WRITERS TELL ALL
Erin Kelly is One of the Biggest Names in Crime Literature, and She's Revealing a Lot of Secrets to Us
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Erin! I am so excited to finally get to interview you. I’ve been an admirer for some time, and I know it’s rare that anyone isn’t acquainted with your work by now, but I hope those reading this interview who haven’t read your many great novels will dive in head first. I can imagine life has been pretty busy lately. What is your usual schedule like? Do you have a schedule for writing, and if so are you a morning, afternoon, evening, or late night writer? Do you have a set number of pages or words a day, and what is the revision process like for you?
Erin Kelly: Thank you for having me! At the time of writing, I’m gearing up for publication of Stone Mothers so my usual routine, such as it is, is a bit disrupted, writing articles and doing interviews and finalizing the last few details of my book tour. I tend to see my day in terms of hours at the desk rather than measure the success in word count. Sometimes it takes a day of head-scratching to get the idea that moves the book forward to the next stage, which could mean lots of scribbling longhand but no words at all in the actual manuscript. Other days I can write 5,000 in a couple of hours. I delete a hell of a lot, too: understanding that a chapter I’m very fond of is the thing that’s holding me back, and consigning it to trash, might set me back a few days’ word count but will ultimately free me up. The revision process, then, is built into the first draft. (I consider everything up until the moment I have no plot holes and no research left to do the first draft.)
MT: What books do you read usually, and what books do you read while you’re writing? Do you have a book or author you turn to when you’re stuck? What were your formative years like, and what books do you feel shaped you most as a writer?
EK: I learned to read very early and can’t remember a time when books weren’t my sanctuary. I devoured the usual stuff – Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Judy Blume – and also loved Frances Hodgson Burnett and a British author called Bernard Ashley who wrote thrillers for children – really gritty, unpatronizing books about kids who found themselves tangled up in adult crimes. At about 12 I got a taste for the gothic: I loved Anne Rice, Stephen King and for a year or so I was obsessed with Virginia Andrews and read and re-read her Dollanganger saga obsessively. It is what we would now call a ‘problematic fave’ but there’s probably a hangover from those books in my own writing. I can’t resist a crumbling mansion or a dark and stormy night.
I do read when I’m writing. I know some authors don’t to crowd their heads with others’ stories during the process but I have to have a book on the go or I feel weirdly itchy and untethered. I have noticed that my reading mood changes depending on where I am in the process. When I’m still plotting I like to read thrillers, or any book with interesting mechanics. Towards the end when I’m polishing the sentences I’m more drawn to quieter, more literary fiction. Of course the ideal book is one that delivers on story and style and I don’t understand the school of thought that says you have to choose between the two. You can absolutely have your cake and eat it!
MT: You’ve written some pretty amazing novels, and they’re all very different. I really love what you do with style, narration and narrators, and all other types of ways you tell your stories. How many novels did you write before you finally published your first novel? Do you feel like your first novel felt completely you, or do you think you came more into yourself in later books? I know some authors feel it takes a while for them to feel like they’re really writing something that’s completely their own, and not something they’ve wanted to sound like another writer or genre or group or writers.
EK: The Poison Tree was my first novel, but I had been thinking seriously about it for a good five years before I finally sat down to write. I’d done a couple of evening classes and joined a writing group (which was actually more of a drinking group, and there’s nothing wrong with that). Like most debuts The Poison Tree does sometimes groan under the weight of all the books I’d loved before. In my case, these were A Fatal Inversion and The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. They share the theme of an ingenue being seduced by glamour, resulting in various degrees of fatality.
It took a few books to find my voice. The Burning Air, my third novel, was probably the first time I didn’t feel Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine breathing down my neck although actually it was such a bastard to plot that I could have done with her help. When I wrote my fourth book, The Ties That Bind, I was reading a lot of Graham Greene and was completely obsessed with Jake Arnott’s True Crime trilogy, and those influences leaked onto the pages.
MT: I don’t really know where to begin with your novels, as far as delving into themes, ideas, stories, characters. One major issue a lot of your characters face from the beginning of your novels is trust, and really whether they can trust anyone. This comes with the crime fiction territory, of course, but I wonder—what do you think is so important about the issue of trusting people in crime fiction, more specifically the focus (I don’t know if I would say a major shift, necessarily) on family members, lovers, loved ones?
