WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Ms. Winspear, it’s such an honor to get to talk to you about Maisie Dobbs and your books. They’ve brought me such pleasure and enjoyment and, in ways, a form of stability in an otherwise unstable world: what do you think is so important to readers, and to viewers for television shows, and so on, when we consume ongoing mystery series? Why do you think people return to Maisie again and again other than intrigue and the crime or mystery at hand in each novel?
Jacqueline Winspear: A series, whether on TV or in novels, offers a comfort of sorts. It offers a return to characters we have come to know and in whose company we want to spend time – whether the following week on TV or after a year in the case of a book. In a way it’s akin to getting together with old friends. Life became very fractured throughout the worst of the lockdowns – people were apart from families and friends – so to sit down with a book that brings us into contact with beloved characters offers a certain comfort. Mystery has the added benefit of taking the reader through the archetypal journey from chaos to resolution, so there’s the promise of all being well in the world – and we need that promise. I think readers come back to characters such as Maisie Dobbs because they feel safe with her – they know she tries to do the right thing, that she has suffered and survived at the worst of times. They also appreciate her resilience and ability to endure, to come through trials and tribulations – I think readers see her as a heroine in that regard.
MT: What books informed you as to your writing this series, both when starting the series and now? What great books, historical or mystery, or any other genre, helped shape you as a writer, and continue to shape you now? Are there any great heroes or heroines you feel drive particularly fantastic series?
JW: That’s a difficult question to answer, as I have many, many books I’ve collected for reference in connection with my work, however, they are in the main not “general” books on war, or women’s history, but specific – for example on intelligence services in the Great War, or on mental health during the early part of the century. I didn’t know I was writing a series when I wrote Maisie Dobbs – I thought it was my first and only novel, and reflected my interest in women’s history, particularly from the Great War to the end of the Second World war. And it’s important to add that I didn’t plan to write a novel – I had a day job in sales and in the evenings I was a writer of non-fiction, of essays and articles. Maisie Dobbs came to me in a moment of what I’ve called “artistic grace” – a bit like Harry Potter came to J.K. Rowling. But that moment was rooted in an interest in women’s history that goes back to childhood. I can’t think of any great books that shaped me as a writer, however, as a teenager I loved finding the great American writers of the first half of the twentieth century – having been raised on a staple diet of the classics, it was amazing to discover F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, etc. I was sorry when Susan Howatch ceased writing her amazing “Starbridge” series based upon the Church of England – I loved how she took a complex subject and turned it into an extraordinarily well-written character-driven series. It demonstrated intellectual rigor and the best of literary fiction while being incredibly readable and commercially robust at the same time. It was an achievement to aspire to. My current favorite mystery series is Louise Penny’s series featuring Armand Gamache, set in Three Pines, Quebec. I absolutely love her work and cannot wait for each new book.
MT: What’s ideal for you when it comes to writing—time of day, where you are, what is around you in your room or place of choice? Do you like to hear music, write with any snack at hand, and are you a sprinter when it comes to writing, or do you like to take your time? How do you write at your best?
JW: Matthew, these sort of questions always amuse me – they’re never asked of lawyers, doctors and other professionals. The truth is that as a professional writer I have deadlines, and usually I am not only writing a novel, but I also write articles and essays and have people I need to interview. I think it was Richard Russo (not certain) who, when asked about his writing process replied, “Monday to Friday, 9-5.” That about sums it up for me. I work from about 9:00am, I take a break in the early afternoon to ride my horse (I train in the equestrian sport of dressage), and then I come home to start work again. Usually mornings are my creative time for writing, and afternoons are admin, research, conducting interviews or whatever needs to be done. I don’t meditate before I write, I don’t snack, I don’t light candles – I have a job to do and I just get on with it.
MT: In this novel, you manage to incorporate the history as well as current and pressing issues around the world and in America as well, touching on issues of race and sexism in the United States through the mystery central to the plot of A Sunlit Weapon. I love when historical fiction can really get to the heart of something going on in the present. Are there any historical fiction books that have particularly universal plots you think fit well with something going on now, and how do you yourself approach a story or mystery when considering the present?
JW: The extraordinary thing is that the seeds for my novels are usually several years old and growing roots by the time I get around to writing each book. Given the time lapse between starting work on a novel and publication day, no writer should reconsider a subject because you never know what might happen in the world while the book is in production. I don’t consider the present at all when I’m writing – I can’t, because my focus has to be on the time I write about. I have to hear the language of the time, I must maintain an awareness of how people would address one another, and the mores of the era. My task is to anchor the story in its time – if I even consider the present while writing, I risk forfeiting my connection to my characters and to the rhythm of the story.
MT: When writing an ongoing series with Maisie—a fantastic character who functions as such a great driving force to the series—how do you come into each new mystery? What comes first in developing a new book: where Maisie is in her own life, what the idea for the mystery might be, or something else?
JW: I have no prescription what comes first when setting about developing my story, other than considering the year and putting my characters into position, as if I’m moving around pieces on a chessboard. To be honest, it’s hard to describe what I do, because I just get on and do it – I think a lot of writers are like that. I have a rough plan for the journey, but I don’t have a set itinerary because I might like to go off down another route – but having that rough plan means I have somewhere to return to. A first draft is just the clay on the wheel – the next draft is where the work really starts and I pull it all together.
MT: Which of your books are you most proud of for any reason? Is there one in particular you hope to be remembered for?
JW: I think I am stunned every time I manage to write a new book, so they’re all very important to me. Holding that first book in my hand was an amazing feeling – I was shocked that I’d managed to write a novel and that someone wanted to publish it. So, of course Maisie Dobbs is one book I am particularly proud of, and the other is my memoir, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing. Memoir is my first literary love, so to have published a memoir was very exciting - I was thrilled to see it in print.
MT: Do you feel Maisie is a lot like you, someone you might want to be like—or someone you might want to know? When you create important characters for yourself, where do you begin in drawing them out, and what are the important parts of a character that help you decide if they should stick around? Have any characters been harder to say goodbye to than others?
JW: No, Maisie isn’t like me – definitely not! That would be so boring, a bit like writing about what I do all day! I don’t think I would like to be like her, but of course as her creator I know her very well indeed. I know this sounds strange, but I can’t describe how I create characters, because they come to mind and I do my best to get inside them, to find out who they are – I don’t think too hard about it either. I write the characters into form as I go along, almost like drawing an outline and then filling it in with color. Some characters are more realized than others, but that is intentional – some characters sing the song and others do the do-wop in the background. In a way I don’t say goodbye to my characters – they’re still there, in the books.
MT: If you had to write another type of book—genre, or tone perhaps—somehow different within the mystery genre—what sort of book would you picture yourself writing? Is there anything drastically different from Maisie’s world you’d see yourself writing in?
JW: That’s an easy one to answer, as I’ve been “working” on it for a while, which basically means I have my thoughts in a notebook. I want to write something light-hearted, and this character is a fast-talking, very smart, somewhat mouthy young woman who can really take care of herself – and she has a big heart. The themes will still have a certain level of gravity, but my character in the wings is definitely not Maisie Dobbs!
MT: What do you have planned next for Maisie? Is there already another book in the works?
JW: I’m currently working on a non-series book set in 1947 London, focusing on the intersection of organized crime, the intelligence services and morally corrupt politicians – it will be published in 2023. Nothing firm in the works for another novel featuring Maisie Dobbs at this point – I’m too busy with next year’s novel.
MT: Are there any parts of Maisie’s past you feel you’d want to focus on in particular, maybe even at length in whole books, which you haven’t had the chance to write about at length yet? Might we see any characters from past books emerge—major or minor players here—in future books of yours?
JW: I’d like to explore her apprenticeship with Dr. Maurice Blanche. I’m not sure I will ever get to it though.
MT: Ms. Winspear, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you regarding A Sunlit Weapon and the Maisie Dobbs series. I’m so grateful to be able to pick your brain about your work and find out more about you as a writer and person. I am so hopeful that this book will continue to open up even more readers to your wonderful talents, and am delighted to read what’s next from you—and from Maisie—as well.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Karen! I was so intrigued by the concept and idea behind Booth, and even more thrilled that someone so tremendously talented as you would be writing it.
Karen Joy Fowler: Hello, Matthew! Delighted to be talking with you and aren’t you kind!
MT: Do you mind talking a little about the novel and its conception? What brought you to write a novel like this and why is it so relevant today?
KJF: I had no idea when I started that the subject matter would become so relevant. Obama was president and I thought the Civil War was over. I thought the moral arc of the universe was bending towards justice. The idea that Donald Trump could ever be elected president struck me as too preposterous to worry over. What I was thinking about initially was the very special relationship the US has with its guns.
I’d written two short stories (three, now) centered on the Booths and had gotten to know a bit about them. John Wilkes Booth is arguably the most famous shooter in all of US history, but I wasn’t so interested in him. My attention was on his family – what the assassination had done to them and what, if any, culpability they might have for it.
But then the 2016 election happened and I didn’t write again for at least a year. When I picked the book back up, everything had changed for me. It became so clear that the war has never ended. I guess most wars don’t.
MT: Your last book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was a smash hit, and so incredibly different from Booth--but all of your books are so incredibly unique and different. What was it like writing that book, and how are you able to take on such vastly different voices and styles in writing different novels, moving book to book? If I didn’t know, I’d think your novels were written by incredibly different writers!
KJF: It pleases me so much to have you say that! I can’t see it myself. I always start out thinking that this book will be a real departure for me and I always end up thinking, well, there I am again. My subject matter certainly changes drastically, but my voice, my sense of humor, my sensibility – they don’t change. I’m always striving to do something different, but it’s not clear to me that I succeed on that. I’m absolutely thrilled you think so.
MT: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves concerns a grand mystery about the protagonist’s siblings in particular. I have spent years writing about crime fiction and mysteries, and feel there are some essential elements of the genre here. What are your favorite mysteries—and in particular, in literature, what unconventional mysteries have you been most interested in dissecting and understanding and reading about?
KJF: I do love a good mystery, conventional or otherwise. Where even to start? Recently I’ve been on a Tana French kick. I started with The Searcher which had been highly recommended to me. I just really like her prose. I always read whatever my beloved Elizabeth George is doing. I started with Agatha Christie when I was just a slip of a lass, but I can’t read her anymore. Josephine Tey has held up better.
Some unconventional mysteries that I have loved? Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection, Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night (I just love the math), Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, Michelle de Kretser’s The Hamilton Case.
I recently survived a long sad period in my life by rereading most of Mary Stewart’s books. They are very similar in terms of plotting, so maybe not best to read them back to back as I did, but they were just what I needed. And a year before we all went into lockdown, a woman I didn’t know in a restaurant in Norway leaned across her table to mine, to say that I must read all of Louise Penny’s books. And I must read them in order. It was so Hitchcockian, this random command.
But I am nothing if not obedient. I am all caught up now even to the Hillary Clinton collaboration.
MT: Booth focuses on the siblings of John Wilkes Booth, really bringing to life a crowd of characters who are all so different and so richly detailed. What was it like researching these characters, and how did you occupy each mind and bring them to life on the page?
KJF: The research was an adventure. There is a lot of material. But much of it is quite suspect. For example, if you are reading an interview with someone who knew John Wilkes, it’s necessary to know whether the interview took place before or after the assassination. People’s memories are unreliable under ordinary circumstances. Throw in a national tragedy and you can’t believe a word even from the most unimpeachable source.
