WRITERS TELL ALL
First, buy this amazing book here.
I have said this only two or three times before, perhaps more than that, but Angie Kim's Miracle Creek is an astounding and amazing novel that has entranced me and continued to lure me for too many rereads of one book in one year. Nevertheless, buy the book immediately. If. you need a beach read, a lazy weekend read, or if you want to challenge yourself about so many tough issues, pick up a copy of this book and find Angie Kim as much a great storyteller as someone who makes you think, which is a blessing by itself.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Angie! I’m beyond obsessed with your debut novel, Miracle Creek. For the readers, it’s both an astounding mystery, a courtroom drama, and a beautiful depiction of family life, especially for first generation Americans and their parents. I saw that you are an “ex-lawyer.” How did you decide to go from practicing law to writing? What were your favorite books growing up, and what novels—especially crime—do you feel were most influential to you in making this book?
Angie Kim: First of all, thank you so much for your kind and generous words about Miracle Creek. It’s so meaningful for me to know that the book resonated with you.
As for your question about transitioning from law to writing, it was a circuitous route. I actually quit being a lawyer in my 20s, after I realized that my favorite part about being a lawyer—being in the courtroom—was a tiny part of practicing law. I transitioned to the business world at that point, first becoming a management consultant at McKinsey and then becoming a dot-com entrepreneur in the 1990s, and then became a stay-at-home mom. All three of my boys had medical issues as toddlers (they’re all fine now), and I started writing about that experience, almost as therapy. I turned to fiction when I realized that I didn’t want to publish my nonfiction pieces about my children, due to medical privacy issues.
Favorite books growing up—that’s a little tough to delve into, because I was born and raised in Korea. My favorite in Korea was probably a series called CANDY, about a plucky orphan girl. She’s similar to Anne of Green Gables, which was probably one of the first English books I loved as a preteen when I first moved to the US.
As for the novel that most influenced my writing Miracle Creek, that is probably Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. (In fact, the title is an homage to that book; Mystic River, Miracle Creek!) Because this is my first novel, I tried to learn by taking that book and deconstructing and analyzing its structure and plotting.
MT: Miracle Creekis about a place which can supposedly cure things like autism. I have a cousin with what I would call a more advanced form of autism, still unable to speak most of the time at eight years old, and it’s a struggle for his parents, and our family in general, but luckily he’s surrounded by so many people who love him. Yet even with my aunt, his mother, I’m touchy about bringing up the subject. It’s sort of like mental illness, which I deal with—it’s understood I have it, it’s understood I suffer with it, and yet it’s never to be talked about. How does it feel diving into topics a lot of people feel uncomfortable around, and how do you manage to execute the delivery and discussion of topics so well?
AK: It’s precisely because there’s a stigma to the subject of autism (and other chronic illnesses and special needs I explore in the novel, such as cerebral palsy and OCD) that I wanted to explore it. I’m close friends with a lot of parents in this community, having had children with chronic illnesses myself, and I think this can make it harder for parents to talk to each other about the challenges of their day-to-day lives, which isolates them. I’m so glad to hear that you, a person who’s had personal and family experience with some of these issues, feel like those issues were covered well in the novel and that you empathized with the characters going through those issues.
MT: Other than being an ex-lawyer, why did you choose to have the majority of the book take place in a courtroom? The execution of the book—in all chapters, in all positions in time and place—it was genius, brilliant and impossible to put down. Did you ever struggle with deciding how to write this novel?
AK: That was one of the first things I had to decide when starting this novel: the structure and format. I considered having it be a straight drama, with the novel beginning on the first day of the HBOT treatments when all the patients meet each other, with the explosion being the ending. I also considered having this be a murder mystery, but having the investigation take place in the days immediately following the explosion, long before the trial. I finally decided on the trial structure/format, and I’m sure that my decision has a lot to do with my own experience in the courtroom. I loved being in the courtroom and longed to return in some way, even if it was just through a fictional construct. I also knew of the dramatic possibilities inherent to the courtroom format (especially in criminal court), and that appealed to me as a writer as well.
MT: People most relate you most to Mary, the daughter of the Yoos, I assume for autobiographical reasons. Some people find that the characters in their books are nothing like them, but others (like myself) consider each character to be a part of them, and not just one. How do you feel your own experiences, life, and the journey you are beginning to travel as a novel come through in Miracle Creek?
AK: I’ve taken three separate strands of my life and woven them together for Miracle Creek. The first is my experience as an immigrant, moving from Seoul to Baltimore when I was 11. You’re right in that Mary is the characters who is most like me in many ways. The second strand is the courtroom trial aspect. And the third is my own experience doing HBOT with own my own kids, in a group “submarine” much like the one featured in Miracle Creek. I tried to take those experiences, which happened at different times in my life, and tried to braid them into a coherent narrative that I hope works.
MT: Growing up, being gay and mentally ill, I associated largely with outsiders in our community—lots of different Asian families, mostly Chinesse and Taiwanese (I had to learn certain words in Mandarin and Shanghainese in order to know when my friends’ parents were secretly talking about me). I didn’t love them because they were Asian, or because they were outsides, but because they felt like real people, growing up outside of this very limited and exclusive world here in the South. My friends were funny and brilliant—not just academically, but they watched and listened and read everything. There was nothing I could really shock them with. I’m wondering how your experience was, growing up, coming-of-age, all of these things in America.
AK: I think my own experience is one of isolation and loneliness, largely because I’m an only child and I moved away from my homeland in middle school, at the age of 11. I very much missed my close friends back home, and it was hard for me to make new friends here in the US because I didn’t speak English at all when I moved. I’ve since learned to speak English fluently and gained many close friends, but even so, to this day, this is something I carry around with me, the feeling of not quite belonging (or, at least, the fear of not belonging) and wanting desperately to do everything I can to fit in and be “normal.”
MT: I vividly remember one best friend, brilliant and graduating at the top of her class at Wharton, claiming her brother was making three (3) errors in his SAT practice, and how would he get anywhere, even something “like Berkeley.” Such a new thing with me, where white people in the town were considered to be brilliant to go to a state school, or even work as farm hands. I’d love to know if you dealt with any of these issues growing up with extreme differences in culture.
AK: Ha! I doubt that anyone (even the so-called tiger moms from Asian-American families!) would considered Berkeley to be a second-rate school that one has to settle for. I was lucky in that even though my parents wanted me to be successful, they’ve always been very supportive of my goals, even if they weren’t to pursue the “prestigious” careers. I majored in theater in high school, for example, and I think they would have been fine if I’d decided to pursue that instead of academics (which is what I ultimately ended up doing). They were also very supportive when I quit law and even when I decided to stay home to be a full-time parent.
MT: When you’re writing, revising, rewriting, etc, what is the process like for you? How do you cope with the struggles of being a mother, a writer—a job in which most writers find themselves loners, lonely, and every other aspect of your life? What advice do you give to new and aspiring writers?
AK: I don’t really have a standard process. I have a goal, which is to start or keep writing or finish a particular story or essay or chapter, and I keep sitting down in front of the computer until I finish drafting, and I keep sitting down and editing until I actually like what I’ve written. My advice to new/aspiring writers is to take time and develop your craft. Write short pieces—essays, short stories, flash fiction, whatever—and polish and polish and polish until you love them and are proud to submit them for publication. Then keep on submitting until you get published. I really think it’s important to have gone through this experience with shorter pieces before you tackle a book.
MT: What has the praise been like, especially from the reviews, the authors who love you so much, the readers who may love you more? How does this affect your next work, if you have a work in progress or something you’ve already finished?
AK: It’s been amazing to connect with readers and reviewers, especially those from the communities featured in Miracle Creek (parents of children with disabilities, immigrant families, etc.). It’s been really inspiring, and it makes me eager to tackle my next novel.
MT: I’ve seen you compared most often to other Asian authors, which I can imagine might be frustrating. I know if I were compared to individuals who share only a part of your life really limiting. What’s your response to this, positive or negative or neutral? Do you ever feel confined to writing one type of story, character, book?
AK: Not at all. I’m really proud of the fact that I’m part of the emergence of Asian-American authors who’ve come out with amazing novels in the last few years. In particular, there’s been such an amazing community of Korean-American women novelists who’ve come with amazing novels (Min-Jin Lee, Crystal Hana Kim, R.O. Kwon, Eugenia Kim, Jung Yun, Jimin Han, just to name a few!), and it’s been wonderful seeing their experiences and trying to follow in their footsteps.
MT: What can we expect next from you? Is there a book planned, in progress, finished, or something else? This book seems hard to follow but I can tell with your abilities you won’t have a hard time keeping the writing refined, the topics current and essential, and the characters and ideas nuanced and complex. Can you share anything with us about your future work?
AK: Yes! I’m working on my second novel, which is about a ten-year old boy who’s nonverbal (with autism). He goes on a walk in the beginning of the novel with his father, but only the boy returns home. Because he’s nonverbal, he can’t tell us what happened. His older siblings become obsessed with using assistive communication devices and therapies to get him to “talk,” to share with them what happened to the father.
MT: I really love your book. I really, really love Miracle Creek. It’s a brilliant book I hope all of our readers pick up, and also call their libraries throughout their state and request copies. The book is astonishing on so many levels and I really loved having the chance to read it, and to interview you. I cannot wait for your next novel.
AK Thank you so much, Matthew. I really enjoyed our conversation, and I’m grateful to you for sharing!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Patrick! I’ve enjoyed reading your novel so thoroughly, actually setting aside the time to read it multiple times. Something about your language, the story, the rhythm of it is changing. Before we being with questions about the novel, do you mind telling us how you found yourself in writing, how you pursued your career, and what being a writer has been like for you so far? What did your past projects, publications, and art lead to this novel?
Patrick Coleman: Thank you! You know, writing has been the one thing that’s always just made sense to me—maybe because it helps me make sense of things. (I have a bad memory and get easily confused.) So I’ve always done it. The career path hasn’t been linear, in part because life has a way of complicating things, so I ended up writing a book of prose poems and editing and writing for an exhibition catalogue before publishing a novel—but it’s all writing, and it has all be valuable. And the periods of not-writing, too—when there was too much work and there were too many life demands to write.
MT: Do you mind telling us what your writing habits are like? Are you a morning, noon, night writer? How much do you write a day? How and where do you enjoy writing? What is revision like for you?
PC: I’m generally an early morning writer. Having small children who like to get up very, very early has complicated that, so I try to be an anywhere writer now. When I’m writing a first draft, I don’t like having daily goals, so it can vary how much time I put in, and there are times when life (jobs, kids, etc.) makes a mockery of those goals. But you do what you can, and try to trust the process.
I’m obsessed with revision and love it in a way some people might call sadistic. It’s my favorite part: seeing what’s there, letting that seed new generative ideas and insights, and then chucking most of what you’ve done and starting over.
MT: What books and authors have inspired you in your journey not just to this book, but as a writer? What are your favorite crime novels and novelists? Do you have a book you return to when you’re feeling stuck writing, need inspiration, or just simply a good reread?
PC: That’s such a difficult question! I love everything, from the Star Wars novelizations as a kid that are responsible for me being anything of a reader or writer to Joyce’s Ulysses. I don’t come from a readerly family, and I wasn’t “schooled” as one when I was young—so, for example, when I headed off to college, my mom and I went to Costco and got the one-volume move tie-in edition of Lord of the Ringsbecause, in my head, I was thinking, “College: now I have to read the real heavyweight, capital L literature.” I’m glad for that now. Discovering a love for Jane Austen as a twenty-year-old man might be the ideal time, really.
For this book, Raymond Chandler is the obvious influence, but Walker Percy, Patricia Highsmith, Thomas Pynchon, Marilynne Robinson, Augustine, and Søren Kierkegaard hover over things, too, like a set of very odd ghosts. Whenever anxiety is getting the better of me or I need to be reminded of what writing can do, the poetry of Gary Young is a perfect prescription. For crime, the Cass Neary books by Elizabeth Hand are pretty unbeatable.
MT: Do you mind telling us whatever you’d feel comfortable telling readers about your history with Christianity, and how it affects your writing, and how it’s shaped this book? I was raised Southern Baptist, and while I don’t consider myself religion, and I’ve long since cut ties with the churches I was involved with, it involves my writing so immensely. I would love to hear the positive and negative impacts of religion on the book.
PC: I grew up in a Catholic family—not the most dedicatedly Catholic, but it was a strong enough presence. In high school I found myself drawn into a more Evangelical-style church—there was better music and more girls—and I somewhat uncomfortably identified with that for about six years. I’d always struggled with doubt, was always pushing and pulling, but I started to see more of what was harmful in these Christian communities, these Christian cultures—was learning to see more of what was wrong about the world at large—and whether or not I “believed in” God or not seemed to matter less and less. That simple binary of “on” or “off.” I believe in a lot of things, and belief can be a powerful force for good or ill in the world—but if it’s going to do good, belief can’t be easy. It’s going to need to force people to ask very hard questions about themselves, about the worlds they move through, about their gods. So while I miss that feeling of easy belief—of asking God to listen to my fourteen-year-old’s problems and to solve them—I know it’s a nostalgia for something that isn’t good. In that sense, it’s like reminiscing about the time you got wasted but were the hit of the party. Fine for the time. Bad to build your life around recapturing.
MT: When I think of noir I think of a lot of Southern literature, but rarely ever LA literature, or anywhere not related directly to the South. There’s everything from Flannery O’Connor to Lori Roy, especially her new novel Gone Too Long. How did you incorporate religion into your novel successfully, and how do you feel your novel can be compared to these other great writers?
PC: LA noir and California noir have a deep, rich history in literature and in film—think German Expressionist filmmakers relocating to Hollywood because of World War II, people like Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. In fiction, we have Hammett, Chandler, Cain—later Ross MacDonald, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, the future noir of Blade Runner, and all the exciting exploration of the genre being done today, writers like Steph Cha and Viet Thanh Nguyen, in film and television shows like Veronica Mars or Brick, and on and on. I was conscious of working within that tradition—I’m not sure how what I’ve done compares to their work—and yes, you’re right that the religious thread has more often been one pulled on by Southern writers. California, at least non-indigenous California, is very much composed of successive waves of immigrants, and a lot of the very powerful influence our state has had on American Christianity is through Southerners coming west and establishing massive, often national ministries—prototyping new forms of Christian culture here as much as we’re known for new social media startups. There’s just as much of a religious character to Californians as there to Mississippians—many characters, of course—even if it’s a bit more sun-bleached and a bit less explored in fiction.
MT: You write from the point-of-view of (in my eyes0 a very unlikable protagonist. But I love that, as I get bored with perfect protagonists, and I think avoiding complex (and therefore in my mind read) characters, we never actually touch on anything true. How did you craft the narrator, his voice, and what were the tough choices you had to make when developing him?