EK: Crime novels would be pretty short if everyone told the truth the whole time! I think what we’ve seen over the last five years, with the popularity of the psychological thriller as much as the police procedural is that the untrustworthy people are getting a little closer to home. It’s not the killer in the dark alley, it’s the person you’re sleeping with you really want to watch out for – which is sadly a reflection of the reality of violent crime. Most victims are known to their attackers, even if most domestic crime is more senseless and less ordered than it is in books.
MT: How much of you goes into writing your characters, good and bad? Do you ever find yourself judging your characters? Have any of your characters, or any of your books, ever feel like they have hit too close to home?
EK: Oh, I’m sure I’m all over the books, although I’ve never consciously plundered events from my own life I’ve definitely exploited my own feelings and attitudes, even my politics. Funnily enough the character I’ve felt closest to was Paul in my second novel The Sick Rose, even though we first meet him as a teenage boy. Paul was a bookish weirdo growing up in a part of Essex where there isn’t much patience for that sort of nonsense and that was my experience, too. I’ve never thought about whether I judge my characters, I suppose because I always know why they act the way they do.
MT: I really feel like I could read anything by you—a minute account of cleaning your house, a real good scrub, the floorboards, the baseboards, all the boards and then we move on to carpets. But sort-of jokes aside, do you think your ability to captivate your audience without cheap tricks lesser writers might resort to is something you’ve learned or is this a unique skill you’re born with? Your writing really feels like a middle between later Laura Lippman books and Alex Marwood’s The Darkest Secret, very much on par with some of the greatest of the greats.
EK: I treat writing as a craft and a skill – when I was writing The Poison Tree I re-read some old favourites by Nicci French and took them apart, as though I were a mechanic who wanted to find out how a car worked. That said, there is some stuff you can’t instil. My voice is what it is, I think I’ve got a good ear for dialogue and the words, at sentence level, come easily. I only wish the same could be said about the plots!
MT: Your books are in many ways very similar, but they are also drastically different from each other too, which I feel is the sign of a truly great writer. The Poison Tree regards so many secrets, and you have a really great gift at building suspense. One main theme is family—the one we have, and the one we pick. I’m interested in your opinion, but I would argue that in The Poison Tree, Karen’s relationship with Rex is doomed from the very beginning. Rex’s relationship with his sister is disturbing in many ways, and as I and so many other people have learned from various relationships, there are some relationships doomed from the start. Do you think this is true for Karen, Rex, and Rex’s sister?
EK: I get a lot of emails about Karen, Rex and Biba but I’ll tell you a secret that no one else has guessed: Biba set Karen and Rex up. Biba was sick of what she perceived as Rex smothering her, so she went fishing for a nice boring girlfriend to take up some of his attention. I don’t think it went quite to plan, though.
MT: You do a really great job in all of your novels of revealing some great surprises along the way, but then by the end of the novel it’s like a domino effect, with each domino being a surprise, and each surprise or shock being bigger than the last. Do you plot everything out before beginning a first draft, or are you the type to come up with things as you go? I know some really great authors who do both, and I am ready to take notes either way.
EK: I wish I could plot before I write. But it doesn’t work that way for me. I’ve tried to do it several times, but I get to know my characters and how they behave by putting them in detailed scenes. I have a vague idea of where I want to go, and I sometimes end up there, but the route is never like the one I had in mind (usually for the better).
MT: In He Said/She Said, you tackle the issue of rape, rape culture, “white feminism” and social justice warriors, and so many more current topics without ever being on the nose (like many authors who really try and see how many times they can fit “#metoo” and other current social justice slang in their novels). The novel is so unsettling because, speaking for myself here, I can say that I remember when I was like the protagonist, Laura, who believes she has stumbled upon a woman being raped. First off, I wanted to commend you on writing a crime novel that actually focuses on rape instead of initially murder, and making the novel just as compelling and page-turning as any of your others. There have certainly been many novels in recent years dealing with the issue of rape, but these usually automatically come coupled with a scandalizing murder. Why do you think people have a hard time talking about rape, and acknowledging it as a central crime, if not the main crime, in a novel?
