WRITERS TELL ALL
Alex Marwood is in the Building: THE POISON GARDEN, Cults, and the Interview You've Been Waiting For
It's rare I get to interview someone so important and essential in the literary industry, and it's rare that this person gets to be a part of my life. I won't gush, even if I want to, but I will acknowledge that Alex Marwood has had one of the greatest influences on my life, and I'm so incredibly thankful she writes and is in my life. Every book she writes is incredible, and I cannot wait until you discover her.
I also want to thank Erin Mitchell, an essential part of the literary industry and the person THE POISON GARDEN is dedicated to. The dedication is there for a reason. Erin is a rockstar. No one does it better--this is true for both these women.
Buy the US version of THE POISON GARDEN here, and purchase her other books here.
Matthew Turbeville: We’ve talked about cults, and I’ve read some of your interviews and thoughts and research on cults, and it all seems really relevant to what’s going on in the world today. People thinking in this binary black-and-white pattern, a commitment to one way of thinking without questioning any of their beliefs, etc—I’ve seen a lot of people contribute a rise in the popularity of cults in media as just a fascination with groups pictured more in horror movies than they are in real life. What are your opinions as to why cults are so popular, and why did you choose to make this part of the subject of The Poison Garden?
Alex Marwood: I’m not sure that popular’s the right word for it. Prevalent is more like it. And there’s no question that cults, or at least a rigid and often aggressive, cultish adherence to belief systems, are on the rise at the moment, and I think the whys will be the subject of hundreds of PhDs in the future.
My own theories: governments and other bodies the world over have been inflicting social engineering on their populations for decades now – see, for instance, the way smokers have gone from ordinary people to wicked villains in the course of a generation – and social engineering necessarily involves the employment of slanted information, half truths and misrepresentation intent. It’s hardly surprising that a population that’s been trained up from birth to allow themselves to be gaslit should fall for the same techniques used by less well-intentioned organisations. Postmodernism and the moral relativism it promotes have left a lot of people casting about for stability, but ill equipped to tell the difference between an objective fact and an opinion. And the internet, far from exposing us to other people’s views as we believed it would, has made it increasingly possible to convince yourself that “everyone” thinks the way you do. There are 4.13bn internet users worldwide. If you hold a view that’s held by, say, 1% of the population, that still gives you the ability to find 14.3m people who think like you. Honestly, you’d get greater variety of thought and opinion in your local bar than in most people’s follower lists on social media. Add on top the fact that every conceivable organization on the planet, from political parties to flat-earthers, has adopted the bullying tactics of denunciation, deliberate miscontrual, word salad and hyperbole formerly generally seen in teenagers, Stalinism and Scientology, and you’ve something close to a perfect storm of gullibility and conformity.
MT: You have this haunting effect on people--hat do you think about your books disturbs people in particular?
AM: I don’t really set out to gross people out, but I don’t think there’s much to be gained from shying away from accurate description, especially in books that are, after all, addressing some pretty disturbing topics. So, you know – I just describe stuff. That, after all, is what Stephen King does, and he’s the best of all at this. And I keep qualifying words – my adjectives and adverbs – to a minimum. If you have to tell the reader that something is disgusting, or frightening, then you’re failing at describing it properly. Also, I research. And I tend to employ all five senses in my descriptive writing; people often leave one or more out, and most things one experiences involve the full sensory bag.
MT: There’s a lot of talk about how to make unlikable characters “likable,” whatever you take that to mean. Yet your books are some of the very best, and people often comment there are no likable characters in the books. The same goes with so many of crime fiction’s best novels. Where do you draw the line with likability, and what do you think is so attractive about a character who isn’t perfect?
AM: It’s like that great Tolstoy line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – still up there in my top ten opening lines. It’s as simple as that. And realism. Unerringly nice people don’t exist, except in their own heads. One person’s “nice” is another person’s “prig”. One person’s heroic soldier is another person’s fascist. But it’s also true that the unerringly evil person is also a very rare thing. Many a gulag guard has been a loving parent; the serial killer Harold Shipman’s patients (he was a GP) still sing his praises to this day.
I think this really came home to me when I read Anne-Marie West’s memoir of growing up with her father Fred and stepmother Rose, two of the UK’s most horrific serial murderers. When Fred committed suicide in prison, Anne-Marie, who had been abused throughout her childhood, was absolutely devastated, just as most ordinary children are at the death of a parent. I’m interested in the fact that people are complicated. I don’t really care, honestly, if some people find it hard to deal with that reality.
MT: Continuing on the idea of “unlikability,” is there an exercise, method, or trick you use to help us follow along a story with such unlikable characters? (I’ve stopped using quotes by now, I think. They’re annoying.) It seems few people have problems buying your books and speeding through them, and yet they don’t like characters they feel aren’t redemptive in some way. Do you think this is a trick of yours, a secret relationship between the reader and the character, a combination of the two or something else?
AM: I think most of my books are redemptive, in their own rather elliptical way. Certainly I think all my books before The Poison Garden contain a character or characters who grow in some way, learn about love, or sacrifice, or forgiveness, or simply about themselves. The Poison Garden is a bit different: it’s certainly the bleakest book I’ve writer, but the world of cults is a bleak one and the path we’re going down as a society is a bleak one too, if we don’t manage to correct. And even in TPG, Romy gets what she is seeking. But it’s a book about obsession and broken minds, so Romy’s sense of fulfilment might well not be to most people’s tastes. But look – with this book I wantto scare us! I really want people to wake up and start questioning all their assumptions, before it’s too late! So if I’ve sent shivers down your spine by the end of that book, I’ve done as well as I can.
I don’t really have a trick, as such. I just… if I’m getting bored myself, it usually means I’ve gone wrong somewhere, so I’ll go back and pick what I’ve done apart until I can continue without doing so.
I think a lot of people mistake redemption for “being caught and punished”, by the way. If you’re that sort of person, I’d humbly suggest that my books aren’t for you!
MT: This book was a particularly grueling process for you, or so it seemed from the outside—it produced this masterpiece, but it was taxing. Can you talk about your process in creating The Poison Gardenand how you got it to the place it is today, where we can see it in print?
AM: It took me three years to write. Partly because I went down a bit of a rabbit-hole with the research – honestly, I could read about cults for the rest of my life and still not know all there is to know. Partly because seeing the stuff you’re writing about playing out in front of you all over social media is quite a disturbing sensation. But mostly because I was prescribed a drug that had horrendous side-effects that left me basically non-functional for eighteen months. Anyway, it’s done now, and I don’t really want to go back there. But one day soon I shall murder an arrogant doctor in a novel, and everyone who knows me will cheer.
MT: In my opinion, your darkest book—for me, the one I actually felt sick while reading, but couldn’t stop because it was so good—was The Killer Next Door. I remember repeating to myself, “Wow, she isn’t afraid to go there.” Is there a place you are too afraid to go to, and if you don’t mind sharing, would you explain why?
AM: Oh, plenty of places. Paedophilia. And torture porn. And on a personal level, I’m unlikely to do anything that sparks my quite horrendous levels of claustrophobia. I keep a pair of scissors in every room at home, and in every suitcase, in case I have to get out of constrictive clothes in a hurry – no, really, and I’ve used them, several times, and needed a lie-down with a beta blocker afterwards – and the one type of horror movie that is guaranteed to really pump my adrenalin is caving movies. Can’t do it. Nope.
MT: Which of your Alex Marwood books has not necessarily been your favorite but perhaps your most personal? You don’t need to share details, but I’m interested in what book pushed you hardest, and perhaps made you examine parts of yourself you didn’t think to look at before. What book threw you for a loop?
AM: Different questions! The one that pushed me the hardest was The Poison Garden. The most personal? The Darkest Secret. Mila is the character the most like me – or me at that age anyway – I’ve written, and though I didn’t start out intending to, I spent a lot of time working through my own history, and my grief at the impending death of my father, through her. I’m still really fond of her, and wish her well.
MT: Is there a book or subject you haven’t written about yet which you want to write, and possibly can’t wait to write about next? What interests you the most right now, and quite honestly, what do you find scariest about the world today?
AM: So much. It’s always a question of fining stuff down to something that will actually make a book at the time when you’re embarking on the next one. At the moment I’m a bit obsessed with grooming. Not the way you’d think, though. Like I said, I don’t do paedophilia. But it’s a huge issue, particularly here in the UK, and I really want to explore what happens to the groomed, what becomes of their lives afterward, because there are many ways to be so.
MT: How did you get started writing, and what were your formative books? (I say “formative books” like I know what this could mean, what age range this would be, and I think it’s something our beloved Laura Lippman mentioned to me once—but however you take that, what were your formative books, what were the books which shaped you to be the great writer you are today?)
AM: Oh, God, literally everything. I was a lucky kid with an adult library card, and a rural (ie, long periods of boring) family home stuffed to the rafters with generations of books, so my reading was constant and eclectic. Stephen King, obviously. But I think James Herbert’s The Ratsreally got me going down this path. And Jaws. And several dozen horror anthologies – I really started out as a horror enthusiast more than crime. But then, you know – Agatha Christie (the whole of my tenth summer), Kurt Vonnegut (over and over again, all of my teens), Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and George Elliot. But also Rider Haggard and MR James and the First World War poets and the Victorian Gothics and Isaac Asimov and Patricia Highsmith and Daphne de Maurier and Dorothy Parker and Saki and Wodehouse and my granny, Margaret Kennedy. And tons and tons and tons of non-fic: memoirs of derring-do, histories, murderers’ biographies, war stories, explorers’ tales, psychology books, pirate yarns, anthologies of disasters and inventions and unlikely deaths. Here’s the No1 thing with getting to be a writer: read. Greedily and adventurously and taking your time before you dismiss an entire genre as not your sort of thing.
MT: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given, and what’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given? What do you think—for struggling debut writers, or those just beginning a work in progress—is essential for any writer to know when beginning this sort of life—a life of writing, of creativity, of loneliness at times, and joy and love at others?
AM: Best: you will never write anything that everybody likes, so stop worrying about it.
Worst: write what you know. Seriously, stop with that. If we did that, the literary world would consist of nothing but navel-scratching (and mostly dull, as writers often lead quite small lives) memoir. If you don’t know about something, find out about it. We live in a wonderful world where you can find out about anything.
Essential thing: for me, I’d say be careful who you show your work to. I only ever show my uncompleted stuff to people who have (or might have) a vested financial interest in its success. This is for two reasons: one, the people who love you might well mislead you about the quality of your work from entirely good intentions, and you’ll never improve that way. Two, more people want to put hopeful creatives down, for a million different reasons, than you realise. Why put yourself in a position where someone who isn’tout for your best interests (or whose best interests don’t combine with your own) can take a bludgeon to your tender heart and leave you sobbing on the floor?
Other essential thing: you need to be tough in this game. If you can’t handle rejection and criticism, even the unfair kind, you’re probably best off out of it.
Sophie Hannah talks to WTA's Kristi Hixon on the Supernatural and Being Nosy in her new novel PERFECT LITTLE CHILDREN
Kristi Hixon: Ms. Hannah, thank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you about your work. Your novels have become integral to my day-to-day routine. I find myself reading or listening to whichever novel I’ve discovered or recently discovered, reading your work in all my spare time. I’m so excited to hear your thoughts, feelings, and answers to these questions.
Your novels fascinate me by how they turn what feels implausible into something that could actually happen. While you deliver resolutions that satisfy, it feels for much of the books like the pieces cannot come together until you expertly make them link near the end– which I find thrilling. How do you decide how a story will end? Is this something you know from the beginning, or do you solve your crimes alongside your characters? Do you ever change your mind about where the story will end? Do you ever consider not providing a solution to the mystery, and are there really any actual solutions in some of your darkest and most frightening novels?
Sophie Hannah:I am never aware of *deciding* how the story will end - what happens, instead, is that at a certain point an idea will present itself (appearing in my head almost like magic!) and I will think, ‘Yes! That is my perfect ending!’ I very rarely change my mind about an ending once I’ve committed to it. In fact, that has only happened once. But, often, I decide to add one detail or a little twist to a pre-planned ending - just something to take it to the next level and make it even better.
I never consider leaving the mystery unsolved, no. I feel I owe it to readers to solve the mystery, but I do like to leave one or two tiny areas of ambiguity for them to wonder about. In Perfect Little Children, I want readers to have to decide for themselves whether Beth’s actions throughout the novel are morally correct or not.
KH: How and at what point do you decide whether a novel will feature supernatural/paranormal elements? What do you feel ties crime fiction with the supernatural and paranormal?
SH: Only one of my novels - The Orphan Choir - has been at all supernatural. I always decide upfront, because I think books should make it clear if they’re supernatural or not from the outset. There’s nothing more annoying than starting to read what you think is a psychological thriller, only to find that the solution to the mystery is ‘ghosts did it by magic.’ I think the link between crime and supernatural is often the mystery. Supernatural fiction is very often mystery-based, like crime fiction. The driving question is often ‘Who is this ghost, what the the heck is he doing, and why?’
