WRITERS TELL ALL
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.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Snowden! I am very excited to talk with you about your new book,American Pop. I have to ask: how does moving around, seeing the North, the Deep South—even writing about Europe—how has this affected your writing, and this novel?
Snowden Wright: Thanks, Matthew! I’m excited to talk about it with you. Moving around gave me a greater perspective—of culture, of people—as well as a wider range of experiences. That in turn allowed me to explore more perspectives and experiences in my fiction. I like to think I have a fairly strong imagination, but experience is the imagination’s fuel. Seeing the North, the Deep South, and other parts of the country filled the tank.
MT: What about this novel made you decide to base it around a “pop” or “soda” company? I always am asked by people from other states, other regions, if I call something pop or soda. How do you feel the title, and the industry the novel concerns, has been developed by your writing?
SW: So funny you should ask this question. Lately I’ve been asked by people, to paraphrase, “How can you name this book American Popwhen in the South, where it’s set, nobody calls soda ‘pop.’”
I’ve answered them by explaining that the second word of the title has multiple meanings and subtexts, all of which I intended: soda, popular culture, popularity, explosion, “pop” as in “goes bust.” In other words, American Popisn’t just about soda. It’s about America and all the myriad ideas wrapped up in the concept of it. It’s about a family and all the myriad elements wrapped up in the concept of one.
That said, the soft-drink industry is, of course, a major part of the novel. It’s the mechanism by which I tried to explore, providing as much entertainment as possible, the ideas of America and the elements of a family. “Why read fiction? Why go to movies?” I quote in the novel from an issue of Beverage Digest, “[The] soft drink industry has enough roller-coaster plot-dips to make novelists drool.”
MT: What books and authors have truly influenced you? What books and authors do you return to time and time again? What book helped you with creating and executing this novel?
SW: Got a couple hours? Because I could go on nearly forever answering this question, there are so many books and authors I proselytize.
The authors and/or books that influenced my development as a writer: Michael Chabon, my favorite living author; Edith Wharton, my favorite dead author; Elmore Leonard, who talk me to write dialogue; Amy Hempel, who taught me to love sentences; Barry Hannah, who taught me to loosen up; Joan Didion; Toni Morrison; and so, so many more.
The novel that most influenced this one is Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which uses a fluid, shifting timeline, as I do in American Pop. I was also influenced by multigenerational family sagas: Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Crowley’s Little, Big, and Boyle’s World’s End, to name a few. For the use of nonfiction techniques in a work of fiction, I was inspired by novel’s such as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
MT: Who were your favorite characters in the novel?
SW: My favorite characters are all the women in the Forster family. I try to fill my work with as many strong female characters as possible, doing whatever small part I can to rectify the deficiency of them in a lot of fiction by male authors.
So, my four favorite characters in the novel are four women, each of a different generation of the Forsters: Fiona, saucy and strong-willed and never without a gin rickey; Annabelle, haughty but sensitive; Ramsey, independent and stubborn and resilient; and Imogene, perhaps my #1 favorite, who is wheelchair-bound but walks tall. I like to think if Fiona, Annabelle, Ramsey, and Imogene were somehow able to join forces at the same time, they could take over the world.
MT: We have soda/pop, a family saga, crime and loss—what do you think, concerning all these issues, makes this book work and why did you decide to connect all of these things in a family saga?
SW: To me the notion of genre is malleable. You could call this a family saga, but it also has elements of crime novels, historical fiction, soap operas, comedies, and war novels. I wanted to fit as much as I could into it. I didn’t want it to fall under one single label.
Take my dad. He calls any movie that isn’t a comedy “a murder mystery.” Die Hard? A murder mystery. Philadelphia? A murder mystery. I guess American Popis my own murder mystery—but with plenty of comedy as well.
MT: How do you feel this novel plays into issues with our nation, and if you had to reach out to your neighbors, acquaintances, or even just people in the Deep South, what would you hope they would learn or gather from this novel? What is the most important thing you learned when writing this?
SW: America is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. These days, I think, people have come down with a nasty case of nostalgia. Nostalgia warps the truth of the past, stripping it of conflict, guilt, faults, weakness, and sin. Nostalgia is, in other words, bad literature. I’d like people from the South as well as from the rest of the country to gather that idea from American Pop.
MT: What does it mean for so many children to disappoint their parents? At what point do we do what our parents want, and how do we separate ourselves from their dreams and ideas? Do you have any experience with this?
SW: I’m fortunate to have very supportive parents. Despite some obvious reservations about the difficulty of success, my mother and father have always supported my goal of being a professional writer, whether by taking me to the bookstore whenever I wanted as a kid or allowing me to attend an expensive college with a great writing program. I realize not everyone has that.
I think it’s important and necessary for children to “disappoint” their parents, so long as we truly consider what that verb means. Children have to disappoint their parents by following their own dreams. Children have to disappoint their parents by having their own successes and failures. Ultimately, too, the disappointment in parents can and should become pride.
MT: My paternal grandparents were pretty vicious, although not as determined as the parents in American Pop. In many ways, like with my father and his brothers, a reader might argue that in many ways the parents do destroy their children, and create this competition and chaos in their hopes for a better future. What is this disappointment like, and how do parents generally inspire hate between their children, and how do we separate the good will of the family matriarch and patriarch and how they have damaged the relationships and futures of their children?
SW: To paraphrase Philip Larkin: Parents, they fuck you up. The patriarch of the Forsters, Houghton, is not, to put it lightly, a good father. I modeled him loosely on Joseph Kennedy, Sr. Houghton has the irrational idea that by creating competition among his children and grandchildren he can make them each better equipped to survive and succeed.
You could argue he’s a metaphor for America. His treatment of his children is like free-market capitalism. Throw them to the wolves. Survival of the fittest. He’s trying to equip them, however perversely, to achieve the American Dream. His intentions are decent, but his methods are fucked-up. Larkin was spot-on.
MT: What was ending this book like for you, without spoilers? Often I see critics write about how difficult endings are, and I think for a lot of writers it is a struggle, especially when writing such an epic like this. How hard was ending the book for you?
SW: I knew how the novel would end fairly early into the writing of it. The elegiac montage, an evocative revisiting of the book’s major events: All of that I had in mind early. I also knew I wanted a subtle revelation—in this case, of the novel’s MacGuffin, PanCola’s secret ingredient. Many novelists might not have revealed the secret, considering it more “literary” to leave it a mystery, implying the book was all about the journey, not the destination. American Popis all about the journey, I think, but I would never deprive readers the satisfaction of finding out the secret ingredient.
MT: You write about homosexuality, the military, and loss. These themes together have been very taboo to write about until recent years, and I wonder what influenced you write a story like this, or at least this part of the novel’s story. Why did you decide to address the sexuality of one character through the military, a section that occurs really near the beginning of the novel?
SW: Addressing sexuality through the military came about organically. I knew I wanted Monty to be gay. I knew I wanted him to be a war hero. And I knew I wanted his lover to be British. How do I combine all three? World War I.
I remember when I first came up with last line of the scene when Monty’s lover dies. One morning I was out for a run along the Hudson River in New York. For the past few weeks I’d been thinking about the scene jotting down notes, lines, and phrases for the death scene. I was about four miles from my apartment when suddenly the last line popped into my head. It was simple, only a few words, and it had an almost children’s-book syntax. I knew without a doubt it was the perfect way to end the scene.
Even though the line was short, I got so paranoid I would forget it that I immediately turned around and ran home so that I could get it on paper. It’s my favorite sentence in the book.
MT: Toni Morrison has written about how even without black characters in a novel, we still see the presence of the marginalized and minorities in the novel who are really ghosts, not there? How do you feel this family, the main characters who act out with privilege and sometimes success, reflect upon Morrison’s thoughts and what do you think each character brings into this discussion in the novel?
SW: Although the main family in the novel is white and privileged, I wanted to include as many marginalized characters and characters of color as possible. Sometimes they play large roles (Josephine Baker has a fairly big secondary part), and sometimes they are on the periphery. One chapter takes place in the Mississippi Delta and concerns a group of wealthy planters discussing how to disenfranchise black voters while accepting cocktails and hors d’oeuvres from black servants.
Of course, I’d have to be an arrogant idiot to think I handled the issue perfectly or, for that matter, well. I can only hope I handled it adequately. Morrison’s take on the issue seems especially pertinent to this sort of novel. American Popconcerns a wealthy, white family in a region, the South, riddled with economic disparity and racism. I hope the Forsters’ privilege draws attention via contrast to families without privilege. The Forsters are an illustration of the American Dream, but the American Dream, however idealistic and well-intentioned, is hampered by racism, sexism, and so many other issues in our society.
MT: I really enjoyed being able to discuss things with you, Snowden. Can you tell us if you’re working on anything new, and if you have something new coming out anytime soon? It was really great talking about American Pop and really getting to know more about the novel and you. Feel free to leave with any comments, thoughts, etc. It was great talking with you!
SW: Ever heard of the Confederados? They’re a real group of people from American history: the 5,000-20,000 Southerners who, after the Civil War, immigrated to Brazil, enticed by cheap farmland, tax breaks, subsidized travel, and the fact that, down there, slavery was still legal. I’m currently writing a novel about a colony of Confederadosand the lives of its many residents, all of whom are dealing with their “exile” from America and the repercussions, figurative and literal, of having been on the wrong side of history.
Thanks so much for this interview, Matthew! It was fun chatting with you.
"In a way, she groomed her as I believe some powerful people do with those who serve them." Renee Knight on THE SECRETARY
Matthew Turbeville:Renee, it is so nice to talk to you about this amazing novel. I really loved the anticipation and dread you created, the idea that you know something bad is coming but you can’t stop it. A slow-motion car accident, a slow burn. Can you talk about how your writing has evolved to get to this novel, and where the idea for this novel originated?
Renee Knight:My starting point for this novel were the two main characters rather than a premise. In my first novel, Disclaimer, I began with the idea - what would it be like if you came across yourself as a character in a novel? With The Secretary, my starting point was the relationship between two women - a secretary and her charismatic employer.
