WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: What were your favorite slasher films growing up? What slasher films in particular inspired Final Girls?
Riley Sager: For me, the gateway drug to slasher flicks was Scream. I was in college at the time—which is dating myself tremendously—and a film studies major. So even though I wasn’t a fan of slasher flicks, I was curious about a movie attempting to ironically revitalize the genre. I saw it opening night and was just blown away. It was the perfect combination of scary and funny. I loved it. And I especially loved Sidney, played by Neve Campbell. She got to be strong and witty and smart and vulnerable. I honestly hadn’t seen a character like her on screen before.
After that, I watched as many horror movies as I could, both classics like Halloween and those influenced by Scream, such as I Know What You Did Last Summer. When I sat down to write Finals Girls, I wasn’t thinking of one particular slasher flick. I was inspired by the genre itself. It was my attempt to understand what it means to be that character—the final girl—and how that title affects every aspect of your life.
I will say that a big inspiration was Single White Female. I thought it would be very interesting to take two strangers who have nothing in common other than being survivors, put them in an apartment together and see how they influence one another.
MT: As a man who writes frequently about and from the POV of women, I constantly fear accusations of appropriation and other types of backlash. Have you experienced that at all? Why did you choose the pen name Riley Sager?
RS: The pen name was a necessity. When I wrote Final Girls, I was at a crossroads in my career. I had tried my hand at a series of small-town mysteries, without much commercial success. Then I did a historical mystery, which I loved writing and was crushed by its failure. It was either hit the reset button on my writing career or have no career at all. Those were literally my only two options. So I hit that reset button as hard as I possibly could. Now, I didn’t write Final Girls because psychological thrillers are hot right now. I wrote it because I love that genre. I mostly read that genre. I wanted to contribute to it rather than simply emulate it to make some cash.
Yet my agent and I also knew the subject matter of Final Girls and the way the story is told would carry certain expectations based on the gender of that pen name. I’m not saying that women only read women and men only read men, because we all know that’s not true. But gender does play a part in how many people respond to a work of fiction, especially one in which violence against women is a major plot point. So we decided the best course of action would be to take gender out of the equation. Just have a name that could easily belong to a man or a woman. My publisher agreed, which is why there’s no mention of gender in my author bio and no author photo on my website. It wasn’t an attempt to trick women into buying my book. There was never any discussion of pretending to be a woman on social media. We simply wanted the book itself to be the sole focus, not the gender of its author. The book addresses many issues, including trauma, the effects of PTSD and how the media insists on portraying women as victims and not survivors. Those are the things we want people to talk about. Not me. I am literally the least interesting thing about the book.
MT: Did you find any challenges writing from the POV of someone different from you? How did you channel the being of, say, Quincy? How long did it take you to get her voice in order, to establish her frame of mind?
RS: I found Quincy’s voice immediately. Mostly because Quincy and I have more in common than I probably should admit. I was going through a very difficult time when I wrote the book. Without getting into specifics, I’ll simply say that a lot of bad things happened in a short amount of time. So I totally related to Quincy’s anger and fear and loneliness. I was experiencing them as well. Writing her story was also a bit of catharsis for me.
MT: Have you seen Scream 4? It’s an absolute favorite of mine—Emma Roberts is, pardon the pun, killer—and it’s been argued that the film is the first truly feminist horror film. Would you argue that Final Girls is a feminist novel? How do you create such realistic, well-rounded women characters?
RS: It’s undoubtedly a feminist novel. At least, that was my intention. Throughout its history, horror films have been criticized for alleged misogyny and their depiction of violence against women. I’ll be the first to admit that some of that is justified. But few people ever mention that horror consistently features strong, smart, capable women. That’s why the genre is so popular among teenage girls. They see themselves on the screen. That’s the aspect of horror flicks I wanted to focus on in Final Girls. These fierce women who have survived so much and are still struggling. They’re flawed. They make mistakes and sometimes do bad things. But at the end of the day, they stay strong, smart and capable.
As for the characters, I never once thought of them as “women” characters. To me, they were simply distinct characters with their own personalities, thoughts and feelings. I can’t recall a single moment where I thought, “What would a woman do in this situation?” It was always, “What would Quincy do here? How would Samantha react?”
MT: Final Girls is a fine balance between slasher and crime genres. How did you balance the two so expertly? What elements did you draw from both?
RS: One of my goals was to bring the concept of final girls and slasher flick-like massacres into the real world and make it all seem believable. That became a bit of a tightrope to walk. Stray too far from the horror genre and you lose that creepiness that makes it special. Lean into it too much and it becomes campy. I think what helps is that all the slasher flick elements are in the past and told in flashbacks. The psychological thriller aspects make up the present-day plot. I think that separation helped me balance the two.
As for elements, well, the slasher flick flashbacks feature a group of friends going to a cabin in the woods for the weekend. You honestly can’t get more clichéd than that, which was definitely on purpose. Part of the fun of writing Finals Girls was taking some of these clichés and then dismantling them until they turn into something fresh and surprising. The psychological thriller aspects are also firmly within the genre. Unreliable narrator, memory loss, substance abuse problems. Again, it was an attempt to take these elements that are familiar to readers and then twist them in a new direction.
MT: In Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, arguably the definitive book on final girls, the ultimate purpose of the final girl is to live on to tell her legacy. How do you think that comes together in your novel? What legacy do you give your final girls to tell?
RS: The day Final Girls was released, I gave a shout-out to Carol Clover on Twitter because the book literally would not exist without her. In my book, it’s less about the final girls living to tell their legacy and more about living to give others strength. At the start of the book, there are three final girls—Lisa, Samantha and Quincy. They’ve survived similar horrors and have been treated the same in the press, so you’d think the three of them would have formed some strong bond. But that’s not the case at all. All three deal with their trauma in different ways, including Quincy’s de facto response of denial. So one of the journeys these characters take is learning that they’re stronger together than they are apart.
MT: What’s next? A sequel? Another crime novel, or something entirely different?
RS: I can say with a great deal of confidence that there won’t be a sequel to Final Girls. Endless sequels of declining quality is a horror movie cliché I’d like to avoid. That might change in the future, but for now I think it’s best to leave those characters alone. My next book is a blend of mystery and psychological thriller. We’re still in the editing and revision phase, so I can’t say too much about it yet. Like Final Girls, it features a cabin in the woods, but under very different circumstances and with very different results.
MT: What advice do you give to aspiring writers? Any hints as to how to get Stephen King--Stephen King—to blurb your book? Surely, that’s a very special club—and well deserved on your part.
RS: Read Mr. King’s On Writing. That’s my first piece of advice. Other than that, I’m reluctant to give too much advice because everyone works differently and has a different journey. My journey involves reading everything I could get my hands on and just absorbing ways to tell a great story. I also wrote a lot, much of it unsuccessful. My past is littered with unfinished novels. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reached the 100-page mark only to abandon the book because I had no idea about what to do next. I’ve also completed novels that will never see the light of day. The first book I ever had published technically wasn’t my first book. I wrote two other novels before it that were never published and never will be. I think of them as exercise and training for what came after. Writing is a craft. You learn by doing. That means sitting down and writing something that may never get published.
Despite having that sought-after Stephen King stamp of approval, I’m still not sure how it happened. He was given the book, obviously. But I don’t know when or how or what made him pick it up from the pile of books he surely receives every week. But I’m honored that he did decide to read it. I will forever be in his debt.
MT: It was nice talking to you, Riley. Any closing remarks, advice, or thoughts on Final Girls, slasher films, crime fiction, or writing in general?
RS: Thanks for inviting me. Since I’ve rambled on enough, I’ll simply make some recommendations of things that have recently rocked my world. Everyone should read The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, see Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix, which takes a horrific scenario and makes it deeply, profoundly funny.
Matthew Turbeville: Wow, John. When Kristopher from BOLO Books first recommended Dodging and Burning to me, I was unsure of what to think. Upon looking further into it, it seemed like the book of my dreams, and it turned out it was. Can you explain where you got the idea for Dodging and Burning?
John Copenhaver: Years ago, in grad school, I took a class on the invention of photography and its impact on literature. We read Sontag’s On Photography and Barthes’s Camera Lucida, as well as Ellison’s Invisible Man and Chandler’s The Big Sleep. I became fascinated the relationship between images and the narratives that are used to interpret (or misinterpret) them. So, I thought, why not tell a story about a photograph that continues to be re-interpreted? I’ve always loved crime fiction, and this idea fit the genre really well.
MT: Dodging and Burning is a novel with a lot of unique styles and methods of storytelling. Can you elaborate on the way you went about telling this fantastic story, and how you decided to approach the novel in such a broad, unique fashion?
JC: Essentially the book is a series of stories, each deeper and wider (and darker) than the one that proceeded it, all related to the essential bit of evidence—the crime scene photograph of poor murdered Lily. So, there needed to be lots of different modes of storytelling: a photo, journals, memoirs, pulp fiction, oral, even coded information. I love Margaret Atwood’s brilliant use of different modes of writing in The Blind Assassin. Also, D. M. Thomas’s heartbreaking and truly remarkable novel, The White Hotel, unfolds through different modes, the truth becoming clearer with each new kind of writing. I really admire those books, so I was chasing a similar effect in my own novel.
MT: I really loved all the characters, even at their worst. And the story never stopped twisting and turning. I suppose my next question is how did you first start composing this novel: through character, through story, or in some other way?
JC: Although I began with the photograph idea, when I actually sat down and started writing it, I focused on character, specifically Bunny Prescott. Then, about a fourth of the way through, I stopped and outlined the entire story. I also discovered a lot through revision. In particular, the final twist came to me. It gave me chills. The novel I’m working on now had a similar moment. I can’t say enough about the importance of revision! (Sorry, the teacher in me is coming out.)
MT: I usually save the heavy-hitter questions for later on in the interview, but I’m dying to ask: you’ve expressed you’re a feminist, supporting women adamantly, and also that you are extremely pro-gay, and also anti-patriarchy (I guess I’m swooning by this point). What I’m getting at is, without giving away any spoilers, how do you feel this is reflected in the novel, and what were you trying to say in stating these viewpoints and ideas?
JC: Patriarchy is a system under which everyone suffers, most prominently gay men, trans persons, women, and any person of color. But I also think straight white men suffer too. In a patriarchal culture it’s not just that you’re not permitted to say or do certain things, but that you’re not permitted to feel certain things, which is a sort of culturally reinforced, self-inflicted violence. Straight white men, because of their dominant status in our culture, are perhaps the most limited in this respect. Broadly speaking, this confounding of emotion is where their rage comes from. In my novel, you’ll see that the source of most of the violence comes from straight men, but it can be passed on to women, gay men, etc. A sort of chain reaction.
MT: I know that Dodging and Burning took you a long time to write. Were there ever moments when you truly felt you were going to give up? What advice do you give new and upcoming writers, people who want to make it “big” like how you are doing—or about to do upon the release of this novel in early 2018?
JC: Yes, this book has been long journey. My advice less experienced writers is simple: If you truly enjoy writing, if you really need it, you will have no choice but continue to do it. Trust in the urge to write, in that compulsion, and it will see you through. Accept that you will always be growing as a writer and accept the fact that you need your friends, your family, your beta testers, your agents, and your editors to see you through the rough places in your work and in getting your work out into the world.
MT: I’ve compared this novel to Laura Lippman’s later, greatest work. Who are your favorite crime novelists (especially women) and novelists in general who have influenced this completely amazing and unique book?
