PORT TOWNSEND — On the Oprah list of the 55 most anticipated books of the year are titles from Stacey Abrams, Anne Lamott, Joan Didion and Cicely Tyson.
JoAnne Tompkins of Port Townsend is up there, too, with her debut: “What Comes After,” a novel set in a town just like this one, with a slightly different name.
Many years in the making, this is a story of teenagers, kindness, pain, two bereft single parents and, perhaps most of all, second chances.
The title refers to the aftermath — spiritual and physical — of a murder. And though Tompkins’ other career is as a trial lawyer and mediator, this is no crime thriller.
The novel opens with a step inside the minds of Evangeline, who at 16 is pregnant and alone, and Isaac, the middle-aged father of a teen boy who was killed by his classmate.
Events cause these two people to collide. And, like a nighttime walk deep into the forest, their story comes with surprises, soul-searching — and beauty.
By the time the characters walk out into the light, they’ve helped each other find the guts to start again.
In telling this tale, Tompkins said, she sought to create challenging characters, and then to deeply understand them, through all of their hard knocks and mistake making.
“In my prior job as a mediator, I had to hop into other people’s psyches and see the world from their eyes,” she added.
“I worked with an incredible range of people” who had lived through abuse, harassment and tragedy, she added. These adults and teenagers came to her seriously wounded, yet, time after time, she watched them move forward in their lives.
“I never cease to be amazed at what people do survive: these terrible, terrible things are out there, and they survive,” she said — sometimes “incredibly well.”
“What Comes After,” released in hardcover, e-book and audiobook on Penguin Random House in mid-April, sparked an immediate response from around the country.
Readers come to know the characters almost better than they know themselves, one critic writes in a starred Booklist review. Another, in Kirkus Reviews, compares Tompkins to Marilynne Robinson and Anne Tyler in the way she explores the territories of the heart.
“How do you rebound from tragedy?” asks a New York Times headline on Elisabeth Egan’s article. “Begin by welcoming the future” is the answer – which fits.
The book is, after all, about a teenager and a child about to be born.
The interview with Egan — part of last month’s publicity whirlwind — was surprisingly easy, Tompkins said, adding they talked about how “What Comes After” could be a book for older teenagers as well as their folks.
Erica Bauermeister, another Port Townsend writer, interviewed Tompkins last month at the start of her virtual book tour. Afterward, Bauermeister paused to marvel at the novel.
“The thing that strikes me about JoAnne’s writing is that she never goes for the easy, first answer,” she said.
“She always takes her exploration a step further, deeper … I walked away from ‘What Comes After’ feeling better about humanity, which is noteworthy for a book that starts with a murder.”
Bauermeister added that Tompkins is just as curious and willing to dig into a question even when it’s during an interview, on the fly and in front of people.
“That takes skill and self-knowledge, and perhaps years as a mediator,” she said.
“What Comes After” helped Tompkins learn too about the Society of Friends — the Quakers — who figure prominently in the story.
Not a member herself, Tompkins traveled to the Pendle Hill retreat center in Pennsylvania. She recalled having dinner with a group of Quakers and feeling a little bewildered when her table mates stayed silent after she’d made a remark on something. Had she offended them?
It turned out that, no, they were listening and thinking about what she’d just said.
Tompkins is a graduate of Goddard College’s master of fine arts program, where Aimee Liu was one of her advisers. In an article in the “Books Are Our Superpower” journal, Liu writes that “What Comes After” began as Tompkins’ master’s thesis more than four years ago.
“Even then, I had no doubt that this story would go to the moon,” Liu writes.
She went on to give a preliminary list of 20 national publications now hailing the novel as one of the season’s best.
Tompkins has given about a dozen media interviews and completed her virtual book tour for “What Comes After,” and it has been a thrill, even for this woman who calls herself an introvert, happy to be in her home surrounded by woods.
She smiles when adding she can’t get too full of herself, since hers was considered “an April book” by the publishing industry.
Now that it’s May, there’s a whole slew of new titles being talked about.
Which is fine with Tompkins. She has her next novel to work on now.
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]