WRITERS TELL ALL
An Interview with Paul Tremblay, Bestselling Horror Author (KNOCK AT THE CABIN Out in Theaters Now!)
I got to sit down with Paul Tremblay, author of books like A Head Full of Ghosts and The Cabin at the End of the World, which is the basis for M. Night Shyamalan's Knock at the Cabin! Keep reading to see me pick his brain about what scares him, how to effectively scare people, and other, well, scary things.
Matthew Turbeville: Mr. Tremblay, I’m really excited to talk with you about your writing and the launch of the new M. Night Shyamalan movie, Knock at the Cabin, based on your brilliant novel The Cabin at the End of the World. What does it feel like to have a book of yours realized as a film, and by such a director, and as such an event?
Paul Tremblay: Thank you for having me here, Matthew. Of course, it’s incredibly exciting. I’m still wrapping my head around the whole thing. The most fun part has been celebrating with family and friends, and hearing from former students and classmates and such.
MT: I love your work so much. The first book I read of yours was Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, which left me extremely unsettled and delighted all at once. It’s a brilliant novel about a mother whose son disappears, and it gave me shivers for days. A lot of your work centers around families and the horrors that can unravel them—from this, to Cabin,to A Head Full of Ghosts. Why do you think writing about families in horror is so significant, and what draws you to a group of people as a writer enough to draft a whole novel around them?
PT: Thank you for the kind words, Matthew. I appreciate it! The three novels you mentioned each feature a family under duress (to put it mildly) by outside forces and possibly supernatural forces. I like think about those three novels, not as a trilogy, but as fitting into a thematic arc, or thematic similarity, each involving supernatural ambiguity.
I started getting serious about writing around the time when I first became a parent, and I found that parents/families/kids and my anxieties were something I continually came back to in my fiction. So I figured why not lean into those obsessions with my novels. As it relates to horror, I think the use of families is maybe a little easy insofar as you tend to get instant empathy for those characters from the readers. I’m less interested in that than I am the experience of those relationships and what stresses do to them, coupled with the ambiguity thing, which I think/hope parallels our 21st century experience, our bifurcated lives (our online/virtual selves and our ‘real’ selves).
I typically come up with a scenario or what if first and then I try to figure out who is in that story, who is that story about.
MT: What scares you? As a writer, what do you look for in a novel to create a truly terrifying experience for the reader, and how do you go about doing that? Do you have any advice for up-and-coming horror and thriller writers?
PT: The Hulk in the first Avengers movie says his secret is that he’s always angry. That’s me, except, well, I’m always scared. My fears help shape the what ifs and concepts I want to explore.
I start with what moves me emotionally; what do I want to read and know more about. And then I hope that there are other readers out there like me who have similar interests. I honestly don’t think or worry about something being scary or not. I think that’s putting too much pressure on the story to maybe be something it’s not. Plus, what’s scary is so subjective. I don’t think I can control whether a story is scary or not. I focus more, again, on serving the story while hopefully moving the reader emotionally, of perhaps disturbing them or leaving them with a sense of dread, of there something being just slightly (or greatly) wrong or off. If that equates to a scare, great!
MT: Who are the authors who inspire you and scare you? What books do you come to again and again in your writing and reading life, and what do you recommend to readers who might want to read some of the work which informed you as a writer?
PT: There are so many writers who inspire me. I didn’t come to reading for pleasure (blame math) until later in life than most people, certainly most writers. In my early 20’s stories and books from Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Shirley Jackson helped set me on the path of reading. My most reread books are SlaughterHouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
Fast-forward to the last five to ten years and there are so many excellent writers producing challenging and terrifying horror fiction and I’m afraid I’ll leave some people off but to name a few: Stephen Graham Jones, Mariana Enriquez, John Langan, Laird Barron, Nadia Bulkin, Sarah Langan, Victor LaValle, Kelly Link, Grady Hendrix, Eric LaRocca…I could go on and on.
You can’t go wrong with any of those writers.
MT: What is your writing work schedule like? I’m always interested in how professional writers structure their days. Do you have any habits, methods, or schedules you use to drive your writing on a day-to-day basis?
PT: I’m currently on sabbatical from teaching, so this is my first academic year that I’m not in a classroom. For the moment, my schedule is writing in the morning for a few hours, then some exercise and lunch, then reading/editing in the afternoon (or, I’ll admit, slacking off in the afternoon too), and I mix in answering emails and all that other ancillary stuff.
