WRITERS TELL ALL
Amy Engel on Writing the Impossible Novel You've Always Wanted But Didn't Think Possible
Note: While Amy is one of the friendliest people I know, she's also incredibly mysterious, just like her novels. The Familiar Dark, her new novel out soon, is one of the best novels of the year and likely the decade, a revenge-drug-dark novel where you root for the character to go darker, showing exactly how to execute the perfect novel about a mother wanting justice for her murdered daughter. This is not a book you read slowly, but instead will pull you in immediately and you'll keep pushing toward the spectacular ending, which she nails perfectly. I hope you all will preorder the novel, and read Amy's other work as well! She's a phenomenal writer and person.
Matthew Turbeville: Amy! You are one of my very favorite authors working today, and one of the best writers period. I loved your new book, The Familiar Dark. Can you talk about what helped you come up with this premise or where the idea first initially began to develop for you?
Amy Engel: I’m never very good at pinpointing where or when an idea comes to me. I knew I wanted this novel to be set in the Midwest, which is where all my novels take place. And I’ve spent plenty of time in the Missouri Ozarks, so it seemed like the perfect spot for this book, a dark, character-driven mystery with lots of secrets. I came up with the opening first, and from there the entire story unfolded.
MT: You write a lot about family and issues involving trust/distrust within family systems. After all, this book is essentially all about blood, mothers and daughters, the ties that bond. What do you think your writing says about family in your area of the country (as you do represent your own region in such a great way) and also in America in general? What draws you back to this idea of family and the values within family, the protection and the loss, the need and the want of everyone involved?
AE: I don’t always set out to write about family dynamics, but somehow family ends up at the heart of every book I write. I think family is important in all parts of this country, and all parts of the world, but in the rural Midwest family can sometimes take on a bigger role than in other places. We see each other often, we have traditions that are passed down and glorified, we tend to stick together. And I find those family relationships endlessly fascinating. The ways in which we love each other, but also the ways we hurt each other. And the lasting imprints that both those things leave on us.
MT: The book is rather slim, which makes for both a quick beach read but also an engrossing stay-up-all-night thriller. And yet every character feels so well drawn out and wonderfully crafted. What are your tricks to helping push the characters to the surface with so little? What do you suggest to rising authors?
AE: First of all, thank you, what a lovely compliment. And second, I wish I had a good answer to this. I’ve always been a “less is more” writer. I don’t think I could write a 600 page book if I had a gun held to my head. The characters are always what I start with. I’m more interested in the people--their relationships, their flaws, and wants, and needs—than in anything else. Maybe that somehow just floats to the surface as I write? For me, the trick is probably not over-thinking. I try not to think too much about the book before I write it, and that includes the characters. They speak to me on the page and I just sort of channel them.
MT: What books or movies inspired The Familiar Dark? What do you think inspired you in real life—not just as far as the plot, but the people, the world the book is set in? How close to reality is this to where you are from? You are so familiar with the landscape, the town, the people, and this desperate loneliness and need for hope akin to Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.
AE: I think most current rural noir authors owe some sort of debt to Daniel Woodrell. And Laura McHugh does an excellent job writing rural noir novels. But I didn’t have a particular book or movie that inspired The Familiar Dark. It was inspired more by time I’ve spent in the Ozarks. Although I don’t live there, I do live in Missouri and the Ozarks are only a short drive away. It’s a forgotten part of the world, really, once you get beyond Branson and the tourist trap lake resorts. There’s real poverty there and people who have no way out of it. There’s no “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” because there are no bootstraps. I don’t think rural poverty is represented very often in crime fiction and I wanted to try and tell a story about a woman, and a family, who live in that reality every day.
MT: When writing a novel like this, how do you go about mapping this out? What do you have figured out from the beginning and how far ahead do you plan on the ending? Do you know the guilty party the whole time you’re writing? What pushes you forward toward this great, cathartic, epic climax?
AE: I don’t map out my books at all. I know how they start and generally how they will end, but other than that it’s a blank slate. Occasionally I’ll write myself into a corner, but that doesn’t happen as often as you might think. It’s like my lizard brain understands which way to go when I’m writing. I do usually know the guilty party, but I don’t know how it’s all going to play out. With this book, I had a pretty good idea of what Eve would do in the end, but up until the moment I wrote the scene I still wasn’t 100% sure.
MT: Having written for different age groups before, what advantages do you think you had over other writers who might write a similar story? How did you understand certain characters better due to your previous writing, or were you ever limited to understanding other characters as well?
AE: Honestly, I don’t think having written young adult novels previously gives me any sort of advantage. I always try to think about my characters at every age, even if I’m not writing about them as teenagers or young adults. As I’m creating them on the page I’m viewing their whole lives in my mind. Why they’ve turned into the adults they are, what experiences have led them to certain places. But I think that’s how I’ve always approached my writing, no matter what age I’m writing for.
MT: My mother once sat me down when we were in Boston and explained she loved me so much there would never be a situation where (she referenced a Sally Field movie where the daughter is murdered and Sally has to go on the hunt) the film’s story would never happen. What do you think is so strong about a mother’s love, especially contrasted with the narrator, Eve, and her own mother and the toxic relationship between the two? How can two worlds exist like this, worlds within people I mean? How can one love her daughter so much, and the other claim not to? And, of course, I don’t want to spoil anything else.
