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.