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!