The idea came from recent high profile court cases in this country and in the US, involving celebrities and their personal assistants. I was struck by how a secretary could bring down their boss, or equally, be the one to save them by standing up in court and providing evidence to back up their story. What interested me was, not so much the crimes themselves, but the close relationships between the secretary and their employer, particularly when the employer was a woman. It seemed to me that the boundaries often became blurred - as if the secretary was at times treated like a friend, but a friend who could never say no. Ultimately, the secretary was there to do as she was told. It made me question the limits of loyalty: How far would you go for your employer? Particularly if you became bound up in their life. It seemed to me that these relationships were often unhealthy ones of co-dependency. And that is what The Secretaryis about. In my book, the secretary's whole identity is caught up with her employer's - she has an overwhelming desire to be needed. And the more she is needed, the more her boss depends upon her. It was this dynamic between two women that interested me.
MT:For the aspiring writers reading this, what was the road to becoming a great writer like for you? Did you always have a passion for books, or did the love of books and writing come later? Did you always know what genre you would want to write, or did you stumble into it?
RK: As a child, reading was always my favourite past-time and has continued to be so. The passion for books was always there, although it was only in middle-age when I found the confidence to tackle writing my own. My career had been in making television documentaries and so, when I started writing, I began with scripts and then moved onto novels. I have always been drawn to narratives that explore human psychology and delve into the darker side of how we behave as humans. I didn't consciously set out to write psychological thrillers, but this is where the characters I created led me.
MT: Everything about this novel felt so authentic, and while there isn’t an outright murder or some outrageous opening scene, we are drawn in to this irresistible novel, possibly through your writing alone but it feels like you’ve done a really great job at using a lot of different elements to pull the reader into the novel. Do you mind talking about how you are able to draw a reader in without a shocking opening, and how that also benefits the reader as we feel the suspense throughout the entire novel?
RK: I think it was by digging as deeply as I could into the character of the secretary, Christine Butcher. She holds the story - she is the one telling it and so we know that we, the reader, are in her hands. We know from the start that Christine is a damaged woman, although she is trying to hide it from us. She has been treated badly and her obsession with her past and with her employer, Mina Appleton, makes her an uncomfortable companion. I resisted having a prologue to the book with a shocking incident because, in my view, this can be over-used in thrillers and at times feel a bit of a cheat. If the first chapter does not draw the reader in, then that first chapter is not working as well as it should be. From the start I tried to make Christine's voice clear and to create an atmosphere that was claustrophobic with an underlying sense of dread.
MT: What books did you often turn to in order to write this novel? Were there certain authors novels you turned to in order to get inspiration for this novel?
RK: Years ago, I read Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller - a book I loved and that stayed with me. I went back and re-read it while I was writing The Secretary. Apart from that, no. I read a lot of newspaper articles about secretaries and court cases, and I spoke to two very experienced personal assistants.
MT:When creating the main character, Christine, what did you have to do to find her voice, and how do you view her overall? Without giving away spoilers, do you think you can talk about whether you think Christine is a villain or victim, culpable or innocent? What about her boss, Mina?
RK: I first wrote the novel in the third person and then re-wrote it in the first and when I did that Christine's voice came. I knew who she was when I started, but it was only when I moved from third to first person that her voice really came through. I see Christine as a victim, although she is not entirely innocent. She was damaged and vulnerable when she met Mina her boss and, Mina knew this, although she underestimated the danger in betraying a person as fragile as Christine. Mina wanted someone who she could mould to fit her needs and she saw that person in Christine. In a way, she groomed her as I believe some powerful people do with those who serve them. They need to be surrounded by people who won't question their orders or their authority.
Mina is a charming and seductive personality. Someone who might make many of us, if we met her, feel better about ourselves. It is all surface though - underneath, she is ruthless. So, in the end, I see her as manipulative, entitled and, yes, the villain. She abuses her position of power and pays the price for it.
MT: What do you think is so seductive about Mina, even to Christine? What would you say is the thing that draws Christine to Mina again and again, often turning away everyone in her life for this job?
RK: Mina is powerful and yet she succeeds in disguising her hard core in a veneer of caring. She can seem, and is at times, thoughtful to others although we learn these moments are never without calculation. She is able to make herself appear vulnerable - as if she needs to be protected. She makes Christine believe that she needs her above everyone else, and although she never says this to her directly, she implies it in the way she appears to confide in her. And yet, in truth, Christine knows very little. Christine's fatal flaw is that she has an overwhelming need to be needed and Mina provides this for her. She also finds it easier to put order into Mina's life rather than her own. Domestic life can be unpredictable and messy, and Christine finds that hard to deal with and so she gradually cuts herself from her home-life and, instead, turns her focus to Mina.
MT:There are often incidences in the book where Christine is forced to question who she is—her dying father, her daughter, her former husband—who they are to her, and what Mina is to her. At one point, Mina brings up a problem with Christine, but pulls up different problems that Christine viewed differently. Sometimes, we see Mina as vindictive, cruel, someone taking out her anger on Christine, but other times we have to ask how reliable is Christine as a narrator. I love the layers you add to these parts of the novel. How did you construct the relationship between Mina and Christine—was it already planned out, or something that grew from multiple drafts and rewrites?
RK: A bit of both. I understood their relationship pretty much from the start, but when I wrote and re-wrote I was able to build up the layers. I wrote about six drafts of this novel, three in the third person!
MT:There are many moments in the novel where Christine feels powerful, and many moments when she feels powerless. The positive and negative charges really balance the novel out, but as a character I have to ask if you think Christine has a need to have both, possibly at once, but at least each feeling at a certain time? Both feelings can have a positive or negative impact on her, but at the end of the day they feel necessary to Christine.
RK: I see Christine, as I said earlier, as a victim, but not innocent. Her identity is very much bound up with Mina's need of her, and with this comes her own sense of power. She feels she has an influential place in Mina's life and she likes that. She also enjoys the privileges of being Mina Appleton's personal assistant - being invited to her home, travelling first class on business trips, having a special relationship with her children. She is not without vanity.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this novel, and what kept you writing, revising, rewriting, and moving forward with the novel? Do you have any regrets about any elements of the novel now that it’s been published?
RK: The hardest part was resisting making the crime in the court case more than a white collar crime. I was determined from the start that this book would be about a toxic relationship and an abuse of power. It was a challenge to maintain the tension throughout the novel and I hope I have succeeded. This is the book I wanted to write and so I have no regrets.
MT: The ending, as well as the rest of the novel, is so great. The ending both has a strong effect on the reader and also feels inevitable in many ways. Did you ever struggle with writing the ending? What do you think is important about ending a great novel of suspense and crime like The Secretary?
RK: I did try out several different endings, although this was the one that was always in my head and that I kept coming back to. It felt inevitable to me too. I'm happy that you think it works. As you say, The Secretary is a slow-burn and so needed to deliver fully at the end. The end, to me, is so important. It cannot only be about the journey. If the destination is predictable or pulled out of a hat, then ultimately the reader is left disappointed. All roads must lead there.
MT:What is coming up next for you, Renee? Do you have a book in the works, a work in progress? I know I’m eager to see what you write next!
RK: I have another book sloshing around in my head at the moment, so I am thinking about it, doing some research and then, over the next couple of weeks I will sit at my desk and begin to work in detail on the plot. Once I am confident in the idea, then I will start to write, but only once I am sure that it is a story I want to tell. For the moment, I don't feel ready to share it - sorry.
MT: Renee, I really loved The Secretary, and I look forward to reading more from you. I really encourage our readers to purchase a copy of this book—it was phenomenal, a brilliant slow burn that really delivers through and through. If you love a great literary mystery, a story about complicated relationships, and ultimately a book that feels so incredibly dark without the need for so much gore, you will really love this book. Renee really pulls off some amazing feats with this novel. Thank you so much, Renee, and feel free to leave us with any closing thoughts!
RK: Thank you for such stimulating questions. Writing is a solitary occupation and so it is such a pleasure connecting with readers. Reading is much more of a commitment than watching a narrative play out on a screen and so it feels, to me, a privilege every time someone picks up my book and reads it.
Matthew Turbeville: As you know from my stalking tweets, messages, etc, I am a big fan. Before we get into your amazing new novel Miraculum, can you talk about your journey into writing before this book? What was it like working toward getting published?
Steph Post: It was just that: work. I sort of started at the bottom and just clawed my way up, teaching myself as I went along and learning from others. I had always wanted to ‘be a writer,’ but it took a conscious decision and commitment to take the first step, to write the first novel. That was about six years ago- I’ve written a novel a year ever since I made that promise to myself to give writing my all, not as a hobby, but as a career. I can be very determined when I want to be and once I made that promise, there was no going back. I started with a small book (A Tree Born Crooked) and a small publisher and have tried to grow as much as possible with each new book and stage of my publishing journey.
MT: Were you always a reader? Always a writer? What books, crime or otherwise, had the most influence on you during your formative years, and what books do you read now, as well as authors, and what authors and books do you turn to now if you get stuck or need inspiration?
SP: I’ve always been a reader. I’ve been devouring books since before I can remember. I think in many ways, I was always a writer, though I didn’t quite realize it until I was in my teens. I was always a storyteller—I created these complex dramas and worlds in my head—but in sixth grade my English teacher had us write a short story (I absolutely remember this, it had to be about a firecracker—that was the topic) and it was the first time I put two-and-two together and realized that everything I had been carrying around in my head could be put down on paper. That what I was doing with all my complicated daydreams and self-storytelling was actually the same thing authors were doing with all the books I loved. It sounds so silly now, but that firecracker story really was a bolt for me.
