WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Mindy, it is always great to talk to you, and a new novel from you is rapidly becoming something of an event, not just for me, but for everyone I know who loves good books. I’ve told you this already, but just for the record, Mindy Mejia is perhaps the best “discovery” I’ve come across in perhaps half a decade if not longer. Mindy, reading Leave No Tracewas a delight. It was also a far stretch from Everything You Want Me to Be, which you warned me about—and this is entirely true, but definitely not in a negative way. So Mindy, how did you come to the decision to take an entirely different route with this novel, and where did you find the inspiration to write such a unique book?
Mindy Mejia: I’ve never been interested in writing the same book twice, which is why I’m such a fan of the thriller genre. It’s a broad umbrella. For this particular novel, I was inspired by the 2013 story of the Ho Van family, a father and son who lived in the jungles of Vietnam for forty years. The idea that Lang, the son, had never encountered human society was fascinating to me, and that’s when Josiah and Lucas Blackthorn were born.
MT: The reader is grabbed from page one. You waste no time in drawing the reader in. One major question I have for you is how many incarnations did this book go through? Both for the beginning of the novel as well as the novel as a whole.
MM: The book as a whole went through three major, world-rending revisions. The opening chapter though, when Maya meets Lucas in the isolation ward, remained largely intact from the first draft.
MT: The protagonist, Maya, is such an interesting woman. You have loaded her full of secrets, and you’re never afraid to unload a twist at any point in the novel. How important is it in writing crime fiction and thrillers to have the protagonist of the novel keep so many secrets, and how did you decide what Maya was hiding and when she would reveal things?
MM: Readers (including myself!) aren’t interested in static characters. They have to evolve, but that evolution can happen both forwards through action and backwards through backstory. Every good secret in a thriller should have layers, so that the reader is given more and more of the picture. The protagonist in Alafair Burke’s The Wife is a perfect example of a character with a deftly layered secret.
MT: This novel has such an ominous, foreboding feeling even from the beginning. This is so different from your previous novel, and it’s so hard to realize both books are written by the same author (and so impeccably written at that). What ways did you manage to engage in a world like Maya’s? How did you prepare yourself mentally and perhaps emotionally to tackle a story this intense?
MM: No matter how much control I think I have of the book, the characters always take over in the end and yes, I know how psychotic that sounds. Maya has a devoted, hard-working nature that’s been stunted by trauma. She is always prepared for the worst, and that lens colors the world we see through her eyes.
MT: This book takes place in Minnesota—and I love that it does. It’s so appropriate for the story, and place is so important to the novel as well. What about Minnesota do you think makes for a great setting for crime fiction? How is it different from, for example, Los Angeles or Miami?
MM: Lori Rader-Day put Midwest crime in perfect perspective in a recent article in CrimeReads, “What could be so villainous about stoic, silent, apple-cheeked people with dirt-floor cellars and no neighbors for miles?” And Minnesota has all the Midwest landscape wrapped up in one state. We have endless agricultural horizons where no one can hear you scream, cities built on the scars of riots and explosions, and forests as dark and deep as the most sinister fairy tale. Everyone talks about Minnesota Nice, and it always makes me think of the quintessential neighbor describing the murderer, “He always seemed so nice.” ;) I’m sure LA and Miami are great settings for crime fiction too (hello, Hollywood Homicide!), but Minnesota is the landscape of my imagination.
MT: What books, movies, television shows, music, and other forms of art helped propel you through writing this novel? What works of art influenced this novel the most? Also, what books did you refer to most in writing this novel, not just for research but for tone or mood or just to learn from?
MM: I’ve listed a lot of my research books in the acknowledgements, which were all invaluable for what my characters needed to know, but one of most influential books I read was Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy. It was the only book I took with me when I paddled into the Boundary Waters and one passage in particular is literally written on my office wall. It’s a craft book I would recommend to every writer. In fact, I think I’ve recommended it to you, Matthew. J
MT: Assume a book club is trying to fill a full year of monthly selections with books that echo ideas and characters and plots and themes and settings like yours. What books would you recommend them, if any, for readers who are fans of Leave No Trace? And, as it will be some time before you release another book, what books might you recommend to Writers Tell All readers who are looking for similar books to lose themselves in?
