WRITERS TELL ALL
Amy Engel on THE ROANOKE GIRLS
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Amy! I am so happy to get to interview you. I’ve been fascinated since I first encountered your debut thriller, The Roanoke Girls. It was astonishing, completely enthralling and enveloping. The most astonishing aspect of the book seems to be the voice of its protagonist, Lane. How did you go about developing such an intriguing voice? How did you come up with this character and, more importantly, her story?
Amy Engel: Thanks so much for this opportunity and for your kind words about The Roanoke Girls. For me, almost every book I write starts with a character. I knew from the outset that Lane was going to be polarizing. She can be cruel and self-destructive and impulsive. But she’s also trying very hard to do her best with the limited coping tools she has at her disposal. I wanted her to feel painfully human to the reader, both for good and for ill. So that was probably the vision I kept in the forefront of my mind as I was crafting her character. As for her story, I just tried to be as honest as I could about how a childhood like Lane’s would impact a person. Given her history, she was never going to be sunshine and light. She was always going to be dark and more comfortable with pain than with happiness. That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for her, though.
MT: This may be a spoiler, but I think it’s important to discuss. Incest and the taboo are major elements in The Roanoke Girls, just as they have been in many other great books in recent years, like Alison Gaylin’s What Remains of Me and Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger. What made you decide to focus on these taboo subjects? Also, how do you think this story is relevant today? What would you say your message is, especially to the female audience?
AE: Honestly, I had the idea for the setting (a small town in Kansas with a creepy, gothic house) before I had the idea for the theme. I knew I wanted a story about family and the ways in which it can both lift us up and destroy us, but I played around with a couple of different ideas initially. I wanted a story that mimicked the feeling of the small town: isolated, insular, claustrophobic and that’s what eventually led me to the theme. I think the story is as relevant today as it was a decade ago or a hundred years ago. Familial sexual abuse is as old as time and it’s something we rarely talk about or look at in the light of day. It makes people uncomfortable in a way few other topics do and for that reason we like to pretend it doesn’t exist. But it does, and our unwillingness to talk about it only does more harm to victims. I’m not a big “message” author. I want people to enjoy my books and I want them to find their own meaning in what I write. But if pressed, I would say my message with The Roanoke Girls is that things like this happen every day, and it is never the fault of the victims, no matter what they did or didn’t do. It’s a horrible reality to live with, but you can survive it and life can go on.
MT: What are your writing habits like? Are you a morning or night writer? Do you write by hand or computer? How many drafts of The Roanoke Girls did you have to go through in order to reach this well-crafted and divinely spun masterpiece?
AE: Thank you for the lovely compliment! I tend to be a morning writer, but if I’m really in a groove I’ll write morning, noon, and night. I generally write on my laptop, although I will sometimes jot notes on paper when I’m out and about. I always keep a small notebook with me for just that reason. I tend to write pretty clean first drafts, but they also tend to be short. So I went through two drafts of the book before I sent it to agents and then had another round of edits with my publisher.
MT: You manage to effortlessly create suspense and also weave in family saga of sorts. You take into account all of, or most of, the Roanoke girls. What was the most important element of making this story about family, and both the ties that bind blood together but also the danger of family in certain ways?
AE: I am clearly fascinated with the bonds of family as all my books deal with that theme. I find it endlessly interesting the ways in which family shapes us. So much of who we are comes from the people who raise us and it can sometimes feel impossible to break those bonds even when we know we should. Families have their own rituals and rhythms and that can be so comforting. But sometimes, taken to the extreme, it can be suffocating or even dangerous.
MT: There seems to be lots of elements dealing with patriarchal (or, simply, the patriarchy) control over young women. In this book, women become brainwashed and tricked by father-figures, so much so that only Lane seems able to escape. What do you feel the message is here, and what made Lane strong enough to escape when she was younger?
AE: I think Lane was able to escape because she had a life before Roanoke. It wasn’t a good one, but she was at least able to fathom a world beyond Roanoke and Osage Flats. When I worked as a criminal defense attorney, I found that people tend to blame victims in crimes where there isn’t clear violence. Everyone knows who the bad guy is when a girl is chained up in a basement. But predators who rely on manipulation and charm leave behind victims who often end up bearing the brunt of the blame for what’s happened to them. Why didn’t she tell? Why didn’t she say no? I would never have let that happen to me! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of those words applied to victims. I guess my hope is that readers might identify with Allegra and the other Roanoke girls and recognize both the impossibility of their situation and their blamelessness in it.
MT: Of course, there are lots of elements of stories about small town life in The Roanoke Girls. Lane returns home and finds mostly everything the same, including the same people stuck in the small town. Would you say Lane has grown or stayed the same person throughout the entire book? What makes her story different from the other Roanoke girls who never got away? What makes her different from real-life victims who are unable to escape their abusers?
AE: I think by the end of the book Lane has definitely grown as a person. I think her early life away from Roanoke was one of the keys to her escape. I also think having unconditional love from Cooper was vital for her. Having someone who loved her even when she was at her worst, someone she couldn’t scare off or push away definitely helped Lane evolve.
MT: How do you feel about women being pitted against each other in literature? Do you see this in real life, and if so, did it ever affect your writing of The Roanoke Girls?
AE: I’m fine with women being pitted against each other in literature. Just like I’m fine with men being pitted against each other or men being pitted against women. All of those types of interactions happen in real life. Sometimes women can be terrible people, and I’m okay with acknowledging that. As long as the characters feel true to me and their actions make sense with who they are and what they’ve experienced, I’m all right with women behaving badly.