When I was teaching, the schedule wasn’t as regimented. It was about trying to steal an hour here or there. Sometimes that happened at school and I’d use a free period here and there. Usually, during school days, I wrote at night when my own kids were settled or doing homework, and I would work in the morning on days off.
No habits or rituals otherwise. I didn’t have time for them. Have laptop and earphones will travel…or write?
MT: I love how a lot of your writing deals with the horrors of human beings and human nature, on top of possible supernatural and preternatural elements. What is so scary about human beings as opposed to actual monsters? In your own experience, what are you more frightened by?
PT: Humans are by far scarier; the violence and atrocities we’re not only capable of, but have more than ably demonstrated throughout history. In fiction, I remain fascinated in the choices and decisions characters make, particularly when confronted by a horror: what decisions will they make now? how do they live through this? how does anyone live through this? I think horror is equipped to get at those questions in really interesting ways.
That said, I’m not above being terrified of the creaking house at night, and what might be hiding under my bed, what lives in the limnal spaces.
MT: What are you working on now? Will we see more short stories from you, or another novel next?
PT: On July 11, 2023, my short story collection The Beast You Are will be published. It has a loose theme of monsters. Not every story has a monster (supernatural or human) but most do. The book includes an original novella which features a giant monster and anthropomorphic animals. It’s fun, I promise!
I just completed a rough draft of a novel called Horror Movie: a novel, and universal willing, will be published in mid-2024. That’s fun too, but really grim.
MT: Paul, thank you so much for allowing me to pick your brain. I’m fascinated by your novels and the worlds you create, and I can’t wait to see this movie, too! Please feel free to stop by any time in the future, and thank you so much!
Matthew Turbeville: Joseph, I want to welcome you to Writers Tell All. I loved your novel, The Swallows of Lunetto. This was a beautiful book in measured and elegant prose, sprawling and charming and tragic and contained, all at once. This is the story of Alexandra and Leonardo, in post-World War II Italy. It’s a remarkably different place, but there were a lot of parts of the novel that carried significant echoes of modern day America, even. What led you to set this novel here and now? What are the challenges and rewards that go into writing historical fiction like this?
Joseph Fasano: Italy faced a crisis of identity during the Second World War, particularly after 1943, when the country was essentially split between Mussolini's Republic of Salò—really a puppet government of Hitler's—and the "liberated" Italy, for whom Italians partisans fought alongside the Allied powers. The theme of a country's "split" sense of self runs through the novel, and of course my intention, in part, was to draw historical parallels to the fractured state of mind that many countries, including the United States, find themselves in today. We are pulled—by different fidelities, by different fears, by the echo-chambers of social media—toward the extremes, and the risk is that we will tear ourselves (as a whole, as individuals) in two.
It is for this reason that my novel becomes the story of the main characters' quests for wholeness, for the integration of the various parts of themselves. The central myth is a reimagining of the Psyche and Eros narrative, a story that, in its aspect that I chose to focus on, is about that search for wholeness.
MT: I love your use of language, how spare and lush it can feel within the world of the novel, and also your use of Italian in the book. I love novels that interchange and mix different languages even within the same sentence, and frequently (one of my very favorite novels is Carmelo by the great Sandra Cisneros). What books were important to you during your formative years as a writer, and what books especially had an impact on your language? How do you go about using different languages in a text, and what’s important to remember for writers who are approaching writing in a similar way?
JF: It was very important for me to create a sense of atmosphere, and the occasional Italian phrase helped this happen. By way of example, a writer such as Hemingway was after very different things from what I've been after, but his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is an excellent example of how a writer can texture an English-language book with the feelings, cadences, and flavors of another language. Hemingway uses many kinds of linguistic tricks in that novel to make the reader feel that she is reading another language (or at least a translation from another language) when she in fact is reading English. In a very different way, I went about the same illusion in The Swallows of Lunetto.
MT: This is a great love story in many ways—what do you feel is essential to involving the audience in a romance between two characters in a novel? How did you approach this love story, and what were the obstacles you had to overcome as a writer to produce this novel?
