If you've finished our "GMA" Book Club pick this month and are craving something else to read, look no further than our new digital series, "GMA" Buzz Picks. Each week, we'll feature a new novel that we're also reading this month to give our audience even more literary adventures. Get started with our latest pick below!
This week's "GMA" Buzz Pick is "We Begin At The End" by Chris Whitaker.
Whitaker's new novel is a heartbreaking, page-turning, swashbuckling thriller that just debuted on The New York Times Bestsellers list. It's already been optioned by Disney for an upcoming series, with the brains behind "Hamilton" leading the charge.
Readers are describing it as a West Coast "Where The Crawdads Sing," and are falling in love with Duchess, the unforgettable, Stetson-wearing, self-described outlaw, whose wit and passion are just as sharp as her mouth.
But for Whitaker, Duchess is more than an entertaining protagonist catapulting his book into the literary stratosphere. Before the book's commercial success, she was simply a character on a page, written in solitude during a time of immense struggle, as a way for Chris to make sense of his own personal tragedies. And if you've read the book, it will come as no surprise to you that the sheer existence of Duchess once saved Chris' life.
Listen to the full interview and read some of our conversation below:
GMA: How would you describe your book to our readers?
Chris: "We Begin At The End" is a story that follows a year in the life of a 13-year-old girl in a small town, named Duchess, and the local chief of police, named Walk. They don't sound like they've got a lot in common, but they have this enduring friendship, because Duchess is the sole carer to her addict mother and younger brother, Robin. So, she needs some help, though she'd rather die than ask for it. Walk sees that she's struggling, and looks out for her. The book starts 30 years before, though, when a child is killed, and the person responsible for the child's death happens to be Walk's best friend. So that's where the book begins, and we skip ahead 30 years and catch up with them right as this man's about to come home from prison. Duchess knows this man used to be friends with her mother, friends with Walk, and she's kind of terrified that something bad is going to happen because her family is in such a vulnerable position.
The book is set in two locations, California and Montana. They're almost their own characters -- you're from the U.K. -- what's your relationship to those places? Why did you choose to set the novel there?
When I'm writing or reading, I like to escape. When I was a kid, I went to Disney with my dad. My parents split when I was really young, and so I didn't see my dad as much as I'd like to have. So this amazing family holiday to Disney is a memory that I've clung to, and the U.S. is really special. I remember we were in line at Disney and there was a family in front of us from Montana, and they painted a picture of this most beautiful place, it sounded idyllic, and that always stayed with me. The man said it was like "switching from portrait to landscape," and I never forgot that. It's a line that ends up in the book. So, it's a special place. So I went about creating these two towns, they're fictional, but plunked down in real locations. You've got Cape Haven in California, which was this beautiful, perfect town 30 years ago, and Walk tried to keep it exactly as it was, because that's when he was happiest. He's constantly looking back, he's terrified of looking forward. The seaside cliffs in the town are eroding, and every now and then the water comes in and claims one of these towns, and it's a bit metaphorical of Walk. He's unwell, he's losing parts of himself, and I wanted that to be reflected in the setting.
So how do you get in the mindset of a place to write about it without physically being there?
At first I thought it wasn't really doable. I grew up reading books set in the U.S., we watched all your TV shows, so I felt like I knew it to a point. It's not like an alien landscape, but what you see on screen only gets you so far, and when you actually start trying to write books about a place, you realize how much more you need. I work in a library, so that helps massively, so I sit down and pore over maps, travel guides and novels, nonfiction, everything I can get my hands on.
From the very beginning of the book, readers are drawn to Duchess. She describes herself as a self-proclaimed outlaw, and the book feels like a love child of old, fantastical American Westerns, and crime -- a genre to which you're no stranger. Why did you want to blend those two styles?
I started with Duchess and didn't give an awful lot of thought to anything else. There's crime at the heart of the story, but I wouldn't describe it as crime fiction. I'm always struggling to shelve it in the library where I work, so I just tend to stick it everywhere just to see where it fits. It was just telling her story, everything began with Duchess. I wrote her at a time when I was really struggling, and really needed writing. She just appeared on the page. ... It was strange.
Editor's note: It's not often an author's personal story will rival their novel, but in this case, the truth is really stranger than Whitaker's fiction. In our conversation, which you can listen to in full, he describes his teenage years, flunking out of school, trying dozens of different jobs and eventually surviving a brutal mugging when he was stabbed several times. He drove himself to the hospital and saved his own life, but the incident plunged him into a deep depression, and pushed him to the brink of suicide. He says he felt like something inside him was broken, and didn't tell anyone in his life about the trauma and how he nearly died. He finally turned to a self-help book, which encouraged people with PTSD to take the traumatic incident and change the characters involved, the outcome, the location, everything. So one night, he sat down to write, and Duchess appeared on the page, and for the first time since the stabbing, he was finally able to sleep through the night and start to heal.
