WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: HI Mindy, I just got done reading your phenomenal novel, Everything You Want Me to Be. It was a stunner. I feel bad for not picking it up earlier—there are lots of books that get a lot of press and turn out to be sort of boring or a drag. Everything You Want Me to Be does not fall in the category. How did you come up with this novel?
Mindy Mejia: There was an abandoned barn not far from my house when I was growing up that was slowly being consumed by a lake. It was one of those images that imprints in your head, and when I sat down to write a murder mystery it was the first thing I saw. I knew Hattie was inside that barn, stabbed to death, and I needed to find out how she got there.
MT: I was completely taken by the incredible multi-dimensional characters and the storyline, the language poetic and plain and simple to follow all at once. How were you able to present three separate voices so carefully (it feels effortless) and to such a degree that it’s incredibly easy to recognize each voice and the difference between each of them?
MM: I have to find some common ground with each character, which acts like my passport into their heads. I read through all my old high school journals to find Hattie’s voice. Peter and I are both vegetarian runners, and Del had the voice of my maternal grandfather. Once I found my way in, it became easy to know what they would or wouldn’t say and which words belonged to each of them.
MT: I am very curious in turn as to how you went about writing this novel. What was your writing process like when approaching a concept that is so blasé and you are able to make it incredibly new and just astounding? Did you write each character voice at once, or manage to go back and summon up the voices with each turn of the character changes?
MM: Everything started with Hattie, with this dead girl that I had to get to know. I wrote Hattie backwards, breathing her back to life, because I’ve never particularly connected with books where the body is merely a plot device, something to get the action started. To me it’s always a person, it’s always a tragedy, and I wanted the book to be as much about Hattie’s life as it was about her death. Del and I discovered Hattie together, with his investigation revealing her to both of us, and of course revealing Peter’s part at the same time. I usually spent a week or so with one character before jumping to the next.
MT: Which voice did you have the most fun writing? Which character did you have the hardest voice writing? Was there ever a character that you did not like? Megan Abbott advised me to never judge my characters—how do you feel about this?
MM: I agree with Megan 100%. I always love my characters, no matter how poor their choices. I’m not sure, as a writer, how I could convey their humanity if I didn’t love them. Del was the most fun to write, but Peter had the best lines.
MT: How many drafts did you go through in creating the novel? Did it start as something else entirely, as many novels do, and become something different? What sort of writer are you: morning, noon, afternoon, evening? How many pages or words do you write today?
MM: Ooh, good question. I just went back and counted five drafts. A lot of things shifted over those drafts. I didn’t know who the killer was until the very end of the first draft, so I had to go back and change a lot of things that were adding up to another suspect. The timeline compressed from two years to eight months. As far as writing habits, EVERYTHING was written almost entirely on my lunch breaks over four years. I left the corporate world last year, so I now write mainly in the mornings and early afternoons with the help of 1-2 cups of coffee.
MT: This novel, at least for me, was an incredible roller coaster of a book that I stayed up all night reading. Did you anticipate the novel being so addictive? I had to keep finding where I dozed off because I was determined to find out the truth about each character. I really and truly regret not having read this novel until now.
MM: I’ve felt that way about books too, especially ones that have been in my TBR pile for months. It’s like finding a diamond lying around your house. No, I never imagined EVERYTHING would be received so well and so widely. It’s been translated into over twenty languages now and it’s still stunning to get emails from readers around the world.
MT: Who are your biggest influences in writing today? Especially crime fiction—and especially women? This book seems both completely like a work of its own but also influenced by so many works that have come before it. Were there any books you kept coming back to when writing this book?
MM: My main inspiration when writing was SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS. I still marvel at the quiet complexity of that book and was very influenced by Guterson's sense of place and his ability to wrap a love story into a mystery. Today my biggest influences include Neil Gaiman, Celeste Ng, and Louise Erdrich, and I will drop anything to read Megan Abbott, Amy Gentry, Mary Kubica, or Caroline Kepnes.
MT: You were able to make each character unreliable, and it’s not until the end that the reader gets any closure—and even then, it’s only partial, which I love. How hard was it to create these timelines which are all the same story, but told from different perspectives?
MM: Each character brought a piece of the story that no one else knew, so I understood what I wanted from each of them during their chapters. The crucial part is understanding the nature of their unreliability. Are they protecting a secret? Do they lack self-awareness, or are they putting on a show? Once I tapped into those motivations, their perspectives become much easier to write because I can see the filter.
MT: Did you know the ending before you began? How did you go about planning out this brilliant novel? I would like to also point out to readers that I relatively walk the line between fan and critic, but at this point I’ve become just a fan asking fan-questions.
MM: lol-I’m happy to answer both critic and fan questions! As mentioned earlier, I had the wrong character for the killer in the beginning, so the real killer surprised even me. The final scene was also a late addition because my agent wanted a bit more denouement after the climax and that turned out to be one of my favorite scenes. It practically wrote itself. For most of the planning, I walked through the timeline and decided who needed to tell what, then set out the major reveals to keep the stakes rising.
MT: I may have to cut this interview short because I am such a fan and don’t want to spoil the novel for all of your future fans (or current fans who just haven’t gotten around to this book). What is your advice to new and aspiring writers who want to write things similar to your own work?
MM: There is no substitute for suspense. You can have the most gorgeous characters and setting, but if a reader doesn’t want to know what happens next, they will stop turning the pages. Also, invest some time in understanding point of view, because your entire book will boil down to that. You need to know who is telling the story, where they are telling it from, when they are telling it, and how limited (or unlimited) their perspective is. This is the filter through which your entire world will be siphoned.
MT: I’m going to pretend that I’m not reading your next book and ask you what is coming up next. What is your next book about, without spoilers if possible, for your ever-faithful and loyal readers, plus people who have just been turned onto your writing?