JF: I think the essential thing is of course getting the audience to care about the individuals in the relationship as individuals. We need to feel their roots, their hungers, their frustrations. We need to feel how every relationship is attempt to love within history.
I would say one of the obstacles I had to overcome was the problem of how to let a reader care about Leonardo Gemetti despite that character's past mistakes. I think his youth, his backstory, his traumas, and his genuine contrition helped.
MT: How attached were you to your own characters, and what do you feel are the obstacles that come along with creating characters you love, and characters you may ultimately have to do away with or hurt in your/their narratives?
JF: My main characters seemed to come to life for me very early in the writing of this book. I followed them, listened to them, learned from them, but it was no more or less difficult to accept their fates than it is to accept the inevitable fate of each of us. At least, as so few of us do, they had a chance to tell their stories.
MT: I think about the masks used in this novel, and what they represent and are used for, as well as the masks I see paralleled in modern day America—very different masks, used for different purposes. It’s strange though, to see how America is changing as we wear masks, and what we can hide behind these masks, other than simply avoiding illness. Can you talk a little about the use of the mask in your novel, and what was like creating a bond between characters divided behind the use of masks?
JF: Like everyone in 2020-2022, the time when this novel was written, I was thinking a lot about masks, particularly the masks we wore in the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic. I found, in writing this novel, a curious way to alchemize those masks into a different historical time period, so that, in stripping away the masks' association with the pandemic, the reader could more freely reflect on how we mask and unmask ourselves and each other, and how every love story is a slow, often painful unmasking.
MT: What are your favorite historical novels? Which novels do you feel capture different times and places elegantly, profoundly, excellently? What books did you look to for guidance in writing your novel?
JF: It is perhaps odd, but I don't think in terms of "historical novels." That term is an invention of marketers. Some novels and plays need to reach into the past to see the present most clearly. In that sense, Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy is historical, as is Hamlet, as is John Williams' triumphant epistolary novel, Augustus. Each tells the truth in its own way, and each can be a kind of guide into new realms.
I didn't particularly look for guidance for The Swallows of Lunetto, however, as much as I probably drew unconsciously on a lifetime of reading. It's hard to give a list of favorites, but I can tell you that some works I admire—if I had to choose six from my bookshelf almost at random—are Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels, Camus' play Caligula, Catullus' poems, Ian McGuire's The North Water, and Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle. All such writers serve as guides up to a certain point, but eventually you reach a place from which no one can assist you, not even your waking self. Then you have to trust the work, the fates, and the life you've managed to live up to that point to take you where you have to go.
MT: What’s your writing process like? What’s important for you in your day-to-day process as a writer, and what does an average day’s work look like for you? Do you go through many drafts of a novel? Are there any drafts of works you haven’t finished, or do you ever come back to books you’ve started some time ago?
JF: After I finished my previous novel, The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing, I worked on two other novel manuscripts, but I eventually concluded I had to set both of them aside; they simply were not coming to life. When I started working on The Swallows of Lunetto, the words that had been so hard to find in those previous efforts came steadily, smoothly, and I knew very quickly that I had finally found the characters who had been trying, all along, to bring this story to life.
Revision can be endless, but at some point you feel that you have done all you must do. Aesthetic completion is almost like a release from a moral responsibility.
MT: What was it like writing this novel, as opposed to The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing (and what a title!), which is such a different novel in so many ways? What about in comparison to Vincent, your book-length poem that is—I believe—based on true events?
JF: Vincent was an attempt to show, through dramatic monologue, the tragedy that almost necessarily follows from one character being stuck in his own mind, his own story, even his own delusions. The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing was my first novel, not at all a poem, yet in its own way it, too, was concerned with that predicament, and that novel is the first-person account of a character who has struggled to break the patterns of his own upbringing, struggled to connect with others, struggled to step out of the high-mountain wilderness of his own life. Yet Shakespeare reminds us "the world must be peopled." The Swallows of Lunetto was my attempt to step down into the valley of the living, with its characters, its relationships, its—in this case—brimming Mediterranean air.
The way I've recounted that development sounds like a teleology, but even my recounting is another kind of story. There are readers who may find any stage of that journey preferable, and I don't wish to get in their way. As I've told it, this is just the way I see my journey as a writer—another story I tell myself and you.
MT: What do you have planned next—do you have another book in the works? Can you tell us anything about this work-in-progress?