I had a most helpful guide throughout. Terry Alford, author of Fortune’s Fool, a magnificent nonfiction book about John Wilkes was helpful to me in ways I could never have imagined or dared ask for. He’d already spent 30 years researching this family and I owe him a so much.
Edwin Booth left behind a great many letters and Asia Booth wrote books as well as letters. I had their own words concerning many of the events in their lives. But Rosalie, the oldest daughter, left only the faintest mark on the world.
My father used to play a game with me in which he would scribble something on a piece of paper, and I was supposed to turn his scribble into a picture. Creating Edwin and Asia was like that – the scribble was there to get me started. For Rosalie, I knew the things that happened to her, but had to completely make up her thoughts and feelings. It was more like creating a fictional character, something I’m quite used to doing.
MT: What was most important to you in writing Booth when concerning the different characters and how much you’d feature John Wilkes Booth as compared with his siblings? Why did you decide to focus less on the aftermath of the assassination? Did you ever write a draft that fleshed out different parts of these characters stories?
KJF: Initially, I did picture a book in which the bulk of the story would take place after the assassination. The main question in my mind then was what the assassination had done to his siblings. But I changed my mind; there was too much that happened first, too much necessary set-up and by then the book was becoming quite long.
And, just as a point of composition, the impending assassination created a tension that the aftermath didn’t have.
But I do regret leaving so much of the later story untold. Edwin Booth had a second wife and quite a miserable second marriage. Asia had eight children, two of whom became actors, one of whom joined the British merchant navy and drowned. Nothing further happened to Rosalie, because nothing ever happened to Rosalie.
MT: What are your favorite historical novels? Is it more difficult drawing out the fictional lives of real people, or creating characters completely on your own?
KJF: Creating characters, whether based on real people or not, has never been the part of writing I find hard. Plot is my nemesis. In the case of the Booths, the plot was already laid in, so for once that was easy.
As for my favorite historical novels, you must be kidding. This is an infinite set. Aren’t most novels historical novels? If they weren’t historical when written, do they become so fifty years later? Plus anytime I make a list, I wake up at 3 in the morning realizing I left something crucial off and now look a fool.
So I’m going to go easy on myself and list only my favorites of the ones I’ve happened to read quite recently. These would be: Sarah Winman’s Still Life, Meg Waite Clayton’s The Postmistress of Paris, Robert Jones, Jr.’s The Prophets, and Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions. All so very very good.
MT: What books and writers inspire you most, and what books do you constantly return to (if any) for inspiration? What are some books and writers more people should read?
KJF: I’m inspired by writers who do things I can’t possibly do, whose minds work in ways that fill me with delight, but are beyond my comprehension. Into this category, I would place Kelly Link, Elizabeth McKenzie, Ted Chiang, Nicola Griffith, André Alexis, Gish Jen, Kim Stanley Robinson. And I’ve written more than one story in direct response to the work of my good friend John Kessel.
It will not surprise you to learn I reread Austen often. I return to books that are funny. I love a book that breaks my heart, but I’m not as likely to read it again.
I wish everyone would read E. Lily Yu’s debut novel On Fragile Waves. It’s extraordinary. I wish everyone would read Molly Gloss’ The Dazzle of Day. Or really anything by Molly Gloss. It would be a better world if everyone did.
MT: What are the books that shaped you growing up? How did you find your way to writing, and what was that journey like, especially for aspiring writers reading this interview?
KJF: I found my way to writing by reading, like most writers. I was one of those children who had to be forced to put the book down and come to dinner. Much of my life has been an annoying interruption from whatever book I’m reading.
The two books I’m most aware of having shaped me are Charlotte’s Web, which my mother read me when I was quite little and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which I read when I was about fourteen. Charlotte’s Web was the first book in which I saw a major character die. And The Once and Future King is great protection against any class or workshop that tries to persuade you there are rules you must follow in writing your stories. I can’t think of a single rule anyone anywhere tried to saddle me with that T.H. White doesn’t violate to perfection.
But I didn’t decide to be a writer until I turned thirty. There’s a lot I could say about that to aspiring writers. Prior to thirty, I wasn’t tough enough to survive years of rejection. I knew that, if I were to ever succeed – big if – I was going to have to offer my whole heart and that there was an excellent chance my whole heart would be unacceptable. Dear Writer – unfortunately your heart is just not for us. And this did happen and was painful and discouraging. I had 23 rejections on my first novel alone. But looking back, I’m as proud of those rejections as I am of the book’s eventual publication. Look how many people tried to stop me! I just would not be stopped.
MT: What interests you most in the characters you create, and the characters you look to read as well? How did you decide which characters not to focus on when writing Booth?
KJF: I’m interested in characters who are not like me, people, human and nonhuman, who have different experiences, different dreams, different ways of thinking about the world. Obviously, these are easier to find in books I didn’t write than in books I did. And there’s a potential difficulty now that the identity of the writer seems to have become a key component of the work, and we are so often being told not to stray too far from our own lane.
As a matter of craft, I have a pantheon of fictional characters I love from children’s books and I imagine most writers have their own lists. These compressed characters often serve as a starting point when I’m creating someone new. They provide me with a first essential element around which I’ll try to build a fuller person. Examples would be: the bringer of chaos – i.e. the cat in the hat. The person who never expects things to turn out and is therefore unsurprised when they don’t – i.e. Eeyore. The person who thinks quite well of her/himself for reasons opaque to others – i.e. Mr. Toad. The sidekicks who find themselves inside someone else’s story – i.e. Charlotte, Tonto, Spock, Chewbacca.
In Booth the only character I knew I didn’t want to focus on was John Wilkes. I knew he would dominate the story no matter what I did, but there was no need for me to help him do so.
MT: Do you have a current work-in-progress, something you are mapping out or working on that may be your next book? Can you talk about it at all, or anything you might want to write in the future?
KJF: I’m working on a book which is simultaneously for my grandchildren and for every librarian I’ve ever known. It’s just a fun little project I hope won’t take me the usual forever to write.
Matthew Turbeville: Stephanie, I’m really excited to talk with you about this novel. It’s such an interesting work—it’s very transgeneric, to use one of the words my professors used in undergrad—it really does this fantastic job of crossing through a lot of genres and combining them well in a fluid, cohesive way. Can you tell me about the process for coming up a novel like this? Did you decide first to write about this investigation into Bea’s mother and photos of her from when she was young, or were you more focused on something other than plot when you crafted the novel? What comes first for you?
Stephanie Gangi: Matt! Thank you so much for reading and thinking about Carry the Dog. My initial impulse for the novel was to write “through” the experience of a character who, at a certain age, realizes she must confront trauma in order to fully engage with the foreshortened future. She’s an older woman with some perspective, and humor, and I hope – I’ve heard! – some grace. Her mission is to locate the past, and leverage it, but not be burdened by it.
MT: How long did it take you to write Carry the Dog? What’s the writing process like for you? Do you have a strict schedule? What scenario or situation helps prepare you for the most productive day of writing?
SG: I saw Amor Towles in conversation with Meg Wolitzer recently, and he gave a fascinating look into his process which is much like my process. He spends a lot of time thinking and taking notes, as do I. It seems like procrastinating some days! And maybe it is! But once I settle in to actually writing, I’m very disciplined. At my desk by 7 a.m., 4 or 5 hours straight. Then I break, and do my reading and note-taking in the afternoon. At night I dream about the work and that’s work too! My productivity is synched to the sounds of New York City right outside my window. It’s the perfect ambient soundscape for me, easy to tune out, easy to tune in.
MT: What books influenced Carry the Dog? Are there any you feel it’s in conversation with? What books do you turn to when you’re having a tough time writing, or when you need inspiration, or even a pick me up, or for any other reason?
SG: I did a lot of research for Carry the Dog, which I hope doesn’t show! I read the Sally Mann memoir, the Diane Arbus bios (Patricia Bosworth and Arthur Lebow), the Aperture monographs for both those photographers; and many books about photography (especially John Berger and Susan Sontag; also numerous books about trauma and resilience (my go-to is Bessel Van Der Klok’s The Body Keeps the Score); and a dozen more. I’m a big fiction reader, my list is long, and I read daily for pleasure, but it’s also my job – something I push myself to make time for: sit in a chair with a book and a glass of wine. Over the past year I’ve loved Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, Mysteries by Marisa Silver, and I re-read a couple of Le Carrés in homage to the master. As far as what I read that pushes me to write better, weirdly, I grab any book of poetry – I have a tall stack next to my desk – and just peruse. The brevity and precision and music and voice all jog my brain, who knows why!
MT: What’s the most important thing to you for any reader to take away from this novel?
SG: I’ve found on my current book tour that it’s hard to talk about Carry the Dog in detail because it is so chock full of plot – it’s been called a “page-turner” by more than one reviewer. But I do think the final line of the book – which I won’t reveal! – sums up my own philosophy. That as we get older, we get more comfortable with the fates and furies of a lifetime, and with releasing expectations about the future and even, about ourselves. If we are very lucky and intentional, we integrate our past selves, our same old struggles to design, in a way, who we want to be going forward. To me, that is the essence of resilience!
MT: What was it like creating Bea? How was she shaped in the writing process? I know Toni Morrison always said she has to know a character’s name or they aren’t formed, and in ways Bea’s name is important to her, too. I think of the beginning, when she talks about shortening her first name, or when she omits a part of her last name. What were the most important elements of developing Bea into a character who could truly carry the novel?
SG: I wrote Bea in the first person because the first line of the novel – “I’m in the dark, I can’t see” – about a woman experiencing insomnia, came to me and wouldn’t let me go. Once the book is closed, that line combined with the last line bookend a key theme of the entire novel. Writing a woman of a certain age in the first person, of course some of my own voice creeps in, and in the revision phases, I’m always working to protect Bea’s authentic, original voice. It’s a lot of work, especially since we share a knack for resilience.
As far as names, I will say that all of the main characters in the book – except one, quite by design, and I can’t give it away – have more than one name. That was a way to illuminate multiple selves within one self, and also, different perspectives of the person by others. The one character with only one name, that identity never fully develops.
MT: I review a lot of crime novels and interview a lot of crime writers as well, and I like to think that most novels—all novels—can in some way be seen as crime novels. I know that a lot of crimes—especially crimes not related directly to murder or death, especially of some sort of sexual nature—are overlooked, or oftentimes delved into less. What was important when addressing the photos, the issues with Bea’s mother, and do you think there’s a particular relevance in anything going on in America or across the world today?
SG:That’s a great way to “read,” and I will now bring the “all novels are crime novels” perspective to my own reading. I worked very hard to walk a line regarding the photos. There is certainly the intimation of sexual exploitation if not outright abuse. But I wanted the images to eventually reveal things: a photograph is a frozen moment (and its subjects are frozen as well) out of context; and that the photographer is revealing something about themselves in the subject matter and framing and by way of the technical and aesthetic choices they make; and finally, that light is an aspect of dark and vice versa. The photographs that seem to define Bea’s existence from early girlhood, are not, “truth,” they are a version of a truth. Much like memory! She navigates alongside the girl in the pictures, but she is not only the girl in the pictures, which is something she has to learn.
MT: A lot of this novel deals with ideas and issues related to resilience, and how much Bea can bounce back from life’s tough—and for many, insurmountable—obstacles. I love reading about characters like Bea—I know Joyce Carol Oates comes to mind, when she talks about how she is less interested in things like romanticizing suicide, and instead focusing on those who really fight hard through like to overcome anything from personal losses to severe health issues. What was important to you in writing a character like Bea? Do you feel she’s different from characters in novels you might feel are similar, or in the same category or genre?
