Lynn Clay Byrne

Ridge­wood mom’s novel has a heart-tug­ging twist


Lynn Clay Byrne is a new nov­el­ist whose book, The Sextant, is a hero’s jour­ney based in mythol­ogy. But more than that, it’s a story that grew from the life of this Ridge­wood mother of seven and the loss of her el­dest son, Pa­trick. Three years ago, Pa­trick, who had served as ad­vi­sor and ed­i­tor of the novel-in-progress, died sud­denly of a heart at­tack at age 33, while Byrne was still work­ing on the novel.

It was Pa­trick’s knowl­edge of Greek mythol­ogy that in­spired the frame­work for The Sextant. And it was Pa­trick’s death that in­spired Byrne’s own hero’s jour­ney to com­plete the book.

Byrne’s chil­dren range in age from 11 to 34. She met her hus­band, Bob, back in 8th grade in Mor­ris­town. She spoke to (201) Fam­ily in a re­cent in­ter­view.

Q: What in­spired you to write The Sextant?

Byrne: I was drawn to the sub­ject of the hero path be­cause I wanted to pur­sue a mes­sage of hope and in­tegrity in a world rid­dled with fear, dis­trust and of­ten a sense of pow­er­less­ness. I wanted to cel­e­brate the hu­man spirit. I wanted to ad­dress the hero in­side ev­ery per­son and when I said that to my old­est child, Pa­trick, he asked me if I knew about Joseph Camp­bell, the fa­mous mythol­o­gist. Camp­bell soon be­came my own hero and my muse. His in­cred­i­ble knowl­edge of uni­ver­sal mythol­ogy guided my hand be­gin­ning to end. He in­tro­duced me to the hero path (think Star Wars) and how it’s been used through­out his­tory. I ended up mak­ing my own 1940s ver­sion of that sto­ry­line.

Q. Does the story have par­al­lels to your own life?

Byrne: I never imag­ined per­sonal tragedy would be­come a driv­ing fac­tor in my story,

where I would find my two worlds dev­as­tat­ingly in­ter­twined. The fact that I com­pleted The Sextant at all turned into a re­demp­tion of sorts. And my own story changed this one, I think.

About half­way through the book, one of my char­ac­ters (spoiler) dies. I fin­ished that last scene be­fore the death, then left with my hus­band and younger chil­dren for a trip down south. While we were gone, my son, Pa­trick, died sud­denly of the same cause as my char­ac­ter. It is not easy to write those words, even now al­most three years later. It does not get eas­ier. It does not. We came home to an unimag­in­able re­al­ity.

It was a year be­fore I be­gan to write again, and iron­i­cally it be­came a con­nec­tion to Pa­trick for me, a com­fort and a chal­lenge I could not re­lin­quish. My story could not be left aban­doned; it could not re­main un­fin­ished.

The tenor of the story changed some­what, un­doubt­edly. I kept to my orig­i­nal notes, fol­low­ing the sto­ry­line just as I had planned long ago, but a di­men­sion emerged that I didn’t see at first, then be­came aware of dur­ing rewrites. It was a path to re­demp­tion the char­ac­ters’ jour­ney ac­quired, un­rec­og­nized at first by them and me, but grad­u­ally be­com­ing sig­nif­i­cant.

Q: What role did your fam­ily play in the cre­ation of the book?

Byrne: The chil­dren in the book are mo­saics of my own! The imp Her­man is es­pe­cially rem­i­nis­cent of the viewpoint of boys en­joy­ing a par­al­lel universe to re­al­ity. They were fun then and now, and ever en­ter­tain­ing.

Q: Was there any warn­ing be­fore Pa­trick’s heart at­tack?

Byrne: If this in­for­ma­tion could help any other per­son any­where, I would be so grat­i­fied. Pa­trick had se­vere sleep ap­nea and had ev­ery in­ten­tion of ad­dress­ing it as “soon as he had a chance.” The fact is, he was so young we thought he had time. We had no idea it could cause so much dam­age to his heart.

