Seventeen-year-old CJ Ainsworth doesn’t drive—not because she can’t, but because she won’t.
She’s been living with the guilt of being the sole survivor of the head-on
collision that claimed her mother’s and sister’s lives. It’s the reason she refuses to get behind the wheel. It’s the reason her father has nearly abandoned her. It’s the reason she’s sent to piddle the summer away at her estranged Memaw’s house in Edisto Beach.
All CJ wants to do is isolate herself and make it to the trial at summer’s end, where she’ll testify against the stranger who couldn’t keep his car in its own lane.
She doesn’t expect to fall for a boy, especially not Jett Ramsey, a hotshot racing champion destined for greatness on the NASCAR circuit.
CJ’s resolve crumbles when she loses a bet that puts her squarely in Jett’s
driver’s seat. While he patiently reintroduces her to driving, they confide in each other, and CJ learns she’s not the only one silently suffering through a loss.
As their connection deepens, Jett’s focus on the track is called into question. CJ can’t be the cause of another car crash, but her heart is broken either way. Can CJ learn to put her heart in drive? Or will she throw it in reverse?
A summer away at Memaw’s can’t rectify everything that fell apart in a single minute, but that won’t stop my dad from forcing it on me.
My fingers wrench tighter around the handle grip of Dad’s Ford Explorer as he hugs the center line, tires thumping over golden reflectors in waves and shooting vibrations through my seat. I glance over my shoulder to make sure the door lock is crammed to its neck into the tan vinyl interior. Not that it’d make a difference if he were to flip this thing head-over-end into the muddy goop of tidal flats along either side of the road. If a body’s going to exit a car in a hurry, it sure as hell won’t wait for an unlocked door.
These kinds of thoughts never shoved their way into my brain before the accident. Now they circulate like a washing machine stuck on the spin cycle.
I sigh and yank my phone off the dashboard. 4:15 PM. Only ten more minutes to get my summer of hell underway.
A notification blinks on the home screen. One new email from Trent Casey and all I can see of it is “CJ, things have changed so much this last year that I think…” Inbox preview cruelty at its finest. A little sneak peek of my on-again, off-again boyfriend kicking me to the curb because I’ve been too screwed up to screw him the past year. Not that I’d screwed him before, or anyone else for that matter.
I toss the phone in the cup holder and stare over at my dad in the driver’s seat, his eyes fixed and hooded as if in a trance. He hasn’t spoken in over a hundred miles, but I’ve strategically coughed from time to time to make sure there’s at least a reaction to the noise, and he’s not comatose or something. Plus, it’s easier than actually talking, and it warrants no response from him. Win-win.
Dad flips on the blinker, its dink-doonk, dink-doonk, dink-doonk signaling a right turn. Into where I have no idea, and unless Memaw has taken up living in a dilapidated open-air shack, he’s seriously misguided. He pulls into one of the ten open parking slots, demarcated by rows of conch shells instead of actual painted-on lines. How beachy of them.
Dad lets the engine idle, sliding his phone from the pocket of his polo and pecking out a text message without so much as a word or glance in my direction. I unlatch my seatbelt and open the door, easing out onto the hot, gritty sand, which creeps into my sandals and scratches at the skin.
“Where are we?” When he doesn’t respond, I step beside the open door, banging my hand on the window. “Dad, where are we?”
“Edisto Island, of course,” he mumbles, never looking up from his phone, his fingers still moving furiously over the screen.
I point to the rectangular banner draped atop the entrance with what looks like a hand-stenciled Welcome to Edisto Beach, SC! in blue paint. “No shit. I mean, what is this place?”
“Watch your mouth, CJ. I’m still your father.” He finally looks up long enough to glare across his steering wheel at the banner, squinting as if it’s written in some foreign language before looking back at me. He waves his hand around. “We’re obviously at the market.”
The entrance isn’t a single open-close door but one of those garage-style deals that pulls down from the ceiling. Oyster shell wind chimes tinkle in the breeze. I take a deep breath, the briny air expanding in my lungs and coating my skin, and somehow start imagining myself as one of those slugs we used to find on the back porch at home and pour salt over. Almost immediately, their slimy little bodies would foam up and implode, turning into a dried-up crispie we’d flick off in the grass the next day. Maybe that’ll happen to me, and I can simply shrivel up and disappear.
Dad gets out and lifts the back hatch, and I walk to meet him, giving an extra foot shake on each step to loosen the stowaway sand from my sandals.
“But why are we here?”
“This is where Memaw’s picking you up.” He hauls out my two large suitcases and sets them under the overhang. “She’s running late, but she’ll be here within the next twenty minutes.”
“And you’re just gonna leave me here?” I thumb over my shoulder.
He stares at me as if I’ve just asked for an explanation on the meaning of life, standing like a statue except for the front flip of his thinning auburn hair that tousles with the breeze. That hair, along with his chocolate brown eyes and freckles, are the only things we even share anymore. Everything else is gone. Evaporated.