SG: I didn’t know that about Joyce Carol Oates, I love that. Certainly I had a similar interest in that kind of character. For one thing, I hadn’t read a novel (which doesn’t mean they’re not out there) about an older woman who was confronting her own myths about the past and setting out to revise them, no matter how resistant or fearful or bumbling she is. Also, an older woman character who is hellbent on learning herself and preparing herself – her many selves – to maximize her future, the time that is left, with humor and energy that is typically associated with youth (like her sexuality). I have a lot of women friends in their fifties and sixties and they are raring to go, and not slowing down and not invisible, no matter what the media tells us and no matter what they’ve been through and I wanted to capture that in a way that was not caricature or pathetic or wacky or sad.
Years ago I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and although I was so impressed with the writing, it did make me wonder about a character who might have a similarly traumatic past who does not succumb, who is not destroyed, who navigates that past with some awkward grace and stubborn resilience. I thought about that for a few years, and then Bea Seger emerged.
MT: Another part of Bea’s life which seems to come back to her over and over is her relationship with her husband/ex-husband. Can you tell me what it was like to write that relationship, why it was important in the novel and to Bea’s story arc, and how Bea had to cope with—you might say—making the same mistake multiple times with her husband, or perhaps dooming herself to the same bad outcome by marrying him again? Does Bea claiming some sort of ownership over music she helped craft with her husband relate in some way to her relationship with her mother’s photographs and the legacy there?
SG:I loved writing Gary Going, and readers are loving him too, despite his ancient-boomer flaws. I was so interested in how rock and roll ages. The twin cultural signposts for boomers – rock and roll and photography – grew up together, and I grew up at the same time. They are both part of my cultural DNA, and I wanted Gary to kind of live that arc.
I’m not sure that marrying Gary – twice – is a mistake for Bea! I think she needed to escape her childhood trauma and there he was, to sweep her away in the way that suited those times. To retrofit a lens on Gary is very much besides the point for Bea. He never thought – and Bea never thought, until years later – that he could be grooming her, or leveraging a power dynamic, or stealing her work. He was just the man, the rock star, the one with the money. Unfortunately (and fortunately times have changed) that was the way it was for many women and men way back then, early 70s. So it’s hard to condemn the characters for loving each other in the way they do. And the key to Bea and Gary is the profound “knowing” of each other, and the choices they make again and again to continue together, in some way. Duration counts for so much, especially as we get older.
MT: What’s your next book about? I saw that you’re in the process of writing your third novel (according to your website!) and I’m wondering if you can share anything about the new novel with my readers? What are we likely to expect?
SG: I am at work on novel #3, called The Good Provider. I’m not going to say much more than it’s about men and women and marriage and money, and you’ve got me thinking hard about your “all novels are crime novels” theory.
MT: Thank you so much for letting me interview you, Stephanie. I really loved reading this novel, which is a compelling, thoughtful examination into some serious subjects, along with a great character study, and some particularly beautiful prose. I am so excited to read what you come out with next!
SG: Thank you, Matt and really great questions! I hope readers will head over to sgangi.com, check out my first novel, The Next which debuted when I was 60 and you can buy books through the links right there. There are also reviews, essays on topics including writing, aging, mothering, men+women and more! I also work with writers to develop their own narratives. That’s my day job!
Matthew Turbeville: Wanda, I am so excited to pick your brain about All Her Little Secrets. Can you tell me a little bit about this novel, how it came to be, and what your life and writing life has been like up to the publication of this novel? How did this novel come into existence, and what events and elements of your life have led up to this?
Wanda M. Morris: Hi Matthew! Thank you for having me. All Her Little Secrets is the story of a Black female lawyer who gets caught in the crosshairs of a group of unscrupulous executives following her rapid promotion to the executive after the death of her boss. Despite the body count, this book is really about family¾ the family we choose and the family that chooses us. This is the story of a woman who overcomes near insurmountable tragedy to forge a new life and protect the people she loves. Getting to this point has been an amazingly surreal experience. I’m glad people are getting to see a smart, sophisticated Black woman in the thriller genre.
MT: Names are important to many writers. I know Toni Morrison said she simply can’t write a character unless she knows the name, and they have to come to her almost immediately, with the conception of the character. Likewise, in your novel, names play an important role: there’s the name of the protagonist’s hometown (her real hometown), her own name (first and last) and white characters asking where she’s from, what her origins are, etc, and the names of others as well. What’s important to you when it comes to the names of people and places, and what role do you think the naming of things play in a novel both specifically to race, but also in other ways that may not be obvious to the reader?
WMM: I’m glad you asked that question because character names are very important to me. When I write books, I am very intentional about names. I want the reader to get a sense of who the character is by what they are called. Names can evoke a certain image or in the case of setting, a certain feeling. The town of Chillicothe sounds light and breezy and homey to me, a town was anything but for Ellice. Littlejohn was selected because I wanted to convey the irony of who Ellice is. She is not little in terms of her strength. And of course, like you mentioned, I wanted a name that was usual, and would elicit inquiry. With Ellice Littlejohn, I wanted her name to stand out, something uncommon so that she would be questioned about it. I think people like to categorize you by your name, find out your history and association. But because of the fractured nature of slavery in this country, a vast number of Blacks cannot trace their history back several generations as white people can do. Other names in the book like Willow and Lumpkin also evoke a certain image in my mind and hopefully in readers’ as well. Like Toni Morrison, I need to know the name of the character before I can fully flesh them out. Sometimes the names may change depending on how the character evolves over the course of writing the story.
MT: What books and other works have inspired you to write most, and this novel in particular? What novels and authors shaped you? What are some books you’d recommend to others, including those you feel don’t get enough attention and maybe should be more widely read?
WMM: Some of my favorite writers include Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. I love Attica Locke, Alafair Burke, Karin Slaughter, Gilly Macmillan, William Landay and Joe Ide. As for books I’m currently reading and recommending, I just started Alex Segura’s Secret Identity. It a really cool mystery that takes place in the world of comic book publication. It even has comic book graphics inside.
MT: What’s your writing process like? What’s writing been like in your life, and how do you find time to write? How long did it take you to write this wonderful novel?
WMM: I love talking about my journey to publication although it was not an easy one because I hope it inspires and encourages other writers. Someone recently asked me how long it took me from first draft to publication and it occurred to me that it has been 13 years (which is fitting because I’ve always considered 13 to be my lucky number!). I started a draft of this book and then put it away for 7 years because I convinced myself that nobody would want to read about a 40-ish Black woman who worked with awful people. I think people want an escape when they read a book and who would want to escape to the world I had created in this book?!
But 6 years ago, I had a health scare and I started to look at my life differently. I’ve always loved to write, so why not do what I loved to do. I pulled out the manuscript. When I read it again, I knew it was pretty bad, but that was okay. All first drafts are bad. I knew immediately I needed to improve my craft. I began reading about fiction writing and took night classes on creative writing. In 2015, I attended Thrillerfest, an annual conference of mystery and thriller writers held in New York City. There, I met so many authors, people whose work I read and admired and each of them was so accessible and generous with their wisdom and advice. I returned the following year and entered Thrillerfest’s Best First Sentence Contest – I was named one of the winners! It gave me confidence that I was on the right track, but I knew I needed some concentrated attention to my craft, so I applied to the Yale Writers Workshop using an excerpt of my manuscript and miracle upon miracles, I got in! Far and above, it was one of the best things to happen to my writing. I learned so much and met some really wonderful writers who helped me rethink and reshape my manuscript.
After the Yale Writers Workshop, I was ready to query agents. I did so with horrendous results. My queries either went into a black hole of which I didn’t hear a word back or I got a standard form letter thanking me but advising that the project was “not right” for them. I still felt deep down that I was on to something with this book, so I kept revising and polishing it. I queried some more. More rejections. But this time, some agents responded that they liked the premise but went on to give me specific comments about why the book wasn’t working for them. I took those comments and poured them back into my manuscript revisions.
While on my “Journey of Rejection,” I did a really smart thing – I built myself a community of support in other writers, some more advanced in the journey and some right where I was in the journey. I came to rely on their friendship, wisdom and insight. Rejection is hard and having people to support you along the way is hugely important. I joined groups like Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and Crime Writers of Color.
In 2018, I learned about Pitch Wars. Pitch Wars is an online mentoring program that pairs an unpublished writer with a published author for a three-month mentorship, at the end of which agents review the first page of the manuscript and may request to see the full manuscript. I worked hard during those three months with a lovely author named Wendy Heard. During the agent showcase, I got a large number of agents who requested to see the full manuscript. I knew for sure, this time, I would get signed with an agent. Again, more rejection! And while you would think I would have given up on this book, I didn’t. I had this mantra in my head that came from the lyrics of a gospel song by Kurt Carr. It says, “I almost gave up. I was right at the edge of a breakthrough but couldn’t see it.” I knew if I just stayed with this book, I would see a breakthrough.
In July 2019, I went back to where it all started – Thrillerfest. I participated in their pitch event and there, I met a lovely woman, Lori Galvin of Aevitas Creative Management, who became my agent. She is a fierce advocate for this book and my career. But above all, she is an absolute joy to work with. I tell my friends that I think this book was merely waiting for Lori to come along. After I signed with Lori, she gave me notes and I spent another nine months or so (the pandemic intervened and at one point I was not writing all!) working on more edits. We went on submission in July 2020 and 12 days later, we were in an auction! The book sold to the enormously talented Asante Simons at HarperCollins. Asante has been a godsend of an editor. She understood right away what I was trying to accomplish with this book. She has provided so much insight. Asante and my entire team at HarperCollins/William Morrow have been so supportive and generous. I am in very good hands.
As for my writing process, I tend to be a plotter. I need a loose outline of where the story is going. However, I never know how the story will end when I start, and I like that feeling of writing toward the unknown. I do have certain rituals too. I do all my first drafts in longhand with blue Pilot G-2 gel ink pens. I print out a hardcopy after I’m done and do all my revisions by hand, with a red Pilot G-2 gel ink pen. Crazy and old school I know but over the many years it took me to write this book, I tried all different ways of writing and this one works for me!
MT: What draws you to mystery novels, and why do you think they’re important to you as a reader and a writer? Do you feel they can accomplish some things more than others? Or execute something better? What’s most important to you when reading a mystery novel?
WMM: I’m drawn to mysteries because of the intellectual element of figuring out the puzzle in them. Whether it’s a thriller that hits the ground running and never lets up the pace or a slow-burner of a mystery that unfolds over the length of the book, I love them both. There’s something about the magic of trying to figure out what happens next and why characters behave in a certain way. I love writing in this genre for the same reasons. I want to explore why people do the things they do and what happens when they do. I also think analyzing this in the context of criminal behavior is a way to understand society and the people around us.
MT: Because I love them so much, I have to ask: what are your favorite courtroom novels?
WMM: My all-time favorite is Defending Jacob by William Landay. That book had me mesmerized. I have kids so I can empathize with a character who has a child that is hurt or in trouble. Of course, I love other courtroom novels like John Grisham’s The Firm and Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. Interestingly, All Her Little Secrets has elements of the legal system, but there are no courtroom scenes.
