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Some of her most painful source material arose from her mother’s attempt to relay her version of the day, on yellow legal pads she left for Mandel. “Every time she wrote it, it was the same. She thought the furnace blew up. She heard Donna calling her.
Imagine that: The last thing you hear is your child calling you,” Mandel said. Donna was pinned beneath a beam, unable to escape, while Linda, the baby, was on fire. “She questioned herself forever about that, because she ran down to help Linda out of the door and in the meantime she didn’t get Donna out.”
Mandel’s own urge to publish the story surfaced after her parents passed away within one year of each other. In the first chapter of “Replacement Child,” she describes losing them both and saying Kaddish as her family spreads their ashes. Her parents chose to be cremated in homage to their daughter lost in the flames — counter to Jewish custom, but right for them.
“I started to think, I’m not going to live forever,” Mandel said. She wanted to write the family story as a legacy for her son, Justin Butler, who is in his mid-20s and lives in Brooklyn.
The writing process was arduous; it took her 10 or 11 revisions to work out the structure for the book. What eventually emerged from the process, numerous writing classes and conferences (I first met Mandel at one such conference, in 2008) was an imaginative, anguished but clear retelling of the fateful day of the crash, interspersed with stories of her childhood of rebellion against Donna’s angelic image, of her period of daredevil activity as a young woman — including the time she flew a glider plane — and of her long struggle to find a lasting partnership.
Despite the fact that editors and agents were fascinated by Mandel’s project, they kept telling her they weren’t sure they could sell it. So after a year, she published under her own imprint, eventually selling more than 14,000 copies, many of them ebooks. Her marketing background and the appeal of her story helped.
“The response was slow to build. It was a dribbling response when I first started. I did do a lot of marketing, and the ebook really caught on,” she said.