MM: Ha! Okay, I’ll pretend I haven’t moved on to writing the book beyond the next one. My next release is LEAVE NO TRACE, which is coming September 4th. (We are officially open for preorders on all platforms.)
There’s a place in Minnesota, hundreds of miles of glacial lakes and untouched forests called the Boundary Waters. Ten years ago a man and his son trekked into this wilderness and never returned. Their campsite was found ravaged by what looked like a bear. They were put on the missing persons list and presumed dead until a decade later, when the son emerged. Violent and uncommunicative, he was found ransacking an outfitter store and brought to a psychiatric facility where Maya Stark, the speech therapist on staff, is charged with making a connection with this boy who came back from the dead. But Maya, who was abandoned by her own mother, has secrets too. As she’s drawn closer to this enigmatic boy who is no longer a boy, she’ll risk everything to reunite him with the father who’s disappeared from the known world.
MT: Thank you so much for talking about this masterpiece with me, Mindy. I cannot wait to see how your next book goes, and how hard I’ll have to restrain myself from giving away any spoilers. I’m so excited you have another book coming out so soon! Please feel free to leave any closing remarks/comments below, especially if there are any answers I’ve completely omitted. And to the readers: Please go pick up this book as soon as possible.
MM: It was my pleasure! Thank you for all the great questions. I’m so glad you loved EVERYTHING and can’t wait for you to meet Maya and Lucas in LEAVE NO TRACE
Matthew Turbeville: Hello Sophie! I’m excited to pick your brain for a minute. First off, I was wondering where you get most of your ideas from? Do they come to you in epiphanies or from reading the newspaper? I know each writer has his or her own way of creating new work.
Sophie Hannah: Most of my inspiration comes from real life — when something really weird happens to me (which is surprisingly often), it sparks a book idea. Keep Her Safecame from a combination of two real life experiences. One of these started when I was watching television during my first ever US book tour. Everyone seemed to be discussing the case of Caylee Anthony, a little girl who had gone missing. One thing that shocked me about all the commentary was that many people were talking as if her mother had definitely killed her. That kind of commentary wouldn’t be allowed in the UK, as it would prejudice potential jurors. The other experience that informed the book happened when I was staying in a hotel near Manchester, England. The receptionist sent me to the wrong room - one that was already occupied, and into which I barged, merrily singing show tunes, in the middle of the night. I ended up face to face with a naked shaven-headed man! Luckily, I survived the experience and didn’t get involved in any criminal investigations — but it sparked the premise for Keep Her Safe. I thought, ‘What if someone walked into a room that they were never supposed to walk in to and, in 99 out of 100 circumstances, would never have walked into? And what if, in that room, they saw something that somebody really, really wished they hadn’t seen…maybe enough to commit murder.
MT: The setting for Keep Her Safe, the American name of Did You See Melody?, is somewhere near Phoenix, Arizona. What made you choose this place to set your most recent novel?
SH: I love Arizona — it’s my favourite part of the United States. I love the cacti, the pink roads, the swimming pools and of course the spa resorts! I’ve been to a few over the years and decided that a spa resort would be a perfect setting for psychological suspense. It’s a calming, relaxing environment where you can escape from life, but it could also be seen as sinister: a place filled with blissed-out people in white robes walking silently and apparently without aim. The beautiful desert landscape and rolling open spaces seemed a perfect contrast to the tensions inside the spa. Arizona is also the state where you can find my favourite independent American bookstore, The Poisoned Pen.
MT: How did you decide about Cara’s emotional state? How did you focus on when and why she needed time away from her family, and how does this tie in to the novel as a whole?
SH: I wanted and needed her to have run away from home. So I needed to give her a problem — something that would make her feel the need to escape her family. She thinks getting far away will give her the time and space she needs to reflect on her family problems. Instead, she ends up immersed in another family’s problems — which are far more terrifying.
MT: How long did it take you to come up with and write the story of Cara? Why was it important that main character’s name is different in American English as opposed to how it’s pronounced in Britain?
SH: One of the main themes in the novel is a British woman finding herself in America. Not only is she sticking her nose into another family’s problems, but also another country’s. I wanted my central character to have a name that’s pronounced differently in the States to the way it’s pronounced in Britain, because I wanted to highlight the many ways in which her life is different when she’s abroad.
MT: Cara seems as if her family has forgotten her or just doesn’t miss her. What makes this a motivating factor for Cara?
SH: I don’t agree with that. Cara knows exactly how much her family misses her — and how angry and baffled they will be that she’s disappeared without telling them. But for the first time ever, she gives herself permission to put her own needs first. As a wife and mother, she’s never wanted to do that before. But now, for the first time, she knows that the family as unit can only survive (with all members of the family happy and intact) if she acts more selfishly than she’s used to acting. She is also trying to save a member of her family…but I can’t say too much more about that without giving away plot details.
MT: How is Keep Her Safe different from other standalone novels you’ve written?
SH: In many ways! It’s my first book set in the United States, the first one set in a luxury five-star resort, and the first to look at the media’s treatment of real crime cases.
MT: I recently read an article in which you criticize the notion that we shouldn’t show violence against women. In your own words, why is portraying violence against women so important?
SH: It’s only important if that’s the kind of story the writer wants to tell. I wouldn’t try to make people put violence against women into a story where it doesn’t belong. But as long as it’s a real phenomenon, it’s something that needs to be written about and subjected to moral and psychological scrutiny - exactly the same as violence against men, and children of both sexes. Violence is violence, and it’s always awful, but we can’t start to say that we shouldn’t write about it. Sometimes it’s important to write about terrible things. The best crime fiction aims to deepen our understanding of life and all its ugliness, and also to give us consolation. If we see the hero of a great novel surviving a traumatizing experience, it makes us feel stronger.