MT: How do you balance what I consider the great Southern novel (often character based, engrossed in this marvelous use of language, think Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina or Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland) and the fast-paced, adrenaline heavy thriller (especially like the novels of Karin Slaughter, although I may be stuck in the marvelously place-centric parts of your novel, wonderfully describing Atlanta)? How do you feel you approached the thriller in a unique way specific to your own voice as a writer?
WMM: I come from a background in corporate America so there are some passages in the book that come out of that experience. The interstitial chapters that deal with Ellice’s backstory gave me a way slow down and give the reader a moment to catch their breath in what was otherwise a fast-paced story. I don’t know if All Her Little Secrets is considered a great Southern novel, but it was important to me that this story occurred in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that this city was once the epicenter of the Confederacy’s military operations and also the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. To this day, you can still find landmarks and monuments of both eras standing throughout the city. Atlanta has a Black population of over 50% and there are still places called Dixie Hills and Plantation Drive as well as John Lewis Parkway. There are statues of Confederate soldiers right down the street from buildings like the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached. I thought the city of Atlanta, with all its dichotomies, would provide the perfect backdrop for a Black woman’s story of survival and perseverance in the “new South.”
MT: Writing the novel, like in many great stories, character and plot driven, you write in different timelines, bouncing back and forth with this really fantastic control of story and characters. What’s it like to write these different sections, to move back and forth between them, and do you think it’s harder or easier than writing a strictly linear novel?
WMM: Interestingly, it was easier for me to write in dual timelines. I struggled for years to find a way to explain why Ellice Littlejohn, the protagonist, would behave the way she does as an adult. It was only when I gave voice to the 14-year-old Ellice did the story really open up. The darker side of her character is borne out of Black female strength in the face of extreme adversity. Imagine you’re a young Black girl living in poverty, and you have a shot at getting out, but systems of oppression are working against you and threaten to take away that shot. How far would you go? And wouldn’t it be reasonable to believe that such adversity would stay with you for a very long time?
MT: What’s your relationship like with your characters? Is it important for you to strictly love them? Are there any characters you didn’t like at all in your novel? What makes a great antagonist?
WMM: Oh gosh, there are several characters in my book that I absolutely despise. But ugly, disgusting abominable beasts like them are necessary to the story. The stronger your antagonist, the stronger your protagonist needs to be.
MT: When you write a novel like All Her Little Secrets, with a great and strong punch of a social message and social commentary, what comes first—character, story, or do you have an idea, “This is what I want to write about?” Is it ever a combination of a bunch of things, and do you ever sacrifice aspects of one element to make room for another?
WMM: For me, it always starts with the character. I wanted to write about a strong Black female and what she endures. The social commentary was a natural outgrowth of that because living in America as a Black female is tough.Women in this society are stretched thin to be everything to everybody and Black women in particular, suffer the harshest rigors, whether it’s access to opportunity or economic parity with men. We are chastised for being too strong, called “the angry Black woman,” but conversely, we tend to be the most disrespected and maligned. Who wouldn’t be angry? There is a moment in the book, when Ellice returns to Chillicothe, and she looks around the town. She realizes who she is and what this town had made her, not an angry Black woman but a fighting Black woman yearning to be heard, respected, accepted and protected.
MT: What’s next for you? Are you working on a new novel? Can you tell us anything about a project you might be working on, and what we might be able to expect next from you?
WMM: I’m currently working on my next book about two Black sisters, embroiled in a white man's murder in 1964 in the Jim Crow south of Jackson, Mississippi. The sisters make a desperate run, one to the north and the other to a small town in Georgia. But their past is not far behind because a man with dark secrets of his own is in hot pursuit until all three lives converge in a deadly showdown.
MT: A quote often attributed to Toni Morrison includes the sentiment that you should always write the novel you’ve wanted to read but haven’t found yet. Do you feel All Her Little Secrets was this novel for you, or do you think that’s to come? If it’s to come, can you tell us what that novel might be like?
WMM: This is absolutely that book for me. I love the thriller genre. Look, I have an entire bookshelf of John Grisham and Joseph Finder’s books. I love their stories, but they weren’t my stories. I wanted to read stories about smart, sophisticated Black women who drove through speeding traffic or chased down bad guys in dark office towers. I wrote what I couldn’t find.
MT: Wanda, thank you so much for agreeing to let me interview you about All Her Little Secrets. I’m so thankful for you and this book, and it’s such a delightful, compelling read on so many levels. I really hope others will invest time, money, and the intellectual and emotional energy into reading this novel, and most of all be taken with it the way I was! I’m sure they will. Thank you so much again, and I’m so excited to see this novel make its way out into the world!
WMM: I enjoyed this! Thank you for having me.
Matthew Turbeville: Hey Clea! It’s so exciting to get to pick your brain about Hold Me Down. This is a really exciting and thrilling new crime novel that’s grounded in Boston and music and a lot of topics really relevant to America today and women in general. Can you talk a little about how you conceived Hold Me Down and how long it took to write? Did this novel in particular end up how you wanted it to be as when you first sat down to write the first draft? How did it change?
Clea Simon: I can try, Matthew, but honestly, I’m not sure I remember. I’ve been working on Hold Me Down for several years now. I don’t know how many drafts I went through, though I can tell you that every time I sent out a draft to a reader, thinking I was done, I would find issues – usually with the tense changes and I’d be appalled!
For me, this was the kind of book that gets deeper with each iteration, though. Like, take the songs in the book. I knew that Gal, my protagonist, wrote songs, and so I came up with some. But only after a few revisions did I realize how revealing these songs were – not only of what she thought she was writing, but what she was really showing about herself. (I have to add here that I love having these songs – because once they’re written, they stand on their own. Different characters react to them in different ways. Even Gal reacts to her own songs in different ways over time!) As for how it ended up: Yes, I’m really very happy with it.
MT: I love that a lot of crime writers often pick a place, oftentimes even more than authors of different genres, and really develop the landscape and people of the setting of many or all of their novels. Can you talk about the world(s) of your different novels, and what brings you back to a place in more than one novel, and how you find something new to write about using place in each novel?
CS: I’m happy to talk about setting, but for me it’s the other way around. The stories I want to tell are so intrinsically bound up in their settings that these are never consciously chosen. The settings are part of the stories. I mean, I adore my city – the two adjacent cities of Cambridge and Somerville (what now we tend to call “Camberville”). It’s very artsy and weird and makes a perfect setting for my witch cat cozies – because we actually do have many active covens here. At the same time, with all the gentrification and development, we have some natural antagonists, for my protagonist Becca and her cats!
Hold Me Down is a very different book, obviously. In many ways, in general, the music scene is a perfect setting for a mystery because it’s a self-contained little subculture. People who care passionately about music are thrown together, making it a hotbed of relationships and also antagonisms. Add in various substances, and you’ve got a dozen different plots to kick off. But for me, this world was also important because it’s a world I know very well. It was home for me for many years, and I got to mine my own experiences for the book.
Of course, I also did my research and spoke to a lot of the old crew and came up with additional details that ended up helping me with the plot. Like, at one point, a friend who used to sing in local bands told me that she didn’t think anyone knew this, but that from up on stage, she could see all the way to the back of the club. What a great detail, right? So I have Gal noting that. But I also hope that readers can suss out that her perceptions might not always entail what we would call truth.
If I had one recurring theme in my music-world books – Hold Me Down and 2017’s World Enough – it is that memory and perception are flawed. That, thanks to nostalgia or denial, we all see what we want to see – and remember what we want to remember. I guess that’s true of me and the Boston music scene, so for those stories, I suspect I’ll keep on coming back to the clubs.
MT: Can you talk about your history with music, why it’s so important to you, and why or if you feel mystery novels and music go together? Do you feel there’s any connection or similarities between the two?
CS: I started my writing career as a music critic, and, before that, I played in bands. I was one of those people for whom a certain set of clubs served as a “third place,” you know – not my home or work. As the years have gone by, I’ve certainly done that less and less – but music, live music, has remained important to me. I started HMD pre-pandemic, so spending a couple of hours in a loud and crowded club was still a reasonable option.
When I talk about the music world – or club land, as I think of it – it encompasses a whole range of places: the bars and basement clubs, the stinky practice rooms – and anyone who has ever spent hours in a windowless basement cell trying to grind out something good knows what I mean – and the late-night load outs. The decaying burlesque theaters that have been repurposed for rock shows, and also the radio stations and record stores and even the tour buses of what we used to call “major label” bands, back when there were record labels.
Rock and roll has a thing about authenticity. Punk, especially, with its DIY ethos, is not simply supposed to be about entertainment. It is supposed to be about tearing something out of ourselves. Creating something out of nothing and hoping that it sings. That’s what we do as writers too, of course. In crime fiction, we’re looking for the truth – the whodunit or the whydunit. But on a larger scale as storytellers, as novelists, we’re also always looking for a larger truth: Who our characters are. What makes them tick. Why we care about them.
MT: What novels, recent or decades past, have helped shape you as a writer and informed or helped develop a book like Hold Me Down? Were there any books that helped shape you as a writer and the novel in particular during the writing process itself?
CS: I read pretty widely, and I think everything feeds into everything, so I’ll just say that I love Hilary Mantel and Lauren Groff and my new favorite find is Melissa Broder (check out The Pisces). I also review books for the Boston Globe and other places, and that makes me read very critically. I think I learn from all of these – what to do or not to do. I’ll be reading something and it will hit me, “oh, that’s an interesting way to deal with exposition…”
MT: What are your favorite music books? Novels in any genre relating to music? What are the best ways crime novels that somehow use music in a really great way that feel incredibly honest or true?
CS: I just wrote a piece on my favorite novels about music but that aren’t crime fiction! To excerpt myself, I’d start with Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, which is just poetic perfection (about jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden). Then I’d move onto Pagan Kennedy’s very funny The Exes, a fictional tale of a Boston band made up of two former couples and Walter Mosley’s RL’s Dream, a wonderful and moving straight novel – not a mystery – about a bluesman. Those are great books that I don’t see people talking about – so let’s give them a plug!
In terms of crime fiction, I love how Donna Leon and Kate Ross use (or used, in the case of Ross) the opera world and the theatrical backstage world. They so clearly knew it and lived in it, and that helps. There are so many others, and I’m going to pass on naming them because I know I’ll leave too many people out! What I don’t like are books that just try to put on the setting for the glitz. I mean, I used to love Anne Rice, but when she made one of her vampires a rock star, Lestat, I think, I lost it. She so clearly did not know the world, and it just read very false.
MT: What are the albums, bands, artists, etc that have shaped the novel? Could you give us a sample of what a music playlist might be like for someone who loves Hold Me Down, and also for you while you’re writing any of your novels? What type of music do you return to during the writing process?
CS: I do want to do a playlist! I think there ought to be some good tough women rockers up front: L7 and Sleater-Kinney for starters, and X and X-Ray Specs and the Bangles, and just kickass singers like Etta James, Barbara Lynn, Irma Thomas, and Kate Bush. But while I was writing this, I also found myself listening to a lot of male-fronted bands that had the right mood. Songs that I could hear Gal writing (and singing), like the Lazy Cowgirls, the Rankoutsiders, the White Stripes, the Nervous Eaters and the Outlets (both Boston bands!). And, of course, the Clash. Always the Clash.
MT: Do you feel (whether due to your own life or the time you’re living in) you could have written this exact novel—or something remarkably close to it—at the very beginning of your career, as opposed to now? As a writer, how have you changed over the years, and has this also affected you as a reader?
