WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Alison! I know you’re more than aware, but you’re one of my absolute favorite authors. The first book I read of yours was the brilliant, possibly flawless What Remains of Me, and I followed that with your series starring the wonderful investigator Brenna Spector. Do you mind talking about the evolution of your writing career? Other than brilliance and hard work, what strategies, choices, or leaps of faith did you make when climbing toward the top of the crime fiction community?
Alison Gaylin: Thank you for the kind words! As far as my evolution goes, I’ve made no conscious choices other than to keep trying new things, structurally, character-wise, and just in terms of the stories I tell. I try to do something different with each book, which is one of the reasons I moved form series to standalones (and may easily go back to series again). If I keep from boring myself, I have less of a chance of boring readers.
MT: Since your last novel and Never Look Back, a lot has changed. Can you tell us what recent events or issues with politics, the world, anything has helped shape how you view writing fiction and if you think the past few years has really changed you as a novelist, or on the other hand kept you grounded in your own ideas, craft, and genius?
AG: I try to escape from the real world when writing my books, but it can’t help but seep in there, can it? It’s very hard to say, but I think that especially crime novelists find that their work is deeply influenced by political and societal change, whether they want it to be or not.
MT: Your last novel was If I Die Tonight, which I feel was one of the best examples of using technology to execute a great mystery, the best since Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell, and probably before that. You’re written a really great Hollywood novel, one of the best as I’ve mentioned, and the sense of nostalgia and place is almost overwhelming. When you began writing Never Look Back, did you ask yourself if you were going to try and meet the two books in the middle? What did you decide your finished product would be like?
AG: I didn’t plan that, actually! As far as the modern technology aspect goes, I am a huge fan of true crime podcasts, and am fascinated by the role that the hosts play — they’re often much more intimate explorations of an event than straight-up journalism, with the hosts either having a direct relation to the crime, or finding themselves changed by the reporting of it. So I wanted to write a podcast host as a character. And while I do go back to a Southern California of roughly the same time period as What Remains of Me, it’s the Inland Empire, which is about as far from Hollywood as you can get.
MT: In part, the novel’s description reminded me of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, and while they are both so incredibly brilliant, they couldn’t be more different. What do you think is the importance in how you tell as a story, and what about the story itself? With readers finishing one of your novels, what do you want each reader to take away from the book, and what sort of experience do you want the reader to have?
AG: I think I just want to tell a good story that readers can get involved with. I like to surprise readers, because I like books that surprise me. That said, you certainly can’t please every reader. I think the best way to go about writing a book is to just tell the story that you want to tell, and in the best way you can.
MT: In a review of Never Look Back, I wrote the novel did, in part, remind me of Hitchcock’s adaptation of Psycho, and then from there the way Scream in the most meta of senses mimics the film’s opening scenes. When you were writing Never Look Back, did you map out the entire novel or did you let things happen as they came along? Were there major changes in the book when you went through rewriting and revision?
AG: There were some big structural changes I made in the rewrite. Initially, I’d started the modern scenes from Robin’s point of view, and then flashed back to Quentin. But it’s really such a complicated story, which goes back and forth between 1976 (in April’s letters) and today, that I found it made things clearer to just tell the modern scenes linearly. That meant starting with Quentin. And as a result, Quentin became a much more prominent and complicated character.
MT: I know that, even if I didn’t recognize these events at the time, there are times and places and stories from my life which have changed my life so incredibly. They have also changed my writing. The blessed Megan Abbott dragged me into the writing community and I was taken under your wing, among some other really phenomenal women writers. Do you feel any specific events have changed the way you write, why you write, and what you write about?
AG: I find that my writing has changed simply because I’ve gotten older and had more life experiences. From when I was very young, I’ve written about the things that frighten me. But while those things used to be more over-the-top (serial killers, etc.) they now have to do with more grounded and “real” fears — not knowing loved ones as well as you thought you did, losing those you love most — basically tragedies that are more within the realm of possibility.