JC: My favorite crime novelists (in no particular order) are Patricia Highsmith, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Val McDermid, Tana French, Sarah Waters, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Ross Macdonald. My literary favorites are Margaret Atwood, Iris Murdoch, Truman Capote, Shirley Jackson, Ian McEwan, Vladimir Nabokov, John Fowles, W. Somerset Maugham, and Virginia Woolf … All of whom steal from the crime fiction for inspiration.
MT: I’m trying to avoid giving away any spoilers from Dodging and Burning, because that would be a major disservice to readers. But I do want to ask: how do you view the novel and its ending? Is this a tragedy or a triumph? What do you think crime fiction reflects in general: hope or despair?
JC: We tell ourselves the stories we need to make sense of our world. At times, though, those stories are challenged and disrupted. To move forward, a new story needs to emerge. At the end of Dodging and Burning, the characters uncover what they believe to be a re-interpretation of the past (which is a quality of a lot of crime fiction), but their interpretations differ, because they both need different things to move forward. We can collect as much evidence as we can about the past, but it’s really up to us to decide what story we’re going to tell about it. So, it’s not necessarily tragedy or triumph, but a logical extension of character.
MT: Returning to your writing habits, can you describe your writing process from day-to-day? Are you a morning or night writer? Middle-of-the-day perhaps? By pen or pencil or computer? How many words or hours per day?
JC: I’m a high school teacher, so I’m a whenever-wherever-I-can-write writer, usually weekends and vacations and snow days. I would love to write every day, but that’s simply not possible given my workload … Always computer. I loathe my handwriting.
MT: Not that Dodging and Burning needs advertisement, advocacy, or support, as it’s just a frankly amazing novel, but could you pitch to our readers in a sentence or two (or three) why it is absolutely necessary to read this book?
JC: Dodging and Burning isn’t just a historical mystery. It’s a novel about our relationship with the past, a past in which women and gay people were oppressed and marginalized, a past which today feels increasingly present. It’s also a book about storytelling, so it has to have a story full of lots of twist and turns!
MT: While the book is set, in part, decades and decades ago, sometimes it feels like the issues you address haven’t changed much. How do you reflect upon this?
JC: Back to my earlier comment about patriarchy: Clearly it’s still a big problem. Think about all the sexual assault and harassment perpetrated by men in powerful positions. Yes, we’ve made progress since the 1940s, but we’re far from there.
MT: Continuing on the importance of this book—and it’s a very important book—what do you think the average American, or even President Trump, should take away from Dodging and Burning? There’s obviously a lot I can think of, but I want to hear your central message, the general idea you would want to get into his head.
JC: I hope Dodging and Burning communicates a sense of the struggle that gay men went through at war and on the home front during WWII, and our responsibility to tell their stories, as fragmented as they are, for posterity.
MT: One central theme or issue in Dodging and Burning is the issue America faces with homosexuality and other forms of sexuality. What do you think is the state of gay literature in America? What do you think Dodging and Burning will do for it? And more importantly, what is the place of the gay man in the crime genre? That seems really important, especially in this book.
JC: There are a lot of wonderful books being written by LGBTQ writers. We need to continue to support great organizations like Lambda Literary and join forces with our allies in the publishing industry. Also, LGBTQ writers need to continue to hone their craft and move beyond coming out stories and erotica. There’s nothing wrong with either, but there’s so much more to be written about. We need to look hard at gay culture. We can celebrate it, but we also need to critique it. Speaking from the standpoint of a high school teacher, we need to get serious LGBTQ books into the classrooms, either as shared texts or as independent reading. YA has made some inroads, but adult LGBTQ literature still stands at the fringes. As for the gay man in crime fiction, he has had a place for many years and will continue to have a place: Think of the novels of Greg Herren, Michael Nava, Joseph Hanson, etc. My hope is that those writers and other LGBTQ crime writers will be read by a wide and diverse readership. The readers are out there, but we need to build a bridge to them.
MT: If there was one thing you could change about Dodging and Burning now that it’s being published, what would it be? I know what I would change: I’d have it last forever. I just couldn’t stop reading it (three times, so far).
JC: I can’t really think about changes at this point. It’s just not a mental space I can access. That ship, my friend, has sailed.
MT: Do you have another book in the works? I know that Dodging and Burning took a while, but I’m hoping that we’ll get a new John Copenhaver novel soon, as the world (and me too) truly needs your writing. When will we see another book by you, and what might it be about?
JC: I’m polishing up a novel manuscript, set in post-WWII DC, about two teenage girls, one of whom is (perhaps) a budding sociopath. They work together as amateur detectives to unwind the mysterious connection between an assault on their favorite teacher and the brutal murder of a classmate. I like to think of the novel as a femme fatale’s coming of age story: What were Cora Papadakis and Kathie Moffat like as young women? Can we have sympathy of the succubi?
MT: John, thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me. We are loving your debut novel, and encourage—even more so than usual—readers to go out and buy a copy of this lovely, stunning, and groundbreaking novel (trust me, reader, you won’t regret it). Thank you so much for giving us some insight into your thought process and also your novel itself. I look forward to reading Dodging and Burning a fourth and a fifth and, given I have time, a sixth time.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Lisa! Welcome to Matthew’s Canon We love your writing here. First, off, I’d like to ask how you got your start in writing.
Lisa Unger: Thank you so much, Matthew! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all your support. I feel like I know you!
Most writers are born and not made. I honestly don’t remember a time before I defined myself that way. But like most writers, I was a reader first. When I was young, my family moved around a lot. So, often the new kid, often the odd one out, I found a home in books and the written word.
For readers, it probably stops there – they’re content to disappear into worlds created by others. But I remember thinking: If somebody else can so completely transport me with their words, I wonder if I can do the same for someone else? How many stories are there in me?
I’ve been writing since childhood – short stories, poetry, plays. Most of my education was devoted to learning and honing my craft, and it was in college when I began my first novel. But, as for most novelists, the road from those early pages to my first published novel is long and twisting. For the full story of my journey from aspiring to published writer, readers can visit here: https://lisaunger.com/2007/10/aspiring-writer-to-published-author/
MT: Who are your favorite mystery writers? What authors do you turn to for inspiration?
LU: Some of the best people writing today are writing crime fiction – I’m sure you agree. My list of beloved authors is so long, I don’t even know where to begin.
Tess Gerritsen, Lisa Gardner, and Karin Slaughter are women I so admire as writers and people. They get better with every book. It’s inspirational because I, too, strive to be a better writer every day, hoping that each book is better than my last.
Authors that never fail to transport me include Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Gregg Hurwitz, Megan Abbott, Kate Atkinson (I think she has a new one coming out!), Donna Tartt ... More favorites: Alafair Burke (reading her new one now! Love it!), Sara Blaedel, Lisa Lutz, Kate White, Michael Koryta, Michael Connelly … oh! I know I’m leaving people off this list. Let’s call it a work in progress.
MT: All of your novels are so different and so alive. Where do you get inspiration for each novel?
LU: Thank you, Matthew. That means a lot coming from you, such an avid reader and with such great taste. They are alive. With every story, each character lives and breathes in me. My process is deeply subconscious, so I don’t have as much access to how things work as you might think. But inspiration can come from anywhere – a line of poetry, a news story, even, in one case, a piece of junk mail. If that spark ignites something else going on with me – a question I have about people, some deep-rooted fear, something about my life or myself that I’m processing – then I start to hear a voice. I follow that voice – or sometimes voices – through the narrative.
MT: Do you know the twists and turns you will write from the novel’s very first page, or do they come to you?
LU: I don’t! I have no idea day to day who is going to show up in my manuscript, what they are going to do, and I certainly have no idea how a book is going to end. I write for the same reason that I read. Because I want to know what’s going to happen to the characters living in my head.
MT: What is your writing process like? Are you a morning or evening writer? How many hours do you write a day? How many words do you write on average?
LU: My golden creative hours are around 5am to noon, that time and space where my brain is still in that sleepy, dreamlike phase. I don’t always get that time, because I have a daughter who also likes to get up early. So these days, I wake up and write as early as possible, write until my daughter wakes up, eat with her and get her off to school, then back to writing. I don’t have a daily page or word count. But recently, I have been working in three-hour blocks with breaks in between for exercise, eating, errands, etc., saving things like answering email or social media posts for the end of the day. I find that allows me to be the most present and creative when I’m at the keyboard (or notebook!).
MT: Out of all your books, which do you feel is your best? Your favorite? What book would you go back and rewrite if you had a chance, if any?
LU: My singular goal as a writer is to sit down at my keyboard and be better than I was the day before. So I hope that each novel I write is the best I’ve written. And if that’s the case, then my best book is the one I’m writing right now!
But honestly, it’s impossible to choose. Each book is special to me, each one the pinnacle of my ability at the time of its writing, and each uniquely connected to what was going on in my life as I wrote it.
If given the chance, I would rewrite every single book I’ve ever written! A book can only get better with each rewrite.
MT: You frequently write about violence against women, as seen specifically in The Red Hunter. How do you feel your writing is important in today’s ever-changing and ever-disruptive political climate?
LU: I believe that readers turn to fiction not just to escape life but to understand it better. Each story is a slice of life. Readers turn to crime fiction, much as writers do, to order the chaos we perceive in the world. In books, there is a definable beginning, middle, and end. Characters take a journey, hopefully changing for the better. There is, of course, violence and crime. But usually, justice of one form or another is served. Not so in the real world – where crimes often go unpunished, and we often feel out of control.
I do write about violence, dark actions, disturbed people. But I peer into those dark places because I’m looking for the light of understanding. Why do people do what they do to each other? What makes one person a hero, another a villain? What makes one person a victim, another an avenger? How do we face the darkest moments of our lives and find a path to love, forgiveness? Is there redemption after wrong-doing?
I know a lot of writers struggle to understand their relevance when truth is often stranger and more disturbing than fiction. It’s the writer’s job to metabolize the world, our stories reflecting our times, in some rare cases even illuminating or creating meaning with our characters and their journeys. In times of political and social chaos, people turn to story to take a break, to understand, and to order a world that is as unpredictable and changeable as at any time in history.
MT: Which of your books do you feel would make the biggest different socially, politically, etc? Which of your books are you dying for readers to read? Is there one that you feel doesn’t get enough attention?
Each of my novels is deeply persona, and I hope that each has an element that readers either empathize with or connect to on a deeper level. There are threads that run through them all – ideas about family relationships, the twisting, changing nature of identity, truth and lies, what makes us who we are. I know from the mail I receive that I’m connecting with some readers on a very personal level – because these are things with which we all wrestle, questions we all want to answer.
I’ve been fortunate that most of my books have found their audience. But if I had to pick one that I think doesn’t get enough attention in would be CRAZY LOVE YOU. Because of the title and cover imagery, it may be mistaken by some as more of a romantic tale. Not that there is anything wrong with romance novels! But this book is no romance. It’s a deep dive into obsession, addiction, and a kind of dark attachment that some people confuse for love. I have a special place in my heart for the disturbed main character Ian, and his childhood friend Priss – who is wild, unpredictable and has a dark, dark past.
MT: In the Blood features a major twist that must have taken a lot of research on your end. How much research do you put into each book? How much time do you spend pre-writing?
LU: I am always researching something. I’m a non-fiction junkie, constantly taking in information from books, documentaries, podcasts, text books. IN THE BLOOD was inspired by an article I read in New York Times Magazine about childhood psychopathy. And it was shortly after reading it that I started hearing the voice of Lana Granger. I didn’t know anything about her when I started writing except that she was a liar. And that she was so deeply veiled that she was almost in a cocoon. That she’d start the book as one thing, and be something totally different by the end. The twist was, believe it or not, a huge surprise to me, as well.
