WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Kathleen! It was such a pleasure to read your novel Are You Sleeping. How did this novel come to you, and how long did it take before you felt the novel itself was fully developed and ready in your brain?
Kathleen Barber: Hi, Matthew! Thanks so much for having me, and I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed Are You Sleeping. The novel had an extremely long incubation process: I actually started writing stories about narrator Josie and her twin sister Lanie in the late ‘90s. I was in high school at the time, and the storylines were accordingly pretty juvenile. They were much more YA family drama than suspense, but that was where I really began to develop the tension between Josie and Lanie. I spent years (decades!) writing stories about them, most of which I left unfinished. I felt a connection to the characters, but I never felt like I found “their” story.
And then my brother introduced me to the “Serial” podcast in October 2014. (For your readers who aren’t familiar with “Serial,” here it is in a nutshell: journalist Sarah Koenig began investigating the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and the subsequent arrest and conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, all while creating a podcast about her findings in real time.) I was immediately hooked: I listened to all the episodes, pored over all the supporting material on the “Serial” website, read everything I could find about the case and the podcast. I followed the hashtag on Twitter, hung out in the dedicate subreddit. Like many listeners, I was obsessed.
Then I caught myself conducting a Google image search to see what some of the people involved look like, and I realized I had crossed a line. I’d forgotten these people weren’t just characters in an entertaining murder mystery; they were very real people who had experienced a very real tragedy. I began wondering how Hae Min Lee’s family must feel, knowing that people like myself were treating the violent death of their loved one as an interesting way to pass the time. It was something I wanted to explore in fiction, and that was when I realized it was the story Josie and Lanie had been waiting for. So, in a lot of ways, Are You Sleepingis about me working out my guilt for being so obsessed with “Serial.”
MT: What is your writing process like? Do you plan novels and write them based on characters or plot? What is the central driving force behind the novels you write and if you hand to simplify it, what are the steps you take toward writing and completing a novel?
KB: I always start with characters. Creating characters is my favorite part of writing, and it’s the part that comes most easily to me. Only once I’ve started developing characters can I begin to find the story I want to tell. Character development is the first step in my writing process, and it’s the first half in what I’ll call my “development phase.” While I’m working on development—characters first, but then plots and themes—I don’t do much actual writing. I try to let the story come to me and jot down notes when the inspiration strikes.
Of course, I can’t just wait for the entire story to materialize out of the ether, so once I have a more solid idea of where I want the story to go, I move on to making a rough outline. From that outline, I’ll enter the drafting phase. The resulting first draft may or may not actually resemble the outline, but I try not to stress out about that. The important thing is to get words on paper. A lot of those words will be the wrong words or arranged in the wrong order, but that’s what the revision phase is for. In that last phase, I cut, rewrite, and reorganize over and over and over until it finally begins to resemble a book I’d want to read.
MT: Strangely enough, this is the second crime novel whose author I’ve interviewed of what I call the “homecoming’ subgenre back-to-back. Of course, when I am referring to homecoming, I’m actually saying “the source of trauma.” This genre seems to have exploded after the popularity of novels like Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, among others obviously. What do you think is the most intriguing part of a crime novel regarding “homecoming”?
KB: I’m most intrigued by the psychological aspect of it, the way authors of these “homecoming” novels use past trauma to explain a character’s present actions and/or personality. It was certainly in the forefront of my mind when I was writing Are You Sleeping.
MT: Could you describe the source of trauma both for the narrator and her twin sister? I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but how would you describe the relations between the protagonist and her core family members, and you feel it doesn’t give away too much of the novel, what drives the protagonist to return home?
KB: Thirteen years before the start of the novel, narrator Josie’s father was murdered—shot to death in the family home while Josie and her twin sister Lanie were upstairs. In the wake of that tragedy, Josie’s mother slowly unraveled, eventually running away to join a cult, and her sister turned to drugs. After her sister betrayed her in an unforgiveable way, Josie left her family behind, going so far as to change her name. When her mother dies unexpectedly, Josie is forced to return home and confront her past—something that’s made more painful by a popular podcast reinvestigating her father’s murder.
MT: I’m always interested in crime novels that deal with siblings, especially twins. It seems that, in many ways, when a protagonist—first or third person—has a twin, there seems to be a parallel between what has happened (the protagonist) and what could have happened (the twin). Do you think this is the case with Josie and her twin in Are You Sleeping?
KB: That’s a perfect way of describing it! It’s frankly what inspired my decision for Josie to have a twin. I was interested in the idea that two people who were otherwise as similar as possible could experience the same trauma and yet react in two totally different ways. In Are You Sleeping, that meant that Josie and Lanie abruptly took wildly divergent paths when their father was murdered.
MT; I will make a personal confession. I have come from a family filled to the brim with crime—both crime that was committed and pursued, as well as crime that was prosecuted as well as gotten away with. My own relationship with my family and its history of crime is interesting, especially as it influences how I write my own crime fiction. What do you think is the most compelling issue currently with seemingly innocent people pulled into a family of crime? Why do you feel there are so many successful novels that deal with these issues, and what in your mind is the reason why these books are so popular?
KB: In stories about crime-riddled families, there’s often a helplessness on the part of the protagonist: no matter how much they might want to distance themselves from the crime, it’s nearly impossible to do so when the crime and your family are intertwined, as Josie discovers in Are You Sleeping.Blood is thicker than water, and all that. Because people are often deeply connected to their own families, this inability to walk away can resonate with readers. Moreover, stories in which families are affected by crime often elicit a visceral response. Readers may fear their own family members being murdered, kidnapped, or otherwise victimized, and they—consciously or subconsciously—want to read stories in which such criminals are apprehended and punished.
MT: Other than your own book, Are You Sleeping, what are your other favorite books dealing with people whose families have a history of crime? Don’t feel the need to stick to this year, decade, or even this century. What other books have shaped your writing, both in your formative years and recently? Who are your favorite crime writers working today?
KB: I’ve recently read two fantastic books about characters whose families have a history of crime: Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent and In Her Bonesby Kate Moretti. In Lying in Wait, readers know from the first sentence that Lydia Fitzsimons’s husband killed someone. The rest of the book is about the secrets and lies that led to the murder and that spiral out from it, engulfing the whole family. In In Her Bones, protagonist Edie Beckett is the daughter of a convicted serial killer. The shadow of her mother’s crimes have hung over Edie her whole life, and plague her throughout the pages of the book.
And then there’s We Have Always Lived in the Castleby Shirley Jackson, which is one of my all-time favorite books and deals with family crime. Since I read it for the first time more than twenty-five years ago (in retrospect, ten years old is a bit tender of an age to read a book about a girl who poisoned her whole family!), I have been haunted by it and have striven to emulate Jackson’s subtly sinister writing.
As for crime writers working today, it’s so hard to choose a favorite! There are so many amazing writers out there—but some of the authors whose books I’ll automatically buy are Ruth Ware, Megan Abbott, Jessica Knoll, Robyn Harding, Liz Nugent, and Kate Moretti.
MT: Which books have had the biggest impact on Are You Sleeping, and for fans of this book, what novels would you recommend readers consult for similar plots or stories, or just a crazy good mystery in general?
KB: There’s no one book in particular that directly impacted Are You Sleeping, but so many books that I’ve read helped contribute to pieces of it: Luckiest Girl Aliveby Jessica Knoll gave me confidence to write a less-than-likeable protagonist, Night Film by Marisha Pessl and Reconstructing Ameliaby Kimberly McCreight showed me that “multi-media” could be used in a novel without it seeming gimmicky, and books like In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware taught me about pacing.
I would recommend any of those books for anyone who likedAre You Sleeping, as well as The Favorite Sisterby Jessica Knoll (with a reality television show at the heart of that novel, it has the same pop culture theme as Are You Sleeping), All the Missing Girlsby Megan Miranda (a good “coming home” mystery), and Friend Requestby Laura Marshall (as you might guess from the title, this one has a social media bent). Other books I’d recommend just because I love them are The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware,Her Pretty Faceby Robyn Harding, I’m Thinking of Ending Thingsby Iain Reid, The Perfect Motherby Aimee Molloy, Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier, and Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton.
MT: I love how you involve various forms of media in your novel, including transcripts from true crime podcasts, which have become very popular in recent years. I know people who prefer true crime podcasts over true crime books. What do you think is the most important role of true crime podcasts in our society today?
KB: Thank you! Including the transcripts and other forms of media was really important to me because I wanted readers to experience the podcast within the book the same way the characters were (and, by extension, the same way I experienced “Serial”), and I’m happy to know it translated well.
