WRITERS TELL ALL
"That Dog Can Hunt!": S.A. Cosby on Expanding Characters, Minorities and Crime Writing, and the Paths We Choose
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Shawn! I really loved My Darkest Prayer, and with Blacktop Wasteland, your newest book, you’ve really shown more of your skills, taking this popular storyline—a poor younger man with a tragic background is an amazing driver and becomes involved in crime—and you help reinvent the story and add to it in so many ways. How did this book idea come about, and why do you think so many people will relate to it and love it with a book like Drive and movies like Baby Driver? How do you think being a black man in America complicates the narrative, drives it forward, and brings it to new heights?
S.A. Cosby: First thanks for having me. The idea for this book began as a short story that was published in the last issue of ThugLit ( shout out to Todd Robinson). The main character in that short story refused to go gently into that good night after I finished writing the tale. Eventually I decided I wanted to know more about him and that idea eventually became Blacktop Wasteland. I grew up in a small town in Virginia with limited entertainment options. Most times we ended up drinking cheap liquor, hanging out at a bonfire and souping up our rolling wrecks. Cars and the freedom they represent have always been a huge part of my life. My cousin used to take me with him to illegal street races where his Maverick would blow the doors off everyone else. I wanted to recreate the visceral thrill of doing 0 to 90 down a quarter mile.
I think being a black man in America doesn't so much complicate that narrative as gives me an opportunity to expand it. I can explore areas in my story that are often ignored.
MT: The protagonist in your new novel, Beauregard, is no stranger to crime, but he’s also got this amazing mystery, along with several other characters and their points of view at play. How hard was it to wrestle different points of view, timelines, and storylines in this tour de force novel?
SAC: Its challenging because I wanted to create a tight narrative with one POV but other characters wanted their time in the limelight. In the end I tried to give them strong supporting roles but i did my best to keep the main camera on Bug. In the end it’s his story but the other characters are like threads in a tapestry. they help to complete the picture.
MT: What books and movies do you feel inspired this? What books were your formative books, the ones that shaped you most, and what are your favorites now? What about authors? What authors and books really deserve more attention than they’ve been receiving?
SAC: As far as movies that may have inspired me one of the most important ones was HEll OR HIGHWATER. The way it talks about poverty and how it affects generations really struck a nerve with me. That being said it was still the story of two poor white men and in America there is a wide chasm between being poor and white and being poor and black. I wanted to tackle some of the same themes HOHW did but through the eyes of the people I knew and loved growing up back in my small town. Another film that really inspired me was Greased LIghtning The Wendell Scott story. Not so much narratively but because it told the story of the first black NASCAR driver in history. It talked about the hope and dreams of rural black Americans. As far as books I studied the modern masters. Walter Mosely, Dennis Lehane, Gillian Flynn , Daniel Woddrell, Ernest J Gaines, Zora Neal Hurston and so many more. My reading tastes are varied but I love stories that examine the dichotomy between who we are and who we think we are.
Right now I’m reading a couple of really good books. I’m reading Where The Light Tends to Go by David Joy. It’s truly a moving and lyrical book . I’m alternating between that and Chuck Hogan Prince of Thieves. But I tell you the writers that i look up to , the ones that are really pushing the definition of what crime fiction can be are Legion. Eryk Pruitt, Kelly J Ford, Kellye Garrett, Angel Luis Colon John Vercher, Jennifer HIllier Donald Ray Pollock ...these are just some of the writers that I look at and shake my head with wonder and awe at what they are able to achieve with the same 26 letters in the alphabet that are in front of me.
MT: There are so many tragic elements that come to play in the novel, dealing with so many different stories—all somehow connected to Beauregard. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, although we do know his father isn’t in the picture from the novel’s beginning. Can you talk to us about what role tragedy and intense traumatic events play in this novel, and how that might translate into real life and your worldview?
SAC: A lot of my work uses pain as a central motivator because pain is universal. Whether it's physical or emotional we all understand pain. Like REM said Everybody hurts. So when I write I tend to create stories that are centered about pain and our responses to it. How it shapes up and molds us even as we try to move through it and get over it. I think it’s the one thing that crosses all the cliched boundaries and hierarchies.
MT: At some point in the novel, the criminal becomes the victim—again, I don’t want to go into spoiler territory, but it’s so interesting how we think this will be a normal heist novel, but that’s barely half of Beauregard’s story (if that much—really barely half of what we see). Can you talk to us about repercussions, consequences, and how that’s played a part throughout the lives of Beauregard, his father, and other characters in the novel?
SAC: Well its all about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons right? We are all recipients of an emotional inheritance. If you are lucky it’s one of growth and maturity. But for a lot of people we end up paying for the mistakes of our fathers and mothers. Our forefathers sometimes inure debts that come due on our watch. How we deal with those repercussions reveals our true character.
MT: Who do you feel is the real victim in the novel? Do you feel there are clearly defined roles, both in real life and in great fiction, including your own? What makes a character like Beauregard relatable and lovable despite planning and executing crimes, and what do you think is the appeal of the criminal world and dark side of people to readers?
SAC: I think everyone in the book is a victim to a certain degree but they also have varying degrees of agency. I think , or rather i hope readers are drawn to Beauregard because he is a fully realized complex character with a multitude of layers. Ultimately this is what the book is about. Can you be “ two types of beasts.” ? Or do you have to choose a path and follow it to the exclusion of all other roads? I don’t know if the book answers that question but i really enjoyed asking it.
MT: You’ve written really different novels—so very different—and also so very wonderful. What do you feel, when creating these incredibly diverse novels, is the most important aspect of writing? What really puts your writing above the rest, and ensures that this book will count, this book will be different, and this book will matter? What is most important to you?
SAC: I don’t if I think my books are that much better than anyone else’s but I will say I do my level best to tell an engaging story. No one is gonna care about your metaphors and symbolism if the story is boring. The story is everything. It’s the motor that drives the car. Whether the car is a hoopty or a boss high toned work of art depends on the individual writer but I try to make sure you are never bored reading one of my books.
MT: Diversity in crime fiction has come a long way (with writers of color, different sexes, sexualities, etc) but it’s also got a long way to go. You touch on a lot of hard and important points about being marginalized in America—not just about race—but why do you think that of all genres, crime fiction, mysteries, thrillers, etc, are the books that allow room for growth? Do you think anything we’ve talked about so far comes into play?
SAC: Because the desperation of living on the margins is tailor made for crime novels. The feeling of looking down the barrel of an electric that has to be paid or a medical procedure that you can’t afford lends itself to tales about our darker impulses. I like to say some novels that people would classify as “literary” like to do a lot of talking about how miserable their characters are. Crime novels have their characters do something about it. Now what they do may not be the best solution but by acting , by moving they determine their fate. As a black man growing up in the South so much of my life for so long was determined by someone else. Taking that power back is at the heart of a lot of crime novels regardless of the color of the protagonist but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I yearn to tell the stories of my people where we are sidekicks or magical wisdom spouting caricatures. Where we determine our fate even if its tragic.
MT: When you write, who do you write for? Yourself, a certain type of reader, critics? Do you think writing for different types of readers, or for yourself, affects how you write, and changes your writing?
SAC: I guess if I’m being honest I write for myself first. If I’m not into the story I’m not gonna finish writing it. But as I grow as a writer I do seek to write for a broader audience but in the beginning it’s for me. I gotta have fun with it. The thing about being a writer is that its such a solitary endeavour. It’s you and the computer or notebook and no one else. It’s like telling a nine month long joke then waiting a year to see if anyone laughs. You have to trust your instincts. You have to believe no matter how hard it get that you’re on the write track.
MT: When you were going through the writing process for this novel, what was it like? How many drafts did you complete and how many times did you have to go through revisions, story edits, anything? Can you give us a peek inside your creative process?
SAC: i think the main thing i want people to take from Blacktop Wasteland is an understanding of how hard it is to be the person you tell yourself you should be when the whole world seems to be telling you that you can’t.
MT: I know that I, for one, am dying to know what you’ll be releasing next. Can you tell us what book you’re working on now, or what your current work in progress is? I know that if they aren’t already hungry for more, fans will be ready after Blacktop Wasteland’s release for another S.A. Cosby novel.
SAC: I’m working on a rural revenge novel tentatively titled Razorblade Tears. its about two fathers one black one white both ex cons who seek revenge for their gay sons who were murdered in what at first appears to be a hate crime. As they seek revenge and learn to coexist they also seek redemption for not accepting their sons and their sexuality. it’s also violent as hell. LOL
MT: Thank you so much for talking with me, Shawn. I really loved reading your book, and I really loved getting to know Beauregard and really everyone in the novel. It was a joy getting to ask you these questions. Feel free to leave us with any lingering questions, thoughts, feelings, or anything else, and I really look forward to fans getting to know your book so well. I’m so excited for its release.
SAC: I just want to thank you for giving me the chance to talk about Blacktop Wasteland. I’m proud of the book. As Bug would say I think “that dog can hunt!”
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Susan! I’m so excited to talk about your upcoming novel, The Silence. Before we begin talking about the novel, would you mind telling me a little about how you got into writing, and how hard it was to sell your first book? What were some obstacles you faced, and which were the toughest? Did you ever almost give up on writing all together?
Susan Allott: Hi Matthew! I started writing The Silencethe year I turned 40, which was also the year my youngest child started school. I’d been trying to write before that, and had always wanted to write a novel, but it was the peace of the empty house that allowed me to finally get started. The obstacles included trying to keep going with the book during those busy years when I was working part time and raising my kids. Writing requires you to be selfish, to forget about everyone and everything apart from your fictional world, for long stretches of time. Sometimes it’s hard to justify that, especially when you doubt you’ll ever be published.
I never wanted to give up on writing altogether, but I came close to giving up on The Silence once or twice! It’s the first novel I wrote, as well as my first published novel, and I taught myself to write with this book, making all sorts of mistakes in the process. It took me 7 years to write The Silence,and I guess all the hard work paid off because when my agent submitted the manuscript to publishers we had interest from Harper Collins within 24 hours, and they went on the buy the book.
MT: Will you tell our readers about The Silence—a novel about multiple crimes, even though you manage to stick to a phenomenal story with so few characters? What inspired this story, and how did you come about developing this novel in its complex, emotionally riveting, expertly spun form?
SA: The Silenceis about the investigation of a missing person which brings all sorts of secrets to the surface; family secrets but wider historical ones too, all of which have been hidden in plain sight for a long time. The novel was inspired by my failure to immigrate to Australia in the nineties. I left and went back to London, and promptly fell in love with an Australian man who I went on to marry! So the Australian setting came out of those experiences. It felt sometimes like Australia was forcing me to make my peace with it, like it wouldn’t let me go.
I’d written several chapters of The Silence, and had a whole cast of characters, when I read a book called Australia, the History of a Nationby Philip Knightley. He mentions a policeman living in Victoria, a southern Australian state, who gets home from work and cries on his veranda because part of his job is to remove Aboriginal children from their families and take them to state institutions. I already knew about the Stolen Generation but hadn’t thought of writing about it. But this policeman and his personal conflict felt like a way in. I wanted to know how someone would cope with realizing that something they believed to be right was in fact wrong, and had caused untold pain. It also helped me to develop the theme I was already tackling, about the enormous pull of home.
MT: What was it like writing from not just multiple points of view, but multiple timelines and managing to keep the mystery alive and the tension high? You do everything so expertly, and I was amazed at how despite jumping around to different decades and people, I was glued to the book. That takes real talent.
SA: Thank you! I wrote the 1967 timeline first, and for a long time I thought it would all be set in that time period. It dawned on me quite late in the day that I needed the 1997 timeline to give the book the mystery and suspense I wanted. When I came to write Isla as a 35-year-old I found that I knew her already, because I knew her so well as a child. I knew all her formative experiences. So it all came together at that point.
I used a program called Scrivener to plan out the book, and I think I’d have been quite lost without it. It helped me to manage all the different points of view and fit the 1997 chapters around the 1967 ones. It also allowed me to move chapters around so the reveals came in at the right place, and to make sure the timelines were balanced correctly.