Research and learning is a big part of my work and my life. So I spend a great deal of time learning about my subject matter. Or, more often, my work is inspired by a non-fiction topic that is already obsessing me. So, the writing process and research are indivisible for me.
But as important as knowledge is empathy. I approach all my characters with empathy and compassion. I listen to them. I understand them. And they reveal themselves to me. It’s important to get the facts right, especially in a book like IN THE BLOOD. But it’s equally important to treat your characters with respect, to understand and reveal the heart of the story, and to know that – no matter what our secondary differences – we are all the same.
MT: You tend to be fairly prolific. How do you keep a steady output of books going so frequently, and with such high quality? Do you prefer to write fast or take your time?
Honestly, it is harder for me not to write that it is for me to find time to write. If a go a few days without writing, I feel unmoored. I write most days, and I am happiest that way. As a mom, my daughter always comes first. I try to strictly compartmentalize my time. When I’m working, I’m present for the page. When I’m with my family, I am present for them. When I’m in that marketing, social media, speaking, touring space I focus my energy there. It’s the fractured moments, where I try to do too many things at once that I feel the most stressed.
Of course, the lines are always messy and blurred. Time is the most limited resource, and there is a constant juggling act between those parts of myself. But I am semi-obsessed with the stories that are going in my head. So, I’m always looking for those nooks and crannies to get something down on paper.
Sometimes, I’m in the zone and those pages are flying. Sometimes I stare at the page. And stare. And stare. I am comfortable in both places. In writing, as in all organic processes, there is an ebb and a flow. So I never feel rushed, or stressed if something is taking too long. It is what it is.
MT: We’re dying to know what sort of book is next! What book do you have up your sleeve this time, and when will it be released?
LU: My next release, entitled UNDER MY SKIN, will release in October 2018. The cover reveal should be coming in the next month or two and I’ll be sharing that on social media, of course! I’m not ready to talk about it yet. But suffice it to say that I’ve been obsessed lately with that hazy space between sleep and wakefulness, between our dream and waking lives, and the twist of the past and the present. Buckle up!
MT: What do you feel your responsibilities or duties are as one of the leading female voices in crime fiction, not to mention all of literature?
LU: My contract with my readers is to be the best possible writer I can be, and to give each book everything I have creatively, every time. It’s my responsibility to care more about the work than I do about its promotion, to treat my readers and characters with respect, and to be true to the type of story I authentically want to tell. But while I am writing, I never really think about how a novel will be received, what kind of discussions or thoughts it might provoke, what its place might be in the world. It is a personal process, and when I write I am utterly alone with the page and what’s happening there.
MT: Thank you so much for speaking with me. We always look forward to your new books. You’re welcome back any time!
LU: You are so welcome! Thank you for reaching out, for your thoughtful questions, and for being such a champion of crime fiction writers, Matthew!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Alafair! It’s so wonderful having you speak with me. I’m a big admirer of your work here, including your individual work and collaborations. The Wife is my favorite yet. I’d like to start off by asking first how you came up with the concept and why you decided to connect it with your other novel The Ex?
Alafair Burke: It’s great to speak with you. The Wife is the story of Angela Powell, whose husband, a beloved public figure, faces two allegations of sexual misconduct. She grapples with an impossible choice, and is forced to take a second look at both the man she married and the women she refuses to believe. The concept is not really connected to The Ex, but Olivia Randall (from that novel) is exactly the kind of lawyer you’d call if someone you cared about needed a shark. Lo and behold, Jason Powell needed a shark, and there she was. This stuff just happens.
MT: I personally think this is your best book yet. Julianna Baggott, renowned author, poet, and so on once told me “Authors and artists are the only professions that get better with age.” Something along those lines. Do you think this is your best work so far? What has been your favorite to write, and which novel sticks with you the most?
AB: I always think my most recent book completed is the best, and the one I’m currently working on is the worst. That’s neurotic, I know, but it seems to work for me.
MT: Before I dig deep into questions about The Wife and writing, I do have to ask: What it’s like to write the marvelous Under Suspicion series with the equally talented Mary Higgins Clark? Do you two have a certain process in order to collaborate?
AB: We’ve had so much fun working together. If one pretty good storyteller like me sits down with a really, really good storyteller like her, it’s amazing how much we can get done in a day. We’ll write very little at first. Instead, we talk and talk and talk—about character, story, and setting, all the things that make a good book good. We get more done in one day than I get done by myself in a month. When you’re by yourself, when you hit a wall, you think, “I’ve got enough for today; I’ll think about this problem tomorrow.” But if you have someone else to work with, she can say: “Here’s how you can fix it,” and I can pick back the thread, and so on. You hear about the writing rooms for TV shows — we have our own writing room. I think we’ve both really enjoyed it.
MT: You put out books so frequently, and they all are of the highest quality. How you find time to write so much and so well? What is your writing routine and schedule like? Are there any things you avoid in order to be a better writer?
AB: My friends joke that if fifteen minutes go by without something fun happening, they find me pulling out my laptop. I just try to keep enough structure in my life so I don’t miss deadlines. As a lawyer, you learn to account for your time, so my idea of goofing off is going on Facebook to look at friends’ pictures for eighteen or twenty-four minutes since lawyers’ time is billed in six-minute increments. It helps that I have a schedule and am forced to be mindful of time. Sometimes, I just have to compel myself to write the next book. I might write five-hundred really bad words, but I still wrote the five-hundred words. There’s always revision.
MT: The Wife is a stunning achievement. My first immediate question about the book is whether or not you had the whole book mapped out before you even began. Did you know every twist and turn beforehand?
AB: I don’t outline at all. I just write until I’m done and then read, edit, and re-read until it seems right to me. Hand to God, I don’t rewrite with an idea toward pace or plotting. I focus entirely on character, and it always seems to work out.
MT: The Wife has a lot of really heavy and I do mean heavy statements that writers need to make, and other writers (especially male) need to read. What do you hope men, or anyone else, might or should take away from this? And, yes, I’m going there—what about President Trump? What do you think he could learn from The Wife? More importantly, which of your books do you think he’d benefit the most from?
AB: Oh wow, there’s a lot to unpack there. We’re in a time now, fortunately, when we realize that some offenses have gone un- and under-punished for too long. The language of “zero tolerance” emerged from the early stage of the movement, but I think we’re entering a new stage that is more nuanced. We’re recognizing that there’s a reason we distinguish between criminal and non-criminal conduct when it comes to imposing certain forms of punishment. But we’re also realizing that conduct can be non-criminal but still unlawful, as in the case of workplace harassment. Other conduct might be entirely lawful (both civilly and criminally) but still wrong as a matter of treating people equally and with dignity. As for the current President, my guess is that he would have rolled his eyes and zoned out after the first sentence of that response!
MT: The Wife is one of those books where, even if the beginning of the novel doesn’t necessarily, obviously and immediately revolve around a murder, it still ropes the reader in and refuses to let go. What are your tricks to doing this? Many authors have to begin with teaser deaths or murders to entice their audience, yet you’re able to captivate the audience with a little—well, actually, big—lie.
AB: The opening pages allow the reader to see Angela at a turning point in the story: A police detective is at her door, asking her where her husband was the night before. It’s a line in the sand. She has to decide how far she’ll go to protect Jason. The rest of the book is about how she got to that point, and the aftermath of the decision she makes at that moment.
MT: I would really appreciate it if you would explain to our readers what you feel The Wife is about, other than on a direct story level (without spoilers please!). I’ve read many reviewers say it’s the best book of the year not just for its plot, but for its thoughts and politics. What do you think about those comments?
Well, I’m blown away by the reader feedback right now. At the micro level, the book’s about one woman—one wife—who continues to love her husband and their life together even when she’s confronted with the fact that he’s done something bad. Readers may think they know the story already -- Like the Clash said, Should I stay or should I go? But not every woman’s pro-con list looks the same. Angela’s story is unique, because of course every woman’s life is unique.
At the macro level, the book explores ideas that have long fascinated me, and which are finally being discussed in the light of day by a mainstream audience. When does sex become criminal? How do we define consent? We are finally saying, “Believe the women,” but what exactly does that mean for the lives affected by accusations that play out on social media instead of a courtroom? Without knowing THE WIFE would be published in the middle of that discourse, I wound up having a lot to say about it.
MT: How was it writing a—forgive me for using this word—“non-woke” character like Angela Powell? Was it harmful or you to delve into her psyche—it seems like she’s the woman, in many ways, ever woman (and many men like me) fear being: often completely dedicated to her husband despite everything.
AB: I don’t find it harmful to delve into another’s psyche. I think the exercise of doing that has actually made me a more empathetic person outside my writing life, too. I consider myself lucky to come out on the other side of this book with a deepened understanding of Angela’s position, and the position of wives whose identities are formed around marriage. In general, I find I sympathize, even empathize, with so-called “unlikeable” characters, while I’m skeptical of traditional heroes. So I guess that means I’m having fun with characters whom I love and whom everyone else would avoid at a party. I’ve done enough interviews already to know that readers disagree about truly makes Angela tick. I think people are going to want to gossip about Angela with their friends behind her back!
MT: What do you think Angela learns by the end of the novel, if anything, without revealing any spoilers? What’s her takeaway, and this may seem redundant from previous questions, but what do you hope the audience takes away from this?
AB: I want readers to answer that question for themselves. I have my own answer, but to reveal it would give too much power to my own opinion about Angela.
MT: Who are the women crime writers you admire most today? Also, women writers of color, of different ethnicities and in different countries? Which writers have inspired you most in your writing? What books inspired The Wife, if any?
AB: Oh my, that is so hard to answer. As I know you’ve noticed, female crime writers are killing it these days (see what I did there?). Some of the usual names, deservedly, are Karin Slaughter, Lisa Unger, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Lyndsay Faye, Lori Roy, Allison Gaylin, Meg Gardiner, Kate White, and Queen Gillian of course! I’ll throw in some less familiar names, no less talented, but either newish to the scene or outside the US: Sara Blaedel’s Louise Rick series, Ivy Pochoda’s Wonder Valley, Caz Frear’s Sweet Little Lies, Kristen Lepionka’s The Last Place You Look, and Lauren Stahl’s The Devil Song.
MT: I mentioned in my review of your novel that it seems like you’ve reached a peak, even though I believe that a writer of your talent and abilities can go even higher. I’m sorry but The Wife is just that stunning. So, may I ask what you have planned next? Where do we go from here?
AB: Thank you. I’m working on the next Ellie Hatcher novel, which will take her back home to Wichita.
MT: Alafair, thank you so much for stopping by. We really do love your work, truly, and honestly believe The Wife could be the book of the year. You are such a talented writer and powerhouse—I’m honored to have gotten the chance to interview you. Do you have any closing remarks or thoughts?
AB: What else could I possibly add? Thanks so much for your enthusiasm about this book and the work you put into this interview. I appreciate it!
Matthew Turbeville: Emma, it is so exciting to get to talk with you. I have to say, I really did myself a disservice by sleeping on Little Deaths for so long (readers: that’s a hint. You should read this book. Immediately.)! How did the idea of the novel come to you? I read it was based on a true story?
Emma Flint: Thank you so much for the warm words and for your enthusiasm!
Little Deaths is indeed based on a true story. I first read about it when I was sixteen, and the details stayed with me until I began to write the book that would become Little Deaths.
In the summer of 1965, Alice Crimmins was a single mother living in an ordinary working-class suburb of Queens, New York. She had recently separated from her husband and was trying to juggle a job as a cocktail waitress with caring for her two young children. One hot July morning, Alice woke up to find four-year-old Missy and five-year-old Eddie missing from their locked bedroom: both children were later found dead.
