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Interview: April 3, 2018

Luke Allnutt’s debut novel, WE OWN THE SKY, is about a husband and father who must navigate the treacherous waters of childhood illness after his young son is diagnosed with a brain tumor. In this interview, conducted by’s Bronwyn Miller, Allnutt explains how his own battle with colon cancer inspired him to write this heartrending yet ultimately life-affirming book. He also talks very lovingly about his father, who passed away from a glioblastoma just three months after being diagnosed, and shares a few details about his second novel, which is about a comedian who goes blind. You started writing WE OWN THE SKY after you had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 2013. Given all that you were dealing with, what drew you to write a novel about a family coping with a child with cancer?

Luke Allnutt: I wanted to write about cancer and how it affects families: how families can change, struggle and unfortunately be pulled apart. When I was in the middle of chemotherapy, I thought I was going to die, that I was going to be separated from my own family. So the subject matter of grief, and the fear of losing a child, felt incredibly close and real to me.

BRC: The story opens with a very lost and distraught Rob, fumbling through his makeshift life. Did the novel always begin this way?

LA: Yes. I wanted to show the depths of Rob’s despair. But I also wanted to show that there is always a way back, that however bad life can be, there is always hope.

BRC: Young Jack is first diagnosed with an astrocytoma (brain tumor), but later it recurs as a more serious, almost always fatal, glioblastoma. Have you had you any experience with this type of cancer in your family or with close friends?

LA: A few months before I was diagnosed with colon cancer, my father passed away from a glioblastoma. He died three months after being diagnosed, the day before Valentine’s Day. Apart from the brain tumor, he was fit and healthy. I spent a lot of time with him in his last three months, and it was the most heartbreaking and difficult thing I had ever been through. I miss him so much.

BRC: Rob and Anna struggle with their son’s diagnosis in different ways. Anna is pretty stoic as Rob takes great comfort in the online forum Hope’s Place, started by a parent who lost his daughter to cancer. In the acknowledgements, you mention the forum Colontown. Can you tell us a little about that, and how what you read there influenced your writing?

LA: COLONTOWN is an amazing Facebook community, run by wonderful, devoted people. Being diagnosed with cancer is very isolating and, even with the support of friends and family, can be an incredibly lonely experience. What is brilliant about online cancer communities is that people understand what you’re going through --- they get the things that sometimes friends and family don’t. COLONTOWN is very well moderated so you don’t get this there, but on other message boards you get charlatans offering fake cures. You also get very desperate people who are willing to try anything. Often these people become victims to dodgy cancer clinics offering bogus treatments.

BRC: In a final “Hail Mary” pass to save his son’s life, Rob takes Jack to Prague for treatment at the controversial Dr. Sladkovsky’s clinic without Anna’s knowledge. What were you trying to illustrate about the importance of parents being on the same page about their child’s treatment? If they’re not, how can they get to a place of agreement?

LA: Even wonderful parents in happy relationships can disagree about aspects of bringing their children up: schools, activities, etc. (My wife and I constantly argue about whether the kids need a hat or not! She always wins.) In WE OWN THE SKY, I wanted to show how reasonable people in good, loving relationships can be pulled apart in extreme and tragic circumstances.

BRC: The section dealing with Nev and Dr. Sladkovsky is compelling and heart-wrenching. Was there a real-life case that inspired this aspect of the novel?

LA: Yes. Dr. Sladkovsky’s clinic is based on an actual cancer center, but for legal reasons I would prefer not to say the name. Nev was based on a real person, a cancer patient who has now passed away. He had an advanced cancer and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars doing experimental treatments. Some people accused him of being a charlatan, who would use his blog to bring other patients to the clinics where he was receiving treatment. (I don’t actually think that was the case.) He was an interesting character and quite controversial on some cancer forums.

BRC: You had said that you wanted to “be honest about how people respond to tragedy. Our thoughts are often dark; our actions unsavory. But I also wanted to show how resilient people are. And that kindness sometimes comes from surprising places.” Mission accomplished! WE OWN THE SKY definitely shows the painfully circuitous path this family embarks upon, without any kind of road map, with the mistakes and best intentions left in. What advice do you have for people who are dealing with a family crisis like this?

LA: I don’t really think I have any advice because I think the strength comes from within. I think people, when going through something like this, are often surprised by just how resilient they are. I know I was.

BRC: Rob’s idea (with Anna’s help) of the project Sunflowers, which gets high-tech companies to donate digital cameras and photography lessons to terminally ill children, is so lovely. Does something like that exist?

LA: Good question. *quickly Googles* Not that I know of, but perhaps it does. J

BRC: Did you learn anything surprising while writing WE OWN THE SKY? How do you think your own cancer journey impacted the story?

LA: I learned just how much I love writing. It made me so incredibly happy. I don’t think I could have written WE OWN THE SKY if I hadn’t had cancer. It came out of the highly emotional place I have been in for the last few years. Through my writing, I reflected on my own family and relationships. For me, writing was definitely therapy.

BRC: How is your health currently?

LA: I have been in remission for nearly five years. Or, in the current jargon, I’m NED (no evidence of disease). I owe that to medical science: good surgery and chemotherapy. I have also been very lucky. I never let myself forget that, every single day.

BRC: Do you have any plans for another novel, and if so, what can you share with our readers about it?

LA: Yes, I’m writing a second novel about a comedian who goes blind. My father was blind from birth, and I have always wanted to write about blindness. I feel that portrayals of blind people are often a little clichéd: blind person as all-seeing sage, for example. I would like to present a realistic portrait of what it’s like to be blind --- and how blindness can affect families. The book, I hope, is also a little bit funny, and I’m absolutely loving writing it.