MM: For readers who are drawn to the parent-child relationships explored in Leave No Trace, I highly recommend Mary Kubica’s latest, When The Lights Go Out. It’s a hauntingly suspenseful take on the psychological power of grief, and I guarantee the ending will have book clubs in an absolute uproar. Also, early next year look for Amy Gentry’s Last Woman Standing. I wouldn’t necessarily compare it to LNT, but it is BRILLIANT. Thelma and Louise meets Fight Club. Absolutely the perfect thriller for the #MeToo era.
MT: A lot of this novel takes place in the wilderness. The characters are exposed to the outdoors and all of nature’s elements and the world isn’t necessarily kind to them. In many ways, it feels like other humans are the least dangerous villains in this book. Oftentimes, it feels like the most dangerous element is nature or even characters like Maya when facing herself and her history. How did you go about making this work, and what about the wilderness became so important that, in a way, you felt the need to make it the novel’s biggest antagonist?
MM: Man vs. nature is one of the classic literary conflicts and I was intrigued by how the stories of the Ho Vans and the Lykovs—real life families who fled human society for the wilderness—subverted that narrative. For them the dangers of war and religious persecution, in short the danger from other humans, eclipsed any threat the natural world posed. Josiah and Lucas Blackthorn take that role in Leave No Trace, putting them in conflict with the majority of the other characters who experience nature as an implacable enemy. I can’t take any credit for creating the world of the Boundary Waters, but I set the story in late fall to highlight the inherent threats of a Northern Minnesota winter
MT: I know I will misquote her, but Lyndsay Faye once told me something along the lines of “The most important thing about ending a crime novel is not who the killer is, or who’s responsible, but what the protagonist learns or what changes the protagonist as a result of the crime.” Do you believe this is an accurate statement about crime fiction in general, and either way, what is your mantra when approaching the conclusion of a novel, and the end of Leave No Tracein particular?
MM: That’s a great quote and I think true of every novel, that the protagonist is fundamentally altered by the events of the book. Those events just happen to be crimes for our particular genre. In romance, it’s the relationship. In fantasy, it’s the quest or journey. When I write an ending, I’m looking for that satisfying surprise, a final scene that pulls all those embedded threads and in retrospect feels inevitable for the story.
MT: In Everything You Want Me to Be, the female protagonist is a victim, someone who cannot be saved. The female protagonist inLeave No Traceis much more active and aggressive in choosing her own destiny and functions as a story of avenger. This is an incredible parallel between two very different types of women with very different fates. What encouraged you to make Maya so fierce and determined, truly the toughest character in the novel? At one point, she smears blood on her face like a warrior, and that makes me wonder—is this a commentary on women and how they are coping and developing in the age of Trump, or is this just an artistic decision to create a completely different type of heroine?
MM: I actually found a lot of commonality between Hattie and Maya, and even Meg from my first book, The Dragon Keeper, which I wrote long before it seemed possible for Trump to have a political career. These are women who commit themselves entirely to achieving their goals; they don’t make compromises, and that often leads them into dark, terminal places. Maybe I was raised on too much Xena and Buffy, but I tend to see a warrior inside every woman.
MT: Referring back to Maya being a warrior, I think of so many articles being published recently about female rage. Obviously, you’d written Leave No Traceprior to the publication of these articles, but how do you feel Maya plays in to the idea of female rage in articles written by and about women writers like Megan Abbott and Laura Lippman and so many other crime fiction luminaries?
MM: At Murder and Mayhem Chicago this year, Gillian Flynn said, “Casting women as purely good is misogynistic. It’s a horrific box to put women in.” Her talk, along with the articles you mentioned, demonstrate the genre’s growing maturity in allowing female characters to have full agency of their own anger. Maya’s rage fuels the major climax of LNT, through a major injury and a raging snowstorm, and she’s willing to sacrifice everything in her life because of it. She’ll throw away the love story, the success story, the everything-women-are-supposed-to-want story in order to satisfy that rage, and I know today’s readers are 100% behind that.