EK: He Said/She Said was published around the same time as a handful of other thrillers that take sex crime as their jumping-off point: I’m thinking of An Act of Silence by Colette McBeth, Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan, Winnie M Li’s Dark Chapter, so it’s clear that we were all reacting the same way to the groundswell of female voices talking more openly about rape. All the authors I’ve just mentioned are women and I know that, like me, they’d had enough of seeing rape as a precursor to murder, and certainly a few years ago the victim was likely to be nothing more than a prop to help the cop get his guy. (Crime fiction is getting better at this: TV, on the other hand, still has some way to go). Murder is extraordinary and most of us are lucky not to be touched by it. Rape, on the other hand…if you’re on a packed train carriage, you’re probably sharing it with at least one rape survivor. I think we all wanted to write books that explore the horrific everyday reality of rape, in ways that honoured the survivors.
MT: I think the hardest part about reading He Said/She Said, which is also probably why so many people were drawn to it, is, as I said before, so many people see themselves in Laura. She wants to be the person to save another woman from a rapist. Of course, things become more complicated with the “gray matter” of rape—everything that must qualify a rape as a rape, and how ridiculous the law is when it comes to this, as a murder is mostly always a murder, and the same with many other crimes. You capture this issue so well, but the danger is something that, in many ways, Laura invites upon herself, becoming too involved with the crime and the victim, even inviting the victim into her home. I know you don’t have all the answers, and I actually prefer books that ask questions rather than telling the reader what to think, but what inspired to write this book, why did you decide to write it and Laura the way you did, and why was it so important to separate yourself from all of these other #metoo, rape culture, “social justice warrior” novels?
EK I kept seeing the same story play out again and again and again. A young man would be found guilty of rape and either the judge or a reporter would lament not the destruction of the victim’s security but the loss of the rapist’s career. Jamie, in the book, was inspired by the blue-eyed posh boys who were recast as the real victims in all this, and I was sick of it.
I didn’t think about this book in the context of other ‘social justice warrior’ or ‘me too’ novels. As per my previous answer, there weren’t that many being published when I was writing He Said/She Said, although conversations women were having with each other were clearly working their way into several books.
MT: You have a new novel coming out, which my friends have told me amazing things about and I’m so excited to get my hands on it. Do you mind telling our readers a little about it?
EK: Stone Mothers is set in an old Victorian Mental asylum and is told backwards: it begins in the present day when it’s been converted into luxury flats, moves back to the days when the building was abandoned and finally the secrets are revealed in the chapters set when it’s a working hospital. I got the idea when a friend who’s an urban explorer was in just such a place and came across a cabinet full of old medical records, with some pretty incriminating details. She’s a nurse so knew what to do with them, but I couldn’t help thinking that in the wrong hands, this information would be incredibly dangerous… and I had a story.
Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
Stone Mothers tells the story of Marianne, who was seventeen when she fled her home, her family her boyfriend Jesse and the body they buried. Now, forced to return, she can feel the past closing around her. And Jesse, who never forgave her for leaving, is finally threatening to expose the truth. Marianne will do anything to protect the life she’s built: the husband and daughter who must never know…
MT: Erin, it was so great to finally talk with you about your books and writing, and I’d love to talk to you even more but I know I’ve taken up more than my fair share of your time. I really encourage the few readers we have who haven’t already ready your books to pick up copies of all your books and read away. I really hope this interview has been as fun for you as it has for me, and I really hope it’s really informative to our readers about your books and your writing. Thank you so much for talking to us and feel free to leave us with any comments or thoughts, and it was really a pleasure.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Snowden! I am very excited to talk with you about your new book,American Pop. I have to ask: how does moving around, seeing the North, the Deep South—even writing about Europe—how has this affected your writing, and this novel?
Snowden Wright: Thanks, Matthew! I’m excited to talk about it with you. Moving around gave me a greater perspective—of culture, of people—as well as a wider range of experiences. That in turn allowed me to explore more perspectives and experiences in my fiction. I like to think I have a fairly strong imagination, but experience is the imagination’s fuel. Seeing the North, the Deep South, and other parts of the country filled the tank.
MT: What about this novel made you decide to base it around a “pop” or “soda” company? I always am asked by people from other states, other regions, if I call something pop or soda. How do you feel the title, and the industry the novel concerns, has been developed by your writing?
SW: So funny you should ask this question. Lately I’ve been asked by people, to paraphrase, “How can you name this book American Popwhen in the South, where it’s set, nobody calls soda ‘pop.’”