The only crime novel I read as a kid/teen was David Eddings’ High Hunt, which is definitely not a kid-appropriate book. I learned the most incredible curse words from that book, which I was smart enough not to share with anyone at the time. I can’t even count the amount of times I read High Hunt as a teen. It’s a pretty unknown novel, but I think anyone could read it and see its imprint on A Tree Born Crooked, Lightwood and Walk in the Fire. Other novels that clearly sparked something in me during those years are Michael Ondatje’s The English Patient and Sherri Reynolds’ The Rapture of Cannan. I think with all three books, they showed me how to push the boundaries of what was expected of a writer. Of how storytelling had to be grounded in authenticity to work, even at its most fantastical.
As for right now, I read everything. I wouldn’t say there’s anyone one author or group of authors I ever turn to, but I know that I glean inspiration from every book I read. Sometimes, it’s even negative inspiration, a lesson in what not to do. I’m a complete scavenger—picking up bits and pieces and storing them in my subconscious for another day.
MT: You write a book, you think This is great or maybe This is good or even more often for writers I wish I typed everything by typewriter or wrote by hand so I could burn every copy and forget this.What’s next for you as a writer? What is your rewriting, revising, and editing processes like?
SP: I’m currently in the beginning stages of my latest novel, so soon I’ll be diving under a rock and staying there for the next nine months or so. I am always working on a book, always at one stage or another, and there are very clear, defined cycles I go through. A lot of daydreaming to start, just letting ideas crash into another and spiral around one another to see what happens. This usually takes place during the back half of writing another novel. Then research, planning, some outlining, at least three drafts. I have a clear process that works best for me and though I’m always changing some things up— I’m always learning from what worked or didn’t in the previous novel—having this ‘schedule’ of sorts really helps to keep me going.
MT: You have a really strong background in noir, crime, mystery—whatever genre or subgenre you want to group yourself and your work in. What made you decide to take a leap toward Miraculum, a miraculous book that is both at times a stretch but also often similar to your previous writings. Can you talk about this change from one type of book to another? How did your agent, your editor(s), publicist, publishers feel about everything?
SP: I have a strong background in crime fiction, yes, but I always maintain that I’m an accidental crime writer. I actually wrote Miraculum after writing Lightwood, but before Lightwood was picked up by Polis Books. So, at the time of writing, I had no idea that I would ever be following the crime writer path with a Southern crime trilogy. I think the crime novels are closer to my reality, my upbringing, where I live, etc., and Miraculum is closer to my inner world, what I love and what most sparks my imagination. They’re two sides to me, but I’ve always been a walking dichotomy.
Fortunately, Jason Pinter at Polis Books was extremely supportive of publishing a novel that veers off the beaten path. Miraculum defies a lot of a lot of genre boxes and I think in general there was some worry, by everyone, of how Miraculum was going to ‘fit’ in the book world. Much like what I’ve done myself, I think Miraculum is carving out its own niche for itself.
MT: You’ve created an incredibly strong heroine in snake-charmer Ruby, a woman who works at a carnival—the book has, at first, a very Carnivalefeel, only you leave feeling more completed and fulfilled, and you have a badass heroine to top it all off. Can you talk about your influences for this book, how this character, Ruby, came into being, and how many drafts of this novel you wrote before you came to the copy we are reading and thoroughly enjoying today?
SP: I actually wrote a very early draft of this novel as my master’s thesis for UNCW in the Liberal Studies Program. Different characters, different storyline, different title and presmise but I was still writing a novel about a traveling carnival. HBO’s Carnivale was a huge influence on that book. I loved that show so much. It got under my skin and I carried around those splinters for years. Fast forward five or so years later, I began to work on Miraculum. I still wanted to write about a carnival, I just couldn’t seem to let it go. But I didn’t want to be influenced by that early work either. I’ve never gone back and read it, but it definitely was a starting point for me.
Once I set out to write Miraculum—the story we have now—that was it.
MT: There’s this magical element in Miraculumthat comes out stronger and stronger as the book progresses. In this area of sexism and misogyny, plus this disbelief in both female and male rape victims (sorry, I have to point out how crazy our country is right now with this whole Bohemian Rhapsodything), and I wonder what you think Ruby’s natural—and other—powers are?
SP: Aside from the supernatural elements that wrap around Ruby and her story, I think Ruby has a tremendous amount of innate power and the will and desire to use it, as well. One of the reasons I love Ruby so much is that, yes, she’s jaded and been through hell when we first meet her, but she has just a tremendous amount of willpower and self-worth. Despite all of the limitations in her world, caused by her appearance and past, she just keeps fighting. There’s also a rawness about her, and even a vulnerability, and her power comes from that as well. She refuses to take the kicks lying down, no matter how much it hurts, and I so love that about her.
MT: What was your favorite part about writing this book and your least favorite part? And, speaking honestly, if you had to rewrite or just cut a part of the book—or, the reverse, add a major part—would you do anything?
SP: My favorite part was definitely writing in Daniel’s voice. His monologues just came out like falling water and I loved being in his head for this writing periods. My least favorite was the frustration I experienced. I wanted to tell this amazing story, but I didn’t have all the tools when I started out. I had to teach myself about the importance of research and of planning, of building a complete, complex world for the characters to run around in. It was a learning curve, for sure, but an invaluable one.
And now? So, I’ve written two books since Miraculum and grown so much as a writer. If I had to go back and rewrite the book, the story would be the same, but I think it would be filled out a little more. The book I’m working on now is stylistically in the same vein as Miraculum, compared to me crime novels, and I’m taking everything I wished I had done in Miraculum and being sure to include it now.
MT: The book is both a mystery and a fantasy novel. But it’s a lot more than that, one of my favorite being a sort of feminist epic. How hard was it getting all of these different aspects of genre to work in the novel? Did this come naturally, or was it something you had to work at? What do you advise to writers of transgeneric fiction?
SP: Fortunately, when I was writing Miraculum, it was so early in my literary career that I wasn’t thinking about genre at all. It just wasn’t on my radar. I just had a story to tell and along the way I discovered the best way to tell it. I think that’s the very simple key right there: just tell (write) a good story, the one only you can tell, the way only you can tell it. Genre is something to worry about once the book is complete. I don’t think it works to think about it too hard beforehand.
MT: There’s also this element of horror. What are your favorite horror novels—and also, especially, horror movies—that influenced the book? Also, there seems (at least to me) to be a special naming to each character, something that corresponds with who they are, who they are supposed to be, and sadly for some who they could have been. I know Toni Morrison, for example, gives a lot of thought into the names of her characters. Do you do the same?
SP: Ok, so I’m actually a weenie when it comes to most horror films. I love some horror—the kind that carries with it a deep sense of mystery, for example—but I’m not into slasher films or torture porn, I don’t really like horror films that just give it all away to try to scare the viewer as much as possible. The best, and scariest, situations are the ones where so much is held back. It’s what you Don’t see that terrifies you. As far as influencing Miraculum, Bran Stoker’s Dracula was a big one, of course. Books and short stories by Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Robert Chambers. Even novels like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and the Ripley books by Patricia Highsmith. Anxiety-producing horror. As far as films go, King’s Rose Red (a underappreciated mini-series) and The Village are the first that come to mind.
And yes, most of the names in Miraculum, are well thought-out with special significances attached, even if they are only personal. Daniel’s last name, Revont, for example, relates to the Finnish word “revontolet” which refers to the Northern Lights, also called “fox fires.” Daniel is a trickster, a character type usually associated with foxes. Foxes are also my favorite animals and my spirit animal, so his name is a nod to me as well.
MT: Speaking of horror, what are the things that scare you most? And while we are talking fear, we live in a time where book to book, an author’s career can depend on any amount of success. There are authors who lose careers for having really horrible social media personalities. What is the scariest thing for you about putting a book out into the world for you?
SP: Hmmm… there are lots of things I don’t like (spiders, heights, crowds, large groups of small things, Wal-Mart, sponges, ok, I have some weird phobias….), but I’m not sure what scares me the most. That’s a great question. I think I would be truly terrified if I didn’t have a creative project to work on. I’m always at least one book ahead in my mind. If I had nothing, if I had to face that emptiness, that void, damn, that would scare the shit out of me. As far as fear with my books? It’s been a little nerve-wracking to put myself out there, just as an author personality. To engage with readers, to be open and let them in to my world. I’m actually a very private person—I love being alone—but it probably doesn’t seem like it from my constant Instagram posts.
MT: This book is, on some levels, a history, and a story of freaks—much like the iconic movie Freaks. How much research did you do into carnivals, and how they worked? Being a work, in part, of historic fiction, how did you approach research? Are you a big researcher for novels?
SP: For a novel like Miraculum, research is a huge part of the writing process. I do it in the beginning to build the bones of the world and then research throughout and at each drafting stage. I read a lot of books and watched documentaries, trying to learn as much as I could to back up the story I had to tell.
MT: There’s a love story here, too. In noir, and in any other genre you write, what importance do you put into love and romance? When you write, an examine a major part of someone’s life, and also possibly someone’s whole life, what do you feel you learn about love, heartbreak, moving on, and all the aspects of relationships?
SP: Oh wow, that last part is a pretty complex question. I like romance in novels, as long as its authentic and most especially if its complicated. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to force romance into a novel, though. I just have characters and, like most people, they love or have loved or want to love, and so it goes from there. And when you write these characters, when you live in their skin for months on end, I’d say you do learn from their experiences, from what you put them through. In some ways, having all these fictional points of view have helped me to try to see situations, of all kids, from myriad points of view. I think also, when you can see the scope of a characters life, even if you’re only writing a small slice of it, you begin to see the enormity of life in general. That so many different types of love can exist, on so many different levels, and there’s room and space for all of them.
MP: In crime, we often have the femme fatale and the disposable man, the man who can be killed off or conned. It seems that—not exactly, but in some ways—you have reversed the elements in this book. What were the main themes you wanted to establish, and what were the main messages you wanted to get across to your readers?