MT: You also write the new Agatha Christie novels featuring her beloved investigator Poirot. When did you first decide you wanted to take on this role?
SH: It came about by sheer chance. My agent was having lunch with an editor at HarperCollins one day. Completely unprompted (and without asking me!) my agent suggested to the editor that he should commission me to write a new Hercule Poirot novel! The editor politely said the family would not agree to that. As chance would have it, the next day, he had a meeting with the Christie family. Again, completely unprompted, Agatha Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard said: ‘This is going to surprise you, but we’re thinking the time might be right for a continuation novel.’ So, a meeting was arranged and we all got on really well. It was just the most amazing coincidence!
MT: How do you inhabit the voices of so many different people? It feels effortless but I’m sure it’s a lot of work.
SH: Writing any book is a huge amount of work. I wouldn’t say that writing from multiple points of view is harder than writing a linear, single-perspective narrative. In real life, I try to look at everything from every point of view — I guess it spills over into fiction-writing!
MT: When you first became a writer, were you aware you would achieve such success? You’re not only celebrated in Britain, but around the world too. What advice would you give new writers to the genre?
SH: I never thought about success. I just thought about what I wanted to write, each time — and then, whether I’d communicated it well and made something I was happy with. My advice to new writers is: don’t even think about success. You’ll always be more successful than some and less successful than others. You will always succeed again, and fail again, so take both for granted as natural parts of life. If you fear failure, you won’t take risks and then you won’t succeed either. All the most successful people in the world are those who have failed many times and still carried on trying new things. Concentrate on writing what you love, and what you think is important.
MT: You are very vocal about violence against women, as mentioned before. I’m also sure you’ve very vocal about your favorite female crime writers. Could you name some of your favorites, both recent and from long ago?
SH: To clarify, I’ve been vocal about violence against women because that specific topic keeps coming up. A book prize was announced, to reward books that don’t mention violence against women at all. While it clearly has noble aims, I think it’s misguided. But in my broader life, I care equally about all violence, whether it’s against men, women or children. I hate it all, and it’s all equally bad. My favourite crime writers include Agatha Christie, SJ Watson, Jesse Kellerman, Ruth Rendell, Nicci French and Tana French.
MT: What is your favorite book you have written? Why is this one so important to you, and what does it mean to you as a novel, and as a work you’ve dedicated yourself to?
SH: All my books are important to me and I have many favourites. I’m especially proud of the huge twist at the end of Keep Her Safe (Did You See Melody?). Closed Casket contains the best motive for murder I’ve ever come up with. The Wrong Mother is an honest and detailed examination of motherhood. The Other Woman’s House is, I believe, the first ever British real estate thriller. A woman is looking at houses for sale online, and on a virtual tour she sees a dead body — then it vanishes. Of all the opening pages I’ve written, that’s my favourite. I also love Little Face, my first novel, and my favourite intriguing scenario: a husband and wife can’t agree on whether or not the baby in their house is theirs.
MT: Besides the upcoming Poirot novels, what else do you have in mind? Are you continuing your series or authoring more standalone novels?
SH: Both! My next novel is indeed a Poirot. It’s called The Mystery of Three Quarters and will be published in August. It begins with Poirot being confronted in the street by a furious woman, who is convinced he has written to her, accusing her of murder. Poirot has sent no such letter, but the next thing he knows, another man turns up, having received an identical letter…
I’m also working on my next standalone thriller, Haven’t They Grown. A mother drives past her ex-best-friend, whom she hasn’t seen for twelve years. The friend is with her children; twelve years ago, they were five and three years old. Now, today, they appear still to be five and three years old. Why haven’t they grown?
In November I’m publishing my first ever self-help book. It’s called How to Hold a Grudge (From Resentment to Contentment — the Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life)and the central idea is that grudges enhance our lives and relationships, and make us more forgiving, and happier.
I’ve also been researching the next in my Culver Valley series, featuring Detective Simon Waterhouse and his colleagues, so they will reappear at some point…
MT: If you could share a book, yours or someone else’s, with the president of the United States, what would you choose and why?
SH: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville. It’s possibly my favourite book in the world. It’s all about the innate mysteriousness and unknowable-ness of our fellow humans. I’d recommend it to anyone, but I definitely think that anyone who is or wants to be the president should read it. It’s one of those books that makes you immediately more puzzled (and therefore wiser) as soon as you’ve read it.
MT: Thank you so much for chatting with me, Ms. Hannah. It was an honor and a privilege to be able to pick your brain, so to speak. Feel free to talk about anything else, related to your work or not, now that our interview has concluded. I have to say, I cannot wait for your next book, standalone or not.
SH: Thank you for having me! It’s been lovely to chat.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Ms. Oates. I’m very thankful you’ve agreed to answer some questions for us today. One question that keeps popping up, given the extremely different topics you’ve written about, is whether there’s anything that’s too taboo for you to touch or go near?
Joyce Carol Oates: That’s an interesting question. I think so, yes—but I will not identify it. (We all have areas that are “taboo”—unspeakable. Full disclosure is not possible for human beings. Poe spoke of an utterly frank document that would be called My Heart Laid Bare—but doubted that anyone could ever write such a book. Of course, that is the title of one of my postmodernist American Gothic novels, about a family of skillful confidence-men.)
MT: I wanted to mainly focus on two of your major works—both the longest and the most expansive and beautiful. I’ll start with Blonde. I read somewhere that you intended for the work to be a novella, but it eventually grew into a grand work that’s around one thousand pages. At what point were you able to say, “This is going to be a lot longer than I thought,” and do you feel you had control over the work, or did the work have control over you?
