WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Carol! So excited to talk about your brilliant novel The Widow’s House. I want to start off by how you decided to add your own twist on both the domestic thriller and the coming-home thriller, two essential subgenres in crime fiction. How did you come up with this idea?
Carol Goodman: That’s an interesting way to look at it, Matt, and thank you for your kind words. I think the original impetus for The Widow’s Housecame out of my own move to the Hudson Valley. Although I’m not from there, it was a “coming back” of sorts because I went to college there and I’ve written about the area so much. In a way, I’ve always seen the Hudson Valley as my “imaginative” home, so moving there, and looking at houses, gave me the framework of a “coming home” book. As for the domestic drama … well, once you’ve got a homethat’s what you’ve got. And moving to a new place causes a lot of stresses in a relationship, leading to drama (hopefully not of the variety that takes place in this book!).
MT: Why did you decide to make these two characters writers? What do you think draws writers to writing about writers—what is the intrigue in it, other than something we can relate to?
CG: I actually have a writer friend who told me NOT to make these characters writers, but I didn’t listen. The truth is that if I’m going to stick with a profession I know my choices are fairly limited: teacher or writer. I’ve stretched myself into stained glass restorer and social worker now and again, but I’m often drawn to write about what I experience as a teacher or as a writer. In this book I wanted to play with the way the imagination shapes our reality, and who better to do that than a writer? Also, there’s nothing like a bunch of writers to generate envy and malice.
MT: What are your favorite books—thriller or mystery or not—about writers? And who are your favorite crime writers working today?
CG: Stephen King has written some of my favorite writer protagonists (and he’s my go-to defense for why it’s okay to write about writers) from Paul Sheldon in Miseryto Mike Noonan in Bag of Bones. And of course, he’s written the ultimate nightmare writer: Jack Torrance in The Shining. I love his willingness to throw himself under the bus, so to speak, in terms of revealing the foibles and vanities of writers. I also love Wonder Boysby Michael Chabon, Possessionby A.S. Byatt, and Orlandoby Virginia Wolff.
As for favorite crime writers today: Laura Lippman, Tana French, Ruth Ware, Lisa Unger, Jenny Milchman, Megan Abbott, and Gillian Flynn.
MT: Your book is filled with incredible twists from beginning to end. Each author I’ve talked with has very different ways for implementing twists and deciding when and how to insert a new jaw-dropping bit of information or action into their work. How did you go about doing this in your novel?
CG: Ha. Usually I put in a twist when it occurs to me. Okay, sometimes I know about them in advance, and I put them in when they feel right. I do a lot of going back, taking out, and retconning, though to get things right. The one thing I try to do consciously is think about what I want something to look like when it’s really something else. Then I think about why a person might be mistaken about what’s going on. The most important question I ask about my characters is: what’s their blind spot? What are they missing?
MT: I loved diving into this book. It was one of those rare books I would have to pinch myself again and again to fight sleep deprivation throughout the night in order to stay awake for the final pages. What do you think is the secret for any writer to keeping the pages turning? Do you have any secrets to share?
CG: Thank you! Honestly, the only secret is to let yourself as a writer engage as much in the material as you’d like your reader to. That means walking around thinking about the world of the book so much that you’re no good for much else (sorry, family).
MT: How long had this book been in the works? What is your theory on rewriting and revising? Do you have any particular or strange practices?
CG: So actually this book had an unusual writing/publishing history. I began it in the summer of 2013 after a several year hiatus from writing suspense fiction (during which I wrote fantasy and young adult fiction). I had decided I wanted to go back to suspense fiction and had written a few “partials,” but none of them had found a publisher. I grew frustrated with the process of submitting partials and decided I’d rather write a whole book on my own, without a contract, rather than keep getting rejected partway into a book. I think that a lot of my anger and frustration at where my writing career was went into the formation of the book (I was angry about some other things to, but that’s another story). So I wrote the whole thing and then my agent submitted it to editors … and no one wanted it. As you can imagine, that was pretty disappointing. One editor, though, wanted to see something else from me and I’d begun River Road by that point so we showed her that. She took it—which was great! but it also meant that The Widow’s Housemight never have seen the light of day because she didn’t want to publish it. However, a year later, just before River Roadwas coming out, that editor moved houses and I lost my publisher. I was pretty downcast at that point. I remember saying to my agent that maybe we should try The Widow’s House again. I actually said to her that I thought it was the best thing I’d ever written and I didn’t understand why no one wanted it. I also decided to rewrite it, on my own, without the guidance of an editor, which was the first time I’d done that since publishing my first novel in 2001. In the summer of 2016 I went to an artist’s colony in the Catskills and devoted my time there to rewriting The Widow’s House. At that point I really didn’t know if I’d ever get a publisher again, but I felt like I needed to follow through with this book. I think we had some more rejections after that, but just before Christmas that year we heard from a young editor at William Morrow. She’d been the assistant to an editor who had passed on the book and now that she was acquiring books of her own she wanted to know if it was still available. Was it ever! I tell this overly long story because I think there are a few lessons here about persistence and faith in a work. Ultimately, the story is only going to get told if you have the faith in it to tell it and keep working on it until it’s right. Also, man, making a living as a writer is not for the faint of heart.