KH: Your female protagonists are amazing – complex, diverse, and compelling – are you more likely to base a character on someone you know well, someone you’ve just met, or even yourself? How do you develop characters, and at what point does each person and each voice become real to you?
SH: Most of my female protagonists are imaginary projections of me, as I might be/behave in certain situations. I start with plot and then ask, ‘What would he/she/they do?’ - because plot is real and concrete and character…doesn’t really exist. There is no such thing as ‘character’ as a stable essence within a person. There are simply people and how they behave, and that can change. So I start with plot and then ask myself what my fictional humans would do in response to those plot points.
KH: How do you decide which stories will be part of a series and which will be stand-alone novels? How does your process change based on that decision? What do you have more fun writing: novels in series, or your equally great standalone novels?
SH: All are equally fun to write, and the most fun of all is being able to do one, then another, then another - I am a writer who thrives on variety! If I could, I would move house before starting each new novel! When I have an idea, I just know instinctively if it’s one for Poirot, one for Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer, or a standalone.
KH: The stand-alone novels allow you to explore characters at close range but for a shorter period of time and actual text, unlike the time we continue to spend with crime solvers in your series. Do you find it easier or more challenging to give life to a character if he/she will appear mainly in one novel rather than throughout a series? What’s harder or easier about complicating a novel by providing only the one novel and therefore more limited space to the character?
SH: Both have harder aspects and easier aspects - but hard is not bad! I love the challenge of thinking, ‘What’s the constraint/obstacle here?’ and then ‘How can I overcome it?’
KH: Though Simon Waterhouse doesn’t solve the mystery in Perfect Little Children, there is no shortage of strong investigative work. Beth makes a pointed statement about looking out for one’s fellow man as she steps into the role of detective, and her growing investment into solving the mystery surrounding the Braids paints a convincing picture of the appeal detective work holds for its practitioners. How is the experience of giving the investigative reigns to an amateur sleuth different from following the perspective of trained and authorized detectives? Why leave the detective work to Beth and Zannah, and what do you feel are the strengths and weaknesses in the results they find?
SH: This is a crucial point! The central moral question in PLC is: when do we have a moral duty to stop politely minding our own business and start poking our noses into the business of another family? If Beth were a cop, her job would be to investigate, but…she’s not a cop, she’s a massage therapist! So she could ignore her strong suspicion that terrible things are happening in the Braid household - but would she be morally culpable if she did so? (I think she would - and so does she!) But so many people think, ‘I’ll just mind my own business’ and allow terrible things to be done - it’s basically what is known in the political sphere as ‘the bystander problem’. Beth is unwilling to be a bystander.
KH: Wyddial Lane fascinates me. I, like, Beth, was unable to stay away from the appeal of the house and those living inside. It houses such a quirky group of people, even outside of number 16. Were you inspired to create Wyddial Lane by anything in particular? What does Wyddial Lane mean to you?
SH: It’s based on a private road that I know, near where I live. The houses are all well set back from the road and all look as if they’re hiding something. It’s very atmospheric. It’s the kind of road where people obsessed with preserving their own privacy would live - and whenever someone is obsessed with privacy/their house or garden not being at all overlooked, I always wonder what they’re so keen to hide. All the gardens I’ve ever had have been somewhat overlooked and…so what? Someone will see me reading an Agatha Christie book in the garden? Who cares?
KH: Lewis seems like the kind of guy one would meet at a fraternity house – charming, funny, successful. But his unique interest in murmurations is certainly intriguing. How did you land on that particular quirk? What do you feel it adds to the novel and why do you think his fascination (which becomes our fascination as well) is so important?
SH: My husband went through a phase of banging on about murmurations all the time - and making me come and look at them! I thought that, though they were impressive, they could also look quite sinister - and that encapsulates Lewis Braid: impressive in a way, but also (Beth suspects) possibly sinister.
KH: Which did you decide on first – the characters’ personalities or the mystery they’d find themselves trying to solve? Did one influence the other? Does the mystery come into play once the character is created, or does the mystery make the character? Do you think this creative method also reflects on real life?
SH: Mystery first, always! And yes - real life is plot-first too. We only get to see what kind of people we/others are once we notice how we’re behaving in response to the plot points of our lives.
KH: I read Beth’s tenacity as both empowering and limiting, simultaneously. She’s able to break down barriers between herself and the truth that seem to be built firmly in place, but in doing so, she risks discord with Dom, interruption of her business, etc. What is it that drives Beth’s need to know the truth about the Braids, despite the inconvenience of finding out? As a crime fiction writer, do you see that same vivacious curiosity in yourself? There’s danger and intrigue in curiosity, and in so many novels, characters are dragged into place through curiosity, but what else leads them—like the protagonist here—to actually act on their interests and desires regarding the lives of others? (Not a big risk-taker myself, so I’m living vicariously here.)
SH: Beth knows that in order for evil to thrive, it’s only necessary for good men (and women) to do nothing. She doesn’t want to be a nothing-doer. She’s brave and determined not to let something dangerous continue if she can help it! She’s also nosy/curious and wants answers. I can totally relate! I would 100% hunt down the answers if I saw two kids who apparently hadn’t grown in 12 years! If a mystery like that doesn’t get you moving, there’s almost no point having brain cells at all!
KH: Dom seems to be the voice of reason in many ways (though Beth may disagree), interested in what Beth has seen only until he feels that interest threatens his family’s day-to-day. Do you think most crime novels have a character who is the voice of reason, and if so how often do you feel this is actually the protagonist or narrator, if it’s possible for someone pursuing a crime so intensely to be rational and using well thought out plans and ideas?
SH: I find it really interesting that some readers identify with Beth and some with Dom. The cautious voices-of-reason are all on Dom’s side, and the ‘We must find the truth and save the day’ brave, nosy people are on Beth’s side. I am 100% Team Beth. Obsessive truth-hunters work well in crime fiction. No one wants to read a mystery novel in which the protagonist decides that, actually, he/she can live without knowing the answer and making sure the bad guy gets punished.
KH: Even while investigating the mystery surrounding the Braid family, Beth seems like a pretty great mom: she’s somehow managed to get her children to be open with her about school and even their romantic relationships. I’m very impressed by the balance she finds between her own needs in investigating and discovering truths, and satisfying what’s necessary to have a happy family. Do you think it’s possible for people—especially women—to satisfy themselves as well as others, even whole families?
SH: Totally! The family in the book is basically my family, and I always find time to talk to my teenage kids about their issues, however busy I am. And sometimes I find time to investigate real-life mysteries too. Though never (yet) about children who appear not to have grown.
KH: The book is lots of fun – a real-page turner. But it also offers some interesting insight about friendship, family, perception, intuition – I could go on. Other than the thrills and chills we get from reading the novel, what do you hope us readers will take away from the story?
In some of your books, especially Did You SeeMelody?, we see a woman travel to find the truth or peace in something, often in another place, and sometimes in America. What’s important about traveling great distances to reach self-satisfaction and fulfillment?
SH: I want readers to think about families and how they can be great, but how they can also be scary and oppressive. I also want people to be braver and take action if they think something horrendous is going on (especially involving children) in another family.
I love America and do book festivals/tours/events there often - and I started to want to write about it. I especially love Arizona and Florida and often dream of escaping there to sit next to a beautiful swimming pool in the sun!
KH: Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now? I’m so thrilled to see what comes next.
SH: Just putting the finishing touches to my fourth Poirot novel, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, which is out in August!
Here’s the blurb:
Hercule Poirot is travelling by luxury passenger coach from London to the exclusive Kingfisher Hill estate. Richard Devonport has summoned him to prove that his fiancée, Helen, is innocent of the murder of his brother, Frank. There is one strange condition attached to this request: Poirot must conceal his true reason for being there from the rest of the Devonport family.
On the coach, a distressed woman leaps up, demanding to disembark. She insists that if she stays in her seat, she will be murdered. A seat-swap is arranged, and the rest of the journey passes without incident. But Poirot has a bad feeling about it, and his fears are later confirmed when a body is discovered in the Devonports' home with a note that refers to ‘the seat that you shouldn’t have sat in’.
Could this new murder and the peculiar incident on the coach be clues to solving mystery of who killed Frank Devonport? And can Poirot find the real murderer in time to save an innocent woman from the gallows?
KH: Thank you for your time! It’s been a privilege and a delight. Perfect Little Children lived up to my exceedingly high expectations, considering how much I love your writing, your characters, your stories, and everything you put out into the world in general. It’s a book I was able to use as my own escape and journey even in neglecting chores and other responsibilities. I wholeheartedly recommend readers let those dishes pile up as they busy themselves instead with Beth in uncovering the secret of Thomas’ and Emily’s youth. Thank you Sophie, and feel free to leave us with any thoughts or ideas regarding your novels, the questions, or anything else. I’m so honored to be able to interview you.
Matthew Turbeville: Alexandra! It’s so great to interview you for Writers Tell All. This is extra special because you’re also a recording-artist/voice actress. Can you tell us what it’s like to record for books and works by other authors as opposed to recording for your own novels? Do you have more freedom recording for your own novels?
Alexandra Monir: Thank you so much!! I actually have only recorded my own audiobooks. But I am a recording artist/songwriter, so I am very much at home in the studio, which made the audiobook recording process so much fun.
MT: This book is about hope. Possibly a last hope for those on Earth. Many of your characters are traveling in hope of reaching alien life. Can you tell us where you got the idea for the first and second book, and if you do believe in this hope, and where this also might spring from?
AM: I got the idea for The Final Sixwhile listening to a radio interview with an aspiring astronaut who had applied for the experimental MarsOne mission. This was a woman who was married, with a family and a full life on Earth, who was willing to leave it all for the chance to see and to colonize Mars. That was so wild to me, and then I had the thought—what if it wasn’t a choice? What if people were drafted to space, just like people have been drafted into war? And the reason for this particular draft would be to find a new home for humanity, after all the climate change crises here on Earth. A lot of this theme came from my own concerns about climate change, though I certainly have a lot of hope that our current and next generation can save the Earth. But I also have hope for what lies beyond our planet, too.
MT: One person is left on earth, and the other narrator is sent on the mission to search out alien life. You’re writing from two different point of views—how do you summon the ability to write from two very different voices, and what is writing this like? How hard is it to switch back and forth between the voices? Do you work with outlines and heavily plotted details so you can do one voice all at once, or do you have other methods?
AM: It is definitely a challenge- I hope I managed to succeed at it! The best way I could think of to differentiate the voices was to wear my actress hat while I wrote—to put myself in each character’s shoes while writing their chapters. Reading aloud also helped a lot, too—that’s usually when I would notice the spots where Leo’s voice might sound too much like mine, and then I’d revise to fit his character better. And yes, I do work with outlines!
MT: What books influenced this and what other books were the most influential during your “formative years”? Which book or books would you say most influenced this series?
AM: I’ve always been fascinated by space, so I think that longstanding interest was the biggest factor influencing and motivating me to keep writing this story! As far as particular books and movies that inspire me: Contact, Interstellar, The Martian, Gravity, and Arrival are all amazing and furthered my love of space-set stories!
MT: What’s the hardest part about writing these novels, and any novels? I have come across writers—and even have this problem myself—of challenging my own characters because in a way they’re your babies. You want to protect them. What do you find the hardest about writing these great characters, voices filled with such life, and what necessary evils do you have to do in killing your darlings?
AM: I actually don’t mind throwing difficult stuff at my characters—I feel like that’s the only way a good story gets told!—but if I struggle with anything in terms of killing your darlings, it would probably be that I often get attached to certain scenes that may or may not work with the plot, but because it’s a beautiful character scene, I’ll have such a hard time cutting it! But I’ve learned that when something doesn’t move the story forward, alas, it has to go!
MT: When setting up a series like this, how do you map things out? Is the whole series mapped out, or are you unable to plot more than one book at once? Are you more in the mode of jumping from one place to the next without planning much ahead? The books seem so well thought out and crafted, I’m sure you must do a lot of planning? What is it like writing such well-written series?
AM: I usually have an overall view of where I’m going across the series, but in terms of detailed plotting, I have to go one book at a time, especially because you can have an idea of what you want the story to be, but it inevitably evolves as you’re writing. So if you outline too far ahead, in my experience that can sometimes box you into a corner!
MT: When you write these novels, you push the limits of characters and usually have cliffhanger endings to chapters to keep the readers going. How do you arrange to keep readers turning the page, and what do you think the hardest part of this aspect of writing novels might be?
AM: I think cliffhanger chapter endings are so important, because you have to give your reader a reason to keep turning those pages! I like to end my chapters on either an exciting reveal or an intriguing question, and in either case, it has to up the stakes of the story. The challenge is making sure it’s organic to the story and not just throwing in an “Omg!” twist out of nowhere- you have to read through the manuscript a number of times to make sure your cliffhangers are authentic and serve the story.
MT: What do you think is so appealing about being chosen? In so many great young adult series, including your own, the protagonists are somehow singled out, incidentally or purposefully, and they are considered chosen, some characters even called “the chosen one” or “the chosen ones”? What do you think the draw is like for young people who read these books?