Q: How have you and your fam­ily worked through the grief of such a loss?

Byrne: I do not feel like any kind of ex­pert on over­com­ing grief, most cer­tainly. We sim­ply got out of bed ev­ery day and went through as many of the mo­tions of liv­ing as we could. We got bet­ter at that over time, with ther­apy for most of us, bath­tubs full of tears and count­less miles of deep-breath walk­ing. It’s not nearly over, and I as­sume it can’t be. But what I my­self have clung to is the un­der­stand­ing that my love for Pa­trick was un­con­di­tional and pure of heart, and any mis­takes I made were com­mit­ted un­in­ten­tion­ally. That’s all I’ve got, plus his cher­ished legacy for our fam­ily – where there are so, so many happy mem­o­ries.

Q: Your fam­ily is a blended bi­o­log­i­cal/adopted fam­ily. What led you to the jour­ney of adop­tion? Byrne: We had five kids of our own and we weren’t done yet! But we thought we’d con­trib­uted enough of our own genes, un­doubt­edly, and yet we knew that our fam­ily had room for some­one else – a plan orig­i­nally imag­ined as a thank you for our own bless­ings, but that turned out to be a gift for us that sur­passed any­thing we could have dreamt up. Our youngest, who came to us at 7 months, is a trea­sure that is hard to over­state. He has added a di­men­sion to the Byrne fam­ily that sim­ply would have been va­cant with­out him. And I don’t only mean the tal­ents he brings to our fam­ily that none of us would ever have in­her­ited! His birth brother, who came to us when he was 15 years old, is a kind- hearted, well-in­ten­tioned kid who is still tor­mented by his past, and to whom we have not yet fully pro­vided so­lace. We are not giv­ing up, and nei­ther is he.

Q: As mom of a large fam­ily, do you have ad­vice for other moth­ers about how to keep up with the ev­ery­day de­mands of fam­ily? Byrne: Fam­ily is about the only solid ground in a wob­bly universe. It’s not per­fect, but it does pro­vide a source of per­fect love. A mom is “base,” the safe place to ven­ture out from and re­turn to, when­ever one needs. She has a vig­i­lant eye for in­ner tur­moil, a whip-crack­ing wrist for proper in­cen­tive, an iron stom­ach for all man­ner of gross­ness and a bot­tom­less ves­sel of pride. I just think it helps to know we are all cling­ing to the same home base for all the same rea­sons.

Q: What is your fa­vorite thing about be­ing a mother? Byrne: Oh, I know ab­so­lutely! There is nowhere bet­ter than the din­ing room ta­ble when all of my fam­ily is there to­gether. It en­com­passes all the senses and is as close to idyl­lic as life gets.

Q: How has writ­ing the book changed you? Byrne: Be­ing an au­thor is just a the­ory un­til all the pages are glued to­gether and a cover is slapped on, with the name of a publisher printed on the first page. I was taken un­awares by the force of see­ing my book in print. I had no idea it would have such a pow­er­ful im­pact. Life­long dreams don’t al­ways come true; no one needs to be re­minded of that. So when this one did, for me, the im­pact was mon­u­men­tal. This book is the phys­i­cal ev­i­dence of my am­bi­tion to cre­ate some­thing unique, an orig­i­nal work that is also the best I have to of­fer – so far. I’m in­cred­i­bly grat­i­fied to prove to my­self I can do that. And the re­sult is that I will take the chal­lenge again, and build on what I have be­gun. What a priv­i­lege that is, and so in­cred­i­bly fun.

FAM­ILY AF­FAIR Lynn Clay Byrne with her fam­ily, in­clud­ing son Pa­trick, who in­spired her book and died dur­ing the writ­ing. Front row: Colby, El­iz­a­beth, Bob, Matt and Shea the dog. Back row, left to right, Pa­trick, Lynn, Peter, Joseph, Cooper.

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