CS: No, I could not have. True story: I started World Enough 20 years ago, and it didn’t work. I didn’t have the writing chops to carry it off. More important, I didn’t have the distance, or maybe simply the emotional maturity, to see what it was really about: the false promise of nostalgia and the ways in which we choose to view the past. Hold Me Down deals with these same issues, but it goes deeper. There were issues in this book that I was not even aware of a few years back. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but one thing I have learned in the last few years is that it is easier psychically to take on responsibility, or even blame, than to acknowledge that we may have had no control over a situation. I didn’t know that when I started writing, and even if I did, I doubt I could have written about it.
MT: Like many great crime novels, Hold Me Down functions as a mystery and a nicely drawn character study. Which came first, the crime or the character, as far as the writing process is concerned, or how did they each shape one another? Why did you feel Gal was especially well suited for this story, and what are some other characters do you feel are especially well drawn in crime fiction?
CS: Thank you! I don’t think I can separate character and story here. Like the setting, they all come up together.
MT: If you had to group Hold Me Down with any other books currently being read today, or which should be more well read, what would they be? What books do you feel Hold Me Down could be in conversation with, and what books or authors would you like to see discussed with you and Gal?
CS: I’m thinking of other books that are really focused on their complex, flawed characters. I mean, in an ideal world, I’d like to put Gal up against Melissa Broder’s characters – or Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell! Within the genre, I’m a little stuck – I’m catching up on months of backed-up reading and I fear I’m not current and that I’m missing wonderful character-forward authors. I do know I’d be honored to be considered alongside Catriona McPherson, Naomi Hirahara, Laura Lippman, or Attica Locke. I am doing an event locally in March with the poet Lloyd Schwartz. We’re friends and we read each other’s works, so we’re going to have a discussion of our new books and the themes that appeal to us both.
MT: Do you have any books by rock stars, fiction or nonfiction? What’s something I probably haven’t read, but should? What would you recommend?
CS: I have Dr John’s memoir, Under a Hoodoo Moon. It’s not very good, to be honest, but I loved him and so it’s fun for me. A better music book by (sort of) the musicians themselves is The Brothers by the Neville Brothers with David Ritz. Other than that, if you’re looking for good music writing, I’d look for people who are writers first: David Hajdu, Anthony DeCurtis, Tom Piazza, and the like. David Hajdu wrote a very funny and utterly delightful skewering of the avant garde/art music scene called Adrienne Geffel. Now that’s a music novel!
MT: Did the answer to the mystery, the solution to Gal’s problem, or anything else essential to the novel change as you were writing it? Did you have any revelations regarding Hold Me Down or Gal as you wrote this novel?
CS: Yes! I don’t want to give any spoilers, but originally I did think that Gal’s recovery of what happened in her life would be the big reveal. As I wrote that, though, I realized there was more – that a bigger issue was her realizing the implications of her initial reaction. Is that vague enough?
MT: You’re an incredibly gifted and prolific author, and I wonder: what book of yours is your favorite, and are there any of your books you’d like to write again, either to correct an error or to simply enjoy the writing process all over? Are there any books you’d avoid all together? What’re you writing now? What book will you come out with next?
CS: Oh, I hate all my old writing – I see all the clunky bits – until I start reading something again and fall in love with it. And then I wonder, how did I do that? How will I ever do that again? As for what’s next, I’m working on a sort of creepy he said/she said about a couple very, very, very loosely based on my parents. She’s an artist. He is not. They have issues. I think it’s got a kind of Patricia Highsmith vibe, which surprises me, but there it is. I’m also trying to finish a draft of a more conventional (but, I think, very fast and fun) amateur sleuth set in a newsroom with a cop reporter with a weakness for bad boys. We’ll see if anyone wants to publish either of them!
MT: Clea, thank you so much for letting me pick your brain. I loved reading and rereading Hold Me Down and recommend it to anyone who wants to marvel in a slower-burning mystery about a complex heroine with an incredible story. I loved this book and can’t wait to see what you come out with next. I can’t wait to see what readers think as well!
CS: Me as well! That said, it was a pleasure to hang here today and to think about your thoughtful questions. Thank you, Matthew!
Matthew Turbeville: Welcome to Writers Tell All, James! It’s so great to be able to interview you about your incredible and stellar novel, Five Decembers. Can you tell us a little about the book and why you wrote it?
James Kestrel: I wrote it before the pandemic upended everything, and back then I was traveling a lot between Honolulu (my home), Tokyo, and Hong Kong. Whenever I’m in a new place, I like to walk around and explore the history. And I kept coming back to how these three places were connected, and how the sea in between them had become a chessboard from 1941 to 1945. I wanted to tell a story that grappled with that, and after thinking about it a while (I believe I was on a China Eastern Airlines flight, drinking a Tsingdao, when it all came together) I saw a way to use a character like Joe McGrady to propel a narrative.
MT: A lot of reviews I’ve seen have compared the novel favorably to All the Light We Cannot See, but I loved Five Decembers even more. I also really love the rare, great crime epic. It’s sweeping, it’s massive. Do you mind telling us a little about what it’s like to write such a sprawling novel, both in size and scope, and what research and other elements of the writing process went into crafting the novel?
JK: It was great fun to write such a big book. Everything I’d written previously had been smaller in scale, and crammed into a shorter time frame. Having such a huge canvas and such a long time for the story to play out was like filling my lungs with oxygen. I spent some time researching before I began writing, but then continued it as I was writing. With the research, the hardest part was to know when to stop. I was still researching after I’d sold the book, after it had been edited, and after it had been sent out to reviewers. When my editor at Hard Case finally confirmed that there was no longer any chance of changing things, I stopped researching because it would kill me to find something I wanted (or needed) to fix, if fixing it was an impossibility.
I spent a lot of time in the basement of the Hawaii State Library, which has a microfilm collection of all the local newspapers during the relevant time period. I also got a copy of the 1941 Oahu telephone directory, which was priceless, because then I knew where all the businesses were located. I ordered maps from the period, so I wouldn’t risk driving my characters down any streets that didn’t yet exist. And I spent a lot of time at the Waialae Country Club, hanging out with my 83 year old boss and his cronies, and listening to their stories.
Hong Kong and Japan were obviously much harder to research. Accurate period maps of Hong Kong were easy to find, and (because of my day job) I had a connection to a former Hong Kong detective. Tokyo was pretty much burned to the ground during the war, much of it on a single night. So walking around Tokyo isn’t a particularly good way of learning about what it was like in 1941—except there is one neighborhood, Yanaka, that miraculously escaped bombing. It’s a good way to get a handle on what Tokyo would have looked like. I also had some friends in Japan who take hospitality to another level, and they put me up for three nights in a hot spring town, in a guest house that used to belong to the Emperor. I’m not sure I want to know what they paid for that, but it was a fantastic way to become familiar with traditional Japanese domesticity (albeit on the high end).
MT: How do you manage the amount of information, historical and general, that goes into a novel? I’ve read some criticisms of other historical novels about the unnecessary factual information in the novels used to make the novels seem more authentic, but it feels like you use just enough, with sparse, almost poetic language. What books inspired you to write Five Decembers? What are your favorite novels, what are your favorite crime novels, and what are some of your favorite historical novels you feel have had a great impact on you, in general and in writing this novel?
JK: I research as deeply as I can, because I want to know things that would inform my characters or improve my understanding of them, even if those particular details don’t actually make it into the book. Case in point: I wanted to know what a Honolulu detective’s annual salary was in 1941. It’s the sort of thing you need to know, because it will dictate what kind of house he lives in, what kind of car he drives when he’s off duty, etc. But you don’t need to write a scene where he looks at his pay stub and multiplies it by 24. So I try to find out everything I can, but then try to let the story dictate what gets written down.
MT: What was your journey like to writing this novel—both in “becoming” a writer, whatever becoming might mean to you, and also in getting the novel published? I loved Hard Case Crime, and I’m so interested in how the publisher got its hands on such a brilliant novel too!
JK: This one is a bit tricky, because James Kestrel is a pseudonym. This is the tenth novel I’ve written, and the seventh I’ve published. I wanted this book to stand apart, though. The way I got to Hard Case Crime was pretty straightforward: my agent sent me a list of a dozen or so publishers she wanted to submit to, and I asked her to add Hard Case. The entire time I was writing the novel, I thought it would be a perfect match. And I am so glad it ended up where it did. Hard Case has a fantastic (brilliant, even) editor named Charles Ardai who was not only instrumental in reshaping the book from its first draft, but who has also been an unwavering champion of it since the day he made an offer.
MT: Do you feel the novel has any particular relevance today? I think about McGrady, the protagonist, and his sort of forced exile during the war, and there’s a sense of claustrophobia, of great change and unrest that rings true today, too. When were you writing this novel and were there any events going on in particular you feel affected the way the novel was shaped?
JK: I hadn’t thought of the forced-exile connection to our current world, but now that you point it out, it’s definitely there. I wrote this book before the pandemic, though, so that certainly wasn’t intentional.
MT: Language and style is such an important part of your novel. You have this beautiful, poetic style that’s filled with these unfurling sentences, and also a lot of staccato-like precision. When you write and revise, how closely do you pay attention to the actual style of your prose, and what’s that revision process like for you?
JK: Wow—thank you! Sometimes I’ll read passages aloud to make sure they have the right rhythm. The book is told from a close third-person perspective, so I wanted the prose style to echo the character of McGrady as much as possible. When he’s thinking like a beat cop, the sentences come out like he’s banging out a report on a rusty typewriter. But I had to spend some time adjusting the sentence structures and the pacing in the middle section of the book to better fit the scenes in which McGrady has been knocked out of his element and off the course of his investigation. He’s not thinking like a cop there, but like a bewildered man trying to keep a handhold on the world.
MT: The quote often attributed to Toni Morrison, about writing the novel you’ve always wanted to read, is something I’m always interested in. Do you feel you’ve read that sort of novel before, and if so what might it be? If not, do you think Five Decembers is the book you always wanted to read, or do you think that’s still coming?
JK: I’ve never talked to him, but I believe James Ellroy must have felt that way while writing The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential.
MT: What book or books do you feel Five Decembers might be most in conversation with, or paired with for the most interesting effect? What about other forms of art? Does it work as a response or complement any other work in a way you want to draw attention to?
JK: What an interesting exercise—like a wine and cheese pairing, but for books and other forms of art. When I was writing the story, I’d often listen to 1940s jazz. It wasn’t something I’d listened to at all before getting into this novel, but I it certainly put me in the right frame of mind.
As for book pairings, I would be interested to see what other people think of the comparison with All the Light We Cannot See. Now comes the embarrassing moment where I have to admit that I have not yet read that book. It came out shortly after my son was born, so I was kind of tied up. Then I was writing my book and the last thing I wanted to do was read an acclaimed World War II novel. What if it knocked my socks off, and I stopped writing mine? What if his voice was so powerful I couldn’t hear my own, and started borrowing his? But now I can read it, and I will.
MT: What’re you working on next? Can we expect another book from you in the near future, and if so, do you mind sharing any information about the novel?
JK: Right now I am trying to work my way out from beneath a mountain of pandemic-induced lethargy. I do sort of have an idea, though, inspired by some research I did for Five Decembers which had no direct connection to the book. All I can say is that I was researching denominations of US currency in circulation in 1941, inspired by the fear that I’d have McGrady hand someone a $5 bill, only to be told by a notaphilist / mystery reader that there was no such bill until 1954. My fear turned out to be ungrounded, but in the process I stumbled across something incredibly interesting.