The book reminds us that people are incredibly complicated creatures -- that it's possible we may never truly know a person -- asking the question -- do people ever really change? Or do you think that time and life experiences accentuate who we really are?
That's something I gave a lot of thought to, because I see myself as two different people. I look back like Walk does in the book. I see this happy version of myself, this person that doesn't worry about everything, doesn't have all these pressures, and I worry about my kids hearing something like this, and that they'll think less of me in some way. It bothers me because I want to be this person for them. And I think that's what the characters in the book are doing, because they have this horrible event happen to them, and they're forever looking back, they can't outrun it, including Duchess. It happened a long time before she was born, but she just lives under this cloud, under the shadow of her mum, and Walk has given up looking forward, and he's just fixated on the past. I've been like that for a long time, but I do wonder where I'd be or who I'd be if I'd done something different. If I hadn't gone out the night before my exams, if I'd made different choices, but then we're all more than the worst things that we've done or the worst things that have happened to us. I would be someone different. Maybe I wouldn't have the empathy that I do. Maybe I wouldn't be able to write the story I wrote. There's so many sliding door moments.
The plot reaches this stunning fever-pitch, full-circle moment -- with so many twists. Did you know the ending before you started writing the book?
I knew what was coming. One of the few things that Duchess' mother teaches her is that selfless acts can make you a good person, and Duchess clings on to it. I knew that she would spend the book looking for this selfless act so that she could look in the mirror and feel like she had done something good. But I knew that that selfless act was going to cost her, and that it was going to be a difficult thing to write. I actually didn't want to write it, and I left it until very late just before I had to deliver it.
"We Begin At The End" has been optioned by Disney for a television series -- with "Hamilton" director Thomas Kail and his producing partner Jennifer Todd developing. Who's your dream cast? And will you be working on the adaptation?
I definitely will be, as long as they let me, you know! Which they said they would. Tommy and Jennifer say such lovely things. Jennifer has made "The Way Back," which I love. Hearing them say lovely things about the book was a special day in my life. So I zoomed with them and they asked me who I wanted to play the parts, I thought about it and I asked them if I could play Duchess. They laughed like I was joking but I was deadly serious. I said they can do anything with CGI nowadays, come on mate! But I certainly haven't seen anyone I think is the right Duchess yet. Now for Walk, there's been tons of suggestions. People love to suggest Walk for me. I get David Harper from "Stranger Things" a lot.
You dedicate the book "For my own little outlaw." Was anyone in the book based on one of your kids?
My little outlaw, Isabella. She's my 8-month-old daughter, who I'm hoping will have an easier time than Duchess, and might not curse so much as she gets older. I have two boys as well and they each have a book dedicated to them. So, she gets her own now, and it's a special one I think.
OK, last question -- when people turn the last page, what do you want readers to take away from this book?
I want them to message me and tell me they really enjoyed it. I want them to have enjoyed the ride. But that's not the only thing I hope for. I want them to be moved by it and to care deeply for the characters. My overriding hope is that they enjoy it, that they enjoy the story, and that hopefully, they'll see Duchess on TV one day.
"We Begin At The End" by Chris Whitaker is available everywhere now. Get started reading with an excerpt of the book below.
You see something and you raise your hand.
Doesn't matter if it's a cigarette paper or a soda can. You see something and you raise your hand.
Don't touch it, neither.
Just raise your hand.
The townspeople readied, their feet in the ford. Movement in line, twenty paces between, a hundred eyes down, but still, they held together, the choreography of the damned.
Behind, the town emptied, the echo of a long, pristine summer had been smothered by the news.
She was Sissy Radley. Seven years old. Blond hair. Known to most, Chief Dubois did not need to hand out photographs.
Walk held the farthest side. Fifteen and fearless, his knees shook with each step.
They marched the woodland like an army, cops led, flashlights swept, through the trees was the ocean, a long way down but the girl could not swim.
Beside Walk was Martha May. They had dated three months, con- fined to first base, her father was minister at Little Brook Episcopal.
She glanced over. "Still want to be a cop?"
Walk stared at Dubois, head down, last hope on his shoulders.
"I saw Star," Martha said. "At the front with her father. She was crying."
Star Radley, the missing girl's sister. Martha's best friend. They were a tight group. Only one was absent.
"Where's Vincent?" she asked.
"He might be on the other side."
Walk and Vincent were close like brothers. At nine they'd cut palms, pressed them together, and sworn oaths of classless loyalty.
They said nothing more, just watched the ground, past Sunset Road, past the wishing tree, Chuck Taylors parting leaves. Walk focused so hard but still, he almost missed it.
Ten steps from Cabrillo, State Route 1, six hundred miles of California coast. He stopped dead, then looked up and saw the line move on without him.