I have mixed feelings about true crime podcasts—something I think comes across in the pages of Are You Sleeping—but there are some that have done definite good by brining renewed attention to cold cases. The most famous example is, of course, “Serial.” Adnan Syed has been granted a new trial (whether he gets one is another question, as the State has appealed) on the grounds his original attorney failed to pursue an alibi witness. While that alibi witness had contacted Syed’s attorneys over the years, it wasn’t until the popularity of “Serial” that she realized how important her testimony might be and renewed her efforts to be heard.
Another great example is the “Up and Vanished” podcast, which investigated the 2005 disappearance of Georgia woman Tara Grinstead. When the podcast began airing in 2016, the case was cold—but only months after the podcast’s debut, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation made two arrests in the case. They’ve given credit to the renewed media interest for helping inspire the tips that led to the arrests.
MT: There’s also an ongoing issue and argument over how and who to protect with true crime podcasts and journalism and the like. Do we protect the children and other family members of the accused? Is there any safety these days when someone close to you is either the victim or perpetrator of a crime that’s gone public?
KB: This is such an interesting question, and one that’s at the heart of Are You Sleeping. I believe we absolutely should afford family members (especially children) of the accused (and the victims) some privacy, but that’s much easier said than done. The public will almost certainly be interested in them—I think of how interested I was in the people involved in the Hae Min Lee murder—and our modern, hyper-connected society makes it easy for the public to find them. A person can try to protect themselves—lock down their Facebook profiles, make their Twitter and Instagram accounts private—but it’s still nearly impossible to hide all the online breadcrumbs. An employer’s webpage or a friend’s social media can be all that’s needed for journalists or the curious public to find them. In Are You Sleeping, Josie buys herself some privacy by cutting herself completely off from her family and legally changing her name, but those are extreme steps.
MT: I’m assuming you yourself are a consumer of true crime podcasts and books, and I’m wondering how this affected your crafting and creation of this novel, Are You Sleeping. Would you like to elaborate on this, as well as any unusual influences as well?
KB: True confession: “Serial” was the first podcast I ever listened to. I’ve since listened to some others (“Missing Maura Murray,” “Up and Vanished,” “Suspect Convictions,” and others), but I started writing Are You Sleepinghaving only listened to “Serial.” That said, you’re right in that I have a long-standing interest in true crime, particularly unresolved or unsatisfactorily resolved crime. I like historical mysteries, like the Lizzie Borden case, as much as modern cases. I admit to spending a fair bit of time on the Unresolved Mysteries subreddit.
MT: Out of curiosity, what is your favorite true crime podcast (or podcasts?) and favorite true crime book (or books?)?
KB: The first season of “Serial” is the gold standard in true crime podcasts. In my mind, it strikes the perfect balance between telling a compelling story and presenting the facts, all without feeling exploitive. As far as true crime books go, Truman Capote’s In Cold Bloodis a classic for a reason. I’m also a huge fan of Monica Hesse’sAmerican Fire, which is about a string of arsons in rural Virginia. I recommend that book to everyone!
MT: So many books these days are based on true crimes, and so many books are based on the same true crimes with different approaches and different solutions to the mystery at hand. How do you think fiction plays a part not only in making sense of and perhaps solving a true crime, but also in helping people understand why and how people commit murder or other crimes?
KB: Fiction is a safe space in which to explore other people’s lives. We can learn a lot about how other people live from reading fiction—and that includes reading about crime. Books like Lying in Wait or Social Creature, which are told at least partially from the perspective of a wrongdoer, can help a person understand what would drive someone to crime. Some nonfiction books do the same—for example, American Firereveals the serial arsonist’s motive wasn’t pyromania or thrill-seeking, but rather love.
MT: What is your writing process like? Are you a morning, afternoon, evening, or night writer? Do you set up a number of words or pages a day, or just allot yourself a specific amount of time to write? How hard did you have to fight to get Are You Sleepingpublished, not to mention getting an agent and an editor and a publisher and the like? How many revisions did you commit to before finally realizing “I’m going to be successful. This is going to be a success.”
KB: I do my best work in the morning, but I write whenever I can. I usually prefer to work in long stretches—it helps me get into the novel’s world—but I have a newborn, so I suspect this will be changing!
I set a different goal for each of the three phases of my writing process. Or don’t, I should say—I don’t set a goal in the development phase and instead play that by ear. Once I’m in the drafting phase, however, I often set a word count goal. My target varies but is usually around 2,000 words. In the revision phase, I switch my focus to time spent working, aiming for around five or six hours a day. (We’ll see how much that changes now that I have a little one!)
I’m lucky in that my path to publication was fairly smooth. During the querying process, I began corresponding with an agent who saw potential in the manuscript. She provided some extremely generous and helpful feedback, and later introduced me to my agent, Lisa Grubka. Lisa is a phenomenal agent—she worked with me through some additional revisions and then sent the manuscript out on submission. Are You Sleepingsold at auction to Gallery Books, which was a dream come true. My editor there, Lauren McKenna, is fantastic and helped me hone the story further. I can’t count how many revisions I did before the book was finally published—and even when it was published, I was still wishing I had more time to revise it further! I think that’s pretty typical, though—I don’t think any writer feels as though they’re truly donewith something.
MT: What do you think the current trend in crime fiction is currently, and how do you avoid conforming to these trends and stay true to your interests and the stories you want to tell? What trends do you see forthcoming and are these trends you’re interested in, or would rather stay away from?
KB: I think we’re still living in the Gone Girl-era, seeing a lot of books featuring borderline-sociopathic women. Personally, I love it—before Gone Girl, I don’t remember a lot of dark female characters, and I think its success has opened the door for more of these characters. I also think domestic suspense is really having a moment, which is great because that’s what I like to read and write.
MT: I tend to ask this question a lot, and I think it’s a really important question for a writer in order to ensure that he or she is staying true to his or her vision, and what he or she may want to see come out of their writing: a lot of people credit Toni Morrison with the quote that is something like write the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never found. Do you think you’ve written this book in Are You Sleeping, or do you think that’s one of your future novels to come?
KB: I love that quote! I really do think I wrote that book in Are You Sleeping, but I like to think I’ll also write it in future novels. I don’t think about a hypothetical future reader too much when I write; I think doing so will just lead you down a path to mimicking what’s already out there. Instead, I write for myself and hope that others will share my tastes.
MT: I’m sure I’ve taken up enough of your time already, Kathleen. One thing I, as well as all of my site’s readers and followers want to know, those who have read your book or are now interested because of this interview, is what you might be writing next. Do you already have a work-in-progress, and if so can you give us a title or a hint as to what it’s going to be about and when it might be published?
KB: I’m working on something right now! It’s about a woman who lives her life online, and how what she shares is used against her. There’s no publication date just yet, but I hope to have one soon.
MT: Kathleen, thank you so much for taking the time to answer the questions I’ve asked. I know you must get asked a lot of the same mundane questions, but I hope at the very least I’ve thrown in a few curveballs to keep you on your toes and maintain your interest. I really hope that, upon your next publication, you’ll consider revisiting our website for perhaps another interview, and until then, please let us know below anything that’s on your mind, as well as any thoughts, comments, suggestions, or questions for me. Thank you so much and I as well as the rest of Writers Tell All thoroughly enjoyred reading Are You Sleeping and we cannot wait to see what you’ll publish in the future.
KB: Thanks so much for having me! These have been great, thought-provoking questions.
Karen Tei Yamashita Reinvents the "Great American Novel," and Here She Gives Us Some Helpful Insight
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Karen. It is such an exciting experience to talk to someone like you. You have, for a very long time, been one of my favorite writers. I remember reading I Hotel when I was first in undergrad. It was such a large, sprawling book. One of the first questions I want to ask you is this: when did you get the first spark of an idea for this novel? How do you get the first sparks of ideas for most of your writing?
Karen Tei Yamashita: Matthew, thanks for your questions and enthusiasm for my work. I’m very honored.
This book had a long gestation, beginning in Los Angeles, where I thought I would write something about the Asian American movement. A friend, photographer and filmmaker, Mary Kao, wanted to film a documentary about the movement, and she introduced me to activists in L.A. with whom I met and interviewed. The seed of it was sparked, however, by Amy Ling, who got me to write a short satirical piece, “Siamese Twins and Mongoloids.” When I moved to Santa Cruz, I continued to meet and listen to stories by folks in the San Francisco Bay Area, and eventually the structure for the book coalesced around the International Hotel.
MT: How do you develop words—especially novels this long, intense, and elaborate—from there? What audience are you looking to target when writing these books?