MT: Thank you so much for letting me pick your brain, James! It was such a thrill reading your novel, and I hope others will pick it up as well. It’s a great novel and really deserves all the attention it’s getting and more. Thank you so much again, and I can’t wait to see more from you!
JK: Thank you so much. I’m truly humbled that you read the book at all, let alone that you enjoyed it.
Buy Five Decembers here.
Prolific author Clea Simon (A Spell of Murder) delivers an enchanting, guitar-shredding crescendo of a novel in Hold Me Down, a novel that can just as easily draw comparisons to Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams as Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything. Simon writes about former rock star Gal, who becomes invested in the mysterious death of a former roadie after a reunion show to benefit a former bandmate who has recently died of cancer, the illness having left her husband and daughter in debt. The novel delves deep into issues of rape, sobriety, fame, and the various ways we cope with the past and remember events and life so differently, while never letting go of a profoundly lyrical and gripping writing style that so permeates Simon’s writing as a whole. Simon clearly has a vast knowledge of music and understands all the behind-the-scenes components well, using crime fiction to investigate the horrors of trauma and the various ways we all cope, some more successful than others, leaving the reader with the question: is this a murder mystery, or something more? I’d argue the latter, with Simon pointing to the complexities of human nature, emotion, and our ability to stomach the truth and the different ways and various extremities we use when protecting those we love. As a new uncle myself, I can say that Hold Me Down hits hard and wonderfully, with the perfect balance of emotional complexity and mystery and complex character study. I was engrossed in Hold Me Down, a wonder which works on many levels, just as much as an electric rock-n-roll novel as it is a gristly murder mystery. Simon excels at delving deep into human emotions and what makes each of us tick, revealing a gift for a tremendous amount of empathy that works for both her protagonist and also some of the characters guilty of even the most heinous crimes—Simon isn’t necessarily interested in redemption as in understanding that we are not all simply black or white, good or bad. She has so much love for the people of her novels, but never sacrifices the pure noir bent of the story, always finding the edge to her multilayered characters. Simon’s latest is an absolutely not-to-miss book, a beautiful and contemplative rush of a novel you’ll want to read over again, just in case you missed anything the first time around—or just because, like the urge to listen to any favorite rock song. Simon’s prose and story is just as electric and hypnotic and breathless as the best albums you play on repeat to experience all the feels and all the fun, all at once. Fans of Megan Abbott, Alison Gaylin (especially What Remains of Me and If I Die Tonight), and Jessica Knoll will delight in Simon’s writing.
You can buy Hold Me Down here.
Aimee Bender on THE BUTTERFLY LAMPSHADE, Mental Illness from the Inside, Writing that Matters, and the Book(s) that Awe Her
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Aimee! I know you know this by now but I’m one of your biggest fans and I am so happy to have read your latest novel, The Butterfly Lampshade. I know the first thing I read by you were your stories (this was years ago) and I’m always curious for those writers who excel in stories and novels alike, how do you decide when the story you’re telling is a novel, and how do you stick with something long enough to write it at novel length? What behind the novel—and this novel in particular—drives you to see it through?
Aimee Bender: Thank you so much, Matthew! I always love talking to you about books and writing. So, let’s see. With a novel, it takes me a long time to find the thing I want to continue writing about—and so I’ll write a lot of scenes/moments/images and see what sticks, what I want to return to. Sort of like throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall, if the stuck spaghetti will somehow eventually form a book, a shape, a sculpture?
MT: I recently said that Miriam Toews’ newest novel seems to take a lot from you—I also think of one of her oldest novels, All My Puny Sorrow, about family and mental illness. In very different ways, you both present mental illness, and those who fear it, at times as feeling the illness is perhaps fated, destined, or inevitable. What about this character and the lampshade itself contributes to this most, and what other books (or really anything) would you put The Butterfly Lampshade in conversation with?
AB: I want to read her latest. She’s incredible. I like this idea of books in conversation—for TBL, I was thinking a lot about stories where something comes alive, the Toy Story types, The Velveteen Rabbit, Ovid’s story of Galatea, the sculpture, suddenly moving, with pulse, and vitality. Even Frankenstein animating out of the bodies of corpses. But then wanting those ideas to also go along with conversations about really what is real and what isn’t. I think of Elyn Saks’ incredible memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, about her schizophrenia from the inside, and what it has been like for her. She goes into psychoanalysis because she wants to work with the anxiety that aggravates the psychosis, and lies on the couch, says things like, I killed a thousand people today. And she and the analyst would then deal with that, knowing that she was not an actual murderer. I find this incredible, truly moving in the deepest way. The courage to wander into those darkest places of the mind with another person, exploring.
MT: The protagonist, Francie, deals with losing her mother in a sense, to mental illness and hospitalization, when moving to stay with her aunt, uncle, and their newborn baby near the beginning of the novel. A lot of Francie’s narrative deals with accurately—or perhaps the better word might be solidly—cementing her memory as a sort of fact, especially when life threatens to unravel as Francie’s cousin prepares to move off to college. Can you explain about the format of the novel, how it contributes to Francie’s mindset, and what it was like writing the novel this way? How did you construct this novel, and would you describe your process and it worked with Francie’s story?
AB: Often you hear that backstory drains drama from a narrative, and maybe it was the rebellious part of me that didn’t want to follow that, that felt the dark past had such a pull on this person, and that the real tension remained in the past for her, as she sat in a quiet space in the present, perhaps finally ready to tackle it. (And to tackle it meaning here something fairly quiet-- to look at it, to consider it, feel it.) It’s a basic tenet of psychology, (and history) to think that the past is with us, as Faulkner famously said, “isn’t really past,” so I just wanted that to be the drive. And that the present would be about sitting literally and figuratively with this transitional moment in her life.
MT: There is so much love in your writing, and The Butterfly Lampshade feels like a love letter from yourself to readers, the empathy even more intense than your other (also phenomenal) books before. Do you mind talking about your history as a reader, and also the past few years or even decade and what you feel has led you to write this way, along with this specific book, and especially now?
AB: Ah, that is really so nice to hear, Matthew. It’s hard for me to gauge as I’m so close to it all, so this kind of response is very gratifying. I don’t really pick how I’m writing, but I do keep wanting to write about connection, and at the same time I have a lot of solitary characters, so it’s kind of this back-and-forth, wanting to write about contending with the self, and then seeing how that plays out with other people. I’ve been thinking so much about Ishiguro’s latest novel, and how he conveys a feeling-state, how he really creates an emotion that only can be made out of his book. And that is a kind of powerful empathy I want to emulate—to pass along an experience in such a way.
MT: What is, in your mind, the hardest part about writing? When you write, when you read a story to the crowd, if not general readers do you have a specific audience in mind? Is there any reader in specific you feel you most want to please with your most recent work?
AB: I think starting is hardest for me. Once something seems to have some energy/movement in it, then I have somewhere to go. But the dreaded blank page! This is why I love the writing exercise as a way to move things around in the brain. And re readers—I think I do now really write for someone, and it’s that someone that feels really connected to what I’m doing. I don’t know who it is, but it’s for that reader. With Lemon Cake, a couple people wrote and said it meant a lot ot them, that they felt I’d written it for them. And I wrote back and said, well, then I did; I wrote it for you. And I believe that. A book is a kind of missive into outer space. So good when it’s found, when someone receives the missive.
MT: Which books have you loved most recently, and are there any books that ground you in particular, or have helped inform you or change you greatly, especially in the past decade?
AB: So many! I’m right now reading Claire Vaye Watkins’ new novel, which comes out in October, and is stunning. I just finished The Secret Life of Church Ladies which is so inviting, so open, so hot, so able to hold feeling and cut away the bullshit. I am rereading an Agatha Christie book right now also because I had a craving. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. How I gasped as a teen reading it! I loved her so much when I was 13, sitting in class, doing silent reading time, gawking at the reveals.
MT: In the past you’ve frequently written a lot of magical realism, or perhaps works adjacent to the genre, and I wonder what you think writing magical realism, or any different you prefer or love, can do that other genres might not be able to do. Is there an advantage to writing certain genres and can you specifically think of stories that might be told one way but wouldn’t work in another form?
AB: Yes, absolutely—I think books are so often trying to get at the worlds below the world, what’s humming underneath, and so it’s not always easy to articulate, in fact it is meaningful BECAUSE it is difficult to grasp/articulate/find words for. So then we need to and get to use whatever we can to try to capture something so fleeting that is also a part of our human experience. Why not use magic? Why not use anything/everything that feels right in the moment?
MT: What’s a book you feel you wish you’d written, and is there a story in short or long form you haven’t written yet but want to? If so, can you give us any clue as to what it might be like?
AB: I think most often here of Borges’ short, “Borges and I” where he says, so beautifully, that he feels himself more in “the laborious strumming of a guitar” than in his own work. How I sometimes feel, listening to Kate Bush, that she says the thing I’m trying to say. But I don’t really wish I’d written her song. It’s more that I just want to feel that my own listener-ship is real, that if I really think I “get it” then that matters. And so I believe that’s what’s underneath the question. As Zadie Smith says, the reader is a true participant, the “amateur musician” playing the piece the composer made, contributing, learning, expressing. So a reader, then, IS, in a way, “playing” the book that she loves. She is writing her part of it, her engagement with it. That matters, and it is the beauty of the act of reading. We can’t minimize that.
MT: Does the novel feel like it has a different meaning or place in the world now that we have a new president, are in a new decade, are all changing and living a new life? Do you think the book is somehow different than what you set out to write? How do you change, edit, develop a work while the world is changing so drastically? The question seems so relevant when thinking about The Butterfly Lampshade specifically.
AB: Great question, and hard to answer. Yes, it does feel different. Awareness is growing. But a writer also needs to follow what is findable in the moment, which means it’ll live in the time it’s written, flaws and gaps and all, and hopefully will have enough of a wide view to last beyond its moment.
MT: Is there anything in writing, whether it’s in book form or tv, etc, that really bothers you about how mental illness is presented? Is there something—anything—you feel specifically gets everything right?
AB: Yes, I think often mental illness is presented in strange ways. The same way I remember a student once referencing schizophrenia as just all these funny voices in his head! Well, no. Or how my mother trained me, because her sister was mentally ill, to critique so many films, books, TV shows that made light of it in some way. In A Beautiful Mind, the character’s “voice” is personified because it’s a film, and it’s a handsome rakish actor talking to him, and it just feels really nothing like what I’ve observed in people who do suffer from actual voices that are in their minds and often tormenting them or certainly preoccupying them.
MT: I love that your books are so great even young adults (and younger age groups, sometimes) read them—what children’s books do you recommend for children today? I have a newborn nephew and one who just turned two, but of course would love to know what books you suggest for when they’re older (and I’m crossing fingers that they’ll be big readers).
AB: Oh, so many!! On all levels. A few that come to mind right this moment--Snow Music by Lynne Rae Perkins is such a great picture book when a child is crying. It is SO soothing. Several times it was the thing that quieted my twins, even in this snowless So Cal landscape we live in. My daughter’s current favorite book is El Deafo, a great graphic novel about a young girl who loses her hearing and has to cope. We also love Leo, about a ghost/imaginary friend combo, with Christian Robinson’s gorgeous illustrations. Wild Robot is just so good and I loved reading it, kept insisting we read more. And our go-to has been My Side of the Mountain, from the 50’s, about a boy running away from home and living in the Catskills for a year on his own. Figuring out how to make things work. A book of great freedom and independence.