I’ve answered them by explaining that the second word of the title has multiple meanings and subtexts, all of which I intended: soda, popular culture, popularity, explosion, “pop” as in “goes bust.” In other words, American Popisn’t just about soda. It’s about America and all the myriad ideas wrapped up in the concept of it. It’s about a family and all the myriad elements wrapped up in the concept of one.
That said, the soft-drink industry is, of course, a major part of the novel. It’s the mechanism by which I tried to explore, providing as much entertainment as possible, the ideas of America and the elements of a family. “Why read fiction? Why go to movies?” I quote in the novel from an issue of Beverage Digest, “[The] soft drink industry has enough roller-coaster plot-dips to make novelists drool.”
MT: What books and authors have truly influenced you? What books and authors do you return to time and time again? What book helped you with creating and executing this novel?
SW: Got a couple hours? Because I could go on nearly forever answering this question, there are so many books and authors I proselytize.
The authors and/or books that influenced my development as a writer: Michael Chabon, my favorite living author; Edith Wharton, my favorite dead author; Elmore Leonard, who talk me to write dialogue; Amy Hempel, who taught me to love sentences; Barry Hannah, who taught me to loosen up; Joan Didion; Toni Morrison; and so, so many more.
The novel that most influenced this one is Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which uses a fluid, shifting timeline, as I do in American Pop. I was also influenced by multigenerational family sagas: Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Crowley’s Little, Big, and Boyle’s World’s End, to name a few. For the use of nonfiction techniques in a work of fiction, I was inspired by novel’s such as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
MT: Who were your favorite characters in the novel?
SW: My favorite characters are all the women in the Forster family. I try to fill my work with as many strong female characters as possible, doing whatever small part I can to rectify the deficiency of them in a lot of fiction by male authors.
So, my four favorite characters in the novel are four women, each of a different generation of the Forsters: Fiona, saucy and strong-willed and never without a gin rickey; Annabelle, haughty but sensitive; Ramsey, independent and stubborn and resilient; and Imogene, perhaps my #1 favorite, who is wheelchair-bound but walks tall. I like to think if Fiona, Annabelle, Ramsey, and Imogene were somehow able to join forces at the same time, they could take over the world.
MT: We have soda/pop, a family saga, crime and loss—what do you think, concerning all these issues, makes this book work and why did you decide to connect all of these things in a family saga?
SW: To me the notion of genre is malleable. You could call this a family saga, but it also has elements of crime novels, historical fiction, soap operas, comedies, and war novels. I wanted to fit as much as I could into it. I didn’t want it to fall under one single label.
Take my dad. He calls any movie that isn’t a comedy “a murder mystery.” Die Hard? A murder mystery. Philadelphia? A murder mystery. I guess American Popis my own murder mystery—but with plenty of comedy as well.
MT: How do you feel this novel plays into issues with our nation, and if you had to reach out to your neighbors, acquaintances, or even just people in the Deep South, what would you hope they would learn or gather from this novel? What is the most important thing you learned when writing this?
SW: America is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. These days, I think, people have come down with a nasty case of nostalgia. Nostalgia warps the truth of the past, stripping it of conflict, guilt, faults, weakness, and sin. Nostalgia is, in other words, bad literature. I’d like people from the South as well as from the rest of the country to gather that idea from American Pop.
MT: What does it mean for so many children to disappoint their parents? At what point do we do what our parents want, and how do we separate ourselves from their dreams and ideas? Do you have any experience with this?
SW: I’m fortunate to have very supportive parents. Despite some obvious reservations about the difficulty of success, my mother and father have always supported my goal of being a professional writer, whether by taking me to the bookstore whenever I wanted as a kid or allowing me to attend an expensive college with a great writing program. I realize not everyone has that.
I think it’s important and necessary for children to “disappoint” their parents, so long as we truly consider what that verb means. Children have to disappoint their parents by following their own dreams. Children have to disappoint their parents by having their own successes and failures. Ultimately, too, the disappointment in parents can and should become pride.
MT: My paternal grandparents were pretty vicious, although not as determined as the parents in American Pop. In many ways, like with my father and his brothers, a reader might argue that in many ways the parents do destroy their children, and create this competition and chaos in their hopes for a better future. What is this disappointment like, and how do parents generally inspire hate between their children, and how do we separate the good will of the family matriarch and patriarch and how they have damaged the relationships and futures of their children?