SP: One of the biggest themes running through Miraculum relates to this exactly: turning things upside down. Exploring the opposite of what is expected. This goes along with the topsy-turvy nature of carnivals and the history behind it, of fools and misrule, but it also relates to the characters in the book as well. Both Ruby and Daniel play around with personal gender roles and expression and with societies’ expectations of their gender. Most importantly, though, the characters are true to themselves, even though it might take us a while to see that side of Daniel. I hope that message comes through as well: the power in being yourself, in mining who you are and what you have to offer the world. We get that message a lot in children’s literature, but I think adults need it as well.
MT: Were there any other careers you ever considered prior to becoming a well-known writer? Most importantly, for the desperately struggling writers out there, what were the pit stops in your writing career? Where did you finally decide to buckle down and be a really great writer, and were there any other roadblocks in the way?
SP: Well, I always wanted to be a rockstar, but I can’t sing. I have no musical talent whatsoever, so that dream disappeared pretty quickly. I was and still am (to some degree) a high school teacher. I think new writers need to be aware that even well-known writers are people beyond their writing careers. They’re teachers and bartenders and firefighters and parents. They Work. And that work should be as honored and respected as the literary awards they may one day garner.
As for me, I’ve hit every roadblock along the way and, as I typical do, I just hit the gas and pretended I couldn’t see them. The path of becoming a successful author isn’t easy. I’m still very much on it. I’m just too damn stubborn to give up.
MT: In a way, it doesn’t seem like such a crazy transition to the different genres you’ve composed Miraculum of. Just like in this novel, crime—from its very heyday—seems to be composed of myth. The indestructible man. The femme fatale. There are so many different stereotypes that have lasted generations thanks to Chandler and his contemporaries. What stereotypes in your former writing, and in this novel, have you hoped to dismantle?
SP: I love mythology, if you can’t tell from Miraculum, and I love archetypes. But some stereotypes in current fiction just make my skin crawl. In some aspects of popular culture—fiction, film, television—we’ve devolved into stereotypes that to me just smack of laziness with the writing. The femme fatale, for example. This tough, sexy woman who is only tough and sexy in her interactions with the main male character. She’s a ballbuster, but then she’s tamed by the male lead and all is right with the world again. She’s just radical enough to be a fantasy object, but not complex enough to resemble a real woman in any way. That trope just pisses me off to end. (sorry to get up on my soapbox there). And there’s just as many bland, and damaging, stereotypical male characters. I don’t know that I want to dismantle anything, but I certainly want to knock down some walls and give us all some breathing room. Let characters be messy and complicated and not fit into neat, identifiable packages.
MT: Do you think you can come back to normal crime, noir, suspense, thriller, etc—anything in the crime genre or subgenre after this? How do you think your fans will respond? This was a spectacular book, and I know you can top it, but I am interested into what your next steps are.
SP: I’m already there. The last novel in the Judah Cannon Florida series will be out in 2020. I finished writing it last year. So I’m pretty confident in being able to flip around with genres. I’m not sure when I will going back to crime fiction now, though. The book I’m currently at work on is not a crime novel, but who knows what will happen after?
MT: We are really excited to hear about any and future works you are producing. I am so excited for you, at what feelslike the beginning of a bright and beautiful career. I can’t wish you anything but success in the future. Please feel free to leave any comments, thoughts, or other ponderings below. Know that I am so excited to turn what few of our readers don’t know about Miraculumonto the book, and I am so thankful you wrote it. Thank you for stopping by, and I really hope we get to talk again in the future!
SP: Thank you so much!! Readers are everything and readers like yourself, who take the time to really dig into a book, are absolute gems. I so appreciate all of your support. And, yes, please stay in touch!
Purchase Miraculum from Indiebound here: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781947993419
Here is a link to where you can buy signed copies of MIRACULUM:
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Liz! I wanted to talk to you about your newest novel, Don’t Wake Up, which I’m sure will be a smash hit everywhere. The plot features a doctor who may or may not have been raped at the beginning of the novel in this nail-biting, stomach-churning opening that really haunts the reader well after the book is over. What helped you come up with the book premise?
Liz Lawler: Hi Matthew, It’s lovely to talk to you!
You use nail-biting and stomach-churning as feelings felt and this is a good place to start as I remember feeling both those emotions many times in my years of nursing. Tense shoulders and dry-mouth was me during times where critical care was required, which in nursing is par for the course. I used to come home with my shoulders aching and it wasn’t from the physical challenges of the job, but the tension carried in the aftermath. It’s a constant pendulum of highs and lows – joy and sadness – when one patient gets better and the next, not. I think years of witnessing the vulnerability of both patient and relative as they combatted fear burned into my psyche, so possibly there begins the premise of this story. Emotional vulnerability.
MT: I read that you are a former nurse turned writer. What do you feel really prepared you for writing, and writing this specific book, by being a former nurse?
LL: Most definitely all of the above and add that together with snippets of remembered throwaway remarks or opinions from many voices. Not just medical colleagues opinion, but relatives also. Do you think she’s just looking for attention? There’s nothing wrong with him, he’s just lonely. She’s hypochondriac. He’s a drug addict, he just wants drugs. She’s got mental health problems – can we trust what she says? It’s all in his imagination!
I don’t think people are intentionally careless, though in some cases people are just downright cruel. Often comments are made though frustration or tiredness or not finding an answer, but if we give up on looking where then does it leave the person who is suffering? Isolated and alone.
MT: I myself am chronically ill and see a lot of nurses, all telling me they never try to judge their patients. I wonder how you felt about certain characters in your novel—there are a lot of characters who, while entirely compelling, aren’t the most attractive people. Megan Abbott has instructed me never to judge my characters—did you have a hard time doing this for the many people who choose not to believe your protagonist?
LL: So Matthew you have probably seen and experienced a lot of the medical world so I hope your nurses are lovely! I think Megan Abbott is right never to judge characters. Many of us hear about that doctor or nurse who is uncaring or has a miserable face all the time and I worked with a few of those, but oftentimes they are simply wearing a face or displaying a manner that the seriousness of their job has formed. I had a general practitioner once who never smiled, but her care was undeniably there. Characters that are unattractive are still people with real feelings that hurt and hurt back when they are in pain and you still have to care for them. I want to understand their frailties and weaknesses if only to know why they behave as they do.
MT: The book is masterfully written, and you are excellent at creating scenarios that make the reader struggle to pull away from the page, and you also have a true gift for suspense and making the reader turn the page. What are some tricks or ideas you use to do this?
LL: You do say some lovely things! Truthfully, I use my deepest imagination to walk in the shoes of each of my characters. I imagine their fear and hatred and when it gets too much for me I pull back and breathe. If someone were to video me while I’m writing I dread to think what expressions would cross my face. My old dog used to sit on my feet while I sat writing and sometimes, out of the blue, he’d give me a look and sit somewhere else.
MT: As I mentioned, you really have a talent for a lot of things, the greatest of which is creating a phenomenal book that the reader simply can’t put down. What do you feel were the most important books that helped shape you as a writer? What books do you still turn to, and which authors are your favorite in the crime genre?
LL: That’s a really hard question to answer as I’ve read too many books to know what subliminal influences have passed through from them. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was the first grownup book I read and I still have that copy on my bookcase. To read of an injustice so undeniably wrong opened my mind to what I was reading wasn’t just fiction. It was the telling of human nature at its worst. When I closed the last page I was left wishing for the world to be filled with people like Atticus Finch. So I still turn to him! But I love the thriller/crime genre and read all and everything by authors Thomas Harris, Jeffery Deaver and Martina Cole to name but a few.
MT: This idea of not believing a victim—rape, assault, etc—is incredibly important now, as we have sort of peaked with the #metoo area, examining both the positive and negative effects of the movement, and have also moved on to try and press for politicians to make changes so that victims of rape and any type of assault might be helped or seek justice. Why do you feel this book is especially important today and what do you think it can teach readers?
LL: When I was writing Don’t Wake Up I was only thinking and feeling about the story. When I initially wrote it, I shelved it for a few years, and what has been happening in recent times had not yet been spoken about. The Me Too Movement was still to come. But again it is a subject that sadly I have witnessed, along with wife beating, husband beating and child abuse. It has always been there. That is not new. I think if I wanted teach anything (and I’m not a teacher) it would be to point out there was moment in many of those character lives when they were treated in a bad way, or they’d behaved in a way they shouldn’t, then was the time to tell about it and stop the domino effect. By staying quiet and afraid or resentful and jealous or fearing being disbelieved chained and locked them in the life they were living.
MT: In writing, revising, rewriting, what are your habits and practices? Are you a morning, afternoon, or evening writer? How many words or pages do you decide to write a day? What advice do you give aspiring writers about their own methods of writing?
LL: I would have to say in this instance – don’t do what I do. I’m terrible, Matthew, and every week I come up with a plan to put in place good writing practices. But by the time I open my laptop, mostly around 7:00 a.m. the intention has gone out the window. I then tend to sit until bedtime writing. Not healthy at all. Do you know I’ve never actually checked how many words I write a day? I just looked at the word count and it’s up to 1,650. One thing I do every day is read back and edit what was written the day before.
MT: Toni Morrison is credited with saying that the most important book to write is the book you’ve always wanted to read and have never found. Do you think that Don’t Wake Upis this book, or do you have a few more books to come before you get to this particular book?
LL: Great words! I feel I have much to learn and if anything what I truly aspire to being is a better writer. My second book in the UK has just been released and so that nail-biting, stomach-churning time is with me now. Likewise with Don’t Wake Up now published in the United States. The question being – will it be liked? I’m presently writing my third novel which is fortunately keeping me sane!
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this book? Did you ever feel like giving up, and what kept you going?
LL: The more it became finished the more afraid I was to have it read. And I stayed afraid a good while.In fact I’d completely stopped writing. Then everything changed. I got a phone call one morning from my darling mum. She rang me to say there was a writing competition and I didn’t have long to enter as it was closing soon. I told her I was done with writing and she told me I was a fool. A week later she died suddenly at the age of 89 and she was buried on her 90thbirthday, just before Christmas. After the funeral I returned home and I remembered out last conversation. I remembered hearing the frustration in her voice that I had given up. I decided to check out the details of this competition and saw that the deadline for submissions was less than a week away. I entered a story I knew she liked. The story was Don’t Wake Up, my debut novel. My mum, the hardest working woman I’ve ever known, will always be my inspiration.
