It began in a crowded Richmond parking lot. Local novelist Erika Raskin had an appointment to re-enroll in the master of social work program she had begun at VCU, and couldn’t find a parking space. As she drove in circles something shifted within her. She laughs and says, “I was like, ‘You know what? Screw it,’ and I started writing. I bought a thesaurus and that was it. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Even before this pivotal moment in her career, Raskin, the daughter of a novelist and a political philosopher, had always written. “It was just something that was basically in the water,” she says. Her first novel, Close—about a seemingly normal family that ends up on a TV therapy show—was published in 2014 and nominated for a Teen Choice Book of the Year award. She began writing her latest novel, Best Intentions, nearly 25 years ago when she lived in Richmond, where her husband Keith was a medical resident.
As the wife of a doctor, she says, “There were certain things I had seen and I was just like, ‘This can’t be right.’ And, lo and behold, all these years later it’s the same.” In addition, she says, their daughter had a serious health condition. During the long hours Raskin sat with her in the hospital, she had ample time to observe her surroundings. “I say that I write what I know and I write what I worry about,” Raskin says. “So it was sort of seeing things and thinking, ‘This could be better.’”
Erika Raskin skillfully juxtaposes scenes of marital tension with the preparations for a murder trial, time traveling on the page from past to present until the two threads meet.
The protagonist of Best Intentions is Marti Trailor, a social worker and mother of three, who is married to an obstetrician. Raskin skillfully juxtaposes scenes of marital tension with the preparations for a murder trial, time traveling on the page from past to present until the two threads meet. Within the medical thriller, Marti casts a sharp lens on her Southern city and on her own privilege—as Raskin makes space to address racism and economic inequality, without slowing the pace. This narrative choice comes naturally because of the protagonist’s profession, but it also comes naturally to Raskin. There is a scene in which Marti is warned about getting too close to clients, which Raskin borrowed from her own social work training. “Good social workers know when to pull back or not cross the line,” Raskin says, “but I don’t see connecting with people as a bad thing at all. …I think that we’re all in this together.”
Amid all the drama, there are startlingly real moments of humor, particularly in scenes with Marti’s children. Raskin tends to blend tension and humor in her fiction, she says. “I think that’s sort of the way I go through life anyway. You gotta find the punchline.”
And she has. Over the last 25 years, Raskin rewrote the novel many times after it was rejected for one reason or another. “Every few years I would take it back out and bring the characters into the new decade,” she says. This required updating names that went out of style, and minute details within the exposition, like the fact that printer paper had perforated edges when she first started writing the book.
Now that the book is in the hands of readers, she hopes that, first, they enjoy it, but, second, that it gives them an awareness about their own communities. “If you’re alarmed by something, say something,” she says. “And I absolutely believe in universal, single-payer health care. And so does my husband.”