MT: While set in multiple places outside of the U.S., what do you think U.S. citizens could learn from The Silence? I imagine a lot of people may read the book and finish feeling they understand the world in different ways, or are at least thinking about the world when the book was set and now in different lights.
SA: I think a lot of the themes inThe Silenceare universal. The characters are all trying (with varying degrees of success) to manage the good and bad in themselves, learning how to face up to their flaws; these things aren’t country-specific.
But quite a few reviewers outside of Australia have commented that they didn’t know about the Stolen Generation and they were shocked that it happened at all, and that it continued right through the 1960s. I think there’s a commonly-held idea of Australia as a country blessed with good weather and space and abundance, where the common man can have a high standard of living and enjoy the great outdoors. But there is a much darker side to Australian history, which is inextricably linked to the legacy of British invasion and colonial influence. I think it’s an interesting aspect of history and it provides a good backdrop to a story about shameful secrets.
A few U.S. reviewers have also commented that there are some parallels with the way native Americans were treated by white settlers, so I think there’s a lot for U.S. readers to connect with and reflect on.
MT: You did not set the book in today’s world, but instead in many other different time periods, from the late 60s and 90s mostly. Were you able to remember or know enough about these times in order to write about them successfully, or did you ever have to research to get a particular fact or issue with the story straight?
SA: The 1960s timeline needed a lot of research as I wasn’t born then, but luckily there’s a lot of material to draw on and I was able to find a large number of books, films and images from that period. I also went back to Australia a few times to visit my in-laws and took dozens of photos and visited places that were significant to the book. My husband’s paternal grandparents immigrated to Australia in the 1950s so the family history was quite helpful.
In comparison the 1990s timeline was much easier as I lived in Sydney for a while in the ‘90s and had some strong memories of that time. But I still had to research things like what an Australian police uniform looks like, for example. I spent a lot of time on google earth mapping out the route from Sydney to Ropes Crossing; things like that. And I had it all checked by several Australian readers too, including an Aboriginal man based in New South Wales who gave it his approval.
Easily the most important source while writing The Silencewas the National Library of Australia oral history project, where Aboriginal people who were removed as kids, or whose family members were removed, talk about that experience. There are hundreds of recordings and I listened to some of them several times.
MT: Is it ever hard to kill off a character, or give a character a particularly unfortunate ending, history, etc.?
SA: There were a couple of scenes that I found hard to write. I knew what I needed to happen so I wrote those scenes relatively quickly with the help of some strong coffee which, combined with what I was writing, made my heart pound! I did go back and edit those scenes but actually they didn’t need too much revision. I think it’s important to let bad things happen to characters sometimes, if that serves the story. A few reviewers have said there’s a particular scene that made them cry and I’m quite proud of that.
MT: Did you always know the solution to the mystery, or the end of the novel? If not, when did the answers present themselves to you?
SA: I didn’t know the solution to the mystery from the outset. I allowed myself to be open minded about it, and for a while there were a few possible outcomes in my mind. Once I’d made my mind up I was able to steer everything in that direction. The reader has come a long way with these characters by the time they get to the closing chapters, and I wanted them to have a rewarding finale. An ending needs to answer the questions that the book sets up at the outset, to hold some surprises but also to have a sense of inevitability to it, so the reader thinks, ‘of course!’
I re-wrote the ending a few times, without changing anything from a plot perspective, but just trying to get the pace right. I wanted the ‘what happened to Mandy?’ question to be resolved at the same time as the questions Isla needs to answer about her family and herself, and I needed Isla to figure it all out in a way that held the tension between what she knows and what the reader knows. I was still re-writing those chapters in the very final round of edits with my publisher.
MT: Other than books, are there major things which influence your writing? How do you write or edit to avoid being influenced by these issues, or to rewrite scenes or whole chapters, etc., to keep the book flowing seamlessly?
SA: I don’t really have a problem being influenced by external things. It’s good to be inspired by books, movies, music and so on, but once I sit down to write I can usually trick myself into believing nobody else exists (not even me). I do it by absorbing myself in my fictional world, and the deeper I get into that world the easier it is.
The thing I found very difficult was the transition I had to make once I knew my book was going to be published. There was a period of about a fortnight during the first round of edits with my publisher, where I was totally frozen with fear and self-consciousness. I couldn’t get myself into that zone of believing entirely in the world of my book. I kept thinking ‘what will my dad / friend / sister think of this?’ It was awful! I got through it by going to a friend’s house and editing for a day in a new location. It got me into a different mindset, just by physically leaving my kitchen table. It got gradually easier after that.
MT: What was your worst fear and greatest hope when writing the book? Did you write for yourself, something you knew you would like, or were you ever pressured to write something you, your agent, your editor, etc. might think would sell? I know it’s a tough question, but would you mind talking about the two, and which might be harder for you or other writers?
SA: I did write for myself, and focused on trying to write the kind of book I was always looking for as a reader, which I could only describe as ‘a well-written page-turner.’ By which I meant a good plot andgood prose. I love literary fiction, but it does frustrate me when nothing happens at all for pages and pages, with no suspense or jeopardy. And I do sometimes find that plot-driven books lack the quality of prose that I love. So I wanted to write something that brought those two things together.
Luckily the kind of book I love to read turned out to be the kind of book that sells, so I didn’t have that conflict between what I wanted to write and what my agent / editor wanted. I don’t know what I’d have done if they’d wanted me to change the book in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with. It was always just a matter of bringing out the potential of the book, and I agreed with everything they suggested.
Regarding my hopes and fears. For such a long time all I dreamed of was to get an agent! It’s so hard to get an agent that for years I honestly couldn’t imagine anything beyond that goal. Now that I’m on the brink of publication I guess my dream is that I’ll get reviewed favorably and that readers will connect with it. My fear, conversely, is that it will sink without trace. Publishing into a pandemic is unchartered water so that fear isn’t without substance.
MT: Which character did you identify with most? I know you’ve had experience living in many places, correct? Did you feel the same sort of disconnect a lot of the characters felt when writing the book, a displacement, along with the feeling some characters have of not being able to return home again?
SA: The character I started with was Louisa, Isla’s mother, who is a British woman living in Australia, suffering terrible homesickness and unable to convince her husband that they should return home. I identified with that, having gone through something similar myself, and in the early drafts Louisa’s story was more central to the book. I came to the conclusion in the end that Louisa wasn’t working as a Point of View character, perhaps because she had too much of me in her. My most convincing characters are the ones who are less like me; I imagine them more fully.
Having said that, I think they all have a bit of me in them. I loved writing the chapters where Isla returns to Sydney after ten years in London, because I was able to describe the culture shock that I’d experienced myself as a Londoner in Sydney, feeling that my clothes and my temperament weren’t suited to this bright, upbeat city that was so incredibly far from home.
MT: What inspired you to keep writing the most? When you were having a bad day, writer’s block maybe, or just felt you were done, what kept you going? What is your writing process like generally? Are you a morning, afternoon, evening, night writer? Do you mind letting us in a little on your craft—and, hopefully, some secrets?
SA: I did quite a few creative writing courses and retreats over the years, and they were amazingly helpful for my confidence as well as for my writing. A good teacher or fellow writer telling you that your work is good is such a tonic. I have some good writer friends who I met along the way and we keep each other going.
I’m definitely a morning writer. I don’t have my usual routine at the moment because we’re in lockdown, which is a challenge, but usually I start work once everyone’s left the house, drink a gallon of tea, and don’t look up until they get home. On a good day I’ve forgotten to eat or get dressed. On a bad day the house is clean and I’ve made a casserole.
MT: If you have writer’s block or a bad day, who are the authors or what are the books you turn to in order to inspire you? What are the books which defined you most growing up, during your formative years, and as a writer?
SA: I’ve always been a big reader, and I studied English Literature at University, but I didn’t discover the books that got me writing until I was in my late twenties. My most re-read book is Behind the Scenes at the Museumby Kate Atkinson. I remember when she won the Whitbread prize (now the Costa) in 1996 and I thought, maybe it is possible for someone like me to do something like that. I didn’t gather the courage to try for a few more years, but it stayed with me. I was also inspired and influenced by Gillian Flynn’s early books, especially Sharp Objects. And The Slapby Christos Tsiolkas, which I admire for his incredible empathy, his skill at getting under a character’s skin. Beyond that, I devoured everything by Tim Winton when I was writing The Silence, because of his genius use of the Australian vernacular and the incredible sense of place in all his books. I was just starting to write about Australia when I discovered his writing and it was a huge inspiration.
MT: What do you feel is the most important trick to writing a mystery other people haven’t figured out yet, or perhaps may not know of? What are the mystery novels which have particularly blown you away, and what do you think made them so interesting and well done? Do you think you need a complex plot to write a great crime novel?
SA: I think the most important things with a mystery are atmosphere and pace. It should feel totally immersive. Certain questions need to be dropped in at the start and resolved slowly. You have to unwind the plot, dropping hints that are subtle but not too subtle. And I do think a mystery needs strong characters as the pace won’t be as fast as a thriller; we need to spend a bit more time with these people so we really care about their world and the questions the plot is building up around them.
I’ve already mentioned her but I think Kate Atkinson writes superb mysteries and she knows how to layer her plot, giving us depth as well as momentum. I also have a soft spot for Barbara Vine, which is Ruth Rendell writing under a pseudonym. A Fatal Inversionis possibly my favorite of hers. And I loved Elizabeth is Missingby Emma Healey, which was made into a brilliant TV drama starring Glenda Jackson. Personally I don’t need a complex plot, in fact simplicity can be very striking. But I do need to be compelled to keep turning the pages, and a pervasive sense of unease.
MT: Can you give us any clues as to if you have a work-in-progress, and what it might be about? This is such a great novel, and I imagine people cannot wait to see how you follow it up!
SA: My current work-in-progress is a spooky mystery set in London about a young couple whose house renovations unsettle the history of a building, unlocking a pocket of time that starts to bleed into the present. They need to stop history repeating itself if they want to avoid the fate of the previous inhabitants. I’m enjoying writing about my own local area this time around – no need for google earth! – but it’s just as challenging as writing about the other side of the planet in many ways!
MT: Thank you so much for letting me interview you, Susan. I loved The Silenceso much. It’s sure to be a hit, and I encourage all of our readers to preorder the novel immediately. The book sucked me in. Please feel free to leave any lingering thoughts or questions you have, or anything you might want to say to the readers. Thank you again. It was such a pleasure reading your work!
SA: It’s been a pleasure for me too! I’m very excited to be published in north America. I hope you all enjoy the book! If you want to be kept up to date you could sign up for my newsletter on my website: www.susanallott.com
Kimberly McCreight (A GOOD MARRIAGE) is a damn fine writer with incredible talent, taste in books, and all the right answers!
Matthew Turbeville:Hi Kim! It’s so nice to talk to you about your new blockbuster of a novel, A Good Marriage. I devoured the book—it was amazing, and I highly encourage everyone reading this to buy a copy.
Can you tell us a little about the background of the novel, and your writing career? How did you become a writer, and how hard was it to get your foot in the door to publish your first novel?
Kimberly McCreight:A Good Marriageis set in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and takes place over a week in the summer when most of the kids are at sleepaway camp and their parents are gearing up for the event of the summer—an adults-only party with a sexually adventurous side. The party has always just been in good fun. Until this year, when a woman turns up dead afterward. When her husband is accused, he calls on an old law school classmate for help. Lizzie, the lawyer, is an outsider to Park Slope, and as she’s drawn into the neighborhood she quickly realizes that neither her friend nor his wife were who they appeared to be. But then neither is Lizzie’s own husband. Part domestic suspense, part legal thriller, A Good Marriage is also a genuine exploration of what it means to sustain a marriage over time—the secrets couples keep and the compromises they make in order to stay together—whatever the cost.
As for getting published, like a lot of writers, my road to publication was pretty long and awfully dark. It took me 10-plus years, four unpublished novels, and three agents to sell my debut novel, Reconstructing Amelia. And, no, it was not easy not to lose hope in the face of so much rejection.
