or even an unreasonable set of memories—maybe the nostalgia we had as kids. Hide-Land represents a whole slew of things, but at the end of the day, Hide-Land isn’t real. And I think that her grandfather kind of impresses that upon Lily: “I made Hide-Land because I was scared.” He built this beautiful place where the greens are the greenest green, where everything is wonderful, and he could meditate there, but at the end of the day it isn’t real. And, as harsh as reality is, you have to appreciate the experiences of having experiences. And, just being in the real world—whether it is painful or not—that is what really matters, because that is where the people you love are. There’s also an element that is contradictory to what I just said. To an extent, a fake place or aspiration can make us feel better, and I felt like I wanted to go through it all saying that we all do this. We all aspire or believe in something, and we would all love a lucid place to dream and be happy. But at the end of the day, sometimes the solid, harsh, beautiful reality is what we’re left with. We need to be able to cope with that, because being in Hide-Land your entire life is not coping.
MA: I really loved that entire concept throughout the book. And, I have one last question! If you could have all of your readers pull one lesson from the novel, which do you believe is the most important?
JB: If I want my readers to pull one lesson from the book it would be to find their own philosophy in life and to really realize that you have one whether you know it or not. I think I had a conversation with someone when I was young about philosophy of life, and people talk about these things in very academic terms, but the reality is you have to dissect not what you say about life, but analyze what you are doing because that really shows your true philosophy. I think what I want readers to examine is, if you have a philosophy of life, is it the right one? Is that how you want to approach life? If not, you can definitely change things—the main character went through probably one of the worst things you can go through, and she came out on the other side better off, not necessarily because she was sick, but because she was in a right frame of mind.