SW: To paraphrase Philip Larkin: Parents, they fuck you up. The patriarch of the Forsters, Houghton, is not, to put it lightly, a good father. I modeled him loosely on Joseph Kennedy, Sr. Houghton has the irrational idea that by creating competition among his children and grandchildren he can make them each better equipped to survive and succeed.
You could argue he’s a metaphor for America. His treatment of his children is like free-market capitalism. Throw them to the wolves. Survival of the fittest. He’s trying to equip them, however perversely, to achieve the American Dream. His intentions are decent, but his methods are fucked-up. Larkin was spot-on.
MT: What was ending this book like for you, without spoilers? Often I see critics write about how difficult endings are, and I think for a lot of writers it is a struggle, especially when writing such an epic like this. How hard was ending the book for you?
SW: I knew how the novel would end fairly early into the writing of it. The elegiac montage, an evocative revisiting of the book’s major events: All of that I had in mind early. I also knew I wanted a subtle revelation—in this case, of the novel’s MacGuffin, PanCola’s secret ingredient. Many novelists might not have revealed the secret, considering it more “literary” to leave it a mystery, implying the book was all about the journey, not the destination. American Popis all about the journey, I think, but I would never deprive readers the satisfaction of finding out the secret ingredient.
MT: You write about homosexuality, the military, and loss. These themes together have been very taboo to write about until recent years, and I wonder what influenced you write a story like this, or at least this part of the novel’s story. Why did you decide to address the sexuality of one character through the military, a section that occurs really near the beginning of the novel?
SW: Addressing sexuality through the military came about organically. I knew I wanted Monty to be gay. I knew I wanted him to be a war hero. And I knew I wanted his lover to be British. How do I combine all three? World War I.
I remember when I first came up with last line of the scene when Monty’s lover dies. One morning I was out for a run along the Hudson River in New York. For the past few weeks I’d been thinking about the scene jotting down notes, lines, and phrases for the death scene. I was about four miles from my apartment when suddenly the last line popped into my head. It was simple, only a few words, and it had an almost children’s-book syntax. I knew without a doubt it was the perfect way to end the scene.
Even though the line was short, I got so paranoid I would forget it that I immediately turned around and ran home so that I could get it on paper. It’s my favorite sentence in the book.
MT: Toni Morrison has written about how even without black characters in a novel, we still see the presence of the marginalized and minorities in the novel who are really ghosts, not there? How do you feel this family, the main characters who act out with privilege and sometimes success, reflect upon Morrison’s thoughts and what do you think each character brings into this discussion in the novel?
SW: Although the main family in the novel is white and privileged, I wanted to include as many marginalized characters and characters of color as possible. Sometimes they play large roles (Josephine Baker has a fairly big secondary part), and sometimes they are on the periphery. One chapter takes place in the Mississippi Delta and concerns a group of wealthy planters discussing how to disenfranchise black voters while accepting cocktails and hors d’oeuvres from black servants.
Of course, I’d have to be an arrogant idiot to think I handled the issue perfectly or, for that matter, well. I can only hope I handled it adequately. Morrison’s take on the issue seems especially pertinent to this sort of novel. American Popconcerns a wealthy, white family in a region, the South, riddled with economic disparity and racism. I hope the Forsters’ privilege draws attention via contrast to families without privilege. The Forsters are an illustration of the American Dream, but the American Dream, however idealistic and well-intentioned, is hampered by racism, sexism, and so many other issues in our society.
MT: I really enjoyed being able to discuss things with you, Snowden. Can you tell us if you’re working on anything new, and if you have something new coming out anytime soon? It was really great talking about American Pop and really getting to know more about the novel and you. Feel free to leave with any comments, thoughts, etc. It was great talking with you!
SW: Ever heard of the Confederados? They’re a real group of people from American history: the 5,000-20,000 Southerners who, after the Civil War, immigrated to Brazil, enticed by cheap farmland, tax breaks, subsidized travel, and the fact that, down there, slavery was still legal. I’m currently writing a novel about a colony of Confederadosand the lives of its many residents, all of whom are dealing with their “exile” from America and the repercussions, figurative and literal, of having been on the wrong side of history.
Thanks so much for this interview, Matthew! It was fun chatting with you.