AM: Great question! I think the answer is that it’s wish fulfillment. At all levels of life, but especially in adolescence, we’re dying to be chosen: to be noticed and asked out by the guy or girl we like, to be chosen as the lead in the school play, to be voted Homecoming Queen, to be picked by a top-choice college, etc. I think book series like Harry Potter and so many others take that wish fulfillment and dial it up to 100- you’re being chosen for something so huge, which creates a lot of drama and story complications, but underneath all that is the wish fulfillment we’re all secretly hoping for. To be the special one, plucked from obscurity for a great adventure!
MT: Your dialogue is great, and as I mentioned, your voice is alive and refreshing. Do you ever feel that there’s a character you prefer writing, and are there ever any characters you dislike writing? What about scenes? What are your favorite scenes to write, and what are your least favorite scenes to write? Do you relate to any characters in particular, and if so, how?
AM: Thank you so much!! I had a lot of fun writing the snarky dialogue between Beckett and Naomi, actually! ;) Overall though, it was the conversations between The Final Six that I loved writing the most—their banter, friendships and fights allowed me to write normal teenage emotions and relationships in the midst of such a heightened, high-stakes world. Those relationships helped keep the book grounded, I think!
MT: A famous writer once told me never to view a character as a complete villain, as all people are complex and very few are completely evil. She instead implied that I should look at one’s wants versus another’s. How do you feel characters and their different wants play out in the novel, both for themselves and against one another? What do you think is important to having any sort of conflict exist for characters?
AM: That’s a great way of looking at it. The characters’ differing wants really are the crux of the conflict in this story. For example, what Beckett is after is diametrically opposed to what Naomi and Leo want, and that conflict has MAJOR repercussions. You have to have the conflict, because that is the key to a story- there really is no story without it!
MT: Again, there’s a sense of hope in this book. How do you see hope playing out in the novel and the series, and do you think any of this is influenced by what’s going on in the world today, and do you see hope in our world, a potential for hope, or the need for hope? The book offers some beautiful possibilities and I wonder what all this means both inside and outside the realm of The Life Below.
AM: I absolutely see hope in our world, and a perfect example of that is the young climate activist, Greta Thunberg. I think with people like Greta in our next generation, fighting for our world, we can and will make it a better one!
MT: Is there a book as a follow up to The Life Belowplanned? Do you have a work in progress already in your hands, on your desk, in your iCloud perhaps? Maybe you’re just already beginning to plan the novel? You seem like a hard worker!
AM: I do have a new novel coming out, in December of this year actually! It’s unrelated to The Final Six and The Life Below—it’s a superhero novel based on a well-known character, and I’ll be announcing the details soon! I have some other projects in the works, too- lots more to come! J
MT: Alexandra, thank you so much for being interviewed for Writers Tell All. We are thrilled to be able to talk with you and understand (or hope to understand!) your books, your writing process, your characters, and so much more about your writing style. Thank you so much for letting us have a look into your brain and your creative process. Feel free to leave us with any parting words!
AM: Thank you for this wonderful and thoughtful interview! I love reading other writers discuss their process, so hopefully mine can be helpful to your readers too. JAnd while there is no one “right” way to write a book, the key is to just keep writing—even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard, because that’s when the breakthroughs often happen!
"I like dark stories and always have, but not darkness for darkness’s sake": Lori Rader-Day on THE LUCKY ONE
As a crime writer, a crime reader, someone who reviews crime novels and interviews crime writers (as obviously seen below), I love a great mystery, whether this lies in the actual murder or the characters who commit crimes. I never miss a novel by the Lori Rader-Day (please see her books all out on Audible here and you're going to want to order the print version of The Lucky One here), a woman who is always changing, adapting, evolving. Each book is the previous book squared, a great mystery with a delicious plot line and unforgettable characters, always resulting in a conclusion you won't forget. Her last novel, Under a Dark Sky, absolutely destroyed me with its conclusion. She's a tough act to follow, and possibly the only author to top her own work. Enjoy this interview where Lori opens up about writing The Lucky One and how real things get--in so many ways.
Matthew Turbeville: Lori, this book, The Lucky One, is phenomenal. You’re coming off what I consider a really successful time with your last novel, Under a Dark Sky, and I see that you had real-life inspiration (perhaps a lot of real-life inspiration) for The Lucky One. Would you mind talking about the real-life inspiration and how it played a role in this novel?
Lori Rader-Day: The idea originated with a conversation with my new neighbor, an adorable young mother who announced one day that she had been kidnapped as a child. That certainly got my attention, and started the story of Alice Fine, kidnapped as a child and returned safely (as my neighbor had been, as well). I had been casting around for story ideas and considering a story among the real online sleuths who solve long-cold missing persons and unidentified cases. The story started to form from those two concepts. Later, I did some research about a missing case from my hometown, someone I had known, to see what kind of information was easy to find, what was reported, what was not reported. What was most useful about that research was really this feeling I got whenever I thought about my hometown case. That girl, who went missing at age 12 and was called a runaway, but wasn’t, is still missing. Her case reminds me that my characters are fiction, but they represent real people who have not had justice.
MT: A lot of the book deals with the elusive connections we have to the past—these things we remember, or perhaps think we remember, that may be true and may not. What’s the importance in the book about what we remember, what we remember being true and not true, and how do you think this plays out in the genre as a whole?
LR-D: Memory is elusive and faulty—we have learned in the last decade that eye witness testimony is almost entirely without merit, for instance. In our genre, so many of our stories rely on characters’ memories because they are characters with troubling pasts—story-wise, that just gives us something to work with—and because we want them to be as human as possible. Humans happen to have bad memories, patchy memories, and in the case of childhood memories, their own closely held interpretations of events they were too young to understand or to question. I try not to use flashbacks for this reason because I think flashback scenes aren’t true to how memory actually works. Real memories are fleeting, not fully fleshed-out scenes. That’s just my taste, though, not a rule.
MT: I saw a lot of true crime influenced the book, which makes sense. I was recently informed by the Jamie Mason—the brilliant Jamie Mason, I might add—that a book I was writing, based heavily on fact and true crime, needed to be toned down. Fiction often has to be more subtle than the often more unbelievable true crime. How do you feel about fact being stranger than fiction, and what influence (more specifically) did true crime novels, documentaries, podcasts, and so on have on your writing?
LR-D: Truth is totally stranger than fiction, so strange it’s hard to imagine how some kinds of crime novels will ever top what’s happening in the headlines right now. I have always had a true crime interest; I especially love true-crime books but I’ve also gotten into podcasts in the last year. When I discovered the Doe Network and some of the stories of unsolved missing persons cases getting matched with unsolved unidentified remains cases, I definitely tucked the idea of that site and its online community away. And then when my neighbor announced she had been kidnapped—true crime lived next door! Luckily, I’m writing fiction and can stretch and distort that bit of truth however I want. That was a lesson I had to keep re-learning with my next book, which is also based on a bit of history. In that case, the crime aspect of it was entirely fiction, so I had the necessary room to write the story I wanted. I just had to be careful with the characters who were based in truth. I didn’t want them embroiled in the fiction aspect of the novel.
MT: This book, The Lucky One, is so much darker than your previous books, all genius. This book though feels almost dirty to touch at points, but in the best way. I’m reading the storyline following Merrily, one of the protagonists in the novel, and at times I want to look away but I also can’t stop reading. What about the darkness in storylines is so appealing to you and to other readers?
LR-D: It’s a little dirty. I wanted Merrily to have her own online community, much like the one Alice has. It’s just…Merrily’s community wants something different from her, and provides something much different to her in return. It was pretty easy to imagine her situation and to make all the excuses she needs to make it fine. She isfine. She’s in charge of it until she changes things up and risks her safety. I like dark stories and always have, but not darkness for darkness’s sake. I don’t particularly enjoy serial killer fiction, for instance. People read fiction to put on other lives for a few hours, to live vicariously, to see and taste parts of life they don’t really want to encounter, and the lives readers want to take on vary greatly, from reader to reader and from day to day.
MT: What other books do you feel inspired The Lucky One? What authors do you feel need to be read more now, and are there any books or authors you want to give shout outs to?
LR-D: I read Deborah Halber’s book The Skeleton Crewas research for this book. It’s about the online amateur sleuth communities; about a third of the book is about Todd Matthews, one of the founders of the Doe Network. It’s a fascinating book. I also read James Renner’s True Crime Addictand Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Darkto write this book. Generally, I’m a big fan of crime nonfiction and highly recommend David Grann, Gene Weingarten, and anything by Susan Orlean (who doesn’t write crime specifically, but sometimes does. Sometimes she writes about dogs or libraries). I don’t know that I can say The Lucky Onewas inspired by any specific novels, but I learn something from a lot of my friends’ books. I would suggest Lou Berney’s November Roadfor learning about making every word count, Elizabeth Little’s Pretty as a Picturefor how a fully realized character feels on the page. For a modern thriller, Layne Fargo’s Temper. For a modern cozy, Kellye Garrett’s two Detective by Day books. For a modern private eye books, Kristen Lepionka’s Roxane Weary series. I could do this all day.
MT: Reading this book—and without too many spoilers—you often offer ways in which women knowingly or not are able to access power they may not be aware they have. Two characters find they have much more power in their own everyday business life than they might think, and I am wondering how you think this reflects on women in today’s world, especially given the limitations imposed on these women either before, during, or after they learn the truth about power they might be able to exert.
LR-D: I can’t speak for all women, but I can speak for some of them, I guess, since that’s what I do for Sisters in Crime. I’ll just speak for myself. I’m far more comfortable in that position. In The Lucky One, at least one character has power she doesn’t realize because it was never actually given to her—she’s infantilized in a way—and another thinks she has total control until she doesn’t. She’s innocent of where the limits of her power are and how to protect herself. I don’t think I meant to speak for all of womankind when I created those two characters, but I think a lot of women might understand how the characters could allow themselves to be led along. Our default, if we were allowed to live it, would be to trust those who should be trusted, to give people the benefit of the doubt. But girls aren’t allowed to stay trusting. The world comes for them much too early and always has, and I guess that’s the book I’ve been writing this whole time, since the first one.
MT: What was the toughest struggle you had to overcome when writing this novel? What was your favorite part about writing this novel?
LR-D: For this novel, the struggle was absolutely real. My dad died between the time I turned in the first draft and when I got my edit notes back, and let’s just say that grief is not a great writing partner. It was also a challenging book to write for a couple of craft reasons. I had chosen a different point of view than my previous novels, and then also the story I imagined was complex, so I had to map it out a bit. I’m usually a writer who just sees where the story goes, but I had the good/bad fortune to understand where I wanted the story to go early in the process, but then I had go write already knowing a lot. That doesn’t sound like a problem, does it? Except what I love about writing is the discovery, and knowing too much where I’m going can make the actual writing a drag. My favorite part about writing this novel, as with any novel, is anything but drafting the middle. The revisions were fun for this one. On my final edit, I took out 5,000 words. Not mandated by my editor—I just decided I wanted to reel in Alice’s sections to be a little leaner. Merrily got more room to play; she’s a more playful character.
MT: You have a talent from writing from many points of view and in many perspectives, like first person, third person from different characters’ points of view, and so on. What do you think is the most important part of deciding a perspective and point of view, and what do you feel is your greatest strength when writing from a person’s mindset, and occupying the character’s being?
LR-D: Point of view is my pet craft topic because I think it matters so much to how the reader experiences the story. It confines the writer in how they can tell the story and reveal information, so it’s not a small decision. I like being able to get into a character’s skin, so I will probably always want to write first person or third close, so that I can let the character’s thoughts play a little and tell us who she really is. I usually find the story there. For The Lucky One, I chose to write for the first time in a novel in third person, close. That was entirely because I had two points of view who needed to tell the story, but they were two women of about the same age. I didn’t think they would sound that different to the reader. So instead I used third-person point of view and let them keep a lot of their thoughts to themselves, which was a lot of fun. It’s all about keeping myself amused or I won’t do the work.
MT: What’s your current work-in-progress about? What can we expect from the great Lori Rader-Day next? Can you give us any hints, perhaps big hints even?
LR-D: I’m finishing up my next book now, and it’s a departure. It’s set in 1941 England and 1974 England, and I’ve had to do a ton of research to write it. The title isn’t finalized yet, so I can’t even tell you much, but… it has Agatha Christie in it. Briefly. And I stayed in her summer house as part of my research. I can’t wait to see what people think of it. That’s a lie. I have a lot of self doubt about this one, so I’m nervous to see what people think of it.
MT: Lori, thank you for letting me interview you once again. I really love your books, always try and champion them, and want all readers to know they should pick up copies of all your novels and read them immediately. It’s hard not to just inhale your books, the way we can race through the pages so quickly. Thank you again and please feel free to leave any notes or thoughts for the site or your fans below. We adore you and cannot wait for this book and all of your novels to come!
LR-D: Thanks for inviting me, Matthew! And thanks for the ongoing support!