JCO: Yes, you are correct. The novel began as a projected novella of about 120 pages. It was to end when Norma Jeane Baker was given her magical name—“Marilyn Monroe.” The name was to be the final line of the novel. But when I reached that point, I saw that the greatest challenges lay ahead, & refocused the novel as an “epic.”
MT: How much of this novel is based on truth, and how much of it is based on fabricated events and characters you created for plot/storyline purposes?
JCO: The basic life of Norma Jeane Baker provides the grid for the plot. Most “events” in Norma Jeane’s life are historically authentic, but her impressions of her experiences, dialogue & introspection, are all fiction of course. Some sequences are obviously dreamlike, hallucinatory. Especially in the latter chapters when Marilyn is in thrall to barbiturates & amphetamines. Still, the fundamental circumstances of her life are observed.
MT: We talked about one of my favorite books of yours, My Sister My Love, which is only less strictly based on true events. In this case, you focused on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. How often do you write about true events, and how do you decide which viewpoint to focus on?
JCO: My interest in this novel was its “tabloid” dimension. What would be one’s life, if one were the child of a notorious criminal? (Originally I’d been thinking of O.J. Simpson, & one of my young adult novels, titled Freaky Green Eyes, was inspired by this case.) The brother of the slain child figure-skater is the narrator of the novel, & it is from his beleaguered perspective that the tragedy unfolds. Of course, the novel is also a sort of evisceration of a certain sort of American obsession, parental domination of a child for a parent’s own glory.
MT: I don’t want to give away the major spoilers in Blonde, but one of the tragic and distressing realizations Marilyn Monroe faces at the end of the novel deals with letters from her father. How much of this was based on truth—how much of any of this was based on truth—and did you plan this twist well in advance, or was it something you came up with as you wrote?
JCO: Yes, Marilyn Monroe did try to contact a man she’d been led to believe was her father. She called him, allegedly, and his wife answered the phone; the man did not wish to speak to her. This was after she’d become famous as “Marilyn Monroe”—so it was not likely he’d thought she might want money from him.
MT: Another important question I have for you is referring to A Book of American Martyrs. This seems like your magnum opus, in my opinion, but based on your publishing history, you could come out with something even greater next year. What drove you to write about abortion, even though this is by far the only subject in the novel, and how did you decide to give the novel a “happy” ending?
JCO: I’d wanted to write more about the “martyred” individual who dies for a principle, with the consequence that his family suffers terribly. (The Falls deals with this phenomenon as well, in a very different way.) After I’d written Naomi’s first section, I realized that there is another “martyr”—the abortion assassin. Gradually the novel expanded to be about two dissimilar families with many parallels between them. I did imagine it as a portrait of our polarized America but it was completed before the contentious election of 2016, so I’d had no idea how truly polarized the country would become after the election of Donald Trump. Much that had been suppressed—hatred not only of immigrants & blacks but liberals, for defending them—and a sort of collateral hatred of minorities of any kind, & of women—suddenly emerged, with devastating results. But I did intend to express sympathy for both families, & for the martyred men. It is a pity that Luther Dunphy never realizes how he has been manipulated by politicians in thrall to wealthy capitalist donors, but it would be unlikely that Luther would ever have this realization. He goes to his death more or less untouched by doubt or cynicism or despair.
MT: What do you think of people who commit crimes in defense of other people (in this case, someone who is anti-choice murdering an abortionist)? What was the point in showing how these two families begin intertwining, and what do you think the book’s ending represents, not just in response to abortion but also the human’s will to survive at all odds?
JCO: This is too vast a question to answer….the answer would be the novel itself. I tend to believe that younger generations don’t carry on the misunderstandings, grudges, & feuds of their elders, & so an embrace of sorts between Naomi and the daughter of her father’s assassin, Dawn, does not seem unlikely to me. After all, no one understands what either has endured so much as the other.
MT: You often write about women who undergo extreme crimes committed against them in sometimes even more extreme circumstances. I remember reading an article a long time ago in which you claimed (referring to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar) that women/people who survive these circumstances have a greater effect on you than people who, like Plath, commit suicide. How do you feel about this now?
JCO: It’s hard to say. Plath did not behave reasonably, but she was clinically depressed, one might say mentally ill. Truly a pity that she didn’t survive—imagine what brilliant work she would have written by now…
MT: When you “solve” crimes in two of your novels, My Sister My Love as well as Blonde, do you truly believe that the answer to the unmasking of the killer is the true answer to these real-life stories?
JCO: No. The fictional world isn’t equivalent to the actual world. It is still debatable , among reasonable people, if Marilyn Monroe died of an accidental overdose, a purposeful overdose, or if she was murdered. Since evidence was removed from the crime scene, so to speak, her bedroom, by the time L.A. police officers arrived, there was no real investigation. (Who removed possibly incriminating evidence from her bedroom? It’s thought possible the FBI by the directive of a high-ranking official protecting the Kennedys.) Conspiracy theories are so tempting, I deliberately did not advance the novel beyond Marilyn’s death. It ends—just ends—when she draws her last breath.
MT: I know that Toni Morrison, as well as many literary luminaries like yourself, have claimed that in writing a novel, you should write what you want to read but have yet to find on a bookshelf or library. Do you feel you’ve done that with one of your many books? If so, which one?
JCO: This is a familiar quote, but it is not helpful. How could anyone—even a moderately talented writer—ever write anything of the magnitude of, for instance, Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot? This is tantamount to saying that we would “know” what vitamins we are lacking, & so could provide them ourselves without medical intervention or advice. To the contrary, great works come out of nowhere—no one knew that we “needed” Moby Dick, & no one but Melville could ever have written Moby Dick.