MT:What is your writing process like? Are you a morning/evening/night writer? Do you have any strange practices or methods in writing, and would you mind sharing them with us? What about revision? Do you love it or hate it?
KM:I write every day, regular work hours, usually 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Of course, depending on the day, some of that time is spent on administrative tasks. I think the biggest quirk to my writing habits is how rigid they are and how many hours I write every day. To be clear, this isn’t because I am better than other writers—I am just slow. Or, rather, my process is. It can take me a dozen drafts to get to a version of the book that can be handed in to my editor. As for revision, my opinion of revision varies depending on what kind of revision you are referring to. For me, the hardest stage of revision is getting from the free-wheeling, book-length extended outline I create first to some semblance of a real first draft. That’s where the real heavy lifting is. It’s also the place where I’m most often convinced I may not pull it off. The later stages of revision are a lot easier, and more fun—when you’re just going in to make surgical changes.
MT:You’re also a lawyer. Another author I admire who’s a great lawyer is the amazing and wonderful Alafair Burke (shoutout to Alafair, my friend). Outside of actually knowing the law, what do you think you bring to writing through being a lawyer, and is there anything you get out of writing for practicing law?
KM:I love Alafair! She’s such a fantastic writer (and a really nice person)—her plotting and character development are equally deft and always so perfectly balanced. Her books are all fabulous, but I especially loved The Ex andThe Wife!
A Good Marriage is part legal thriller, so being an attorney was directly relevant. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to write A Good Marriagewithout having gone to law school. But I was a corporate litigator, so I had only basic knowledge of criminal law. But at least I knew what I didn’t know. From there, I consulted a lot of experts to fill in the blanks.
More broadly, my law school training always helps me with structure and story, particularly because I write mysteries. What you learn in law school is to anticipate the opposing argument and solve against it. It’s similar to the misdirection required of a mystery—you have to anticipate how the reader will interpret certain facts and craft your red herrings accordingly.
MT:I love how you use transcripts and other ways of telling the story, including multiple points of view, to increase suspense and dread, and draw the reader forward. Were these parts included in the first draft of the novel? How did you decide to use multiple ways of telling the story, and how did you choose how to tell what?
KM:Every adult novel I’ve written has been from different narrative points of view, often different timeframes, and includes several different non-narrative elements. It’s just the way I see a story. And, believe it or not, there were even moreof these elements in early drafts of A Good Marriage! In the end it was way too complicated—my terrific editor, Jennifer Barth, was right about that. I ended up paring down the different elements, combining some and ultimately discarding others. The goal, of course, is to have those elements add suspense but not bog down the narrative. It’s a very tricky balance that you really need outside insight to get right. I was lucky to have the help of my amazing editor and wonderful agent, Dorian Karchmar, in getting the book there.
MT:When you write about a lawyer, do you ever feel you’re projecting any parts of yourself onto her character? What about the other characters, including the initial victim in the novel and the male characters? Do any of them seem to have a lot in common with you?
KM:For sure I have a lot in common with Lizzie, the main character in A Good Marriage. As a result, she was the hardest character to write. I had to work hard to separate her from me so that she could have a unique and fully developed personality of her own. But I share something in common with almost every one of the major characters. Without some connection, it’s hard to render characters in a believable way.
MT:There are amazing twists throughout the novel, including some pretty huge twists at the end. Did you start the novel with the ending in mind, or knowing the twists, or did the twists come as you wrote them?
KM:Well, first off, thank you! And I usually know the “who done it” or at least the “who didn’t do it” at the very beginning—because that does help to ground the spine of the story and it’s usually inextricably linked to the major themes. But in many ways “who did it” is much less interesting to me than the “why it happened.” The many twists and turns that get the reader to understand why are most definitely things I figure out along the way. Often those small plot discoveries end up being some of the most satisfying twists.
MT:A lot of thrillers depend on constant murders, bodies showing up, etc., to prove the writer can leave the reader in suspense and wonder. You use different techniques—would you mind talking about how you create conflict in the novel between multiple characters, and what’s necessary to keep the reader hooked?
KM:To me the greatest mystery in life is whypeople do the things they do—yes, including acts of physical brutality. But so much violence done between people never leaves a physical mark. I’m drawn to understanding why people hurt one another, but, more importantly, how they find the strength to keep on loving others despite that. In my books, the good and bad of all that often takes place between several different characters. Again, these aren’t things I work out in advance. Rather, they develop organically from the characters.
MT:What do you hope readers take away from this book?
KM:That a good marriage isn’t just one thing. It can, and does, mean different things to different people. And that’s okay.
MT:Are you working on anything new? A new work-in-progress you can maybe hint about to our readers? We’re dying to know what’s coming next. A Good Marriage was so fantastic, and I know that I for one cannot wait for your next book.
KM:Thank you! Yes, I am hard at work on my next book. Still first-draft territory, which means that terrible heavy lifting of first-round editing still lies ahead of me, unfortunately. But the fact that I love my work-in-progress anyway says something. My new book is about a group of college friends with a troubled past who reunite to head upstate from New York City for the weekend. While there, violence erupts, and soon the question becomes where the real threat lies—with the less-than-welcoming locals, or maybe somewhere much closer to home.
MT:Thank you so much for speaking with us at Writers Tell All. We loved your book so much and are glad we got to pick your brain for a moment. We can’t wait for whatever you release next. Please leave us with any lingering thoughts, ideas, or objections, and thank you again, Kim. The book was a total thrill ride and I promise readers it’s worth every cent.
KM:It was such great fun! It’s always a treat to talk with people who read the same book you wrote. And you asked the absolute best questions. Thanks for having me!
Matthew Turbeville: You’ve written so many books, and they are, frankly, amazing. What do you think the purpose of writing really is? If you had to leave everything to one answer, what answer would you give to the question: “Why should someone write?”
Marcus Sedgwick: Well, I can see from your question that you know there are far too many responses to the matter of what writing is all about, so you’ve limited me to one answer. This is a low, underhand trick, so let me pull a low-down dirty trick in reply. To ‘Why should someone write?’ I would say ‘Why shouldn’t they?’
But now I look at that reply, although I have side-stepped answering your question, I think the possible answers to my reply might be able to tell us something. Although it was meant rhetorically, if you were to answer ‘why shouldn’t they write?’ with an actual answer, we could learn something from that answer. For example, if we said, ‘because you’re not good enough’, we might wonder, ‘oh yeah? Who says? And what do you define as good anyway?’ Or if we replied, ‘because you can’t make money out of being a writer’, we can wonder if we have a good motivation to try to be a writer in the first place. Or if we replied ‘Because all the good books have already been written’, we might release that every writer since writers weren’t writers but oral storytellers has probably had the same worry. And yet done it anyway. All these answers expose our fears and worries about what writing can’t be, or isn’t, and so their reverse therefore tells, frees us, to actually try.
MT: Your book deals a lot with time, and I’ve been thinking about some of my favorites of yours, and also Proust, now that I’ve reached a period in my life where I’m experiencing tremendous loss. How do you incorporate ideas of time, and being, into these great work for the youth of the world?
MS: It’s not something I consciously do for the most part. I think this is true of lots of aspects of writing, in that the stuff that really ‘means’ something to people comes along for the ride. It hitchhikes on the back of the story. The most important thing is to tell a good story (and we can argue for days over what that might be) and then, if you have done that well, you get the chance for people to read some thoughts about Being and Time, and now I sound like Heidegger. So for the most part, I trust that these things will emerge naturally from the story, though I might on occasion deliberately pull at one cord here, or push one lever there, in order to emphasize some existential thing like time. I’m talking about on the level of an individual sentence or short paragraph perhaps. That can be fun, but you mustn’t get carried away, because the story must always come first. Finally, I trust that notions of being and time willemerge naturally since I have felt a strong connection, awareness to these things since childhood; I have always questioned my/the sense of time (for example, with my own age, even when I was tiny I also felt very old) and since they are deep preoccupations, you cannot help but that they will emerge spontaneously in a book.
MT: Your books never belittle young people. You write amazingly, with style and plotting that’s sharp and near perfect. Why do you think it’s important not to somehow change books to fit into a young adult or child’s world? Do you think children and young adults are often underestimated, or what are your reasons for writing the way you do? What audience do you believe you are writing for?
MS: To take those questions in reverse order. Like many writers I know and have heard, I am not writing for any audience other than myself, and maybe simultaneously some detached observer version of myself, who might be me in other people, at a variety of ages. But basically I write to please myself, to scratch whatever itch is in the depths of the mind. Now, I am always saying that writing contains many, many contradictions, and here’s one of them, because it is possible to write simultaneously only for oneself, and yet still have thoughts about readers too. But if the White Queen can believe in six impossible things before breakfast, so can we. That’s why we’re people and not computers, we can run two pieces of conflicting software at the same time, and contradictions, even apparently mutually exclusive ones, are all part of what people are and therefore what writers are. (It’s why a computer won’t ever write a good book. I hope.)
I fully believe that we constantly underestimate children and teenagers and it mystifies me why we do. I mean, how many years really is it since we were children? Is it really so hard to remember that time when you heard something, felt something, read something that people thought you didn’t understand but you did? Why are we so quick to put childhood behind us? Or try to, because, you basically can’t. Is everyone so arrogant as to think, well, I remember being a kid and everyone thought I was dumb and they were talking in front of me like I wasn’t there but I knew what was going on, but that no one else had that experience? I can remember being pre-verbal and having a tantrum because I couldn’t explain to my mother what was wrong and what I really wanted, and she was talking back to me like I was a toddler. Because I was. I didn’t even have the words, but I knew, my thoughts were wordless, but clear. And so I always talk to teenagers, children and eve babies as if they are adults. (I even talk to adultsas if they are adults though I am not sure I’ve met many in my life.) We constantly underestimate young people for what they can understand, what they want to deal with, what they can deal with, what they are ‘ready for’ (another thing which drives me insane) and so on. All I have tried to do in my books is be true to my belief about that. I know it might sound arrogant at first sight to say writing is for me, and not for anyone else; but it isn’t arrogant. It might be selfish(and there’s another contradiction of writing – it is the most self-ishthing I can think of, and yet, if done well, it can be shared and mean enormous amounts to many other people). But what would be more arrogant would be to say, okay, I’m a 52-year-old Briton, what would a 13-year-old girl in Brazil want to read? Or a 16-year-old boy in Berlin..? And then assume you know and actually be arrogant enough to ‘write them a book’.
Finally, why all this is important is because if you don’t do these things, and if you treat your readers like idiots, then you will have an idiotic book.
MT: Short stories are a major weakness for me. I love reading them but am terrible with writing them. Many of your books aren’t literal collections, but are novels that contain something like stories, these complete visions of people and places and actions that bleed into others. What do you think the trick is to writing a great short story, and why do you write books like the ones I described earlier, the bleeding kind?
MS: I like the sound of bleeding books, in that that’s what a good book does, and what you aim for, something that forces or seeps or crawls or steals into someone’s (sub) consciousness and makes them feel and think things they weren’t expecting. If some of my books bleed in a different way – within themselves - I’m thinking Midwinterbloodor The Ghosts of Heaven, it’s because I wanted to give somewhat separate stories a unified power. I’m not sure I can say what the secret to writing great short stories is, but I do know this: whenever I have an idea for a story, I send some time looking at it, and one of the questions I ask myself is what kind of story would serve this idea best. Should it be a novel, or maybe it would be better as a radio play? Since I don’t write radio plays, I would then abandon it. Maybe it ought to be a film, or maybe the idea would be best served, given its best expression, as a short story, in which case I would put it away in a drawer for that increasingly rare day when someone invites you to write a short story. My wife just read a novel, I won’t say what, that wasn’t great, and at the end she concluded it might have been better off as a short story. So I know I’m not alone in this.
MT: What excites you most about writing a book? Have you ever disposed of a book, falling out of love with it or not wanting to write it? Have you ever come back to a book you thought you were done with?