PC: I’m a very likeable person, which is to say: I’m boring. You want to read only likeable characters? That’s fine. Really. Lots to choose from. Great stories, ones I love, too. And there are stories that ask us to care about unlikeable characters that don’t earn that ask—absolutely. What bugs me, though, is when characters are complex and contradictory because they reveal more of themselves, and that’s why they’re labeled unlikeable. That critical impulse is often particularly nasty when a woman writes a complex woman as a protagonist—which is to say, truthfully and with interiority. That unlikeable label becomes a hammer to any thoughtful engagement or empathy that requires some work on the part of the reader.
I’m not saying any of that necessarily applies to Mark Haines (the protagonist of The Churchgoer). I didn’t think of him in terms of likeable or unlikeable. Hainesisan asshole. But so is Philip Marlowe, and he gets away with it because he makes some clever jokes, is sometimes right, and doesn’t reveal toomuch of himself—he knows how to play the game of likeability just well enough. So that’s was what I wanted to surface a bit more, by letting Haines run mouth and his mind on the page more than usual: the assholery inherent in so many male characters we have, culturally, deemed good and acceptable, role models even. (See the bad fanphenomenon.) And then, in Haines, I was interested, too, in where his particular kind of assholery comes from, and what might emerge from it.
MT: Depending on whether you judge noir as a mode, style, or genre (I took too many classes on the subject in undergrad so I’m still stuck in this debate) there’s this idea for some people on how noir is the collection of evidence, the display, the truth there for you to window shop even if you never buy. Yet, if this is true, what does it mean for a religious, or formerly religious, character who’s participating in this mode/style/genre? How do we walk any sort of dialectic between the narrator’s present and past and the story he’s telling, given all of the conflicting natures inside him (which is part of what makes this book great)?
PC: It all comes back to a relationship to knowledge. There’s an irony in being a believer, which is that you don’t “believe” in the existence of a good God, a savior personally invested in your life—you knowit. You experience that as knowledge. Haines, when he breaks with God, flips that the other direction. He doesn’t believe the world is an amoral pointless shitshow. He knows it is one. Noir, or at least the kind of noir I love, disrupts both of those points of view. It leaves you in suspended complexity, to sort out your own salvation. That’s a good place to be, as a reader and as a person.
MT: The book is set in the early ‘00ss. I constantly am forgetting while reading the book that it’s not set in 2019, even if we have no indication that the book should take place in modern day America. Do you mind telling us a bit about why you chose the time period, how it plays in with the book, and if there’s a major reason or idea behind the time period? (It’s strange to think that, in ways, the ‘00s—everything set then is historical fiction.)
PC: It’s set in 2000–2001. It was important to me to represent that time, which was a unique moment in American culture and in American Christian culture. We’re seeing the fallout of a lot of that today. The cultures have evolved—in some ways for the better, but in others for the worse. Chris Pratt and Ellen Page fighting over whether or not Hillsong is an anti-LGBTQ church wouldn’t have happened in 2000. (Also: it is.) Kanye West and Justin Bieber being the pop faces of Evangelicalism would lead to a very different noir in that milieu. Even Oceanside, where a lot of the book is set, has changed massively from 2001. It’s all flux, right? But in art we’re trying to arrest that, just for a moment, and look more closely. There’s more drama and more magic in the specific.
MT: The book is a great example of steadily building tension and sometimes dread in a novel without piling on dead bodies for thrills (although I’m not necessarily opposed to this sort of book either). Do you feel you took a risk easing into the novel and introducing it as a crime story, even if the true mysteries in the novel don’t begin to unravel until a few chapters in. Although we do get some hints from Mark here and there.
PC: Was it a risk? I don’t know—you tell me! It was the only way to tell the story, from where I sat. A murder on page one wasn’t right for what I wanted to do. Chandler’s books don’t always zip into the action like a Lee Child novel, either. Simenon’s roman dursor Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books can take their time—and when they take their time is when they often do the most interesting things for me, as a reader. And I knew I couldn’t do a bang, bang, rape, rape, bludgeon, bludgeon kind of book. It’s not in my wheelhouse. I don’t have the stomach for it. You write what only you can write, in the end. And ultimately, one question I was interested in was the conflict between whodunnit puzzle-solving—that drive and impulse—and those harder to quantify mysteries and tensions and dreads. So the form has to fit the content.
MT: The country is in a lot of turmoil and there’s fear and hatred clashing in dangerous ways. With a book like The Churchgoer, given the chance to have everyone in the country read this book, what would you hope they take away from the reading experience? Is there an idea, message, or issue you would love for readers to examine and understand better through your work?
PC: It’s all there in reading the book, I hope: looking at anger and its limits, men and masculinity, our religious cultures and their entanglement with capitalism and politics, sexuality and gender. Evangelicalism has carried us, culturally, to some very disturbing places—and not only through its support for Donald Trump and Mike Pence. I’m wary of saying all that, though, because I want Christians of all stripes—Evangelicals and exvangelicals—to read the book, people of other faiths and no faith. I’m not by nature a polemicist, but Mark Haines is. As I’ve been saying to people: he’s not wrong, exactly, but he’s not right, either. I wanted that to be a useful and enjoyable tension for the reader.
But ultimately, I think The Churchgoeris about finding acertain measure of openness to mystery, to difference, to sitting with discomfort and being curious about our own knee-jerk responses—a willingness to contend with not-knowing, in all its forms—and that would go a long way for us these days.
MT: Mark meets a young woman named Cindy at the beginning of the novel, and she works as a catalyst in so many ways. His view of Cindy, his thoughts, his yearnings in the beginning of the novel are uncomfortable for readers to say the least. His relationship with Cindy is not clearly defined, but I suppose that’s the beauty of it—the idea that a relationship can be unique and stand firm in its own ground without being defined by the black-and-white idea of what a relationship “should” be. When going through every part of the development of this novel, how was Cindy first introduced, how did she become a real person and an important person, and how do you feel she drives Mark?
PC: Cindy is, for me, the center of the book. She’s very important to me; I started with her, actually. I’ve written the story out from her point of view. But for a number of reasons, I decided that it made more sense for me to write this entirely from Haines’ point of view. The tension, for this to be a story that it made sense for me to write, was more in how Haines could interrogate the kind of authority Evangelical Christian churches wield against women (among others), which is a part of Cindy’s story, but also his post-Christian white male hero complex, his drive to see conspiracy, to be the only one able to perceive the truth—which isn’t all that different from when he was a pastor. It’s hard to talk about this with spoiler-alerting, but how Mark sees her at the beginning—the kind of story he puts her in—is at war with her own independent life and choices, mostly happening off stage.
MT: How do you explain abandoning a religion and a family at the same time? Do you think the two are closely connected, or—without spoilers—would you say this desertion was inevitable given Mark’s character and personality, or is this change in Mark a greater than what can be explained in an interview? Why might you say the loss of faith a great (and in your hands this case becomes very nuanced) way of approaching crime and loss in a secular world?
PC: Crime fiction is often about finding meaning in a chaotic world: seeing connections and invisible trails of causality, making sense. It’s also very often unrealistic—as much fantasy as The Hobbit—but that’s great, that’s what storytelling and art are all about. Faith works in a similar way. They both give you a story that makes sense, and that can include a story for your personal life—a heterosexual marriage, two kids, the whole plan. When the bottom drops out of one story—when you see that the story you’d considered truth was a fantasy—it’s easy to think all stories are lies. Grief can cause that. Trauma. And it’s probably true, in a sense—but it’s also the best place to build a life from. The two aspects of Mark’s backstory, going from a pastor who believed in the divine creation of the world to a hermit convinced that everything is meaningless, are alternate sides of the same coin.
MT: What’s up for you next? A novel, story collection, some sort of nonfiction? How do you feel this book in particular has shaped, and may continue to shape, your journey thought the literary world? If you can, what might our readers expect from you in months and years to come?
PC: I’m working on the next big fiction project, another genre-bending kind of a thing, but that’s probably all I can say about it for now. And writing new poems, though that’s a part of trying to stay alive and present. But everything is oriented toward the future in a different way, whereas The Churchgoerwas more toward the past—trying to see how we find a way through all of the very scary realities we’re facing down, climate change and political insanity and all the rest.
MT: Patrick, it’s been such a pleasure being able to present these questions to you in an interview, and I hope you’ve enjoyed answering some of them. I hope our readers are able to find copies of The Churchgoerand embrace the novel as an experience—sometimes delightful, more often than not sinister and dread-filled. Thank you again for being interviewed for Writers Tell All. We can’t wait to see what’s next.
PC: Thank you, Matthew! It has be great to talk about all of this with you.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Alison! I know you’re more than aware, but you’re one of my absolute favorite authors. The first book I read of yours was the brilliant, possibly flawless What Remains of Me, and I followed that with your series starring the wonderful investigator Brenna Spector. Do you mind talking about the evolution of your writing career? Other than brilliance and hard work, what strategies, choices, or leaps of faith did you make when climbing toward the top of the crime fiction community?
Alison Gaylin: Thank you for the kind words! As far as my evolution goes, I’ve made no conscious choices other than to keep trying new things, structurally, character-wise, and just in terms of the stories I tell. I try to do something different with each book, which is one of the reasons I moved form series to standalones (and may easily go back to series again). If I keep from boring myself, I have less of a chance of boring readers.
MT: Since your last novel and Never Look Back, a lot has changed. Can you tell us what recent events or issues with politics, the world, anything has helped shape how you view writing fiction and if you think the past few years has really changed you as a novelist, or on the other hand kept you grounded in your own ideas, craft, and genius?
AG: I try to escape from the real world when writing my books, but it can’t help but seep in there, can it? It’s very hard to say, but I think that especially crime novelists find that their work is deeply influenced by political and societal change, whether they want it to be or not.
MT: Your last novel was If I Die Tonight, which I feel was one of the best examples of using technology to execute a great mystery, the best since Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell, and probably before that. You’re written a really great Hollywood novel, one of the best as I’ve mentioned, and the sense of nostalgia and place is almost overwhelming. When you began writing Never Look Back, did you ask yourself if you were going to try and meet the two books in the middle? What did you decide your finished product would be like?
AG: I didn’t plan that, actually! As far as the modern technology aspect goes, I am a huge fan of true crime podcasts, and am fascinated by the role that the hosts play — they’re often much more intimate explorations of an event than straight-up journalism, with the hosts either having a direct relation to the crime, or finding themselves changed by the reporting of it. So I wanted to write a podcast host as a character. And while I do go back to a Southern California of roughly the same time period as What Remains of Me, it’s the Inland Empire, which is about as far from Hollywood as you can get.
MT: In part, the novel’s description reminded me of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, and while they are both so incredibly brilliant, they couldn’t be more different. What do you think is the importance in how you tell as a story, and what about the story itself? With readers finishing one of your novels, what do you want each reader to take away from the book, and what sort of experience do you want the reader to have?
AG: I think I just want to tell a good story that readers can get involved with. I like to surprise readers, because I like books that surprise me. That said, you certainly can’t please every reader. I think the best way to go about writing a book is to just tell the story that you want to tell, and in the best way you can.
MT: In a review of Never Look Back, I wrote the novel did, in part, remind me of Hitchcock’s adaptation of Psycho, and then from there the way Scream in the most meta of senses mimics the film’s opening scenes. When you were writing Never Look Back, did you map out the entire novel or did you let things happen as they came along? Were there major changes in the book when you went through rewriting and revision?
AG: There were some big structural changes I made in the rewrite. Initially, I’d started the modern scenes from Robin’s point of view, and then flashed back to Quentin. But it’s really such a complicated story, which goes back and forth between 1976 (in April’s letters) and today, that I found it made things clearer to just tell the modern scenes linearly. That meant starting with Quentin. And as a result, Quentin became a much more prominent and complicated character.
MT: I know that, even if I didn’t recognize these events at the time, there are times and places and stories from my life which have changed my life so incredibly. They have also changed my writing. The blessed Megan Abbott dragged me into the writing community and I was taken under your wing, among some other really phenomenal women writers. Do you feel any specific events have changed the way you write, why you write, and what you write about?
AG: I find that my writing has changed simply because I’ve gotten older and had more life experiences. From when I was very young, I’ve written about the things that frighten me. But while those things used to be more over-the-top (serial killers, etc.) they now have to do with more grounded and “real” fears — not knowing loved ones as well as you thought you did, losing those you love most — basically tragedies that are more within the realm of possibility.
MT: You do include a lot of technology in your novels, letting the reader feel you’re tracking their lives as technology grows and flourishes around us. You also are so great with empathy, love, and understanding. There are several characters essential to the story and the reader gets a strong sense of who each of these characters are. Each character is also so incredibly different. Are you naturally able to slip into a completely different person’s mind, or does this come naturally to you? Why is technology so important to your writing, especially with your two most recent novels?
AG: Well, I think it’s impossible to tell a modern story about people who live in the city or suburbs without technology playing a major role. I’m also kind of fascinated by social media and the role it can play — it’s very often a mixture of unreliable narrator and Greek chorus, and it can make you feel supported or surrounded. Talking about writing about what you fear most, a major fear of mine is to be misunderstood. And social media can really get you misunderstood fast, and on a huge scale. As far as slipping into characters’ minds goes, I have a background in theater, so I think that might be where it comes from – “getting into character.” There’s a little bit of me in every one of my characters, as different as they are.
MT: I don’t want to reveal anything—as it deals with the Hitchcock reference, the loss of a character which feels like the loss of a life in the real world. Your characters are alive and brilliantly real to your readers, and I wonder if they’re the same to you. What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to write for a character—an experience, an insecurity or horrible thought, a loss, their own death? Have you ever been so attached to a character in another book, tv show, movie?
AG: A couple of the deaths in Never Look Back were hard for me to write. But they were necessary to the story I wanted to tell. I’ve cried over the loss of many characters in other books, movies, etc. but the one that immediately comes to mind is Tony in West Side Story, because I was a kid when I saw it on TV for the first time, and the actor who played him in the movie looked very much like my dad.
MT: You bring a character—your famous Brenna Spector—has made something like a cameo inNever Look Back, just as Laura Lippman’s wonderful and groundbreaking Tess Monaghan is featured in one of my favorites of Laura’s, After I’m Gone. Do you think the two of you will collaborate with your private investigators, and could you pull in a few more different female characters in other crime fiction to make you own crime fighting sleuth type Avengers movie? God, that would be badass.
AG: That sounds amazing! Laura and I actually did write a short story together, which should surface, I think, next year. Tess and Brenna aren’t in it, but it is about two very complicated women, and it definitely was a blast to work with Laura.
MT: Crime fiction, mysteries, suspense novels—from personal experience in bookstores and as a librarian—are really the most popular of all the genres with adults, and the genre is growing for middle grade children and preteens, something I thought impossible after the passing of the great and incomparable Lois Duncan. Why do you think these genres are so important to people—Americans specifically? Do you think the genre serves a purpose now, now more than ever, and what do you want your readers act and react to when finishing reading your novel? (Side note: have you read any young adult mysteries in the past few years? If so, what would you suggest to our readers?