AE: I think despite the cruel and hurtful things Eve’s mother says and does, I would argue she loves Eve in the best way she can. She’s just not equipped to love in a way that doesn’t cause damage, if that makes sense. But if we were basing love on a person’s willingness to fight for someone, then I’d say Eve’s mother definitely loves. But Eve’s love for her own daughter, Junie, is purer and less toxic, absolutely. I think every mother in this book is doing the best she can for her daughter given the circumstances she finds herself in.
MT: If readers want to read more like your own work, and you had to pick out a few authors similar to your own writing, what authors would you suggest and what books might you recommend to readers waiting eagerly for your next book?
AE: Winter’s Boneby Daniel Woodrell; The Weight of Bloodby Laura McHugh; Sharp Objectsby Gillian Flynn. They’re all amazing examples of rural noir and I’ve read them all multiple times. I’m also a huge fan of Tana French’s novels. They’re set in Ireland and are wonderfully written examples of character-driven mysteries.
MT: Even though Eve’s mother only lives a short way down the road from her in a sense, she is also worlds away. The novel functions as a sort of homecoming novel, a subgenre (sub-sub?) in the crime community. What is so important about the homecoming novel now, and why do you think people are so often drawn back into these dark places, other than to face their own past demons? What is Eve’s reason for returning to her own dark space?
AE: I think home is a powerful thing. The place where we’re raised and grow up and learn about the world can have a vise-like grip on a person. Sometimes the darker that place is, the tighter the hold. I think for Eve the pull to return is in part because she knows she needs her mother’s brand of wisdom and cruelty if she’s going to do what needs to be done. And she knows her mother is the one person who won’t try and talk her out of following a very dark path.
MT: There are so many twisted, dark stories about family—far beyond incest—and I wonder what you think it is about family, no matter which family member we refer to in the book, which can hurt us the most? Why do you think crime writers are so drawn to this idea, and why do you think you’re pulled back to idea of family in a crime narrative again?
AE: That’s a good question. Maybe because family relationships can be so fraught. All that love tangled with all that history and sometimes pain. I think family as a centerpiece for crime novels will be something I return to again and again. There are so many variations to explore and relationships to dive into. The people who love us the most, or who are supposed to love us the most, have the greatest ability to hurt us. And if those relationships go wrong, it can be very difficult to move on until we’ve confronted that pain.
MT: I mentioned earlier how often in the “#metoo era,” authors are hitting people over the head with pretty on the nose rhetoric regarding rape, women’s rights, etc. It’s not that there’s not a place for this in fiction—you deal with this so perfectly in fact—which makes me ask: why do you think you’re able to tackle such heavy issues and ideas so well without actually coming out and saying, “Hey, rape and toxic masculinity isn’t cool, and this is why people are murdered”? How are you able to so vividly show that through your writing and story and characters so well, and so subtly but so powerfully?
AE: Well, thank you for saying that. All novels have themes or ideas they’re trying to get across, but I find I work much better when I don’t think about that too much at the outset. Just as I don’t over-think the characters or outline the plot, I don’t like to sit down and lay out what messages I’m trying to convey. When I’ve tried that, it does come out in a “hit the reader over the head” sort of way. I find that when I just concentrate on the characters, keep the focus small and tight, the bigger issues find a way to organically weave themselves into the story. I think if you really understand your characters, even if they are very specific to a certain place or way of life, their stories apply broadly. I never had a conscious thought that this book would look at misogyny or toxic masculinity, but the characters took me there in ways that I can only hope are both subtle and powerful.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this novel? Did you ever almost give up? What do you feel was the easiest part of writing this novel, or perhaps the most fun, and what suggestions do you have for flourishing writers out there in the crime writing community today?
AE: I have a daughter who is only a few years older than Eve’s daughter who is killed, so writing this book was absolutely wrenching at times. I had to walk away for longer periods than I’m used to just to get my head on right so I could continue. There was one point where I wasn’t sure about the book, but my agent gave me some tough love and from that moment on the writing came a lot easier. Sometimes I just need someone to tell me I’m on the right track. The easiest part was writing Eve’s anger. Women aren’t allowed to be angry all that often. And Eve is an unapologetically angry woman. She does not care what anyone thinks about her or her rage. That was actually very interesting to write and somewhat cathartic.
MT: Do you have another book or work in progress in mind? Can you tell us anything about what’s coming next?
AE: I am working on my next novel. I’m going back to rural Kansas for this one and it deals with a woman serving a life sentence for the murder of her family when she was a teenager. I don’t like to talk about my books too much before they’re done, so that’s all I’ll say for now.
MT: Amy, thank you for stopping by Writers Tell All. I for one loved your new novel and I know everyone reading this will too. I hope they take the time to go out and buy a copy, request a copy at their local library, or both. Maybe buy lots of copies. Thank you so much and if you have any questions, comments, concerns, or thoughts for your fans, please feel free to leave them below!
AE: Thank you so much for the great questions and for all your support of writers and their books!
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