Note: While Amy is one of the friendliest people I know, she's also incredibly mysterious, just like her novels. The Familiar Dark, her new novel out soon, is one of the best novels of the year and likely the decade, a revenge-drug-dark novel where you root for the character to go darker, showing exactly how to execute the perfect novel about a mother wanting justice for her murdered daughter. This is not a book you read slowly, but instead will pull you in immediately and you'll keep pushing toward the spectacular ending, which she nails perfectly. I hope you all will preorder the novel, and read Amy's other work as well! She's a phenomenal writer and person.
Matthew Turbeville: Amy! You are one of my very favorite authors working today, and one of the best writers period. I loved your new book, The Familiar Dark. Can you talk about what helped you come up with this premise or where the idea first initially began to develop for you?
Amy Engel: I’m never very good at pinpointing where or when an idea comes to me. I knew I wanted this novel to be set in the Midwest, which is where all my novels take place. And I’ve spent plenty of time in the Missouri Ozarks, so it seemed like the perfect spot for this book, a dark, character-driven mystery with lots of secrets. I came up with the opening first, and from there the entire story unfolded.
MT: You write a lot about family and issues involving trust/distrust within family systems. After all, this book is essentially all about blood, mothers and daughters, the ties that bond. What do you think your writing says about family in your area of the country (as you do represent your own region in such a great way) and also in America in general? What draws you back to this idea of family and the values within family, the protection and the loss, the need and the want of everyone involved?
AE: I don’t always set out to write about family dynamics, but somehow family ends up at the heart of every book I write. I think family is important in all parts of this country, and all parts of the world, but in the rural Midwest family can sometimes take on a bigger role than in other places. We see each other often, we have traditions that are passed down and glorified, we tend to stick together. And I find those family relationships endlessly fascinating. The ways in which we love each other, but also the ways we hurt each other. And the lasting imprints that both those things leave on us.
MT: The book is rather slim, which makes for both a quick beach read but also an engrossing stay-up-all-night thriller. And yet every character feels so well drawn out and wonderfully crafted. What are your tricks to helping push the characters to the surface with so little? What do you suggest to rising authors?
AE: First of all, thank you, what a lovely compliment. And second, I wish I had a good answer to this. I’ve always been a “less is more” writer. I don’t think I could write a 600 page book if I had a gun held to my head. The characters are always what I start with. I’m more interested in the people--their relationships, their flaws, and wants, and needs—than in anything else. Maybe that somehow just floats to the surface as I write? For me, the trick is probably not over-thinking. I try not to think too much about the book before I write it, and that includes the characters. They speak to me on the page and I just sort of channel them.
MT: What books or movies inspired The Familiar Dark? What do you think inspired you in real life—not just as far as the plot, but the people, the world the book is set in? How close to reality is this to where you are from? You are so familiar with the landscape, the town, the people, and this desperate loneliness and need for hope akin to Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.
AE: I think most current rural noir authors owe some sort of debt to Daniel Woodrell. And Laura McHugh does an excellent job writing rural noir novels. But I didn’t have a particular book or movie that inspired The Familiar Dark. It was inspired more by time I’ve spent in the Ozarks. Although I don’t live there, I do live in Missouri and the Ozarks are only a short drive away. It’s a forgotten part of the world, really, once you get beyond Branson and the tourist trap lake resorts. There’s real poverty there and people who have no way out of it. There’s no “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” because there are no bootstraps. I don’t think rural poverty is represented very often in crime fiction and I wanted to try and tell a story about a woman, and a family, who live in that reality every day.
MT: When writing a novel like this, how do you go about mapping this out? What do you have figured out from the beginning and how far ahead do you plan on the ending? Do you know the guilty party the whole time you’re writing? What pushes you forward toward this great, cathartic, epic climax?
AE: I don’t map out my books at all. I know how they start and generally how they will end, but other than that it’s a blank slate. Occasionally I’ll write myself into a corner, but that doesn’t happen as often as you might think. It’s like my lizard brain understands which way to go when I’m writing. I do usually know the guilty party, but I don’t know how it’s all going to play out. With this book, I had a pretty good idea of what Eve would do in the end, but up until the moment I wrote the scene I still wasn’t 100% sure.
MT: Having written for different age groups before, what advantages do you think you had over other writers who might write a similar story? How did you understand certain characters better due to your previous writing, or were you ever limited to understanding other characters as well?
AE: Honestly, I don’t think having written young adult novels previously gives me any sort of advantage. I always try to think about my characters at every age, even if I’m not writing about them as teenagers or young adults. As I’m creating them on the page I’m viewing their whole lives in my mind. Why they’ve turned into the adults they are, what experiences have led them to certain places. But I think that’s how I’ve always approached my writing, no matter what age I’m writing for.
MT: My mother once sat me down when we were in Boston and explained she loved me so much there would never be a situation where (she referenced a Sally Field movie where the daughter is murdered and Sally has to go on the hunt) the film’s story would never happen. What do you think is so strong about a mother’s love, especially contrasted with the narrator, Eve, and her own mother and the toxic relationship between the two? How can two worlds exist like this, worlds within people I mean? How can one love her daughter so much, and the other claim not to? And, of course, I don’t want to spoil anything else.
AE: I think despite the cruel and hurtful things Eve’s mother says and does, I would argue she loves Eve in the best way she can. She’s just not equipped to love in a way that doesn’t cause damage, if that makes sense. But if we were basing love on a person’s willingness to fight for someone, then I’d say Eve’s mother definitely loves. But Eve’s love for her own daughter, Junie, is purer and less toxic, absolutely. I think every mother in this book is doing the best she can for her daughter given the circumstances she finds herself in.
MT: If readers want to read more like your own work, and you had to pick out a few authors similar to your own writing, what authors would you suggest and what books might you recommend to readers waiting eagerly for your next book?
AE: Winter’s Boneby Daniel Woodrell; The Weight of Bloodby Laura McHugh; Sharp Objectsby Gillian Flynn. They’re all amazing examples of rural noir and I’ve read them all multiple times. I’m also a huge fan of Tana French’s novels. They’re set in Ireland and are wonderfully written examples of character-driven mysteries.
MT: Even though Eve’s mother only lives a short way down the road from her in a sense, she is also worlds away. The novel functions as a sort of homecoming novel, a subgenre (sub-sub?) in the crime community. What is so important about the homecoming novel now, and why do you think people are so often drawn back into these dark places, other than to face their own past demons? What is Eve’s reason for returning to her own dark space?
AE: I think home is a powerful thing. The place where we’re raised and grow up and learn about the world can have a vise-like grip on a person. Sometimes the darker that place is, the tighter the hold. I think for Eve the pull to return is in part because she knows she needs her mother’s brand of wisdom and cruelty if she’s going to do what needs to be done. And she knows her mother is the one person who won’t try and talk her out of following a very dark path.
MT: There are so many twisted, dark stories about family—far beyond incest—and I wonder what you think it is about family, no matter which family member we refer to in the book, which can hurt us the most? Why do you think crime writers are so drawn to this idea, and why do you think you’re pulled back to idea of family in a crime narrative again?
AE: That’s a good question. Maybe because family relationships can be so fraught. All that love tangled with all that history and sometimes pain. I think family as a centerpiece for crime novels will be something I return to again and again. There are so many variations to explore and relationships to dive into. The people who love us the most, or who are supposed to love us the most, have the greatest ability to hurt us. And if those relationships go wrong, it can be very difficult to move on until we’ve confronted that pain.
MT: I mentioned earlier how often in the “#metoo era,” authors are hitting people over the head with pretty on the nose rhetoric regarding rape, women’s rights, etc. It’s not that there’s not a place for this in fiction—you deal with this so perfectly in fact—which makes me ask: why do you think you’re able to tackle such heavy issues and ideas so well without actually coming out and saying, “Hey, rape and toxic masculinity isn’t cool, and this is why people are murdered”? How are you able to so vividly show that through your writing and story and characters so well, and so subtly but so powerfully?
AE: Well, thank you for saying that. All novels have themes or ideas they’re trying to get across, but I find I work much better when I don’t think about that too much at the outset. Just as I don’t over-think the characters or outline the plot, I don’t like to sit down and lay out what messages I’m trying to convey. When I’ve tried that, it does come out in a “hit the reader over the head” sort of way. I find that when I just concentrate on the characters, keep the focus small and tight, the bigger issues find a way to organically weave themselves into the story. I think if you really understand your characters, even if they are very specific to a certain place or way of life, their stories apply broadly. I never had a conscious thought that this book would look at misogyny or toxic masculinity, but the characters took me there in ways that I can only hope are both subtle and powerful.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this novel? Did you ever almost give up? What do you feel was the easiest part of writing this novel, or perhaps the most fun, and what suggestions do you have for flourishing writers out there in the crime writing community today?
AE: I have a daughter who is only a few years older than Eve’s daughter who is killed, so writing this book was absolutely wrenching at times. I had to walk away for longer periods than I’m used to just to get my head on right so I could continue. There was one point where I wasn’t sure about the book, but my agent gave me some tough love and from that moment on the writing came a lot easier. Sometimes I just need someone to tell me I’m on the right track. The easiest part was writing Eve’s anger. Women aren’t allowed to be angry all that often. And Eve is an unapologetically angry woman. She does not care what anyone thinks about her or her rage. That was actually very interesting to write and somewhat cathartic.
MT: Do you have another book or work in progress in mind? Can you tell us anything about what’s coming next?
AE: I am working on my next novel. I’m going back to rural Kansas for this one and it deals with a woman serving a life sentence for the murder of her family when she was a teenager. I don’t like to talk about my books too much before they’re done, so that’s all I’ll say for now.
MT: Amy, thank you for stopping by Writers Tell All. I for one loved your new novel and I know everyone reading this will too. I hope they take the time to go out and buy a copy, request a copy at their local library, or both. Maybe buy lots of copies. Thank you so much and if you have any questions, comments, concerns, or thoughts for your fans, please feel free to leave them below!
AE: Thank you so much for the great questions and for all your support of writers and their books!
TJ Martinson and THE REIGN OF THE KINGFISHER (a favorite of 2019, and all of the 2010s): "...censorship of art creates a debate where there shouldn’t be one."
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, TJ! I am so excited to get to talk to you about one of my new very favorite books, The Reign of the Kingfisher. Can you talk to me first about how you came into writing, when you started writing, and also how many novels or stories you’ve gone through before getting to this masterpiece (published or not published!)?
TJ Martinson: I began writing seriously around the age of nineteen. It was one of those things where I had always been a voracious reader but never thought that I was capable of writing something like a novel and never gave it much thought. I’m not sure what changed my mind, but as soon as I began toying around with writing stories of my own, I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life. There’s a kind of euphoria that comes with creating something, and the joy of it (along with the frustrations) never diminishes; that is to say that those early years of writing were mostly done for the sake of it, and I knew I wasn’t anywhere good enough to publish anything I’d written. It wasn’t until I’d written a few novels that I felt like I was finding my feet and ready to start thinking about the publishing process. I got an agent when I was twenty-two and we worked together on a couple novels that we both loved, but they just didn’t quite take. It’s always hard to say why, but it’s often a combination of timing, luck, and, of course, the novel itself. But when I wrote The Reign of the Kingfisher, I think that my agent and myself both knew it had a different kind of potential.
In total, I’d say there were about five unpublished novels written in the seven years leading up to my debut, and each of them was entirely necessary; the only way to really learn how to write is to write, stumble, and keep writing.
MT: What were the formative books that shaped your writing experience? What books do you read now, and given that I view The Reign of the Kingfisher as largely a crime novel, what are your favorite crime/mystery/noir (etc) books?
TJM: I’ve always been drawn to books with strong, idiosyncratic, and lyrical prose. As I was revising some of The Reign of the Kingfisher, I was simultaneously re-reading Don Delillo’s Underworld because he’s able to capture gritty textures and cityscapes with what I consider to be masterful prose (which was useful in writing about Chicago). I also fawn over Donna Tart’s writing, especially as it serves her finely tuned plots. Not only can she ratchet up suspense with ease, but she does it with a prosodic scalpel—she’s a true master. Another inspiration was, of course, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which is not only one of the best crime/mystery/noirs around, but also is invested in examining the superhero trope, which is obviously something in which The Reign of the Kingfisher is equally invested.
MT: Can you tell us a little about how this novel came into being? What was your initial idea like, and how did you come up with this fresh plot which seems to revive a lot of older mystery tropes and really revive something that may not actually be there—the nostalgia for something that didn’t exist, in a sense (which may be too close to some things of the novel!)?
I’m a long-time admirer of all-things superhero, and I was excited by the idea of writing a superhero novel that tried to avoid some of the tropes inherent to the superhero genre while also not being a total rip-off of Watchmen or any other novel that dips into the genre. What I ultimately decided to do was to tell a superhero story from the perspectives of characters who, in a traditional superhero narrative, would occupy the position of minor characters. By elevating them to major characters and backgrounding the superhero, it immediately catalyzed the central mystery element—namely, why is the superhero in the background and, for that matter, where is he? That was an important epiphany in the conceptualization of the novel.