AG: Oh, I think the whole world loves crime fiction, because the stakes are high emotionally and often physically. Why are they so popular today? Hmm. Well, it’s been said that crime fiction makes sense out of the senseless, and there seems to be a whole lot of senselessness going on out there… As for recent YA novels, Greg Herren has written some terrific YA mysteries with a really likeable young gay man as a main character – Lake Thirteen comes to mind. I really loved that book.
MT: I won’t keep you much longer, Alison! First off, thank you for taking the time to be interviewed by me, one of your most intense fans ever. Do you mind telling us what you’re working on next, if you’re working on anything else? I’m sure all of the readers would love to know all the amazing things to look forward to, even if you’re only hinting.
AG: I am working on another book for Harper Collins that will be out in 2021. It’s basically about female rage – how it can be channeled and exploited. How’s that for a teaser?
MT: Thank you so much, Alison. Until your next book, we all will try to feel the void with some subpar books, and also the really truly great and phenomenal writers in the crime community. We can’t wait to see how successful this novel is. Writers Tell All loves you, Alison! Xx
AG: Thank you so much, Matthew! It’s really been a pleasure.
Please read review of Lippman's latest, and Order the Novel Here: https://www.amazon.com/Lady-Lake-Novel-Laura-Lippman/dp/0062390015/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Laura+Lippman+lady+in+the+lake&qid=1563853050&s=gateway&sr=8-1
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Laura! It’s always a pleasure to get to pick my favorite writer’s brain. Do you mind going into any detail you’d like about how Lady in the Lake was made? What were you hoping to accomplish, and how did you manage to create so many different points-of-view?
Laura Lippman: I started out just wanting to tell the story of a woman who decides to reinvent herself at mid-life. Early on, I realized that the story was Maddy's incurious, errant path, that she was so focused on one story that she couldn't see a dozen other stories around her. So I began writing these one-off chapters about the people she barely noticed.
MT: In so many ways you are the writer every writer wants to be. For the longest time, you’ve been building on your novels, the lengths changing but you are always somehow manage to finely hone the books. With Sunburn, we see this book so slim, a perfect mixture of James M Cain and Anne Tyler. How do you feel you are progressing with your writing, what do you think are the biggest influences at this point in your career, and what books would you say influenced Lady in the Lake?
LL: My peers are a big influence. Other writers, too, but my day-to-day work is energized by the writers I know because it feels as if all our books are ongoing conversations about our genre -- what can it do, what should it do. Thinking specifically of Megan Abbott, Alafair Burke and Alison Gaylin here, but there are so many writers I could name.
MT: I know I’ve always said no book would beat After I’m Gone for me, pretty much with any author. Yet, 2019 has seen my obsession with many books, including the marvelous Lady in the Lake, and I wonder what your thought are on what I think is an abundance of great books this year, especially (in my mind, at least), most of them seem to be by women? What books are your absolute favorites this year?
LL: Well, see above, although Megan won't have a book out this year. Naming favorites is tricky; I'm going to miss some people. But there are a lot of rising stars. It's like a meteor shower out there, and that is probably a mixed metaphor at best.
MT: I have always said you are the only few writers who I think can write outside of who you are, and in most of the time I’m referring to race. Who was the hardest character to inhabit in Lady in the Lake, and was there a character you really didn’t want to leave? Which authors today do you think you’d trust with writing outside themselves? One example I love is Steph Cha’s new and also brilliant novel Your House Will Pay. Like you, she has such patience and love for everyone in the book, while also being able to look critically at everyone.
LL: They were all hard, even the easy ones, if that makes sense. I sweated the most over the chapter with Paul Blair -- a real person, a wonderful person, someone who's beloved in Baltimore years after his death. But they were all hard. Harder still were the people who didn't get to tell their stories, in their words -- Ferdie, E.Z. Taylor.
As for writing outside one's own story -- it helps if you've lived in a world where you're not considered the cultural default. But, in the end, it's something that anyone should be able to do, if they really push themselves.
MT: So, I wrote an article earlier this year about the new private investigators, and how on top of Tess Monaghan and Kinsey Millhone, these authors will continue the legacies of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Some readers were angered, saying no one could inhabit a space previously occupied by, say, Chandler. And yet you have Lady in the Lake, and I feel comfortable saying you more than rival him as one of the modern masters of crime fiction. Why do you think people—especially men—have such a hard time realizing there are new and very well written private investigators, and in your case a book just as poignant and beautifully written as a novel by Chandler?
LL: I don't think I can answer that without sounding pompous or self-satisfied. I do think that crime fiction has some old-school readers (and writers) who haven't expanded the definition of crime novel.
MT: You’re not a stranger to success, but at least for me, hearing my grandmother say this book beat Gone with the Wind and From Here to Eternity for her, I realizedSunburn was making some really big waves. So many people have been fans, and I’ve always made friends promise if I bought them a copy, they’d buy someone else a copy. And they never hesitate in doing so. What do you think so specifically about Sunburn spoke to so many people? I don’t remember anyone saying “I read Sunburnbecause it was short,” as a lot of my friends do with other authors. You really hit a home run with mostly everyone, and I’m so interested to hear why you think Sunburnappealed to so many people.
LL: I think everyone is curious about women who don't act as we think they should. Nasty women, if you will.
MT: A lot of your novels, because of the time they are set in, because of many reasons really, I associate with songs. I know people can go through me tweeting you constantly about After I’m Gone, and I believe Sunburnrefers to a TLC song (although I could be wrong), but what song would you feel defined or fit very well into Maddie’s world?
LL: Maddie's music is kind of a journey, although it's not described in the book. I imagine her moving from the sort of songs Dean Martin was singing on his variety show -- I watched a lot of Dean Martin shows to get into that mid-60s vibe -- to traditional jazz, the music Ferdie like.
MT: It would be easy for a writer less aware, less capable, etc, to turn Maddie into what I’ve heard so many people refer to as a while savior. And yet, Maddie isn’t completely dependent on saving black people or anyone different from herself. She makes a big move at the beginning of the book and this new life which does, in many ways, give her a chance to pretend she’s helping racial minorities, Maddie also is doing many things for herself. You never really try and show in an obvious way how this works, and that’s what’s so amazing about this novel. For people to write these really complex characters with different wants and needs, characters like Maddie, how do you think you’d instruct authors today trying to do this, and why do you think you’re so successful at walking a dialectic, making sure to show both sides to everything?
LL: Maddie's a white destroyer, she is so careless with other people's lives. My advice, as always, is to think about writing your characters a little smaller than life.
MT: I feel like this is really a continuation of the previous question. So many readers hate “unlikable women.” I’m not a fan of replacing unlikable with “complex,” but where do you think we are with female characters deemed unlikable and how readers view them, and do you think there’s any importance in writing characters like this?
LL: I'm going to say something radical -- forget likeable versus unlikeable, a lot of people, women included, just don't like women. There are certain concerns as a writer you just have to shrug off early on. "Will readers like my characters?" is one of them.
MT: The idea of self-destruction, people walking into a trap they’ve set for themselves, it’s so appealing to me. I think of the ending of the original run of Veronica Mars, in the third season finale “The Bitch is Back,” which Veronica goes so far with her revenge, what might continue would concern the destruction of Logan, her long-time love interest, and especially, possibly worse of all, her father, Keith, too. In crime novels, mystery novels, any genre really, what do you think is so important about destiny, and do you think you’re especially drawn to this? I think of Rachel, the love-of-her-life (I’m trying to be vague and spoiler free), and that major heartbreaking twist near the end of After I’m Gone, as well as some of your other books too.
LL: I'm not sure I'm a big believer in destiny? But some of my characters are. As you know, there's a psychic in Lady, and she believes in her powers. And it turns out that she does foretell the future. Or does she? Maybe she simply provides Maddie with a detail and Maddie finds the context that fits what she thinks she knows.
MT: In fiction, I’ve heard “this is not your battle” or “this is not your war,” similar things like that told to major characters again and again. Where do you think our characters, and ourselves as actual humans, have to learn the line we can and cannot cross? Do you ever feel you’ve crossed a line, touched on things you shouldn’t, or is there actually anything a writer shouldn’t write about?
LL: Speaking only for myself, yes, I have made mistakes, crossed some boundaries I shouldn't have crossed -- and I probably will again. John Irving, via Garp, said we are all terminal cases. But we're all also works in progress, or should be.
MT: I’ve read a lot about the impossibility of ending a novel, or at least having a really great or perfect ending. A lot of your novels—I’m thinking Sunburn, Wilde Lake (which I love and feel I don’t talk about enough), After I’m Gone, and this novel as well, end in a sort of open way. Instead of killing every character off, having a Sopranosstyle ending where we know nothing—instead you have all these possibilities, and while we do know some things about the fates of the character, I’m interested in why you tend to choose books that can continue in the readers’ minds. What do you look for in an ending?
LL: A single image. I'm always thinking about the single image at the end of the book.
MT: When will we see Tess again? Have any stories planned out for her, or does she seem far off for now? I remembered some post or statement saying you weren’t done with her, and she’s definitely made appearances in some of your standalones. What keeps drawing you back to Tess, all these years later? What feels so essential about who she is, and the stories she tells amd also how they are told?
LL: Tess has a cameo in the novel I'm working on. But it's getting harder and harder to write about her because she's making fewer mistakes. I love Tess, I'm proud of her. She's like a young friend who's come into her own -- and she doesn't need me so much anymore.
MT: What book are you working on now? Or stories? Can you hint at any work to come? Also, how was writing a children’s book? What was gratifying specifically about that experience?
LL: I'm working on a novel that's an urban version of Misery with a hint of Zuckerman Unbound, A Novel Called Heritage and another book whose title just completely slipped my mind.
MT: There are so many great (and some terrible) books being printed today. Who, if you were to guess, who be the emerging or newer authors who will be leading all of fiction and specifically crime fiction in general? I’m obsessed with Steph Cha’s new novel, and she is clearly a formidable talent in my mind. Who do you think show most promise, and who do you look forward to hearing more from?
LL: Wow -- I'm terrified to answer that question, you know I'm going to leave someone out. My primary hope, fear is that we're going to be hearing from an ever-growing diverse population of writers. We still have a little problem of hashtag Crime Fiction Too White. And, yeah, I guess I'm part of the problem.
MT: Laura, you know you are both one of my favorite people and writers. I really am thankful to get to “talk” to you, and I’m so glad you agreed to speak with me. I really am wishing you the best, and I hope 2019 and 2020 are going to be more than great for you. I can only hope you come do a book signing out in Hogeye, South Carolina. And everyone needs to read Lady in the Lake, coming out in July. Thank you again.
LL: Thank you, Matthew!
"Part of the family--but not." Kelsey Rae Dimberg on her fascinating and dread-filled thriller GIRL IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR
Matthew Turbeville: Hey Kelsey! While everyone I know is eagerly anticipating the publication of Girl in the Rearview Mirror, I’m sure you are tired of hearing me go on about the novel. How did the idea of this novel come to you, and do you feel the novel remained on course or did it change over drafts, rewrites, revisions, etc?
Kelsey Rae Dimberg: To the contrary, I want to say that your enthusiasm for the book has meant so much to me! When you’re a new author (or probably any author) anticipating the publication of your book, there’s a feeling of anxiety and vulnerability, and inevitably, some negative reviews come along on Goodreads or wherever, which can really sting. Hearing from smart readers, reviewers, and so on who love the book is such a gift! So thank you.
OK on to the question, which is about the idea, and the evolution of the book. The original seed for the novel was quite small: I wanted to write a modern take on the classic noirs I loved, so I chose a handful of genre elements I wanted to use in my own book: an outsider who gains intimate access to a wealthy, powerful family; a scandal buried in the past that threatens to surface; and the notion of an ordinary person suddenly drawn into a crime. Who would have insider access to a wealthy family today? A worker, I thought, like a maid, or a nanny. I went with the nanny idea, since I’m fascinated by the way they’re almost part of a family—but not.
From that, I wrote the first draft. I nailed the basic outline: the Martins’ secret, the bigger plot twists, including the ending. Then the revision was years and years: working out who Finn, the nanny, was as a character and a narrative voice, giving her a past; building out the Martin characters and exploring their legacy; working out plotting and pacing and making sure all the puzzle pieces fit together.
One of my teachers in grad school, Lewis Buzbee, said writing is revising. Yep.
MT: You’ve lived in eight states, and you picked Phoenix as the setting for this novel. Why choose Phoenix, and how do you feel the area, the people, everything about the city and state play into making this such a great novel?
KRD: When I started the book, I had recently moved from Phoenix to San Francisco. In a practical sense, I wanted to write about Phoenix while it was fresh in my mind—the desert landscape, the colors, the heat and light, the culture, the politics. Before every writing session, I’d try to sink back into Phoenix in a way, and remember it physically; I wanted the heat to rise out of the pages. The setting worked well with the noir theme, too. The beating, blinding sun, the heat, lent an intensity to the book, especially during the slow burn of the first half. Toward the end, I tried to make the desert more surreal, emphasizing the mirages, and the heat shimmers, the looping freeways, and so on, as the narrator is uncertain about what’s really going on, is doubting herself, and is quite sleep-deprived.
MT: Megan Abbott, sort of a superstar now with best-selling novels and television shows, appears to be just as excited as I am about your novel. When you write, who do you write for? Are you searching to please audiences, your mentors and all the writers you respect, yourself? When thinking about who you write for, how does this decide how your novel will turn out?
KRD: What an interesting question, especially considered from my current vantage point, of trying to write book two, and feeling like I actually have an audience to consider, and an agent and editor who are going to read the drafts. It makes me miss being an unpublished author, in a way, because I wrote REARVIEW MIRROR mostly for myself, as an homage to noir, as a love letter to Phoenix, and even as a way to learn how to write a crime novel. The writing process felt very private, and even though I worked hard on it, and my goal was always to be published, I didn’t agonize about who would read it, exactly, and it would have seemed like a jinx to imagine my favorite authors (like Megan Abbott!) reading it.
That said, I’ve mentioned I had noir on my mind when writing, so I suppose that felt like my genre. As I came closer to being done, and to needing to find an agent, I realized that the crime and suspense world has a variety of subgenres, and I began to read more deeply, and had the pleasure of discovering so many fantastic writers in my search for where I “fit in”: Alafair Burke, Alison Gaylin, Flynn Berry, Tana French, Attica Locke, Harriet Lane, Lou Berney, Steph Cha, and so many more.