KTY: For this novel, I spent years gathering material, researching, reading, gathering stories. When I knew the center of the history, I could structure the work, then write the pieces into that structure. In this case, I decided on ten years from 1968 to the demolishing of the hotel, 1977, and then arranged the histories and subjects and characters into those years as “novellas.” I think the process is transparent; I don’t keep secrets about my writing. In what my friend calls the origami boxes is the shorthand for topics of each year/novella. As for the audience, in this case, I decided that despite the experimental desire of the work, I wanted those people who had participated in the storytelling to be able to read and understand what I interpreted had happened. In this sense, I wrote the book for those who shared their stories. But really, even though these events and people were my contemporaries, I wrote also for myself, to find out what happened.
MT: What were the most influential books when you were growing years? What novels or stories helped shape you during your formative years? Who are the most important writers you look to for inspiration now, and who are the most important and overrated or underrated Asian-American writers you know of today?
KTY: When I left for Brazil to study what I thought would be the history and anthropology of Japanese Brazilian immigration, I took along two books: Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have since enjoyed the work of the Italians, Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco. There are others, but more lately perhaps, Orhan Pamuk and Pankaj Mishra. As for Asian American writers, I follow the work of my friends, Sesshu Foster, Chang-rae Lee, Garrett Hongo, R. Zamora Linmark, and Jessica Hagedorn.
MT: When you began writing a book like I Hotel, did you know how it would end? How much did you know of the novel from the beginning? What is your writing process generally like, and how long did it take you to write and perfect a novel this immense?
KTY: I don’t know how other writers work; they are probably more organic, intuitive, and character-driven, but I’ve learned to create structures and narrative voices as perhaps constraints and focus for the larger project. I am known to build spreadsheets to navigate my chapters. As I said, the organizing structure was chronological from 1968 to 1977; so yes, I knew the end would be the demise of the hotel in 1977. While the research for I Hotel took probably ten years, the writing itself was by comparison speedy, maybe two years. It took another three years to be published.
MT: I have to be honest—a novel like I Hotel, as well as really any huge novel of the sort, whether it’s Gravity’s Rainbowor even something much simpler like The Executioner’s Song—can be so hard to keep up with, whether it’s following storylines or keeping track of characters or knowing who is narrating and when—how did you keep up with everything while writing?
KTY: Well, I keep a spreadsheet. The first novella in I Hotel,“The Eye Hotel,” created the ten narrative voices that were then parsed into each additional novella. That first novella took the longest to write and to define, but after I could establish the distinctions of each voice/novella, it was easier.
MT: As an Asian woman in America—at least marginalized in two very significant ways—how hard was it breaking into the literary community in America? Did you ever have to make significant compromises in order to get where you wanted or needed to be in an effort to create the art you really wanted?
KTY: It took several years to figure out where to send my work and to get any publisher interested. Meanwhile, the local Japanese American newspaper in Los Angeles, Rafu Shimpo,published my short fiction, and UCLA’s Amerasia Journal published one of my first short stories. It was significant that these venues supported the early work of Asian American writers like me. Finally, two independent publishing houses in Minneapolis, Greywolf and Coffee House, asked to read my first novel, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest. It was publisher Allan Kornblum at Coffee House Press who took a chance, and I’ve been with Coffee House for every book since. I just got lucky I think. At one point, I thought I was going to lose my day job, and I asked Allan if I could send out the next book, Tropic of Orange,to a mainstream press, to try to get a bigger advance. I sent that manuscript to several agents and publishing houses, some of whom made suggestions that I honestly tried to comply with, like recreate the plot into a love story or remove some characters. I just couldn’t make the story into something it was not, and the manuscript finally returned to Coffee House, who understood the book. In this way, I’ve been blessed.
MT: There’s always this quote I love asking my favorite writers about. It’s a quote commonly attributed to Toni Morrison—who is a genius in herself—but I’m guessing it dates far back before she stated it so plainly. To put it simply, it boils down to this: Write the book you want to read but can’t find. Do you feel you’ve written this book, and if so which book do you feel fits this bill, and what about this book makes it so significant to you?
KTY: The book you want to read but can’t find. Yes, a good reason to write. I’d add that, for me, I find that I’m perplexed about a question that I can’t answer in any other way other than to research and write. That has been the project of one book after the other, trying to answer questions that can only be answered by writing into and through the questions. Each of my book projects has been very different in genre, form, and narrative, so perhaps the questions have been each every different. I am not sure if my questions have been answered, but during the process, I always get to learn what I didn’t know.
MT: You were nominated for the National Book Award for the phenomenal, epic, ground-breaking novel I Hotelin 2010. Can you explain how it was different for marginalized writers to produce art and succeed then and how difficult it is now—especially considered in 2010, we not only had a president who loved to read, but couldread?
KTY: Well, I never expected ever to be nominated for such an award, a kind of miracle really. I’ve never compromised about what I want to write -- the subject matter, the politics. In part, because Coffee House has supported my writing and also because I have good job teaching creative writing and literature at UCSC, I have some freedom to experiment and to speak. But also, I don’t have time to write what is not important to me; writing time is precious. Still, writing requires taking risks, a wild dive into space and imaginative possibility. If you’re a person of color, a child of immigrants, a refugee, a survivor, a LGBT person, an exile trying to stay alive and sane and making a home for a family, taking risks might not be an option. Along the way, special folks from my family to my writing family have made a creative road possible. The marginalized writers you speak of come together in formal and informal ways to speak and to keep a dream alive. For example, your work interviewing and creating literary community is part our extended system of support.
MT: How did you go about organizing a book like I Hotelwith such an elaborate and sprawling structure almost ten years ago? How did you get in the heads and voices of so many different narrators and characters and not only make them consistent and so different at the same time?
KTY: As I said, I created a spreadsheet and a structure of ten years and ten novellas for the book. As for the voices, I spent a good decade listening to the stories of dozens of folks who were involved in this period. I began to bring those stories together and created characters based on those gathered stories. There are also literary narratives attached to Asian American literature that I utilized to create the voices for each novella.
MT: What is really great advice you would give to aspiring writers today? What’s the hardest lesson you’ve ever had to learn? Have there ever had someone, or several someones, tell you a piece of advice over and over again and you resist it until finally giving in and realizing how important the advice was? What was this advice, and what do you think the state of literature is for marginalized people working the United States currently? What should they do to succeed?
KTY: I don’t have much in the way of advice. Sometimes I think it’s useful to leave your home and see it from the outside, from another language or culture or climate, but some writers need to be at home to write. Over time, I learned to write. I never took a writing class, so when I was asked to teach creative writing, I had to learn that too. Writing and teaching and reading taught me how to write. It took a long time. A long time ago, when I first proposed writing to myself as a possible career, a friend of mine said something like, writing requires maturity; I was young, in my twenties, and I felt insulted, as if he were impugning my maturity. Well, he was right. It takes a long time to become a writer.
MT: I Hotel is sometimes such a cryptic novel. What do you hope people take away from it and what do you think, it you were to refer this to the POTUS, you would want him to take away from it, especially given all the issues he seems to be creating with borders and not allowing people into the United States?
KTY: I think creative work has a way of entering a reader/viewer’s conscience on many levels, superficially and deeply. If interested, both the writer and the reader return again and see and learn something different. That engagement between the writer and the reader cannot be determined or exacted; it is a space of freedom and risk. But it also requires some thinking. I imagine that Trump doesn’t read or only reads what massages his ego; at least that is what his specious comments and twits seem to reveal. I’ve seen a few episodes of Sasha Baron Cohen’s Who is America? and it’s difficult to believe what is not innocence, what is ingenuous violence or blind conceit. It’s hilarious and horrifying. It defines, for me, the provocation of the comedic and the absurd terror of our political and social times, and it seems perversely appropriate, though infinitely sad, to have to introduce the most grotesque absurdity to intervene on such a cultural and national mindset.
MT: Did you initially intend for the novel to be so massive and such a tour de force? I remember Joyce Carol Oates commented about her equally lengthy Blondethat originally it wasn’t supposed to be nearly as long as it is today. Did you go into the writing thinking “this is going to be a massive book”?
KTY: Given the subject, the book was probably going to be big. My publisher Allan Kornblum joked that they had to get a cargo lift to get the manuscript onto their table. I thought it was the length required to make that book, and by the time I had constructed every sentence, it was as short and edited as it could possibly be.
MT: Who was your favorite character or characters to write, and who were your least? Did you ever find large parts of yourself bleeding over into the pages? Is this a good or bad thing to let this happen as a professional writer—a novelist?
KTY: I don’t think I have a favorite or least favorite character. Some stories probably belong to my memories, but the characters are not me. Maybe they could be alter egos that I think about occupying while I write. Whatever happens, I guess it’s my fault.