MT: What is your favorite part about reading and writing mysteries and thrillers? What has pulled you into the genre, and what do you think the genre’s greatest strength is? What is so important about writing crime novels today?
LL: I think being afraid while being safe is a thrill. Experiencing danger without being in danger thumps the heart in my chest. I think the strength in the thriller genre is that it takes you on a frightening journey and sees you safe the other side. While not a fan of horror (way too scared to watch or read) I’ve always loved the thriller genre, both in books and movies and some have struck a chord of real fear in me. My 18 year old daughter was about to set sail around the world in her new job and a few days before departure I suggested we have a movie night. I put on TAKEN!
MT: The book is largely about love and love that is lost. We see multiple characters lose their lovers, their partners, their husbands or wives, and I really do love when crime fiction involves romantic issues and features these issues in different ways. It seems that every character, positive or negative, has some sort of heartbreak. Why do you think it was essential to write about this?
LL: When I imagine these characters I see them as real people, living and breathing with hopes and dreams, disappointments and failures. They each have a story, a moment, a past that makes them who they are. I think real life is like that – broken hearts, broken dreams and sometimes loss. I am always in awe when I hear of tragedies people have overcome of how incredibly brave they are. And to end on a lighter note – I love a love story.
MT: Trust is a major issue in the book, and being betrayed by those you think you can trust happens often. What do you think is so important in the crime community and in books lately about trust, and why does the issue resonate so profoundly today?
LL: I find it really interesting that more and more books include ways of committing crimes using the internet, social media, mobile phones and technology gadgets. Who’d ever have thought one day there’d be the word: Fraped? It scares the hell out of me that I already know a dozen people to have had this done to them. Cybercrimes: hacking, stalking, identity theft, child pornography and scam after scam happening every day. Valuable tools in the wrong hands causing devastation. I think when crime fiction reminds us of these things happening we learn to trust less.
MT: Do you already have a work in progress, or plans for books in the future? Could you give our readers any clues or idea of what the future book or books might be about?
LL: Yes, my second novel has just been published in the UK. It’s called ‘I’ll Find You’, and that too is about loss, and how far one is driven to find or make safe someone they love. I’m presently working on book three and the setting is completely different. I’m putting my experiences of working on trains and planes to use for this one!
MT: I really want to thank you for taking the time to let our readers get to know you and be interviewed by Writers Tell All. Your book is phenomenal, and I hope all our readers get the chance to read a copy. Remember guys, pick up your copy of Don’t Wake Upas soon as you can, you won’t regret it. As for you, Liz, feel free to leave us with any closing comments or thoughts.
LL: Matthew, thank you so much for inviting me to answers your questions. Have to say they have been the most thought provoking and challenging to date! You’ve made me question my mind in so many different areas, think things I didn’t even know I had any thoughts on. It’s been a pleasure. Wishing you all the best and of course thank you to any new readers over the pond. Hope you like Don’t Wake Up. Liz X
Followers of the site and my other writings elsewhere will note that I rarely endorse a novel so wholly, and yet NO EXIT is the novel to beat this year, and perhaps this decade. An astonishing novel of a young woman's desire to survive, and will to save another life, is so astonishing, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat (and all other cliches), it is irresistible. But rest assured that NO EXIT is no cliche. It is phenomenal. Below is my interview with author Taylor Adams.
Matthew Turbeville: Wow, Taylor, this is a remarkable novel. I very rarely read books that completely overwhelm me with the story and characters. The book feels like a non-stop action ride peppered with some really great characters and a lot of other interesting things as well. What did you have planned when you first came up with No Exitand decided to write the book?
Taylor Adams: Thank you! I love contained thrillers, and I’d really wanted to try my hand at writing a story that took place in a “locked room” with very little outside interference. I think the pressure of isolation can do wonders for a story’s tension, and rest stops had always struck me as naturally eerie places. The idea of witnessing a horrible crime at a rest stop – and being trapped with the evildoer due to outside forces – was just too exciting a premise for me to ignore!
MT: Darby is such a wonderful character. I don’t know how to describe her—and given the obstacles in her way, her will to survive—I have to ask what went into making Darby as a character, and how did you decide this was the challenge she would face, and that this would be the perfect fight for her to take on?
TA: Darby was a fun character to write. I knew from the premise that the story needed a heroine who appears ordinary at first glance – but as she’s put to the test, she surprises herself, and the villain, with shocking tenacity and courage. That kind of heroism is genuinely inspiring to me. And I also tend to empathize with characters who are in a situation hopelessly over their heads (not sure what that says about me!). Throughout the rewriting process of No Exit, I frequently reminded myself: Darby isn’t a cop, she doesn’t know any martial arts, she’s not even particularly strong – but to save a little girl’s life tonight, she will literally cut throats. I love that in a protagonist.
MT: There are so many twists, some fairly early on. I know reading this book I felt settled in and cozy, not because the book was happy or I thought it would happily, but because I really believed I was reading a story being handled by a master of the form. How did you introduce these twists, and during revision and rewriting were there ever times you really felt that you needed to add or remove something significant?
TA: The story was more straightforward in its earlier drafts and became “twistier” as I rewrote it and found new opportunities for misdirection and surprise. Particularly in the final third, I really felt the need to layer in the upsets, as I feared the ending wasn’t packing the punch it needed to. One particular late-game twist – involving the outside world’s response to the climactic bloodbath – is one that I’ve been wanting to use in a story for years, and finally had the chance to! But on the other hand, overdoing it can feel like narrative whiplash. There was a final planned twist to the story’s epilogue which I’d struggled valiantly to write for several months before realizing it was simply too much. It would have been a major misstep.
MT: This novel reminds me so much of Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, in so many ways, although it is a book all its own. What are the books and authors who really influenced you and your writing throughout the creation of this book? Were there any books you particularly turned to when you were having an especially hard time writing the novel?
TA: I’m so happy to hear that! Joe Hill was absolutely an influence, as was much of Stephen King’s work. They both have an effortless way with the poetry of terror. I’m also a big fan of Scott Smith, whose amazing novels The Ruins and A Simple Plan similarly involve small groups of people under extreme pressure. And I’d be remiss not to cite the classic Christmas story Die Hard as a major influence – I wouldn’t quite call Darby a female version of John McClane, but I like to think they’d get along.
MT: What are your writing habits actually like? Do you write in the morning, evening, night, or are you the type of writer who fits writing in whenever you can? What was your path in becoming a writer, or did you feel this was always your “calling”?
TA: I like to write in the mornings (preferably with about a gallon of black coffee). I find I’m much sharper and more focused in the early parts of the day, so getting my obligatory thousand words in right at the crack of dawn is best. From an early age I knew I wanted to be a writer – when I was five years old, my parents bought me this publishing service for kids where you write/draw the pages and publisher binds it together as a book. Five-year-old me wrote “The Train’s Worst Day,” a harrowing and surprisingly bleak story about a train struggling to get home amid an onslaught of natural disasters. I guess I’ve always had a thing for tormenting my protagonists.
MT: This novel feels like it is about some really strong women—Darby in particular—and the determined need to survive and see things through to the end. The ending is something that I’m still trying to wrap my head around, and also something I loved and admire you for so immensely. If you wouldn’t mind sharing, who are the women who have affected your life deeply and influenced Darby—personal, literary, famous, activists, so on?
TA: My wonderful girlfriend Jaclyn was a tremendous influence. She’s an extremely smart and tenacious attorney, and she takes no crap in a legal field that’s still heavily male-dominated. Likewise, in No Exit, Darby assumes an action-hero role, which is perhaps an equally male-dominated space. Her enemy underestimates her at first. But she digs in, duct-tapes her wounds, plans her attack, and does not quit. That’s Jaclyn, winning a case.
MT: This book is much more a thriller than a mystery (although there are some really great elements involving mysteries as well in the book). What’s so amazing is how you kept me glued to the page, unable to stop reading until the very last sentence, and even then wanting more. My heart was pounding, my fingers curved in and digging into the page, and I knew this would be a book I would think about for days. What are a few of your secrets to maintaining such incredible suspense throughout the entire novel? It’s astounding how you were able to make use of every single word in the book—something most writers don’t have the ability to do—and even from the first page. Can you explain how some of this works?
TA: Momentum is extremely important to me. Whether it’s a gentle pull or a sharp tug, I truly delight in the sensation of a story relentlessly pulling me to the next page. I worked hard to keep that momentum unbroken throughout No Exitby keeping the tempo varied and making sure Darby never has a chance to rest (in fact, an early title was No Rest). When writing the action scenes, I tried to visualize the events like a continuous camera-take in a film, following clear lines of cause and effect for clarity and urgency. Even the simpler things like chapter transitions – for example, making one scene’s ending “rhyme” with the next scene’s beginning – can be a powerful tool for keeping that all-important momentum unbroken.
MT: At times, I suppose it seems like Darby is fighting for her own survival, but in others ways we see Darby fighting to survive and “win” (that’s the term I’ll use for now so I don’t spoil the book) and I wonder what “ghosts” you give your protagonists, what things haunt them and drive them, and what are the aspects you add into the novel in the current situation that drive the protagonist even harder? There is a person Darby is trying to protect, and I wonder what this person represents to Darby?
TA: As exciting as fighting for survival can be, it will quickly become boring if spread uninterrupted over 300+ pages with no other character motivations (believe me, I’ve tried!). It’s important that the hero have other emotional needs that can serve to both mix up the stakes and deepen the story’s primary conflict. In this case, Darby’s guilt over her troubled relationship with her mother, and her limited time to make amends, provides a brutal added stress – and ultimately, a very positive route toward redemption.
MT: If you do outline your novels, how do you do it? If you don’t outline your novels, what is the process like? What do you focus on first, character or plot? What helps to pull you in to a story you’re creating to make a truly great novel?