MT: The craze currently is the domestic thriller. The genre is somewhat overrun with so many of these that they start to blend together and I do believe we are reaching a point where the truly original authors are going to be so few and far between. However, you have proven twice already that you can be successful and write amazing fiction without conforming to the “it” genre or what’s popular right now. How do you distance yourself from what popular audiences insist you should be writing and instead be successful and gain acclaim from fans and critics alike?
MM: I always want to write a story I haven’t read. I’m not much for formulas and anyone in my life will tell you I’ve never been trendy. Certain characters grab me and I just follow them until terrible things start happening. And the process of writing a novel makes it easy to tune out the market. In fact, you have to. You’re building a world, tuning for theme and subtext, layering subplots, murdering people. It doesn’t leave a lot of head space for worrying about what’s popular.
MT: As I mentioned earlier, you have avoided falling into an “it” genre and instead remained true to yourself and your artistic integrity and have been successful in being yourself. You have succeeded so tremendously more than once, so I think it’s important to ask: with the endless titles with words like “girl” and “woman,” and the domestic thrillers with white housewives whose biggest problem is a small Xanax addiction, what do you think is the future for crime fiction written by women, and what role do you think you will play to this and do you ever think you will conform?
MM: I think it’s “lies” now, isn’t it? I can’t keep straight the number of books I’ve seen this year with “lie” in the title. Lol. The future of crime fiction written by women is the future of crime fiction. Period. Not to say that we’ll be putting the guys out of jobs, but that both men and women will continue to write into each other’s ‘spaces.’ Women writing spy novels. Men writing domestic thrillers. I think the traditional lines will become even more blurred and that’s something I hope to be part of.
MT: You do use multiple viewpoints in this novel, but it’s very different from the different viewpoints in Everything You Want Me to Be. How many times did you have to construct the novel and dismantle it in an attempt to get the proper balance needed to make this novel successful?
MM: The novel was originally written entirely from Maya’s point of view, but I wrote a scene where Josiah had an opportunity to tell his story and he Wouldn’t. Stop. Talking. To the point where I realized I needed to cut some of his backstory into the rest of the book. He has three chapters and I balanced them off of Maya’s story with the three act principle.
MT: I obviously got to read Leave No Tracein advance, and I loved it. I googled reviews of other people who received ARCs of the book, and the praise seems almost universal. So many people have described the novel as completely enveloping and overwhelmingly delicious. How does it feel to know that even prior to the novel being published, people are losing their minds over how great Leave No Traceis? Did you expect such positive reception from your fans, and how is it affecting how you approach your current work-in-progress?
MM: I’m really grateful for the reception LNT has gotten with reviewers and early readers. As you mentioned, it’s a very different book than EYWMTB and I didn’t know how it would play among those fans. It’s giving me a nice shot of confidence with my current WIP, which is of course completely different. Haha.
MT: Do you have any clue what your next novel will be like? Can you hint at some sort of synopsis of where the novel is headed, and will this next book be another complete turn from the novel before it? What area or ideas are you looking to explore next in your fiction?
MM: I wanted to come home to the Twin Cities for my next book and specifically with a character who is mid-life and at the top of her game. A forensic accountant races to find ten million dollars that’s gone missing from an elite kickboxing gym, and becomes dangerously involved in the toxic marriage between the two powerful owners.
MT: Mindy, thank you so much for taking the time to let me interview you. As you know already, you’re definitely one of my very favorite people on top of me running your fan club. I cannot wait to see what you read next, and please do not hesitate to reach out for any reason whatsoever. Also, if you have any suggestions, remarks, questions, or concerns to leave us with, please feel free to do so. We at Writers Tell All love you, Mindy Mejia, and we look forward to watching your surely prolific and extensive career unfold in the years to come. Thank you again.
MM: Matthew, it’s been an absolute pleasure! Thanks for inviting me for another interview for Writers Tell All and for all the fabulous work you do to promote crime fiction.