As far as the nostalgia that permeates the novel, it’s something of a personal fascination of mine that I think subconsciously bled into the plot, which contrasts the realities of the past with the realities of the present. I find it to be a fruitful internal tension for characters to be forced to confront what they thought was true, but which now seems completely impossible (or vice versa). I think that’s an experience that everyone can empathize with to some degree, even if they aren’t necessarily confronting whether or not the actions of a supposedly dead superhero were warranted, just, or even real at all.
MT: You write from a lot of different POVs, and you make everything line up so well, even if the reader is challenged in the best way by your no bullshit storytelling. Can you tell us how you mastered this, and what the writing process was like, and how long this book took to write?
TJM: Lining up the POVs was, without question, the most difficult part of writing this novel. When you write like that, you’re constructing a delicate ecosystem where if you change or revise a detail in one character’s chapters it will likely affect the other chapters as well. That’s true for writing in general, but especially when you’re dealing with multiple characters on a similar timeline and working toward a similar goal.
I can assure you and everyone else that I am not at all a master of the POV storytelling. But I will credit myself for being a relentless reviser, and that’s honestly what it takes. I wrote the first draft of the novel without paying too much attention to lining everything up carefully; after gaining a sense of the plot, that’s when I started to think more carefully about how each character would occupy the space of the novel and interact with each other. It’s a challenge, but I think that, when done well, its immensely satisfying for a reader to see the novel’s world through multiple perspectives.
MT: You’ve already faced issues with censorship. What do you think is the main issue censorship of literature or anything is causing in our country, and why do you think this is so dangerous? I often feel censored books are sometimes the books that need to be read the most—what are your favorite censored books, and why do you feel they’re important?
TJM: I count myself lucky in that some of the issues I’ve faced aren’t nearly as consequential as others have faced. That being said, censorship is a funny thing because it often seems self-defeating. For instance, Ginsberg’s Howl is great, but I personally think that the reason it stands out as one of the landmark poems of the twentieth century is because it was brought before the Supreme Court. That is to say that, despite the glaring ills that drive artistic censorship, I take enormous comfort in society’s demonstrated tendency to absorb and grow from the very things that certain members of society once tried to outright reject.
But that’s a long-term view. In the short-term, I believe censorship of art to be extremely harmful, if only because it reinforces a deleterious binary logic of “good” and “bad” art that ultimately serves to marginalize experiences, voices, and expressions; under the guise of “concern”, it operates from an almost medieval practice of moral prescription that disallows and punishes whatever seems to challenge (however obliquely) the practice of prescription itself. It’s just ugly stuff that has the potential of stifling artistic freedoms and generating unimaginative art.
In other words, censorship of art creates a debate where there shouldn’t be one. Art is always going to challenge, because that’s in its nature. The question isn’t how to obliterate what we don’t agree with, but instead how to express that disagreement in a way that constructs; for example, if you disagree with themes in my book, feel free to take it upon yourself to convince the world I’m a dangerous fool, but erasing the work itself or demonizing its existence is just lazy.
MT: You write an incredibly diverse cast (one reason for your censorship), you write about people who aren’tyou and you do it well, and you write with both compassion and distance from the writing—distance that is necessary in order to tell something true, and compassion and empathy to believe the truth. Can you talk about how you developed these qualities, what was innate and what wasn’t for you, and what you think the most important quality for a writer might be?
TJM: This is going to sound trite, but I do think that avid readers develop a capacity for compassion and empathy simply by experiencing a world from someone else’s perspective for the duration of three-hundred pages or so. But I also acknowledge that I’m not the arbiter of experience. For The Reign of the Kingfisher, specifically, I took great care in crafting the characters that don’t look like me, but I also asked my publisher for a sensitivity reader who can speak to some experiences that I’m not able to (which my publisher allowed, because they’re great). Of course, a sensitivity reader is just one person, but its someone who I’m not and someone with knowledge I don’t have. To me, that’s invaluable, and she helped the novel a great deal. But at the end of the day, if a reader takes issue with my representation of different experiences, that falls squarely on me. That hasn’t yet been the case, but I feel it’s important for writers to bear in mind that representation is incredibly important for fostering an imagined world with bearings on our own; however, equally important to bear in mind is that just because a writer creates a more diverse cast of characters doesn’t mean that they are excluded from criticism if this representation was done poorly or, in some instances, harmfully.
MT: When we think of superheroes—or even just heroes—we usually think of these amazing, sometimes flawless people (or aliens, etc) who can do anything, be anyone, and be perfect. I found the book so timeless, but also so important now in ways I saw the novel and viewed how this might relate to our political and cultural climate. When you write, are you often unintentionally influenced, or is everything included intended purposefully? Do you ever find you write large portions of characters or stories which reflect your own life, and what do you think this means about the piece you’re writing and its quality?
TJM: When I finished my novel (especially when I revisited it after receiving edits), I began to see a lot of unintentional influences that had shaped its plot. I was writing the novel in 2015-2016, which were…tough years. I think the discourses that took shape in those years found their way into the novel without much, if any, design by myself. Lucky for me, though, the superhero figure proved to be an ideal way of navigating the complexities of a polarized cultural moment in that the superhero traditionally operates on the moral system of “good vs evil” that in recent years has proven frighteningly malleable, strategic, and dangerous.
As far as my own life goes, I do think some of it creeps in, but not very much. After all, my life is largely spent behind the computer, so there’s not much worth fictionalizing.
MT: What do you think a hero is, and do you think the idea of a hero—any idea of a hero as seen in popular movie sand book sand comic books/graphic novels—do you think any of these ideas exist? How do the other characters play a part revolving around this superhero in the novel, almost an oral history (even if the novel isn’t entirely oral/told from multiple perspectives in brief vignettes, etc) and so filled with truth as we see so many different versions of the truth. I’ve always heard there’s your truth, their truth, and the truth. What do you think was so important about having so many complicated and different characters in one novel, and why do you think they’re necessary to understanding this supposed superhero?
TJM: In the novel itself, one of the characters seems to land on the conclusion that a hero, at their own peril, does something that desperately needs to be done for the welfare of others. I tend to share in that belief, and I touch on it further in the acknowledgments of the novel. But the issue, one that I’ve not been able to resolve for myself, is when someone who does something I find horrendous can assure themselves that they are operating from the very same precept I just described. That’s where the issue with truth emerges, I guess. And in the novel, one thing that I wanted to highlight and that speaks to the inclusion of different characters is the importance of collective action. Whereas superheroes don’t necessarily need to assert themselves in tandem to combat injustice, the rest of us typically do. And with collectivity comes a more refined and capacious understanding of what we mean when we say things like “good” and “bad.”
MT: Returning to the same essential question but moving past the idea of the other characters and their roles in relation to superheroes, why do you think it’s so important these days to see the normal or average person and their view? I think in slashers of the final girl, which is very different and a complicated and sometimes divisive concept, but she’s the supposedly weak woman, the non-superhero, the one who can’t fight but outwits the killer. In your books, and in any books, why do we need to see the stories of normal people fulfilled?
TJM: I kind of touched on it earlier, but I do think that the greatest benefit of reading is the intimate empathic engagement that comes from assembling a character and their world from words on a page. That said, I think it’s always a good practice to be reminded that people inhabit and see the world differently, if only to be reminded that our sense of how things ought to be, the essence of others, and our place in the order of things is of our own devising and deserves to be challenged and expanded by others.
MT: I know one character is a lesbian (google TJM if you don’t know why I bring this up) and there are so many other characters who are, on a surface level, not you. Do you ever feel that even though the characters are so not you, they still may reflect who you are the most? Who do you feel you identified with the most in your novel?
TJM: I think that’s true. There are certainly personality traits in each of the characters that I can identify with, but the one who I identified with most strongly was that specific character—Wren. Notable differences aside, I think she shares in my own foibles. Just as she does, I tend to over-think things and justify it as anything other than a desire to postpone consequential decision-making.
MT: I’ve talked about superheroes, but why is crime fiction so important today? Why do you think it’s so necessary that women especially are taking control of the genre? This goes for so many minorities rising up inside the genre, and I’m wondering how you view this and what good it will do.
TJM: Any time you add voices, the art form is going to both expand and improve. Crime fiction, as it presently stands, covers an excitingly expansive topography and readers are coming to the genre because they can find themselves where they couldn’t find themselves before, and that is good for everyone—writer and reader alike.
MT: Say you were to give a copy of your book to every person in America. What are a few things you hope they’d take away fromt eh novel in the hopes of improving the country? What truths do you hope they’d have to face?
TJM: I wouldn’t hope that everyone who reads the book takes away the same thing from it. If that were to happen, I’d worry that I failed pretty drastically. The most I could hope for is that whatever people take away from it—if they take away anything at all—is something that resonates with them specifically and lasts beyond a day or two.
MT: What was the biggest struggle in writing this book, and what was the greatest relief? What do you feel most accomplished about—other than publishing the book itself (and to much acclaim!)?
TJM: The biggest struggle was probably just the process of trying to write a superhero novel/crime novel in a way that didn’t feel derivative—the inner critic was a constant companion. The greatest relief was typing “The End,” which was also the biggest accomplishment. Not to say I didn’t enjoy, thoroughly, the actual writing of the novel, but all good things come to an end, which is in itself a very good thing sometimes.
MT: This may be a spoiler question, so feel free to dance around this and answer however you want, but who do you feel is the true criminal (or criminals?) in the novel?
TJM: I’m not much of a dancer, but I’d say that, aside from the obvious answer, there aren’t any true criminals in the traditional sense of the word. What you have are people either acting purely out of self-preservation or, in some instances, a moral goal, and the only differences between them are the magnitude and implications of the consequences.
MT: When you think of books in the past several years, crime or not, what do you think you’d recommend alongside your own book, even if they don’t share similar plots/stories, characters, themes, etc? Even if they’re totally different?
TJM: Oh boy, I could recommend a lot of books, but what first comes to mind is Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird (2017), which is a superb work of crime fiction. Her new novel, Heaven, My Home (2019) is currently on my reading list, too, and I can’t wait to dive in.
MT: What can we expect from you next? PLEASE tell me there’s another novel on the way! Something to keep fans satisfied.
TJM: There is another novel in progress! I’m very excited about it. Admittedly, it’s been slower-going than The Reign of the Kingfisher just because I’m simultaneously trying to finish my doctoral dissertation, but hopefully I’ll be able to share the novel sooner than later!
MT: TJ, thank you so much for being interviewed by Writers Tell All. We loved the book. LOVED. And I advise all readers to pick up the book as soon as possible. I’m glad I made the choice to read it (and thank the people who recommended the book, and apologize to those who I’ve sent more than four copies to). You are an amazing writer and I can’t wait to see what’s next. Please feel free to leave any comments or anything else you feel like saying, and it’s been a delight reading your book and crafting questions for you!
TJM: Thanks so much for all the kind words and support! It’s been a pleasure chatting with you and an honor to make an appearance at Writers Tell All. Hopefully I did, in fact, tell “All.”
MT: The book feels like a book about a woman whose life—or iives, made up or real, but here seeming made up, at least at first—is breaking down. Wall shattering, the timelines coming apart, and I usually hate books like this, but even as I settled down into this book and reading it, I fell in love with the novel pretty immediately. What do you think about the type of book I already mentioned, how it’s been used in the past and today—which essentially, I suppose, boils down to a woman being crazy, gaslighting her perhaps, all depending on the book you examine—and why did you use this idea (or, this was the idea for me) to draw the reader in?
SN: Well, I guess I feel like Kate isn't crazy. I mean, in the book her version of reality is correct and she is never confused about that; she just tries to go along with the idea that she's insane in an attempt to appease other people. I guess for me it's a Cassandra narrative, where she's just seeing the world for what it is, and (like all people who see the world for what it is) being treated as if she's the problem. Of course we also get Ben's point of view, and we can see why everyone thinks she's crazy. But I think the book doesn't really have a crazy. Different people just have different experiences, all of which are real.
MT: You’re great at introducing the reader to the science fiction genre. I’ve always viewed science fiction as a pretty intense genre—yes, I love A Canticile for Leibowitz as much as I love more literary, sometimes noir plays on the genre like Station Eleven—but why do you think the genre is so hard for people to get a hold on, and what books do you think are best as introduction? Why do you think The Heavens works so well as a book to introduce people to a genre with often incredibly unique worlds?
SN: As far as why people don't get into science fiction, I guess I don't know because I never had that problem. I suspect a lot of people just find it difficult to take a completely imaginary world seriously, even though obviously all fictional worlds are imaginary. Generally I think LeGuin's books are the most effective cross-over books for people who don't already like SF. I've also had some success with M. John Harrison's Light (though I try to recommend Harrison in every interview, so you may take that with a pinch of salt. But read his books.)
I think The Heavens isn't strictly speaking science fiction, though it's definitely getting close to being "real" science fiction. My trajectory as a writer has been to write books that are more and more science fictiony. I'm working my way up to literal spaceship.