TA: Oh man, do I love outlines. I’ll often outline many times before writing a first draft, and even between drafts. They’re a great way for me to get my head around a story’s shape and structure. I would say I focus on the plot first – in a novel like No Exit, the plot is basically the situation, and the changing situation is what informs the characters’ goals (good and evil alike). As the story takes shape, there needs to be an emotional core to hero that I can connect with – in the case of No Exit, it’s Darby’s determination to make a difference and defy her own selfish past, even if it’s literally the last thing she does. That’s the “fuel” for me.
MT: Your novel does not stop from its very beginning until its very end. As I mentioned before, you make use of every word in the novel. I have to wonder how long it took you to write this novel. What was plotting every twist and turn like when there were so many and you made every sentence and word count?
TA: It took me a good eighteen months to write No Exit, across numerous rewrites, overhauls, and general fretting. I started every draft as a new Word document, refocusing and distilling the story each time, to find the most efficient ways forward without breaking that all-important momentum. In many ways, that rapid pace came at the cost of character development – I had scarce time to delve into anyone’s backstories – so I worked hard to show their traits in action instead.
MT: I have to ask, do you have any other books coming up soon? A work in progress or a book that is ready for publication soon? I’m sure our readers will be dying to know.
TA: I do! I’m hard at work writing another twisty thriller with the working title of Hairpin Bridge. It follows a young woman hellbent on proving that her twin sister’s shocking suicide, atop a remote bridge in Montana, was really a murder. To prove this, she drives out to that very same bridge and interviews the local cop who claims to have discovered her sister’s body, and tries to catch him in a lie…
MT: Taylor, thank you so much for letting us pick your brain about your book. It was an endlessly entertaining, beautiful, brutal, visceral, and frighteningly good novel to dive into and I’m so glad I got the chance to read it—and let us know if you have any thoughts, comments, etc below. Thank you again!
TA; Thank you so much for having me here! I really appreciate the kind words!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Barry! Before I begin talking about Livia Lone and maybe a bit about John Rain, I wanted to know about your history in work and life before you became an amazing publishedauthor. Can you tell us a little bit about what your life was like before writing?
Barry Eisler: Mostly I was a writer/philosopher/adventurer trapped in a lawyer’s body…J
Joking aside, in retrospect it can all look planned because my previous experiences tend to manifest themselves in the stories I write, but I was really just bouncing around, not sure of what I wanted to be, what was best in me, where I could make the most meaningful contribution. I spent three years in a covert position in the CIA; then I was a technology lawyer in Silicon Valley and Japan; then I was an executive in a Silicon Valley startup. Some of it was interesting, some less so, but I guess all of it was redeemed to at least some extent by being transformed into fuel for my stories.
But the truth is, I’m still not satisfied I’m really doing what I’m best at and what could make the biggest impact. Before being hounded to death by the U.S. government, Aaron Swartzsaid, “What is the most important thing you could be working on in the world right now? And if you’re not working on that, why aren’t you?” I think about that a lot, and I’m not sure whether for me writing novels is the answer.
MT: So, when you found your way to writing, what was the first thing you wrote? How long was it before you began writing novels and which novel was the novel that got you an agent? Do you have any advice for aspiring authors about this?
BE: I’ve been writing something or other since I was a kid. I used to spend a couple weeks every summer at my grandparents’ house on the Jersey shore. I would bang out short stories about vampires and werewolves on my grandmother’s typewriter. Fortunately, as far as I know those early efforts no longer exits…!
Also when I was a kid, I read a biography of Harry Houdini, and in the book a cop was quoted as saying, “It’s fortunate that Houdini never turned to a life a crime, because if he had he would have been difficult to catch and impossible to hold.” I remember thinking how cool it was that this man knew things people weren’t supposed to know, things that gave him special power. And that notion made a big impression, because since then I’ve amassed an unusual library on topics I like to think of as “forbidden knowledge:” methods of unarmed killing, lock picking, breaking and entry, spy stuff, and other things the government wants only a few select individuals to know. And I spent three years in the CIA, I got pretty into a variety of martial arts…
And then I moved to Tokyo to train in judo—this was when I was 29. I think all the other stuff must have been building up in my mind like dry tinder, waiting for the spark which life in Tokyo came to provide. Because while I was there commuting to work one morning, a vivid image came to me of two men following another man down Dogenzaka street in Shibuya. I still don’t know where the image came from, but I started thinking about it. Who are these men? Why are they following that other guy? Then answers started to come: They’re assassins. They’re going to kill him. But these answers just let to more questions: Why are they going to kill him? What did he do? Who do they work for? It felt like a story, somehow, so I started writing, and that was the birth of John Rain and my first book, A Clean Kill in Tokyo, originally called Rain Fall.That was the one that got me my first agent, and it was about eight years from initial idea to first sale in part because I had a busy day job, and in part because at first I didn’t really know what I was doing, and revised that first manuscript more times than I’ll ever remember, getting better at the craft as I did so.
If there’s any advice to be found in all that, it’s partly about the importance of indulging your passions. I realize in retrospect that what gave birth to that first novel (and the novels that came after) was a lifelong tendency to indulge certain passions of mine: the forbidden knowledge, politics, judo, jazz, and Japan (where I was living when I started writing the first book). Stories don’t get catalyzed by the things that bore you; they quicken instead when you do the things you love. So if you want to write a story, or just avoid writer’s block, I recommend finding a way to do the things that fascinate you, the things you love to do, the things you obsess over and that make the world go away. Those things are like coal being shovelled into the furnace of your imagination, and denying yourself those things is like denying your mind the nutrition it needs to thrive. For more thoughts on how to find the time, discipline, and structure to write a novel (hint: don’t watch television), a TEDx Tokyo talkI once gave is a good resource.
Another lesson is, don’t give up. The first fifty responses I got from agents I contacted were all rejections. Most were form letters, but a few had some helpful suggestions scribbled in the margins. A few had some really bad suggestions, one of which I still remember: “Try third person.” That would have been a disaster for A Clean Kill in Tokyo, leaching the story of the appeal of first-hand access to the mind of a ruthlessly competent but conflicted contract killer. I ignored the bad suggestions, considered the good ones, and did an extensive rewrite.
Eventually, a friend of a friend who worked at a publishing house suggested that I send the manuscript to a few agents with whom she worked, one of whom was Nat Sobel, who became my first agent. Nat saw promise in the early manuscript but knew it wasn’t ready for prime time; he offered suggestions for improvement that were as extensive as they were excellent, and, about two years later, he judged the manuscript ready to go. At that point (this was autumn, 2001), the deals came fast and furious: first Sony’s Village Books in Japan, then Penguin Putnam in the US, then eight foreign offers, all over the course of about two months, all two-book deals. I quit my day job and have been writing full time ever since—a dream come true.
And though things have worked out well, if I could do things over, I would have tried to write more consistently. Spending months or even days away from a manuscript detaches the story from your unconscious. Conversely, working on a story every day lights a fire in your unconscious that becomes self-sustaining, igniting new story points even when you’re not consciously working on the draft. So the on-again, off-again approach drastically inhibits your access to one of your most powerful storytelling assets: your unconscious, what I’ve heard Stephen King call “the boys in the basement.”
I would also have read more how-to books. There are some excellent books on craftout there, and while I believe they’re of secondary importance to actually writing and to learning to read like a writer, they can dramatically accelerate your mastery of craft. Anyone who tells you “but you can’t teach art,” by the way, is being glib. Of course art can’t be taught, but teaching art isn’t the point. The point is: all art is based on craft—that is, on a body of techniques that can be taught to and learned by anyone with talent. Art is an expression of something unique to you and indeed, it can’t be taught. But without craft, there is no art, because all art is based on craft. The truism that “art can’t be taught” is an observation so pointless and irrelevant that I wonder how it continues as a meme. Maybe it makes artists feel more special, as though they’ve been chosen for unique dispensation by the magical writing muse. Maybe it comforts talented non-artists by freeing them of responsibility for their failure to study. Either way, it’s silly and misleading and ought to be retired.
(On the subject of glib pronouncements inexplicably embraced unimpeded by critical thought: Frank Zappa is supposed to have said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I suppose this could be true, if the expressive, descriptive, and overall communication possibilities of dance were identical to those of the written word. Are they?)
Anyway, there’s no substitute for practice, true, but for any skill you’re trying to learn—a martial art, a language, a musical instrument, writing—there’s an optimal balance of practice and theory. In retrospect, I realize I would have learned faster if I’d informed my practice with a little more theory, whether how-to books, writer’s groups, conferences, or whatever.
One thing you shouldn’t conclude from the fact that it was a friend of a friend who put me in touch with the guy who became my first agent is that in this business it’s critical to know someone. That’s a common misapprehension, born of wishful thinking. What matters is writing a great story. The literary agent’s business model involves reviewing everything that comes in, so eventually I would have gotten to Nat, and his judgment would have been the same. Having someone steer me to him speeded things up for me, but that’s about all.
In other words, who you know might get a door opened for you, or get it opened a little sooner than you might have opened it on your own. But what happens on the other side of that door is entirely up to you. Manage your priorities accordingly (translation: Write. The. Book).
Another lesson: the truth of the adage, “Good writing is rewriting. Sometimes people are astonished when they learn the first bookI’d started was also my first published. What they don’t realize is that how much rewriting went into that manuscript—for the amount I learned from it, it might as well have been my fifth manuscript, not, technically, my first. You have to be committed taking the time and expending the effort to develop your mastery of the craft—the practice side of the practice/theory balance I mentioned earlier.
Okay, just a few more thoughts—on what kept me going during the eight years between the first idea for the A Clean Kill in Tokyomanuscript and the first sale of rights for the novel. That can be a long, lonely stretch: no contract, a busy day job, the distractions of everyday life, and no external reason to believe you have the talent or might have the luck to get published.