MT: Which authors do you look to, both in the past and in the present? Especially, what crime authors (past/present) do you refer to when writing your many crime novels/story collections (Evil Eye, Give Me Your Heart, High Crime Area, Jack of Spades, The Corn Maiden, We Were the Mulvaneys, The Museum of Dr. Moses, etc)? What current authors do you think are advancing this genre the most?
JCO: I don’t focus on crime fiction much. I am often reading for review—usually at the New York Review of Books-- & for three literary competitions for which I am a juror (Anisfield-Wolf Awards, Capote Prize, Simpson Family Foundation Literary Award)--& if in this mix there are crime novels, that is serendipitous; but usually I am reading for quality, not genre.
MT: Years ago, I remember when being interviewed, you stated which books you were most proud of. Many years have passed since then, and many books have been written. So I will ask for everyone who’s wondering: Which books are the ones you’re most proud of?
JCO: I am not “proud” of anything—really. I find the notion discomforting, that one should be “proud”—pride does not seem to me a worthwhile virtue.
MT: There was very recently a prize going around acknowledging books that don’t present violence against women. Knowing that many of your books have women who experience great amounts of violence, could you explain how you feel toward this type of award?
JCO: This sounds like literature for children or very young adults. Literature isn’t sociology, still less propaganda. Virtually all of Shakespeare’s tragedies would be exempt from this award, not to mention the greatest novels. Perhaps it’s a well-intentioned bid for attention.
MT: What advice would you give new and aspiring writers who are trying to make their way/space in the literary world? How about, more specifically, women writers, or queer writers, or writers who are people of color?
JCO: Just read, widely. Buy books, buy literary magazines, and read!
MT: Which of your books would you give to the current president of the United States? Why would you give it to him? What would you hope he would gain from this book?
JCO: The current POTUS? I would never sully a book by giving it to one who is so proudly illiterate & anti-intellectual. I doubt that T***p could read a graphic novel unless it were quite short & had no nuance or subtlety.
MT: Thank you so much for joining me for a brief discussion, Ms. Oates. I really appreciate all of your answers and you taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer some of these questions. Feel free to add any thoughts or comments here, as we’d love to hear what you have to say.
JCO: Thanks for your excellent questions! They all seem somewhat unusual, which is welcome.
Matthew Turbeville: Araminta, it’s so wonderful to get to pick your brain about your astonishingly beautiful at, at the same time, somewhat scary novel: Our Kind of Cruelty. I have to ask first, where did you get the idea for this novel?
Araminta Hall: I’m a massive fan of thrillers, especially the old school ones. But I’m also a massive fan of writers like Iris Murdoch and Margaret Atwood, who I don’t think would be classed as thriller writers, but delve deep in to psychology. I wanted to write a book like this and really wanted to explore obsessional love and how twisted it can get. And I also knew I wanted to write about a delusional man because thrillers are so often concerned with delusional women and in my experience there are as many delusional men as women! But I was also inspired by the Amanda Knox case and how the media made the whole thing about sex, so that there was never a fair trial and no one seemed that bothered by who had actually killed a young girl. It made me see just how biased we are against female sexuality and how much we judge women on gossip as opposed to what they say. It’s how I came up with the idea to write the whole book from Mike’s POV and to effectively ‘silence’ Verity. I want readers to be shocked by the judgements they make about both these characters and to ask themselves why men always seem more credible than women.
MT: You’ve taken the unreliable to a new level—A Gillian Flynn type level—and I’m wondering about how you managed to capture him without going overboard with his thoughts and actions. It’s so obvious midway through beginning the novel before the reader begins wondering: maybe this character isn’t exactly thinking clearly. That’s nicest way I can think to make it.
AH: I think all writing comes down to character in the end and the only way to write a good book is to write a good character. Characters have to be believable and by that I mean you have to believe everything they do, not that everything they do is believable. If any writer has done a good enough job at creating a character then readers will follow them anywhere. I certainly know, as a reader, when someone acts ‘out of character’ it totally interrupts the book for me and makes me not care about what is going to happen. So, I really got to know Mike – everything about him, which is hopefully reflected on the page in that I do give quite a lot of detail about how he got to the place he’s in and why the way he thinks is plausible for him. There’s also something quite strange about writing in the first person, in that you really do enter your character’s mind, which wasn’t always comfortable in this case.
MT: When you begin writing, do you have the ending of the novel in your head already, or do you surprise yourself with how or where you’ve taken the novel? Do you control the novel, or does the novel control you?
AH: I absolutely always have the ending. I teach some creative writing classes and I always say to my students, you would never just get in a car and drive without knowing where you’re going, but you might change routes halfway through or stop for a rest or have an accident, or anything. I think if you don’t know where you’re going it becomes a bit messy, but necessarily the plot can change along the way. It goes back to what I said earlier about character – if you’ve got a believable character they can do most things. But of course I’m in control. I’m writing the words.
MT: Can you tell us about your writing process, just a bit? Are you a morning, nighttime, or a midday type writer? Do you have a word limit or page count per day? What have you found is the most important part of writing a novel?
AH: The most important part of writing a novel for me is thinking. I start with an idea but it takes me ages to understand how I want to write it. I will often spend six months to a year thinking about my book. I will start a few drafts which I know are terrible and have nothing to do with the story, but somehow they’re necessary for me. Then I’ll have a moment where I work out what I want to do and after that the writing seems to flow (so far). As far as a routine – I have three kids so I take time whenever I can find it. But usually I drop the youngest at school, have a walk or go to an exercise class, come home and move dust round the house, then sit down and write for a couple of hours before I have to do the school pick up. That’s on a good day. Often I don’t write at all.
MT: What authors have inspired you? What authors have you come across in recent years who you feel are able to, through their own writing, pursue whatever draft you’re completing?