MT: There are so many things I want to ask you, but I have to remind myself to avoid spoilers, and to avoid ruining the book for new readers. The novel’s modern day (“modern day”) timeline is set in a specific number of years leading up to an essential and tragic time in American history. Can you tell me your favorite books which function around a specific time or incident in history, why they are important, and in a loose, general sense, why you chose to do this yourself?
SN: I just needed 9/11 (I care not for spoilers) so that people would be able to locate themselves in history and realize that we were finally in a completely recognizable contemporary world. And then of course it becomes a symbol for how the world is getting dramatically worse. I think all Americans who lived through 9/11 can identify with that feeling of the walls closing in, of mistakes being made that were irrevocable and obvious and yet somehow felt unavoidable.
Books that function around a specific time or incident … in a way this would be most books? I mean, I love historical fiction (I'll mention Dorothy Dunnett and the inevitable Hilary Mantel). It's tricky to use historical events, of course, because they tend to feel bigger than the story you're telling. Unless they are the story. If they're not the story, then it can be a bit like having a horse on stage during a love scene.
MT: There’s this issue in the book—again, trying to avoid spoilers—perhaps the best way is to say one might try to fix things only to constantly change things, make things worse for what one wants, and never be able to achieve the life or future one wants. There’s an extreme tragedy in this, and I feel like we see this here today. On one hand, we have people actively working to make change and this often blowing up in their faces—so many politicians, activists, etc. Perhaps their past actions (Clinton with her views on gay marriage, seen in the past, supposedly affecting her polls with queer people) or current indiscretions ruining things, and then we have people who sort of passively let change, change they don’t want, change they don’t like, all of this happen while they sit behind computer screens and sign petitions on Facebook. Where do you think Kate would fit in today’s world, and why do you think her need to make change, but also things blowing up in her face are so important to the book, but also to the reader too? Gosh, that was a long set-up and question.
SN: I'm just going to say what I want to say here, which is that a lot of the time people think that they're being virtuous if they Do Something. It's like, "I actually Did Something, I am the hero here." Generally what they did is the thing they found most emotionally satisfying. We see this with politicians (notably those who start wars) and in ourselves. We also admire people who Do Something, even if we know the thing they are doing is counter-productive and stupid, and we tend to admire them more if the thing they did is flashy, feels heroic somehow, got a lot of attention, involves them being sexy and tough—absolutely regardless of whether it was harmful or beneficial. This is a real problem.
We really can't know all the consequences of our actions. But we have a responsibility to think about the likely consequences and to try to make choices that have good consequences—even if it doesn't feel good or particularly make us look good.
MT: As I mentioned, you and I both work inside two genres—separate genres, but two very popular and I like to think important genres (and yes, I know literary is a genre too, but for now I will focus on science fiction and crime). While Attica Locke has said that all books are crime novels (she mentions Beloved as her favorite crime novel, for example), we also have to note how people limit crime and science fiction. I understand genre in itself is a way of limiting how we fit a novel in a certain place, why do you think certain critics and readers frown upon or steer clear of “genre fiction” and what do you think the danger is in only reading purely literary fiction all of the time?
SN: Obviously some people are insecure about their intelligence or class status or education level, and that plays into the phenomenon of avoiding genres or looking down on them. But generally it's just a personality thing. I have trouble with many crime novels because I don't care who did the crime and I don't really believe in punishment, so the whole ending feels kind of gratuitous and annoying to me. My tendency is to think, "Leave the poor criminal alone, you weirdos." You know, to me the detective (where there's a detective) is just being nosy. But I recognize that this is a personal quirk, and I am the one who is wrong. And of course there are plenty of crime novels I like and admire despite this quirk, but if I didn't read hundreds of books a year, I probably wouldn't have gotten that far.
I think it's fine to just read literary fiction, just as it's fine to just read crime fiction. There are some limitations to any genre, but I don't think there's anything wrong with loving whatever you love. And there are always books within a genre that break through all the limitations, so I feel like ultimately you're fine.
MT: Assuming this book was read by individuals all across America, what would you want the main takeaway from the novel be—in addition to being just an extraordinarily entertaining and interesting novel?
SN: The main takeaway in my opinion is that your life is history, and what you do affects the future. We have this trope of going back in time to change history (to kill Hitler or whatever) but we are already back in time, with the opportunity to change history. What we do matters, and if an apocalypse is coming, the mistakes we make now are the apocalypse.
MT: Sandra, I won’t keep you with many more questions, but do you have a work-in-progress or book you’ve already finished? I know we (your readers, your fans, your mega-psycho-fans) are all waiting for more from you. Eagerly awaiting more writing!
SN: I'm working on another novel now, which starts from the premise that all the men in the world disappear, and the women are left to sort it out on their own. But the book really follows the women who can't give up looking for the men—or particularly for their husbands, sons, fathers, etc.
MT: Sandra, thank you so much again for agreeing to be interviewed for Writers Tell All. This was magical—the book, the books that I later read of yours and also other books I revisited after being inspired by The Heavens—and I loved the experience so wholly. Feel free to leave us with any words, thoughts, input on the novel or writing or your writing or anything else, and thank you so much again because reading your work and interviewing you has been such an enormously delightful experience. Thank you again.
Matthew Turbeville: Yrsa, I am so excited to talk with you about your work. You have an amazing history of publishing some of the best in crime fiction today. I would love to start with how you found yourself a professional writer. When did you realize you were a writer, and when do you feel you had your breakthrough? What novel do you feel is the book that really set you up for being one of the most important voices in crime fiction today?
Yrsa Sigurdardottir: I never imagined myself becoming a writer, not as a child, not as a young adult or as a semi grown-up. I was very content being an avid reader. I read non-stop and as an example, the year I turned twelve I set myself a goal to read one book a day – no graphic novels or baby books were allowed. I managed all the way to my birthday in August when I was given Gone with the Wind as a birthday present. I started reading and was immediately hooked, but the sheer number of pages meant it took me three days to finish instead of one and I was unable to recoup from that. Having spent my childhood with my nose between the pages of a book I was certain that the best way of becoming an empathetic person with broad horizons was to read. It allows you to place yourself in a variety of situations by entering the characters’ minds in a way that movies, TV and computer games do not – much less life as it is limited by your surroundings and individual circumstances. I also believed that if you do not read as a child you will not read as a grown up. When my son was about eight and showed zero interest in reading I became extremely stressed that he would grow up to be a bad person. I found that the books available to him at the time were not likely to fuel his interest and decided to write books for kids like him. I ended up writing five kids books and winning the Icelandic Children’s Literature prize for the last one (and the least one in my opinion). But my son never read them. He did however to my great surprise ending up becoming a reader when he was older. So I was wrong in assuming that just did not happen.
With regards to my realizing I was a writer and when I felt I had broken through – oddly enough I have a hard time seeing myself from the outside and in (if this makes any sense). I just love to write – when I don’t hate it. The hate bit helps because at some point during the writing process of every book I feel that I am not doing a good enough job and wallow in depression for a few days. This keeps me on my toes and ensures that I am very critical of my work. No author wants to write a bad book so I am sure I am not the only one that goes through the wringer while writing.
MT: You write multiple series, and also standalone novels as well. How do you decide which mystery or storyline belongs in a standalone novel, as opposed to one of your series? How do you determine what story belongs with what character or set of characters?
YS: Usually I make a conscious decision to write a standalone or not before I start thinking about the story itself. This happens during the writing of the book that precedes it. There are differences in the setup of each as the characters in a standalone have limited space for their “journey”. Their story must fit into one book, along with the developments in the underlying crime investigation. Characters in standalone novels are furthermore disposable which allows for more freedom in a way – as the writer you can kill them all off if that fits or feels right. In a series however the main characters have more space to develop and an added bonus is that you have them set up already when writing all other than the first installment. The downside to this is that it can be tricky to introduce these characters in a way that explains them to someone entering mid series without boring to death the readers that have read the previous installments.
MT: When writing so prolifically, and having characters so diverse, complex, interesting—how do you keep up with so many characters, and stay true to how you’ve envisioned them? Do you ever find problems with keeping up with so many different characters’ worlds in your novels?
YS: I do not find this difficult because I purge the previous book from my head when I am done – aside from the central characters if I am writing in a series. The fact that the characters in each book relate to the topic I am addressing helps a lot as well. A book that revolves around bullying for example (The Absolution) will introduce a very different set of characters than one about surrogacy for example (the book I just finished – working English title: The Fallout).
MT: One of my favorite of your novels, I Remember You, is labeled “a ghost story.” First, I’m wondering how you think literal ghosts are connected to crime fiction, but also, in film school we were always taught every character has a “ghost,” or a history which propels the character forward in their journey. What do you think the importance of this sort of ghost—a haunted past, for example—in crime fiction, and why do you feel it’s necessary for a mystery or crime novel today?
YS; I love stories where old sins or “ghosts” come to life and refuse to stay buried. To me it is a form of justice that you seldom witness in real life and I prefer my alternative reality to be different. If perpetrators of evil within my pages think they got away with their bad deeds, they should think again. However, this is not a universal truth. Occasionally the bad guy does get away in my books - to keep the readers on their toes.
MT: When you are in contact with fans from different countries, or me now, speaking English, do you ever feel more pleased with the translations of some books over others? I remember Boris Pasternak’s daughter being displeased with one of the English translations of Doctor Zhivago. Have you ever felt that way about a book having been translated?
YS: The only translation I am able to read with any sort of success is the English language one. Although I could worm my way through the other Scandinavian languages and the German one, I would not be able to judge their quality at all. I would be lucky to follow the storyline, even if it is my own. But I am extremely lucky with Victoria Cribb who does my English translations as she is just fantastic to work with and very, very good at what she does. In general, it is the translators that I never hear from that I worry about. There is always going to be something in the Icelandic text that needs explaining as the books are written for the original Icelandic readers. Victoria spots the places where someone not local will not understand what is being referred to or is not explained due to familiarity with Icelandic society and/or geography. She will point these places out and give me the opportunity to pad the text so that all readers will get my drift.
MT: Of all your books, which is your favorite? Which are you most proud of? Which do you think will have the most long-lasting effect? What is your writing process like, and how do you balance so many different books and projects? Your mysteries are obviously layered endlessly and brilliantly, and I wonder how you map out these vast, complicated, and expansive worlds. Do you mind briefly elaborating on this?
YS: I have a very hard time picking a single book but as the thumb screws are on I am going to say “I Remember You”. This is due to two things, the first being that I am a horror aficionado and it was such fun to write. Secondly, I built the book up in accordance to a theory I had regarding the difference between thrillers and clean-cut crime novels. By running the story through two separate threads where one followed a thriller structure (abandoned town) and the other, opposing story followed a crime structure (dead hide-and-seek son) – I was able to keep the tension high throughout.
I do not have a hard time layering or keeping track of threads etc. as I work in project management for large, mostly power plant projects, and a storyline is child’s play in comparison regarding complexity. I have this dream of setting up a huge idea board and connecting stuff with string in my office when working on a book idea. But it has never come to fruition. Presently my office has been taken over by a squatter (my daughter) so this is not likely to change very soon.
MT: Returning back to I Remember You, there are two separate storylines inside the novel (or so it seems) which intersect and affect one another in various ways. How do you go about making this work, and how does this affect real life? I’ve recently been watching The Bridgeafter my mentor suggested the show, and it’s so interesting to see so many different lives in the show playing out, intersecting, and bringing a massive story together. How do you feel your fiction, and your favorite crime fiction, reflects real life?
YS: I try to keep everything that I possibly can realistic and thus a reflection of reality. By this I mean the characters, society, landscape, culture, dialogue, and urban settings. Doing so one obtains a single degree of freedom that allows you to make the crime/murder more elaborate than what commonly happens.
To set up and connect various storylines or threads, a lot of thinking is required. As the author you control everything, the magic is in finding a way to weave everything together so that it does not appear random. It helps to keep in mind that none of us are exempt from the butterfly effect and therefore not masters of our own universe. Other people’s actions and decisions will affect us so it is not hard to see this happen to one’s characters. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how character A’s life can intersect or collide with character B and end up acting as a catalyst for the misguided actions of character C etc., etc. etc. It helps that I know what I am attempting to do, i.e. I know how what the end result of the intersections is supposed to be.
MT: What are your favorite books you return to when you need inspiration, if you cannot figure out a plotline or story problem, or perhaps if you’re exasperated and need a reminder of why you write? I know a lot of different writers have different books they turn to for this last question, the reminder for why they write. Do you credit any books for your need to become a writer, and for your success? What books helped inform you most in your formative years?