Those are the bare facts of the case that intrigued me for over two decades. I remembered the haunting photographs of the smiling round-cheeked children, and the photographs of their mother taken during the police investigation. In each one she is dressed in tight clothes that show off her slim figure, with striking red-gold hair and thick make-up. She is at the centre of every photograph: tiny, doll-like, surrounded by bulky men in suits and cops in uniform, almost as though the photographer has posed the group to make her the focus. And yet, despite her vivid presence, she is strangely absent from each picture. Eyes cast down, lips pressed tight together, she refuses to look into the camera, refuses to engage with the audience.
I was fascinated by Alice and why she became the chief suspect in the murders of her children before the police even had confirmation they were dead. Little Deaths was borne out of my fascination with this ambiguous woman: she was a wife, brought up a Catholic and married in a Catholic church – yet she was separated from her husband and had multiple lovers. She was a mother who claimed to be devoted to her children, yet she worked long shifts in a seedy bar instead of staying home to take care of them, and locked them in their bedroom for hours while she slept late. She was bereaved and supposedly grieving, yet she continued to dress provocatively and to apply her heavy mask of make-up in the days following the discovery of her children’s bodies.
What fascinated me about her was why she behaved the way she did. I wanted to know if there might be another story to tell, beyond the obvious surface details.
As well as that, her story just didn’t stack up. She told the police she’d fed the children veal and tinned green beans for their last meal, but the autopsy on her daughter’s body found pasta in her stomach. Over the years that passed between first reading about the case and writing Little Deaths, I kept returning to this discrepancy. Of all the lies Alice could have told to cover up what happened, why would she lie about that detail – one that didn’t give her an alibi, one that was so easily disproved?
MT: How did you come about the style and structure of the novel? It feels very specific, very deliberately plotted, and probably obviously so. What made you write Little Deaths in the way you did?
EF: It took me a long time to get the structure of the novel right. I expect that writing every novel is a huge learning curve, and what I learned from Little Deaths was how to pace a story, and how to create suspense. I learned how important it is to feed the reader just enough information to intrigue, but not enough that the plot is revealed too early.
I realised fairly early in the writing process that I’d need a second narrator, as there is a lot of information that Ruth wouldn’t have been privy to: why reporters took a certain line on her, how the police investigation was going – and so the fictional character of Pete Wonicke was born. He gave me a lovely counterpart to Ruth: young, male, ambitious and pretty transparent. Not only was he a lot of fun to create, but he also gives the reader (yet another) biased view of Ruth. The interesting thing about Pete is that, unlike the other characters in the book, his view of Ruth changes in the course of the novel.
It was important that the reader feel a degree of ambiguity about Ruth Malone, and about the extent of her involvement in the deaths of her children. I wanted readers to question their own judgement, the judgement of the police and the media, and the motivations of other characters. Crime novels are all about lies: it’s the job of the writer to make them believable, and the job of the reader to work out who’s lying and why.
MT: The title Little Deaths is, at least to me, a play on words. I’m pretty sure most other people get it, but could you explain how the title plays into the overall novel?
EF: In a literal sense, the ‘little deaths’ of the title are the murders of Ruth’s young children, Frankie and Cindy.
The other obvious reference is to the French phrase la petite mort, which means a brief loss of consciousness, and in modern usage refers to the sensation of orgasm. Ruth uses sex as a means of deadening her emotions, and as a way of escape.
The title also refers to what the main characters leave behind. By the end of the book, Ruth no longer needs a man to look after her or to admire her. My second narrator, Pete Wonicke, has also changed, in terms of how he behaves and what he believes.
MT: You write incredibly complex women—and men, as well—but these women, while not always likable, were incredibly complex and complicated and captivating. What approach did you take to crafting these women’s personalities?
EF: I initially became interested in Alice Crimmins because of what seemed like such a pointless, stupid lie about what she fed her children for their last meal, and as I began to write, I became interested in the lies that were told about Alice herself. Everyone had their own view of her: she was a grieving mother, a bitch, a whore, a victim, a murderer. I wanted to know why she provoked such strong opinions, and to create a character that would allow me to explore my own ideas of who she was.
In Ruth Malone – and indeed in Gina and Bette – I hoped to create a character who was neither straightforward nor easy to like, but who was real and rounded, and who readers could identify with because she wasn’t perfect. And now that Little Deaths is out in the world, I hope that readers will make up their minds about her – about the contradictory opinions about her voiced by the other characters, and about her guilt or innocence.
MT: When you’re writing a novel, what comes to you first, story or character? Something else? I know every author has his or her own methods. What books have influenced you in your own writing?
EF: All of the novels I plan to write – at least in the foreseeable future – are based on true stories, so in that sense the story exists before I begin to write. However, I definitely need to have a character who speaks to me, who has something about them that hooks me, in order to want to spend years with them.
When I came back to the Alice Crimmins case in 2010, I read something about how important make-up was to her: both in terms of the ritual of applying it, and as a mask, to hide her perceived flaws. The first thing I wrote was the scene in the opening chapter where she wakes up and goes through her morning routine – and once I’d finished that, I knew who she was.
I admire authors like Megan Abbott, Donna Tartt and Tana French, who write about crimes and whose work follows some of the conventions of traditional crime fiction, but who don’t sit easily within a single genre.
And when I’m writing, I like to imagine the darkest places that a character can go to, and to explore what people are capable of under extreme circumstances. My favourite aspect of writing is creating character through physical description, and exploiting those tiny essential details that make characters human. In those respects I’m influenced by a number of contemporary authors, including Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantel and Maggie O’Farrell.
MT: What do you think that someone in today’s modern world—even, perhaps, President Trump—could take away from Little Deaths? It seems like a very politically charged ways, at least in issues with gender and women—and rightfully so. This is a beautiful, complicated book.
EF: I find the idea of Trump reading Little Deaths both hilarious and deeply satisfying J
Of course, when I wrote Little Deaths I had no idea that he was going to run for President, let alone win the election. There’s something deeply and horribly ironic about a book like this being published in the same month as Trump’s inauguration and the global Women’s Marches. I think none of us had any idea that issues like the gender pay gap, harassment at work and the #MeToo movement – issues that have long been discussed among those affected by them – would become so prominent this year. As Oprah said, everything is changing – and it’s a privilege to be even a tiny part of that conversation, albeit a privileged (white, educated, employed and able-bodied) part.
I wanted to write a book that would cause readers to question their own biases, and to recognise how often we judge people based on appearance alone. I also wanted to float the idea of not taking anything that’s written in the media at face value. There is always an agenda.
MT: Why have so many points-of-view for the novel, other than for plot purposes? What were you doing by portraying the story from so many viewpoints?
EF: All through the writing of Little Deaths, I wanted to portray an ambiguous woman who was viewed in different ways by everyone who met her. Pete’s narrative, Frank’s statement, the press reports, the police and Gina all describe different versions of the same woman.
I chose to do this, not only because it’s a useful device for writing a crime novel, where the reader is attempting to work out the truth of what happened, but also because it’s how people are in reality. No two people give identical descriptions of a third person, or have the same experience with them. In Little Deaths, as in life, there’s no such thing as an objective view.
MT: Did you have any idea how you would end Little Deaths once you began? Did you know the ending? How well did you feel you knew the characters upon writing that first sentence?
EF: I didn’t know how I would end Little Deaths when I first began writing, but I wrote the final chapter about a third of the way into the first draft. I’ve done exactly the same with my second book. In neither case was it a considered decision, more a compulsion to get the final scenes down on the page. I can only think it’s my subconscious telling me that I need to know where my characters are going to end up, so that I can write towards that.
As I mentioned above, the first scene I wrote was the one in the first chapter about Ruth dressing and washing and applying her make up. Once I knew what she was afraid of, and what she was hiding, I had her character – and I’m proud that my first draft of that scene made it into the final novel, almost word for word as I originally wrote it.
MT: Is there a reason you set the novel in this time period, in this place, with these people? Can you elaborate on that?
EF: I didn’t set out to write a novel set in suburban Queens in the 1960s – had I stopped to think about it, I probably would have decided that writing in an authentic American voice, as well as attempting a historical novel and the recreation of a notorious crime, was far too ambitious for a debut British writer! Fortunately I had no idea what I was doing, and no idea how much work was involved. It was more that I stumbled across a story that gripped me, and a character I became obsessed with, and I had to write it. For the first four years, until I got an agent, it was just me and my notebook: I had no idea it would get published, and no real ambition other than to finish it.
MT: What are your greatest struggles when writing a novel? What are your writing habits like? Can you describe your process?
EF: When I was asked about this a year ago, I found it difficult to answer – I’ve come to realise that this is because I didn’t really have a process as I was writing Little Deaths!
Like most debut authors, my first novel was written over a long period of time while I was working full-time, and with no hope of publication or even of securing an agent. I wrote purely for pleasure, for experimentation, and because I had a story that I wanted to set down on the page. As my agent said this week, first novels are the outcome of protracted, intense, insular periods of writing that might have taken years to produce. However, after publication, you lose this interior life. You have to find a way to write while ignoring other people’s opinions and expectations, market pressure, and the pressure you place on yourself. You have to find a way back to the intense insular work – and doing this, over the last year, is where I learned my process.
I’ve come to realise that once I have the story and my main character’s voice – which usually come fairly quickly – I need to clear some space to just write for a while. That might mean clearing my diary for a week, or turning my email off for a fortnight, or even going away somewhere remote for a few days.
When I’m 30-40,000 words in, that’s the point to stop, take stock and look at what is the story that I’m trying to tell. That’s the point where I try to impose some kind of structure on it, to see where it’s going and what’s missing. That’s also the point where I write the ending, so I know what I’m writing towards.
But up until that point, it’s about writing for pleasure, experimenting with language, and letting my characters breathe and see what they have to say, without worrying about plot or pace or word count.
Someone very clever once said that the first draft is just for you, while the editing is where you create the draft that others will read. That advice frees me to be creative – and that’s the place where I do my best writing.
MT: How did you get your start in writing? Was it a long, hard road, or quick to success? What novel attempt was Little Deaths, and how many drafts and revisions did it go through before getting to the masterpiece we see today?
EF: I started writing Little Deaths in 2010. As I’ve said, I had no idea that I would get an agent and no thoughts about getting published: I was writing it for my own satisfaction at that point. I had attended various writing courses and was a member of a writing group, and the feedback I was getting encouraged me to take my writing more seriously. In 2013 I spent all of my savings on a writing course at the Faber Academy in London, and on taking six months out from work in order to make progress on my novel.
At the end of the course, we were offered the opportunity to read aloud from our work for two minutes. I couldn’t imagine anything would make me more nervous than I was already, so I chose the rawest and bravest and most visceral part of my book, and read it out to a room of agents and publishers. If I only had three hundred words, I wanted to make them count.
Two weeks later, I had offers of representation from nine agents and a publisher. Once I chose to sign with Jo Unwin, we spent another year working on Little Deaths together. In September 2015, the sixth draft went to publishers, and I signed with Picador in the UK and Hachette in the US.
The eighth draft was the last one where the content changed substantially, then we went through a further six versions with copyeditors and proofreaders. So the finished book is either the eighth draft or the fourteenth – I prefer to call it the fourteenth, because it felt like such a lot of work!
MT: What advice do you give you aspiring writers, people who want to make it “big” like how you have done? Obviously, a lot of authors say to read a lot, and other authors say to continuously write, but do you have any specific advice?