MT: Karen, are there any great new books we can expect from you in the future? Whether our readers have read I Hotel and loved it just as much as me (and for everyone else, I do recommend all of you reading this book!) or one of your shorter works of fiction, what can we expect from you in the years to come?
KTY: After I Hotel, there are two other books, Anime Wong: Fictions of Performance,and Letters to Memory. Anime Wong is a collection of plays, musicals, theatrical performances, both previously performed or never performed. Letters to Memory is a nonfiction epistolary work based on my family archive of letters, photographs, and documents, telling the story of the Japanese American incarceration and making connections to movements for civil rights. I wrote this book to honor the memories of my parents and their families, all of whom were incarcerated during the World War II. I thought that we would find some reconciliation for those unjust events after so many years, but as it turns out, new groups of refugees and immigrants have been racialized, criminalized, and excluded because of religious and state affiliations and the same false justifications of national security. These ongoing events and state policies demonstrate that history returns, that we seem to learn nothing from the pain and mistakes of the past.
MT: Karen, I want to thank you for the time you’ve spent entertaining me with the answers to all of these questions. Reading your work has always been a great pleasure to me, your novels somewhere between the epics of Thomas Pynchon and George Eliot in my mind. I highly suggest again that all of our readers pick up one of Karen’s books, and Karen thank you again. Feel free to leave us with any thoughts, remarks, questions, or concerns. We loved having you.
KTY: Thank you.
Matthew Turbeville: Mindy, it is always great to talk to you, and a new novel from you is rapidly becoming something of an event, not just for me, but for everyone I know who loves good books. I’ve told you this already, but just for the record, Mindy Mejia is perhaps the best “discovery” I’ve come across in perhaps half a decade if not longer. Mindy, reading Leave No Tracewas a delight. It was also a far stretch from Everything You Want Me to Be, which you warned me about—and this is entirely true, but definitely not in a negative way. So Mindy, how did you come to the decision to take an entirely different route with this novel, and where did you find the inspiration to write such a unique book?
Mindy Mejia: I’ve never been interested in writing the same book twice, which is why I’m such a fan of the thriller genre. It’s a broad umbrella. For this particular novel, I was inspired by the 2013 story of the Ho Van family, a father and son who lived in the jungles of Vietnam for forty years. The idea that Lang, the son, had never encountered human society was fascinating to me, and that’s when Josiah and Lucas Blackthorn were born.
MT: The reader is grabbed from page one. You waste no time in drawing the reader in. One major question I have for you is how many incarnations did this book go through? Both for the beginning of the novel as well as the novel as a whole.
MM: The book as a whole went through three major, world-rending revisions. The opening chapter though, when Maya meets Lucas in the isolation ward, remained largely intact from the first draft.
MT: The protagonist, Maya, is such an interesting woman. You have loaded her full of secrets, and you’re never afraid to unload a twist at any point in the novel. How important is it in writing crime fiction and thrillers to have the protagonist of the novel keep so many secrets, and how did you decide what Maya was hiding and when she would reveal things?
MM: Readers (including myself!) aren’t interested in static characters. They have to evolve, but that evolution can happen both forwards through action and backwards through backstory. Every good secret in a thriller should have layers, so that the reader is given more and more of the picture. The protagonist in Alafair Burke’s The Wife is a perfect example of a character with a deftly layered secret.
MT: This novel has such an ominous, foreboding feeling even from the beginning. This is so different from your previous novel, and it’s so hard to realize both books are written by the same author (and so impeccably written at that). What ways did you manage to engage in a world like Maya’s? How did you prepare yourself mentally and perhaps emotionally to tackle a story this intense?
MM: No matter how much control I think I have of the book, the characters always take over in the end and yes, I know how psychotic that sounds. Maya has a devoted, hard-working nature that’s been stunted by trauma. She is always prepared for the worst, and that lens colors the world we see through her eyes.
MT: This book takes place in Minnesota—and I love that it does. It’s so appropriate for the story, and place is so important to the novel as well. What about Minnesota do you think makes for a great setting for crime fiction? How is it different from, for example, Los Angeles or Miami?
MM: Lori Rader-Day put Midwest crime in perfect perspective in a recent article in CrimeReads, “What could be so villainous about stoic, silent, apple-cheeked people with dirt-floor cellars and no neighbors for miles?” And Minnesota has all the Midwest landscape wrapped up in one state. We have endless agricultural horizons where no one can hear you scream, cities built on the scars of riots and explosions, and forests as dark and deep as the most sinister fairy tale. Everyone talks about Minnesota Nice, and it always makes me think of the quintessential neighbor describing the murderer, “He always seemed so nice.” ;) I’m sure LA and Miami are great settings for crime fiction too (hello, Hollywood Homicide!), but Minnesota is the landscape of my imagination.
MT: What books, movies, television shows, music, and other forms of art helped propel you through writing this novel? What works of art influenced this novel the most? Also, what books did you refer to most in writing this novel, not just for research but for tone or mood or just to learn from?
MM: I’ve listed a lot of my research books in the acknowledgements, which were all invaluable for what my characters needed to know, but one of most influential books I read was Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy. It was the only book I took with me when I paddled into the Boundary Waters and one passage in particular is literally written on my office wall. It’s a craft book I would recommend to every writer. In fact, I think I’ve recommended it to you, Matthew. J
MT: Assume a book club is trying to fill a full year of monthly selections with books that echo ideas and characters and plots and themes and settings like yours. What books would you recommend them, if any, for readers who are fans of Leave No Trace? And, as it will be some time before you release another book, what books might you recommend to Writers Tell All readers who are looking for similar books to lose themselves in?
MM: For readers who are drawn to the parent-child relationships explored in Leave No Trace, I highly recommend Mary Kubica’s latest, When The Lights Go Out. It’s a hauntingly suspenseful take on the psychological power of grief, and I guarantee the ending will have book clubs in an absolute uproar. Also, early next year look for Amy Gentry’s Last Woman Standing. I wouldn’t necessarily compare it to LNT, but it is BRILLIANT. Thelma and Louise meets Fight Club. Absolutely the perfect thriller for the #MeToo era.
MT: A lot of this novel takes place in the wilderness. The characters are exposed to the outdoors and all of nature’s elements and the world isn’t necessarily kind to them. In many ways, it feels like other humans are the least dangerous villains in this book. Oftentimes, it feels like the most dangerous element is nature or even characters like Maya when facing herself and her history. How did you go about making this work, and what about the wilderness became so important that, in a way, you felt the need to make it the novel’s biggest antagonist?
MM: Man vs. nature is one of the classic literary conflicts and I was intrigued by how the stories of the Ho Vans and the Lykovs—real life families who fled human society for the wilderness—subverted that narrative. For them the dangers of war and religious persecution, in short the danger from other humans, eclipsed any threat the natural world posed. Josiah and Lucas Blackthorn take that role in Leave No Trace, putting them in conflict with the majority of the other characters who experience nature as an implacable enemy. I can’t take any credit for creating the world of the Boundary Waters, but I set the story in late fall to highlight the inherent threats of a Northern Minnesota winter
MT: I know I will misquote her, but Lyndsay Faye once told me something along the lines of “The most important thing about ending a crime novel is not who the killer is, or who’s responsible, but what the protagonist learns or what changes the protagonist as a result of the crime.” Do you believe this is an accurate statement about crime fiction in general, and either way, what is your mantra when approaching the conclusion of a novel, and the end of Leave No Tracein particular?
MM: That’s a great quote and I think true of every novel, that the protagonist is fundamentally altered by the events of the book. Those events just happen to be crimes for our particular genre. In romance, it’s the relationship. In fantasy, it’s the quest or journey. When I write an ending, I’m looking for that satisfying surprise, a final scene that pulls all those embedded threads and in retrospect feels inevitable for the story.
MT: In Everything You Want Me to Be, the female protagonist is a victim, someone who cannot be saved. The female protagonist inLeave No Traceis much more active and aggressive in choosing her own destiny and functions as a story of avenger. This is an incredible parallel between two very different types of women with very different fates. What encouraged you to make Maya so fierce and determined, truly the toughest character in the novel? At one point, she smears blood on her face like a warrior, and that makes me wonder—is this a commentary on women and how they are coping and developing in the age of Trump, or is this just an artistic decision to create a completely different type of heroine?
MM: I actually found a lot of commonality between Hattie and Maya, and even Meg from my first book, The Dragon Keeper, which I wrote long before it seemed possible for Trump to have a political career. These are women who commit themselves entirely to achieving their goals; they don’t make compromises, and that often leads them into dark, terminal places. Maybe I was raised on too much Xena and Buffy, but I tend to see a warrior inside every woman.