MS: You never quite know what’s going to be exciting about a book, that in itself is one of the most exciting things about it. I don’t think I can give a short answer to that question apart from that. I have abandoned books, yes, often 10,000 words in (it’s pretty easy to put out 10,000 words without knowing what you’re doing) and a couple of times I’ve written whole books and thrown them away. That is not fun, and I try to avoid it happening. With my first ‘adult’ novel, which I wrote without contract in between other things, I wrote about half, then didn’t know whether it was worthwhile. And I had other things to do for six months or more, so I left it alone. When I came back to it I found it to be good enough for me to continue to the end.
MT: What is your dream book? Has it been written by someone else, have you written it, or is it still to be written, perhaps by you?
MS: I have several dream books; the one that means the most to me is The Magic Mountainby Thomas Mann, sadly not as widely read as it used to be, which is a shame as it still has so very much to offer. As for me, I think one of the thing about being a writer, a thing that forces you on, is the idea that one day you will write your dream book. But you never do. Or maybe, if you did, you would stop writing thereafter. But the chimerical illusion of perfection attracts you and draws you in to have another try.
MT: Who are your favorite writers living today (or perhaps deceased)? Children’s books, young adult books, new adult books, adult books, whatever—and any genre, please. I love how you mix so many genres and forms of writing, and wonder what authors you admire with new and different ways of writing.
MS: I meant to meant to say that I really appreciate your cross-genre/age notions on this site. I hate that we categorize stuff, I know we kind of have to, and it’s human nature to do so, but it’s not how a writer thinks, well not how this writer wants to think. That being said, I don’t have many favorite writers who are still alive! One or two, like Susan Cooper, Max Porter, Alan Garner, S E Lister – I would read anything they wrote. But I have trouble with a lot of more recent fiction, and by this I mean anything after about 1935 or something of that nature. Last year, someone sent me the transcript of an interview between the great Alan Garner and Aidan Chambers, an interview that took place in the 70s. In it, Garner also states he doesn’t like modern fiction for the reason that it has forgotten to say something important to the reader. It has, he says, forgotten to say ‘I love you’ to the reader. I am very touched and fascinated by this viewpoint and I guess, by extension that my problem with much modern fiction is that not only has it forgotten to say I love you but is instead saying ‘look how clever I am’. So my favorite writers at the moment are long dead: Artur Schnitzler, Adalbert Stifter, Willa Cather, Daphne Du Maurier, David Jones and of course, my hero, Thomas Mann. The writings of all these people say ‘I love you’. (I’m guessing David Jones isn’t so well known in the US? His book In Parenthesis, is for me, the best thing ever written in the English language. Forget the fact it’s ‘about’ his experiences in the first world war; it’s simply about being a frail, very human, loving being.)
Oh, and I must mention my new love; a fantastic book called The World of Henry Orient. It was the debut novel by Nora Johnson, and it was published 64 years ago. Were it to be published today it would be published as a YA book, I feel sure, but at the time, since that category didn’t exist, it was an adult novel. This is why I hate classifications. It’s also one of the few reasons I am happy to be 52 years old, because the YA thing didn’t exist when I was its target demographic, and I firmly believe that the YA concept inhibits as many readers as it liberates. Anyway, to return to The World of Henry Orient. It is a sublime book, and wereit to be published today (which it practically could be, without a word changed) as a YA book, it would blow most of that field out of the water. It’s a small masterpiece, and yet again, it makes me wish we could dispense with categories for books, and just sort them into ‘good ones’ and ‘bad ones’, and then we could just spend our time arguing about what those terms might possibly mean.
MT: You’re a literary superstar. I really do mean this—so many people are in awe of your books, of you, so much that you’re more than a person, even more than a legend. What responsibilities do you feel come with this, and do you ever feel there are parts of your life, or your writing, or your process that you have to keep to yourself?
MS: I don’t mind sharing most of my thoughts, because, if we’re honest, they are to be found in my novels anyway. It’s all out there, so why hide it? But of course there are some things that are only for me, or my close family. Your words are very flattering but I am just someone who has enjoyed putting words together, sometimes it has been easy, sometimes hard, and along the way, you cannot help but learn stuff. A little about writing, a lot more about yourself.
MT: Which book was hardest for you to write? Which book was your favorite? And which book are you most proud of, and why?
MS: The books seem to be getting harder the longer I go on! I don’t want to sound like I am complaining, but really, most things get easier in life, the more you do them. Writing books is definitely getting harder. Some books have driven me crazy, because of plot, for example, She Is Not Invisible, which doesn’t appear to have a complex plot, but that’s because it’s all hidden underneath, invisible, in order for the ending to work. Mister Memorydoes have an on-the-surface complicated plot, and that took a lot of figuring out, over many years. Snowflake, AZwas hard to write because I had to put a lot more of myself in than usual, and I was scared.
MT: Is there a genre or type of book you haven’t written, but feel you would love to write someday?
MS: I have written lots of different things, and if there’s one thing I am proud of about my writing, it’s that if people know me at all, they probably know that every book is different. More or less. As I hinted at above, though, I don’t really like to think in terms of genre. I just like to write a book, and let publishers worry about what it is and where it goes. Having said thatthough, one thing that drives me on is the desire to write the ‘kind of book’ (whatever that is) that I haven’t yet written. With Snowflake, AZI wanted to write the sort of book where nothing much actually happens (apart from the end of the world quietly taking place in the background). I wanted the book to work because of the characters’ interactions, and not much more. And for the last few years, I have been wanting to write a funny book. I intended to before I wrote Saint Death, and then that story came along, and that’s the exact opposite of a funny book; it’s an angry book. But I keep hoping I will write a funny book, because I think genuinely funny books are very, very few, and that’s because they are very, very hard to write. If they were easy, there would be many more of them. I still would like to try, but we’ll have to see.
MT: What do you hope your readers will take away from your books? Are there any of your books—because you’re quite prolific—which you like to think affect people most, and what do you hope readers take away from these books?
MS: Oh golly, now that is a surprisingly hard question to answer. Maybe I am not the right person to answer that question, and yet I suppose no one else can answer it for me. Um. Let me just say that I get more letters about some books than others, and those books are Revolver, Midwinterbloodand The Ghosts of Heaven. I have had the nicest letters about that last book, ones that prove the point we were discussing above, that teenagers are perpetually underestimated by most of the adult world. I have letters that would make you cry with joy as a someone who promotes reading in young people, ones that would make you punch the air and say ‘yes! See what I mean?’
MT: You often write “linked stories,” and I wonder how you feel about the way people are connected in real life, since you write so often about, as described in relation to The Ghosts of Heaven, “the spiral of time.” How are we connected to the past, and what do you think, as with the nature of a book like Midwinterblood, we could and should learn from the past in order to move forward with the future? What’s so great about presenting a book like Midwinterblood to young people as well as adults?
MS: Well, in the words of that famous quote by one of your countrymen, the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. It is very easy to each the conclusion that many if not all of the world’s problems are because we never fucking learn anything. Perhaps this is banal, but if so, it’s because it’s beyond cliché. People are forever being trapped by their past, the past of their families, the stories they told, the ones they didn’t tell, the words their family uses, their culture uses, their peers. And sitting inside everyone is that child they once were, who is also not dead, not even no-longer-a-child. So many people flee from their childhoods and maybe even more from teenage-hoods, and are doomed to fail because they never step out of the software that they have been running, that they were given by others, who were in turn given that programming by others. That’s why writers who do what I do are fascinated by the meaning of this time of life, and why it’s so challenging to work with, beyond what most people might imagine.
MT: Some of your books contain parts that approach horror (and fantasy, too). What books scare you most, and what scares you most in real life? You write from so many genres, but are there any genres you wouldn’t venture into?
MS: The books that scare me the most are 800 pages long and full of pretentious rubbish. As far as horror goes, I don’t tend to read horror so much these days. The creepiest thing I read in recent years would be Fever Dreamby Samanta Schweblin. That’s a good book. And it’s even modern. What scares me most in real life? That would be almost anything. I have been filling myself with real life horror for years, and I am coming to a few conclusions. One, in general, people don’t want to know about real life horror, it’s just too much. (Recently I had a professor of Societal Collapse write to me, after reading Snowflake, AZ - we got chatting over email and he ended up telling me how hard he is finding lockdown, mentally speaking. And he studies this kind of scenarios for a living!) Two, it’s extremely damaging to your physical and mental health to fill your head with the evils of Monsanto, or Bayer, or Unilever, or Nestlé, or the Koch brothers, or Facebook, or YouTube, or ExxonMobil, or BP whoever it might be, so maybe the people who don’t want to know have it right. Three, I am, therefore, trying not to be scared any more. Big ask, but I like a challenge and I only have so long left to live.
MT: What are you writing next? Is there anything you’d want to share with our readers about a work in progress, or a book which isn’t published in the US, or is currently on the way to being published now? Can you give us any teasers, information that really will help keep us satisfied until the publication of your next work?
MS: Ah, I was hoping you weren’t going to ask that, but I will answer as honestly as I can. I am not writing anything, and I am not sure why. It’s been three years now since I wrote anything that meant anything to me. I have had block in a serious way before, once for two years, and I came out of it, so I hope that will happen again. Since I always laugh at writers who have loudly and pompously declared that they will never write another book (who cares?!), only to promptly chug out a few more a year or two later, I would be a hypocrite if I did the same thing. (And anyway, who cares?!) And I understand the impulse when a writer makes this big declaration, to say this – because it really doesfeelright nowlike I will never write anything else. But this may of course quietly change one day, without fanfare or proclamation of any kind. I will be happy if it changes, but I will not die if it doesn’t.
Since that isn’t going to please any readers of mine, the best thing I can suggest since you’re US based, is that I had a short book published in the UK a couple of years ago that for long and boring reasons didn’t get published in the States. So you could hunt that down. It’s called The Monsters We Deserve, and it’s to do with creativity, the lack of it, and who owns and owes what in the creation of a book.
MT: Marcus, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed with Writers Tell All. We love your writing here, and I hope that our readers will go and pick up one or all of your books. They won’t regret a single read if it’s authored by you. Feel free to leave us with any comment or lingering thoughts or questions, or suggestions even. Thank you so much for stopping by, and we cannot wait for what you write next!
MS: Thank you so much for having me. I saw that you ask great questions on your site and you certainly did, it’s a pleasure to be given the chance to get deep into question such as these. Thanks again, all the best, and I’m not sure I have anything else to add, apart from the fact that reading is even more important than ever right now, so please keep doing what you do.
"I can't speak for anyone else, but for me this just felt normal": Akemi Dawn Bowman on the brilliant HARLEY IN THE SKY
Matthew Turbeville: We are so excited to talk to you about Harley in the Sky, an amazing book about a girl who may give up everything to pursue a dream. Can you tell us about how you came up with the idea for this novel and why you felt it is necessary to be told now? What do you feel when you know something—a book, a story—is necessary to be told?
Akemi Dawn Bowman: My first two novels revolved around abuse, trauma, and grief, so when it was time to draft my third book, I really just wanted to write something that would allow me to emotionally recharge. I wanted it to feel magical, while still being grounded in the real world. The circus felt like the perfect setting. And for me, I know a story needs to be told when it makes my heart light up. I’m someone who has a million ideas floating around, but for me to start working on one, I need to feel that spark. I like to think that if it feels important enough for me to want to write, then hopefully it will feel equally important to someone out there who eventually reads it.
MT: The book is a mixture of genres, just like how Harley is a combination of so many races, backgrounds, cultures, and so on. What do you think this says about American youths today, and how does it reflect where our culture is or is headed?
ADB: I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me this just felt normal. I’m multiracial, like Harley, and I’ve often struggled with feeling like I don’t “belong” to the cultures of my family. I’ve always felt like I wasn’t enough of any of the parts of my heritage, and that made it difficult to feel like I fit in anywhere. But I think maybe that’s the point—people similar to me don’t haveto fit in a box. We have a unique cultural experience, and we get to navigate that in new and personal ways. I think there are probably some interesting conversations to be had about what it means to have ownership over a culture, and how cultures grow and change over borders, generations, and time.