YS: Well. Although it might sound odd the writers that influenced me into becoming a writer were really the crap writers. The writers of boring children’s books. If it were not for them I would still be a very content reader. Today there is an abundance of fantastic book for kids so I guess I am lucky to have had my son when I did. But with regards to my go-to book I can’t recall any single novel that I revert to when I am feeling exasperated. There are so many good books available that I tend to read something new when I want to refresh. When it comes to my informative years, I know exactly the book that sent me on the path that I now tread, i.e. that of fascination of all things horror. This was a text book for doctors belonging to my father who was at the time taking a specialist degree in medicine and it was called something like The Complete Clinical Collection of Infectious Diseases. It contained the most horrible photos of boils, ulcers, pox, rotting digits etc. and me and my sister (aged about 10 and 7) would use every opportunity we had to peek inside. This lasted until my dad found out and removed the book from our house. It was however too late. We had been introduced to the lure of the awful and there is no going back. Decades later I still remember the page number with a picture of a girl our age missing a cheek, the back row of molars all visible.
MT: You’ve begun a new series featuring psychologist Freyja and the police investigator Huldar. The series is widely celebrated and here in the US much anticipated—with every new volume a welcome relief from all the crime fiction that seems like a regurgitation of the same plots and ideas. The first two books in this series released in America have been widely embraced and loved, and I wonder how you developed this series, and where you send it going, and if you have a specific end in sight?
YS: Just over a week ago I finished the last book in the series, number six. I find that it is best to quit before I get tired or the characters get stale. I chose to write this series with themes where the central crime revolves around social injustice or social ills. This made writing each installment interesting and fun. Soon I must decide what my next series will be like, who is the protagonist, will it be urban or more remote and so on. Once I have something that I feel very enthusiastic about I can start thinking about the first case. But I have a year to do this as my next book is to be horror, something akin to I Remember You.
MT: What’s your biggest criticism about crime fiction today? What do you love most about fiction in general—crime fiction and any other genre as well? If you were to give one of your books to everyone in the world in the hopes of creating some kind of change, or perhaps developing an understanding of some sort—what book would you suggest, and what effect would you imagine?
YS: I thought hard about criticism and must say there is nothing glaringly obvious that I don’t like about the genre status today. This is probably because it is so diverse, i.e. as a reader I am able to select what I am likely to enjoy reading and leave the ones I certainly won’t on the bookshop shelves. Sometimes I do get annoyed at the “necessity” to insert a “defective detective” into the mix as all of the good defects are already taken and hence they become increasingly outlandish.
The book of mine that I believe could have an effect would be the Absolution – the book about bullying. But as I mentioned earlier, bullies are not readers so they are unlikely to be affected. If they did however I would hope to scare them into being better people and draw their attention to the fact that they are pitiful. No content person bullies others. The book also contains a harsh solution for parents of children that are subject to horrendous bullying, i.e. lawyer up. Sue the bully for the loss of a life ruined. As parents are responsible for their kids in most legal systems this is a surefire way of getting them to address their problem kid. When faced with losing material possessions or money, the problem will suddenly become real and urgent to amend. As much of bullying is now online the burden of proof is simple, as is proving damages. Lost time off work, falling grades and so on. If a kid breaks your window or scratches your car you seek compensation from the parents. I do not see it is much different if a kid breaks your child’s happiness. I should note that I have never been bullied and my kids are lucky enough to have escaped this as well. But I have seen a few of my friends’ kids go through hell because of bullying and I cannot begin to describe how much I detest this behavior. It is unacceptable, no matter what your age.
MT: Before you published your first novel, how many drafts did you work through, and how many books did you write before your first book was actually published? What advice do you have for new authors? Anything from larger, broader advice and to perhaps very specific and unique suggestions are certainly welcome here.
YS: The first book that I wrote was published so I was one of the lucky few or perhaps it is easier here in Iceland to reach a publisher’s attention. I don’t do drafts. There is no first draft, second draft etc. There is only the one draft that I edit regularly while writing. I write ten chapters, then I read them through and distance myself from the authorship, i.e. read it like a reader. This helps me pinpoint pacing lags and storyline lacks and I amend this before continuing. I do the same after twenty chapters and after thirty. Usually my book is thirty something chapters so following the third review there is little left to do - other than taking the story by the hand and leading it across the finishing line.
This process includes sending each chapter to my editor when it is finished. Because I do it this way, once done I am done. There is no dreading the return of a redlined manuscript or the horrid re-write. The book I just finished was sent to print less than a week after I wrote the last word. For me this is the best way of doing it because you catch problem areas or dead ends, before they grow a strong root system that is entwined into the whole manuscript.
My recommendation to new writers are many. For one, write the book you would like to read, not the one you think will sell or be commercially successful. Authenticity is something you cannot fake when it comes to writing. Another thing that is very important to keep in mind if not yet published, is that a lot of aspiring authors start writing a book but not many finish it. It is hard to find the drive to keep going but persevere. Writing is hard, ungrateful work the first time around, no matter who you are. Keep in mind that your effort will be in vain unless you finish what you started.
MT: When completing a novel, how do you decide, “This novel is done. The climax matches everything the book has been building up to be—everything pays off, and I’ve accomplished a great novel, a great story, a great piece of writing I’m sure people will enjoy”? What do you do when you doubt yourself, and how do you decide when something needs to be changed, as opposed to a period of insecurity or doubt about your work in progress?
YS: Oh I am always filled with doubt and I never experience the feeling of having written a great book. My editor says he has kept the emails that I write him at the end of the writing process and will hand them over to me one day. They are extremely critical and every time I am trying to explain to him that the book should not be published because I am so afraid it is shit. Thankfully he is more grounded during this period of the process and manages to calm me down.
But I am in a better place when I am not about to hit send for the last time. As described above I quell doubts by reading what I am writing as a reader and amending when I find it not up to par or boring. This systems suits me very well and keeps the writing process challenging as to fix a lagging story I sometimes add something into the story that I have no idea how I am going to make work for the whole. After adding something like this I take a few days to think about how this will be seamless and fitting. Being the puppet master of what transpires on the pages it is always solvable.
MT: If you were a detective or investigator of some sort like in your novels, and able to solve any case in the world, cold case or new unsolved case, what might you start off with? What true crime case, solved or unsolved, intrigues you most?
YS: I heard the story of the Mary Celeste as a child and have ever since been absolutely enthralled by the mystery of what happened to those on board. Although there is no way that this can be solved today, I would so dearly want to know what transpired. Also the unsolved Hinterkaifeck murders in Bavaria come to mind and I would not be Icelandic if I did not want to know what happened to both Guðmundur and Geirfinnur, two men that disappeared in Iceland in the 70s. Recently, the convictions of those found guilty of these murders at the time were overturned, but the fate of the two missing men is still unknown. The official handling of this case has thrown a cold dark shadow over Icelandic society for decades and still does.
MT: Can you give us an overview over what we can expect from you in the coming years? The US is very often last to have translated versions of your novels released here, so we are lucky in already having books ready for our consumption. Your books are always stunning, and I’m sure your fans are eager to have some clue at what they might be able to expect from you in the future. Do you have any big books up your sleeve?
YS: Due to the translation process there are still 4 books in the Huldar and Freyja series yet to be published in the US. The next one to hit the market will be the Absolution which takes on social media bullying. I hope it will be well received although I do not think it will have an impact on those who bully as bullies are not typically readers. This is followed by Gallows Rock, The Doll and the Fallout – the last book in the Freyja and Huldar series.
The next book I will be working on now that I have put Freyja and Huldar behind me will be a standalone horror novel that I am presently mapping out in my head and very much looking forward to writing. It will however be some time before it will be available in English. I am also going to work simultaneously on another project that might be available sooner in English but that is sort of undercover at present. Long term (before I die) I hope to manage another six book crime series, an apocalyptic novel and possibly one sci-fi book. Being a smoker it remains to be seen if I can fit this all in.
MT: Crime fiction is now known to be read most widely by women, and the best books—in my opinion and others—are written by women. While this could be a random trend, do you have any opinion why minorities are turning toward crime novels, thrillers, suspense, and mysteries, and dominating the genre over the major writers a century ago, mostly straight white men?
YS: I am not sure why this is the case but I would assume that part of the success of women crime writers (and by success I mean the quality of the work, not only commercial) would be the fact that women are more inclined/adept at writing psychological angles and credible character traits. This is likely related to women having to solve issues through other means than force through the ages as well as being more disposed to empathy. But I should note that I do not see women as being a homogenous set of angels that always surpass men in the emotional department. An individual is an individual. There are shitty women out there as well as shitty men. Also, with regards to minorities in general, I think the crime novel is a fantastic venue for airing social injustice and ills - something that minorities get more than their fair share of. So this would very likely encourage good writing, i.e. personal experience of being wronged and a deep longing for justice.
MT: Yrsa, thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed for Writers Tell All. We love your books, your writing, everything about you. We cannot wait for more of your work to be translated and published here in the U.S. Your books are not just our favorites, as you’re something of a celebrity in the literary world here. We can’t wait to see what you release next, and feel welcome to leave us with any closing words, thoughts, ideas, or anything else you might want to add.
YS: Thank you so very much for all the kind words contained in the questions. I’m blushing a bit since I am of the generation when compliments were kept to a minimum as they were considered dangerous. They could end up causing people getting big heads you know. I could feel mine expanding as I typed.
But joking aside, thank you for your insightful questions and the opportunity to reach out to readers. I hope whoever reads this will find an interesting tidbit in at least one of my answers.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, guys. I am excited to talk about The Lying Room, your newest fantastic novel. I loved the book so much, and I can’t wait to reread it when I have the chance. Who came up with this idea? How did you decide it would be a standalone, and what do you two usually argue about (if you argue at all)?
Nicci French: We’re so glad you enjoyed it! It never feels right to say that one or other of us had an idea. Our books come out of conversations we have, things that we can’t let go of, things that get under our skin. As to what we argue about, we’re just as immature and petty as everyone else. We argue about who didn’t do the dishes, who left the socks on the floor. But we don’t argue about the books. Really, it’s all about trust. We know that we both want what’s best for the story. More than that, in a strange way, when we work together, we really become this other writer, Nicci French.
MT: Were you two already published authors before you met? How did you decide to go into the industry together?
NF: When we got married, in 1990, we were both journalists. In fact, we met on the New Statesman magazine. We didn’t really decide to ‘go into the industry’. Because we were both writing journalism, we started talking about whether we could collaborate one day, whether it would be possible for two people to write with one voice. Then we came across the controversy over recovered memory – people going into therapy and recovering memories of terrible childhood abuse. Being writers, we had a double reaction: we saw it as a tragic social problem and we also saw it as a great subject for a new kind of thriller. And because we’d come across it together, we decided to write it together.
MT: What is the editing process like? Do you both edit at the same time, or is editing a more than one at a time thing? Do you both need to be reading the book at the same time and commenting and making it great through whatever process you have? You’re quite prolific, so I’d like to understand that too—how the two of you work so fast and who contributes what to each project.
NF: Do we really work so fast? It doesn’t always feel like it! But we work all the time; it’s part of the fabric of our life. Our process is rather cumbersome and messy. One person will write a section and then send it to the other, who is free to rewrite, change, cut, add to, whatever. They then continue writing and send it back to the other. We’re constantly discussing as we write. Then, when we finish the first draft, we both read through it, talking all the time, taking detailed notes. One of us goes through the whole book, then the other goes through the whole book. It’s not for the faint-hearted!
MT: You have a murder, what appears to be a killing staged and prepared for the protagonists, and a lot of great suspects. What makes you decide a minor character or, rather, anyone who isn’t the protagonist can be a suspect, and what do you do to make the person seem suspicious and possibly play a role in a murder? I felt this was so important in The Lying Room.
NF: There is a technical answer to this and there is an answer that involves the emotional truth of the story and they are the same answer. The Lying Story could be seen as a kind of domestic noir. It’s a story of how mysterious we all are to each other, even those closest to us, our partner, our child, our friends. It’s about the vulnerability of ordinary life. It was important to the story that there was nobody Neve could feel entirely sure about, nowhere she was safe.
MT: What books do each you feel were helpful during your formative years, books which influenced you to become writers, and also books which you turn to for inspiration or ideas if you’re run dry?
Sean: ‘Helpful’ doesn’t seem quite the right word. I grew up passionately reading, watching movies, watching plays. I think I was influenced by all of it. But I’ll single out a few: I loved Sherlock Holmes’s London, the fog, the sense of mystery; his relationship with Dr Watson. John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Coldmixed the technical skill of Agatha Christie with the literary skill of Graham Greene; and nobody has written menacing dialogue better than Hemingway did in his miniature masterpiece, ‘The Killers’. Nowadays, I get inspiration the way I always did: reading all sorts of books, listening to music, looking at pictures, drinking wine, going for long walks with NIcci.
Nicci: Like Sean, I’m an ardent reader – not just of thrillers, but of many different novels, both contemporary and classic, and then biographies and histories, poetry books, recipe books… I remember when I first read Jane Eyreby Charlotte Bronte I was completely bowled over by the passionate and angry voice of Jane. I go back to that book year after year. But maybe the books I read and loved and pretty much knew by heart as a child were the ones that most formed me: Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books, Alan Garner’s uncanny novels. My mother read Wilkie Collins novels to me when I was about eleven and I’ve never forgotten their Gothic wonderfulness.
MT: What do you feel your greatest strengths are as writers? Do you think you complement each other, and that helps, or do you think you both have to work on the same issues to be better writers?