AH: The writer that has always really inspired me is Patricia Highsmith. I just think she’s a master of the genre. Her characters are totally, uncomfortably believable and her stories are heart-stopping and brilliant. She is just wonderful. I am also always bowled over by Shirley Jackson, Iris Murdoch and Carol Sheilds. As for people writing now I love Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn and Jon McGregor. Also, one of the best books I’ve read this year is Golden Hill by Francis Spufford.
MT: Back to the novel, it feels sometimes like the narrator’s very vision of the world is in fact what raises and skyrockets the mystery of the novel. Was this done intentionally?
AH: Absolutely. But I think the reason it resonates so much is because we’ve recently realized that it’s an exaggeration of a vision which is much more prevalent than we realized. If Me Too has taught us anything it’s surely that we’re not nearly as far along the equality road as we all thought.
MT: Was the novel always the way it is now, or at least similar to how it is now, or did you find yourself pulled in several different directions all at once? How did this concept and draft begin, and did it always end up going this way?
AH: Yes and no. This draft of the novel has changed very little. In fact, I was having lunch with my agent and editor the other day and we were saying how the first 20 or so pages have never changed. And in fact, I barely changed them after I’d written them. We did play around with the ending quite a bit though and the structure. And, like I said before, it took me a long time to get to the point of writing this version. I have about three half completed drafts that you wouldn’t recognize as having anything to do with this book, but which totally brought me to it.
MT: This novel feels somewhat, or a lot like, a Patricia Highsmith novel (one of the greatest compliments I can give to a novel). When did you get turned toward the crime genre, and what was the work, you believe, that helped shape your writing?
AH: And that’s the biggest compliment I could receive as a writer! It’s funny because I’m not an exclusive reader of crime and thrillers, even though I totally love them, but I always return to them. I also think they’re a very freeing genre – you get to tell a great story and make a serious point. And it’s a very unrestrictive genre – almost anything goes which is rare and a real treat for a writer. I’ve always read all the time, but I think the first crime author I read was Agatha Christie at about 13. I can’t remember when I first read Highsmith, but I feel it was more like 18, and she’s been my literary heroine since then.
MT: Megan Abbott once advised me never to judge your characters. Is this one of your mottos, or do you at times feel yourself judging a character despite your best intentions?
AH: I think this is great advice. If you believe in essential human fallibility then you have to be kind to them. Mike is a strange man, but I also sympathise with him because we’ve all got a back story. Just like I sympathise with Verity, because we all sometimes make bad choices.
MT: While still referencing Megan Abbott, she tweeted recently that women not only are the best creators of crime fiction, who are also are among the greatest consumers. Don’t take this quote to heart, necessarily, as I don’t want to misquote Megan. Where do you think women are in literature as opposed to five or ten years ago? Where do you see things going for women in the genre, yourself included?
AH: I do think women dominate crime and thriller and I think that’s because we know all about feeling scared. Just walking down a dark street can be frightening for us. Or riding a lift alone with a man. Or getting your car from a deserted car park. Or being in a bad relationship. Or having a predatory boss. I’m not saying men don’t get hassled or that they don’t understand these feelings, but they’re so common to women we relate to these books in a visceral way. I hope women writers will become more respected and I also hope that we’ll see more female CEOs in publishing companies. But it’s going the right way and it feels positive.
MT: What were your intentions when writing this novel? Who did you decide that this novel is targeting people of a certain sex, sexuality, age, etc, or do you believe your novel transcends limits of a specific audience?
AH: My intentions were to write a good story that got people thinking about issues that are important to me. I didn’t have a particular audience in mind though. It’s funny because someone tweeted me the other day to say they were disgusted that my book is set in London but doesn’t feature any characters of ethnic origin. I thought that was such a strange thing to say because there are lots of characters that could be any ethnicity and that surely says more about that reader that they couldn’t imagine anyone who wasn’t white, British. I always like to leave physical descriptions to a minimum as we’re all going to make our own pictures as readers.
MT: Are you happy with all of the press you’ve been receiving pre- and after releasing the book? It seems to be getting very good reviews, which must delight you!
AH: Good reviews are amazing and I’ve been very lucky. But you always get some bad and it’s a really terrible habit of mine to always focus on the bad way more than the good. Both my publishers in the US and UK have been completely amazing though at getting the book out there and talked about, which is all a writer ever really wants.
MT: Toni Morrison, among other luminaries, says that when you go into writing something, write the novel you’d want to read. Do you think this novel is “the novel you want to read,” or do you think that novel still needs to come?
AH: Yes this is totally a novel I’d read. And I agree, there’s no point in writing for a market or anything like that. You have to fall in love with an idea and get swept up in the writing otherwise your book will feel flat.
MT: I do have to ask: where do you see yourself going from here? Is there another novel in the works, something you can tease these readers with?
AH: Yes, I’m contracted to write another book so I’m working on it at the moment. It’s still early days, but I can say it will definitely be in the same genre and is going to feature another dysfunctional relationship (but in a totally different way). I want to talk about how men and women see each other and the mistakes we make with assumptions.
MT: I’m so glad you were able to speak with me, AH. It was such a pleasure making these questions just for you, and please feel free to point out anything about the novel, yourself, or your writing below!
AH: Your questions were great, thank you. I think we covered it all!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Alex. I wanted to open by saying I am so delighted I read through all of the Pete series, as rereading the first two, and then reading the latest two came during a really life-changing experience for me. Pete’s personality, both flawed and brave, comforted me in ways I cannot describe. I have to know—how did you come up with Pete’s character, and how long did it take to develop the supporting characters?
Alex Segura: I’m so glad to hear that, Matthew. And thank you for the support and kind words. They mean a lot.