MT: There are so many betrayals in the first part of the book. Some are heart wrenching, even when we dislike certain characters—perhaps every character—for deceit and a lack of loyalty on their part. Why do you think this is so important to a story about circuses, coming of age, and the other adventures associated with this?
ADB: I like to think everyone has their own version of messy. It’s what makes us human. I write about characters making mistakes who are also trying their best because it feels real to me. Nobody in this world is perfect, and sometimes I think there’s too much of a spotlight on the mistakes people make rather than the journey that follows as a result of that mistake. People should be held accountable for the wrongs they do, but it’s also important to allow people to grow. Particularly when we’re talking about teenage characters, who are mostly still figuring things out as they transition into adulthood. I don’t expect my characters to be any more perfect than people in real life. And I think those coming of age themes will always feel timeless for that exact reason, regardless of whether they’re set in the circus or some other kind of adventure.
MT: The beginning starts with family of many kinds—I believe Harley refers specifically to the biological family and the found family. Why is family so important in your novels, and is family important to you as a person? Do you think, in some ways, so many young adult novels are about family for a certain reason?
ADB: Family is very important to me. The most important, really. But I also know that having a family is a privilege not everyone has. And I’m particularly aware of how that can feel for young people, who maybe don’t have parents who love them or a support system at home. It can be lonely, and extremely difficult to navigate, because there are so many emotions that come into play when you don’t have the kind of parental love that seems so normal to everyone else. Family is an important part of my novels because I want to give people hope, and let them know that even if they weren’t born with the family they needed, they can still find family through friendships. And I can’t speak for other authors, but it’s possible many of them write about family for similar reasons. Because whether someone has a family or feels the absence of a family, there’s a pretty good chance it plays a big role in that person’s life.
MT: Harley’s parents come across as truly loving and caring for her and her future. Do you think there’s a right or wrong answer on either side, with Harley or her parents, and what do you think is so great about the way you write things and present all of these conflicting views?
ADB: I think there are a lot of ways to be right and wrong. Sometimes what’s right for one person is completely wrong for another. And sometimes people can disagree, but both parties can still be right in how they feel. Not everything in life is black and white; maybe most things exist in a gray area. Hopefully this comes across through Harley and her parents, and the complicated relationships they have with one another (and Popo, too).
MT: The ending also has a lot to deal with family, with dreams, and with both disappointment and success. Can you talk about the ending—perhaps without giving away too many spoilers—but essentially whether or not you think we find ourselves in a sort of reflection of the beginning of the novel, or what the ending means to young people pursuing their dreams?
ADB: I’ll try to remain as spoiler-free as possible, but I like to think Harley fought hard to chase her dreams, and although the outcome wasn’t exactly what she’d planned in her head, she learned a lot about compromise and adjusting along the way. Even when we imagine our goals, it would be very hard to imagine the journey. Because the journey is often out of our control. Hopefully Harley’s story is a reminder for some people to be flexible, and to not be so hard on themselves and the people around them if things don’t go to plan.
MT: My heart still breaks, even after finishing the novel, of a really horrible (in my opinion) betrayal Harley commits to get what she wants at the beginning of the novel. Do you think there are certain betrayals we cannot see past, and do you think it’s realistic for those affected by this portrayal to even want to have anything to do with Harley? While it makes sense in the book, obviously certain characters (and readers) my take issue with Harley’s actions, and I wonder what you think her actions say about Harley.
ADB: Nobody gets through life without messing up. Sometimes it’s intentional, and maybe more often it’s by accident. But how we make amends, and how we turn the mistake into an opportunity to learn is so much more important, I think. Everyone gets to decide for themselves what they’re willing to forgive, and I could never make that decision for someone else. But Harley’s parents love her, and Harley knew she did something wrong. They worked through it in a way that felt right to them. I think perhaps any judgements towards Harley by the end of the book says more about a reader’s tolerance or limitations to forgiveness than they do about Harley.
MT: What were the really formative books in your life, and what books and happenings in the real world and other media you’ve consumed that have helped informed Harley in the Sky? The book is brilliant, and I’m so interested into what books really affected this, even if they had nothing to do with circuses at all!
ADB: I don’t know if this is just a “me” thing, but I’m not someone who can read other books when I’m drafting. I find it incredibly distracting, and I actively don’t want my writing to be influenced by anything else. I really lean into my own style of writing, because it feels natural to me. I have no idea if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it works for me. I will say though that there have been books over the years that have most definitely inspired me to want to be an author. Sometimes it’s the incredible worldbuilding, sometimes it’s the lyrical way someone can tell a story, but mostly it’s that magical feeling when a book comes to life, and characters feel real.That’s when I know a book is a gem. And it makes me want to write books that can be gems for other people. A recent favorite of mine that I will never stop talking about is THE PRIORY OF THE ORANGE TREE by Samantha Shannon. It’s truly a masterpiece.
MT: What is editing like for you—well, really, the whole writing process? Do you write in a certain way, space, or place? Do you need to clear your mind or do you just write freely, not letting anything affect you? How is editing for you, and how many drafts do you go through before completing a novel? For books like Harley in the Sky where circuses are involved, how much research did you have to go into?
ADB: I’m trying to be better at fast-drafting, mostly because I have multiple projects going on at once. My default style of drafting would slow everything down, as I’m someone who likes to edit as they write. In the past, I’d write a chapter, and then go back and edit line by line. But it isn’t necessarily the most time efficient work style, because I’m constantly making adjustments. Nowadays I try to just write as much as I can when I have the time available, because I know I can always go back and fix things. But I need to get the words down first. I tend to have a very skeletal outline, where I only really know the beginning, middle, and end. And HARLEY IN THE SKY went through many rounds of revisions—several on my own, and then several more with my editor. I also did alot of research when it came to the circus life aspect in Harley’s story. Originally, the circus was meant to travel by train, and I watched an entire documentary on what that looked like. But ultimately it didn’t feel right for the story, as I wanted the characters to explore the world a bit more. I also watched more trapeze clips on YouTube than I can even count, and read many, many articles on circus life. It was a lot of fun to research!
MT: What other young adult, and perhaps adult or middle grade books and authors would you suggest to readers of Harley in the Sky? I’m sure this book is developing quite the fanbase, especially with such high praise from critics including myself, and I wonder if there are any other authors you might recommend while we wait on the next great novel from you!
ADB: DON’T READ THE COMMENTS by Eric Smith, I’LL BE THE ONE by Lyla Lee (which comes out later this year!), THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER by Emily X.R. Pan, and anything by Ashley Herring Blake, Sara Barnard, and Brandy Colbert.
MT: What do you think this says about young women too, throughout the book, and in the many compromising positions Harley is forced to deal with as she navigates her way through this part in her life? What about seeing the world and really trying to commit to something affects Harley as a young woman?
ADB: I think there are a lot of important discussions about how we view women when it comes to having aspirations or goals that are long overdue. It’s also why I find it interesting that people would feel so unforgiving towards Harley. Because I’m not sure male characters are held to the same standards of morality and perfection. There are countless novels that exist where male characters make mistakes, are morally gray, or are even unapologetically the villain, and yet there are people who love them despite their flaws. And then there’s someone like Harley, who makes a mistake, acknowledges it, and tries to make amends in ways that feel right to her, but is put into a category of unforgiveable behavior. I think that speaks to real-life, and the double standards that exist when it comes to gender.
MT: Do you have another work in progress? Can you tell us anything about it, and what we can expect in your next work, and when to expect it?
ADB: I do! I’m actually working on two projects at the minute. The next book that’s set to publish is my sci-fi debut called THE INFINITY COURTS. It’s about a girl who dies and wakes up in the afterlife, only to discover it’s been taken over by an artificial intelligence posing as a queen. It combines my love of robots and superpowers with Jane Austen and period dramas, and I’m seriously so, so excited to share more soon. I also just turned in edits on my middle-grade debut called GENERATION MISFITS, which is about a group of sixth graders who meet through a shared love of J-Pop. It has Breakfast Club vibes, but with all the heart and worries of being eleven years old at a new school where all you want is to make friends. It’s very close to my heart! Both are set to publish in 2021.
MT: Thank you so much for joining us and talking to us about Harley in the Sky. We at Writers Tell All truly loved the book and cannot wait to read more from you. Please feel free to comment on anything you feel we didn’t touch on, or you want to elaborate on below. Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us, and thank you for this book. It is phenomenal and we hope all of our readers will pick up a copy and dig in to Harley’s story!
ADB: Thank you so much for chatting with me, and for all your thoughtful questions!
"I’ve always thought that detective stories and ghost stories are basically the same": An illuminating interview with Yangszee Choo!
Matthew Turbeville: I am so excited to get to talk to you about these genre crossing, nail-biting, beautiful and unforgettable novels with you. My first question regards your actual writing style though: when do you decide an idea is right, how do you decide it’s something you want to pursue longform and long-term and what is your writing process like? (Morning/night writer, how your revisions go, where you like to write, by hand or computer or otherwise?)
Yangsze Choo: Thank you so much for having me! I wish I could tell you that I get up every morning at five, exercise enthusiastically, and then sit down to write, but the truth is far more mundane and disorganized. Mostly, I feel that I’m bumbling around, doing housework and making repeated visits to the refrigerator for “inspiration”, all while yelling at my kids to pick up their clothes…
In order to write, or perhaps be any kind of creative (which includes drawing/painting/building bicycles etc.) I think one needs a lot of blank, empty space. For me, that translates to silence, so unfortunately I have been relegated to writing late at night after the house is quiet and my kids have gone to bed. This is terrible because I’m actually a morning person and don’t like being up late at night. There have been times when I was writing certain ghostly passages in The Night Tiger when I frightened myself and had to eat large quantities of chocolate in order to recover.
I write organically (that is to say by the seat of my pants) and often discover the story as I write it. This is why it takes so long for me to write books. The Ghost Bride took about five years, and The Night Tiger four years.
MT: What authors inspired The Night Tiger and The Ghost Bride? What authors today helped you develop your own voice as a writer and author these great, now well-known novels? What book or author do you feel helped you grow most as a creator?
YC: There are so many writers that I adore—Haruki Murakami, Isak Dinesen, Susanna Clarke, Yoko Ogawa, Tana French—to name just a few. I think what they all have in common is the ability to transport the reader to a completely different world, where snow is falling outside a grand house in Copenhagen, or a professor who has lost his memory and experiences each day anew. When you read a really good book, there’s this frisson of excitement when you snuggle in deeper into the story and fall into another world, forgetting all that is before you and becoming someone else for a little time. That’s the magic of reading. I hope we never lose it.
MT: You have a lot of the mystical and magic in your writing—there’s horror, there is this place between magical realism and fantasy, and you balance everything so well. How do you feel this differs from other writers, and how do you manage to balance so many elements so well? You can easily move from one genre to another, combining all into one supergenre, the great Yangsze Choo novel. How did your own type of novel come about?
YC: Thank you for your kind words—I’m so delighted and honoured that you enjoyed my books! Actually when I started writing, I just wanted to write a story that seemed interesting to me. So I put in all these elements, including dreams, ghosts, and promises. Also, murder mysteries! I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of parallel or mirror worlds—places where things are not what they seem, whether that’s the Chinese world of the dead, or a dream world where people talk to you in deserted railway stations.
Speaking of railway stations, I remember very clearly traveling by train from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, in those days when we still had the old trains and it took about eight or nine hours, rattling along very slowly and stopping at all these small towns. There was something both magical and tedious about such a journey, watching the towns appear and disappear, and long stretches of the track winding through green jungle, all while looking out for interesting landmarks. That, and my own nostalgia for a historic Malaya long gone, led to many of the elements in The Night Tiger.
In some ways, you could say that all novels are a journey of some sort, and The Night Tiger in particular does remind me of one. The strange occurrences in the book are like landmarks or signals that you watch out for from a train window. And from time to time, a door opens or closes to somewhere new.
MT: Speaking of your own type of novel, how hard is it for someone—an author, any author—to invent a way of writing all their own, and outside of yourself, who do you think is the most creative and unique in telling stories today?