EF: My favourite piece of advice is: write what you want to read. There’s no point trying to second-guess the market, or write something because an agent you like once said on Twitter they wanted submissions in a specific genre. That’s what non-fiction is for: articles, blogs, things that are commissioned by editors who know what will sell.
You are going to be spending thousands and thousands of hours with this story, these characters, this language and tone: you have to want to do it more than anything else in the world. You have to write a book that tells a story that you feel only you can tell. You have to create characters that are unique to you. If you write something you are passionate about, you will want to spend time honing and polishing it until it’s perfect.
The most useful thing I’ve ever done as a writer is to join a writing group. Not only have they been invaluable sources of feedback, but because of the amount of critiquing I’ve given to others, I’ve definitely become a better critic and a better editor of my own work. Writing is a difficult lonely job: one of the ways you can make it easier is to build your support network and surround yourself with other writers who understand how hard it is and who can appreciate the good bits.
MT: What book do you plan on writing next? Is there a book coming up in the future from Ms. Emma Flint? I would be absolutely delighted.
EF: I hope there will be many more books! I’m working on book two at the moment, and have 2-3 others in varying stages of development. Book two is also based on a real crime, and is set in London in the 1920s. It’s about shame, obsession and fantasy, and a love triangle that ends in murder.
MT: Thank you, Emma, for agreeing to talk with me. We absolutely adored Little Deaths, and I’m sure that our readers will too. You are one of the most promising new voices in crime literature, and I’m thankful to get to know you a little better.
EF: Thank you so much for being so generous about Little Deaths. It’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you.
Matthew Turbeville: Bob, it’s such a great pleasure to talk with you. Lost Girls is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s such an amazing true crime book, and one of those rare gems where the male author has such compassion and understanding for the female victims. For readers’ awareness, the incomparable Megan Abbott once stated it is the best book of this decade, breaking away from other authors who were asked and chose mostly fiction. Bob, how did you begin investigating or learning about these murders? What intrigued you most, and why were you drawn to these women?
Bob Kolker: I can’t thank you enough, Matthew. I’m blown away by your praise for the book. And Megan’s, too.
I had started paying attention to the Long Island serial killer case at about the same time that many people did: at the end of 2010, when police found four sets of human remains in the bramble alongside a desolate stretch of highway between Jones Beach and Fire Island. The police had been looking for a young woman named Shannan Gilbert, who had gone missing seven months earlier just three miles where the four bodies were found. It turned out that she and the other four women were escorts who advertised on Craigslist and Backpage. The police kept searching for Shannan, and by the spring, they started turning up more dead bodies and body parts—and yet Shannan was still missing.
The case was exploding, and the media was everywhere, and the local police weren’t saying anything; they even awkwardly were trying to downplay the case, suggesting that no one ought to worry because the victims were just hookers. That seemed more than a little cavalier to me.
When I talked to family members of the women, I was pretty struck by the bizarre situation they all found themselves in. For months and in some cases years, no one—not the police, not the media—had cared that their daughters and sisters were gone. Even something simple like getting a name on the national registry of missing persons was not happening—not for someone that law-enforcement wouldn’t take seriously. Of course, now that these women were in the middle of an open serial-killer case, the world was beating a path to their families’ doors. So these family members were both furious and exhilarated. They still stung from being ignored for so long, and now they hoped for a break in the case, even as they worried that nothing would come of it.
And then came the horrible hangover of seeing their daughters and sisters in the news, constantly referred to as Craigslist prostitutes. The point they made to me really resonated: These women were more than this.
Only after my article came out did I start thinking that the stories of these five families could be a book. Of course I’d hoped that there would be a break in the case (and I still do, five years later), but the story I would tell wouldn’t depend on that. It would be about five women and their families, and how the women’s murders changed those families forever while, affectingly, bringing them all together. It would be about a new, Internet-driven age of escort work, which for all its convenience manages present its own dangers. It would be about the obsessive nature of crimesolving in the Internet age, where conspiracy theories are able to metastasize and amateur sleuths can crowd-source data to remarkable effect. And finally, by implicit suggestion, the story would be about the various forces that made these women vulnerable in the first place.
MT: What about these women makes them “lost”? Is that a label you’re giving these women or a word America uses to describe them? I feel like it’s such an important and complicated word, even in the title.
BK: The title, and the saying, has been used a lot in various contexts. My publisher and I thought there was some risk in using it. But it had the advantage of multiple possible meanings.
We all have, in our minds, stories that can explain how people become escorts, but most of us have only pop culture as a reference point—and there, we see them fully formed, and often mythologized or romanticized. We don’t see how they got there, so we come up with explanations and backstories: drugs, runaways, childhood abuse. We decide they were “lost” long before they were lost. The problem with this explanation is that it robs the women of their own agency. It suggests they were simply helpless—buffeted by the currents of circumstance or class or economic pressure.
But just as there is no single form of poverty, there also is no distinct set of family patterns or life circumstance that leads to the choices these five women made. No set formula or blueprint exists to explain what brought them all to Gilgo Beach. Human trafficking is, of course, a major factor for some, as is addiction and psychological trauma—and each of these causes affects a few of these women to varying degrees. But if there is one similarity they all share, it’s that while some of them were less proud of it than others, none of these women fell off the grid or lived on the streets the way one might imagine. They all remained close to their families. That’s the other way of looking at the title: They were only “lost” insofar as we—the police, the media, the social safety net--elected to lose them by deciding they were not worth paying attention to.
Serial killers know all about this second meaning, of course. Jack the Ripper targeted sex workers for presumably the same reason that the Green River Killer and Joel Rifkin both have gone on the record invoking: These were women they believed no one would ever go looking for. And more often than not, sadly, they’re right.
MT: Why did you decide to focus mostly on the women’s lives more than the actual murderer? Which victim compelled you most, and who did you feel the strongest bond with?
BK: I’ve said elsewhere that while I certainly want the killer to be caught, I’m not convinced that we aren’t a little over-invested as a society in what makes these killers tick (though I did like Mind Hunter). It was the women that intrigued me more. I hoped that telling their stories would lead to a greater understanding of what made them all so vulnerable to a predator. Their decision to lead the lives they led felt like another unsolved mystery to me. Why take such a risk?
It wasn’t lost on me that all five women came from struggling parts of America, areas that never really got over the big economic downturn in 2008. By telling the story of these families, I could explore those places, too. My models were Calvin Trillin’s Killings, David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner, and Adrian Nicole Leblanc’s Random Family—all books where the procedural elements of true crime share the stage with a close look at places and people that readers would never otherwise know about. While the money wasn’t a complete explanation, it was a major clue. All five women grew up in families where, in the social sense, sex work was not seen as a move up, and yet for each of them, the decision felt like an entrepreneurial one: Rather than surrender their financial fate to a minimum-wage job with no benefits and no future, they decided to go into business for themselves. This was only possible because of the Internet; why share your income with a pimp or escort service, or hang out in a dangerous part of town, when you can run your business from home with a smart phone?
As I learned more about the women, I recognized a certain double edge in each of them—an appetite for risk that made people love them, and also allowed them to feel comfortable making decisions their sisters and friends never would have. And yet they all were different, too. While Shannan seemed so vulnerable to me, Megan’s willpower seemed superhuman. Maureen’s journey—from impetuous naïf to seasoned veteran—was amazing to learn about. Melissa mystified me until I saw just how determined she was not to live the life her mother lived. But I personally found Amber most compelling. Her relationship with her older sister Kim was like nothing I’d ever seen or written about before.
MT: There is something so unstoppable about the way you write, and the way you describe this long, heart-breaking process of finding a serial killer—and the bodies of his (or her) victims. Was it difficult to write about these women and their lives?
BK: It’s certainly true that I don’t break away from the story that much to offer long discourses on anything, and for good reason: I’m not so good at that. I really love narrative writing, and I’m more comfortable with that than with, say, writing essays or polemics. From the start, I had a rough structure in mind that I’d hoped would keep the whole thing moving. Part one would tell the stories of all five women, and part two would be about the case. My model there was The Executioner’s Song, which had two very different parts.
I think I was so taken up with the reporting of the whole project that I never thought about what it would mean to focus on these women’s stories for so long. It was only after the book was published that I deflated a little and needed some recovery time. That said, in my magazine career, I’ve spent a lot of time interviewing vulnerable sources—people who have been through many kinds of horrible ordeals—and so I have no pretense that anything I’d personally go through would ever hold a candle to what the people I write about have been through. The people who really deserve the attention are the families of the women, who took a big risk in trusting this story to me. They were very candid and heartfelt, and I can only imagine the leap of faith it took for them to open up the way they did.
MT: Where do you begin when writing a book like this? How do you find a definite beginning (and, readers, the beginning to this book is jaw-droppingly good, completely brilliant and will undoubtedly drag you into Kolker’s world)?
BK: This is the fun (and horrifying) part of writing a book for the first time. The first section I wrote was a long passage about the history of Oak Beach, the secluded beachfront community where Shannan Gilbert disappeared. I figured that would make a good mysterious prelude. Once the first draft was done, it was clear that whole thing belonged somewhere else. So how would I start the book? My editors, David Hirshey and Barry Harbaugh, suggested something more like a movie trailer: A short scene that would give readers a sense not just of the mystery but of the stakes. That clicked with me. I came up with an action scene of Shannan’s disappearance, plus a quick, carefully crafted rundown of how things only got more bizarre after that.
MT: Do you ever know where exactly to end the book? Do you ever want to end the book, or is it something you anticipate from the beginning of the process of research and investigation?
BK: With a lot of my magazine articles, I’ll be reporting, and somebody will say something, and I’ll sit up suddenly and recognize that it would be a good ending, and that will be that. That happened here, too. I was searching for some sort of grace note that would be at least slightly hopeful, suggesting a certain potential for growth and healing for the people in the book. While I was writing the first draft, I learned about something that happened to Maureen’s sister, and I saved it for the end.
MT: Could you describe some of the aspects of your research and investigative practices to our readers? What was the most challenging part about investigating these murders? What would you say was the most interesting thing you came across (although please, no spoilers!), or maybe what might have been the most intriguing piece of information you came across in your journey?
BK: I spent a lot of time in the hometowns of each woman, speaking to friends and relatives alike. I kept coming back to the families in order to demonstrate that I wasn’t just doing a quick take on their lives, but really wanted to take their stories seriously. I took more time with them than a lot of others, so after a while they opened up in ways that they just never had been given the chance to before. What I hadn’t expected was that I would meet a few old friends of some of the victims who still were engaged in sex work, and that they’d be able to describe in detail how these women lived and worked. I had one particularly tense night in Times Square, where a friend of Melissa’s showed me where she used to work. I won’t say more except that we had a run-in with some people.
MT: How long did it take you to write this book? And what do you feel is the major difference—other than in obvious ways—between writing fiction and writing nonfiction? Has this changed your viewpoint on crime, especially against women, at all?
BK: I wrote the first draft in a year, and I revised it over the next six months. That tight schedule kept me from going down any reporting rabbit holes, so I’m kind of glad (in retrospect) that I didn’t have more time. One difference between nonfiction and fiction that I think a lot about is that while many novelists sell their books after a complete draft is done, most nonfiction authors (or at least narrative nonfiction authors) sell their books when they’re still very early their reporting. So there’s a certain mystery there: Will the book you end up writing be anything at all like the one you thought you’d write?
MT: Suppose President Trump were to read this book. Just suppose. What would you want him—or anyone in his position—to take away from this specific story? What do you hope people walk away from reading Lost Girls thinking?