The shoe was small. Red and white leather. Gold-tone buckle.
A car on the highway slowed as it came, headlights traced the curve till they found him.
And then he saw her.
He took a breath and raised his hand.
Part One – The Outlaw
Walk stood at the edge of a feverish crowd, some he'd known since his birth, some since theirs.
Vacationers with cameras, sunburn and easy smiles, not knowing the water was stripping more than timber.
Local news set up, a reporter from KCNR. "Can we get a word, Chief Walker?"
He smiled, shoved his hands deep in his pockets, and looked to thread his way through when the people gasped.
Fragmented noise as the roof caved and crashed to the water below. Piece by piece, the foundation lay crude and skeletal, like the home was no more than a house. It had been the Fairlawn place since Walk could remember, a half acre from the ocean when he was a kid. Taped off a year back, the cliff was eroding, now and then the people from California Wild came and measured and estimated.
The stir of cameras and indecent excitement as slates rained and the front porch clung. Milton, the butcher, dropped to one knee and fired off a money shot as the flagpole leaned and the banner hung in the breeze.
The younger Tallow boy got too close. His mother pulled his collar so hard he tumbled back onto his ass.
Behind, the sun fell with the building, dissecting the water with cuts of orange and purple and shades without name. The reporter got her piece, seeing off a patch of history so slight it barely counted.
Walk glanced around and saw Dickie Darke, who looked on, impassive. He stood like a giant, close to seven feet tall. A man into real estate, he owned several houses in Cape Haven and a club on Cabrillo, the kind of den where iniquity cost ten bucks and a small chunk of virtue.
They stood another hour, Walk's legs tired as the porch finally gave up. Onlookers resisted the urge to applaud, then turned and made their way back, to barbeque and beer and firepits that waved flame light on Walk's evening patrol. They drifted across flagstone, a line of gray wall, dry laid but holding strong. Behind was the wishing tree, a major oak so wide splints held its limbs. The old Cape Haven did all it could to remain.
Walk had once climbed that tree with Vincent King, in a time so far from now it would barely count. He rested a shaking hand on his gun, the other on his belt. He wore a tie, his collar stiff, his shoes shined. His acceptance of place was admired by some, pitied by others. Walker, captain of a ship that did not ever leave port.
He caught sight of the girl, moving against the crowd, her brother's hand in hers as he struggled to match her pace.
Duchess and Robin, the Radley children.
He met them at a half run because he knew all there was to know about them.
The boy was five and cried silent tears, the girl had just turned thirteen and did not ever cry.
"Your mother," he said, not a question but a statement of such tragic fact the girl did not even nod, just turned and led.
They moved through dusk streets, the lull of picket fences and fairy lights. Above the moon rose, guided and mocked, as it had for thirty years. Past grand houses, glass and steel that fought nature, a vista of such terrible beauty.
Down Genesee, where Walk still lived in his parents' old house. Onto Ivy Ranch Road, where the Radley home came into view. Peeling shutters, an upturned bike, the wheel lying beside. In Cape Haven a shade beneath perfect might as well have been black.
Walk broke from the children and ran up the path, no lights from inside but the flutter of television. Behind, he saw Robin still crying and Duchess still looking on, hard and unforgiving.
He found Star on the couch, a bottle beside, no pills this time, one shoe on and the other foot bare, small toes, painted nails.
"Star." He knelt and patted her cheek. "Star, wake up now." He spoke calmly because the children were at the door, Duchess, an arm on her brother as he leaned so heavy into her, like he no longer held bones in his small body.
He told the girl to dial 911.
"I already have."
He thumbed open Star's eyes and saw nothing but white.
"Will she be alright?" The boy's voice.
Walk glanced over, hoping for sirens, squinting at fired sky.
"Could you go look out for them?"
Duchess read him and took Robin outside.
Star shook then, puked a little and shook, like God or Death had hold of her soul and was wrenching it free. Walk had given it time, three decades had passed since Sissy Radley and Vincent King but still Star slurred about eternalism, the past and the present colliding, the force spinning the future off, never to be righted.
Duchess would ride with her mother. Walk would bring Robin.
She looked on as the medic worked. He did not try a smile and for that she was grateful. He was balding and sweating and maybe tiring of saving those so determined to die.
For a while they stayed in front of the house, the door open to Walk, there like always, his hand on Robin's shoulder. Robin needed that, the comfort of an adult, the perception of safety.
Across the street drapes moved as shadows passed silent judgment. And then, at the end of the road, she saw kids from her school, pedaling hard, faces red. News moved so fast in a town where zoning often made front pages.
The two boys stopped near the cruiser and let their bikes fall. The taller, breathless, a sweep of hair plastered down as he walked slow toward the ambulance.
"Is she dead?"
Duchess lifted her chin, met his eye and held it. "Fuck off."