MT: You’re such a great influence on the world, both for writers and people who seek you out purely as readers to enjoy a great book. I know I get to experience your work in so many ways, and it’s always wonderful to see that you’re just as great of a person as any of us could hope or deserve. Thank you for letting me interview you, and I’m so thankful for your new book, The Butterfly Lampshade, out in paperback now. I encourage everyone reading this to pick up a copy, even if I’ve already mailed one their way myself. Thank you again, Aimee!
AB: Oh, thank YOU, Matthew! You are such a generous presence, and every writer that gets the chance to talk to you must feel so special. Thank you for all you do for books and readers and writers!
Matthew Turbeville: Shawn! I am so excited to interview you about your newest novel, Razorblade Tears. How does it feel to be one of the biggest superstars in literature today, and what do you think it means to be who you are (a Black man in the South who actually knows where Fayetteville/Lumberton, NC is, for example) and what about you specifically do you think you bring to writing that makes everyone such intense (possibly crazed) fans?
SA Cosby: Well thanks for having me Matthew. I don't think I'm one of the biggest stars in literature or anything but I feel so moved that people are connecting with my writing in such a positive way. I hope that it shows people are willing to read different stories from different voices
MT: I want to note before we talk in depth about Razorblade Tears that I love turning people on to a book before Blacktop Wasteland you wrote called My Darkest Prayer. Can you talk about where your writing has gone between then and now, and how you’ve evolved as a writer through your novels? What books and authors and subjects pulled you into the world of My Darkest Prayer, and how is that different from now?
SAC: I think ,I hope, my writing has become more nuanced since MDP. I love that book. It was my homage to the books I grew up loving like Devil in Blue Dress or RED HARVEST . But it was also my 1st mystery novel and I think I was a bit overly impressed with my own metaphorical prowess lol. But Nathan Waymaker ( protagonist of MDP) is near and dear to my heart. Hopefully I'll get to talk to him again some day.
MT: I know some people may frown upon me bringing race, class, the area where we live in the country into this conversation, but I think it’s important to note that decades ago, Blacktop Wasteland and now Razorblade Tears may not have been possible or been published. This isn’t limited to who you are as a person, but also what you write about, and how you write your books and the characters in them. Can you talk about the way the books are shaped, and the voices of the protagonists, and the way you make your books and characters and stories so addicting?
SAC: I think that you're exactly right. Years ago fiction that starred African American characters had a small niche in publishing. The genius of someone like Toni Morrison cannot be denied. But publishers seemed loathe to give writers of color the same opportunity to experiment in multiple genres that they give their white counterparts. Writers of color who weren't explicitly ensconced in the "literary " camp were seen as a trend. I think today we can say we are not the soup du jour...we are the whole damn meal
MT: I’ve found myself in a lot of books over the years, and I found myself in Razorblade Tears both as someone who is gay and been a victim to hate crimes (though luckily not fatal on my end) and also in ways as the reluctant father figure, the person who’s become nurturing and loving in a very hesitant way. I have more than one great love now in my nephews, and it’s frightening to see how much of me is in them, my sister, my brother-in-law I love as my brother, and I wonder what inspired your passion for this story.
SAC: I had a very close friend who is close to my age who came out a few years ago to their family. It did not go well. At first I was saddened, then I was furious. I couldn't understand how a family could turn their back on their own blood. I wanted to examine that idea and since this is fiction, I wanted to have my characters change as they confront their own prejudice. Because I firmly believe writing is a vehicle of change.
MT: There are some obvious takeways from the book, and maybe some takeaways even I’m not aware of yet (although I’m eager to reread again!). Can you talk about what you hope any reader might get from your writing, and specifically now with Razorblade Tears?
SAC: I hope readers will realize that love is all that truly matters. I hope they realize that redemption is only possible when we confront our transgressions. And finally I hope they take away that you shouldn't wait to repair burned bridges.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this book? I hate this question, but feel now, with Razorblade Tears coming out, and how it’s more than just a great follow-up novel: were there any fears or a sense of anxiety going into writing the book that would follow Blacktop Wasteland, one of the most well-loved books in recent history?
SAC: I think the hardest part was ensuring I was telling the story in a way that didn't dehumanize any of the characters. That I allowed them to be living breathing people. That was the narrative challenge. I think personally it was a challenge to follow up BLACKTOP WASTELAND. The reception to that book was beyond any of my wildest dreams. I didn't want to let anyone down least of all my readers.
MT: There were some things about Razorblade Tears that threw me, but I also study structure, writing, screenwriting, and so some things I saw coming—and yet I couldn’t stop. I didn’t care. A lot of these things I know did surprise other early readers, but I wonder, whether something is surprising and a twist or something you don’t actually see coming, what propels you through great crime novels other than the shocking turns, and why do you think crime fiction is so important, especially today? What can it do that other genres simply can’t?
SAC: For me crime fiction is the language of the dispossessed, the lost and the broken. It's a universal story telling motif. For me as a reader it is endlessly fascinating. It's the continuous study of the best and worst of us. For me crime encompasses all other genres. A Thousand Acres is a crime novel. The Secret History is a crime novel. The Color Purple is a crime novel. Every novel is a crime novel because everyone has the potential to break societal rules
MT: Where do you start when you write a novel? What was Razorblade Teras like when you first began, and where did you see it going?
SAC: For me I have to sketch out the characters. I like to write character biographies. They never make it into the book but they give me a handle on my protagonist. Once I have that then I can begin.
MT: When dealing with race, class, sexuality, hate, etc, in fiction, or addressing issues in America, what are some issues you felt you had to confront in your novel, and is there a book, for better or worse, you feel your novel is in conversation with? What would you suggest others read along with your latest?
SAC: I think I'll always talk about race class and sexuality because these things are the foundational drivers of not only narrative but our shared communal experience. I don't know if there is a book I consider a companion piece but I was definitely inspired by Kelly J. Ford's COTTOMOUTHS. If you liked RAZORBLADE TEARS you will love that book. It's a rural noir with an LGBTQ heroine. It's so country and raw you can smell the chicken sh*t
MT: Did you write any characters you felt you couldn’t relate to, or maybe characters outside yourself, really in any of your books, and if so, did you ever feel it was hard to write these people and make them real? It never feels you struggled, but I know things can be a lot different on the other side of the page, typing on yoru screen (of if you’re a pro, writing by hand?)?
SAC: I think my villains tend to be awful people because the better your protagonist. I don't identify with them but I do my best to understand their motivation, even if that motivation is repugnant to me .
MT: What books do you feel people need to read today? What books, which authors do you think are most important to dive into today? What book would you suggest anyone to read, and what book would you say is something you turn to maybe keep writing if you feel out of sorts, or to remind you of a love for books?
SAC? Oh man that's a long list but I'll mention a few
Donald Ray Pollock
Ernest J. Gaines
Rachel Howzell Hall
And many many more
MT: I mentioned how I know people who obsess over you in a nearly scary way. You’re that great. Similarly, I wonder who are the S.A. Cosbys in your life, the ones you would kill the read, the authors you love completely?
SAC: I'm totally enamored with Donna Tartt , Dennis Lehane Walter Mosley and Stephen King and Nikki Giovanni. I'd love to have a beer with all of them.
MT: I love that you threw out Pat Conroy and The Prince of Tides once as one of your favorite Southern Gothic novels, something not everyone might consider fitting into the genre. What other books and tastes in general do you think people would be surprised to hear about? Are there any hot takes you can shoot my way? I love that you love Pat too.
SAC: Haha I don't have too many hot takes but I guess people may be surprised to know I grew up reading romance novels. My grandmother had a stack as tall as an azalea bush . I guess my only hot take is ...you can take classes to become a more technically proficient writer but ultimately you're either born a storyteller or you ain't. Nobody can teach you that.
MT: Can you give your superfans any hint at what you’re writing now, and what your next book make be like? How long do we have to wait? What can we expect?
SAC: I'm working on a Southern Gothic murder mystery that's like True Detective Season 1 meets Sharp Objects
MT: Shawn, whether it’s an interview here, or me virtually interviewing you in a private conversation, I always love talking to you about your work. Please stay in touch, and thank you always for being the great writer none of us deserve, but are so appreciative for. You are one of my favorite people and favorite authors, hands down, and I hope there are some people reading this interview and finding out about My Darkest Prayer, or buying a copy of all your books for a friend, or themselves. I hope everyone gets to read your work. It’s phenomenal and deserves to be preserved and cherished and celebrated. You deserve all the best. Thank you, Shawn.
SAC: Thank you for having me Matt. It's been a pleasure.
Meredith Davidson & Matthew Turbeville: Ruth, I am so excited to talk about your novel. I was hooked from the initial description, and I couldn’t stop reading and rereading as I went on. I find folklore, family legends, the histories we carry from our ancestors so intriguing. Why do you think these things are so important to people, and can you point to whether living with a legacy on our names, or superstition, or lore effects life for the better or worse?
Ruth Gilligan: Wow, talk about a big question to start us off! But a good one, definitely. And thank you so much for reading (and rereading) the book, I’m thrilled you enjoyed it. Needless to say, I also find these layers of belief completely intriguing. There’s this thing we call Religion with a capital ‘R’, then there is the slightly less official or formal realm of folklore slash superstition (although I have all sorts of thoughts about who gets to decide the cut-off point between these two) and then, as you mention, there are the family stories and traditions that get passed down from one generation to the next. I think in many ways, all these layers can offer roughly the same kinds of rewards and restrictions – whether it’s comfort and continuity, a sense of higher purpose, or whether it’s a stifling or prescriptive presence, as if your life choices are being dictated in all sorts of damaging ways. I have definitely experienced all those facets of faith at some point in my life.
MD/MT: What first interested you in family traditions, lore, history, and legends? What about different regions of countries or parts of the world change the way we view these different aspects of life and the past?
RG: I grew up in Ireland, which of course is known for being a fiercely religious country, but amidst all the talk of Catholicism and Protestantism, there is also this lesser-known realm of Irish folklore and superstition which, for many, is still alive and well. And what’s fascinating to me is that it’s not an ‘either or’ situation – plenty of people can have a house decked out with crucifixes and sacred heart statues, but also still believe in fairies and pagan rituals. For some that might seem contradictory, but as I mentioned before, I think the lines between these beliefs – or types of belief – are so nebulous anyway. There’s no logic and that’s the messy, beautiful point (and indeed, that’s the messy, beautiful starting point for a novelist).
MD/MT: One character, Una, wants to perhaps become a butcher, but is limited by her sex. Obviously, this should be viewed as form of sexism, but what does it say that patriarchal values, control, and lineage shapes Una so much from a young age, and how, if at all, might she and other women be able to step outside this?
RG: What does it say? It says welcome to Ireland, where the Guinness is good and the patriarchy is alive and well! I’m being facetious (slightly), and obviously times they are a-changing, but historically – and this goes back to the ‘fiercely religious’ thing – women and women’s bodies have been treated pretty appallingly in my country. The Church has so much to answer for and, like I said, progress is definitely afoot (see the historic result of the 2018 abortion referendum), but there is a still so much residual trauma – and rage – from the manifold ways in which Irish women have been systemically suppressed.
MD/MT: What was so important about setting this story during a certain time period, possibly other than issues dealing with Mad Cow’s Disease?
