WRITERS TELL ALL
Alafair Burke is STILL at the Top of Her Game with THE BETTER SISTER, and Her Novels Are More Relevant than Ever
Matthew Turbeville: Alafair, it’s always more than a pleasure to talk to you, as well as read your books. I think I tweeted the other day if I was on a desert island with nothing but you writing all day, I’d be content. You’re releasing this new book, The Better Sister, that is incredibly timely. The book deals pretty directly with the #metoo movement, and the pros and cons of leading such a movement, including being one of the leaders and falling short of what those embracing the movement might expect. In the central character, Chloe, we see a woman who begins to unravel as she protects a son not biologically her own. What do you think are the dangers of leading a movement like this?
Alafair Burke: You can look at Twitter at any given moment for evidence of the political and cultural litmus tests that are created in a social-media-dominated world for anyone who dares to stick a neck out on a polarizing issue. Because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls for economic equality, some segments of social media lambasted her for showing up to Congresswearing a suit and high heels, as if she was supposed to wear…what? A plastic bag because she speaks for people who struggle financially? Chloe Taylor is a journalist and writer whose work has highlighted sexual discrimination and abuse in the workplace, and, because of that, her detractors are looking for the slightest evidence of hypocrisy. They think they find it in her personal life.
MT: I really love how you connect each of these books with a good bit of female empowerment, but you’re not afraid to dive into “gray areas,” creating complex heroines who have very complicated pasts and have reacted and acted upon certain events in often dark ways. Why do you think it’s so important to show women in such dark but enlightening settings, especially in the age we live in now?
AB: Because it’s how we live. We’re a society of imperfect people trying to run businesses, institutions, marriages, households. We have expectations for ourselves and others, but we don’t burn everything down the moment someone falls short. We react to the problem and then to the next and the next. The question is how long can we continue to live in that gray zone before making a clear decision to jump into either the black or the white.
MT: What do you think is so important in having a character unravel, and why must a character unfold and reveal different assets and complications of herself in order to feel so real and undeniable in your work? You somehow take the twists that would shock readers and use them to also make the characters so well rounded and complex. How do you do this, and while many people may think you really invented this style of writing, what books or authors have influenced you most in making this great move forward in literature?
AB: Ha! I don’t think I have ever invented anything, except that time in 2000 when I got really into a liqueur called Hpnotiq and invented a martini with it. I think the best twists in fiction (Gone Girl and Presumed Innocent are two of my favorites) are never purely about plot. They’re inextricably entangled with character. In fact, a bare-bones summary of some of the best suspense plots would sound ludicrous without an explanation of the characters involved. Mary Higgins Clark doesn’t get enough credit, in my opinion, for her groundbreaking book, Where Are the Children? That novel was psychological suspense at its best and only worked because the characters were so fully realized.
MT: Your books are undoubtedly crime novels, but as Attica Locke has recently been quoted as saying, it seems that all books are crime fiction on one level or another. With everything going on now—the country often seeming like it’s on verge of another civil war—why is crime literature so important these days, and what do you think crime fiction says which other books cannot?
AB: I agree with Attica. I just wrote one of those book lists that outlets ask for and made the case that Atonement was a thriller. My father (James Lee Burke) always points out that Hamlet is a crime story. Crime fiction allows writers to tell stories about the basic human condition. I do wonder if readers’ appetites for heroes who bend the rules might fade given the times we live in. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a hunger right now for straightforward stories where the rule-followers prevail and the systems work as intended, because right now, that feels almost fantastical.
MT: One character, Olivia, most heavily featured in The Ex, has made her presence known in your last couple of novels. Other than Olivia showing up to challenge the judicial system, as well as several of your core characters in each book, what keeps you returning to Olivia again and again?
AB: Well, first of all, I love her. The book that’s really hers is The Exas you note, while readers see her merely in her professional role in The Wife and The Better Sister, where she represents the main character’s husband and son, respectively. Having Olivia serve as the defense attorney in those novels is my hint to readers that the three books are tied together thematically, even though they’re all standalones and aren’t a series in the traditional sense. Plus, if I got arrested in New York City, I know I’d call her, so I figured Angela Powell and Chloe Taylor would, too.
MT: Speaking of previous books, can you give us an update on the film version of one of my all-time favorite novels, The Wife? This was a book that stunned me as well as so many other readers, and we’re all dying to know the cast and other details! Are there any actresses you feel would fit the bill of any of the important characters?
