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August 30, 2021

In Fairley’s debut memoir, Shooting Out the Lights, she explores her relationship with her much older husband while navigating his grief after the tragic death of his son.

Did you always plan to write a memoir?

As the oldest of five children left alone for long periods of time, I can remember countless moments when I sat talking with my younger siblings. Invariably, one of us would say, “Somebody could write a book about this.” The rest of us would nod and carry on as if that were a given. Those years of our being left alone to run the household remain so vivid in my mind that I knew from a young age that someday I would write a book about that experience.

Shooting Out the Lights deals heavily with grief and the human response to it. Did your understanding of grief change during the writing of your book?

Absolutely. My husband, Vern, lost his son in a terrible gun accident. When I began to write, I thought the book would be about the impact of that grief on me and other people. What I discovered in the process of writing was that my own childhood trauma played a big part in the way I dealt with Vern’s grief. Once I recognized the coping strategies I had brought into the relationship, I was better able to understand how I had hindered my husband’s recovery from the grief. 

How do you make sure you’re telling “the truth,” or how do you refresh your memories when writing?

I often key in on the stories I repeat over and over, because they have their hooks in me and I don’t always know why. For instance, when I began to write Shooting Out the Lights, I had been viewing one of the characters, the mother of the boy who came to live with us, as mentally ill. In my head—and in speaking with Vern—I’d used words like “wacko” or “nutcase” to describe her. What I realized in writing was that my response was harsh and that much of the woman’s philosophies and ways of thinking were ahead of her time. She had advocated for the importance of breastfeeding children, farm-to-table dining, and organic farming at a time when these ideas were considered countercultural and nonconformist. Time has helped me see that she had not been the problem. Instead, she and her son were catalysts in forcing us to hold up a mirror to our marriage.

How do you imagine readers at this moment will connect with Shooting Out the Lights?

I think there is a curiosity about relationships with a large age gap and also about relationships where a couple knows from the start that one partner may not be around for very long. I hope that the book will dispel the myth that even though some statistics suggest that such a partnership will be problematic, two people who love each other and want to marry can still have a very fulfilling relationship. I also think that all readers will connect to moments in their lives in which they have been pushed beyond their limits, have had to say “enough is enough,” and have discovered in the process that, though it may not be immediate, there is a payoff for drawing that line.

What’s next for you?

My next book, Swimming for My Life, is the story of my unusual family and growing up in Cincinnati during the early years of Title IX; it’s also an honest and deep exploration of the heartbreaking and sometimes soul-crushing work of competitive swimming at the elite level. It will be out in October 2022.