MT: You can’t get on Facebook, Twitter, etc, without seeing so many people discussing politics, often passionately, which really is a nice word for angrily. The novel and its protagonist, Finn, seem to be shaped, at least in part, by the political environment of the city, and the race for the grand patriarch of Martins racing for senator again. Do you feel that, with or without politics involved in the novel, this is a very political novel? In writing about politicians, did you feel a need to write the Martins in the way so many other writers have portrayed politicians and political families?
KRD: I find politicians fascinating; they wear their masks so openly, and as a writer I’m interested in digging behind that surface and exploring the contradictions between public life and private life. When I was writing the book, real life politicians kept having affairs, and they’d get dragged onto some talk show or other to apologize—usually with their wives in tow. I couldn’t stop thinking about those women, with their fixed, stoic expressions, standing in the spotlight. They made me start noticing all the ways in which a politician’s family becomes a prop—in rallies and events, clean-cut kids and supportive spouses make a politician seem “relatable” or “authentic”; after scandals, they can make the politician seem “good.” I wanted to get inside one of those families, and imagine what it would be like to live with that pressure and scrutiny.
So, yes, the novel is about politics, but considered from the domestic angle, and with politics examined as a career. I’m troubled by the way a politician’s personal ambition and career goals drive his decisions, when the public wants to believe that principles, logical thought, and careful compromise drive our government.* That contradiction troubles me deeply, and if I’m cynical about politicians in the book (spoiler alert: I definitely am), that’s the core of it.
*This sentiment may seem hopelessly naïve given the state of things—but I hope we don’t become too jaded to believe in and demand a better government.
MT: Nearly everyone in the novel has a “ghost.” The ghosts haunt them, haunt everyone around them, and ultimately can be destructive if not dealt with correctly. How did you go about deciding who certain people were in the novel, and did you give them ghosts before or after writing about these characters? One character I’d love to have seen more a ghost of is the mother, Marina, although I suppose this makes her more mysterious, elusive even. I’m so curious as to what a novel centered around Marina would look like.
KRD: I love this question! Many characters had a ghost from the start. Philip has Tina, his college girlfriend (I think college-aged Philip is also a ghost for middle-aged Philip). The Senator had James, the prodigal brother (Philip is haunted by him, too—poor Philip). Finn gained a ghost late in the revision process; originally her past was only hinted at, which wound up feeling vague.
Many people have mentioned Marina as feeling mysterious or elusive compared to the other characters, and I think to me that’s in part because Finn doesn’t like her, and doesn’t consider her as carefully as she does the others.
That said, I think James, Philip’s brother, is Marina’s ghost. They were dating in high school, and even got secretly engaged before he died. Years later, she married Philip. Is she just an ambitious woman who wanted into this prestigious family? Or perhaps she never really got over James? Or she’s really fallen for Philip, for his charm, but over the years of marriage has tired of his act? Maybe a little of all three. Marina seems icy, but part of that is that she is more honest than Philip about what she wants and about the intensity of the pressure they’re under—because she doesn’t hide it, she’s seen as striving, cold, and calculating. Philip likes to loaf around and pretend he’s not interested in his own privilege. Philip can cause scandals and be forgiven; Marina is a middle-aged woman, and knows she’s going to be judged more harshly if she makes a mistake.
MT: There’s a pretty significant event—more than an event—which I believe happens about midway through the novel. Girl in the Rearview Mirrorgoes further than the reader might expect—I certainly didn’t expect certain things in the book to actually happen, even though, in hindsight, they felt necessary, fated. Did you ever have a tough time writing these scenes? I know I personally get attached to characters sometimes, and they become so real I become terrified of what could happen to them. I can’t imagine how you felt about any of the characters in your novel.
KRD: There are some pretty dark moments in this book, both bad things happening to characters I loved, and characters I loved making weak or immoral choices when tested. These scenes were hard to write. It helped that I felt they were necessary to the story, and I took every one seriously and they have real consequences for the story and the other characters. I didn’t want to use violence or tragedy cheaply, just for thrills or shock value.
I will say that, as an early writer, I struggled to make anythingbad happen to my characters. They were universally mild-mannered, and averse to conflict, and even major confrontations wound up quiet and polite. In my second fiction class ever, my professor read one of my scenes aloud to the class and said, witheringly, “You were all probably raised to be nice midwestern people, but it’s hard to write interesting fiction about very nice, polite people who muffle every feeling and reaction.” (I’m paraphrasing.) At the time, it was embarrassing and even scary—I felt like he’d announced an insurmountable flaw in my work. Of course, all it meant was that I needed to study and practice how to write conflict, confrontation, difficult emotions. And you know, he did me a great favor; he made me a better writer.
MT: As a writer, and specifically as a crime novelist, what books helped shape you, especially in your formative years, and what crime novels (and other novels too) helped you through the process of writing and getting this book ready for publication? Are there books or writers you frequently return to?
KRD: Lots of classic crime: Raymond Chandler, Vera Caspary, Margaret Millar, Patricia Highsmith, Sebastian Japrisot. Each has a distinctive, gripping voice, which is that elusive element that sinks or lifts a story. Some modern writers I love I mentioned before, but some that specifically helped were: Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, with its immersive sense of place that’s both gorgeous and menacing; Megan Abbott’s tightly coiled women and girls; Benjamin Black’s way of introducing bit characters with one or two killer paragraphs that just nail them, their looks, their voice, their angle; and Elizabeth Brundage’s dark plots and sense of menace.
MT: I admire you so much—this is your first novel, and already you’re going for the hearts of all your readers. So many writers don’t understand how readers very rarely care about the identity of the killer as much as why killing happens, what drives people to do something possibly horrible and why they would actually give in or go so far to get what they want. The book, with all of its twists and jaw-dropping events, seems more focused on how Finn sees the world, and how this is transformed in this part of her story. What were the ideas you most wanted to get across? When starting to write, who did you want Finn to be, and how did you want her to change over the course of the novel?
KRD: I’m so pleased that the novel went for your heart, and that the characters rose above the action. I agree that in crime, the puzzle matters, but I’ll read a flimsy puzzle with strong characters over a complex puzzle with cardboard characters any day.
Finn is at the heart of the book, and her journey is from (relative) innocence to experience. At first, I thought she’d be a wry outsider, with a dry narrative voice that tended to skewer the Martins and their circle. After a few drafts, I realized she was too insulated from the family; she had nothing to lose. So she became closer to the Martins; I gave her a boyfriend that worked for the Senator, and a past that leaves her hungry for a surrogate family. Yet I kept some element of that early Finn, too; she is still an outsider, after all, and able to see the pretense in their world. Still she’s dazzled by it, which some readers have disliked her for—but I think we’re all a little dazzled by celebrity or wealth; both are just so revered in our culture.
As far as getting ideas across… I want the book to confront things I find perplexing and alarming in real life: privilege, power, wealth, ambition, politics. But as the story takes shape, and the characters build, those ideas sink into the background, and ideally the characters themselves grapple with them in different ways.
MT: When I was in film school the first time (long story), we learned how Chinatown is both complicated and extremely simple, a very simple story cast like a web over the movie to make the mystery seem so complex. How did you determine the timeline of your novel, and who did you decide how to reveal each part and each clue? Did you know the ending of the novel from its very beginnings?
KRD: Chinatownis one of my favorite movies, and was probably the biggest inspiration of the story, so I’m pleased you mention it. I agree: the true story is simple, but the narrator misunderstands so many things, and is misled by everyone around him, so it feels complex. That felt very real to me. I don’t love those mysteries where the infallible detective delivers a speech at the end in which he knew every motive of every character all along. I’m interested in the ways we misunderstand the people around us—because they may lie to us, but also because of how we feel about them, or just because we don’t have all the facts. Finn’s strong emotional reaction to Iris’s revelation, for example, colors how Finn interprets later events; she’s not an unemotional Sherlock Holmes analyzing things from afar, she’s in the mess and trying to make sense of it.
I wrote the ending in the very first draft, so I always knew how it would end up, but the rest of the action changed quite a bit. Because of the limits of Finn’s point of view, I made a timeline with every single character’s actions and location, both in the past and in the present day, so that I could know what happened, obviously, and plant clues, but also so when Finn had a conversation with someone, I could track what she believed vs. what the other person had going on. Sometimes she’s overhearing other people talk to each other, and I needed to bridge that gap: what would they be saying to each other? How does Finn interpret, and misinterpret, their words?
MT: I think it’s James M Cain who says every word counts in a novel, and said he made every word count in his novel. How do you feel about this with your writing? And also, with characters, do you feel every character in a novel is essential to the novel and its plot? Were there any characters you cut but wished to keep, and are there any characters you wish you’d cut from Girl in the Rearview Mirror.
KRD: I hear this advice often, and it’s not bad advice. But I also love a good immersive book. I love to get a vivid sense of place, a mood, well-described characters, backstories and rumors and gossip; I like when a smaller character gets an unexpected closer look; I don’t mind a digression. Tana French and Kate Atkinson are two of my favorite writers, and both of them exercise plenty of freedom in storytelling. Raymond Chandler, too, serves heaping portions of words—so many metaphors, so much description—and it’s fantastic.
In short, I admire writers who write lean, but I don’t consider leanness to be the primary virtue of a book.
MT: The crime family is incredibly close, loyal, loving. You already have a lot of praise from readers inside the crime community and your first novel is just now coming out. In my mind, the crime writing community is so much closer, less concerned with histrionics and more concerned with support and love. In ways, some people believe this is the opposite of crime fiction. What do you think is necessary in a writer for a great crime or mystery novel? What do you think is so important about people who understand and write crime and about criminals?
KRD: I recently went to Thrillerfest in New York City and got to meet many crime writers, and can attest that they really are lovely, generous, supportive, funny, smart. I don’t know exactly why this might be…perhaps we spend so much time in the dubious company of our characters that it’s a treat to get together with humans?
I think a good crime writer today is interested in examining factors arounda crime as much as the crime itself. What drives someone to commit a crime, psychologically, socially, economically, and so on? How does violent crime reverberate in the lives of people affected afterwards? How are detectives impacted by their exposure to violence? I’d also say more crime novels are moving from black and white—this person is guilty, this innocent—to gray, with guilt and culpability spread out from the crime, and notions of good and evil questioned.
MT: What do you think is next for the great Kelsey Rae Dimberg? Do you have another novel in the works, or some other creative work planned? Perhaps some much deserved time off? I know I’m ready for another book from you, which is obviously a little early but, what can I say, I’m a fan. And either way, I am so lucky to get to interview you and write about your novel. I can’t wait for my readers to get their hands on Girl in the Rearview Mirror. They will love it. It’s great getting to interview you, Kelsey!
KRD: Up next is another novel, a literary thriller set in San Francisco, that will probably feature the strange inner workings of a startup.
Thank you so much for being such a generous reader and supporter! I loved these thoughtful questions.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Samantha! I have to say, there are few books for me that live up to the hype, but My Lovely Wifei s one of those books. I can definitely say it’s a contender for my book of the year. Can we start with some basic questions, like how you got into writing, how many books you went through and how many drafts of this book you had to fight through before getting to this treasure of a read?
Samantha Downing: Thank you so much! I’m thrilled you enjoyed it so much. Writing really started as a hobby for me something I enjoyed doing but not something I ever though I’d get paid for. I think it was a natural extension of reading, which I love. And you have to love reading to love writing, in my opinion.
As for this novel, I wrote one draft and revised it. This is my twelfth overall novel (the first eleven are unpublished) and I don’t really write multiple drafts anymore. I write one and revise from there.
MT: There was a lot of Patricia Highsmith in this book, I thought, as well as some other really interesting “unlikable” protagonists (like in Lolitaor more recently Gone Girl). What authors and books did you continue to turn to if you ever were stumped or didn’t know what direction to take your characters? What books did you read growing up, as an adult, etc, which prepared you to write My Lovely Wife?
SD: I’ve always read thrillers. My whole family did, so these were the books that were always lying around the house when I was younger. I love all kinds of thrillers – from adventure to legal to psychological thrillers.
When I’m not sure what to do next in the story, I do one of two things: Go the gym or take a nap. I’m convinced the second one works better but the first is probably better for me.
MT: What attracts you about crime fiction, and what do you think is the greater, more wonderful role it plays in society? Women are the main readers and writers of crime fiction, and I wonder what you think of how this plays into our political climate and what the importance of crime fiction today says about where we are in the US and abroad?
SD; I think crime fiction and thrillers have always been interesting people because most of us will never be that close (thankfully) to this kind of thing. Most of us will never see a murdered body, much less investigate the crime. It’s like our collection fascination with the mob or with serial killers…these are parts of life the majority of people see only through books, movies, or TV shows.
Women have always been the biggest readers and now we have an amazing groups of crime and thriller writers as well. Mary Higgins Clark wrote what is arguably one of the first domestic suspense thrillers, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girlcreated a whole new wave of fiction that is still popular with both readers and writers.
MT: I expected the book to fall very much into the category of one of the spouses is a serial killer. Then I was expecting the novel to just follow both spouses as serial killers. But you really pulled out all of the tricks in the most magical (and dark and bloody) way and I loved it so much. When you execute elaborate twists like in this book—especially the seemingly effortless way you wrote the ending of My Lovely Wife, what did you have in mind and how long did it take to feel, again, effortless?
SD: To be honest…the lack of any plan. I don’t plot my books or outline them. I write chapter by chapter, idea by idea. Then I have to go back and revise it. As far as it feeling effortless…I’m glad it does! I don’t know if there’s a trick to doing it or maybe it was just a fortunate accident!
MT: What was the reception like by agents, editors, publishers for My Lovely Wife, and did anyone expect the acclaim you’d receive? When you first submitted the novel to an agent, was it any different than the novel we read now? What do you feel are the most important facts for new authors to keep in mind when approaching agents and trying to get books published?
SD: I wouldn’t be published if it weren’t for a friend of mine named Rebecca. I had no intention of submitting this book, just as I hadn’t submitted the others. She took it and sent it to a friend of hers who went to school with someone who is now an agent in New York. He contacted me and said the book wasn’t for him, but he referred me to Barbara Poelle, who is now my agent. She loved the book, and how twisted it was, and she said we’d either do well with it or we’d be put in a mental institution. I’m pretty happy it’s the former!
As far as getting published, I can only advise what I did – concentrate on the writing. That’s what it’s about, or at least it was for me. So when that friend came along and sent it to an agent…I had already been writing for twenty years. I had written twelve novels. And I had no idea anyone would wantto publish my work. I didn’t think it was good enough to query.
MT: You’re writing about serial killers and sometimes vicious murders, but also infidelity and heartbreak. I know this goes back to some of my earlier questions, but how do you feel My Lovely Wifeplays into the idea that all books are crime books, whether taken literally or not, and what do you think is the truly human aspect at the heart of your novel?
SD: Ultimately, this book is about marriage and it’s about family. That’s how I see it. The book is about a couple that goes to extreme measures to keep their marriage exciting and fresh. Family is important to them, so are the kids and their community. Well, mostly.