AB: I’ve been working with Amazon Studios on the screenplay, so we’ll see how that all play out. I’m a realist and know how many moving parts have to fall into place perfectly for an adaption to happen, but I’m excited about the choices that have been made so far in terms of streamlining the novel for feature film while retaining the things that I believe make it smart and special. I don’t want to curse it by playing casting dreams too early!
MT: Without giving away too many spoilers, The Better Sisterfeels so much more redemptive than The Wife, despite its still incredibly noir nature. Did you intend for the books to turn out this way, and what do you feel the conclusion and actions of characters in The Better Sisteras opposed to The Wifehave to say about where we are in America and in our society today?
AB: That’s very hard to answer without giving anything away, but I don’t disagree with your characterization. I think compared to a couple of years ago, some of us are learning that there’s only so much we can do to control the things that are angering and frustrating us right now. All we can do is try to make the very tiny world around us a little better and kinder, and maybe that’s what some of the characters in The Better Sister come to accept.
MT: The women who led the #metoo movement have often been viewed as “hacks,” usually female actresses who immediately dropped the movement after landing movie or television deals, or in the case of Rose McGowan and her transphobia, have been seen as discriminatory and very much on the side of “If you’re not just like me, then you don’t belong.” Of course, this shouldn’t reflect the movement as a whole, and I admire how you walk a dialectic line so many other writers fail, in which you acknowledge the pros and cons of the movement, and continue to move forward understanding the good and bad will come out, but a serious issue in society (rape, sexual harassment and abuse, etc) must be acknowledged. There’s something about this dialectic that seems so necessary, especially when we have the femme fatale in noir who is often viewed as a sort of villain. How do you make taking every layer of this complicated subject and building upon it to make a grand novel possible? Your work makes us look as these women who abandon the movement for their own career as sometimes less self-servicing and more desperate for escape, as in many of your own books.
AB: Wow, that’s a lot! I guess this goes back to what I said before about people becoming targets for taking a stand. Does that mean their politics have to be perfect on every other subject, or that their personal or professional lives must become infused with a political or cultural movement? The incoming shrapnel gets launched not only by a movement’s detractors, but also by the less powerful, lower-profile believers in the movement who worry about the damage that can be done to a movement by those who become its public “face.” In The Better Sister,Chloe experiences horrific abuse on social media because of important work she has done for women. When her dirty laundry comes out as a result of her husband’s murder, her critics dine on the schadenfreude, while her former supporters feel horribly disappointed and of course even angry.
MT: I have my own pick but what do you feel of your own novels is the book that stands out most and is most important for times like these? What books have you read lately, books that also haven’t been published, and books written in the past few years that you think are most necessary now?
AB: Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird and Tana French’s The Witch Elm both come to mind.
MT: I love when I buy a copy of one or more of your books for a friend or family and they say, ‘Hey, Matthew, this was riveting, but it also made me think.’ What do you think is the main purpose of writing a novel?
AB: My primary goal is to pull readers into the plight of the characters so tightly that they think they’re going to read a couple of chapters and then end up staying up until dawn to find out what happens. If I’ve done a really good job, the reader gobbles the book whole and then regrets that it’s over. But because I enjoy novels that are set in our actual world, I usually end up tapping into some kind of interesting current societal topic to explore in the material, but it’s for purposes of plot and characterization, not to hammer readers over the head.
MT: One thing so interesting about your past two novels is the way in which these women are so interesting in rediscovering their pasts in a whole new light, and also through this preserving their present at any costs. Both timelines can be gut-wrenching as more and more is learned, and we realize that the people we want to be are never as perfect as we’d like to think. With regular people and politicians, entertainers, artists, and so on, what is so important in knowing that they are not who we want them to be?
AB: It’s tempting to think we know our own histories, but all of our beliefs—including about ourselves—are processed subjectively. How many times have you recalled some incident in front of friends or family, only to find out that they remember it entirely differently?
MT: Alafair, I’ve taken up enough of your time with these questions, but boy was it grand reading your new novel and as usual it’s a glorious time talking to you. I just want you to know the new novel is phenomenal, and I hope every one of our readers sets out to buy a copy of The Better Sister, in a bookstore near you soon. Alafair, it’s been a delight, and I hope you will continue writing at the phenomenal, record speed of yours, and please feel free to leave us with any of your thoughts. Until next time, I’m wishing you the best.
AB: Thank you so much for all the kind words and for taking the time to read The Better Sister and interview me. I wish you all the best!