Pete came to me in a pretty well developed state, at least in terms of his life experiences and personality. I wanted someone from Miami, obviously, someone Cuban-American and also younger and not exactly experienced when it came to being a private eye. I always say that Pete, to me, is someone I knew in college – we came up together, but at a certain point lost touch and he went his way and I went mine. He’s changed a lot over the four books, going from a messed-up, fall-down drunk to a man who’s trying to come to terms with his past in order to stabilize and fix his present. I like that we’re on this journey with him, and we’re not meeting him down the line, when things are under control.
The supporting cast has had a longer runway, to be honest, and evolved with each book. When I first started Silent City, I wasn’t sure it was going to be a series. I knew the books I loved – PI novels that oozed place and had these conflicted and human characters, like Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan books or the Dennis Lehane Pat and Angie books – and I knew that I wanted to try and write a novel like those, with Miami as the backdrop. But I wasn’t sure what I was doing beyond writing that first book. So, in Silent City, the supporting cast is a bit of a red herring – you meet Emily, Pete’s long-suffering ex, Mike Carver his best friend and Chaz Bentley, the veteran newspaperman who recruits Pete to look for his missing daughter, Kathy. But, without giving too much away, that dynamic changes drastically by the end of the first book, and by book two, Down the Darkest Street, Pete’s story becomes the story of two people – and Kathy is woven into the cast as his investigative partner. My point is, the supporting cast part is more fluid, and by the time we get to Blackout, the fourth novel, the core cast consists of Pete, Kathy, his partner, retired FBI agent Robert Harras, Dave Mendoza, a mysterious, jovial guy with underworld ties and Jackie Cruz, a lawyer who shares a romantic history with Pete and has pulled his ass out of the fire a number of times. Each character serves as a contrast point to Pete, but also much more – I love writing Kathy, who’s funny, charming and whip-smart. She’s as much a part of the story as Pete, and I very much see her as the co-star of the series. Harras provides Pete with experienced, real-world police advice and Dave and Jackie keep Pete in check for different reasons. I think it’s important to layer in these characters, not just because they’re fun to write, but they serve as a gut check to the main character, who, as you and other readers know, can be prone to making impulsive decisions and is often in need of a savior.
MT: I’m also interested in how you plan on approaching the longevity of this series. Equally brilliant authors like Sara Gran and Laura Lippman have approached their series differently: Gran has a certain number of books planned, with an endgame in sight. Lippman goes between standalones and Tess, and admits that Tess may be her favorite character she’s created. How do you approach the Pete series? Do you have an endgame in sight, and if so is it planned out in a certain number of books, or you just plan on ending the series whenever you feel like Pete’s journey is done?
AS: I think the Pete series is finite, and I do have an endgame in sight. For me, the first four books – Silent City, Down the Darkest Street, Dangerous Ends and Blackout – serve as a ramping up, of sorts. This is Pete’s origin, the story of how he went from complete fuckup to an actual, honest-to-God private investigator. That was the story that interested me the most, the story that I felt I hadn’t seen enough of in crime fiction and, really, the story I was most interested in telling. Each book is a subset of that greater desire – Silent City is the beginning, the real origin of Pete, Down the Darkest Street is a serial killer story with a twist, Dangerous Ends touches on the unique Cuba-Miami dynamic and Blackout is really a story about recovery and coming to terms with your past. So, I think the series leans more toward Claire DeWitt than Tess, in terms of longevity. The next book, Miami Midnight, feels like it could be the end – but never say never, right? If, after that, I feel like there’s more Pete, then I’ll write it. But I never want the series to feel evergreen and episodic in the vein of CSI or Law & Order, or crime fiction series that feature a constant protagonist who doesn’t evolve. Those stories don’t interest me as much as a writer, and to that end, I have to be aware that a continually evolving character who is constantly put in these life-changing situations pushes plausibility at a certain point. I have to be true to Pete and know when it’s time to send him off.
MT: Additionally, I would love to know how you write the Pete series. You come out with these books fairly quickly, which is surprising considering how brilliant and appealing the novels are. How early do you start planning your next novel and how early to you begin writing it in relation to previous novels?
AS: I usually have a strong inkling as to what I want to write about next while I’m revising the current novel, so, for example – I had a rough idea, while rewriting Blackout, for the next one – at least in terms of tone and subject matter. At that point, I’m usually sure of how the current book will end, so I take that status quo and start brainstorming about the next one. The new book will usually dovetail with whatever I’m obsessing over. With Blackout, it was cults, politics, 1990s Miami and the idea of making up for past mistakes – as in, can we do that? Do we ever really balance the scales? I’m not sure I can answer that question, but I do think about it – making up for past mistakes and trying to be better. I know I want the next book to be leaner, darker and have, for lack of a better term, a more classic noir feel. But it’s still very early in the process, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that a book can change a lot on the way to the printer…
MT: I am, of course, dying to know the future of Pete and Kathy. Without giving away too much, this book works more than just filler in series. In ways, it almost feels like a standalone, which is brilliant. It carries Pete and Kathy’s relationship to another level, and without a doubt you come through, fleshing out these characters more and more, as you do with each novel. Can you give the readers any hints about Pete and Kathy? Or do you even know? I know some writers plan as they go, and there’s no shame in that!
AS: I think readers will know, pretty quickly – in the opening chapters of the next book, really – where Pete and Kathy stand, and how they feel about each other. I don’t think it’ll be what people expect, and probably not what they want, but that’s okay. How’s that for a vague teaser?
MT: The setting and environment for the latest Pete novel, Blackout, involves a dangerous hurricane. Other than for intensely exciting issues, how and why did you decide to have the novel—especially the climax—revolve around a hurricane?