MT: What books did you turn to for inspiration for The Widow’s House? I read some synopsis comparing it to “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which I don’t object to, both in similarities and in impact. This is a massively surprising, entertaining, and fulfilling book.
CG: Well, The Turn of the Screwis one of my favorite books. I was teaching it around the time I wrote The Widow’s Houseso that’s clearly a big influence. I also love The Little Strangerby Sarah Waters. There are references in there to the research done by the Society for Psychical Research, which Henry James’s brother William belonged to, into apparitions generated not by ghosts but by living beings (Phantasms of the Living). That got me thinking about what kind of phenomena might be created by an angry and jealous person (have I mentioned I was kind of angry when I wrote this?). So I’d say that I was influenced by psychological ghost stories. The Haunting of Hill Houseby Shirley Jackson is another one that falls into this category.
MT: Did you always know how The Widow’s Housewould end? Were you always aware of where it would begin? Which was harder for you—the beginning or the ending of the novel?
CG: I had imagined the ending scene at the very beginning of the book, perhaps not in detail but in essence. My memory of writing this book is that it came pretty fast throughout, not that I didn’t struggle with parts along the way. I think the hardest part was in sitting down to revise it without an editor.
MT: What do you think this book says about women and fiction—given the plot and its conclusions—and where do you think women are in fiction today, particularly crime fiction?
CG: Phew! That’s a big (and important) question! May I begin by just referring you to the latest VIDA count? http://www.vidaweb.org/the-2017-vida-count/ Clearly, women are still under represented in literary reviews. I also think there are more subtle biases at work: women’s books being taken less seriously and women’s books being shoe-horned into genre categories, and then those genre categories being taken less seriously. One issue that bothers me is that I have been consistently encouraged to keep my female protagonists relatively young. The older I get the more this troubles me. I want to write strong female characters who are older than 40 (what a friend of mine calls “pseudo-old”). There are crime writers who are doing this (Becky Masterman comes to mine), but there’s still a pressure to make our female protagonists young-ish. One way I dealt with that in my next book, The Night Visitors, is to have two women protagonists—one young-ish, one old-ish.
MT: There seems to be a lot of gaslighting in this book. In our day and age, there seems to be a lot of gaslighthing of women in general. What was the point of using this device—other than it being an age-old advice used in thrillers with women—especially in this modern day and age? What are your favorite books that use this device?
CG: I have known so many women, myself included, who have been in relationships in which their perception of reality was questioned and undermined. I don’t think I was thinking of the political landscape when I wrote this particular book, but I have to say that the strategies of gaslighting sure felt familiar when they emerged on the public stage. I said above that one of the questions I always ask myself about a character is what is their blind spot. The next question could be: how might someone take advantage of that blind spot? I think my favorite book that uses this strategy is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
MT: What are your favorite things to do besides writing? Did you have any careers prior to writing? How did you find yourself becoming a writer, or was it always an ongoing process?
CG: Ha! See above for my lack of other careers. Except for teaching, which I trained to do on the secondary level and still do, part time, as a college adjunct. As for what I do other than writing: I do twenty minutes of yoga in the morning before writing, take long walks as breaks from writing, and read and watch television at night to relax after a long day of writing.
MT: What will your next book be about? What will fans of The Widow’s Househave to expect in coming books from the great Carol Goodman?
CG: My next book is The Night Visitors, due out in late March 2019. It’s about two women: a young woman who is fleeing with a young boy to the Catskills and the (older) social worker who takes them in to her (possibly haunted) house. One of the satisfying things about writing this book was the research I did to write it. I wanted to know what it was like to work at a crisis hotline so I did a forty-hour training session and have been working at Family of Woodstock ever since.
MT: Thank you so much, Carol, for agreeing to be interviewed for www.writerstellall.com-- we all loved your book and loved picking your brain. This is a fantastic book that will delight readers for generations to come. Do you have any other thoughts, comments, remarks, or otherwise to leave us with?
CG: Thank you, Matt and your colleagues, for such high praise and such thoughtful questions. You’ve made me think! Just … keep reading. It keeps your mind sharp and we all need that more than ever right now.