JF: I have been working on a new collection of poems for the past four or five years, and I am almost ready to think about putting it out into the world. It is called The Last Song of the World.
MT: Joseph, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. I hope our readers will take the time to read your work and enjoy it—it’s immensely entertaining, beautifully written, and immersive in so many ways. Your newest novel, The Swallows of Lunetto is such a brilliant, tragic read, and I loved it. Thank you for allowing me to pick your brain.
JF: Thank you. I hope my little story helps anyone who might need it.
(author photo credit: Laura Rinaldi)
Matthew Turbeville: It’s really great to get to chat with you about Lavender House. I’ve always dreamed—as someone who identifies as queer, as gay, and who lives in a pretty backwards (at times) part of the country that can feel like it’s set back in time—of a book that really shows a noir-to-the-bone character who is also queer/gay and has a lot of the same experiences as me. It feels like this is one of the first books where I’ve gotten that experience, and where it’s done so well. Can you talk to me about how you came up with this—what drew you to this idea, and why you executed this story in this specific way?
Lev AC Rosen: Well first of all, thank you! It’s something I’ve always dreamed of, too – and I think part of it comes from exactly what you’re talking about – how historical queerness (and sometimes contemporary queerness) is inherently a noir state of being. When you have to hide who you are, when people are always out to get you and when killing you isn’t considered that much of a crime, your life is noir – and that’s what it was for queer people in the 50s. So as someone queer, who grew up watching those old noir movies, it felt natural for me explore that. I’d wanted to for a while, but aside from that concept didn’t know what the story would be. It wasn’t until I was watching an Agatha Christie adaptation and thought “this would be more fun if everyone was gay” that I saw my way in, my plot and characters.
MT: What’s so important about setting the novel back in the mid-twentieth century, especially as opposed to setting it today? Was there more of an appeal with the actual setting of a classic noir (I’m thinking of James M. Cain, Dorothy B Hughes, etc), or was this more functional for the main tension and plot of the novel?
LACR: It’s all of it. I think it creates the main tension of the novel, for sure. My editor, when she first made an offer and was trying to sell me on going with her, told me that she always thinks a good PI story needs a reason they can’t go to the police, and the reason here – that they needed to protect their secret queer enclave – was very compelling. And yes, there’s also that this is the classic noir time period, which I loved to get to write and pay homage to - but also there’s so much queer history that we’re not usually taught or exposed to, and as a queer man, learning about it – about my history – is so exciting and revelatory to me. I know that sounds extreme, but so often queer people, even today, can feel like we’re the first – the first in our family, the first with our background, the first dealing with a particular set of circumstances. And that’s because we’re not raised knowing our queer history. But if we saw it all, we’d see we’re never really the first, and because of that, we’re never really alone. So getting to show people this history, as well as write a fun noir in a noir time and place – that’s such a gift. I was thrilled to be able to blend all of that together.
MT: This novel reminded me at times of a queer version of Tana French’s The Likeness. I don’t know if you’ve read that book, but it’s also excellent—a real page turner, functioning with just this group of friends the main character ventures into because of her police work. In this sense, it’s also like your novel in that there’s something innate and undeniable about the character that draws her into the story. What did you think made this story essential for your protagonist, and how does each character/suspect in the novel play into the world of Lavender House?
LACR: I haven’t read it, but now it’s on my list! I think for Andy, the journey of going to Lavender House and meeting this family and coming out of is one of self-acceptance. Not a coming out self-acceptance, but an acceptance of the fact that his life has changed now that he’s been publicly outed and lost his job and home because of it. And with that comes the realization that maybe the life he’s lost wasn’t much of a life to begin with, and he has this opportunity to make something new. But with all that also comes the realization that he could have been living like this before… and he could have been helping people like himself, instead of turning away from them. It’s a real reckoning in many ways. But I’m not sure that was your question – you asked what made this essential for the protagonist, and I think this story is essential to Andy because if he didn’t see a new kind of life, he would die. We open with him considering suicide and that’s not idle. He would have ended it if Pearl hadn’t sat down next to him. As for how each character plays in the story – I think that would be a really long answer, to break down each of them. And filled with spoilers. But they have created this home, this safe haven that’s really a gilded cage, where outside they have to perform a false perfect American Family, and inside they can be themselves. But what does that performance make them sacrifice? What have they given up for this supposed freedom? That’s the way they all interact I think; what do you sacrifice for family when you family shouldn’t exist?
