Title: The Key to Everything
Author: Valerie Fraser Luesse
Synopsis: Based on a true story, Valerie Fraser Luesse’s new novel takes readers on an incredible journey of self-discovery. The poignant prose, enchanting characters, and captivating settings in The Key to Everything make this a moving story that readers won’t soon forget. Peyton Cabot’s fifteenth year will be a painful and transformative one. His father, the reluctant head of a moneyed Savannah family, has come home from WWII a troubled vet, drowning his demons in bourbon, and distancing himself from his son. When a tragic accident separates Peyton from his parents, and the girl of his dreams seems out of reach, he struggles to cope with a young life upended. Pushed to his limit, Peyton makes a daring decision: he will retrace a slice of the journey his father took at fifteen by riding his bicycle all the way from St. Augustine to Key West, Florida. Part loving tribute, part search for self, Peyton’s journey will unlock more than he ever could have imagined, including the key to his distant father, a calling that will shape the rest of his life, and the realization that he’s willing to risk absolutely everything for the girl he loves.
INTERVIEW WITH VALERIE FRASER LUESSE
Author of The Key to Everything
Can you please provide a brief summary of your new novel, The Key to Everything?
Fifteen-year-old Peyton Cabot is part of a wealthy Georgia family. His father, a troubled World War II vet, suffers a tragic accident that changes everything for his wife and son. As Peyton struggles to comprehend what’s happening, he re-creates part of a bike ride his father took at fifteen, traveling from St. Augustine to Key West, Florida. Searching for answers about himself and his father, Peyton is also determined to reconnect with the love of his life, Lisa Wallace. What happens to him during this monumental bike ride will shape the rest of his life.
The Key to Everything is based on a true story. How much of your narrative includes the real-life account?
My friend Holly Patterson Belk told me the story of the bike ride to Key West, which her father completed—from Waycross, Georgia, to Key West, and back—when he was just fifteen. He did it on a bet with some of his friends and really did become something of a celebrity as local papers covered his journey. The part about sleeping in jails and firehouses, with an introductory letter from his police chief, is true. So are the mosquito attack and his recovery at the naval base in Key West. And there was a special girl involved! Holly let me read some letters that her dad wrote to her mother when he was a fighter pilot, and I used their wonderful connection to each other to imagine Peyton and Lisa’s romance. The rest, though, is fiction. Holly didn’t really know much about what happened to her dad on the bike ride. And I invented the Cabot clan and all their machinations. Her dad, Ben Lane Patterson Jr, had an amazing life, flying 101 missions and becoming a brigadier general, an attorney, and a judge.
How difficult was it to write a story from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old boy?
I guess I didn’t think of him as a general fifteen-year-old boy but as a very specific one—a boy who had been raised in a specific way and in a particular place. Readers will have to judge whether I got it right.
There are several characters who play integral roles in this story. Which character do you resonate with the most?
I love Aunt Gert! I borrowed her name from my Aunt Joyce, whose brothers and sisters nicknamed her Gert. Aunt Joyce was very direct, with a dry sense of humor that suited my character well.
The Key to Everything is a coming-of-age novel. What were the circumstances that led Peyton to take his journey of self-discovery?
His sensitive and loving father has come home from the war a troubled vet, drowning his memories in bourbon and distancing himself from Peyton. One family tragedy follows another, and then Peyton is separated from Lisa, the girl of his dreams. It all happens the summer of his fifteenth year, pushing him to test himself, retrace his father’s journey, and try to find some answers about his family and himself.
Peyton’s expedition resulted in several positive outcomes. Can you please relay some of the ways this journey helped change and shape the rest of Peyton’s life?
The most important lesson—literally “the key to everything”—is that you can’t retrace someone else’s journey. You can’t follow someone else’s map, no matter how much you love them. You have to find your own way, carve your own path. And if you’ve truly found the love of your life, there’s no sacrifice you won’t make to hold on to them.
As an Alabama native, you bring a unique flavor to your novels. Each work is packed with the rich feel of Southern charm and culture. Can you please tell readers about the settings in The Key to Everything?
I’ve spent a lot of time traveling the South and telling stories about it for Southern Living, and I guess I bring some of my old travel-writing habits into my fiction. It’s important to me that readers really see the places my characters inhabit—from the downtown streets of old St. Augustine to surf towns like Flagler Beach to the otherworldly Key West. My first trip there was for a writing workshop, and I was just mesmerized by the palm trees and the historic architecture and the turquoise water. Eerily beautiful.
What type of research was required to accurately portray this tale?
I wanted the relationship between Peyton and Lisa to capture at least a few elements of the real romance between General Patterson and his wife, Bette. So their daughter, my friend Holly, let me read some of their correspondence, both before and after they married. I read books on old Florida and watched documentaries on Key West, during the war years and before. Probably my most important research tool was Google Maps, because I had to carefully track where Peyton would be on any given day and make sure I kept the towns in the correct order from north to south. I even watched a few YouTube videos on boating and polled my biking Facebook friends about their injuries. So I guess I used just about every research tool imaginable.
What do you think most characterizes your writing?
I hope authenticity. I don’t want readers to see me there, pulling strings. I want them to experience the place, believe in the characters, and get lost in the story. It’s so easy to slip up—one line of bad dialogue can jar a reader out of the fictional world you’ve created. I try hard not to let that happen. Readers often tell me they feel like they’re watching my stories instead of reading them. I don’t know how that happens, but I like the idea of it—of seeing a story unfold like a movie in your mind.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
Doing justice to the main character, Peyton Cabot, because his experience was based on a true story that my dear friend Holly told me about her dad, who rode his bike from Georgia to Key West when he was fifteen. He overcame loss and adversity to lead an extraordinary life. The Key to Everything is based solely on the bike ride, but knowing how special Holly’s dad was, I wanted to create a story that she would be proud of.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Sharing the storytelling experience with my friend. Writing is so solitary most of the time, but Holly shared photographs and letters her parents had saved. Understanding how they felt about each other when they were young and first married helped me create the relationship between my main character, Peyton, and his first love.
What projects are you working on at the present?
The manuscript for my fourth book is due in September, so . . . ticktock! I’m excited about it because it’s set in Acadian Louisiana, which is an area I explored for Southern Living. My husband went with me on some of those trips, and we both fell in love with southwest Louisiana and with the Cajun community there.