BK: One very valid way to read this book is as a book about class. When I read books like The Unwinding by George Packer or Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, I recognize that a lot of the people in those books are experiencing the same pressures the people in Lost Girls experienced. I’d hope anyone reading Lost Girls would see how it’s another way of telling the story of norms being destroyed, society being unjust to those most vulnerable, and those in power not paying enough attention.
Lost Girls also is obviously gender and consent, and the long debate within feminism about legalizing sex work—is it self-actualizing or self-negating?—and it’s not that far afield from the discussion we’re all having now about sexual abuse and power. This story is about a killer who has victimized women who tried to gain control over their lives and were thwarted at every turn—not just by the killer but by social forces they were born into.
MT: Do you think there will ever be justice for these young women, all lost too soon? Do you believe there are more bodies yet to be discovered? What do you think the future is for these lost girls?
BK: In the short term, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the Suffolk County police to get much of anywhere. It’s nice that the FBI is finally involved, but they don’t have the resources they used to have for cases like this. But we’ve all read a lot about serial-killer cases that are solved more than a decade later, once some piece of evidence shakes loose or a witness comes forward. I think that’s quite possible here.
MT: It almost feels like, at the end of the book, there is a sense of hope for the families of the victims. A sense of moving on. Some family members and friends are accepting the deaths; others are even creating new life and giving birth. How do you feel about the ending of this book? What were you trying to say—if anything—about how people move on, if they move on, and about how the memories of victims do or do not last in the minds of the rest of us?
BK: I did not want to suggest that real satisfying closure exists for any of these families. That wouldn’t have been accurate; it’s just another fairy tale from pop culture, like the murder that’s solved at the end of the one-hour procedural. But everyone’s perspective changes over time, and though the loss of these women will always be an open wound, I’m interested in how the family members processed and viewed their wounds as their own lives inevitably changed. That’s what I was hoping to get at in the final passages of the book.
MT: Lost Girls created a sort of fandom that I’ve never seen before. There are message boards and Facebook groups and so on dedicated to uncovering the killer’s identity.. How does it feel to have had such a powerful impact—to make people aware and also interested in finding the identity of this killer? In finding justice for these young women’s deaths?
BK: I can’t take all the credit! This case had prompted a lot of online activity before Lost Girls was published, and more recently docu-series like A&E’s Killing Season have taken up the case in new and interesting ways. Books, I think, have an interesting role to play in a market that’s more often driven by cable true-crime and prestige docu-series and podcasts. Books end up being source texts that, if you’re lucky, are constantly referred to and drawn from and cited as others take up the reigns and start investigating on their own. I’m really glad this book is playing that role for some people. And I imagine that I’ll be back in the pool, updating Lost Girls when the time is right.
MT: What’s up next to you? How will you follow up such a grand success, a book that has inspired empathy and compassion in so many people? Readers are dying for another book from you.
BK: I’m in the middle of another narrative nonfiction project. This one is more of a family saga and medical mystery about schizophrenia. What’s exciting for me is that, like Lost Girls, it’s a way to be able to tell the story of one family, this time through several generations, and at the same time help readers understand something new.
MT: Bob, thank you for agreeing to talk with MysteryPeople about the book, the women who inspired it, their murders, and the killer who is still at large. You are truly an inspiration. Do you have any closing thoughts or remarks regarding this book, crime or true crime books in general, or anything else?
BK: I’m so glad you wanted to talk! I’ve been as amazed as anyone at how since Lost Girls was published in 2013, Serial and Making a Murderer and The Jinx have all affirmed innovative and unconventional ways of telling stories that move beyond the initial shock of an event and better understand the people and the circumstances and the broader social issues surrounding it. The wealth of true-crime books coming out this year is a testament to the innovation out there. There’s a lot to read now, and that’s exciting.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Erica! I am such a big fan. I know you’re the poetry editor at Guernica! So where did your love for crime novels come from? What was your first or favorite crime novel growing up?
Erica Wright: The closet library to my hometown was a bit of a drive, but my mom would take me often, especially during the summer. There was a small, metal rack of Nancy Drew books, and those kept me occupied for awhile. I never imagined that I would write a crime novel myself, but the same was true of poetry for me. I was a reader before I was a writer in both genres.
MT: Kathleen “Kat” Stone is such an interesting person, with such an interesting voice. How did you go about crafting this character? Were there any other character or books that gave you inspiration?
EW: I started writing The Red Chameleon when I was teaching English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. My students wanted to be detectives and forensic scientists. They wanted to work for the CIA and the FBI. I didn’t know anything about these fields, so I started researching in order to have better conversations with them. Soon I became fascinated with undercover work and the notion of someone’s talent being an ability to take on different personas. The book definitely started with Kat. I drew inspiration from Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhouse and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum.
MT: Your books seem so short but feel packed with story, dialogue, intrigue & so on. How long does it take you to write a Kat novel, and what is your writing style like? Are you a morning, afternoon, or night writer? How many words or pages do you try and write a day?
EW: It takes me about nine months to finish something that looks like a book in low light. I believe in the messy first draft approach, so I would never show that document to anyone. Revision takes me awhile, but I love that part of the process, that thrill when a hodgepodge of words starts to become a real scene or chapter. I try to write for 1-2 hours each day. A friend of mine here in DC is finishing his PhD, so we work together a few days a week. That makes a whole heap of difference, having someone sitting across from you, typing away. Plus his research on Botticelli and Michelangelo is more beautiful than mine. I’m usually googling statutes and (lately) herpetology. For example, I just learned that you can get what’s called a python massage, which is supposed to boost your metabolism or some such.
MT: How does your love for poetry bleed over into your love for crime novels? Do you think the two are intertwined? If forced to choose between the two, which would you focus your writing in?
EW: It took me awhile to find the links between poetry and crime fiction. My first draft of The Red Chameleon was definitely overwritten because I’d dwell too long on a detail, turn a paragraph into a badly written prose poem. But I definitely think there’s an attention to detail required of noir, an intensity of focus that appeals to me. A well-placed clue is not unlike a well-placed line break. Hopefully I’ll never have to choose between the two, but poetry is my first love and what sustains me in an increasingly bewildering world.
MT: Kat seems to be focused, at least in the second book in the series, on modern day issues, controversial issues—yet you feel careful not to be judgmental (except through Kat’s viewpoint) and you try not to turn any characters into martyrs. What helps you keep a distance from your writing while also being enveloped in Kat’s world?
EW: It’s so tempting to get on a soap box, and I certainly have some strong opinions. But Kat isn’t me, and I want to be honest about her views and experiences. This was especially difficult with my third novel, The Blue Kingfisher, which is set before the most recent presidential campaigns began in earnest. There’s a scene based on real events where a group is protesting President Obama’s immigration policy, and Kat is dismissive of the small crowd. I really had to resist the urge to make her preternaturally interested and knowledgeable about an issue that is now receiving widespread attention. Basically, there’s an urge to make her woke—maybe even a little psychic—in a way that would be satisfying but anachronistic. More broadly, villains are fun to read, but it’s also chilling how people with good intentions can take a wrong turn. That scares me more than a monster with a hacksaw in the backyard.
MT: How do you go about researching Kat’s novels? I know some people choose to research as they go along, but others believe in doing all of the research beforehand (and, for some, after). How do you feel about research?
EW: I mostly save research until after I’ve figured out the story. I’ll make notes to myself along the way, details I want to factcheck or add. Most of what I find doesn’t actually end up in the book because of the reasons you mentioned in your previous question—wanting to dive into controversial issues without making an argument about them. I suppose it relates to John Keats’s notion of negative capability, a preference for doubt rather than certainty. I will say that for The Blue Kingfisher I spent a long time trying to find an old New Yorker article about a man who kept a shark in his Manhattan apartment. You could see the shark swimming if you stood on a particular corner in Greenwich Village, but I thought, if I can’t find this article, nobody except for my college roommate will believe this really happened.
MT: What’s next for Kat? How many books have you figured out, and what do you think the next Kat book would be like? Any spoilers?
EW: I’ll be working on edits for The Blue Kingfisher soon, and I’m really excited about this story. In all my novels, I’m trying to explore that gap between the haves and the have-nots. In New York City, they often live next door to each other, so it creates a particular type of tension. In this addition to the series, Kat gets her hands dirty more than before. Plus, it starts in my favorite place, where the George Washington Bridge meets the Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse.
MT: Thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed by me, Erica. I’m extremely delighted to be turned toward your work and I have always loved powerful women in detective/crime fiction, so this just feels like fate? Again, thank you—and do you have any closing remarks?
EW: Thanks so much, Matthew! I love powerful women in noir, as well, and I’ll never pass up a chance to recommend a few authors I admire like Julia Dahl, Radha Vatsal, Sara Gran, and Steph Post. They’re all writing these incredible, complex, absorbing series. I’m lucky to be writing at the same time as them.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Laura, as usual, I love talking with you about anything and everything. We love your work and are in awe of your newest book, Sunburn. I know you said it might be your favorite book you’ve written so far—what’s your second favorite, and what’s your least favorite book? Also, what makes these books your favorite or your least favorite?
Laura Lippman: I cringe a little bit thinking about my early work. I think I leaned a little too hard into certain jokes. There's a recent television show that I'm obsessed with precisely because of that same tendency. (I won't name it because I know one of the writers on it.) I am who I am. Unlike some other writers I know -- Megan Abbott is an obvious example -- I wasn't anywhere close to fully formed when I started publishing, although I was no youngster. But I don't know how I would have gotten to the books I ended up writing without writing those early books.
My least favorite book is always the book I'm working on, but it's also my favorite. It's very much like being a mom.
MT: I’ve loved your books for the longest time. Can you explain where you got the idea for your first novel, Baltimore Blues, and how it evolved into one of the greatest P.I. series of all time?
LL: I was dating a young lawyer with a horrible boss. One icy November night, my boyfriend was late meeting me and I was worried about him. I called the office -- this would have been 8 o'clock or so -- and his boss screamed at me. (I found out later my boyfriend was chasing a FedEx truck down the street, trying to make the last delivery of the night.) I later remarked, "One day someone is going to kill your boss and there are going to be so many suspects it will be impossible to solve."
We began to talk about how this might make a great mystery novel. He saw himself as the lead, the wrongly accused associate, with a female sidekick who helps to prove his innocence. I thought, Well, I'm the writer. I think it should be a story about a young woman who investigates to help her friend.
MT: I know one thing that’s important to you is the rise of women in crime fiction and how important it is that women and other minorities are contributing to this genre. Who are your favorite women writers—as well as other minorities? How do you suggest we further expand and make room in the genre for other marginalized groups?
LL: I've mentioned Megan. My other favorites include Denise Mina, Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie books, Alison Gaylin, Alafair Burke, Lisa Lutz, Attica Locke, Ivy Pochoda. Boy, that's a really white list, though. And awfully heterosexual, to the best of my knowledge. Crime fiction really needs to have some different voices.
But then, I think we all have to challenge ourselves to read outside our comfort zones. I like to read about people with whom I identify. But by "identify," I don't mean race/sexual orientation/age. I like to read about people who are unsure and looking for answers. Probably one reason I became a crime writer.
MT: You’ve won more awards than I can count. Do you have a favorite award that you’ve won, one that feels more special to you than the rest? I know you tied with Megan Abbott at one point, which seems like an honor on both of your ends. What author would you give an award to if you had the chance?
LL: Tying with Megan was pretty great. But I have to say, the first award I won, the Edgar, stands out in my memory. It was so early in my career and it made my novel-writing career feel quite different from my newspaper writing career, where the bosses did not see me as someone who could win the field's top prize.