MT: I’ve never been to San Francisco, although after reading Lavender House I feel like I’ve been transported there over the course of the novel. What about San Francisco and the surrounding area was so fitting for your novel, especially given the time period, and how do you think it would change if you transported it to New York City, or my area of the country—the Deep South? Is this an area you know well personally?
LACR: I did originally think I’d set the book outside NYC, since that’s where I’m from and where I live. But doing research on the queer communities in the 50s, what I found was that queer culture in NYC was much more stratified; rich gay men here, poor there, middleclass here, and then within those, divisions of race. They just didn’t mingle as much. But San Francisco, though not immune to the separations of race and class, blended more than NYC, and that gave me more opportunity – especially envisioning it as a series. Plus it’s another classic noir city, and a classic gay city. The perfect meeting of what I wanted to do. I owe so much to Nan Alamilla Boyd’s Wide Open Town, too. It’s a history book chronicling the queer community of San Francisco til 65. I don’t know San Francisco especially well. I’ve only been there a couple of times, but I did a lot of research – and owe a lot to those facebook groups for seniors who are reminiscing about how San Francisco has changed. They post photos and talk about stuff and it really gave me a sense of the city back then that was more human than all the text books I found about how the neighborhoods grew and stuff.
MT: You’ve written books for different age groups, and in different genres. These books have been under different names (or variations of the same name) as well—what’s so appealing about being able to write under pseudonyms? Is there an appeal beyond branding, and does it allow you to invent yourself and work in different ways?
LACR: Oh my answer here is boring, I’m sad to say. My publisher had published a middle grade book of mine under Lev Rosen, and when they acquired my first YA, in order to differentiate it, and make sure no one thought it was middle grade, they asked me to change up my name a little. It was never a pseudonym, just a marketing tool.
MT: What book or books inspired you most when you were writing this? Was there any art outside of traditional literature—maybe movies, television shows, visual art, anything—that inspired you while you wrote Lavender House?
LACR: Well, all those classic noir films I love, absolutely. The Big Sleep, Laura, Touch of Evil. Great films, every one, and those were always in my mind. But I think the more unusual thing I went to for inspiration were vintage soap ads. They depicted the sort of classic and clean American Family in the way the residents of Lavender House have to present themselves, so looking at those ads, the people in them, the way they sell things, that was a huge influence. I have a big stack of vintage magazines from the early 50s now. They’re always a delight to flip though.
MT: What were the challenges of writing a queer man into a noir narrative? I feel like noir could be seen by some as, traditionally, a very masculinist—and therefore possibly limited—mode of storytelling when it comes to the telling of queer narratives. You really dive deep into these characters and bring out a world that’s twisty, dark, and fully realized, and I don’t ever feel like I’m reading a book that’s anything but queer and also noir, as strange as combining those two worlds can seem. At the same time, I also feel like noir could be seen as traditionally queer in many ways—there are these ultra-masculine characters, these deceptive and deadly women, this self-hate and passion that’s so very queer at its core. How do you view queerness and noir literature, especially side by side? Do you think the two are necessarily always opposed/different?
LACR: I feel like I may have answered this one already, but yeah, queer, at least historical queer, to me, is noir. Even if I wrote it sunny, if there was any sort of realism about how dangerous being queer was then, it would take on noir characteristics. So they’re hand in hand for me. And I think that the idea of the straight masculine detective is also kind of queer, too. You read those old books, watch those old movies, the bonds the men have – he claims not to like Archer in The Maltese Falcon, but he spends the whole movie looking for his killer. I’m not saying it’s queer, or even homoerotic, but there is a certain closeness between men in those stories which can be viewed as queer without much effort. And then of course, many of the stories did have queerness in them. That was moved into innuendo for the films because of the Hayes Code, but look at, like, Peter Lorre in the Maltese Falcon with his gardenia scented calling card, or Geiger’s chauffer in The Big Sleep, who in the book is explicitly Geiger’s lover. Noir has always been queer – the difference here is I’m telling it from the queer people’s point of view, instead of making them villains and manipulators as they were depicted then.
MT: What was it like mapping this story out? How do you generally plot novels—I know you write different types of books, for different age groups, and I wonder as to your writing process and what it’s like developing your novels. Do you have a specific process?