YC: I am a huge, huge fan of Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell). The first time I saw that book, it was in huge pile stacked in the front of a bookstore. I didn’t know anything about her or the book, which had just been published. They had two colours of the hardcover, so I seized one, flipped through the first page, then bought it to take home, where I spent the next two days devouring it. That is a very happy memory and one that I’m sure fellow book lovers have also experienced with different novels—that sensation of discovering something new and wondrous, a world that you had no idea existed. That’s the kind of feeling that I would love to give readers in turn.
MT: You talk a lot about curses, ghosts, magic, fate—what draws you to these ideas, and why do you think they’re important today? When looking at these recurring ideas and themes in your novels, what do you feel you want the reader to take away from the novel upon finishing the book?
YC: Sometimes I wonder whether we are continuously writing the same book, or the same story: exploring, turning, and examining it anew. I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami’s, and I get that feeling from his novels. Yet I really enjoy them and love being immersed in his world and prose. Mirror or parallel worlds has been a theme for my own writing, and how we as humans can accept the existence of completely contradictory ideas (ghosts and dream messages, interspersed with scientific data!) and be emotionally ok with all of them.
Part of this is the world that exists in your own head; one where events move towards a purpose that may exist or not—who is to say which one feels more real to you? That is the dream-like feeling that I think we all occasionally get and that I’ve tried to capture in my books. It is an escape and also a terror and delight.
MT: Which book was the hardest to write? What do you find makes things hardest to write for you, and how do you get over these hurdles and to the finish line—and so well!
YC: I’ve only written two books so far (though I’m working on a third right now), but I’d say that The Night Tiger was harder to write than The Ghost Bride, partly because it was such a complicated and ambitious narrative, weaving two storylines together at once. It also covered a number of subjects—colonialism, men and women, foreigners and locals, dreams and reality—that I’m still vaguely shocked that I managed to squeeze them in!
People have asked me whether I wrote each story out separately, and then put them together. The sad reality is that I’m not organized enough to do something like that. I wrote the whole book pretty much as the reader experiences it—one chapter at a time, swapping out the narratives. Part of it is that I didn’t know what was going to happen next, so I really couldn’t plan. This absence of outlining has been both my bane and a source of unexpected joy.
MT: There are also elements of lots of crime, intrigue, and mystery in your novels. What do you think is so important about writing of crime in today’s world? What are your favorite crime novels, and do you believe every novel is, essentially, a mystery?
YC: My youth was spent reading pretty much every Agatha Christie novel I could get hold of, and later on, other favourites include PD James, Ian Rankin, and Tana French among others. I do think that all good books contain some sort of mystery, though it appears in different guises. Whether it is the unraveling of a relationship, the demise of a dream, or the discovery of a dead body… the mystery is what calls out to us as readers to examine and explore, not just the world of the novel, but our own hearts as well.
MT: What are the connections between your novels? How do you feel they play together versus separately? Do you feel like you made a natural transition from one book to another easily? Which book is your favorite, and which was hardest to accomplish?
YC: I once heard a great quote from Elmore Leonard when he was interviewed on NPR. When asked which was his favourite book, he replied “the one I’m working on”. I thought that’s so helpful—you have to love the book that you’re currently working on, otherwise you’ll be tempted to give up (I know I often am!).
In terms of the two books I’ve completed so far, I’d have to say The Night Tiger is my favourite, and was also the harder one to write. As I mentioned earlier, that’s partly because it was much more ambitious than The Ghost Bride. Also, I noticed later that I tried to write each novel in very much the historic vein appropriate to its time period, so The Ghost Bride is written as a Victorian Gothic novel, with vocabulary and imagery.
One thing that I enjoyed about writing The Ghost Bride was being immersed in the Chinese world of the dead, with its antiquated imagery (even for that time), and burned paper offerings. It’s a world rich with superstition and ritual, where cultural expectations constrain behaviour. Yet that was also a little difficult to deal with in terms of plot, as I tried to keep my protagonist, Li Lan, historically accurate to a sheltered girl from a once-wealthy family. I was also learning about pacing and plot as I wrote that book, and there are definitely things I would have done differently if I had to rewrite it today! But I suppose all writers feel like that to some extent—a novel is never quite “done” or good enough.
The Night Tiger is set in 1931, when they had electricity and trains, so that was a lot more entertaining to write about! I’d read Somerset Maugham growing up, which helped with the background of colonial Malaya, and I have also always loved the crumbling, gracious colonial bungalows left over from that era in Malaysia. One thing I noted was that 1931 was closer to the 1920s in terms of fashion and popular culture. Beyond that, the fact that The Night Tiger is a dual narrative allowed me to play around with characters and setting in a faster and more complicated way. I really enjoyed that, though it was also rather challenging.
MT: Some authors are outspoken about the number of books a writer should author in a certain period of time. Do you ever say, “Hey, I’m moving too fast” or have any beliefs of your own? How long does each book take you, and how many more books do you have in you currently? I know I have a thousand books fighting in my own head, waiting to be written.
YC: Oh dear, I’m afraid I’m a very slow writer. I often feel terribly guilty about that. It took me about five years to write The Ghost Bride, and four for The Night Tiger. In between, I got stuck and had to put each novel aside for a while when I ran out of ideas.
A great deal of fiction writing for me occurs off the page, when I’m walking around or doing something mindless, and an idea will pop up. That’s the best feeling, though it doesn’t always happen and sometimes I go for long periods of drought. It’s very hard to sit down and write. I know other people who are much more disciplined and can do this, but for me, the creative process requires a lot of empty space, including silence. That’s very hard when you have kids barreling around the house and shouting!
MT: With violence, with crime, we also see magic related between the two, and controlling the two, in your novels. What do you feel is the connection between these elements, specifically magic and mysticism and crime?
YC: I’ve always thought that detective stories and ghost stories are basically the same, except that they start at different ends of the tale. Both address the mystery of a crime or someone’s passage into death, and both require an audience or a detective to unravel what happened. And in the end, there is some sort of resolution or reason. The magical part, I suppose, comes from our wishful desire to know exactly what happened, and that can manifest in many ways, from a talking crow to a message from the dead. Or perhaps, it is simply the possibility of a neatly wrapped answer.
MT: What do you have planned next? Is there a book being published, a work in progress, or some other book we should be looking forward to which is only in your head for now?
YC: I’m currently working on a third novel, which I’m excited, hopeful, and despairing of, depending on which day (or time of day!) you talk to me. The story itself is still being formed, but I wanted to write about snow and a cold climate. I spent part of my childhood in both Germany and Japan, and some of the most vivid and poignant memories I have are of snow falling. The silence, the soft cold, and the feeling that the whole world was being made anew when you woke up to a thick blanket of snow. So I started off by setting my new book in Manchuria (northern China) in 1908, but we’ll see where it goes. I’m still trying to figure that out!
MT: Thank you so much for being interviewed by us at Writers Tell All! We are so happy to have read your books and look forward to reading much more from you in years to come. Please feel free to stop by any time, as we will always be fans, and please let me know below if you have any thoughts, questions, concerns, or comments you want to share with our reader. Thank you so much!
YC: It’s been my pleasure and honour. These were such fun and wonderful questions. Thank you very much for having me!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Sheena! Before I get started on the novel, I wanted to hear about your background with writing—how did you start writing fiction, and how many novels did you author (or revisions gone through) before you published your first novel?
Sheena Kamal: Hi Matthew! My background is all over the place, but right before I wrote my first novel, The Lost Ones, I was working in film and television. Sometimes as an actor, and then sometimes on the production side of things. The aim was screenwriting, but it never worked out. The Lost Oneswas the first novel I attempted, and I wrote it in about eight months. I didn’t do much revising before pitching to agents. Once I had one, I revised it once and it sold. Then I did another revision for my publishers.
MT: Who are your favorite crime writers? What about your favorite writers in general? What authors shaped you during your formative years, and what book or books do you turn to if you ever get stuck in a novel, need a fresh way of viewing something, or just want to reread a book in general?
SK: I love Attica Locke, Liz Nugent, and Alison Gaylin. Writers in general… there are so many. My new favorites are Sally Rooney and Oyinkan Braithwaite. The book I turn to most often is The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. There’s something about the language in it that I find incredibly beautiful. It always unlocks something inside me, just by immersing myself in his prose.
MT: What is your writing process like in general? Do you write by hand or do you write on a computer, or some other way? Do you tend to write everything out at once or edit as you go? What are your writing habits like?
SK: I write daily, on my laptop. When I’m on the go, I usually have a notebook to jot ideas down in, but my handwriting is almost illegible, so not much is accomplished there, I’m afraid. I edit as I go, usually.
MT: I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but will you tell our readers a bit about what your new novel concerns, where we find Nora (if you think that should be given away), and for fun, how it ranks for you out of the novels you have published so far?
SK: Ha! It’s impossible to rank your babies. I think the ending of my latest Nora Watts novel is the best ending I’ve ever written, though, and for me there’s definitely something special about that. In No Going Back,Nora realizes a shadowy figure from her past is hunting her, and this threatens the life of Nora’s daughter Bonnie. Nora has to find him first, to protect both her and her daughter’s life.
MT: How did you come up with Nora Watts, and how far did you see her story going from the first book? Was there ever initially meant to be more than just a “book one”?
SK: Nora came to me one day as I was sitting in a television production office in Toronto. I didn’t set out to write more than one book at that time. I just wanted to see this idea to fruition. It was my first novel, and I wasn’t thinking beyond the task of getting it done. Once it was on submission with publishers, however, I realized it could have more life to it and I started to think beyond the first book.
MT: What do you think draws you back to Nora again and again? How did you develop her voice and learn who she was through your writing? How hard is it to catch a voice for a character, to grow a unique personality, and how does one character shape or mold to fit a story or character they might be attracted to or opposed to?
SK: I didn’t develop Nora’s voice so much as I followed it by instinct. That’s what draws me to her, really. I can always pick up her voice, so it’s very natural to me.
MT: What’s the hardest part about writing in general, and what’s the hardest part about writing Nora? Do you ever feel she takes the story in places you don’t want the novel to go? What are your favorite parts about writing Nora?
SK: Writing is a daily slog, isn’t it? But I love it and wouldn’t see my life any other way. Nora constantly surprises me, so writing her always feels like she’s taking the novel far away from the outline I’ve submitted to my publishers.
MT: What’s one thing you want readers to take away from your novels, especially No Going Back, other than a fun reading experience?
SK: Ultimately, I want them to be entertained, and love Nora as much as I do.
MT: What do you hope Noratakes away from the book?
SK: Oh, man. I want her to have some peace. I want her to be happy and start eating healthier. I want her to trust people more and do things that bring her joy. Obviously, these things aren’t going to happen, but I can only hope.
MT: Have you ever written something that’s shocked you, either about a character or even yourself? What is writing like for you as a personal journey?
SK: I mentioned this briefly earlier, but the end of No Going Backshocked me. I can’t really talk about it without giving it away, though. As for writing, it’s the tool I use to understand the world, and a huge part of my personal journey.
MT: Have you ever been emotionally struck or stuck during the writing process, and has there ever been a part of writing—a scene, a character, an event in a book—which has proven particularly difficult for you emotionally speaking?
SK: Yes, it’s all difficult emotionally speaking, because I write first person, present tense. At times it feels like things in the novel are happening to me. It’s just the way my imagination works.
MT: Say you had a super team of private investigators and ongoing series characters, recent or not. The Avengers of the crime world, say. Who would you put together and why and how would they fit together?
SK: I would have a crime fighting duo. Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and Lisbeth Salandar. I think those two would have the most deliciously antagonistic chemistry, and I would love to see a mystery unfold with those two at the helm.
MT: A lot of people attribute the quote about writing the book you’ve never found but always wanted to read to Toni Morrison. Do you feel you’ve written or read that book yet, and if you haven’t, what might that book be like?
SK: I think that about all my books, because they are so unique to me, my experiences and my worldview. And what I want to write about changes as I change.