MT: I love your matter-of-fact storytelling. You are very to-the-point and no-nonsense, and your prose is really beautiful in its own way. No one is writing exactly like you. Where did you get the influence to write this way? What books were important to you, and remain important, in determining the influence of your writing style?
LL: My prose style is probably the result of reading far too many articles aimed at teenage girls trying to make the most of their assets, beauty and style-wise. My prose is not naturally beautiful. It just isn't. I read enough poetry to know that I don't write the kind of words that make readers almost startle from the glory of the images and the sounds. But I try to exploit whatever merits are there. It's funny, I'm answering these questions after a morning of writing a passage about an older woman who absolutely owns her unconventional looks, who compared herself to Diane Vreeland. I think that's how I feel about my prose. It's mine, it has a distinctive style. Possibly one that involves in wearing mostly black accessorized with some very good pieces of Bakelite or Ippolita.
And even as I write these words, I kind of regret them. Because we live in this rah-rah branding world where being honest about one's work isn't always productive. I know writers who go around, humblebragging about how great they are and I see this become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their "brand," if you will.
MT: You often teach classes, or workshops perhaps, involving new and emerging writers. What is your favorite method of teaching? I know once you mentioned to me that your process is very visual. Can you describe that?
I love doing one-on-one manuscript consultations because it's like the movie version of psychotherapy. People come to me for a two-hour session and some of them, most of them, leave feeling "cured." I use colored cards to show them a text-free version of their book and all sorts of insights pop out. Balance of POV, the shape of the story. There's also an aspect of play to it and I think we should never lose sight that storytelling is fun, it's something we do when we're children. I had a very large collection of small stuffed animals from the Steiff Co. when I was a child. (I still have them and I am NOT a hoarder, nor particularly sentimental.) I played elaborate games of make-believe with them. And my sister and I played a version of Barbies that was very much influenced by the soap operas my mother liked.
MT: I know you often reference or base your novels on true crime stories. This is fascinating to me—you take something so real and make it your own, and bring out the beauty in these stories, even in their most horrifying situations. If you could tackle one true crime in a novel, what would it be?
LL: It's not a crime, but I wish I knew the mystery of my mother's father, who was divorced from my grandmother by the time my mother was a year old. There was this terrible silence around the story. My mother waited until her own mother had died to find him and then she declined to have any relationship with him. She has half sisters she's never met. I don't think it's scandalous in any way, just a young marriage that didn't work out. But it's interesting to me that, as a family, we tacitly agreed not to speak of it and not to probe it.
MT: What is your favorite crime novel of all time? Are there any books or authors you think are overrated? Are there authors you find yourself returning to again and again?
LL: Can I claim Lolita as a crime story? I know, it's a stretch, the kind of stretch that I normally hate, but it does play with a lot of the genre conventions. If not Lolita, then Mildred Pierce, which is barely a crime novel at all, although there are some disreputable accounting practices.
There are a lot of authors I think are overrated. I just don't read them.
MT: I very rarely find that white authors can write about race in a new and “woke” way. Yet, with you, you’re able to tackle almost any subject with an objectiveness and understanding that is refreshing and encouraging. How do you go about investigating your novels, and doing research beforehand? What do you think helps you be so objective and thoughtful? How do you feel about other authors who have tackled issues like race, homophobia, sexism—things outside of themselves? Who does it best, and who would you like to see improve?
LL: I'm not going to claim I'm woke. But there's this interesting conversation right now, in which some white/binary writers want to say, "How dare you suggest there are any limits on the imagination," when the only thing anyone is suggesting is that writers are going to get called out for doing it poorly. I spent a few moments today wondering if I should describe a character's weight, or if I was being a bit of a fat-ist, if the detail added something or simply reinforced certain stereotypes. All that said, it's not for me to say who does it best, just that I'm thinking about it all the time. Sunburn identifies almost no one's race -- Polly, who has the titular sunburn, is clearly Caucasian -- and there are actually three African-American characters hidden in the text. I thought that was kind of cool, but the writer Steph Cha politely challenged me when I mentioned it, said perhaps the way to go is to make sure that all skin colors are described. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm willing to try and willing to fail. But isn't that the essence of writing? Isn't that what we're supposed to be doing across the board?
I am slightly unusual because, growing up in Baltimore, I was often in the minority growing up. That's a valuable experience. I encourage people to seek it out.
As for research -- I do it as I go. I don't believe in deep dives beforehand. That's a form of procrastination I can't afford, personally. I support myself through my writing. If I don't publish, I don't get paid. But even if someone paid me a sum that allowed me to work five years on a book, or I had a freak hit that sent so many royalties my way I never had to worry about money again -- I don't think I would change much. I like to get things right. I like to make stuff up. Once I know what I want to make up, it's easier to get things right. Does that make sense?
MT: If you could suggest one of your books to President Trump, which would it be? Which of your books would America in general learn the most from?
LL: I would give President Trump the magical book from Seven Day Magic by Edward Eager and hope that he gets stuck in it, as Barnaby almost does, staring into a reflection that shows him his every flaw and defect, for an eternity.
I'm not sure I have anything to teach America, but I think my most overtly sociological novel is No Good Deeds, which is based on the all-too-real premise that it would be really easy to have a conspiracy that's dependent upon killing young black men, because almost no one would notice or care.
MT: What do you think is the most important piece of advice or mantra an author can live by?
LL: Read well.
MT: How do you stay in the mind of one of your best protagonists, Tess, who is the subject of your Tess series? How have you stayed in her mind for so long? Is it like second-nature now?
LL: Tess and I agree on almost everything, although I think she needs to cultivate impulse control. She is my very satisfactory invisible friend and I am always happy in her company. It helps that we have several shared experiences -- newspaper life, motherhood.
MT: I think my favorite book of yours is either Sunburn or definitely After I’m Gone. What inspired After I’m Gone? I remember when you announced your idea for Sunburn on social media—I believe you maybe got the idea in the shower? What triggered it?
LL: After I'm Gone was my husband's idea. He lobbied for years. But I didn't see my way into it until I flipped it, decided to focus on the women left behind, not the man who left and where he was. For a long time, it was going to center on what happened when the youngest daughter showed up at High Holiday services in a fur she couldn't possibly afford. Clearly, the book changed a lot.
MT: What advice do you give to new and struggling writers?
LL: Persevere. It's hard, I know, in this climate, and it probably seems very easy for me to give such advice. In hindsight, I had a relatively painless passage from unpublished to published. But it never feels easy, I don't think.
MT: What are you writing next? Our readers are likely dying to know.
LL: A historical novel, assuming we all agree that 1966 is now in the history books. It's about a 30-something housewife who leaves her husband, much to everyone's amazement (including her own) and then decides she wants to be a reporter.
MT: Laura, thank you so much for joining us here. It was such an honor and a privilege. We love your work so much, and especially Sunburn, which came out this past February. P.S. I adore you and your work.
LL: Mutual, I'm sure.
Matthew Turbeville: First off, I want to start off by saying I am a fan. I was astounded by your book in more ways than one, and the seemingly effortless way you portray your parents’ struggles through life is not only surprising, but inspiring. Where do you get the inspiration to write such a brilliant memoir? What are your favorite memoirs, works of fiction and nonfiction, movies, television shows, etc?
Leah Carroll: Matthew! I am a fan of yours! Thank you for your kind and generous assessment of the book. My parents were, in a way, inspiration to me. They were both photographers and my father was a voracious reader and cinephile who shared those passions with me. In college I read James Ellroy’s MY DARK PLACES and Mikal Gilmore’s SHOT IN THE HEART back to back and they opened a completely new world for me. I had a similar experience reading BOYS OF MY YOUTH by Jo Ann Beard - I loved this book so much that at one point a mentor had to tell me, “Leah, your book is not going be Boys of My Youth, so stop trying to do that.” Beard has captured the essence of “funny/sad” (surely there is a word for that in French) and her book is…magical.
More recent memoirs that I’ve loved are Lacy Johnson’s THE OTHER SIDE, Jeannie Vanasco’s forthcoming THE GLASS EYE, and Sarah Perry’s AFTER THE ECLIPSE.
The two nonfiction books I recommend the most are Brendan Koerner’s THE SKIES BELONG TO US and Anne Fadiman’s THE SPIRIT CATCHES YOU AND YOU FALL DOWN. Although now that I think about it, I also recommend RANDOM FAMILY by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc basically once a day and in the wake of Hurricane Harvey I decided to re-read the excellent FIVE DAYS AT MEMORIAL by Sheri Fink.
I love every single book by Megan Abbott. I loved HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund and EAT ONLY WHEN YOU’RE HUNGRY by Lindsay Hunter. My favorite contemporary novel is THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt.
I think I have to stop with books or this list is going to get reaaaaaallly long (although I would be remiss not to mention how excited I am for the Deuce and what an absolute masterpiece OJ: Made in America was. Oh and also every Thirty for Thirty that’s ever been done. And The Knick.)
MT: This book must have been incredibly difficult to write. What was the greatest struggle you’ve had to overcome in putting your own life to words?
LC: The book took me ten years to write. I started in my early twenties and finished in my early thirties. A lot of that time was spent researching but I also produced an earlier draft that was about twice as long as the DOWN CITY that exists today. I’m so glad that early draft never saw publication. My mother was thirty when she was murdered. I needed to get to get to that age, to really understand how much of her life was stolen to be in the place where I could tell her story and where I could see her as a woman, independent of me. It was also hard to let go of much of the research. These documents - affidavits, grand jury testimony, war records - they had a real hold over me. I thought there was such poetry in the way they were written, even the way they were formatted on the page. But I realized that, in a vacuum, they wouldn’t have the same effect on a reader. I realized that I needed to tell a story that (hopefully) gave the reader a similar feeling through prose.
MT: How were you able to write with such compassion and understanding of your characters, even those you didn’t know? Which person was hardest to write about?
LC: Writing about organized crime is so fraught. I wanted to show another side of the story that didn’t fetishize that life but in order to do that I had to show how so many of these men were broken down, uneducated, and really pitiful in so many ways. You can search for that and find hatred within yourself or you can search for that and just try to understand the overwhelming complexity of human life.
And I had anger, not just at the drug dealers and mafia associates who murdered my mother but also the police force and local politicians who saw her life as disposable and treated it accordingly. There is a point at which their ineptitude and negligence became criminal, in my opinion. And I remain angry at the corporations (and the the corporate greed) that eliminated institutions like the Providence Journal - these places were so necessary to men like my father. And so realizing that our ideas of who is “good” and who is “bad” made me rethink a lot of the ways society simplifies so much in order to avoid having difficult conversations. So I had those conversations with myself, or tried to.
It was very hard to write about my grandmother. It was hard to think about her being in any kind of pain because she is the most loving, courageous, strong and kind person I know. I try everyday to be the kind of woman she is.
MT: Mental illness has always been a cause I’ve fought for and I find it’s prevalent throughout your novel. Struggles with addiction, depression, manic depression, and so on come up time and time again. How have you managed to overcome the struggles you’ve faced with mental illness—your parents’, your husband’s, perhaps even your own—to be the extraordinary success you are today?
LC: My mother tried VERY hard to quit using. My father tried VERY hard to quit drinking. It would be unfair and uncharitable to behave as if addiction is something people choose. My husband and I are very open in our discussions about his sobriety - I can’t understate how valuable that dialogue is to our relationship. What think I find very upsetting is the utter lack of compassion around the current opioid epidemic. Shame and cruelty are not how you root out addiction.