LACR: I’m a big believer that every book writes itself differently. So I don’t have a consistent method, exactly – things come in different ways; sometimes the whole general plot unfolds, sometimes I’m figuring it out as I write, but I try to focus on two things: first, the climax. To me a climax is about a decision, and without spoiling anything here, the decision in most mysteries is who to accuse… but here it was also a decision for Andy about what his life was going to be afterwards – was he going to go back to drinking himself to death? So I work towards a key moment that would answer that, usually only outlining a chapter or two ahead in case it goes off the rails somewhere. I tend to think of outlines more as information that needs to be revealed and action that needs to happen. And since this book was so much about exploring each of those characters, it was about revealing things about them, bit by bit. But I didn’t know who did it until I was about halfway through, I think. Of course, then I went back, cleaned it up, made it fit together – most writing is in the edit – but I didn’t map too much out here once the initial concept bloomed in my brain.
MT: What books do you recommend to people who want to read things like Lavender House?
LACR: They have just reissued the David Brandstetter Novels, by Joseph Hansen, the first of which is Fadeout. They’re also about a queer PI, very noir, beautifully written, and they were written in (and take place in) the 70s. I’ve only read the first two but I’m loving them so far. But the vibe is more Elliot Gould in the Long Goodbye than Bogart and Bacall in the Big Sleep.
MT: Thank you so much for letting me pick your brain. I really loved this book. It was so great to see something I’d longed to read fully realized—it was everything I wanted in this sort of book, and I think so many other people longing to see themselves in noir will finally have it realized in this way. Thank you for writing this book, and again thank you for letting me pick your brain about your work.
LACR: Oh, thank you for such kind words about the book! I’m so glad it was the story you needed and wanted. It was the one I needed and wanted, too, and I think a lot of other people, so I hope this book finds them. Thank you for helping with that, and thank you so much for having me.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Debra! It’s great to be able to pick your brain about your work and talk to you about writing fiction—all types of fiction, but crime fiction specifically. How did you get started writing? How old were you, and what kind of writer did you picture yourself as then?
Debra Jo Immergut: Hi Matthew! I was such an avid reader as a child, and I dreamed of being a writer, but writing fiction seemed a very lofty and unreachable dream. So I focused more on journalism, worked on the school paper, and so on. It wasn’t until I’d graduated from college and was working in the magazine world in New York that I began to try to write fiction, at night, on the side. It was an escape from work, and I loved the freedom of it.
MT: There was a long break between your collection of stories, Private Property, and your amazing novel, The Captives. What was the process in creating a novel like The Captives? How did you find yourself writing that—and especially in writing such a thrilling book? Why do you think you respond well to writing in the genre?
DJI: Well, I wrote the first version of The Captives just a few years after Private Property was published, but it was rejected by some publishing houses and then my agent gave up on it. It was the era of light, bright romantic comedies, and darker stories weren’t as in demand. So I put it away and focused on other things, like being a mom with a fulltime job. The thing is, I never saw myself as a thriller writer, though. I love a story that moves and swerves, but I also want deep emotion and poetry. I look for all of those things when I read, and its what I strive for when I write. When I returned to the book after years away from it and began to revise, I tightened up the plot, raised the stakes, saw where I could add some interesting twists and turns--thanks in part to ideas from my new agent. I admire so many writers in the world of crime fiction because they know how to tell a great yarn and keep the reader entertained--but myself, I’m not so into being labeled. I just follow my instincts and try to write what moves me and what I’d love to read.
MT: What was the process in developing and coming up with two voices within a novel, or more than two--You Again has several. How do you differentiate between the voices and work so well with them? What’s your process like generally? What are some things you avoid when working with voice?
DJI: Aren’t we all many people? I mean, we all constantly grow and evolve, we have infinite moods and and infinite dimensions. Some people are compelled to express these other selves, and they become fiction writers. I don’t know… it’s a theory anyhow! The voices come to me in the shower, in the car, and, on good days, when I’m sitting with my hands on the keyboard. I do sometimes feel like a medium or a channeler. I’m also just an aficionado of human speech, the quirkier the better. But then being a language freak is like the baseline for being a writer.