MT: What are you writing currently? Do you have another work-in-progress ready, and how is your work responding to what’s going on around the world currently?
SK: I am polishing a draft of a novel to send to my agents. It should be ready soon. I think the landscape is going to change, absolutely, but since this book isn’t political—the crime it deals with is very personal—I think it will be fine. How my work responds to the current situation in the world will adapt as I understand the fallout of what we’re going through. But I’m not there yet.
MT: Thank you so much for speaking with us, Sheena. I can’t wait to see what comes out of the rest of your career, which I know will be explosive and packed full of tons of great books. I’m so thankful you’ve talked with us, and feel free to leave any lingering thoughts, ideas, or messages with readers and fans! Thank you again, Sheena.
SK: Thank you for having me! I wish you all the very best, and hope you stay safe and healthy.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Megan! I’m so glad I got to reach out to you about your marvelous new novel Sin Eater. Before I begin with the questions, can you tell us a little about the novel and why you felt it was so important to write this novel now?
Megan Campisi: Sin Eateris a historical fiction mystery set in a reimagined Elizabethan England.
It follows 14-year-old May Owens who is condemned to be a sin eater. In this role, she hears deathbed confessions and, at the funeral, eats ritual foods representing the confessed sins on the dead’s coffin, thereby taking the sins onto her own soul. As a sin eater, she becomes a pariah in her own community. But as the novel progresses, she turns this curse into an unexpected source of power. She uncovers a series of murders that reach all the way to the queen and sets out to solve them using her untouchable status. It’s a story about an isolated young woman finding her strength and also finding her people.
While Sin Eater’s story is proving very timely (a young woman persevering through intense isolation), the reason I wrote the book when I did was very practical. My background is in theater, and I am mostly a playwright. When my first child was born, getting to rehearsals in addition to my day job (teaching at a theater conservatory) became so challenging, I decided to give long-form prose a try. I had been mulling over writing a coming-of-age historical mystery with a sin eater protagonist, and it seemed like the perfect project for the moment.
MT: I was pulled into this book, in a way I was pulled into some books by Avi when I was younger, and some other books with historical settings by adult authors like Lyndsay Faye. One really captivating way was how you were able to use different forms of language but still captivate the reader—how do you feel you did this effectively, what was your greatest struggle with establishing this strong sense of language?
MC: In creating the language of Sin Eater, I was inspired by nursery rhymes and fairy tales. For me, nursery rhymes are magical snippets of cultural history that get passed down from generation to generation like a game of telephone. And like telephone, the story becomes distorted as one generation shares it with the next. Some words remain the same, but others lose their meaning or take on new meanings. I’ve always loved this mix of mystery, invention, and history. I’ve tried to bring those qualities to Sin Eater.
MT: Similarly, you also had a strong sense of character for the protagonist, May, and who she was from the very beginning. Can you describe you develop character, and how long it took to find a voice and character for Meg? Did you develop the book from character, or develop the character from the book?
MC:The story and main character evolved in relation to one another. I knew I wanted May to be a “late bloomer” and possess a vulnerability that made me protective of her. At the same time, I wanted her to be resourceful and resilient. It took time to find that balance. Similarly, her journey follows the transformation in how she sees herself, the world, and her place in it. I tinkered with that journey throughout the writing and editing processes.
MT: Where did the idea of a “sin eater” come from? How did the idea evolve—from sins translating to food, and women responsible for eating these sins? How did you relate all of this back to Eve?
MC: I’m a history nerd, so when I encountered sin eaters, I was hooked. But for my story to work, it couldn’t remain a post-mortem ritual, as it was historically. Sin eating needed to be a deep communion between two people that was woven into the fabric of society. The ideas evolved from there. Eve seemed like the perfect representation of Lucifer in this “alt history” because she embodies the Christian concept of original sin.
MT: What books and authors influenced Sin Eater most? What books, authors, and genres influenced you most during your formative years, and what book or author influenced you most in general, and is your favorite?
MC: For Sin Eater, I was influenced by historical fiction writers like Peter Carey and mystery writers like C.J. Sansom. As a child, I loved Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicornand M.M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess. As for a favorite author, it’s so hard to choose. I am a huge fan of David Mitchell and George Orwell. But if I have to choose just one author, it’s Toni Morrison.
MT: May has a clear understanding at one point of the book that there is a concept of light and darkness within every person. What do you think is important about this concept and why is it so important to who May is?
MC: Good and evil were concepts that occupied a lot of my thoughts as a child (I was raised Catholic). It took me many years to understand how subjective these qualities are, and that my own view mattered. That, to me, is the heart of May’s journey.
MT: What do you want readers to ultimately take away from Sin Eater, and why do you feel this is important in today’s world? What do you think is the most important part of Sin Eaterand how did you come across this idea, theme, or subject in your writing of the book?
MC: May’s story is about deciding who you are for yourself and about finding your people. These themes are deeply rooted in my own experience growing up and choosing to lapse as a Catholic.
MT: What is your writing process like? Are you a big planner? Do you outline or write as you go? How many rewrites and revisions do you go through in your rewriting process? How long did it take to make Sin Eaterthe amazing book it is today?
I’m a visual, physical person. When I outline, I paste sticky notes all over a large board. Then I can “see” the plot and move it around as I like. As for my process, I write whenever I can, as much as I can. When I began Sin Eater, my first child was nine months old, I was pregnant with my second child, and I had a full-time job teaching at a theater conservatory. I couldn’t be precious about when, where, and how I wrote. It took two and half years to write the book. The last six months was just editing.
MT: There are strong connections to Christianity and Christians both then (the historical period when Sin Eatermight be set) and now, and there are strong connections to cult thinking, and the way we are affected by cult mentality. What’s so important about the reason young and older people need to think for themselves and not fall into a cult way of thinking, and what do you think May is in this type of thinking, and does she defy cult thinking or does she play into it over the course of the book?
MC: This gets back to what I want people to take away from the story:May learns to decide who she is for herself. She also finds a community that accepts her for who she is.
MT: What was your favorite part about writing this book, and what was the hardest part about writing Sin Eater? Were they the same thing? What did you learn from writing Sin Eaterand are there any parts of the writing process you’d never want to go through again?
MC: I love world-building. Creating the “alt history” was a pleasure. The hardest part was the mystery: it took time to figure out how much to reveal when. I learned so much from the process, but would gladly do it all again. I truly loved writing the book.
MT: Were there any parts of the book you felt you had to fight to keep in place when writing the novel? Were there any parts of the book you didn’t want to keep in the book that are now a part of the final product?
MC: The editing process was remarkably smooth (in large part thanks to my fabulous editor, Trish Todd,at Atria Books.) The published book completely reflects my choices.
MT: Would you ever return to the world of Sin Eater in your future books?
MC: I don’t have any plans to right now.
MT: Do you have a new work in progress or a book on the way to being published? I know I for one cannot wait to read whatever you publish next. Will you give us any hint to what this next book or work in general may be about?
MC: I work on multiple things at once. One is another historical fiction novel about women spies in the American Civil War. It centers on women’s relationships with each other across a deep political divide and whether that divide can be bridged—something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.
MT: In May’s world, and in Sin Eater, whether resulting in death or just the testing of morals and ethics, what do you feel is the greatest crime in the book, and why do you feel it’s so important to readers?
MC: The greatest crime is a society taking away a person’s voice and personhood. In Sin Eater, I’ve tried to chart an individual revolution in the way one woman sees herself to remind people that change can start at home and grow from there.
MT: I loved your book so much, Megan, and I’m so glad you agreed to talk about the book with us. We are so thrilled to have you talk to Writers Tell All. We wish you the most success with this book. Feel free to leave us with any lingering thoughts or ideas you feel weren’t discussed or talked about in depth, and thank you again for working with us and being involved in an interview for this website. We loved your book and encourage all of our readers to buy or preorder and read this book!
MC: Thanks so much for reading and for your great questions!! Stay safe and well!
Megan Campisi is a playwright, novelist, and teacher. Her plays have been performed in China, France, and the United States. She attended Yale University and the L’École International de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. The author of Sin Eater, she lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.
I had the amazing opportunity to sit and talk with Robert Doyle about his new novel, Threshold, which I'd describe as a nice collision (it's intense at times, which is great) between the odd and vivid writings of Marilynne Robinson, the more autobiographical novels of Mario Vargas Llosa (more Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter), and some of the philosophical nature of writers like Iris Murdoch (only sadly without the murders and suicides and dramatic plot twists!). A brilliant book, something to consume slowly and all at once, Threshold is yet another reason to contact your local indie bookstore and purchase something by a great writer.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Rob! I’m excited to interview you, so I’ll go ahead and begin. This--Threshold—isn’t normally what people imagine when they think of their favorite novels. Yet, it’s absolutely absorbing and amazingly well written. Were you ever scared writing the novel—something like this, a travel log of sorts, a discussion of work, of authors, of creativity—that this novel would never see the light of day?
Rob Doyle: Not really, the reason being that it’s my third book and so I knew readers (and my publishers) had a certain confidence in me to try something new, something different. The first two books (Here Are the Young Menand This Is the Ritual) gained a gratifying amount of praise, which internally gives you a certain degree of licence. Also, three books in, you know what you’re doing, you’re not a rookie, and so when I embarked on writing a book that blended personal confession, humour, essay, fiction, and various other elements, I was reasonably confident it would be given the green light.
MT: Lev Grossman, I believe, made a case that there are too many people writing so much that great literature is hard to find, or becoming devalued. You touch on this briefly, with conflicting feelings. How do you feel about the state of literature today, and how do you feel all groups of people are being represented, and not just white men like you and I?
RD: I think literature is doing just fine, and will always do just fine: along with art in general, and perhaps religion too, it’s humankind’s great adventure into the unknown, into the abyss which turns out to be made of pure light. Which is not to say that a vast quantity of bad books aren’t getting written – more than ever, even. But you have to trust that the good stuff will get a hearing, and devote yourself to seeking out and relishing it, books from the past as well as the present. As Schopenhauer wrote, the art of not reading is of vital importance: that is, the art of not being distracted by whatever the great reading public happens to be getting in a lather over at a given moment, because they’re more than likely excited over something rubbish. Unless of course they are excited about mybooks, in which case I urge everyone to join in the adulation and the book-buying! As for the question of representation, I’ve always been a very international reader, reading a lot of stuff in translation, and because there’s a greater demand these days for diversity, there will likely be ever more of it available, which I welcome.
MT: You talk extensively about Bolano, who is at once a very publicly troubled and interesting person, and now a mysterious deceased author hipsters choose to read to stay cool. What drew you to Bolano, and why do you feel he fit into the novel so well? Would you consider him a character in the novel, even?
RD: Far from being merely an author for hipsters, Bolaño is a friend for life! I go back to his books regularly – in fact, all this week I’ve been reading a few pages of his collection of non-fictional writings Between Parentheses every morning, as a sort of tuning fork for my own writing day. I love how his mind works, that sense of humour, the combination of lunacy and control. I love his generosity, his endless fascination with all-but forgotten writers - minor poets, doomed novelists and so on. In Threshold I take a trip to Blanes in Spain where he lived, and reflect on his life and work, but mainly this is a means to get to grips with more personal questions of my own (and an excuse to take a nice long train journey from Paris to the Costa Brava and back again).
MT: While you do talk about literature extensively in the novel, what are the books that you feel shaped you in your formative years? What are the books you look to for inspiration now? Who do you feel are the most important authors working today, fiction or nonfiction (or anything else)?
RD: Here are some key writers for me: Friedrich Nietzsche, Roberto Bolaño, Rachel Kushner, Michel Houellebecq, Geoff Dyer, Svetlana Alexievich, J.L. Borges. As for books that shaped me in my formative years, all through last year I wrote a weekly column in The Irish Times, on precisely this question. It can be read on the ‘Column’ section of my website robdoyle.net. Needless to say, many of the books that formed me are also the ones that deformed me.
MT: The novel defies so many typical conventions, and you’ve received lots of praise for Threshold. Why do you think people are attracted to this book, and do you think it will last—honestly speaking, since you’re so honest about yourself in the book—and might it have a big effect on literature in the now, and in the future?
