The idea for my novel, IF YOU LEAVE, came first as an image. A woman curled on a dark window ledge at night, smoking, brooding, plotting how to leave a man she’d gotten hitched to during the war, who was still away fighting its end. She’d found out some things about him she didn’t like. Over time the woman acquired a name, a history, made some mistakes, but that specific image is no longer in the book. Her name also changed. She found a different job and married a different man. She hurt people without meaning to. Titles came and went. Is it the same book? I don’t know. Is the ship of Theseus the same ship after every plank is changed out? Philosophers still debate this. But if I squint, I see the title was there all along, carved right into that window ledge.
When I started writing, I had uncovered layers of Washington, DC’s history, including that the owner of the Hope Diamond once owned the tract of land on which I imagined the woman’s smoking. To help win World War II, hundreds of others like her moved to the city. I interviewed several, tiny and old women now, hunched over with stories of how hard they worked. They also drank and smoked and fell in love.
For many men, war defined The Best Years of Our Lives, according to that 1946 film. They never felt more alive. I saw how it might have been similar for women on the home front. Not the same kind of violence, but parallel stories of freedom and sisterhood and sacrifice, and blood, too, because, well, that comes with being a woman and birthing children. Friendships formed, perhaps under duress, in the city’s odd and crowded living arrangements. The gap between what women wanted to achieve and what they could actually accomplish was its own kind of trench. Stepping into a man’s world, as these women did, cost them something. And though everyone might have been happy when the killing came to an end, not everyone—woman or man—was happy about the war’s ending.
I’ve been referring to the writing of this book, but I’ve always been writing. In the fourth grade, I survived many dreaded hours of kickball knowing that Mrs. Bowlin was going to read from Ramona the Pest immediately after. Sitting at my desk, listening to Beverly Cleary’s story, I had never felt more alive; I wanted to do that. Make someone else feel: understood or less alone, joy or disappointment.
I co-authored my first manuscript with my pal Sara later that same year about a gymnast who suffers a bad fall; in sixth grade I penned a tale of two lovers touring Europe—soap operas, my after-school habit, influenced my earliest narratives. In high school I wrote poetry and at the University of North Carolina, short stories, where I completed an honors thesis in creative writing. Eventually I earned an MFA from George Mason University, where I was awarded the Heritage Award for distinguished fiction. Jobs in environmental reporting and business marketing came before and after.
My short fiction has been published in The South Carolina Review, The Sun, The Chattahoochee Review, Artful Dodge, the anthology Abundant Grace, and The Antioch Review. If ever I’m given the chance to teach writing or talk about fiction in groups, I leap at it. Next to writing, sharing my passion for reading, by analyzing a story to see how it works, might be my favorite thing to do.
As with my novel, most stories begin with images for me. Sometimes I paint them with watercolors or oils instead of words. In either case, I work to draw the story from the image. In the end, the impulse comes from the same desires. To create. To make a world where there isn’t one. To cast a spell.
None of this is accomplished on my own. I’m grateful to my husband, Carter, and my daughter, Amelia, who brighten every day. And teachers along the way, including Doris Betts, Jill McCorkle, Richard Bausch, Susan Shreve—so many chapters written in her studio—Stephen Goodwin, Edward P. Jones, and the late Alan Cheuse; I carry what I learned from them, and their belief in me, onto every page. Friends and fellow writers in my midst—you know who you are. Thank you, all.
Regal House Publishing is delighted to bring you Margaret Hutton’s If You Leave as part of our Fall 2025 Frontlist season.