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Libyan air crash: 'There was a picture of Ruben in his hospital bed. He was so beautiful and small and broken'

Ann Napolitano tells Tanya Sweeney how her own curiosity about nine-year-old Ruben van Assouw, the sole survivor of a Libyan air crash in 2010, forms the backbone of her third novel

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Ann Napolitano

Ann Napolitano

Ruben van Assouw

Ruben van Assouw

Ann Napolitano

In 2010, a plane travelling from South Africa to Tripoli crashed in Libya, leaving a sole survivor in the form of nine-year-old Ruben van Assouw. A total of 103 passengers and crew members, including Ruben's mother, father and older brother, died in the crash. Ruben was found half a mile away, semi-conscious and still strapped into his aeroplane seat.

In New York, the tragedy hit writer Ann Napolitano particularly hard. With two sons (aged one and three) of her own, she began to "obsess" over the story, and in particular Ruben's experience of losing his parents and brother.

"Part of it obsessed me immediately and my sticky writer's interest," Napolitano recalls. "I couldn't read enough about it."

One aspect of the scenario fascinated Napolitano in particular. In 2010, social media was in its infancy, and the aftermath of the crash played out on Facebook and Twitter in ways she had never witnessed before.

"When I was reading everything I could about the crash, that included young girls posting up Facebook pages about how cute he was and how sad they were for him," she recalls. "Elsewhere, aviation aficionados were speculating on how the plane might have crashed, because (authorities) hadn't released this information.

"For the first time, there was this massive event, and it wasn't just journalists reporting on it," she adds. "There was a picture of (Ruben) in the media in his hospital bed, and he was so beautiful and small and broken. How was he going to get out of that hospital bed without his mom and dad and brother, and possibly create his own life?"

The question formed the backbone for Napolitano's third novel, Dear Edward. Here, 12-year-old Edward is the sole survivor of a flight from New York to Los Angeles, where he is relocating with his mother, father and older brother Jordan.

After being discharged from hospital after the plane crash, he is adopted by his sole surviving blood relative, his aunt Lacey, and her husband John. They are weathering their own personal problems, but now have to not only help Edward through his physical and emotional recovery, but shield him from the world's considerable attention.

Edward finds a friend in his new next-door neighbour, a young girl named Shay. One day, he discovers a large bag of letters written to him by the loved ones of those who did not survive that fateful crash.

Ruben van Assouw's new family have done such a stellar job of protecting his privacy that Napolitano never found out much about the fate of the youngster, now 19.

"I needed to know that he was okay, but of course there was no way for me to know that, so for me to believe that somehow the boy was okay, I had to create a set of fictional circumstances. When I started writing the story, my boys were at that toddler age - they don't know who they are, but they were completely devoted to each other and deeply in love since I brought the second one home," Napolitano adds.

"I would have assumed that for a boy like Edward, the loss of his parents would be the greatest loss, but then I started to think that the greatest loss for one of my boys would be if I separated them. You're not supposed to be separated from your sibling. You grow up and move apart from your parents, but the love you have for a sibling bakes itself into you."

In writing the novel, Napolitano has spent much of the past 10 years researching aviation science, not to mention similar tragedies. She read extensively to create the other passengers on the flight, from an ailing billionaire octogenarian to a soldier recently returned from service. Napolitano was keen, too, not to sensationalise the tragedy, and has written about the crash and its aftermath in a measured, wholly affecting way.

"To do otherwise would simply have been disrespectful to those who had gone through a similar situation," she admits. "The pressure I put on myself in that regard was immense."

Dear Edward shot to Number 2 in the Hardcover Fiction category of the New York Times' bestseller list last month, and has become a word-of-mouth sensation. Closer to home, the book has been blurbed effusively by John Boyne and Emma Donoghue, and has been compared to the latter's novel, Room.

"I feel very grateful when writers you really respect even take the time to read it, let alone say nice things," Napolitano notes. "(Boyne's) The Heart's Invisible Furies is one of my all-time favourites, and for people to relate the book to Room… that's a real case of 'I'm Done'. Nothing else I could do would possibly top it."

As to how it feels to have a potential global hit on her hands, as predicted by many in the business, Napolitano adds: "Mostly, it's interesting. I feel like I'm playing the role of an author that everyone's excited about. But I can feel that the book has a longer life in front of it than some other books might have. It's not a role I thought I'd play, so I'm curious about it."

Several interested parties have expressed a desire to option Dear Edward for the screen, and now the latest word is that it could soon be made into a TV series.

For now, Napolitano is readying herself to write Dear Edward's follow-up, after letting new characters percolate inside her head for the past year.

"Edward and Shay will be in the next book, too, although it's 10 years later and a much different story," Napolitano explains.

"I'll have to start writing soon. I write for my mental health mainly. It's just part of who I am, so I have to do it to be myself," she adds.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano and published by Penguin Random House is out now

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