RD: Lord only knows. I think there’s no way of ever knowing the answer to those questions – you just have to give it your all while you have it in you to write, and hope that posterity shows favour on you. I mean, in the long run, we’re all bound for oblivion, what with the eventual heat-death of the sun and all of that. Even Shakespeare will eventually disappear, if the species which is his native audience wipes itself out. Our only hope, then, is the Singularity.
MT: You talk frequently about women, masturbation, sex, adventures (often with women)—so many men, male authors I mean, have thought of women as distractions to their work, but I don’t know if that’s the case here. Do you feel women, or rather sex and romance in general, is beneficial or detrimental to the design of one’s writing and the power of a novel today?
RD: For all the carnage and chaos of my life, most of the goodness in it has been brought into it by women. Most of the badness in it too, come to think of it. But yes, I’ve always found love and romance highly inspiring, and more than inspiring, nourishing and a source of meaning. That’s what love is, a kind of nourishment. And it nourishes writing and art as much as it nourishes the spirit.
MT: What do you think is the truest part of the book? How hard is it to write about oneself and remain true, if you try to remain true about yourself and your experiences at all?
RD: I would say that allof the book is true - even the parts that are invented or exaggerated. Furthermore, I would say that all my books are true, even the ones that are more explicitly fictional. What I mean by this, of course, is that fiction, if it’s any good, expresses truth in the form of illusion. That said, the ‘Rob’ who is the narrator of Threshold both is and isn’t me: he’s a persona of myself, like me in many ways, but not absolutely identical with me.
MT: Who do you want to read this? Every writer, I think, has one writer, one celebrity, one person in their life they’re secretly writing for. I really believe this to be true, but you can correct me if I’m wrong. Do you think you really wrote this novel for someone, or at least hoped a certain person would pick the book up and read it, and perhaps learn from it in whatever way imaginable?
RD: Wooh! An interesting question, though I’m not quite sure if there is an answer, or if there is, what it might be. Well, I guess there is one obvious answer, which is that I want everyoneto read Threshold, and then to buy copies for their mother, their cousin, their spouse and their self-isolating neighbour.
MT: My mentor, a wonderful and amazingly talented and famous author, loves Malta. It’s her favorite place. What do you feel your favorite location is (you definitely said NO to the US) and do you think it’s beneficial to your writing? What is your writing style like, when establishing a writing pattern, when including or excluding something from a book, when developing characters and voice? What’s the most important thing for a writer to remember when creating something like this brilliant novel?
RD: The latter question first: for me, trial and error is absolutely the most important thing. That’s how I create each book, and of course ‘trial and error’ means not being afraid of error, of going down a blind alley before retracing your steps and striking out in another direction. As for my favourite location, well, there is more than one - there are quite a few really. As I imagine becomes clear in Threshold, I have a great love for the cities of Paris and Berlin (though for quite different reasons – they are as unalike as two European capitals could be). Right now I’m in quarantine in Rosslare Harbour, County Wexford, in the southeast of Ireland. My favourite location at the moment is this lovely house, and the beach and cliffs just past the harbour, where I go walking every day.
MT: What is the hardest part of writing a novel, and what was the hardest part of writing Threshold?Was there a scene, a series of discussions, a whole chapter you considered removing from the book, and if so, do you still wish you had, considering the critical acclaim you’re receiving now?
RD: All the parts of writing a novel are the hardest part! Well, perhaps that’s not true – some scenes or voices or passages come easily, and that’s a joy, but not a frequently occuring one. I tend to splurge out a rough draft of a chapter or scene first, and then rework it over and over till it’s as close to perfection as I can get it. I kind of sort of partially vaguely considered thinking about removing the penultimate chapter, ‘Psychopomp’, which concerns taking LSD in Paris while researching the work of the surrealist André Breton. Arguably Thresholdwould have been a somewhat tighter read as a whole if I had done so, but that’s okay: it is what it is, as the Zen-like saying goes.
MT: What would I be surprised to find on your bookshelf?
RD: Perhaps The Holy Bible. I was raised a Catholic, but fell out of the faith as a teenager and never looked back. However, over the years I’ve come to hold a new respect and admiration for many aspects of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus. I bought a bible a couple of years ago with the idea of reading it through, one book at a time, but I never got round to it. Every now and then I’ll dip in and read a massacre-scene or some arcane list of laws. There’s a lot going on in that book.
MT: Toni Morrison is often accredited with the quote regarding writing the book you’ve always wanted to read but never have found. What’s the book you’ve always wanted to read but never been about to find? Do you feel Threshold, or one of your other previous works, fits this bill?
RD: Absolutely, Thresholdfits the bill! Morrison is right, it’s imperative to write exactly the kind of book you want to read. If you do that, you can’t go far wrong. Another way to say this is that artists, or good artists anyway, become masters at following their instincts, being true to their natures, their preferences and aversions, their boredoms and fanaticisms. I hope to continue to do this for the rest of my life, with each book I write.
MT: Threshold is so strange and wonderful, about something and nothing, everything at once and so little at the same time, and it’s brilliantly written and wonderfully absorbing (I believe I’ve used all these words before), but what would you say the book is about, and why is it necessary today? Why do you think people should read the book, and what do you feel you’ve accomplished in this writing that hasn’t been done before?
RD: I would simply say that Threshold is the most intimate, personal, revealing book I’ve yet written – but also the most fun, the most colourful, the most humourous and the most expansive in terms of its themes and settings. It’s got a bit of everything: there’s travel and philosophy, art and humour, mysticism and psychedelic drugs, madness and optimism, sex and loneliness. It’s a book about the struggle to write, also the struggle to live, to find some sort of transcendental truth in the midst of the turmoil and confusion of being alive.
MT: At the end of the book, there’s mention of a tomb, which reminds me of a New York Times article I read on the death of books, and I wonder which books you think will die and fade away in time, and what you think literature and the literary world needs more of nowadays. Why end with a tomb, other than some metaphor for the end of the book?
RD: That’s the ancient pre-Christian tomb in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, I believe. It’s where the narrator and his friends go to undertake one final and major experiment with DMT, the incredibly powerful psychedelic drug that some people even believe permits us to travel to other dimensions of reality. I didn’t intend it as a metaphor for the end or the death of books – but if you want to read it that way, who am I to say you’re wrong!
MT: Do you have another work-in-progress on the way? I have to admit, I think my readers will be buying your books for the first time, which is exciting, and when they’re done I bet they can’t wait for more.
RD: I’m very superstitious around talking about what I’m working on before I at least complete a first draft, so I’m afraid all I can say for now is that I’m working on something entirely non-fictional. In the meantime, my first novel Here Are the Young Menwas adapted for a film starring Anya Taylor Joy, Dean Charles Chapman and others. It’s not out yet but when this coronavirus situation is over, I hope you’ll be able to see it.
MT: Rob, thank you so very much for being interviewed by me here for Writers Tell All. I love being able to interview great minds like yours, and I hope we get to meet one day, and maybe be included in some of your wild adventures (preferably not too wild). Until then, I hope you have so much success with this new book, and I hope you enjoy all of the acclaim and hopefully sales you’ll be getting, and I hope I can contribute to that in some way. Please feel free to leave us with any lingering thoughts or ideas or anything else you have left to say. Thank you again, Rob. Writers Tell All loves you.
RD: Hah! Thank youvery much Matthew – it’s been a pleasure. I promise that if I do write about you, I won’t get you to do anything too wild. At least, nothing I wouldn’t do. Stay safe, stay healthy, and thanks again for your questions.
Matthew Turbeville: I know you’re perhaps the most raved about debut standalone of the year, and so I want to keep this brief. Can you tell me when you decided to write this story? It takes a lot for a story, a character, a plot, anything to push a writer through a whole novel. When did it occur to you Your House Will Pay had to be written, and why did you push so hard to write it? I know it took longer than your average book.
Steph Cha: I decided to write it in 2014, though my first foray into the material was through a short story, written for an anthology of Asian pulp. The story was about a young woman finding out her mother murdered a child during the L.A. Uprising in 1992. When I finished it, I knew there was a lot more in there that I wanted to explore, and once I decided to follow the brother of the victim as well as the daughter of the shooter, I felt like I had a novel to write. It was enough to consume my working life for the next four and a half years.
MT: Very few authors have the ability to stand on all sides of a very political, very divisive issue and look at things objectively, but you do things so well. Other authors I can think of include Attica Locke and Laura Lippman, who do a really great job at listening and not just telling. What do you think is so important for everyone who wants to write about someone who’s not themselves, and what do you think you had to keep telling yourself to do when you were writing Your House Will Pay?
SC: Alexander Chee has some great advice on this subject (https://www.vulture.com/2019/10/author-alexander-chee-on-his-advice-to-writers.html). I think it’s important to question your own motives on the front end, to interrogate and edit yourself as you write, and to be open to critique when you think you’re done. You have to be willing to put in the work and accept the responsibility that comes with writing someone else’s experience. It took a long time for me to flesh out Shawn and his family in Your House Will Pay, and I’ll admit it was much harder than writing Grace and the Parks. I did a lot of research, and I did a lot of work, and whether or not I did Shawn justice, I can at least say I poured everything I could into his character. I know him viscerally well.
MT: Who are the most underrated novelists today? Especially crime novelists, too? What books do you think should be read, and possibly celebrated or studied, but don’t receive the recognition they need? Who are the authors really breaking through and necessary to our country and world today?
SC: In the crime world, I’d say Nina Revoyr, Sara Gran, Elizabeth Hand, Lisa Brackmann, and Rachel Howzell Hall—all have some devoted fans but are not as widely read or celebrated as I personally think they should be.
MT: You’re a seasoned writer. You’re an expert writer. You’re young. What is your advice to fellow young writers, why do you feel you’ve succeeded so young, and what do you think the best advice you’ve ever received is, even if it took you forever to take the advice?
SC: I mean to be honest I got to start young because my parents are rich and I got to start a risky career with no debt and the knowledge that I had a safety net should I fail. This isn’t true of every young writer, of course, but it’s often a factor, and it makes me wary of dishing out sage advice. I guess one piece I will mention is that I always thought of fiction writing as a magical pursuit when it’s really just a lot of work—you don’t have to be some special writerly person to do it. It’s entirely possible to write a novel if you have the time, inclination, and follow-through. Also, definitely read as much as possible.
MT: This book took you a while to write. I can understand a lot of what must have taken a while to struggle with, but what might readers be surprised to learn you struggled with, and what was the hardest thing about writing a novel like Your House Will Pay?
SC: Coming from a mystery background, I always thought of myself as a natural plotter, but it turns out the genre conventions are an enormous help, and I had a much harder time plotting once I could no longer rely on them for the structure of my novel. I did much better when I gave in and outlined, something I hadn’t felt much need to do for my earlier books.
MT: Do you have a work in progress or finished book ready to publish, coming soon maybe? You know all of your super fans (aka me) are really ready for this. We love your writing and wonder if we’ve said goodbye to Juniper Song as well.
SC: I wish I did, but I haven’t even started my next novel yet. I keep putting it off, and now we’re in a global pandemic and I’m having a baby. It’ll happen, but will probably be a while until I have a new book out again. I do know it won’t be a Song novel, though I can see myself circling back to her one day, many books down the line.
MT: Years from now, alive or dead, when there’s a great American book list of the 21stcentury and one of your books (probably more) is featured on the list, what’s the one word you hope will be used to describe you and your work? Do you think crime novels will be featured more heavily this century? Thank you for having me, Steph. You know what your writing means to me personally, and I speak for myself and not the crying fangirls who make up the rest of Writers Tell All. All my best--
SC: Shoot, let’s go top shelf—how about ingenious? Really, I hope people read my work and find it thoughtful and illuminating and hopefully entertaining, even though it’s kind of grim. I think that’s how I think of my favorite crime fiction, so that’s what I aspire to write. I hope crime fiction continues to flourish this century and I see no reason it shouldn’t. Crime and injustice are not going away.