"In a way, she groomed her as I believe some powerful people do with those who serve them." Renee Knight on THE SECRETARY
Matthew Turbeville:Renee, it is so nice to talk to you about this amazing novel. I really loved the anticipation and dread you created, the idea that you know something bad is coming but you can’t stop it. A slow-motion car accident, a slow burn. Can you talk about how your writing has evolved to get to this novel, and where the idea for this novel originated?
Renee Knight:My starting point for this novel were the two main characters rather than a premise. In my first novel, Disclaimer, I began with the idea - what would it be like if you came across yourself as a character in a novel? With The Secretary, my starting point was the relationship between two women - a secretary and her charismatic employer.
The idea came from recent high profile court cases in this country and in the US, involving celebrities and their personal assistants. I was struck by how a secretary could bring down their boss, or equally, be the one to save them by standing up in court and providing evidence to back up their story. What interested me was, not so much the crimes themselves, but the close relationships between the secretary and their employer, particularly when the employer was a woman. It seemed to me that the boundaries often became blurred - as if the secretary was at times treated like a friend, but a friend who could never say no. Ultimately, the secretary was there to do as she was told. It made me question the limits of loyalty: How far would you go for your employer? Particularly if you became bound up in their life. It seemed to me that these relationships were often unhealthy ones of co-dependency. And that is what The Secretaryis about. In my book, the secretary's whole identity is caught up with her employer's - she has an overwhelming desire to be needed. And the more she is needed, the more her boss depends upon her. It was this dynamic between two women that interested me.
MT:For the aspiring writers reading this, what was the road to becoming a great writer like for you? Did you always have a passion for books, or did the love of books and writing come later? Did you always know what genre you would want to write, or did you stumble into it?
RK: As a child, reading was always my favourite past-time and has continued to be so. The passion for books was always there, although it was only in middle-age when I found the confidence to tackle writing my own. My career had been in making television documentaries and so, when I started writing, I began with scripts and then moved onto novels. I have always been drawn to narratives that explore human psychology and delve into the darker side of how we behave as humans. I didn't consciously set out to write psychological thrillers, but this is where the characters I created led me.
MT: Everything about this novel felt so authentic, and while there isn’t an outright murder or some outrageous opening scene, we are drawn in to this irresistible novel, possibly through your writing alone but it feels like you’ve done a really great job at using a lot of different elements to pull the reader into the novel. Do you mind talking about how you are able to draw a reader in without a shocking opening, and how that also benefits the reader as we feel the suspense throughout the entire novel?
RK: I think it was by digging as deeply as I could into the character of the secretary, Christine Butcher. She holds the story - she is the one telling it and so we know that we, the reader, are in her hands. We know from the start that Christine is a damaged woman, although she is trying to hide it from us. She has been treated badly and her obsession with her past and with her employer, Mina Appleton, makes her an uncomfortable companion. I resisted having a prologue to the book with a shocking incident because, in my view, this can be over-used in thrillers and at times feel a bit of a cheat. If the first chapter does not draw the reader in, then that first chapter is not working as well as it should be. From the start I tried to make Christine's voice clear and to create an atmosphere that was claustrophobic with an underlying sense of dread.
MT: What books did you often turn to in order to write this novel? Were there certain authors novels you turned to in order to get inspiration for this novel?
RK: Years ago, I read Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller - a book I loved and that stayed with me. I went back and re-read it while I was writing The Secretary. Apart from that, no. I read a lot of newspaper articles about secretaries and court cases, and I spoke to two very experienced personal assistants.
MT:When creating the main character, Christine, what did you have to do to find her voice, and how do you view her overall? Without giving away spoilers, do you think you can talk about whether you think Christine is a villain or victim, culpable or innocent? What about her boss, Mina?
RK: I first wrote the novel in the third person and then re-wrote it in the first and when I did that Christine's voice came. I knew who she was when I started, but it was only when I moved from third to first person that her voice really came through. I see Christine as a victim, although she is not entirely innocent. She was damaged and vulnerable when she met Mina her boss and, Mina knew this, although she underestimated the danger in betraying a person as fragile as Christine. Mina wanted someone who she could mould to fit her needs and she saw that person in Christine. In a way, she groomed her as I believe some powerful people do with those who serve them. They need to be surrounded by people who won't question their orders or their authority.
Mina is a charming and seductive personality. Someone who might make many of us, if we met her, feel better about ourselves. It is all surface though - underneath, she is ruthless. So, in the end, I see her as manipulative, entitled and, yes, the villain. She abuses her position of power and pays the price for it.
