In Priscille Sibley’s The Promise of Stardust, Matt is devastated after a horrible accident leaves his wife, Elle, brain-dead. Though utterly heartbroken, he knows he must honor her wish to not be kept alive on life-support. The discovery that Elle is pregnant, however, turns an already wrenching decision into an impossible choice.
One of the best parts of reading a well-crafted novel is connecting emotionally with the characters—imagining what you would do if you were in their shoes. In this riveting debut, Sibley confronts her characters—and readers—with a heart-wrenching life-and-death moral dilemma that no one would ever want to have to face. The result is an immensely moving and unforgettable page-turner.
We asked Sibley—a neonatal intensive care nurse in New Jersey—about her inspiration for the book, her experience writing it, and what she’s working on now.
This is your first novel. What sparked the idea for it, and how long did it take you to write it?
I’ve struggled with end-of-life issues since my early days as a nurse. At one point I took care of a child who was in a persistent vegetative state, and his plight deeply troubled me. The scenario in my book is different, but it deals with themes that started to gnaw at me back then. The first draft of the novel took about a year, but there were many revision rounds. From typing the first sentence until last copy edit, it took about four years.
How did your experiences as a nurse inform the novel? Have you ever faced ethical dilemmas in caring for patients?
These are actually difficult questions to answer because I can’t be specific for ethical reasons [grin]. Ethical practice is a fundamental part of being a nurse, be it as simple as not discussing a patient’s condition in the elevator where it might be overheard to doing no harm with our interventions. We’re supposed to be compassionate, and we are not supposed to judge. My job is to support and comfort. No, I’ve never seen the exact situation that I created in the book. If I had, I don’t think I could write about it without violating the privacy of my patient. At the same time, I do witness many different reactions when a family is in crisis. I think that allowed me to provide my characters with authentic reactions to the world I built for them.
The book is very balanced in its portrayal of a contentious and political topic. Was this a struggle for you while writing?
Because of the point of view I took to write the story (the husband’s), I had to support his side of the story, but I don’t necessarily think he’s right. I don’t necessarily think he’s wrong, either. Man, does that sound like I’m a weasel? I guess my point is that I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong. I felt empathy for all the sides chosen in the story. Even the antagonist’s. And yes, at times my characters said things I didn’t necessarily believe.
Was it always your intention to start with the accident and then tell Elle and Matt’s love story in flashback? If so, why did you choose this structure?
I was afraid that if I wrote a linear story and halfway through Elle suffered her brain injury, readers would throw the book at the wall. It was the reason I made him a neurosurgeon, too. I didn’t want to give the reader the false expectation that she would magically wake up at the end of the book. He understands what happens to her, at least on a cognitive level. Emotionally, he still goes through moments of denial, because that is part of the grief process. The backstory was necessary to make sense of the characters’ different motivations clear. I placed those chapters where they were essential to the parts that would follow. And readers needed to see how much Matt loved her to understand him.
What made you decide that Elle was going to be an astronaut?
That’s just how she came to me. I realize that sounds like hocus-pocus, but she just evolved in my imagination that way before I started tapping anything out on the keyboard. She also needed to be his equal. If he was going to be a brain surgeon, she had to be at least as smart as he was. Smarter even. I wanted her to have a heroic streak, too. I wanted her to go off and do something dangerous, but I didn’t want her to be a soldier.
Being a nurse no doubt helped you with the medical details in the book, but did you have to do a lot of legal research, as well?
The legal parts were very, very difficult for me. I went to the courthouse where I placed the story. I read through files there hoping to absorb the legal lingo. I read everything I could on the Terri Schiavo case, courtroom transcripts and so forth. And I was very fortunate because one of my writer friends, Maria Imbalzano, is an attorney. She read my courtroom scenes over and over again. She sent me back for rewrites many times. Ultimately, if I got it wrong, it’s my fault though, not hers. And it is fiction.
The novel raises many questions that lend themselves to book club discussion. Here’s one question we think book clubs will be asking: Why had Elle not told Matt about the baby before her accident?
Elle didn’t know she was pregnant until the morning of the accident. She felt a little off. She had been pregnant before and it felt familiar, and so she took the test that was already under her bathroom sink. In the voice mail she left for Matt, she was hinting at it: “Let’s talk.” She would have told him that night.
Did you know how the book would end when you first started writing?
Not entirely. I had an idea. There were moments when I thought about sending it into an entirely different place. Even during the last revisions, there were subtle changes.
Many readers say your book has moved them to tears. Can you tell us about a book you’ve read that moved you or made you cry?
It’s not that I never cry, but I don’t cry a lot when reading, but Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine had me in a few places. That is one brilliant book. A.S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz had me. Night Swim by Jessica Keener pulled me in so deep I had to put it aside a few times because it had me by the throat. It’s a beautiful book.
What’s next for you?
I’m slowly working on another contemporary novel. It’s quite different in many ways, but it still deals with family and loyalty and an entirely different kind of promise.