I think that, in life, there are things you can control and things you can’t (or, to think of the whole thing as a continuum, there are things that are relatively amenable to your influence and things that are relatively unamenable). The things you’re responsible for, and therefore the things that can be the source of legitimate pride or shame, are the ones you can control. If you want to be a writer, the thing you can almost totally control is finishing the book. Finding an agent, getting published…that all takes a certain amount of luck and timing and circumstances (although of course your hard work on what you can control will affect these less controllable factors, too). So my attitude was this: I wanted to be published, but if it didn’t happen, I didn’t want it to be my fault. I wanted to be able to look in the mirror and say, “Okay, you didn’t manage to get published, but you did everything you could to make it happen, you finished the book, so you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of and every reason to feel proud.” That attitude—the fear of one day feeling that if I didn’t make it I might think it was my fault—is what kept me going for many years with no external signs of success. Imagine how it’ll feel if you don’t get published and you know it was your fault—and make sure not to let that happen to you.
MT: Can you tell us about Livia Lone? She has her own series and we learn so much about Livia in the first novel. Would you mind telling us about Livia, why she is who she is, and why being Livia Lone played into the greater part of the novel?
BE: Well, the book jacket provides a pretty nice primer, I think: Refugee. American. Victim. Survivor. Cop. Killer.
When we meet her, Livia is a Seattle PD sex-crimes detective. But as the above primer suggests, she’s much more than just that. Maybe the best way to gain an initial understanding of her character is to recognize that she is fundamentally a sheepdog.
The world, a mentor explains to Livia sometime after she has been rescued from traffickers and is intent on finding her missing sister, is made of three kinds of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Sheep are ordinary people, obviously, while wolves are predators. Sheepdogs, though—soldiers, police, firefighters—while fanged like wolves, possess an instinct not for predation, but rather for protection.
Livia is a born sheepdog. Someone with a deep-seated, hard-wired need to protect—albeit a need tuned by trauma to the level of obsession.
Because what happens to a person who is so wired for protection—not just in general, but in particular for the little sister she adores—when as a child her ability to protect is horrifically ripped away from her?
That sheepdog might start protecting the flock not just by warding off the wolves. But by hunting down the wolves. And killing them.
So on a superficial level, Livia Loneis a story about revenge. But on a deeper, and more important level, the story is about love.
MT: Some of the scenes are brutal and are hard to read, and I imagine hard to write. Would you mind telling us what it was like writing Livia’s history and why it was so important to talk about this sort of history, this sort of life, and how do you think Livia’s past makes her the character we read about today?
BE: From the beginning, I was at least as interested in the forces that shaped Livia in the past as I was about the present-day plot. Happily, those two timeframes, delineated as “Then” and “Now” chapters in the novel, come together, as the past gradually catches up to the present.
Understanding Livia’s past was important to me for several reasons I can articulate. For one, I wanted her to be real. She is capable of extreme behavior—even driven to it—and exceptionally capable tactically. These things are possible, but unlikely, and if I don’t understand the foundation myself, and present it to the reader, then the drive, the capabilities, and the behavior will be just a cartoon. And while there’s nothing wrong with cartoons, I’m more interested in something more realistic.
Presenting Livia’s past was also important to me because technically, she’s a murderer—even a serial killer. And if you don’t understand her past, you won’t be able to sympathize with her actions today.
Livia is a survivor of some of the worst trauma imaginable. I want people to understand not just that the kind of trauma she experiences actually happens, but that someone can survive it—albeit with damage she still struggles to sublimate and overcome.
MT: Were there any novels that inspired Livia Lone or John Rain in their lives or professions? What books do you constantly turn to in your writing both in and outside of the genre, and what are your favorite books in general?
BE: The assassins of Trevanian—Nicholai Hel in Shibumi, and Jonathan Hemlock in The Eiger Sanctionand The Loo Sanction—were definitely an influence for Rain. Both were men of superior intellect, refinement, and (paradoxically) morality. In fact, there’s a line in Shibumiabout Hel as a tiger battling a blob of amoebas, and that theme, which was also present in the corporate-controlled world of the original Rollerball(“It’s not a game a man is supposed to grow strong in, Jonathan, you should appreciate that”), resonates for me.
Books that inspired Livia…definitely the works of child protector and novelist Andrew Vachss, and the jaw-dropping nonfiction Sex Crimes, Then and Now: My Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators, by former sex crimes prosecutor Alice Vachss.
Also, Dave Grossman’s phenomenal On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which is where I first came across the sheep, wolves, sheepdogs concept.
Books that I turn to in my writing…well, sometimes I’ll warm up with something I’ve written previously, to get my head back in that world. And I read a lot of nonfiction. As I like to say, most of my plots are courtesy of the US government, because what’s bad for America is great for thriller writers.
And my favorite books in general…that would be a long answer, so I’ll try to narrow it down by defining “favorite” as the ones I’ve read the most. At the top of that category would be Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, which is both one of the best-told stories I’ve ever come across and an impressive study of human nature, too. And Judy Blume’s Foreveris where I learned to write a good love scene. J
MT: Can you tell our readers (as few spoilers as possible, please!) about what and who Livia Lone and John Rain are in relation to this new book—how they have evolved and if this is the first of your books our readers buy, can you give us just enough clues to figure out how to read the book as a standalone? What essentials must the reader know before diving in?
BE: All my books are designed to function both as series entries and as standalones, so anyone can appreciate The Killer Collectivewith or without having read any of the previous Rain or Livia books.
If I had to compare Rain and Livia…well, they’re both survivors, they’re both killers, they’re both exceptionally methodical. But the differences are probably more significant: Livia was created by trauma, while Rain’s origins lie in an innate attraction to conflict. Livia is motivated by a deep-seated need to protect, while Rain’s motivations are less noble. And Livia is primarily a sheepdog, intent on guarding the sheep, while Rain is much more a wolf, grappling with guilt about having preyed on others.
Rain has been around for a while—he was first published in 2002!—and in some ways he’s changed. He’s less the lone wolf he was at the outset. He has a clan now, which creates complications. He’s older, and grappling with an increasing awareness of his own mortality, and with the increased weight of the life he’s led and what he’s done. He’s been trying to retire—to kill his way out of the killing business—but never quite seems to make it.
And Livia teamed up with Rain’s partner, former Marine sniper Dox, in the previous book, The Night Trade,and that turned into an interesting relationship. So I started wondering…what would happen if Livia, in the course of her Seattle PD sex-crime detective duties, uncovered something so big that she was targeted in an attempted hit? Would she call on Dox for help? Would Dox call on Rain?
And what if Rain had earlier been offered the hit himself…?
Once I started playing around with it, the idea became irresistible. The characters from the Rain and Livia universes are all so different—different motivations, different training, different worldviews, different personalities—that the idea of forcing them together, all their tangled histories, and smoldering romantic entanglements and uncertainties and jealousies and doubts, under the relentless pressure of extremely resourceful adversaries…looking back, it seems almost inevitable! And I sure had a lot of fun doing it.
MT: When reading the book, everything felt smooth and glorious to me. However I read back over the synopsis and thought this is a lot for a new reader to take in. (Readers: I do encourage you to read this book as well of all Barry’s books, I just want him to break down the story for you!) Would you mind breaking down the synopsis while also avoiding spoilers?
BE: Well, it starts like this:
THE LONE WOLVES OF BARRY EISLER’S BESTSELLING NOVELS COME TOGETHER IN A KILLER TEAM!
And I’d add…
When a joint FBI-Seattle Police investigation of an international child pornography ring gets too close to certain powerful people, sex-crimes detective Livia Lone becomes the target of a hit that barely goes awry—a hit that had been offered to John Rain, a retired specialist in “natural causes.”
Suspecting the FBI itself was behind the attack, Livia reaches out to former Marine sniper Dox. Together, they assemble an ad hoc group to identify and neutralize the threat. There’s Rain. Rain’s estranged lover, Mossad agent and honeytrap specialist Delilah. And Black op soldiers Ben Treven and Daniel Larison, along with their former commander, SpecOps legend Colonel Scot “Hort” Horton.
Moving from Japan to Seattle to DC to Paris, the group fights a series of interlocking conspiracies, each edging closer and closer to the highest levels of the US government.
With uncertain loyalties, conflicting agendas, and smoldering romantic entanglements, these operators will have a hard time forming a team. But in a match as uneven as this one, a collective of killers might be even better.
That’s the gist… and no spoilers, either. J
MT: How do you think you’ve improved as a writer with The Killer Collectiveand what makes your writing different as you grow older, write more books, and learn more about writing and the world in general?
BE: First I’d just like to thank you for the flattering assumptions in that question. J
I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether I’ve gotten better and all that, but if I have, I think it probably comes down to experience with the craft and experience with life. Anyone who takes a craft seriously is going to get better with practice—it’s part of what makes a craft rewarding and even, well, a craft. And given that I was 29 when I started my first novel and that I’m 54 now, well, that’s a quarter century of time in the saddle—a pretty long stretch in which to learn, consider, reflect, and hopefully to grow. When dreaming up a story, you can only draw on what you know, and you know more when you’re older than you do when you’re young (at least you do if you’re doing it right). Which means if things go well you should have a richer palette to paint from later in life than earlier on. I feel that’s been the case for me.
MT: Is there a character you identify with more than others? Do you feel you’ve put certain aspects of yourself in John Rain, Livia Lone, or any of the other characters in your books?
BE: Well, writing Dox makes me laugh more than writing any other character (although I was surprised to find that Daniel Larison, my “angel of death” former black-ops badass, was cracking me up in The Killer Collective), and Livia makes me cry more. Which probably means I strongly identify with Dox and Livia, at least in certain ways.
I wouldn’t say I deliberately put any of myself in my characters—it’s not as conscious as that. When I get an idea for a character, what I try to do instead is imagine who this person is—what were her formative experiences, what does she think she wants, what does she really want, what is she afraid of, how does she look at the world, what makes her tick. In doing that, of course the raw material is derived from things I recognize in myself, but what I try to do is take that raw material, distill it out, culture it in the medium of this new character, and see how it grows. I think that’s the right approach generally: as Robert McKee says in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, the inquiry isn’t about you, and it’s not about the character, it’s more what would you do if you were the character.