RG: The novel takes place over the course of a single year – 1996 – which, for me, was such a crucial pivot point in Irish history. As you mention, it was the year of the Mad Cow Disease, or BSE, crisis, but it was also the year in which Divorce was finally legalized in Ireland; the year the first gay kiss was shown on Irish TV (homosexuality had been decriminalized just three years previous); it was the year the Celtic Tiger began – that huge economic ‘boom’ that ultimately propelled Ireland onto the global stage. The millennium was around the corner, the Spice Girls were on the radio – there is a narrative of progress on the air; a sense of leaving the past, and the old ways, behind. In that way, it felt the perfect setting for the book and all the tensions I was interested in exploring.
MD/MT: Why is Ireland a land rich with legends, and what other countries do you feel are so involved with history and lore? What countries would you like to read about in a book like The Butchers’ Blessing? What countries are underrepresented in this sense, essentially?
RG: Oh Jesus, so many of them! All of them! But fortunately, more and more gorgeous novels are offering insights into these rich traditions. A Girl is A Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (set in Uganda); The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (set in the Balkans); anything by Helen Oyeyemi – from Cuba to Nigeria to the UK, she braids a whole host of histories and folklores into her work. I’m always excited to see where she takes us next.
MD/MT: What role does sexuality play within this world filled with something akin to magical realism, as many critics compare this in a very positive way to Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife? I don’t want to reveal many spoilers, but how do you feel the Butchers might represent or work as a catalyst for the awakening of someone’s sexuality, and also why this character might or might not feel tied to the land of his birth?
RG: Ha, I didn’t see your Obreht reference before I typed mine. Great minds and all that! In response to your question, I think that so much of folklore and myth is about shapeshifting and fluidity; about metamorphosizing from one state to another (or perhaps, residing somewhere in between the two). This is something I love about Daisy Johnsons books (her short stories Fen or her novel Everything Under), and it’s something I definitely explore in The Butchers’ Blessing, both in terms of gender and sexuality. Regarding the character you’re talking about, he doesn’t necessarily see himself in the legends of his homeland, so he turns to the Greeks, immersing himself in their ancient tales instead. Again, this adds another layer to the novel, and shows how everyone finds their logic – or at least, searches for it, desperately – in a different place, a different set of narratives. I just hope his dreams of escape really do come to pass…
MD/MT: Where did the Butchers come from? What were they originally, if the idea of the Butchers have changed at all as the novel evolved, and what do you feel was necessary to change or reevaluate when shaping the book?
RG: This is a great question, mainly because I’ve been fascinated with how much the Butchers’ source has been discussed – or, more specifically, the question of whether or not they are made up. I like to think of them less as an invention as an amalgamation – when I was researching the novel, I came across so many different traditions and superstitions connected to cattle, most of which I had never heard of before. So I ended up pulling them all together to create this group of eight men known as the Butchers who wander the countryside enacting these ancient practices.
I only discovered really late into the editorial process that my British editor fully thought the Butchers were ‘real’. I suggested tweaking something about them and he looked at me horrified, like ‘you can’t do that.’ So then I explained; he was flabbergasted! But I think it raises all sorts of interesting questions about what is ‘real’ and what is ‘true’ – both in fiction and in folklore – and where we like to draw the line between.
One thing my editor did help me to reevaluate was just how key a role the gender stuff played in the novel – obviously I knew it was there (there was no doubt in my mind that this would have to be a group of eight men, not women), but I hadn’t fully thought through the implications of that, especially for the wives and children of the men involved. That was where some of the novel’s main tensions arose.
MD/MT: My own family is filled with lots of history and lore and curses. On top of being related to the family Tess is supposedly descended from in Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, I have researched that our first English ancestor (we are originally French, if I recall) was known only as the Demon. A lot of this, along with other things like mental illness, which is its own sort of curse, have shaped how I view my world. Do you ever feel like histories of the past, perhaps prophecies, curses, things we are expected to be or do actually shape or limit us as humans in our lives, whether on a daily basis or throughout our lives as a whole?
RG: Wow, that’s amazing! Tess & the Demon would be an excellent title for a family memoir… As mentioned above, I absolutely think these things shape us, for better and for worse. It’s all to do with self-fulfilling prophesies, and this exists on a super micro/intimate scale, and also on a societal one too. We are all raised on comments like ‘people in our family don’t do X’ or ‘little girls don’t do Y’ and so much of one’s life is spent trying to figure out which of those comments are helpful and which are a total hindrance (to put it mildly).
MD/MT: What books shaped you as you grew up, as you became a writer, and as you shaped this novel in general? What books do you feel influenced you the most and what book might The Butchers’ Blessing be in conversation with?
RG: In terms of this novel, the books of Evie Wyld and Sarah Hall were hugely influential. They are both British women who write these strange, dark, elegantly-structured novels steeped in a kind of gothic atmosphere, simmering with feminist rage (the same can also be said of Jesmyn Ward’s masterpieces). In terms of the book being in conversation, I was also hugely conscious of John McGahern and other (male) giants who make up the traditional (male) canon of Irish rural fiction. There is much to admire about these books, but also much to write back against (as showcased best, of course, by the inimitable Edna O’Brien).
MD/MT: What writers do you feel need more recognition, and which novel would you recommend to another writer, a reader, or anyone for any reason—perhaps it’s a favorite novel, or a novel you feel could change the way someone thinks. I always view books as the greatest gift, especially when a person is seriously taken into consideration and the gift giver provides a book they feel matches the recipient perfectly.
RG: I appreciate that I just mentioned her, and I also appreciate that she is hardly an unknown entity, but I really think we should all be shouting Evie Wyld’s name from the rooftops a whole lot more than we currently do. In terms of recent novels, again I know it won a huge award in 2019, but I am still struck by how few people have read Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. I think it is exceptional.
MD/MT: What do you want The Butchers’ Blessing to say to the world? When you look at what you’ve written, this beautiful novel you’ve likely slaved over, if a reader reads the book and enjoys it, what is one thing you hope the reader takes away after finishing the book?
RG: “Wow, you were right – the fact that I’m a vegetarian had zero impact on my enjoyment of this book.’ (I get asked that question an awful lot).
MD/MT: Tananarive Due said recently that in writing a horror novel, she could not write a character who didn’t want to survive, or want something, and actually be successful in writing a great novel or story. While The Butchers’ Blessing isn’t horror, which character do you think wanted something the most, and did you ever find it difficult to separate yourself from the characters and give them obstacles? So many authors I know have such a hard time putting their characters through any sort of hellish experience, which can be detrimental to writing in my opinion.
RG: Not at all, in fact, I sort of struggled with the opposite. As in, I never really thought of this book as weird or dark, partly because I am so in love with my characters that I didn’t really realise that some of the things they do may be considered weird or dark. So for example, I remember giving a really early draft to my husband to read, and he was like ‘do you really think it’s a good idea to have Úna trying to slit a mouse’s throat the very first time we encounter her?’ I was horrified slash mildly offended on her behalf, but I suppose I took his point. Now you get to hang out with her for a little bit first – you get to see the things that have shaped her and the way she is treated by the bullies in school – before she gets out her knife.
MD/MT: You vacillate between POVs so swiftly and cleverly it’s perhaps best done since Egan’s GOON SQUAD. Can you talk to us about the energy and thought put into ordering the timelines and speakers, the voices, and the reasons why the people who spoke were given voices?
What a compliment! Honestly I am obsessed with novels written from multiple perspectives; I love their structural intricacies and also the narrative pleasures that they offer – this can be in terms of the inherent mystery of how on earth the different characters are going to link up, or it can simply be the joy of getting to see the same scenario or relationship from totally different points of view. For the record, despite what some people think, I also find novels like this much easier to write – you get to stay with one character while they’re doing something interesting, and then as soon as it starts to get dull, you can switch. I am terrified by the prospect of just sticking with one character for a whole novel – I have no idea how you would keep things interesting for that long.In terms of choosing which voices would be heard in this novel, it was very important to me from the start that, even though the Butchers were the central premise, I wasn’t actually interested in following them on their travels – I was far more interested in the women and children they left behind. So that’s the reason behind Úna and Grá, a mother and daughter combo, then on the other side you have Davey and Fionn, a father and son combo, which offered a lovely symmetry. The book is so concerned with family and generations and what gets passed down, for better or worse, so the structure mirrors that.
MD/MT: It’s strange how when we were younger, we experienced this Mad Cow Disease issue that scared so many people, although not on the level of this pandemic. At the same time, or around the same time, we see Ireland in this novel and it’s so different, so far away as if we’re centuries away, frozen in our own separate times, like either our present existed or theirs did, but not possibly at the same time. Can you talk to us about the feel you wanted when writing the novel, and how Mad Cow Disease and the myth itself came together, quickly or in a slow evolution?
It’s funny trying to trace a novel back to a precise origin story, but I think for me there were two starting points that ultimately came together. The first, as I mentioned, was a longstanding interest in Irish folklore and the tension between different belief systems in a country that is so often considered just strictly Catholic. The second was a road trip with a friend of mine whose father used to be a farm animal vet. To pass the time, he started telling me all these crazy stories of things his dad had seen over the years, especially around the Mad Cow period. I found them fascinating and also couldn’t believe some of the stuff that was going on during my lifetime to which I had been totally oblivious. So I started to do some research, and then my ideas began to bleed (pun intended) into one another, until eventually The Butchers’ Blessing was born.
MD/MT: When I think of children killing animals, I remember specials on children who torture animals and kill them and turn out to be serial killers later on in life. They’re demented, strange, our abject in so many ways. But I read this novel and I am also transported to where I was supposed to go hunting for game, and when I killed my first deer at 7—something I did not ever enjoy doing—those with me tried to smear deer blood on my face. How do we create rituals to enable children to grow and mature or turn into something monstrous, and do you feel you’re addressing this in The Butchers’ Blessing? In a way, people experience the allure and repulsion of the Butchers, some separately and some simultaneously.
Jesus, that is an intense experience for a 7 year old. This might not be a direct answer to your question, but I think of all the descriptions of this novel (literary thriller, family saga, feminist folklore) the one I like most is ‘coming of age’ story. Because I think that Úna’s coming of age is at the heart of the book, but so is the country’s coming of age, or at least, its fumbled attempts to transition from one thing to another (and here I think your phrase ‘mature or turn into something monstrous’ applies beautifully).
MD/MT: Do you have any books coming out next? Anything to follow this brilliant novel? I know I would love to hear about it, as well as likely all of our readers.
So, further to my confession that single person narratives scare the crap out of me, I decided for the next book to set myself the challenge of doing exactly that. However, to circumnavigate the task a little (it’s nuts the tricks we play on ourselves as writers), I am now writing a novel with just one POV, but which jumps back and forth a lot through time. So it centres on this woman called Emily who is a sculptor and whose mother disappeared when she was a teenager, and who is now trying to decide whether or not to become a mother herself. There’s lots of stuff about art and womanhood and mother-daughter relationships; there’s also stuff about real life artists braided through as well. The working title is Umbilical and I’ve only a written a very rough first draft, but I’m enjoying it, and for now, that is enough.
MD/MT: Thank you so much for joining us to talk about your brilliant book, The Butchers’ Blessing. From start to finish, it’s this brilliant novel, a literary thriller of sorts, a saga and a coming-of-age tale, a novel about love and family and what we own of ourselves and what we have no control over. Thank you for allowing us to pick your brain and we hope you’ll come back from time to time. Please feel free to comment on anything else, and once again, it was such a pleasure reading this book and having the opportunity to experience what will likely become a sensational book read