MT: Referring back to Maya being a warrior, I think of so many articles being published recently about female rage. Obviously, you’d written Leave No Traceprior to the publication of these articles, but how do you feel Maya plays in to the idea of female rage in articles written by and about women writers like Megan Abbott and Laura Lippman and so many other crime fiction luminaries?
MM: At Murder and Mayhem Chicago this year, Gillian Flynn said, “Casting women as purely good is misogynistic. It’s a horrific box to put women in.” Her talk, along with the articles you mentioned, demonstrate the genre’s growing maturity in allowing female characters to have full agency of their own anger. Maya’s rage fuels the major climax of LNT, through a major injury and a raging snowstorm, and she’s willing to sacrifice everything in her life because of it. She’ll throw away the love story, the success story, the everything-women-are-supposed-to-want story in order to satisfy that rage, and I know today’s readers are 100% behind that.
MT: The craze currently is the domestic thriller. The genre is somewhat overrun with so many of these that they start to blend together and I do believe we are reaching a point where the truly original authors are going to be so few and far between. However, you have proven twice already that you can be successful and write amazing fiction without conforming to the “it” genre or what’s popular right now. How do you distance yourself from what popular audiences insist you should be writing and instead be successful and gain acclaim from fans and critics alike?
MM: I always want to write a story I haven’t read. I’m not much for formulas and anyone in my life will tell you I’ve never been trendy. Certain characters grab me and I just follow them until terrible things start happening. And the process of writing a novel makes it easy to tune out the market. In fact, you have to. You’re building a world, tuning for theme and subtext, layering subplots, murdering people. It doesn’t leave a lot of head space for worrying about what’s popular.
MT: As I mentioned earlier, you have avoided falling into an “it” genre and instead remained true to yourself and your artistic integrity and have been successful in being yourself. You have succeeded so tremendously more than once, so I think it’s important to ask: with the endless titles with words like “girl” and “woman,” and the domestic thrillers with white housewives whose biggest problem is a small Xanax addiction, what do you think is the future for crime fiction written by women, and what role do you think you will play to this and do you ever think you will conform?
MM: I think it’s “lies” now, isn’t it? I can’t keep straight the number of books I’ve seen this year with “lie” in the title. Lol. The future of crime fiction written by women is the future of crime fiction. Period. Not to say that we’ll be putting the guys out of jobs, but that both men and women will continue to write into each other’s ‘spaces.’ Women writing spy novels. Men writing domestic thrillers. I think the traditional lines will become even more blurred and that’s something I hope to be part of.
MT: You do use multiple viewpoints in this novel, but it’s very different from the different viewpoints in Everything You Want Me to Be. How many times did you have to construct the novel and dismantle it in an attempt to get the proper balance needed to make this novel successful?
MM: The novel was originally written entirely from Maya’s point of view, but I wrote a scene where Josiah had an opportunity to tell his story and he Wouldn’t. Stop. Talking. To the point where I realized I needed to cut some of his backstory into the rest of the book. He has three chapters and I balanced them off of Maya’s story with the three act principle.
MT: I obviously got to read Leave No Tracein advance, and I loved it. I googled reviews of other people who received ARCs of the book, and the praise seems almost universal. So many people have described the novel as completely enveloping and overwhelmingly delicious. How does it feel to know that even prior to the novel being published, people are losing their minds over how great Leave No Traceis? Did you expect such positive reception from your fans, and how is it affecting how you approach your current work-in-progress?
MM: I’m really grateful for the reception LNT has gotten with reviewers and early readers. As you mentioned, it’s a very different book than EYWMTB and I didn’t know how it would play among those fans. It’s giving me a nice shot of confidence with my current WIP, which is of course completely different. Haha.
MT: Do you have any clue what your next novel will be like? Can you hint at some sort of synopsis of where the novel is headed, and will this next book be another complete turn from the novel before it? What area or ideas are you looking to explore next in your fiction?
MM: I wanted to come home to the Twin Cities for my next book and specifically with a character who is mid-life and at the top of her game. A forensic accountant races to find ten million dollars that’s gone missing from an elite kickboxing gym, and becomes dangerously involved in the toxic marriage between the two powerful owners.
MT: Mindy, thank you so much for taking the time to let me interview you. As you know already, you’re definitely one of my very favorite people on top of me running your fan club. I cannot wait to see what you read next, and please do not hesitate to reach out for any reason whatsoever. Also, if you have any suggestions, remarks, questions, or concerns to leave us with, please feel free to do so. We at Writers Tell All love you, Mindy Mejia, and we look forward to watching your surely prolific and extensive career unfold in the years to come. Thank you again.
MM: Matthew, it’s been an absolute pleasure! Thanks for inviting me for another interview for Writers Tell All and for all the fabulous work you do to promote crime fiction.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Carol! So excited to talk about your brilliant novel The Widow’s House. I want to start off by how you decided to add your own twist on both the domestic thriller and the coming-home thriller, two essential subgenres in crime fiction. How did you come up with this idea?
Carol Goodman: That’s an interesting way to look at it, Matt, and thank you for your kind words. I think the original impetus for The Widow’s Housecame out of my own move to the Hudson Valley. Although I’m not from there, it was a “coming back” of sorts because I went to college there and I’ve written about the area so much. In a way, I’ve always seen the Hudson Valley as my “imaginative” home, so moving there, and looking at houses, gave me the framework of a “coming home” book. As for the domestic drama … well, once you’ve got a homethat’s what you’ve got. And moving to a new place causes a lot of stresses in a relationship, leading to drama (hopefully not of the variety that takes place in this book!).
MT: Why did you decide to make these two characters writers? What do you think draws writers to writing about writers—what is the intrigue in it, other than something we can relate to?
CG: I actually have a writer friend who told me NOT to make these characters writers, but I didn’t listen. The truth is that if I’m going to stick with a profession I know my choices are fairly limited: teacher or writer. I’ve stretched myself into stained glass restorer and social worker now and again, but I’m often drawn to write about what I experience as a teacher or as a writer. In this book I wanted to play with the way the imagination shapes our reality, and who better to do that than a writer? Also, there’s nothing like a bunch of writers to generate envy and malice.
MT: What are your favorite books—thriller or mystery or not—about writers? And who are your favorite crime writers working today?
CG: Stephen King has written some of my favorite writer protagonists (and he’s my go-to defense for why it’s okay to write about writers) from Paul Sheldon in Miseryto Mike Noonan in Bag of Bones. And of course, he’s written the ultimate nightmare writer: Jack Torrance in The Shining. I love his willingness to throw himself under the bus, so to speak, in terms of revealing the foibles and vanities of writers. I also love Wonder Boysby Michael Chabon, Possessionby A.S. Byatt, and Orlandoby Virginia Wolff.
As for favorite crime writers today: Laura Lippman, Tana French, Ruth Ware, Lisa Unger, Jenny Milchman, Megan Abbott, and Gillian Flynn.
MT: Your book is filled with incredible twists from beginning to end. Each author I’ve talked with has very different ways for implementing twists and deciding when and how to insert a new jaw-dropping bit of information or action into their work. How did you go about doing this in your novel?
CG: Ha. Usually I put in a twist when it occurs to me. Okay, sometimes I know about them in advance, and I put them in when they feel right. I do a lot of going back, taking out, and retconning, though to get things right. The one thing I try to do consciously is think about what I want something to look like when it’s really something else. Then I think about why a person might be mistaken about what’s going on. The most important question I ask about my characters is: what’s their blind spot? What are they missing?
MT: I loved diving into this book. It was one of those rare books I would have to pinch myself again and again to fight sleep deprivation throughout the night in order to stay awake for the final pages. What do you think is the secret for any writer to keeping the pages turning? Do you have any secrets to share?
CG: Thank you! Honestly, the only secret is to let yourself as a writer engage as much in the material as you’d like your reader to. That means walking around thinking about the world of the book so much that you’re no good for much else (sorry, family).
MT: How long had this book been in the works? What is your theory on rewriting and revising? Do you have any particular or strange practices?