MT: The Captives is such an interesting and compelling premise, as is You Again. How do you decide to pursue a novel—does the premise or pitch come first, or do you work with a character or smaller storyline and develop it into something longer? What’s it like to create the mystery aspect of the novel?
DJI: For me, premise is key. I will noodle around with, ideas, thoughts, I’ll write bits and pieces. I’ll describe rich settings and get to know characters--and often they lead me toward a premise. But my novel process doesn’t really begin until I find that energy-packed premise. That’s when I can really get some momentum and start feeling my way into the story. If the premise is good enough, the story almost unspools itself, and I’m just writing as fast as I can to keep up. So I’ll spend a good long time--years, even--finding the right premise. “A prison psychologist finds himself treating his incarcerated high-school crush.” “A 46-year-old thwarted artist is haunted by her 22-year-old self.” I knew I wanted to write about incarceration, or about the struggle to create, but I needed the engine for the story, and when I landed on those premises, I knew I had it. A great premise contains mysteries, unanswered questions--possibilities. I don’t outline…I write my way in, find a premise that will serve as a powerful engine, and then buckle in and let that journey unfold and surprise me.
MT: What books do you turn back to most when you need inspiration for your own writing? What books do you read when you want to remind yourself how good writing can be, and perhaps what you may want to aspire to?
DJI: Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov. A towering writer dissecting what makes great novels tick. Beloved by Toni Morrison. Maybe the best novel written in the last 100 years. Both of these are endlessly inspiring. When I running low on belief in the endeavor, these refill my tank. I’m inspired by so many contemporary books too, but classics are classics. We need them.
MT: What do you think your “dream book” would be to write? Do you have that in mind—the book you’ve perhaps been waiting your whole life to write—or have you already written it in one of your published books?
DJI: That’s a terrific question. I keep trying to write that dream book every time I sit down, I think. And I never will. That’s what keeps us going, right? Ann Patchett likened the process of writing to pursuing a butterfly you’ll never pin. And would we really want to?
But while I’m writing, my novel in progress is the dream…
MT: What was it like managing multiple timelines within a book like in You Again? It’s such a brilliant and complex book and would have definitely thrown me for a loop if I’d been writing it. I was wondering how you map the book out and keep it all together while writing. What’s your process like when constructing such a book?
DJI: I mentioned above that I begin by writing toward what feels like a strong premise. Once I have that, it powers the first draft. I may start making a rough map when I’m about two-thirds through the first draft, and I have a sense of what I’ve set into motion, and I feel like I need to figure out where it might end. Once I have the first draft finished, I do make made all kinds of charts and maps in order to understand and tweak the structure of the story, tighten up slack spots, and keep it all straight in my mind. I’ve done everything from hand drawn schematics with colored pencils to Google Doc tables listing every scene in the book so I can move them around and cut as needed. You Again nearly broke my brain! But all that charting came after the first draft, which was written just following along after my characters as much as possible and letting them surprise me.
MT: Your stories are also critically acclaimed—which of your stories is your favorite, and which do you want to have more attention? What do you think can be done better with stories than in novels? Can you give any examples?
DJI: I like to use stories to play, stretch, experiment. They’re a great lab for voice. Writing short fiction is super challenging--maybe even harder than novels, in some ways, to write something that really packs a punch. I am pretty fond of the hard-boiled voice that came to me while writing “Mean Drunk,” which is kind of a noir-ish crime-ish sort of story about a woman who deals drugs and falls in love with a bad customer. It was published online in the great literary journal Litro. And I’m going to be very honest, Matthew. I haven’t read my short stories in Private Property in many years! I think I’m a little afraid to.
MT: What are you working on now? Can you give us any hints as to what and when we might see something next? (I’m such a big fan, and am pretty giddy with anticipation!)
DJI: I finished my third novel this summer. It’s a compressed family epic centered on the exuberant, haunted city of Berlin around the fall of the Berlin Wall. While writing it, I drew on my five years living there during that era, and on the difficult period we’re living in now. The novel explores the past 100 years, crosses the Atlantic, and proposes that, by persisting through dark times, we are generating fuel for our long drive toward joy. It’s been the best creative experience I’ve ever had, writing this book, and I hope it will delight and console the people who read it.
MT: Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you, Debra! I love your work so much, and I’m very grateful for this opportunity. I can’t wait to read what you publish next!
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.