MT: I won’t say My Lovely Wifeis entirely new (although it is entirely brilliant), but it certainly does push a lot of boundaries within the genre. How nervous were you when presenting this novel so different from what is popular in the genre, and what are your views on unlikable characters and protagonists, and why are they so appealing today?
SD; I have to admit I disagree with the idea of “unlikeable” characters stopping someone from liking or reading a book. There are unlikeable characters in every genre, in literary fiction, and they exist throughout history. Characters don’t have to be likeable, they have to be compelling. You have to want to turn the page and find out what happens next. That’s what I look for in a thriller, and I think it’s what most people look for.
I think of all characters as both good and bad – because all good or all bad is boring. And I think they are appealing because they are more realistic. I know lots of people who are good and bad. I don’t know anyone who is all good.
MT: So many novels fall into this whole “She had a perfect life, perfect job, perfect man, perfect dog! And then everything went wrong.” In a way, you could argue that this does fit into My Lovely Wifein one way or another, but you really turn expectations on their head and we see this new examination of a trend in crime fiction that feels so old. How do you feel My Lovely Wifecomments on this trend—this genre within a genre—and what do you think the novel and you wanted to say?
SD: Genres can have a wide scope, I think. I’d rather push the boundaries and see how far it can be stretched. That can only be good for readers and writers!
I’m not sure I was trying to say anything in a “big message” way. The book has a lot of social commentary about communities, the media, and marriage in general, but there isn’t one overarching idea I wanted to convey. It’s more like observations. Everything I write has a lot of small observations.
MT: Assuming you had to recommend three authors of any genre to a reader, who would they be? How about three authors from any time in the crime genre to readers? What do you think makes them so special and important? What books do you respect from them most?
SD: In the crime/thriller genre, I would first sayRebeccaby Daphne du Maurier, because it’s so creepy and brilliantly done. The next one I would recommend is The First Deadly Sinby Lawrence Sanders, because it’s such a great detective novel with a relatable, flawed detective who solves his crimes with old-fashioned police work instead of with a brilliant, deductive mind like Sherlock Holmes. The last one is The Murder of Roger Ackroydby Agatha Christie because of that brilliant, infuriating twist. She set the bar high.
MT: What are you working on now? What can we expect from you next, and how long do you think we will have to wait? Do you want to go into any further detail about your writing process?
SD: Another thriller! Hopefully even more disturbing, but that’s all I can say right now.
MT: There are so many authors who write both series (with private investigators, police procedurals, etc) and those who only write series and those who only write standalones. Where do you think you stand? Would you ever write a series? And even if you wouldn’t, what would your series protagonist be like? How hard in general do you think it is for us to keep from letting our own personalities and views of the world seep over into our writing?
SD: Right now, I’m writing another standalone. I’m not against a series, it’s just not something I’m doing at the moment.
MT: Samantha, it was such a pleasure getting to read your debut novel, My Lovely Wife. I’m sure it’s already a major success but I do recommend it to all of our readers, a book destined to be a classic and a model for debut novels in all sorts of literature classes and MFA workshops. Thank you so much for speaking with us and please feel free to leave us with any thoughts or any other ideas you want to part with. I look forward to hopefully speaking with you again.
SD: Thank you so much for having me! This has been a lot of fun and you’ve asked some great questions. I look forward to doing it again when the next book comes out.
Alafair Burke is STILL at the Top of Her Game with THE BETTER SISTER, and Her Novels Are More Relevant than Ever
Matthew Turbeville: Alafair, it’s always more than a pleasure to talk to you, as well as read your books. I think I tweeted the other day if I was on a desert island with nothing but you writing all day, I’d be content. You’re releasing this new book, The Better Sister, that is incredibly timely. The book deals pretty directly with the #metoo movement, and the pros and cons of leading such a movement, including being one of the leaders and falling short of what those embracing the movement might expect. In the central character, Chloe, we see a woman who begins to unravel as she protects a son not biologically her own. What do you think are the dangers of leading a movement like this?
Alafair Burke: You can look at Twitter at any given moment for evidence of the political and cultural litmus tests that are created in a social-media-dominated world for anyone who dares to stick a neck out on a polarizing issue. Because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls for economic equality, some segments of social media lambasted her for showing up to Congresswearing a suit and high heels, as if she was supposed to wear…what? A plastic bag because she speaks for people who struggle financially? Chloe Taylor is a journalist and writer whose work has highlighted sexual discrimination and abuse in the workplace, and, because of that, her detractors are looking for the slightest evidence of hypocrisy. They think they find it in her personal life.
MT: I really love how you connect each of these books with a good bit of female empowerment, but you’re not afraid to dive into “gray areas,” creating complex heroines who have very complicated pasts and have reacted and acted upon certain events in often dark ways. Why do you think it’s so important to show women in such dark but enlightening settings, especially in the age we live in now?
AB: Because it’s how we live. We’re a society of imperfect people trying to run businesses, institutions, marriages, households. We have expectations for ourselves and others, but we don’t burn everything down the moment someone falls short. We react to the problem and then to the next and the next. The question is how long can we continue to live in that gray zone before making a clear decision to jump into either the black or the white.
MT: What do you think is so important in having a character unravel, and why must a character unfold and reveal different assets and complications of herself in order to feel so real and undeniable in your work? You somehow take the twists that would shock readers and use them to also make the characters so well rounded and complex. How do you do this, and while many people may think you really invented this style of writing, what books or authors have influenced you most in making this great move forward in literature?
AB: Ha! I don’t think I have ever invented anything, except that time in 2000 when I got really into a liqueur called Hpnotiq and invented a martini with it. I think the best twists in fiction (Gone Girl and Presumed Innocent are two of my favorites) are never purely about plot. They’re inextricably entangled with character. In fact, a bare-bones summary of some of the best suspense plots would sound ludicrous without an explanation of the characters involved. Mary Higgins Clark doesn’t get enough credit, in my opinion, for her groundbreaking book, Where Are the Children? That novel was psychological suspense at its best and only worked because the characters were so fully realized.
MT: Your books are undoubtedly crime novels, but as Attica Locke has recently been quoted as saying, it seems that all books are crime fiction on one level or another. With everything going on now—the country often seeming like it’s on verge of another civil war—why is crime literature so important these days, and what do you think crime fiction says which other books cannot?
AB: I agree with Attica. I just wrote one of those book lists that outlets ask for and made the case that Atonement was a thriller. My father (James Lee Burke) always points out that Hamlet is a crime story. Crime fiction allows writers to tell stories about the basic human condition. I do wonder if readers’ appetites for heroes who bend the rules might fade given the times we live in. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a hunger right now for straightforward stories where the rule-followers prevail and the systems work as intended, because right now, that feels almost fantastical.
MT: One character, Olivia, most heavily featured in The Ex, has made her presence known in your last couple of novels. Other than Olivia showing up to challenge the judicial system, as well as several of your core characters in each book, what keeps you returning to Olivia again and again?
AB: Well, first of all, I love her. The book that’s really hers is The Exas you note, while readers see her merely in her professional role in The Wife and The Better Sister, where she represents the main character’s husband and son, respectively. Having Olivia serve as the defense attorney in those novels is my hint to readers that the three books are tied together thematically, even though they’re all standalones and aren’t a series in the traditional sense. Plus, if I got arrested in New York City, I know I’d call her, so I figured Angela Powell and Chloe Taylor would, too.
MT: Speaking of previous books, can you give us an update on the film version of one of my all-time favorite novels, The Wife? This was a book that stunned me as well as so many other readers, and we’re all dying to know the cast and other details! Are there any actresses you feel would fit the bill of any of the important characters?
AB: I’ve been working with Amazon Studios on the screenplay, so we’ll see how that all play out. I’m a realist and know how many moving parts have to fall into place perfectly for an adaption to happen, but I’m excited about the choices that have been made so far in terms of streamlining the novel for feature film while retaining the things that I believe make it smart and special. I don’t want to curse it by playing casting dreams too early!
MT: Without giving away too many spoilers, The Better Sisterfeels so much more redemptive than The Wife, despite its still incredibly noir nature. Did you intend for the books to turn out this way, and what do you feel the conclusion and actions of characters in The Better Sisteras opposed to The Wifehave to say about where we are in America and in our society today?
AB: That’s very hard to answer without giving anything away, but I don’t disagree with your characterization. I think compared to a couple of years ago, some of us are learning that there’s only so much we can do to control the things that are angering and frustrating us right now. All we can do is try to make the very tiny world around us a little better and kinder, and maybe that’s what some of the characters in The Better Sister come to accept.
MT: The women who led the #metoo movement have often been viewed as “hacks,” usually female actresses who immediately dropped the movement after landing movie or television deals, or in the case of Rose McGowan and her transphobia, have been seen as discriminatory and very much on the side of “If you’re not just like me, then you don’t belong.” Of course, this shouldn’t reflect the movement as a whole, and I admire how you walk a dialectic line so many other writers fail, in which you acknowledge the pros and cons of the movement, and continue to move forward understanding the good and bad will come out, but a serious issue in society (rape, sexual harassment and abuse, etc) must be acknowledged. There’s something about this dialectic that seems so necessary, especially when we have the femme fatale in noir who is often viewed as a sort of villain. How do you make taking every layer of this complicated subject and building upon it to make a grand novel possible? Your work makes us look as these women who abandon the movement for their own career as sometimes less self-servicing and more desperate for escape, as in many of your own books.
AB: Wow, that’s a lot! I guess this goes back to what I said before about people becoming targets for taking a stand. Does that mean their politics have to be perfect on every other subject, or that their personal or professional lives must become infused with a political or cultural movement? The incoming shrapnel gets launched not only by a movement’s detractors, but also by the less powerful, lower-profile believers in the movement who worry about the damage that can be done to a movement by those who become its public “face.” In The Better Sister,Chloe experiences horrific abuse on social media because of important work she has done for women. When her dirty laundry comes out as a result of her husband’s murder, her critics dine on the schadenfreude, while her former supporters feel horribly disappointed and of course even angry.
MT: I have my own pick but what do you feel of your own novels is the book that stands out most and is most important for times like these? What books have you read lately, books that also haven’t been published, and books written in the past few years that you think are most necessary now?
AB: Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird and Tana French’s The Witch Elm both come to mind.
MT: I love when I buy a copy of one or more of your books for a friend or family and they say, ‘Hey, Matthew, this was riveting, but it also made me think.’ What do you think is the main purpose of writing a novel?
AB: My primary goal is to pull readers into the plight of the characters so tightly that they think they’re going to read a couple of chapters and then end up staying up until dawn to find out what happens. If I’ve done a really good job, the reader gobbles the book whole and then regrets that it’s over. But because I enjoy novels that are set in our actual world, I usually end up tapping into some kind of interesting current societal topic to explore in the material, but it’s for purposes of plot and characterization, not to hammer readers over the head.
MT: One thing so interesting about your past two novels is the way in which these women are so interesting in rediscovering their pasts in a whole new light, and also through this preserving their present at any costs. Both timelines can be gut-wrenching as more and more is learned, and we realize that the people we want to be are never as perfect as we’d like to think. With regular people and politicians, entertainers, artists, and so on, what is so important in knowing that they are not who we want them to be?
AB: It’s tempting to think we know our own histories, but all of our beliefs—including about ourselves—are processed subjectively. How many times have you recalled some incident in front of friends or family, only to find out that they remember it entirely differently?
MT: Alafair, I’ve taken up enough of your time with these questions, but boy was it grand reading your new novel and as usual it’s a glorious time talking to you. I just want you to know the new novel is phenomenal, and I hope every one of our readers sets out to buy a copy of The Better Sister, in a bookstore near you soon. Alafair, it’s been a delight, and I hope you will continue writing at the phenomenal, record speed of yours, and please feel free to leave us with any of your thoughts. Until next time, I’m wishing you the best.
AB: Thank you so much for all the kind words and for taking the time to read The Better Sister and interview me. I wish you all the best!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Edwidge, I’m so glad you agreed to be interviewed for Writers Tell All. I’ll start off by asking, what made you decide to be a writer?
ED: I don’t think it was a decision, per se. There were a lot of storytellers in my life when I was a girl. All the women in my family told wonderful stories, both the folkloric kind and about their own lives. These stories were funny, hilarious, even when they spoke of very sad events. The stories were also suspenseful and you were supposed to learn some important lessons from them. The storytellers of my childhood, both my own family members and the people in my neighborhood, community, and church, were the people who gave me the desire to tell stories. I was very shy so I didn’t think I could do what the oral storytellers I admired most could do before an audience. When I started reading, I realized that you could tell a story quietly on the page. I realized that there was a certain intimacy on the page that a storyteller could achieve in a way that with my type of personality I could never fully manage as a public storyteller. So, once I started reading and falling under the spell of stories that way, I really wanted to be a writer. I wanted to do for others what my aunts and the other storytellers in my life had done for me, but I wanted to do it on the page. I guess you might say that I did not really choose to be a writer, it kind of chose me. Or at least it foundme.
MT: I read somewhere that at first, in college, you intended to be a nurse, and later changed your mind.
ED: I went to a high school called Clara Barton for the Health Professions. My parents wanted me to be a doctor and most of my classmates in the Honors program I was in at Clara Barton High School ended up becoming doctors. I thought becoming a nurse would send me sooner on my way to becoming a writer, so I chose the nursing track. Part of the curriculum was to volunteer at a local hospital a few times a week and work with actual nurses and when I did, I realized that this is not something I wanted to do. I found it heartbreaking to watch people in pain, often during the final hours of their lives. I think it’s the kind of job that you really have to want to do, that you really have to love. When my mother was dying and was in and out of hospitals, I was so grateful for the kindness and patience of the nurses and how they cared for her. It was the same with my father when he was sick and dying, so I know it’s a very special profession, but one I realized quite early on I would not be in for the rest of my life.
MT: What helped push you down this very fortunate path, on the road to becoming not only a critically acclaimed author, but also a bestseller?
ED: I really don’t know if one can carve a path like that. Maybe some can. For me it’s been part luck, part persistence, and stubbornness. There was no guarantee that I would write a book and that people would want to read it. All I know is that I LOVE writing and that I would write even if no one was reading what I wrote. There were some things inside of me that I wanted to see expressed in a concrete way on the page. That is still part of the reason I write. I try to get my words as clear and as much to my liking as possible, then I let it go. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that even a book that no one seems to be reading has passionate readers. I am that reader for some writers and I know there are those readers out there for me. That and my love for the act of writing keeps me going. The rest is beyond my control.
MT: Before I begin really digging into your work, I’m curious as to all of the authors and books that you have been shaped by.