“Don’t be dramatic, CJ. I have a long drive home.” He slams the hatch, walks to his still-open driver door and slides in behind the wheel. The passenger window rolls down part-way. “I’ll see you at the end of summer. Bye.” The words scarcely exit his lips before the window’s rolled up and he’s peeling out of the parking lot on two wheels as if he’s off to a five-alarm fire.
Wow. Truly heartfelt. I think he might miss me. I lock my jaw, forcing my quivering stomach back in its rightful place. Part of me loathes him for just dumping me here. The other part understands, though. He hates me for what happened and wants me gone too.
I can’t blame him for that.
What inspired you to write As Much As I Ever could?
It really started out as the inspiration in a theme that stirred around in my mind after listening to two songs in particular: Drive by Incubus and Drive by The Cars. I knew I wanted it to involve a tragic car accident (this is one of my worst fears!) and dealing with survivor’s guilt and finding beauty in the aftermath of tragedy. Of course I wanted the ideal hero who could pull my emotionally-wrought heroine out of her funk and that’s where the idea came into play…a girl afraid to drive? Who is her complete opposite? A race car driver, of course! That’s how the idea rooted and sort of grew from that point.
Who is your favorite character in As Much As I Ever Could and why?
I really should say one of the main characters right, but no…it’s Memaw! I mean, her character just sort of grew from a seed of an idea that I wanted her to be “smart, sassy, and a bit bad-assy” and wow…she became a unique blend of Blanche Devereaux (Golden Girls) and Ouiser Boudreaux (Steel Magnolias). She is the catalyst through which the summer happens for CJ and Jett, and can I just say that I hope I can one day be this sort of grandma?
What is it like releasing a sophomore book?
It’s a weird mix of not-as-stressful-as-debut and way-more-stressful-than-debut. I know, I’m a paradox in pants! LOL The debut novel is all excitement and nervousness in a whirlwind because you don’t know really what to expect and you’re just doing what you can and what you’re told to do. With the sophomore book, you know what works and what doesn’t. You have a better idea of how and where to spend your time promoting and working for the release. However, you also already have a goal to beat…I mean, who wants to release a second book that doesn’t outperform the first? There’s a reason people fear the dreaded “sophomore slump” and it does hang over your head sometimes like a dark shadow. However, I do my best just to focus on the positives and the fun side of it—people will be reading my book shortly and I LOVE CJ and Jett so I’m ecstatic to share them with everyone.
What do you like best about writing contemporary?
I am “that girl” who dropped her philosophy class in college because I couldn’t bring myself to comprehend what I felt was the professor’s insanity. (Do we really know what time it is? Or did everyone’s watch stop at 10 o’clock last night?) I’m thoroughly grounded in the here and now and prefer telling stories about the current issues going on with teens and our world in a “real Earth” setting. All you fantasy lovers don’t freak out on me…I do read grounded fantasy and magical realism, just not the high fantasy. Besides, I have teenagers in my house so writing from their daily experiences is also right up my alley!
What are your top three contemporary books ever?
Ack! How can I narrow them down?
- Second Chance Summer – Morgan Matson
- The Prince of Tides – Pat Conroy
- The Summer I Turned Pretty – Jenny Han
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m about at 50/50 blend of each. I start out with a theme, plot my biggest turning points and scenes and then fill in the rest as it comes. If the plot or characters ever feel as if they’re taking me in a different direction, I’m not opposed to following it. Sometimes they know better than me!
Who is your favorite author and why?
I’m not going to lie—I grew up a total VC Andrews junkie. Holy Southern drama and family dynamics! That’s also why I probably have always enjoyed Pat Conroy novels as well. If we’re going to kick it more contemporary, though, I’d have to say that I devour anything from Morgan Matson because she can tap into those delicious deep feels!
Did you already know a lot about race car driving before writing As Much As I Ever Could?
Growing up in the South, I can’t remember many Sundays when “the race” wasn’t on the den’s television. It was just the tradition. That being said, I was never one to really sit and watch it. I’m more of a football girl in real life. So when I started writing AMAIEC, I did have to do a bit of research on the ins and outs of racing and I watched hours of YouTube videos of NASCAR crashes to accurately write the crash scene.
What’s your favorite color?
I love so many colors, but I’d have to say blue and orange are my favorites. They both have a very different appeal, though both emotionally-set. Blues are calm, serene and oranges are happy and powerful. If I had to narrow down the exact hues, I’d say sapphire blue and Clemson orange.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I could fill up several blog pages with this! I’ll keep it short and simple: 1. Read in your genre 2. Google for resources and learn as much as you can 3. Find some trusted critique partners and get their feedback on your work 4. Never give up. This career isn’t easy, but it’s fun. And rewarding!
Did you grab your copy of As Much As I Ever Could?