MT: You do include a lot of technology in your novels, letting the reader feel you’re tracking their lives as technology grows and flourishes around us. You also are so great with empathy, love, and understanding. There are several characters essential to the story and the reader gets a strong sense of who each of these characters are. Each character is also so incredibly different. Are you naturally able to slip into a completely different person’s mind, or does this come naturally to you? Why is technology so important to your writing, especially with your two most recent novels?
AG: Well, I think it’s impossible to tell a modern story about people who live in the city or suburbs without technology playing a major role. I’m also kind of fascinated by social media and the role it can play — it’s very often a mixture of unreliable narrator and Greek chorus, and it can make you feel supported or surrounded. Talking about writing about what you fear most, a major fear of mine is to be misunderstood. And social media can really get you misunderstood fast, and on a huge scale. As far as slipping into characters’ minds goes, I have a background in theater, so I think that might be where it comes from – “getting into character.” There’s a little bit of me in every one of my characters, as different as they are.
MT: I don’t want to reveal anything—as it deals with the Hitchcock reference, the loss of a character which feels like the loss of a life in the real world. Your characters are alive and brilliantly real to your readers, and I wonder if they’re the same to you. What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to write for a character—an experience, an insecurity or horrible thought, a loss, their own death? Have you ever been so attached to a character in another book, tv show, movie?
AG: A couple of the deaths in Never Look Back were hard for me to write. But they were necessary to the story I wanted to tell. I’ve cried over the loss of many characters in other books, movies, etc. but the one that immediately comes to mind is Tony in West Side Story, because I was a kid when I saw it on TV for the first time, and the actor who played him in the movie looked very much like my dad.
MT: You bring a character—your famous Brenna Spector—has made something like a cameo inNever Look Back, just as Laura Lippman’s wonderful and groundbreaking Tess Monaghan is featured in one of my favorites of Laura’s, After I’m Gone. Do you think the two of you will collaborate with your private investigators, and could you pull in a few more different female characters in other crime fiction to make you own crime fighting sleuth type Avengers movie? God, that would be badass.
AG: That sounds amazing! Laura and I actually did write a short story together, which should surface, I think, next year. Tess and Brenna aren’t in it, but it is about two very complicated women, and it definitely was a blast to work with Laura.
MT: Crime fiction, mysteries, suspense novels—from personal experience in bookstores and as a librarian—are really the most popular of all the genres with adults, and the genre is growing for middle grade children and preteens, something I thought impossible after the passing of the great and incomparable Lois Duncan. Why do you think these genres are so important to people—Americans specifically? Do you think the genre serves a purpose now, now more than ever, and what do you want your readers act and react to when finishing reading your novel? (Side note: have you read any young adult mysteries in the past few years? If so, what would you suggest to our readers?
AG: Oh, I think the whole world loves crime fiction, because the stakes are high emotionally and often physically. Why are they so popular today? Hmm. Well, it’s been said that crime fiction makes sense out of the senseless, and there seems to be a whole lot of senselessness going on out there… As for recent YA novels, Greg Herren has written some terrific YA mysteries with a really likeable young gay man as a main character – Lake Thirteen comes to mind. I really loved that book.
MT: I won’t keep you much longer, Alison! First off, thank you for taking the time to be interviewed by me, one of your most intense fans ever. Do you mind telling us what you’re working on next, if you’re working on anything else? I’m sure all of the readers would love to know all the amazing things to look forward to, even if you’re only hinting.
AG: I am working on another book for Harper Collins that will be out in 2021. It’s basically about female rage – how it can be channeled and exploited. How’s that for a teaser?
MT: Thank you so much, Alison. Until your next book, we all will try to feel the void with some subpar books, and also the really truly great and phenomenal writers in the crime community. We can’t wait to see how successful this novel is. Writers Tell All loves you, Alison! Xx
AG: Thank you so much, Matthew! It’s really been a pleasure.