There have been so many. I’d have to start of course with Haitian writers. I edited two volumes of the Noir series published by Akashik Books and many of those writers are in those books. The writer Jacques Roumain whose seminal novel Gouverneurs de le Roséewas translated by Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook as Masters of the Dew. The writers Jacques Stephen Alexis and Marie Vieux Chauvet, J.J Dominique, and Ida Faubert, among others. I write about them and some of my other influences in my book of essays CreateDangerously. The first book I read in English was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I don’t think I would have had the courage to write my first novel Breath, Eyes, Memoryif I had not read that book and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstoneand James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountainand Richard Wright’s Native Son, and Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. In my teens, I kind of vacillated between reading Haitian literature and African American literature, mixed in with some Chinese American literature, some Judy Blume, and lots of French literature, especially the work of Albert Camus. I read those books, and others, in a kind of wonderful stew as I was trying to figure out what and how I was going to write. Those writers, among others, remain my teachers until today and they are the writers I keep reading and re-reading.
MT: Which books do you turn to when you need encouragement or reassurance in literature?
ED: I read other types of books for encouragement. I read a lot of writers’ biographies and autobiographies because they often have an arc that is interesting to look at if you are in the middle of a life as a writer. Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison for example is amazing. Everything Audre Lorde has written about herself is fantastic to read especially some of the books she wrote while she was living with cancer. So, I learn a lot from the biographies and autobiographies of writers, especially those who are no longer with us.
MT: People often comment on your first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, as being incredible (and it is, for anyone reading this interview—it’s an absolutely remarkable debut), especially considering your age at the publication, with some comparisons to the age and publication of another literary luminary, Carson McCullers. Why do you think you were able to not only develop and write a novel so well at such a young age, but have such success with publishing it and having it promoted?
ED: It’s interesting that you mention Carson McCullers. I remember having to read The Member of the Wedding in high school. One thing I came away from reading her is that smaller, intimate hurts can matter in literature. Before that we’d read Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Disciplinein that same English class and before that some Shakespeare, which seemed so much more exciting and action filled. Initially some of the reviews of Breath, Eyes Memory were pretty harsh. Some of the critics kept saying that it read like it was written by a high school student. Well I was in high school when I started writing it, and for most of the book so was the character. So, I didn’t understand why that was a problem. Anyway, it was not considered a good book by everyone. Thank goodness Oprah liked it though because it was the 16thselection in her book club and that really changed my life. (Thank you Oprah). A lot of writers find their first books cringe worthy. I’m not different with my now nearly 25-year-old first baby. There are things I would do differently now, but I do think having been close to the character’s age and level of English proficiency at the time helped make it the kind of closely confessional book that I wanted to write and that many people, especially young people, have been able to identify with. One thing any writer hopes is that a first book will hold up well, especially as times are changing so fast. I just hope it continues to hold up well.
MT: What do you think set you apart from the other aspiring writers who dream of publishing such a brilliant debut at such a young age?
ED: Initially I was lucky. My editor at Soho Press, Laura Hruska, once told me that she only started reading the manuscript for Breath, Eyes, Memory because she was trying to figure out how to address my rejection letter, whether to reject Mr. or Ms. Danticat since she couldn’t tell whether or not I was male or female based on my name. She kept reading the manuscript for clues and eventually liked it enough to offer to publish it. So that was just dumb luck combined with the fact that not many people were writing and publishing novels about Haiti in English at the time, aside from one other writer, Anne Christine d’Adesky, whose novel Under the Bonewas published around the same time as mine. Maybe there was a curiosity factor. One thing I’ve also learned over these many years is that there are some incredible writers you’ve never heard of who write incredibly well and just have not had all those things align for them in some way yet. There are many great first novels out there looking for a home and an audience.
MT: You are quite prolific, in my opinion, and so gifted. One of your major themes, or an aspect of life you focus on significantly, is that of family. There are children raised by people who aren’t their parents, children who find out horrifying things about their parents, people raised by loving parents, children who are sometimes blamed for their mother’s death in childbirth—and then you talk about your own father and your own mother in your nonfiction work. What do you feel compels you to write so thoroughly about family—and so many different types and kinds of families—and why is this so important to you?
ED: You are very kind and I thank you. A lot of us who write about countries like Haiti, or who write from any kind of space like what has been called “the margins”, are often given the task of representing millions of people with our meager words. People of my own background have confronted me to say that I have over generalized or have tried to represent all Haitians, when in the very first interview I ever did, with the reporter Garry Pierre-Pierre in The New York times, almost twenty-five years ago, I said that there are many voices in our community and I am just one. I have always lived in, near, or around a Haitian community, including now. I know we are diverse. I know we are deeply complex. So, I knew I wasn’t writing all of us. As far back as twenty-five years ago, whenever I tried to define this project or journey I was on, I would say that I wanted to raise the voices of people in my family, especially the women in my own life. I come from a family that was poor and of a rural background. In Haiti, people would say we were initially from the peyi andeyò, the outside country. In my parents’ time, your birth certificate could either say citoyen (citizen) or paysan (peasant). My father’s birth certificate labeled him paysan.
I wanted to tell my family’s story. I wanted to tell my mother’s story and my father’s story and I believed that in their stories might be echoes of the larger stories of other people. It’s like the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Mansays towards the end of the novel: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Notice the question mark there. I have always loved that there is a question mark at the end of that sentence. “Who knows?” But that is your choice to make. I knew what I was writing about might ring true with some people and not with others, but when you are one of a few writing a kind of story from a particular place, some make it the entire story of the place. So, you have folks getting angry at you because their stories are not going to read like yours and they feel reduced by your narrative. In any case, this is why I started to edit anthologies, to offer a broader sampling of the Haitian literature I know and love. And I write about my family a lot because I am writing formy family. Ultimately, I hope every word I produce and anthologize will help the next generation of my family, especially my two daughters and my brothers’ children, understand who they are, how we got there, why we are here, so that they can get a full sense of who they are as members of our family, and as part of the many communities they are part of.
MT: When thinking of all the parents in your books, and all the people who stand in as parents, they are all so different—is there anything you think all parents share in common, or is each parent completely unique unto himself or herself?
ED: I am one of those parents who can make myself sob when I think of the vulnerability of my children, of all children really. Most of the children in my life are a million times more privileged than I was as a child. But because I was so vulnerable when I was young—I was far from my parents; I grew up during a dictatorship—I can easily imagine all the terrible things that might possibly happen to the younger people I love and it frankly terrifies me, especially as we are so vulnerable as black and brown people and as immigrants in this country these days. So, I would say that I think all parents want their children to be safe, to be fed, to be free from hardship, to be educated, to have peace of mind, to have a better life than they had. You see parents making extreme sacrifices in some situations so their children can have just a few of these things, or even to have a meal or two a day. These days in the news in the United States, you see parents taking their children across a border where they know there’s a chance they might be separated from them just so that their children can escape terrible situations. Most parents would give their lives for their children in a heartbeat and many are put into positions where they have to put their love to the test in the most terrifying ways, just so their children can have a chance at being safe.
One trend I’ve noted in books and television, especially with art made by women, is the idea of the family you have versus the family you create. In your idea, which family is more important—the family of blood, or the family you bond with spiritually? Do you think that as times are changing, so are the dynamics of what we might consider the typical nuclear family?
ED: In my own life, the so called nuclear family was never really the center. Family was always defined much more broadly than that. The center of the family was often an elder around whom we could gather for love, for self-definition and for stories. I think that if you’re very lucky, you have or you acquire the family you need. Migration sometimes creates a different kind of family for us. Sometimes people have to walk away from the family they were born in because it’s killing them. I really can’t say that one is better than the other. I think community over all is important. It’s always much harder alone. What’s most important is finding the family you need to help you survive this life.
MT: In your book on death and dying, The Art of Death, and while writing about your mother’s terminal illness, you mention giving Claire of the Sea Lightto one of your mother’s doctors. Can you talk about how it felt to give so many copies of works so personal to you to your mother’s doctors, and how it felt to hear that you were special because you are a writer from one of the doctors?
ED: Actually, both my parents always wanted me to give my books to their doctors when they were sick. It’s not something I wanted to do because in my experience, when you give your books to people—even when they ask for it—you rarely hear back from them about it. They thank you for it but they rarely talk to you about the content, which is frankly fine with me. But my parents always said, if they saw a doctor more than once, “Give the doctor your book.” And I would. I think for them, it was a way to show that they were more than the person they seemed to be at the moment. Serious illness can be dehumanizing and the sicker you are, the more agency you lose; the less like yourself you seem. I think both my parents wanted to show these doctors that though their bodies were failing them, they had previously succeeded at something else and that was raising someone who could write a book. We never really talked about it in depth like that, but that’s what I’m guessing it was.
MT: Did you parents always support your goals of being a writer, or were they ever hesitant? It’s a risky business where people are met with a lot of failure. Were you ever afraid yourself when approaching this career path?
ED: My parents wanted me to study medicine for the financial perks and the prestige, but they were also worried about my becoming a writer because they’d spent most of their lives under a dictatorship. One of the most important things you learn during that kind of upbringing is that discretion can mean survival. My parents, as young people, heard about writers getting exiled or killed, so it was not something they thought wise for me to do. Even when they were living in New York, they were worried that something I might write or say would lead to some kind of punishment for our relatives back in Haiti. For my parents, the less you were seen the safer you were, so writing and publishing was contrary to all of that, in their view.
MT: I’m interested in The Art of Deathand what it means for endings—specifically, for you, what it means to end a book. How do you know when a novel or story is over, and what do you feel is the best way to end a novel?
ED: I sometimes worry that I didn’t put enough in the middle of a book, but I am pretty sure about my endings once my books are done. Before I start a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, I often have an ending in mind, something to write towards. Sometimes that ending becomes the actual ending and sometimes not, and sometimes I go back and forth until the last minute, but once a book is published, that to me forces an ending on it. I have a friend, the writer Jonathan Cott, who carefully studies last words in books. He has actually helped me value the weight of last words and last sentences. I am not sure you can really tell people the best way to end a book. The ending, I suppose, should feel earned in some way.
MT: You also edited a volume of noir stories about Haiti. A lot of your writings contains violence—some extreme violence—and I’m wondering where you think your writing (mostly fiction) stands as a whole in relation to noir and crime?
ED: When I was asked to edit those two volumes, Haiti Noir 1and Haiti Noir 2, I thought it was a great opportunity to encourage people to read more Haitian literature by both Haitian writers in Haiti and Haitian writers in the Dyaspora. The framework of genre and noir fiction was exciting because it gives the stories a kind of uniformity. Not all the stories were violent. Some of them were very philosophical in their approach. This was a fascinating way to approach Haiti as well because often Haitians have to solve their own crimes and solve their own mysteries, so these writers were reinventing a genre that we wish worked for us better in real life. In Haiti Noir 2, some of the stories were from the mid twentieth century and reworked some old themes like zombification, which Haitian writers have addressed with a lot of nuance, addressing zombification as both a political condition and a political crime, for example. Part of the joy of editing these anthologies was seeing how Haitian writers were reinventing some tropes.
MT: Speaking of crime, I also think it’s interesting how certain crimes are certain places. My ancestors, I’m sure, were unfortunately slave owners. One of America’s most prolific serial killers is from my hometown. My grandfather was a drug dealer and my other grandfather, a cop, was shot multiple times when trying to take down multiple murderers. I would have to go into depth to describe how all of this is so very set in the Deep South of the U.S., but I’m curious as to what type of crime you think is connected directly to Haiti and why you think it is that way.
ED: What a history! Sadly, the slave owning background you share with a lot of other Americans. There are of course many larger crimes committed against Haiti, including the genocide against the Arawaks and Tainos, the enslavement of Africans brought to the island, along with colonialism, and later imperialism. From the colonial era, the parting gift to Haiti from France was having to pay an “independent debt” to France after Haiti became the world’s first black republic in 1804. This debt kept Haiti from getting a fair start as an independent nation. Then the US occupations and the dictatorships, then the US sponsored coups. Then the corrupt politicians inside the country. All these are things come up in the Noir series and are addressed by the different Haitian authors via the different narratives. So, the vehicle of noir fiction tells a larger story about historical as well as contemporary crimes both against the nation and against individuals.
MT: The great Attica Locke, an amazing novelist and television writer, says that Belovedis her favorite crime novel and that essentially every novel is a crime novel. Do you agree with this, and if so, what are the very specific and possibly strange crimes you see in your own work that others might argue aren’t crimes at all, or are only slight misdemeanors?
ED: I agree, in some cases, but I personally need a broader lense to keep going. I also need some novels to be love novels, though love and crime are of course not mutually exclusive. Though there are certainly crimes in the novels I write, including in The Dew Breaker, which is a book about a torturer. If I started the book thinking I was going to write a crime novel, I would think myself incapable of doing it well. Though at the center of the book is a criminal, I could only write that particular book by telling myself I was writing a family story.
MT: I loved your most recent book, The Art of Death, which is so short but so compact with so many ideas and theories and thoughts on death and dying. At one point, you write about how death must be written from the third person and at another point you talk about how friendship and relationships transcend death, like in Toni Morrison’s Sula. You’ve thrown out a lot of ideas and thoughts about death—and I highly advise our readers to pick up a copy of The Art of Death—I do wonder what you think, first, about those who claim they have died momentarily and been brought back to life. My mother even has a friend who claims his heart stopped in an ambulance and he went to heaven, whatever that would mean to him, for a bit. What are your thoughts on this?
There is a chapter in The Art of Death about close calls. I describe some of my own close calls. I have never had the kind of near death experience where you see that bright light, die, or almost die, then come back to life. That’s never happened to me, but I know a few people who have had it happen to them and I believe it can happen. I believe it’s possible. Life is very complicated. I don’t believe that we only exist in this realm. When my father was dying, he would talk about seeing his mother, who’d died decades before, standing at the foot of his bed and we all very quickly said to ourselves, he’s close now. His mother’s come back for him. She wants to show him the way. My father was never afraid when he said he saw his mother at the foot of his bed. When my mother was dying, she would sometimes speak to my father at the foot of the bed. So, I believe that the closer to death we get, the more porous that curtain is between us and the other side.
MT: You talk about how as they get older, the fear of death lessens for most people. It seems to be the opposite for me, as a mentally ill person for the majority of my life who now, finally healed or mostly healed, am afraid that I will die before I get to actually experience life.
ED: I love how open you are. Thank you. The unexamined life of course, as Plato says,is not worth living. I was referring to a study I’d read and I certainly found that it was true for my mother, who I was also referring to. I don’t want to be presumptuous about your situation, but I think you are experiencing life every day. That’s what the dying has taught me, that it’s important to try and experience life every single day, including the fearful and really scary parts.