MT: What do you think is so seductive about Mina, even to Christine? What would you say is the thing that draws Christine to Mina again and again, often turning away everyone in her life for this job?
RK: Mina is powerful and yet she succeeds in disguising her hard core in a veneer of caring. She can seem, and is at times, thoughtful to others although we learn these moments are never without calculation. She is able to make herself appear vulnerable - as if she needs to be protected. She makes Christine believe that she needs her above everyone else, and although she never says this to her directly, she implies it in the way she appears to confide in her. And yet, in truth, Christine knows very little. Christine's fatal flaw is that she has an overwhelming need to be needed and Mina provides this for her. She also finds it easier to put order into Mina's life rather than her own. Domestic life can be unpredictable and messy, and Christine finds that hard to deal with and so she gradually cuts herself from her home-life and, instead, turns her focus to Mina.
MT:There are often incidences in the book where Christine is forced to question who she is—her dying father, her daughter, her former husband—who they are to her, and what Mina is to her. At one point, Mina brings up a problem with Christine, but pulls up different problems that Christine viewed differently. Sometimes, we see Mina as vindictive, cruel, someone taking out her anger on Christine, but other times we have to ask how reliable is Christine as a narrator. I love the layers you add to these parts of the novel. How did you construct the relationship between Mina and Christine—was it already planned out, or something that grew from multiple drafts and rewrites?
RK: A bit of both. I understood their relationship pretty much from the start, but when I wrote and re-wrote I was able to build up the layers. I wrote about six drafts of this novel, three in the third person!
MT:There are many moments in the novel where Christine feels powerful, and many moments when she feels powerless. The positive and negative charges really balance the novel out, but as a character I have to ask if you think Christine has a need to have both, possibly at once, but at least each feeling at a certain time? Both feelings can have a positive or negative impact on her, but at the end of the day they feel necessary to Christine.
RK: I see Christine, as I said earlier, as a victim, but not innocent. Her identity is very much bound up with Mina's need of her, and with this comes her own sense of power. She feels she has an influential place in Mina's life and she likes that. She also enjoys the privileges of being Mina Appleton's personal assistant - being invited to her home, travelling first class on business trips, having a special relationship with her children. She is not without vanity.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this novel, and what kept you writing, revising, rewriting, and moving forward with the novel? Do you have any regrets about any elements of the novel now that it’s been published?
RK: The hardest part was resisting making the crime in the court case more than a white collar crime. I was determined from the start that this book would be about a toxic relationship and an abuse of power. It was a challenge to maintain the tension throughout the novel and I hope I have succeeded. This is the book I wanted to write and so I have no regrets.
MT: The ending, as well as the rest of the novel, is so great. The ending both has a strong effect on the reader and also feels inevitable in many ways. Did you ever struggle with writing the ending? What do you think is important about ending a great novel of suspense and crime like The Secretary?
RK: I did try out several different endings, although this was the one that was always in my head and that I kept coming back to. It felt inevitable to me too. I'm happy that you think it works. As you say, The Secretary is a slow-burn and so needed to deliver fully at the end. The end, to me, is so important. It cannot only be about the journey. If the destination is predictable or pulled out of a hat, then ultimately the reader is left disappointed. All roads must lead there.
MT:What is coming up next for you, Renee? Do you have a book in the works, a work in progress? I know I’m eager to see what you write next!
RK: I have another book sloshing around in my head at the moment, so I am thinking about it, doing some research and then, over the next couple of weeks I will sit at my desk and begin to work in detail on the plot. Once I am confident in the idea, then I will start to write, but only once I am sure that it is a story I want to tell. For the moment, I don't feel ready to share it - sorry.
MT: Renee, I really loved The Secretary, and I look forward to reading more from you. I really encourage our readers to purchase a copy of this book—it was phenomenal, a brilliant slow burn that really delivers through and through. If you love a great literary mystery, a story about complicated relationships, and ultimately a book that feels so incredibly dark without the need for so much gore, you will really love this book. Renee really pulls off some amazing feats with this novel. Thank you so much, Renee, and feel free to leave us with any closing thoughts!
RK: Thank you for such stimulating questions. Writing is a solitary occupation and so it is such a pleasure connecting with readers. Reading is much more of a commitment than watching a narrative play out on a screen and so it feels, to me, a privilege every time someone picks up my book and reads it.