CG: So actually this book had an unusual writing/publishing history. I began it in the summer of 2013 after a several year hiatus from writing suspense fiction (during which I wrote fantasy and young adult fiction). I had decided I wanted to go back to suspense fiction and had written a few “partials,” but none of them had found a publisher. I grew frustrated with the process of submitting partials and decided I’d rather write a whole book on my own, without a contract, rather than keep getting rejected partway into a book. I think that a lot of my anger and frustration at where my writing career was went into the formation of the book (I was angry about some other things to, but that’s another story). So I wrote the whole thing and then my agent submitted it to editors … and no one wanted it. As you can imagine, that was pretty disappointing. One editor, though, wanted to see something else from me and I’d begun River Road by that point so we showed her that. She took it—which was great! but it also meant that The Widow’s Housemight never have seen the light of day because she didn’t want to publish it. However, a year later, just before River Roadwas coming out, that editor moved houses and I lost my publisher. I was pretty downcast at that point. I remember saying to my agent that maybe we should try The Widow’s House again. I actually said to her that I thought it was the best thing I’d ever written and I didn’t understand why no one wanted it. I also decided to rewrite it, on my own, without the guidance of an editor, which was the first time I’d done that since publishing my first novel in 2001. In the summer of 2016 I went to an artist’s colony in the Catskills and devoted my time there to rewriting The Widow’s House. At that point I really didn’t know if I’d ever get a publisher again, but I felt like I needed to follow through with this book. I think we had some more rejections after that, but just before Christmas that year we heard from a young editor at William Morrow. She’d been the assistant to an editor who had passed on the book and now that she was acquiring books of her own she wanted to know if it was still available. Was it ever! I tell this overly long story because I think there are a few lessons here about persistence and faith in a work. Ultimately, the story is only going to get told if you have the faith in it to tell it and keep working on it until it’s right. Also, man, making a living as a writer is not for the faint of heart.
MT: What books did you turn to for inspiration for The Widow’s House? I read some synopsis comparing it to “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which I don’t object to, both in similarities and in impact. This is a massively surprising, entertaining, and fulfilling book.
CG: Well, The Turn of the Screwis one of my favorite books. I was teaching it around the time I wrote The Widow’s Houseso that’s clearly a big influence. I also love The Little Strangerby Sarah Waters. There are references in there to the research done by the Society for Psychical Research, which Henry James’s brother William belonged to, into apparitions generated not by ghosts but by living beings (Phantasms of the Living). That got me thinking about what kind of phenomena might be created by an angry and jealous person (have I mentioned I was kind of angry when I wrote this?). So I’d say that I was influenced by psychological ghost stories. The Haunting of Hill Houseby Shirley Jackson is another one that falls into this category.
MT: Did you always know how The Widow’s Housewould end? Were you always aware of where it would begin? Which was harder for you—the beginning or the ending of the novel?
CG: I had imagined the ending scene at the very beginning of the book, perhaps not in detail but in essence. My memory of writing this book is that it came pretty fast throughout, not that I didn’t struggle with parts along the way. I think the hardest part was in sitting down to revise it without an editor.
MT: What do you think this book says about women and fiction—given the plot and its conclusions—and where do you think women are in fiction today, particularly crime fiction?
CG: Phew! That’s a big (and important) question! May I begin by just referring you to the latest VIDA count? http://www.vidaweb.org/the-2017-vida-count/ Clearly, women are still under represented in literary reviews. I also think there are more subtle biases at work: women’s books being taken less seriously and women’s books being shoe-horned into genre categories, and then those genre categories being taken less seriously. One issue that bothers me is that I have been consistently encouraged to keep my female protagonists relatively young. The older I get the more this troubles me. I want to write strong female characters who are older than 40 (what a friend of mine calls “pseudo-old”). There are crime writers who are doing this (Becky Masterman comes to mine), but there’s still a pressure to make our female protagonists young-ish. One way I dealt with that in my next book, The Night Visitors, is to have two women protagonists—one young-ish, one old-ish.
MT: There seems to be a lot of gaslighting in this book. In our day and age, there seems to be a lot of gaslighthing of women in general. What was the point of using this device—other than it being an age-old advice used in thrillers with women—especially in this modern day and age? What are your favorite books that use this device?
CG: I have known so many women, myself included, who have been in relationships in which their perception of reality was questioned and undermined. I don’t think I was thinking of the political landscape when I wrote this particular book, but I have to say that the strategies of gaslighting sure felt familiar when they emerged on the public stage. I said above that one of the questions I always ask myself about a character is what is their blind spot. The next question could be: how might someone take advantage of that blind spot? I think my favorite book that uses this strategy is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
MT: What are your favorite things to do besides writing? Did you have any careers prior to writing? How did you find yourself becoming a writer, or was it always an ongoing process?
CG: Ha! See above for my lack of other careers. Except for teaching, which I trained to do on the secondary level and still do, part time, as a college adjunct. As for what I do other than writing: I do twenty minutes of yoga in the morning before writing, take long walks as breaks from writing, and read and watch television at night to relax after a long day of writing.
MT: What will your next book be about? What will fans of The Widow’s Househave to expect in coming books from the great Carol Goodman?
CG: My next book is The Night Visitors, due out in late March 2019. It’s about two women: a young woman who is fleeing with a young boy to the Catskills and the (older) social worker who takes them in to her (possibly haunted) house. One of the satisfying things about writing this book was the research I did to write it. I wanted to know what it was like to work at a crisis hotline so I did a forty-hour training session and have been working at Family of Woodstock ever since.
MT: Thank you so much, Carol, for agreeing to be interviewed for www.writerstellall.com-- we all loved your book and loved picking your brain. This is a fantastic book that will delight readers for generations to come. Do you have any other thoughts, comments, remarks, or otherwise to leave us with?
CG: Thank you, Matt and your colleagues, for such high praise and such thoughtful questions. You’ve made me think! Just … keep reading. It keeps your mind sharp and we all need that more than ever right now.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Zoje! I am so happy you’ve agreed to be interviewed by us here at Writers Tell All. We loved your book Baby Teethand are honestly fascinated by you and this work. To start off, can you tell us how you got the idea for Baby Teeth?
Zoje Stage:Is it cheating to just give you a link to the article I wrote for Amazon? I'm never going to explain it as well again!https://www.amazonbookreview.com/post/da6e1cbe-8f57-46b0-86fd-eaba16f785a0/taxonomy-of-an-idea-zoje-stage-on-baby-teeth
MT: What attracts you to the idea of malicious children—like the child seen in Baby Teeth. I have to admit, the synopsis seems almost absurd, but reading the book, I and several of my friends peers have found ourselves absorbed, astonished and shaken by your writing. The switching between mother and daughter, and the tension between them, can at points be frightening, hilarious, and stomach-churning. How did you manage to create these two different voices, and what sort of preparation did you have to go through for writing this sort of book?
ZS: Part of my interest in "malicious" children is, in fact, an interest in prodigiously talented children. Hanna, in her own way, is a prodigy, though her intellect and creativity take her talents down a darker path than what we typically think of when marveling at precociously-abled children. It was actually quite easy for me to create these two different voices, because in many ways Suzette and Hanna are opposites. Where Suzette is reality-based, Hanna is fantasy-based; Suzette looks for expanding levels of possibilities, where Hanna laser-focuses on one possibility; one attempts to use love to solve her problems, the other uses hate. And of course they are also opposites with their illnesses, where Suzette battles physical issues, and Hanna mental ones.
MT: How do you manage to build such amazing tension—and seemingly so effortlessly—between the mother and child in the book? Sometimes, I found myself cringing reading passages, wondering what would happen and how certain characters would survive or make it through a situation completely intact.
ZS: I attribute much of the tension in my book precisely to the dual POV. Because readers have insight into what both characters think and experience, they immediately grasp the magnitude of the disconnect between mother and daughter. I think readers then "carry" some of this tension in themselves—whether it's an urge to jump into the book and set the other characters straight, or to wait it out and see how much worse it gets.
MT: What is your writing process like? How many words or pages do you write a day or a week? How long did it take you to write Baby Teeth, and what was the process like in writing this novel? How was it shopping the books to agents and later publishers?
ZS: I am a "pantser"—which means I don't use an outline when I write, but instead write by the "seat of my pants." Before beginning a story I usually have a grasp of where the story starts, something that happens in the middle, and something that happens near or at the end, which then becomes what I'm writing toward. I only write every day when I am working on a first draft or revisions, and it's very common for me to take weeks, or even a couple of months, off between drafts. A first draft for me consumes about three months of my life, and I phrase it that way because the impulse becomes to write every single day until it's complete (though, by necessity, I take individual days off to rest my brain). Typically, I'll try to write about a thousand words a day. All in, BABY TEETH took about ten months of actual writing time.
While the querying process for this book didn't take that long—about three months—I sent out a ton of queries, because I'd been polishing my manuscript with a mentor during Pitch Wars 2016 and I felt strongly that it was ready for the world. However, the first few versions of my BABY TEETH query letters really sucked, and after 60 queries I had barely any nibbles of interest. After finally conjuring a decent query and sending it to another 20 agents, things started to happen. I signed with my agent, Sarah Bedingfield, within a few weeks of that batch of queries. They say publishing is a slow industry, but after that everything happened very quickly. We were only "on sub" to publishers for one week when St. Martin's Press made a pre-emptive offer.