MT: You also write about the people jumping from the Twin Towers on 9/11, and how they essentially had to choose between going down with the towers and leaping into the air. For hours, every day this footage was aired on television, which is interesting because people claimed to feel anxious and afraid of terrorists and further attacks like on the Twin Towers, so I’m wondering how you can both be so afraid of something and yet also so in awe of it, and so amazed by what you see happening. What are your thoughts on this—the inability to tear ourselves away from reliving the fears again and again of losing our own lives?
ED: I think that on some level we think to ourselves that we’re so glad it’s not us. That’s how we can watch horrors like that and not turn away. Just the act of watching builds distance, I suppose, and a kind of relief that we’re not in that position.
MT: You mention many writers and many books on death and the experience of both dying and seeing someone you love die. This also comes through in your own work, in your books that function as memoirs or critiques. What do you feel is your favorite work of fiction that deals strongly with death, and the same for nonfiction?
ED: I mention some of my favorites in the book. Everything by Toni Morrison, especially Beloved, Sula,and Song Solomon.Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitudewould also be at the top of my list.
MT: Do you think there is any hope in death? Obviously, there is relief from pain if one is sick or physically is not doing very well, but I know that some cultures around the world can view death as a reason for celebration. What are the different ways you have seen people you know personally or professionally face death as opposed to how you face the incredibly real issue of death? Do you think there is anything worse than losing the life of the person you love most?
ED: In Beloved, the character Sethe believes that death is preferable to returning to slavery. She’d rather kill her children then let them be returned to slavery. A lot of enslaved people walked back into the sea, or threw themselves off the hulls of slave ships, in order to return to their birth places in Africa. Or they tried to fly back to Africa. So, your perception of death will have a lot to do with the kind of life you are living. Both my parents really wanted to die at the end. They were both terminally ill and in pain and were looking forward to being out of that condition. They did not want to linger and suffer much longer. They faced death bravely, I thought, in part because they were people of a particular type of faith. They believed they were going to heaven. Having been through this twice now, one thing that feels to me worse than losing the person you love most is watching them suffer in excruciating pain, without the possibility of getting any better. My father was in that state for nine long months. My mom’s suffering was less, but physical pain is both agonizing to experience and agonizing to watch. People in my parent’s church community were a bit puzzled that my mother for example was not more grief-stricken than she seemed at my father’s funeral. But after nine months of watching him suffer while dying from scarred lungs and pulmonary fibrosis, she was kind of relieved to see him go. Wanting him around while he was in in agony would have been terribly sadistic and selfish.
MT: Death does permeate most of your fiction. It is also often associated with magic and folklore, usually from Haiti. What do you think is so important about folklore and superstitions—like Claire of the Sea Light and her mother’s death, for example—and why do people continue to cling to these examples of folklore, not just in Haiti but really everywhere?
ED: Most of us want to know our origin stories, our mythologies. We’re told the “official stories”, but I suspect we think there’s a secret, other, closer to the ground story that we’re not being told. That’s where mythologies emerge and knowing these myths, which are often spread via folktales, or what some might call superstition but which are really creation stories, narratives, or songs that help us make better sense of our lives. Particularly the more difficult aspects of our lives. When my father died, I kept returning to folklore stories I was told as a girl about dead fathers going into the other world. When my mother died, I kept thinking about the stories of dead mothers I heard as a girl. Suddenly I was one of those orphans in those stories. I already had some idea from these stories what that was supposed to feel like. I realized that I was told these stories to prepare me for these moments. In the same way that religious texts are supposed to prepare you for adversity. We’re told the story of Job because one day we might be Job and lose everything and everyone we love. Science can explain how things work and why certain parts of the body fail us, but it can’t really offer this other layer of spiritual explanation. What is it that Joseph Campbell said about mythology? I think he said that it is the penultimate truth, because it cannot be fully put into words.
MT: You also write in Create Dangerouslythe danger and problems of the immigrant writer. I have a couple of questions about how this work plays in today, when it seems more necessary than ever. First, how do you feel the immigrant experience, combined with war, terrorism, and—well, Trump, affect the art of the immigrant writer?
ED: I think current events always affect us in some way, and certainly affect writers. If you are an immigrant these days, writer or not, you probably have some family members who are affected by the current climate concerning immigrants, certainly all the scapegoating and the policies being enacted like the suspension of Temporary Protected Status and the limbo of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. These and other aspects of immigrant life affect us directly or affect the people we love. Some artists, writers, painters, musicians among them, choose to address these concerns directly in their work and some do not. Some have a split life as artists and activists and regularly are protesting or acting in their community in ways that directly support the daily lives of their neighbors. I think it’s up to each individual to decide the level of involvement they’re comfortable with. Some people just want to do their art as a shield against the barrage of pain in the world. Others see no use in being locked up in a room while there is so much suffering out there. I have many writer friends who are wrestling with both. People have to decide for themselves.
MT: What do you think is the effect of a writer without a defined home, and, really, how would you define home as a concept?
ED: There are 65 million people in the world right now who are migratory, who have no fixed placed to live. So, a writer or anyone without a defined home is part of a large number of people around the world right now. Once I left the home I knew until age twelve, home has become where the people I love are. Loved ones have become my roots, my anchors, my home. I keep going back to that amazing poem by Warsan Shire called Home. No one “leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” she writes. In October 2004, my eighty-one-year-old uncle Joseph, a cancer survivor who spoke with a voice box, died in immigration custody after fleeing Haiti following a brutal United Nations forces attack on his neighborhood. My uncle had had a valid US visa, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Miami International Airport detained him after he requested asylum. They took away his medications and, as his health deteriorated, accused him of faking his illness. Eventually he was taken to a local hospital’s prison ward, where he died shackled to a bed, five days after arriving in the United States. I wrote about him in my memoir Brother, I’m Dying. For my uncle, home was certainly, at that moment, the mouth of a shark. And the place where he came seeking refuge also would not let him stay. This is something many families, including young children are facing today. We don’t often get to choose where we call home, especially if we are poor and vulnerable and desperate. Some people might define home as a place to keep others out of, and others as a place to welcome others in. A lot of the way we see that difference has to do with how we define the foreigner or stranger. In an ideal world, we would be each other’s harvest and bond, as Gwendolyn Brooks has written. And we would be each other’s home when that’s needed. I also like James Baldwin’s definition of home as “not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”
MT: No one really likes this question, but I’m always interested to see if someone will respond with a truly great answer. Assume for a minute that Donald Trump can read, and that you were to give him one of your books. Which book would it be?
There is probably a great answer to your question out there, but I don’t think I have it. He would have no interest in reading any of my books. He thinks I’m from a shithole country, so in addition to the fact that he does not read, that battle is already lost. But if pressed, I would give him Brother, I’m Dying. I don’t think it would make much of a difference to him. Children have died in immigration custody recently and it’s not made much of a difference to him. He is talking about separating families again. So, it would be a fool’s errand, but you asked.
MT: What effect would you hope the book would have?
The same effect I hope it would have on immigration officers who have to actually make real life decisions in the moment when someone who’s desperate and sick shows up in front of them and says I am afraid for my life, please help me. I have always hoped that the book would remind immigration officials, if they ever read it, that they have the lives of human beings in their hands. I think it would be too much to hope for Trump.
MT: This quote is attributed to so many people, most often the great Toni Morrison, but I am so interested in your answer. Supposedly Toni was the first to say something along the lines of people should write the book they’ve always wanted to read but have never found. Do you think you have done that?
ED: The Morrison quote is, I believe, ‘If there's a book you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” Everything I write is that for me, something I urgently want to read.
MT: You’ve always written some very gorgeous, beautiful Young Adult fiction that appeals to a lot of people. This fiction often features some of your most common themes, and I’m wondering how you approach writing Young Adult fiction as opposed to adult fiction. What kind of work takes longer to develop and execute, and do you feel your Young Adult writing affects its target audience as strongly as your adult fiction?
ED: I don’t differentiate too much between my books for young adults and my books for adults, or change my approach all that much. The only difference for me is that the characters are younger in my young adult books. These days young adult fiction covers so many important and urgent subjects that there is no need to filter this kind of writing. Kids are exposed to so much already online and in their daily lives. The length of time a book takes me depends on the subject of the book and the complexity of the characters. A lot of young people read Breath, Eyes, Memoryfor example at age 12 and can easily identify with it. It’s even read in some middle schools and high schools. I just hope all my books make their way to people who can appreciate them.
MT: Edwidge, I’ve asked you far too many questions, so I’ll just ask one more: what work can we expect from you next? I’m sure our readers who are familiar with your work are excited to know what you’ll publish next. And for our new readers, what work of your own would you suggest they start with?
ED: I just recently published a picture book called My Mommy Medicine. It’s about sick days at home for a mother and daughter. My next published work will be a collection of stories called Everything Inside, which will be out this August. I would say if you are just beginning to read me, start with Brother, I’m Dying. That book will frame the rest of my books for any reader.
MT: Edwidge, thank you so very much for agreeing to be interviewed with me. I do hope that you will give us at Writers Tell All the chance to interview you again in the future. You create such fascinating worlds often in such compact books. Thank you again, Edwidge.
ED: Thank you for interviewing me and thank you for being so open about your own life and process.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Shobha, I am so excited to finally get to talk with you. I’ve loved your work since you released your first collection, and I loved your novel, Girls Burn Brighterjust as much if not more. I read that you moved to America when you were young. Can you talk about this and your journey to becoming the renowned and celebrated author you are today? Did you always intend on being a writer since you were young or is your immense talent for writing something you discovered later? When it came to being published, what was the most challenging hurdle as a non-white straight male?
Shobha Rao: Do you trust the writers who say they’ve always known they wanted to write? The ones who wrote their first story at the age of three, let’s say? Or four? I’m not sure I do. Maybe I’m just envious. I wrote my first story in my late-twenties. I always read, or course. Voraciously, as if my life depended on it. Which, in some ways, it did. But how is it born? The desire to write? Maybe it’s not even born, maybe it’s cultivated, like a field inside of you. Whatever it is took me fifteen years. From the moment I put pen to paper to my first publication: fifteen years. It’s those many years of writing, patience, cultivation, craft, and reckless faith that made me a writer, not the publication.
As for my most challenging hurdle, I suspect it is the same as every other person’s: my own demons. The voices that say: No. You can’t. You won’t. You’re not good enough. You never will be.
And who put those words inside of me? Cue the men.
MT: You released An Unrestored Womanto success and much critical acclaim. Can you talk about the process of writing a short story as opposed to writing a novel? What was it like, writing each of the stories in An Unrestored Woman, organizing stories, making the book a collection and not just a jumbled mess of great stories?
SR: I always say (and I’m sure I read this somewhere) that writing a short story is like running through a burning house and noting down everything you see. Whereas working on a novel is like entering a house on fire, sitting down in the middle of it, and writing about how it’s burning. That analogy is not an exaggeration.
With An Unrestored Woman, the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan formed the central focus of the collection. I wanted to explore how conflict – whether individual, regional, or global – affects the lives of women. What does a woman choose to fight for, die for, relinquish, refuse? What are her battlefields?
MT: One of your stories was picked as a Best American Story for the 2015 volume, edited by T.C. Boyle. That has to be something to be proud of, in addition to having published a story collection and a novel, both to great critical acclaim. Do you have a favorite story of your own, or one that means most to you? There’s been a lot of backlash against implying that a writer might find him or herself in any of their fiction, but is there any story you feel is more personal than the others?
SR: Perhaps the backlash is related to the fact that every piece of fiction has the author in it. How can it not? The act of writing is an exercise of the ego, and it is all self-portraiture. For me, the joy of fiction is that I get to hide in plain sight. All my darkest and most secret places are laid bare. Which one is more personal? That is unanswerable. They are all a part of me, fromme. It’s like asking which of my fingers is most personal to me, most dear. I happen to adore them all.
MT: How do stories generally come to you, if they originate in the same way at all? When do you decide “this is a great idea for a story” and how long is it before you decide that this story will stick, and that it will stand on its own and be something profound and hopefully true? How many stories have you seen all the way through as compared to stories you might have mapped out or begun only to dispose of later, if at all? Do you think the process of writing and scrapping this writing is a sort of teaching experience?
SR: I think the dustbin of our disposed stories is the best teacher. If my two published books sit humbly (or not so humbly) on a small corner of a shelf, my failed stories could populate a library. As they should. The stories that don’t work, the ones we throw out, teach us to value the words over vanity.
With regards to the origin of my stories, I wish I knew! They come from a sound or a scent; sometimes they rise from a sudden longing or memory. At other times, a searing image or an awful sorrow. Regardless, as storytellers, we must believe in this basic thing: we are the sea. It is all inside of us. Whether it will “stick,” knowing how to make it stick, that’s where the disposed stories come in: did you learn from them? Did you allow them to teach you? Did you study them as you would a lover’s face?
MT: As far as great story writers go, both today and in years and decades and even centuries past, who are your favorite story writers, and do you have favorite stories and story collections? What advice do you give to people who are trying to write great stories like yours, or simply don’t understand how a short story does work? What is the best advice you can give to an aspiring writer who wants to write stories as well as you, but in their own way and in their own voice?
SR: I love the novels and stories of Jean Rhys and Elfriede Jelinek and Flannery O’Connor and Roberto Bolaño and Nawal El Saadawi and…the list goes on and on, but the key is to read widely. And well. Never forget that you are a writer. So if you are sitting in a café, listen to how people talk. The cadence of their sentences, the music of their dialogue. And then mimic it in your stories. If you pass the same building on your work, imagine the lives inside. One day, imagine it is an insane asylum. On another, make it a home for orphaned children. On the next day, make it a brothel. Write the story of one life being lived inside. Write it in your head. That, too, is writing. Keep your imagination and your curiosity always engaged with the world. That, too, is writing. And if you feel like you know a character, or that you know yourself, go deeper. That, too, is writing.
MT: Speaking of finding your voice, a lot of authors take a long time—years, if not decades—to truly find their voice, trust their voice, and believe the voice they write in belongs to them. How long did it take you to find your voice?
SR: The easy answer is that it took fifteen years. The more complex answer is that we never findthe voice. It is an elusive, aggravating imp. Sometimes, in the middle of writing a sentence or a passage, you look up and realize you have no idea what day it is; you’ve forgotten what country you’re in. You’ve even forgotten there is such a thing as a country. That’s how wedded you are to the work. Is that the voice? Or is it the moments when you look up and think, I’m close, but maybe I can get closer. They are both your voice. Your effort. They both belong to you.
MT: I know the easy option out of this next question is “They’re both challenging in their own ways,” but I really am curious from your point of view—what has been more difficult for you, writing a story or story collection, or writing a whole novel? Even if you do go with “They’re both challenging in their own ways,” would you mind talking about how the process of writing Girls Burn Brighterand what challenges you faced with this novel? Did you ever feel like just giving up on the work, like so many writers have felt with great novels?