MT: You’re releasing crime books in a time when women are really taking over the crime industry, both as producers of crime fiction and also as consumers of these books. How do you think The Roanoke Girls stands out and why do you feel that your novel is important, especially at this time in our country, specifically for women but also for any audience in general?
AE: I think as much as the Me Too movement has opened up conversation and brought important issues to the forefront we still have a serious problem acknowledging and talking about familial sexual abuse. I’ve been saddened by the number of readers who’ve reacted negatively to the fact that I even wrote a book about the subject. As if not acknowledging the subject will make it go away. I think it’s vital that we talk about incest. It’s a particularly isolating crime and victims often stay silent because of the reactions they receive for speaking out.
MT: You manage to maintain suspense and intrigue constantly throughout the novel. Do you have any tips for new writers on maintaining these elements, as you do so effortlessly?
AE: Well, I don’t know if I do it effortlessly. And I also don’t know if I have any great advice, unfortunately. I don’t outline and try not to overthink a book as I’m writing it. I tend to just trust my instincts and let the story unfold. I would say to let your characters lead the way. If you can get readers invested in the characters and what is happening to them, then you’ve already gone a long way toward establishing suspense naturally.
MT: Did you ever find yourself getting attached to characters, or overly attached? And how did you map out what was going to happen in the novel? Did you know from the beginning the ultimate twist, or did it come to you as you were writing?
AE: I get freakishly attached to characters. They feel like real people to me and I often have a hard time letting go of them when I’m done writing a novel. I don’t map out what’s going to happen as I’m writing. When I start, I generally know how the book will begin and how it will end, but the rest is a complete mystery to me. I may have some vague ideas, but it doesn’t solidify until I’m actually writing. Honestly, I wouldn’t say that The Roanoke Girls really has a twist. Or at least I didn’t write it thinking there was a twist. But I did know who the perpetrators were from the beginning.
MT: Who are the writers in crime fiction/mysteries, etc, that you admire most? Did any one particular author or work help you with this novel? What crime books and mysteries do you keep coming back to?
AE: My favorites are probably all the usual suspects: Stephen King, Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Laura McHugh. I especially admire the way Tana French crafts her novels. They are well-written character driven police procedurals that keep you up at night turning pages as fast as you can. It’s an almost impossible trick and she makes it seem effortless. I have a soft spot for prickly, difficult main characters and whenever I get nervous about writing such a person I look to Gillian Flynn and how fearlessly she creates her protagonists.
MT: How would you like men to approach this book, and what would you like them to take away from it—especially heterosexual cis-white men?
AE: What a great question. As I said earlier, I’m not big on articulating what I want readers to get from my work. I want each reader to have their own experience and there’s no right answer. But I would hope that in reading the book heterosexual cis-white men recognize the power they are inherently born with and the ways in which it can be so easily used to subjugate others. I am in no way implying that all men are predators, but with a place at the top of the totem pole comes a responsibility to wield that power in a way that does the least amount of harm.
MT: What role does love play in this story—familial, fraternal, sexual, romantic, etc? Why do you think it was important for Lane to have a love interest?
AE: Love is probably the central emotion in this book. Both love that nurtures and love that destroys. I think we sometimes have an idea that love is always a positive thing. But certain kinds of love can be poisonous and go hand-in-hand with shame and guilt. I wanted to explore all the varied types of love. I thought it was important for Lane to have a love interest so that she could have some experience of love that was positive. That’s not to say that her relationship with Cooper is always healthy. Their love is especially fraught and damaging when they are young. But they manage to grow and mature together.
MT: Recommend three books to follow The Roanoke Girls—not necessarily mysteries, or even fiction. What books would readers of The Roanoke Girls benefit from most after finishing your novel?
AE: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, and Faithful Place by Tana French. They all three explore love and family and the ways in which it can both nurture and destroy us.
MT: What were your biggest challenges in writing this novel? What hurdles did you have to overcome in order to make a book this cohesive, this intelligent, and this brilliant? Is there anything, looking back on the novel, that you would change? No spoilers, please!
AE: To be honest, this book just flowed from the first sentence. There were some points where I briefly wondered if I was going too dark, but it always felt like where the story and the characters needed to go. I don’t think there’s anything I would change; I’m still happy with how the novel turned out. I knew from the outset that the book wouldn’t be for everyone and that’s okay with me.
MT: There’s also this theme of brainwashing and gaslighting and so on, especially within the Roanoke home. The abusive relationship occurs within the family. Other than the reasons mentioned in the book, what do you think made Allegra stay behind?
AE: I don’t think Allegra had any concept that there was anywhere else to go. She’d never been outside a very small radius of the world. Beyond that, I think there was a large part of her that loved Roanoke, just as Lane said. She felt adored and cherished in that house and had been conditioned her whole life to believe that no one else would ever feel that way about her. We all have a fundamental need to be loved and Allegra’s need for love was expertly exploited to keep her stationary.
MT: What’s next for you? Do you have another book in the works? I’m sure our readers are dying to know after speeding through The Roanoke Girls.
AE: I do have another book in the works. It’s adult psychological suspense and I’m almost done with it (fingers crossed!).
MT: Thank you so much for allowing me to pick your brain, Amy! We love The Roanoke Girls, and we hope our followers will too. Thank you for shedding light on everything about the book, and we can’t wait for another book from you!
AE: Thank you so much for your great questions!
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