MT: You’ve created a book that several of my peers and friends have found entirely fascinating. You manage to keep their fingers quick, turning the pages at rapid speeds. What tricks do you use to keeping the reader interested? What would you recommend to up-and-coming writers who are trying to tackle the same feat but find themselves lacking in one way or another?
ZS: I think the trick to keeping any genre of book a "page turner" is to keep introducing new questions or dilemmas. The second you wrap up something too neatly, that part of your book will feel like it's "finished." Characters need to keep encountering things that keep them off balance—things that make them question themselves, or people around them, or build on new intrigue or conflict. I also think it's really important—though admittedly, a challenge—to try and leave chapters in a place that hint at something unresolved, so that readers stay engaged in following the protagonist ever onward, toward a resolution.
MT: What are the books that have had the most profound effect on your writing and your growing as a writer? What books do you recommend to readers as tools to learn from?
ZS: This might not be the answer you were expecting, but I'd say that Ursula Le Guin had the biggest influence on my writing (and I have written more fantasy and sci-fi-like stuff in the past). The big thing I took away from Le Guin's books was the awareness that a writer could use genreas a means to explore various elements of human society and behavior.
MT: How many books did you write before Baby Teeth? I remember Jeffrey Eugenides saying he’d written a number of books before The Virgin Suicidesand had to struggle with all of them? Are there any past literary attempts you’d like to return to and explore now that you have become a successful and beloved author?
ZS: I wrote five other novels before BABY TEETH. My first four novels were YA—and then I experienced an epiphany: I was writing the wrong books! I know writers are often advised to follow their hearts and write the book their heart wants to write. And that's how I started out too: I didn't analyze the whyof an idea, I just plunged in. But after taking a step back to really examine my process for deciding what books to bring home from the library or bookstore, I made a shocking discovery: I would not have picked up my own books! From that moment on I committed to writing the books I wanted to read! I thought about the elements that really excite me when I see a blurb or dust jacket description. And I thought about the things that I don't seebeing written, but wanted to read—like a bad seed novel where readers get insight into the child's mind, and where the parents ultimately have to deal with her behavior in a realistic way.
MT: What is next in line for you as a writer? Do you have a novel or story collection planned in the future? What about anything else? What does the future hold for Zoje Stage?
ZS: I have a novel or two in the works. ;-) I hope to be able to write and publish many more books in the future, but this career is still all quite new to me and I need to find a better way to balance my writing with my health and life needs. The past year has been a little intense!
MT: Have you ever found parts of yourself, your life, or your personality bleeding into your own writing? If so, do you consider this a positive aspect of writing, or something dangerous that you might need to steer away from? I know that all authors after different views on this issue, and was just wondering how you felt about making a novel personal, or distancing yourself from it as much as possible.
ZS: Who was it that originally said "the personal is universal"? I'm sure my paraphrasing is a little off, but I think the sentiment is spot on. It's not a secret that I have Crohn's disease and I used a portion of my own experiences to create Suzette's medical history. I draw on my life experiences all the time, in different ways. But, I can't imagine ever writing something truly autobiographical, or trying to recreate someone I know as a character. I take known elements—of myself, of people I know, of things I've done, thought, experienced—but the very act of putting them into a fictitious story, surrounded by new elements, puts all of these things squarely in the realm of fiction, not fact. Because of some things that exist in what may ultimately become my third book, I needed to talk to a couple of people and make sure they understood this, and that superficial or historic similarities did not equate to writing about them. I used Suzette as an example: she has elements of my medical story, but our similarities end there. I want to be able to use these bits from my life because they're inside me, part of my tapestry, but I view them as being akin to tubes of paint: I can mix them in different ways and create all new colors.
MT: What writers in your genre do you admire, especially those working today? What do you think of how women and other marginalized people are slowly but steadily taking charge of the literary industry, especially in comparison with just five or ten years ago? What women writers—or other marginalized writers—do you think are leading the way for people to change the look and shape of writing?
ZS: Okay, I may veer off-question here, but… I want to take a moment to express how important it is to value other people's perspectives. Who are we as human beings if we can't enjoy the simple collaboration of hearing each other's stories? Much of human civilization has been recorded through the lens of what white men were doing. And then their history has been held up as the history of the world. And then we've been told to believe that this—white men's lives—is what's most important and valuable. We can't accept such a limited view of reality. We aren't living up to our potential as human beings until we see the value in allpeople—and learn from and marvel at the breadth of how we are similar, and how we are different, and how we are intrinsically improved for seeing things through a lens we hadn't previously contemplated. Progress is being made. Much more needs to happen.
MT: What advice do you give to writers who are working their hardest to break through into the industry but can’t seem to make it? How did you keep yourself motivated by writing, and would you briefly like to elaborate on your history of writing? What is some sound advice given to you by other authors, agents, editors and the like?
ZS: This might sound like strange advice, but: Don't freak yourself out. We writers have a lotof ways of freaking ourselves out, and some of them come from unrealistic expectations, or comparing yourself to what other writers are doing, or being too hard on yourself. I am truly to God the tortoise that won the race—pursued another creative career (unsuccessfully) for 20+ years, switched gears, wrote and wrote and queried—and slow and steady is a viable game plan. To keep yourself motivated, you have to keep enjoying what you do. It can be hard when you have ambitious goals, but it helps to always accept and acknowledge that, if nothing else, at least you enjoy your creative process. I can't say to anyone that their external success is guaranteed (even if you never give up); but I can say that one's internal success is guaranteed if you always find worth in how you spend your time.
I'd also encourage writers to periodically take a step back to assess what you're doing and why. There's no harm in changing things up—whether that means retiring a project that isn't working, or switching to another category, genre, or medium. I think experimenting is good. You learn valuable things about yourself.
MT: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me, Zoje. I really enjoyed reading your book Baby Teethto lots of friends—it’s something I’ve discovered that all of my friends have enjoyed in one way or another, finding themselves or things they enjoy in various parts of the book. Please let us know what’s up next for you, and we can be expecting in years to come. Also if you wouldn’t mind, in closing feel free to impart any wisdom or thoughts or suggestions or advice or commentary that you feel is necessary and essential to your own work, or to writing in general. Thank you so much!
ZS: Thank you for such an interesting interview!
Matthew Turbeville: Kathleen, I am so excited to get to interview you about your marvelous novelThe Dime. It ultimately took me by surprise—in ways epic, tender, ferocious, and ultimately just a marvelous read. The first thing I want to ask is how did you come up with the concept, and what made you pursue this novel, and how did you find the narrator’s voice?
Kathleen Kent: The inspiration for The Dimecame from one of my short stories, titled “Coincidences Can Kill You” published in the crime anthology Dallas Noir. I had been writing historical fiction, but always loved the crime genre and leaped at the chance to write something that was a little bit different from the usual contemporary crime fare. Initially, I thought it would be a “one off”, and I would go back to writing historical fiction. But the publisher was really excited about expanding the concept, and the character of Detective Betty, into a full-length novel. With their encouragement, I spent several years developing the story, which, I’m delighted to say, will be a series.
MT: The narrator is actually a lesbian, which surprised me. I honestly wish I had read this book prior to writing my list on great LGBTQIA+ crime novels. What made you decide to not only veer away from the usual sexualities and orientations of most law enforcement officers in novels, but also make it something of a central point to the novel?
KK: My first intention with writing a crime novel---as I have done in my historical novels---was to make my lead character female. I love strong women in narrative fiction, and wanted to develop a character that was resilient when challenged, and who was also different from a lot of the female characters portrayed in Noir-ish novels, i.e., a victim, a sexual foil for the male characters, or a cunning villainess. I worked in the corporate world in New York for many years in male dominated fields before turning to writing full time, and I have always admired women who endure in spite of the challenges and difficulties thrown at them. I think I must have been designing the Det. Betty character in my head for a long time, because when I set my mind to envisioning her for the story, she appeared almost in her entirety: red-haired, six-feet tall and a lesbian. And, because I like giving my characters as much head wind as possible from beginning, and just to make things more interesting, I also made her a Polish Yankee from Brooklyn. I liked the idea of ruffling a few south-of-the-Mason-Dixon line readers.
MT: I know this question may be tough to answer, or at least navigate, but I do have to ask. In this country, there is a lot of resentment and lashing out at law enforcement officers. Similarly, many crime writers take different sides—pro law enforcement, or anti-law enforcement, or sometimes in the middle, like some of Don Winslow’s novels. How did you approach this book, and how did you look at the different stances on this topic?