SR: I suppose if I never felt like giving up, then I wasn’t doing it right. I wasn’t challenging myself. I wasn’t going into the dangerous places, the necessary ones. These places are always fraught with uncertainty. But why does ‘giving up’ get such bad press? Doesn’t it take just as much courage to walk away as it does to stay? And doesn’t each abandonment (which also gets bad press) lead us closer to our next project? We learn from everything – the work we finish and the work we don’t. Each has its own nobility.
As for writing Girls Burn Brighter, I wrote it over the course of two months in the most isolated place I could find – the Badlands of South Dakota. I needed the silence. The emptiness. I needed to very clearly feel Poornima’s and Savitha’s fears. Is that how every book should be written? No. It is how one book got written. An Unrestored Womanwas written over the course of two years. With lots of stories that were thrown out or edited over the course of months.
So really, there is no one right way to write a story. Just as there is no one right way to live a life.
MT: When you begin writing, whether in a story or in a novel, what comes to you first—the story you want to tell or the character the story belongs to? Do they both come at once, sort of as a package deal? What is the most important element of developing a piece of fiction to you, and what is the most challenging?
SR: It’s all a bit of a hodgepodge. A great stew in which everything simmers. I wish I knew what came first – then I’d know where to look! I suppose the most important element, for me, is the plot (and thereby it is the most challenging). How do things happen in a story? What are the causal connections? Do they make sense? Do they have to make sense? These are always questions I struggle with; I am in awe of how the events of a story unfold. Aren’t you?
MT: When you began writing Girls Burn Brighter, did you know where it was going to take you? Is there anything you wrote that generally surprised you? And, of course, be as spoiler-free as you wish.
SR: I definitely knew where the novel was going to take me – I don’t start writing until I know the end of a story, though the beginning and the middle are always a total mystery. Even so, I was surprised by the friendship between Poornima and Savitha. Although I had set out to write the story of two friends, I had no idea of the depth of that friendship. I had no idea they would come to rely upon each other so beautifully, so utterly. They shared even their strength, even the last few droplets of their strength, across continents, across time, across ravages. I was astonished. I might’ve created them, but they taught me what it means to be a friend.
MT: When you read through your novel, do you ever pick favorite characters or scenes, and do you ever judge your characters? If you know the great writer Megan Abbott, she’s always warned me never to judge my characters. I’m wondering what your philosophy is on creating characters that are alive and breathing on the page, and how you view them and how you treat them as a god of sorts.
SR: Well, I see characters in the same way I see certain family members: I don’t always like them, but I do always love them. As for creating living, breathing characters on the page, I try to pinpoint the thing that haunts my characters. What is it that keeps them up at night; that invades their dreams? Because what haunts us is what makes us human.
And gods? No. No one is a god. We – myself, my characters – we are all fate’s playthings. But that’s the fun of it, isn’t it? We can play, just as much as fate can play.
MT: Shobha, I am so thankful that you agreed to participate in an interview with me and address some basic writing issues as well as some very serious issues about how writing and art are affected by and changing the world around us. Your stories and your novel are both works that need to be read again and again, if for no other reason than the pure artistry and talent exhibited in your work. To everyone reading, Shobha’s An Unrestored Woman(her astonishing collection of stories) and Girls Burn Brighter(her brilliant novel) are available in bookstores and to order online now, as well as in audio form and ebook.
SR: Thank you!
Erin Kelly is One of the Biggest Names in Crime Literature, and She's Revealing a Lot of Secrets to Us
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Erin! I am so excited to finally get to interview you. I’ve been an admirer for some time, and I know it’s rare that anyone isn’t acquainted with your work by now, but I hope those reading this interview who haven’t read your many great novels will dive in head first. I can imagine life has been pretty busy lately. What is your usual schedule like? Do you have a schedule for writing, and if so are you a morning, afternoon, evening, or late night writer? Do you have a set number of pages or words a day, and what is the revision process like for you?
Erin Kelly: Thank you for having me! At the time of writing, I’m gearing up for publication of Stone Mothers so my usual routine, such as it is, is a bit disrupted, writing articles and doing interviews and finalizing the last few details of my book tour. I tend to see my day in terms of hours at the desk rather than measure the success in word count. Sometimes it takes a day of head-scratching to get the idea that moves the book forward to the next stage, which could mean lots of scribbling longhand but no words at all in the actual manuscript. Other days I can write 5,000 in a couple of hours. I delete a hell of a lot, too: understanding that a chapter I’m very fond of is the thing that’s holding me back, and consigning it to trash, might set me back a few days’ word count but will ultimately free me up. The revision process, then, is built into the first draft. (I consider everything up until the moment I have no plot holes and no research left to do the first draft.)
MT: What books do you read usually, and what books do you read while you’re writing? Do you have a book or author you turn to when you’re stuck? What were your formative years like, and what books do you feel shaped you most as a writer?
EK: I learned to read very early and can’t remember a time when books weren’t my sanctuary. I devoured the usual stuff – Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Judy Blume – and also loved Frances Hodgson Burnett and a British author called Bernard Ashley who wrote thrillers for children – really gritty, unpatronizing books about kids who found themselves tangled up in adult crimes. At about 12 I got a taste for the gothic: I loved Anne Rice, Stephen King and for a year or so I was obsessed with Virginia Andrews and read and re-read her Dollanganger saga obsessively. It is what we would now call a ‘problematic fave’ but there’s probably a hangover from those books in my own writing. I can’t resist a crumbling mansion or a dark and stormy night.
I do read when I’m writing. I know some authors don’t to crowd their heads with others’ stories during the process but I have to have a book on the go or I feel weirdly itchy and untethered. I have noticed that my reading mood changes depending on where I am in the process. When I’m still plotting I like to read thrillers, or any book with interesting mechanics. Towards the end when I’m polishing the sentences I’m more drawn to quieter, more literary fiction. Of course the ideal book is one that delivers on story and style and I don’t understand the school of thought that says you have to choose between the two. You can absolutely have your cake and eat it!
MT: You’ve written some pretty amazing novels, and they’re all very different. I really love what you do with style, narration and narrators, and all other types of ways you tell your stories. How many novels did you write before you finally published your first novel? Do you feel like your first novel felt completely you, or do you think you came more into yourself in later books? I know some authors feel it takes a while for them to feel like they’re really writing something that’s completely their own, and not something they’ve wanted to sound like another writer or genre or group or writers.
EK: The Poison Tree was my first novel, but I had been thinking seriously about it for a good five years before I finally sat down to write. I’d done a couple of evening classes and joined a writing group (which was actually more of a drinking group, and there’s nothing wrong with that). Like most debuts The Poison Tree does sometimes groan under the weight of all the books I’d loved before. In my case, these were A Fatal Inversion and The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. They share the theme of an ingenue being seduced by glamour, resulting in various degrees of fatality.
It took a few books to find my voice. The Burning Air, my third novel, was probably the first time I didn’t feel Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine breathing down my neck although actually it was such a bastard to plot that I could have done with her help. When I wrote my fourth book, The Ties That Bind, I was reading a lot of Graham Greene and was completely obsessed with Jake Arnott’s True Crime trilogy, and those influences leaked onto the pages.
MT: I don’t really know where to begin with your novels, as far as delving into themes, ideas, stories, characters. One major issue a lot of your characters face from the beginning of your novels is trust, and really whether they can trust anyone. This comes with the crime fiction territory, of course, but I wonder—what do you think is so important about the issue of trusting people in crime fiction, more specifically the focus (I don’t know if I would say a major shift, necessarily) on family members, lovers, loved ones?
EK: Crime novels would be pretty short if everyone told the truth the whole time! I think what we’ve seen over the last five years, with the popularity of the psychological thriller as much as the police procedural is that the untrustworthy people are getting a little closer to home. It’s not the killer in the dark alley, it’s the person you’re sleeping with you really want to watch out for – which is sadly a reflection of the reality of violent crime. Most victims are known to their attackers, even if most domestic crime is more senseless and less ordered than it is in books.
MT: How much of you goes into writing your characters, good and bad? Do you ever find yourself judging your characters? Have any of your characters, or any of your books, ever feel like they have hit too close to home?
EK: Oh, I’m sure I’m all over the books, although I’ve never consciously plundered events from my own life I’ve definitely exploited my own feelings and attitudes, even my politics. Funnily enough the character I’ve felt closest to was Paul in my second novel The Sick Rose, even though we first meet him as a teenage boy. Paul was a bookish weirdo growing up in a part of Essex where there isn’t much patience for that sort of nonsense and that was my experience, too. I’ve never thought about whether I judge my characters, I suppose because I always know why they act the way they do.
MT: I really feel like I could read anything by you—a minute account of cleaning your house, a real good scrub, the floorboards, the baseboards, all the boards and then we move on to carpets. But sort-of jokes aside, do you think your ability to captivate your audience without cheap tricks lesser writers might resort to is something you’ve learned or is this a unique skill you’re born with? Your writing really feels like a middle between later Laura Lippman books and Alex Marwood’s The Darkest Secret, very much on par with some of the greatest of the greats.
EK: I treat writing as a craft and a skill – when I was writing The Poison Tree I re-read some old favourites by Nicci French and took them apart, as though I were a mechanic who wanted to find out how a car worked. That said, there is some stuff you can’t instil. My voice is what it is, I think I’ve got a good ear for dialogue and the words, at sentence level, come easily. I only wish the same could be said about the plots!
MT: Your books are in many ways very similar, but they are also drastically different from each other too, which I feel is the sign of a truly great writer. The Poison Tree regards so many secrets, and you have a really great gift at building suspense. One main theme is family—the one we have, and the one we pick. I’m interested in your opinion, but I would argue that in The Poison Tree, Karen’s relationship with Rex is doomed from the very beginning. Rex’s relationship with his sister is disturbing in many ways, and as I and so many other people have learned from various relationships, there are some relationships doomed from the start. Do you think this is true for Karen, Rex, and Rex’s sister?
EK: I get a lot of emails about Karen, Rex and Biba but I’ll tell you a secret that no one else has guessed: Biba set Karen and Rex up. Biba was sick of what she perceived as Rex smothering her, so she went fishing for a nice boring girlfriend to take up some of his attention. I don’t think it went quite to plan, though.
MT: You do a really great job in all of your novels of revealing some great surprises along the way, but then by the end of the novel it’s like a domino effect, with each domino being a surprise, and each surprise or shock being bigger than the last. Do you plot everything out before beginning a first draft, or are you the type to come up with things as you go? I know some really great authors who do both, and I am ready to take notes either way.
EK: I wish I could plot before I write. But it doesn’t work that way for me. I’ve tried to do it several times, but I get to know my characters and how they behave by putting them in detailed scenes. I have a vague idea of where I want to go, and I sometimes end up there, but the route is never like the one I had in mind (usually for the better).
MT: In He Said/She Said, you tackle the issue of rape, rape culture, “white feminism” and social justice warriors, and so many more current topics without ever being on the nose (like many authors who really try and see how many times they can fit “#metoo” and other current social justice slang in their novels). The novel is so unsettling because, speaking for myself here, I can say that I remember when I was like the protagonist, Laura, who believes she has stumbled upon a woman being raped. First off, I wanted to commend you on writing a crime novel that actually focuses on rape instead of initially murder, and making the novel just as compelling and page-turning as any of your others. There have certainly been many novels in recent years dealing with the issue of rape, but these usually automatically come coupled with a scandalizing murder. Why do you think people have a hard time talking about rape, and acknowledging it as a central crime, if not the main crime, in a novel?
EK: He Said/She Said was published around the same time as a handful of other thrillers that take sex crime as their jumping-off point: I’m thinking of An Act of Silence by Colette McBeth, Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan, Winnie M Li’s Dark Chapter, so it’s clear that we were all reacting the same way to the groundswell of female voices talking more openly about rape. All the authors I’ve just mentioned are women and I know that, like me, they’d had enough of seeing rape as a precursor to murder, and certainly a few years ago the victim was likely to be nothing more than a prop to help the cop get his guy. (Crime fiction is getting better at this: TV, on the other hand, still has some way to go). Murder is extraordinary and most of us are lucky not to be touched by it. Rape, on the other hand…if you’re on a packed train carriage, you’re probably sharing it with at least one rape survivor. I think we all wanted to write books that explore the horrific everyday reality of rape, in ways that honoured the survivors.
MT: I think the hardest part about reading He Said/She Said, which is also probably why so many people were drawn to it, is, as I said before, so many people see themselves in Laura. She wants to be the person to save another woman from a rapist. Of course, things become more complicated with the “gray matter” of rape—everything that must qualify a rape as a rape, and how ridiculous the law is when it comes to this, as a murder is mostly always a murder, and the same with many other crimes. You capture this issue so well, but the danger is something that, in many ways, Laura invites upon herself, becoming too involved with the crime and the victim, even inviting the victim into her home. I know you don’t have all the answers, and I actually prefer books that ask questions rather than telling the reader what to think, but what inspired to write this book, why did you decide to write it and Laura the way you did, and why was it so important to separate yourself from all of these other #metoo, rape culture, “social justice warrior” novels?
EK I kept seeing the same story play out again and again and again. A young man would be found guilty of rape and either the judge or a reporter would lament not the destruction of the victim’s security but the loss of the rapist’s career. Jamie, in the book, was inspired by the blue-eyed posh boys who were recast as the real victims in all this, and I was sick of it.
I didn’t think about this book in the context of other ‘social justice warrior’ or ‘me too’ novels. As per my previous answer, there weren’t that many being published when I was writing He Said/She Said, although conversations women were having with each other were clearly working their way into several books.
MT: You have a new novel coming out, which my friends have told me amazing things about and I’m so excited to get my hands on it. Do you mind telling our readers a little about it?
EK: Stone Mothers is set in an old Victorian Mental asylum and is told backwards: it begins in the present day when it’s been converted into luxury flats, moves back to the days when the building was abandoned and finally the secrets are revealed in the chapters set when it’s a working hospital. I got the idea when a friend who’s an urban explorer was in just such a place and came across a cabinet full of old medical records, with some pretty incriminating details. She’s a nurse so knew what to do with them, but I couldn’t help thinking that in the wrong hands, this information would be incredibly dangerous… and I had a story.
Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
Stone Mothers tells the story of Marianne, who was seventeen when she fled her home, her family her boyfriend Jesse and the body they buried. Now, forced to return, she can feel the past closing around her. And Jesse, who never forgave her for leaving, is finally threatening to expose the truth. Marianne will do anything to protect the life she’s built: the husband and daughter who must never know…
MT: Erin, it was so great to finally talk with you about your books and writing, and I’d love to talk to you even more but I know I’ve taken up more than my fair share of your time. I really encourage the few readers we have who haven’t already ready your books to pick up copies of all your books and read away. I really hope this interview has been as fun for you as it has for me, and I really hope it’s really informative to our readers about your books and your writing. Thank you so much for talking to us and feel free to leave us with any comments or thoughts, and it was really a pleasure.