The engine rumbled as the door swung closed. Smoked glass made matte of the world.
Cars snaked the turns till they tipped from the hill, the Pacific behind, rocks broke the surface like heads of the drowning.
She watched her street till the end, till trees reached over and met on Pensacola, branches like hands, linked in prayer for the girl and her brother, and the unfurling tragedy that had begun long before either was born.
Night met others just like it, each swallowing Duchess so totally she knew she would not see day again, not the way other kids saw it. The hospital was Vancour Hill and Duchess knew it too well. When they took her mother, she stood on the polished floor, light mirrored up, her eye on the door as Walk brought Robin inside. She walked over and took her brother's hand, then led him toward the elevator where she rode to the second floor. The family room, lights dimmed, she pushed two chairs together. Across was a supply room, and Duchess helped herself to soft blankets and then made the chairs into a cot. Robin stood awkward, the tired dragging him, haunting dark circled his eyes.
"You need to pee?"
She led him into the bathroom, waited a few minutes then saw he washed his hands well. She found toothpaste, squeezed a little onto her finger and ran it around his teeth and gums. He spit, she dabbed his mouth.
She helped him out of his shoes and over the arms of the chairs, where he settled like a kind of small animal as she covered him over.
His eyes peered out. "Don't leave me."
"Will Mom be okay?"
She cut the television, the room dark, emergency lighting left them in red, soft enough that he slept by the time she reached the door.
She stood in clinical light, her back to the door; she would not let any- one inside, there was another family room on three. An hour and Walk appeared again and yawned like there was cause. Duchess knew of his days, he drove Cabrillo Highway, those perfect miles from Cape Haven to beyond, each blink a still of such paradise people crossed the country to find them, buy their homes and leave them empty ten months of the year.
"Is he asleep?"
She nodded once.
"I went to check on your mother, she'll be alright."
She nodded again.
"You can go and grab something, a soda, there's a machine next to—"
A look back into the room saw her brother sleeping soundly, he would not move until she stirred him.
Walk held out a dollar bill, she took it reluctantly.
She walked the corridors, bought the soda and didn't drink it. She would keep it for Robin when he woke. She saw into cubicles, sounds of birth and tears and life. She saw shells of people, so empty she knew they would not recover. Cops led bad men with tattooed arms and bloodied faces. She smelled the drunks, the bleach, the vomit and shit.
She passed a nurse, a smile because most of them had seen her before, just one of those kids dealt a losing hand.
When she returned she found Walk had set two chairs by the door. She checked on her brother then sat.
Walk offered her gum and she shook her head.
She could tell that he wanted to talk, to bullshit about change, a slick on the long road, how it would all be different.
"You didn't call."
He watched her.
"Social. You didn't call."
"I should." He said it sad, like he was letting down her or the badge, she did not know which.
"But you won't."
He had a stomach that strained his tan shirt. The chubby, reddened cheeks of a boy whose indulgent parents never told him no. And a face so open she could not imagine he carried a single secret. Star said he was all good, like that was a thing.
"You should get some sleep."
They sat like that till stars leaned to first light, the moon forgot its place and held like a smear on new day, a reminder of what had gone. Opposite was a window. Duchess stood at the glass and pressed her head to the trees and the falling wild. Birdsong. A long way and she saw water, specks that were trawlers crawling the waves.
Walk cleared his throat. "Your mother . . . was there a man—"
"There's always a man. Whenever anything fucked up happens in the world, there's always a man."
She held straight.
"You can't tell me?" he asked.
"I'm an outlaw."
She wore a bow in her hair and fussed with it often. She was too thin, too pale, too beautiful like her mother.
"There's a baby just been born down there." Walk changed it up.
"What did they call it?"
"I don't know."
"Fifty bucks says it's not Duchess."
He laughed gently. "Exotic by rarity. You know you were going to be Emily."
"Sore must be the storm."
"She still reads that one to Robin." Duchess sat, crossed her leg, rubbed the muscle, her sneaker loose and worn. "Is this my storm, Walk?"
He sipped coffee, like he was searching for an answer to an impossible question. "I like Duchess."
"You try it awhile. If I was a boy I might've been Sue." She lay her head back and watched the strips blink. "She wants to die."
"She doesn't. You mustn't think that."
"I can't decide if suicide is the most selfish or selfless act."
At six a nurse led her.
Star lay, a shadow of a person, even less of a mother.
"The Duchess of Cape Haven." Star, her smile there but weak. "It's alright."
Duchess watched her, then Star cried and Duchess crossed the room, pressed her cheek to her mother's chest and wondered how her heart still beat.
Together they lay in amid the dawn, a fresh day but no light of promise because Duchess knew promise was a falsity.
"I love you. I'm sorry."
There was much Duchess could say, but for the moment she could find nothing more than "I love you. I know."