KK: I have some law enforcement officers in my family and so it may have been easier for me to examine both sides of the equation. My main focus in the book, however, was to focus on the internal politics of race and gender within the Dallas Police Department. Until recently (we now have a female police chief) Dallas had some of the lowest numbers of female officers in the country for such a large, sophisticated city. Not only did I want to show the conflicts within the department, but illuminate the changing cultural environment in Dallas, and its struggles with reconciling the disturbance of the Old Order: white, Anglo-Saxon and straight.
MT: The novel—and its protagonist—go through a lot, both in the sense of trauma and ideology and such. There’s the issue of sexuality, cartels, extremist religious people, and more. For such a short novel (at least, comparably to other books that deal with these subjects) you handle the topics really well, sometimes not taking sides but presenting the truth honestly. How did you go about this?
KK: This goes to the heart of what I found was the most difficult to achieve in a standard novel format. It took quite a bit of editing to distill a lot of action into a few hundred pages, but keep the integrity of the characters. It was a learning curve for me, because historical fiction allows for a slower burn in plot development, whereas, in crime fiction, the pace has to stay fast and furious. I relied heavily on my editor to keep me on the right track. I also wrote in the first person, which was new for me, and I think it made it more personal and allowed Betty to reveal herself with greater intimacy.
MT: What made you decide to take the protagonist out of her element in Brooklyn and to Dallas, TX?
KK: I grew up in Texas, but moved after college to New York City where I lived and worked for over twenty years. I adopted a son, and subsequently living in the City became too difficult. So I moved back to Texas for family support, and was both charmed by its cultural growth, and confounded by its adherence to intolerance of those who fell outside of acceptable “norms”. Through Betty I got to see Dallas through the eyes of an outsider---from the sublime to the ridiculous.
MT: Would you ever consider making a series around the protagonist of the novel? Her voice is so alluring and intimate, while also defying and sternly advocating for her own rights as an individual. At least for me, there seems to be so much room to explore:
KK: I’m delighted to say that I’m editing the sequel now, which is titled The Knife. As with the first book, it will be published by Mulholland Books. Many of the same characters that were in The Dimewill be returning, but I have a whole new cast of wonderful characters to keep Betty on her toes.
MT: How many books did you write before you got your break-through novel? How many books before obtaining an agent? What advice would you give up-and-coming authors, or struggling authors in general, who want to make an impact on the crime community just as you have?
KK: I think my publishing story is a bit unique. I went to college with the intention of becoming a writer, but ended up working in several commercial enterprises for two decades. I didn’t write my first novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, until I was in my mid-forties, and it took me almost five years to complete it. I knew nothing of the publishing business, and had no contacts, so I started with blindly querying agents who I had discovered through the Writer’s Market. The agent I eventually signed with acquired my publishing deal with Little Brown in 2008. Miraculously, with a lot of support from the publisher, this first novel became a NY Times bestseller within the first few weeks of publication. I wrote two more works of historical fiction--The Wolves of Andoverand The Outcasts---before writing The Dime. The publishing business has changed so much in the past ten years. There are more people writing, and more options for self-publishing, and it makes the conventional publishing route very competitive. If I could give any advice to writers developing their narratives, it would be to follow the untraveled road; to find characters and story lines that are unique, but that offer some glimmer of hope in these dark times.
MT: Who are your favorite crime writers, both past and present, and what effect have they had on your writing style and career?
KK: Growing up my favorite authors were Dickens, Poe and H.H. Munro who were all fascinated to a greater or lesser degree with the macabre. Consequently, there are a lot of dark corners even in my historical fiction. Some of my favorite authors are those who cross genres. Cormac MacCarthy can be considered historical fiction (The Border Trilogy), science fiction (The Road), but also crime fiction (Blood Meridian). One of my favorite crime fiction writers has always been James Lee Burke and his Dave Robicheaux series. His writing is tension-filled, but he writes in the kind of evocative prose you often find in historical fiction. Currently, I’m a big fan of the following female authors: Attica Locke, Louise Penny, Tana French, Patricia Cornwall and Hannah Tinti.
MT: I feel so lucky to have discovered The Dime. It’s one of those books that is rare and hard to come by—as easy and quick of a read as it is heavy and deep with emotional, logical, and ideological issues. What was the hardest part about writing this novel?
KK: I think I had the most difficulty with the pacing. I’d spend too much time in character development and lose narrative steam in the process. I often likened it to playing three-dimensional chess. There were a lot of plot elements that had to be tied together at the end, but it always came back to the characters. You can have the greatest plot idea in the world, but if your readers don’t care about the fictional people inhabiting it, they are going to put the book down.
MT: Would you ever give a book like this to the president of the United States? If so, what would you hope he would gain from it? What other book might you give him, crime or not?
KK: Well. . .if you’re speaking of the current president, I’m not sure he would read it, or perhaps any book that wasn’t his own. I would have given with pride, however, my first book, The Heretic’s Daughter, to our previous president, as he loved American history and would have hopefully appreciated it. The book is based on my nine-times great grandmother, Martha Carrier, who was wrongfully hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692.
MT: Do you ever find yourself—your personality, your history—bleeding into the words you write and the pages of your novel? I read an author’s advice recently; he said never include your own history in books, because no one wants to read that. What are your thoughts on this comment?
KK: My theory is that, like our dreams, we can’t help but put aspects of ourselves, and the people we know, into our books. Consciously or not, I think it’s going to happen. You can’t spend years on a project and not be self-referential at times. But in the hands of a good writer, even quotidian experiences can become enlivening, inspiring and memorable.
MT: You really nailed down a lot of really important issues in the South. As someone who is from South Carolina, but who also lived in San Antonio for years, I found the book incredibly true to who Southerners are, both good and bad. How did you go about delving into this topic? Were you ever judgmental about the people you wrote of, and did you ever have a favorite or least favorite character?
KK: I think because I grew up in Texas I had a fondness, as well as a great disliking, for elements of the South. Every person is a composite of multiple traits, good and bad, and I tried to create complex fictional characters that reflected some of my own experiences. I try to maintain compassion even for an unsavory character, because contempt for that character can be the kiss of death for a writer. The resulting characterization will lose complexity, relevance and substance. My favorite character in The Dimeis, of course, Betty. But I also love her life partner Jackie and her work partner Seth. The character that was my least favorite in the story (other than Evangeline Roy and the Roy family) was Bob Hoskins, Betty’s fellow detective. But even he managed to reveal some endearing qualities.
MT: This novel is incredibly relevant today, given all that our country is going through, and all of the problems its citizens face. What do you think is the most important takeaway for everyone from this novel? Do you view this book—and its associations with all of the horrors of the South—as hopeful or condemning?
KK: It’s sometimes difficult to maintain hopefulness that the country is not backsliding permanently into rabid intolerance and bigotry. The truth is that those abhorrent qualities have always been with us, but, because of social media, the bad news travels with lightning speed. The good news is that we have made substantial progress, but obviously the battle for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and religious and cultural freedoms are being threatened daily. For me, Detective Betty has become emblematic of those struggles. I get emails weekly from women who are thrilled, and very moved, that there is a book that gives a voice to certain aspects of the lesbian experience. Fortunately, I also get emails from men who think Betty is a phenomenal badass!
MT: Lots of crime writers are drawn to write about the state of Texas and the issues it faces. What drew you to the state of Texas, and why do you think it’s so important that we look through the lens of various people in an effort to understand different people and places?
KK: Texas was a good incubator for my series, because I grew up here, and also because it’s in a state of transition. It’s becoming more and more ethnically diverse and, because so many people from other parts of the country are moving here, it’s stretching the political and cultural boundaries. It’s not always been an easy transition, but the friction those opposing forces create is the fuel for my Detective Betty series.
MT: What book is next for you? Please tell us there’s another book in the works—and hopefully soon! You have rapidly become one of my favorite writers.
KK: I don’t yet have a release date for The Knife, the follow up to The Dime, but I think it will be published some time next year. I’m also sketching out the plot for the third book, so, hopefully, Detective Betty will be around for a good while.
MT: Kathleen, I think I’ve overloaded you with questions for now. I’m sure I’ll have a lot more when your next book comes out, given you actually want another email with Writers Tell All. We love your book and love your writing in general. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, feelings, ideas, or comments you feel are necessary, and thank you again for participating in this interview.
KK: Thank you so much for all your support and enthusiasm for The Dime! It was a risk changing genres, but creative fire thrives on risk, and I’m so thrilled that Betty has been so well received. My maternal grandmother, who first told me the stories of Martha Carrier and the Salem witch trials, used to say that there are no such things as witches. . .only ferocious women. And we’re going to need a legion of ferocious women, and men, to keep us moving toward the light.