And I have certainly had my own struggles with depression and anxiety. I feel lucky that one lesson I learned, particularly from my father, was that psychological treatment is necessary, that it is in now way indicative of weakness, and is actually a very powerful way of owning your space in the world.
MT: Your book is frankly heartbreaking but in the best way. It does what the greatest novels do: rips you apart and sews you back together again. What were your intentions when beginning this memoir?
LC: I wanted to tell people about my Mom and Dad. I know that sounds simplistic but it’s the only real honest answer. To me, they were exceptional, but to the world they were forgettable. Most of us are. It was very important to me to discuss their flaws because we ALL have flaws and the only way to do a human life justice, I think, is with absolute honesty. I wanted people to know about them, to understand the weight of their humanity. I don’t think of the book as a “tribute” to them. I think of it more as an artifact that will live on. And the book is as much about me as it is about them. It took a very long to time for me to admit that in order to tell their stories, I had to tell it through my experience. I’ve never been able to let them go. I don’t want to. They made me a writer. So the whole thing is their fault, really.
MT: What advice do you give to people who feel they have a story to tell? Their own story, or a story that relates to them? How do you begin approaching the topic of writing about your own life?
LC: Publishing a memoir is … weird. But great! But also you are exposing yourself in a very unusual way. In a memoir you actually revealing only a very small slice of yourself. There is a difference between memoir and autobiography. Nobody would ever want to read my autobiography because I’m wholly unremarkable. But I’ve had a “remarkable” experience that I wanted to tell to get at the heart of a larger truth. It’s tough sometimes to try to explain this or to just accept the idea that people believe they know everything about you. So one thing I tell people is that they must own their narratives and not let anyone tell them their stories are small. I also encourage everyone who has a story to tell interrogate what that story means. A memoir is not an anecdote.
I also feel very strongly nobody has ownership of a certain story or narrative. If there is something that has resonated with you very strongly, that you keep coming back to, that has shaped you in any way no matter how peripherally you may have been a participant, tell that story. If it matters to you, if you feel compelled to turn into art, to try to explain the hold it has over you, then do that.
MT: How has this history of violence defined you past the boundaries of the book? In what ways are you limited—or, possibly, more open—to new possibilities in life, in love, in art?
LC: I think I have seen the worst in people and I have seen the best in people.
MT: What’s your favorite memory of your father? If you had to choose just one? And do you believe the best memories are crystal clear and perfect, or tainted—imperfect, scarred, but memorable for these reasons?
LC: One of my first memories of my father is from when my mother was still alive and we were all living together so I have to be no older than 3. He had shaved his mustache (the only time I can remember it ever happening!) and when he tried to pick me up I wailed in terror. I remember him trying to comfort me and telling me he’d grow the mustache back.
I believe that I have a very good memory, particularly of my childhood and teenage years. (I think they call this the nostalgia bump). However memory is very slippery things. There are certain moments I recall with absolute clarity, like going to the Vietnam Memorial with my father when I was seventeen. I have a much more difficult time remembering the year immediately after his death.
MT: How did you decide when to begin and where to end your memoir?
LC: I knew the story would begin with the details of my parents’ deaths. I didn’t want to use those as any narrative mechanism for suspense. Figuring out the ending was far more difficult. I relied a lot on the advice of my wonderful editor, Libby Burton who helped me so much with the craft and shape of the book. I’m not sure I could have ever actually ended it without Libby’s guidance.
MT: Another experience we share is a troubled high school career, followed by an interesting path to success—and yes, I think you are an amazing success. What thoughts, images, ideas, etc drove you through these years to get where you are now?
LC: I was such a child of the nineties. I think I was really lucky to be a teenager then. I idolized Kathleen Hanna and Courtney Love - these smart, aggressive women who stood out, who were smart and who were difficult. Most of my pop culture icons were strong women and that certainly helped give me the sense that I could achieve something outside of the typical paths of “success”.
I was a monstrous teenager! I’m not sure how anyone put up with me but in retrospect, even as I was failing every class, I had teachers and mentors who encouraged my writing, who gave me books, and who supported me. In the book I write about an experience I had in community college (by the way, I am a proud alum of the Community College of Rhode Island - it saved my life in many ways. The Community College system is something we really need to support - I take every opportunity to make this point) where a teacher recognized my father from an essay I’d written. I wrote about how shocking that was - that this professional man had recognized in my writing something we shared. It was a moment that drove me forward in terms of seeking an education, and doing whatever I could to keep writing.
MT: What’s next for you? Please tell me there’s a novel or memoir in the works. The world would be a waste without your genius.
LC: *whispers* I’m working on a novel. Don’t tell. It might take me another ten years.
MT: Thank you, Leah, for sharing your thoughts and insight into these questions. I look forward to your future work, and just know you’re welcome any time here.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Emily! It’s so great to be able to talk with you. I loved your last book, and I definitely love Every Single Secret even more! I know some authors get their stories from the news and true crime, and some are just incredibly creative in other ways. Where did you feel this novel came from?
Emily Carpenter: Thanks, Matthew! Great to talk with you. For Every Single Secret, I wanted to write a book, a mystery/suspense that took place in one location, one of those closed-door stories. Agatha Christie was the master of them. I was just hoping to add my own version to the collection!
MT: It seems with every book you become a more and more interesting and intriguing author. What are the biggest secrets to writing a great novel that you’ve learned over the years?
EC: A couple of things seem to work for me: I write my first draft pretty quickly, usually in about two months. Then I go through a lot of edits, which to me, is where the magic happens. I also have learned to try to simplify rather than complicate storylines. I also know to listen to my agent when she’s helping me problem-solve. She’s got a great editing eye.
MT:. What do you feel are great mottos or ideas to stick to while writing? How do you motivate yourself not only to write, but to edit and revise?
EC: There is no problem that can’t be solved. That’s a great motto for writing a book and also for life. I am usually excited to write and even revise, but, in terms of boots on the ground motivators, deadlines never hurt!
MT: Can you describe, to the readers, Every Single Secret, in as few words as possible and why they should read it? (By the way, for what it’s worth, every person should read it!)
EC: Every Single Secret is about Heath and Daphne, an engaged couple who decide to go to a couples retreat in the mountains of north Georgia in order to hash out some things in their relationship. Heath thinks they should delve into their pasts, but Daphne is reluctant for some very important reasons. When they get up to Baskens Institute and meet the doctor, they both begin to realize his methods of therapy aren’t exactly traditional.
MT: Do you think that this book has a feminist slant? How do you feel about women dominating the crime industry? Megan Abbott—I believe through Twitter—once said that the crime industry in this day and age is largely written by women for women. What are your thoughts on this?
EC: Probably everything I write ends up having a feminist slant because that’s one of my core beliefs, that women are equal to men and should have equal opportunity and pay. But while I’m writing, sometimes I’ll find myself inadvertently writing to old tropes, for instance, my women characters not having as much agency or using their smarts or whatever and allowing someone else to rescue them when they can and should take care of business themselves. I’ve discovered a lot about myself writing – that sometimes even a feminist can fall into those particular storyline traps and let some of the culture telling us to quiet down, step back, let others shine surface in our books. In terms of women writing crime? I love it and I do appreciate reading a woman’s take on what it feels like to move with a woman’s vulnerability through this world, what it means to be a target for particular crimes. That’s a very specific story with specific emotions attached, and I find it so interesting. On the other hand, I love Harlan Coben too, so I think there’s room for all of us.
MT: If you had to pick one of your books to endorse, sell, or even give to the president, which would you choose and why?
EC: Well, I’d definitely give Melania Every Single Secret. But if I can’t say why because it would be a spoiler.
MT: I know, as a gay man, it’s hard for me to write from a gay man’s point of view, largely because I can’t stop writing about me, or who I want to be. Do you ever find this challenge in writing women narrators?
EC: That’s such an interesting perspective and a really deep question. And I will say, I think that, yes, in some way I want to be like all of my characters, on some level, in some way. I’d love to have Althea’s sensitivity and tenacity from Burying the Honeysuckle Girls. I like Meg’s toughness and humor and the way she stands up for herself from The Weight of Lies. In Every Single Secret I admired Daphne’s willingness to love and her pursuit of it. But it is true that an author can’t only write about themselves, because that would be myopic and boring. It does help me to know that even though I may be writing about a white, hetero, cis-female, there are a million different personalities and motivations and desires contained that group and it’s my job to explore them.
MT: Which book did you have a tough time writing, if any? Have you ever felt like giving up? I know Lois Duncan said she had a drawer in her desk for manuscripts she feels she has to come back to later. Do you have a “drawer” yourself?
EC: Each book has driven me to desperation in its own unique, delightful way at some point in the process! But I’m not a big giver-upper. In fact, I’m more known for hanging on to things (and people) that are not working out for entirely too long! I’ve never actually embarked on writing a book and then stepped away from it. It’s back to that mantra about there being a solution for every problem. I tend to think if I’ve gotten through working the story out in my head, outlining the thing and pitching it to my trusted critique partners and agent and now I’m in the phase of actually writing it, there’s no way I’m putting this puppy in a drawer! However, I have put some ideas in a drawer because I couldn’t flesh them out to my satisfaction. The Weight of Lies bounced around in my head for many years before I figured out how to tell the story.
MT: Who are the authors who, dead or alive, have inspired you. Which of the female crime writers do you feel you have been most influenced by, and do you think that you’ve influenced some through your writing too?
EC: The usual suspects: Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Jennifer McMahon, Chevy Stephens, Kate Moretti, Laura McHugh, Mary Higgins Clark. I’ve also been really inspired by Daphne du Maurier and Sarah Waters, who are more gothic and Shirley Jackson, who’s horror. I have no idea if I’ve influenced anyone, but if I have, that makes me happy!
MT: What is your writing process like? Are you a morning, noon, or nighttime writer? I would love to hear how many words or pages you write a day.
EC:I’m more of an afternoon/evening writer. When I’m drafting a new book, I like to hit 1,500 to 2,000 words a day. Sometimes there is more, sometimes less, but that’s my general goal.
MT: When it comes to a novel like Every Single Secret, do you always have everything plotted out, or do you write and figure out as you go? Was the ending of Every Single Secret an immediate realization to you, or did it come to you over time?
EC: Every Single Secret was plotted out and, although it took me a while to nail down the twist, I knew it before I started writing. It hasn’t always been that way for every book though. Sometimes I’ll change my mind mid-stream about the ending. Or the ending won’t work and I’ll have to come up with something better. That’s slightly terrifying.
MT: Could you ever see your books as movies or TV shows? If so, who would you cast in each part, especially in the amazingly complex cast of Every Single Secret?
EC: Oh yeah, I’d love an adaptation. I’d cast Jeff Bridges as Dr. Matthew Cerny and either Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren as Glenys, one of the other therapy patients at Baskens. Also I’d cast Adam Driver as Heath because I think he is a great actor and has the most interesting face.
MT: May I ask what’s next for you? Are you already writing a new book, or are you giving yourself a break? I’m positive that our readers would be more than pleased to get at least a glimpse as to what’s coming next.
EC: I actually just turned in my fourth book and I’m mulling over ideas for the next project(s). The fourth book happens to be more of an adventure/thriller, that straight up suspense, so that was a nice change to write.
MT: Emily, it has been such a pleasure getting to know you through your writing and also through this interview. I admire you so much. I cannot wait to see what you write next! Do you have any additional comments or thoughts you’d like to add, or anything else to say about your new book?
EC: I’m really grateful for my readers and thank each and every one of you for reading, reviewing and talking up my book. I couldn’t do it without you guys. Also, I so enjoyed chatting with you, Matthew, and thank you so much for the interview!