In practical terms, that means there aren’t any characteristics of my characters I don’t recognize in myself (I think that would be impossible, unless there are things about myself I can’t or don’t want to consciously recognize that are bleeding through layers of repression and manifesting themselves in my characters…which now that we’re talking about it, is an interesting idea and I’m going to think more about it). But the way those characteristics manifests is different. I can be cynical at times, for example, but overall I think my nature is optimistic (perhaps foolishly so, but we’re all victims of ourselves). Rain’s cynicism, on the other hand, is much more central to who he is—a driving force, and something he has to grapple with far more than I do mine.
MT: The Killer Collectivefeels more epic in scope, in thrills, mysteries, characters, everything. Can you talk about what has led to your writing The Killer Collectiveand if this isn’t your favorite of your own books, what is?
BE: Thanks for that. The book feels epic to me, too, in part because the cast of characters is the biggest I’ve ever worked with, and in part because of what all those characters have gone through and what’s led them to this story.
Is this one my favorite? Right now it feels that way, but that could be a recency effect. I do think it’s probably the most nonstop story I’ve written—not just the action, but the emotions, too. Managing all these characters, all their differences and distrusts, with one tenuous romance in progress and another one being resuscitated from near-death, all while determined, capable enemies are launching formidable attacks, was technically challenging. Plus the milieus are so different—Livia is a police detective, Rain and the others are assassins and spies. So the initial chapters moved back and forth from a police procedural feel to a spy thriller feel, with those disparate worlds merging as the story progressed. Which was challenging, but I think (if I may say so) it all came in beautifully balanced on the page, with everyone getting key solo moments, one-on-one moments, and, of course, team moments, because, after all, this is a killer collective.
MT: Going back to writing in general, what book was the hardest book you’ve ever written? Which book or books gave you the most trouble? Regarding Livia Loneand The Killer Collective, what do you feel was or were the hardest parts you have to deal with when writing your most recent novel?
BE: Livia Lonewas hardest because of what I had to put her through in depicting her past. Graveyard of Memorieswas hardest because I had to recreate 1972 Tokyo, which involved a fair amount of research. The Killer Collectivewas hardest because the canvas was so broad.
I guess writing books is just hard…? J
MT: Can you talk a little about your writing process? What is it like to be an author like yourself? Are you’re a morning, noon, afternoon, evening writer? How many words do you write a day? Where do you write?
BE: I’m always happy to talk about my process, but like to note upfront that whatever works for me is only something that by definition can work for someone, and not something that will necessarily work for anyone else. I love that Bruce Lee quote: “Research your own experience. Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.”
So what works for me…I follow a lot of news on geopolitics, the media, and government skullduggery. Not the establishment stuff—that just tells you what you’ve already been indoctrinated with, and the world doesn’t need any additional regurgitation of conventional (and failed) wisdom. I’m talking about Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, for example, or Marcy Wheeler at Emptywheel, who covers political stuff with almost psychic insights. Throw a few invented characters into Wheeler’s articles and I swear you’d have a dozen terrifying thrillers.
And I think a lot about what I read, and sometimes write about it, too, on my blog The Heart of the Matter. From all that I get plot ideas, many of them direct from the U.S. government—like the mass domestic surveillance program at the heart of my novelThe God’s Eye View.
But the plot ideas would be worthless if I weren’t processing everything I read about through a human-nature filter. Plot is one thing, but without that human nature element, I don’t think you’d get a story.
And then I take walks and ask myself questions about the who, the where, the what, the why…I dictate the answers, and write them up, and the answers lead to more questions…and at some point, an opening scene comes to me, and I’ll start writing. And then it’s iterative: I write, then I walk and think, and then I write some more, and as the story progresses, the ratio of thinking to writing gradually shifts from almost all thinking and almost no writing to the reverse of that, so that by the time I’m writing the last quarter of the book or so I’m on fire and putting in long stretches of writing—3000, 4000, once even 8000 words in a day. That stretch of unimpeded running toward the end is a beautiful high, and a lot of effort, a lot of foundation building, precedes it.
And when I write the words “The End,” which is usually in the wee hours of the morning, I try to do something special to mark the moment. Open a certain whisky, drive out to an overlook and watch the sunrise, take a long walk through nocturnal Tokyo, just feeling alive and so satisfied to be done.
Until the edits come in, anyway. JBut that part is easy by comparison.
MT: A lot of both young and aspiring writers as well as some accomplished writers ask me about ending. For The Killer Collective,was it hard to write an ending? Has a book and its ending ever had you stumped? What would you suggest to any writer struggling with an ending now?
BE: For some aspects of the craft, I feel like I can give useful advice because I’m conscious of what I’m doing. But for others, less so, and writing a satisfying ending is one of the “less so” categories. For me, it’s mostly instinct, and explaining it would be like trying to explain how to make a punchline funny. All I can say is probably 95% of it is how well you did the setup, because without a proper setup, the best-delivered punchline in the world will still fall flat. But with a great setup, a great punchline is almost hard notto deliver.
So yeah, maybe that is reasonably good advice, albeit somewhat Yoda-like. It’s like dialogue: usually when dialogue is falling flat, the problem isn’t in the dialogue, it’s in the characters, as in the writer doesn’t know them, doesn’t feel them, well enough. And if the ending isn’t there, it might be because what preceded it wasn’t quite right, meaning you have to fix something more fundamental than you might like.
It’s like if the walls of the house you’re building keep collapsing, the problem might be not in the walls, but in the foundation. But that’s a hard thing to acknowledge, because it entails a lot of rebuilding.
MT: Do you think you will keep writing about these characters, or will you eventually end the series and write about other people? Do you think even if you write a standalone or something else, all of the people in your writing universe will still be there in one form or another?
BE: I’ve never been good at predicting these things—I actually thought at the time that my first Rain book was a standalone!—so I won’t even try. I’ll just say I’ll keep writing whatever comes to me, existing characters and new ones, and hopefully the stories will keep on delighting me and others.
MT: The country is currently in a sort of turmoil, and I love asking my favorite authors this question. If you were to give the whole of America one of your books, what would you give to these people and why? What about another author’s book or books, and what would be the reason behind this?
BE: Oh, that’s a hard one! Well, I’m fond of my essay, The Ass is a Poor Receptacle for the Head: Why Democrats Suck at Communication and How They Could Improve. But even if any top Democrats decided to read that one, it’s a safe bet they lack the motivation or capacity to absorb any of its lessons. So I guess making a gift of it might be a bit of a waste.
That said, I’ve never seen a Democrat with a better instinct for communication than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She would get the essay. But she’s also the least in need of it!
Another author’s books…that’s another hard one. I think the ones that have been most personally valuable to me would include Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People, which is incredibly insightful about human nature and describes a disarmingly beautiful approach to engaging with others. Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman, completely changed my understanding of media. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Fouris, sadly, full of insights into the worst aspects of human nature and was stunningly prescient—proving, as though any further proof were required, that if you understand human nature, you can predict events exceptionally accurately. And a recent one that tapped into all kinds of things I’ve been thinking about, connecting, correcting, and expanding them, is Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright.
MT: Do you think you’ve written the novel you’ve always wanted to read but never found yet, or do you think that novel is still coming and in the works? Speaking of next works, can you tell us what your next book will be after The Killer Collective?
BE: I’ll let Rain answer that, from A Lonely Resurrection:
I took a long, meandering route, moving mostly on foot, watching as the city gradually grew dark around me. There’s something so alive about Tokyo at night, something so imbued with possibilities. Certainly the daytime, with its zigzagging schools of pedestrians and thundering trains and hustle and noise and traffic, is the more upbeat of the city’s melodies. But the city also seems burdened by the quotidian clamor, and almost relieved, every evening, to be able to ease into the twilight and set aside the weight of the day. Night strips away the superfluity and the distractions. You move through Tokyo at night and you feel you’re on the verge of that thing you’ve always longed for. At night, you can hear the city breathe.
I feel that way about writing books. Each one is beautiful—a little mystery solved, a deep-seated emotional itch scratched. But it doesn’t solve anything. You feel you’re on the verge, but you never quite get there.
But I also find something lovely and satisfying in that. Maybe it’s mono no aware—the sadness of being human.
The book I’m working on now is a Livia Lone standalone.
MT: There are so many things you can take away from a novel—fun and entertainment, ideas for works of your own, some sort of new understanding of the world around us, learning more about ourselves and the people we know, etc. What is the one thing you want readers to take away from your novels when they’re done?
BE: I certainly hope they’ve been entertained, and invested in the characters to the point of laughing and crying and being deeply moved. And if they reflect a bit on what it feels like, what it means, to be on “this crazy ride of life,” as Dox might put it, that would make me happy, too.
And if some of them were to read the bibliography, and learn that the government programs and all the other skullduggery I write about isn’t fiction at all, well that’s what the bibliography is there for. So hopefully, the books will educate as well as entertain.
MT: This may like a cheesy question, but I actually love asking it and the various questions I get. What do you think the writer’s most important job is?
BE: Stephen King says the writer’s job is to tell the truth. I like to say things my own way, but I can’t really improve on that.
MT: The Killer Collectiveis a big, wonderful book, so exciting, nail-biting (I mean quite literally), and so amazing to walk away from, even if you walk away wanting more. The book solidifies your standing beside the greatest suspense and thriller writers in the world, and it means so much to me to be able to interview you, to talk about your book and writing. For all of our readers, I really hope you will purchase a copy of this astounding book, The Killer Collective, If you’re not convinced by me, look at Amazon and Audible and see how fast it’s moving up the list of preorders. As for Barry, thank you for the answers to my questions, and please leave any thoughts or comments below.
BE: Thanks for the very kind words, Matthew, for the thought-provoking questions, and for enjoying the books!