NF: That’s for other people to say! But I think that something mysterious happens when we write together. There’s a French expression, folie a deux, which describes two people who get together and commit crimes they would never have done alone. Think Bonnie and Clyde. There’s something in that about us. When we write together, we become something different, we perhaps push each other into areas we would never reach alone. But then, after almost twenty-five years of it, it’s still as mysterious to us as it is to anyone else.
MT: Is there a book you want to write—together or separately—which you feel is the book you’ve always wanted to find and read yourself? What would it be like? Or have you already written this book?
NF: That’s always the next book!
MT: The Lying Room is frightening in that it creates this world—our world—where a simple mistake, a risk, a bad choice leads to the destruction of life as we see it, learning of secrets we don’t want to hear, and yearning to rewind things just a bit and avoid this small mistake which led to something bigger. This is truly frightening, and all too real and common. What about that is so scary, and why did you decide to focus on a mistake so small (at least in my opinion, in relation to what happens later) and let it be blown out of proportion?
NF: You have to write ‘your’ book, and we always write about what frightens us. For us this is not a story of a huge terrorist plot. What frightens us is that fragility of ordinary life, how we are only one bad decision, one piece of bad luck, from finding ourselves in a horror story. The idea that we are all, all of the time, on thin ice: is there anything more frightening than that?
MT: What do you think is so important and interesting about the people closest to you having these crazily dark and daring secrets which they hide from the protagonist? Why is it so much more interesting with family members?
NF: Anyone who lives in a family has enough material for a lifetime of psychological thrillers. All families have their secrets, the mysteries, the things that aren’t talked about. Of course, families are good! We love our family! But also, family is the part of our life we didn’t choose, the thing we can’t escape, however hard we try.
MT: When something like this happens—like the experiences Neve has in the book—do you really think she can ever return to whatever her “normal” life was before?
NF: We really don’t think that. Every story is a journey and the characters are different at the end from what they were at the beginning. You can never go back, even if you want, and usually you shouldn’t want to. As the old saying goes, you can never step into the same river twice.
MT: When crafting Neve’s character, I wonder how you decided who she would be, and how her character was crafted to fit this murder, or was the murder crafted to fit Neve’s personality and make her more paranoid and such after finding the body?
NF: When we talk about a book, the story and the characters always come together. What character does this story need? Neve couldn’t be a young woman in her twenties. This is a story of people who have been married a long time, who have old friends, who are starting to feel stuck. Neve really chose herself.
MT: Both of you are married to writers, so I wonder: what is it is like to live and be married to another writer? Adam Johnson, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer, warned me never to marry a writer, and instead a surgeon “or something.” Can you explain this experience and lifestyle?
NF: If we were completely separate writers, the situation would be entirely different. We do our own writing, of course, but even so we explore the world as writers together, and we do interviews like this together. We can’t imagine it any other way. On the other hand, Philip Roth said that when a writer is born into a family, the family dies. Maybe one writer in a marriage is either one too few or one too many.
MT: People like to say “complex character” (or “complex women”) but I like to refer to them straight-forward as “unlikable women.” Complexity doesn’t necessarily make someone likable or unlikable. What do you think of the rise in popularity of unlikable women? I don’t know if I view Neve as unlikable—I rooted for her, but then again I love a well drawn out character going through a crisis, dark stories and such, so I may not be the best judge of this. Why do you think people are so attracted to even just the idea of unlkable women?
NF: You need to create drama and part of the drama should be between the book and the reader. You want to have a complicated relationship with the character. We love Hamlet but we also worry about loving a man who kills Polonius and drives Ophelia insane. Neve is a good person, we really feel that, but she makes mistakes, big mistakes. Even Neve isn’t sure what she thinks of Neve.
MT: Who do you feel are your true peers or even rivals today? Other than your own work, who do you think is creating the greatest crime fiction today and why?
NF: There is so much interesting writing at the moment. Just sticking to the UK, we could name Sophie Hannah, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Erin Kelly and we’d only be scratching the surface.
MT: If you’re both honest, which do you prefer—writing a series, or writing standalone books? What sort of series do you prefer—those which could go on indefinitely, or the series which are set up with only a certain number of books in mind?
NF: We enjoyed writing the Frieda Klein series, following her and her friends as they changed over the years. It felt like a very particular challenge. But when we came back to writing a standalone with The Lying Room, it did feel like we were coming home.
MT: Sort of in the same way of thinking, what book of yours do you feel is your favorite, and what’s the best or most important in your mind?
NF: In a strange way, our very first book, The Memory Game, is a favourite. It’s the book we wrote in secret, when we had four tiny children and were working full time and ‘Nicci French’ didn’t yet exist. From then on, we can stand back and look at them rationally. Each one of them represents a year in our life. Does one have a favourite year?
MT: What can we expect for you next? Is there another book already in the works? We are all excited to see what you release next!
NF: We’ve finished our next book. It’s called House of Correction and it’s about a woman who has to solve a murder while in prison, facing a charge of committing that murder.
MT: Thank you for talking with me. It is such a pleasure to read your work, and I cannot wait to read more. Please let us know anything we didn’t ask or I didn’t go into enough. I would love to hear about anything. For now, I’ll say goodbye and I hope I get to interview you and promote your novels again.
NF: The pleasure was ours!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Linwood! I’m really excited to talk about your nonstop thrill ride Elevator Pitch, which is sped along with a determination, force, and precision of a number of Jeff Abbott’s famous novels, and the dangers of living in today while haunted by the history of tomorrow. How did you come up with the premise?
Linwood Barclay: I was listening to the news in Toronto, where there has been an explosion of highrise condos, and heard that the city did not have enough elevator inspectors. And the idea, of a serial killer who sabotages elevators, was instantly in my head.
MT: The title Elevator Pitch works on a number of levels, at least two easily understandable to readers. Can you think of other ways the title works in the context of the novel and also our modern world, and how important is a working title to you and do you often change the working title before printing?
LB: There was never any other title. (Okay, at one point I suggested Going Down, but that sounded like a different kind of book.) The elevator pitch for Elevator Pitch is that someone is sabotaging elevators so that they pitch right down to the bottom of the shaft. It’s the only possible title.
MT: Your books are amazingly propulsive. As I said, they remind me of Jeff Abbott, the hands down master of suspense and thrills, able to capture the reader in any and all of his books. Everyone from my grandmother to other writers and such are able to appreciate your work—I mention my grandmother because she’s a famously voracious reader in the crime community and I always trust ARCs and such by her. She’s a big fan. What books and authors do youturn to for inspiration, for understanding characters, setting, story, and what books are just simply your absolute favorite, crime fiction or not?
LB: I tend to read writers I think are way better at this than I am, so the list is long. James Lee Burke immediately comes to mind. But I don’t read strictly crime fiction. I loved a recent bio on Mel Brooks. My favorite writer ever is Ross Macdonald, whose Lew Archer novels I discovered in my teens, and which made a huge impression on me.
MT: The world’s in a state of turmoil in most places, and I always feel like crime fiction—and all fiction is often crime fiction in one way or another—helps provide a certain balance to everyone who can’t make sense of other things. What book do you turn to in times of turmoil, and what book do you think more people should read, and which might help readers in general?
LB: I need to just turn CNN off for a week to reduce my angst level. When I am looking for the literary equivalent of comfort food, I read one of the early Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker. There’s solace in seeking out things you loved when you were younger, when there were fewer problems personally, and globally.
MT: You put out about a book a year. How are you so effective and productive? Do you feel real life ever gets in the way? What is your general schedule like, both for an average day for the great Linwood Barclay and also for each individual session of writing, editing, revision, rewriting.
LB: I spent 30 years in newspapers, so writing is a job. You get up and go to work, and aim to get 2,000 words done before the whistle blows. I’m at my desk usually by 8:30 and go till about 3 p.m. with plenty of wandering about in between. I think life gets in the way on occasion no matter what you do for a living. Writers are not special that way.
MT: For those people who want to be “the next Linwood Barclay,” what advice do you have to give to upcoming and new writers, and what do you think the crime community is missing today? Recently, Agora was launched, promising great crime fiction by diverse authors. I’m very excited to see this, but I was wondering what you’ve thought about different authors, diversity in crime fiction, and where we’re going with the genre.
LB: I don’t honestly think about the big picture a great deal. I write to my strengths, do what I think I am good at, without thinking about the genre as a whole. But more diversity will only make the crime-writing community stronger. As for advice, if you want to be a writer, you need to be a reader. And if you think you want to be a writer, but aren’t currently writing, then maybe you’re more in love with the idea of it than the actual work.
MT: Are there ever books you want to give up on? How many books did you write before first being published? I know some have only written the one, never failing, while others have written three, seven, and some numbers are outrageously high and too often to list.
LB: I wrote several novels in my late teens and early twenties I could not sell, and we can all me thankful for that. But after 25 years in newspapers I was ready to give it another go, and that novel was published.
MT: I’m also writing a piece on fiction writers and their most undervalued or overlooked works. I was wondering if you had any ideas for who you would name—and what titles you would list—for most overlooked work by a great author? How do you feel about your own books? Is there one book you feel never sold well or reached as wide of an audience, despite the blockbuster author you are today? What would that be, and why do you feel more people should read it?
LB: One writer I believe deserves an even greater readership than he currently enjoys (and he’s not doing at all badly) is Michael Robotham, from Australia. As for my own work, I may be too close to judge. I think last year’s book, A Noise Downstairs, was one of my best and I would not object if more people decided to pick it up.
MT: Elevators are scary for a lot of people—they not only provide height, but machinery that isn’t always reliable, as shown in your book—especially if, in extreme cases like the story depicted in your book, a fictional character was able to control the elevators and kill people this way. What are the scariest things for you, and what can you absolutely not write about? There are a few things that I can’t write about, but mostly they are things I found gross, my abject, the things that make me feel sick when I look at them or talk about the issues.
LB: I don’t know that there’s any subject I absolutely would not write about, but there might be limitations in HOW I write about it. There’s violence in my novels, but I don’t spend a lot of time on the gory details. The reader can fill in those spots with their own mental images.
MT: We know the elevator, or something involved the elevators, will kill so many people. What do you think about this keeps people reading, despite knowing where most of the danger is involved, and why do you think you’re able to keep them in suspense we know so much will revolve around the elevators? What do you think the secret to building and keeping suspense continuous through the whole novel?
LB: A thriller needs momentum. The plot is a kind of engine, and the writer is putting his or her foot to the floor. You’re in that car and it’s not safe to jump out so you might as well enjoy the ride.
MT: You mention one way to die—a scarf, I believe, getting stuck in an elevator—which was a very memorable and frightening thing for me—elevator, heights, suffocationand possible decapitation, depending on the circumstance. There was a scene like this in the movie Final Destination, or one of the sequels, and I also read Wes Craven added a scene into Scream 4, one of his final films, where he’d seen in the news a police officer was shot in the head but kept walking. What do you feel are the best sources of inspiration for bone chilling death scenes which keep the reader terrified and interested in both the most thrilling and worst ways? Most people wouldn’t believe Wes Craven’s story if it weren’t listed in the news, and so I wonder if anyone has actually questioned anything similar in your books?
LB: Not that I can recall. And anyway, my answer is: it’s a thriller. I want to root it in the believable, but I’m going to take a few liberties along the way.
MT: Recently, with the death of Toni Morrison, I think our country has finally realized literature is significant, her loss felt so intensely by so many of my friends, many of them not even big readers or members of the literary community or crime community. What authors do you regret not being able to interview, talk to, befriend because of their death? One I’ve thought about often is Reynolds Price. I love his work and he died in 2011, not far from my home in South Carolina, and it’s a big regret of mine how I never summoned the courage to meet him.
LB: I would love to have met Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, Donald Westlake. I’m lucky to have met, and had dinner with, Ross Macdonald (real name Kenneth Millar) and his wife Margaret Millar when I was 21. And I very much miss Margaret Laurence, and wonderful Canadian novelist who was a mentor and friend to my wife and me. I wish we could still sit around her kitchen table and trade stories.
MT: What’s next for you? You’ve written standalones, series, trilogies—what book or books do you have in mind? How far ahead do you write, and how far ahead do you plan? Do you plan out each book step by step, and do you ever give yourself wiggle room for any sort of improvising or unexpected writing you feel is necessary to the rest of the novel?
LB: Once I have a hook for a story, a “what if,” I figure out who did what and where I want to end up. I have the big picture in mind before I begin, but I don’t know the opportunities that exist in the big “mushy middle” of the novel until I get into it. As for what’s coming next, I’m not saying a thing.
MT: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us at Writers Tell All, Linwood. I cannot wait for your next book (which I’m sure will be out soon, and will be great!). Feel free to tell us anything about the book so we can go ahead and pre-order, and for any readers who haven’t already read Elevator Pitchand Linwood’s other novels, please do so at your earliest convenience! His books are unforgettable.
LB: Elevator Pitch will have to keep you entertained for the time being. But not to worry, I’m hard at work.