AS: It was bizarre and a bit terrifying for me to write about the Blackout storm – Elizabeth – because it was happening just as Irma was heading toward South Florida, so I had the anxiety of watching this massive, monster storm inch toward my home town and home state while also weaving this fictional storm into the Pete narrative. Just one of those weird moments where fiction and reality overlap in strange ways. Hurricanes are such powerful and nightmarish things. Primal and unpredictable, no matter how well you track them. I have so many memories of living through Hurricane Andrew when I was a kid, and it’s impossible to really express the sheer power these things have. So, with Blackout, the storm adds a sense of foreboding and dread in a very Miami way – it’s a sign that things are getting worse, and as we get to the finale of the book, really emphasizes the climax – without giving too much away.
MT: The novels seem to escalate tension more and more with each book. The greatest part of these books—and readers, do pay attention—is that any reader can go back and read the books again and again, finding new details they missed before or simply enjoying the comfort of knowing Pete has things under control. For future or developing writers, what’s your method for developing tension and even escalating it through the novel and the series?
AS: That’s a great question. I try to think about it in terms of various arcs – there’s the arc of the novel itself, what makes this specific story compelling – and then the larger story arc of the series, and how each novel plays into that, and Pete’s arc, too – in terms of the bigger narrative and his own story in each book. For me, each book is about the mystery and its inherent story, but also about Pete, and his journey. I never want Pete to feel the same way on page one vs. the final page, because that, to me, feels static and boring – so I spend a lot of time thinking about how he as a character evolves, and how the people he cares about change. My outlines tend to really just be long, rambling chunks of text that discuss each character, their desires and motivations and what happens to them in that book and beyond, because it all starts with character for me, and cutting them loose to experience the world and circumstances I’ve laid out for them. Often, how they react surprises even me, which is what you want as a writer and reader
MT: To diverge from Blackout for just a moment, would you ever write a standalone novel? If so, could you hint at what it might be about?
AS: I have a few ideas for standalones, yes. The one I’m leaning toward the most is political in nature, and I’m eager to dive into it, but it’ll have to be after I’m done with Miami Midnight.
MT: Were you prepared for the ongoing success of the Pete novels? After four novels published—with so many series barely making it to a second or third novel—you have to feel proud of yourself. Was there ever a time when you began to doubt Pete, or yourself?
AS: I think doubt is just part of the writing process, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by it, because we live in such an immediate and information-heavy world. You’re constantly inundated by social media and what people are experiencing…but at the end of the day, what matters to me is the work and how I feel about it, and how people I admire feel about it, so in that regard I’ve been very blessed. I started writing the first Pete book as an exercise for myself – to see if I could actually finish a crime novel, to see if I could add anything to this daunting pantheon of private eye writers, to add my voice to the chorus, if that makes sense. So, the idea that it’s gone for four novels that have been well-received and gotten some acclaim, that’s amazing and I feel very lucky to have readers that love Pete, his friends and are curious to see what he’s up to. That’s more than I could have ever hoped for. In terms of doubt, or writer’s block, I think you just need to do your best to push past it and get to work. These books won’t write themselves.
MT: When do you tend to write the most? Some authors are night or morning writers. Some work an hour a day, and others work 8 or 12 hours a day! Every author is different, so we’re dying to know how you approach writing?
AS: At night, after dinner, usually. It’s the closest thing I have to quiet time – when my son is sleeping and I have an hour or two to just chip away at whatever the next big project is. Mornings are tougher because I’m prepping for the day and I have a full-time job. I agree with Paul Tremblay’s philosophy on found time – be ready to sprint when you see you have a few minutes to peck away at your work-in-progress, and be ready to run hard and fast, because you can be disrupted or pulled away from it at any point. You can’t be too ceremonial about the writing process because if you are, you’ll never get any work done.
MT: I’m usually not a fan of male writers, and yet I would die for another four more Pete novels. Seriously. My main question is how you, as a male writer, manage to write such complex female characters? It seems tough for some authors—I won’t name names. Do you consider yourself a feminist, given that Kathy has been through so much, and yet she often assists (and sometimes does more than assist) in saving the day with Pete?
AS: I would say I’m a feminist, yes, without a doubt. I’ve had strong women around me as far back as I can remember – whether it’s my mother, my grandmother, my wife, my aunt, my best friends – I have no shortage of amazing women around me, and I try to honor them in my characters by doing my best to write realistic women that don’t fall into tropes or clichés, Kathy being the strongest example of that. She’s experienced loss, she’s been betrayed and she’s been mistreated, but she perseveres, and she’s stronger for it. In many ways, she’s tougher than Pete, which is intentional. Kathy’s in many ways as much of a star in the series as Pete, and she’s smart, capable and complicated, like many women I know. Pete is lucky to know her.
But to more fully answer your question – I just try to be realistic with how my characters act, and the best way to do that is to look at real people and try to evoke that as closely as I can.
MT: What books and authors have inspired you most? What books do you return to, again and again, for comfort and as examples for how and what to write? Or are you like Stephen King, who, other than with authors like Alex Marwood, rarely re-reads books, as he’s stated in interviews before?
AS: I’m not a big re-reader, I have to admit, but there are a handful of novels I got back to, just because they’ve had such an immense effect on my work – even if it’s to just flip through the pages and read specific scenes. Novels like A Firing Offense by George Pelecanos, Darkness, Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane, Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon, The James Deans by Reed Farrel Coleman, The Chilli by Ross Macdonald, Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks, Laura’s early Tess books, the first Claire DeWitt novel by Sara Gran, Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Moseley, The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block…I guess I do re-read more than I thought I did!
MT:. Who is your favorite character in the Pete series? My guess would be Pete, but you’re welcome to surprise me. I don’t know if I could choose, personally. Do you ever plan on having one of the Pete novels Kathy-centric? How do you think you would make that work, if you decided to do so?
AS: I love Pete, of course – he’s like a frustrating sibling. But Kathy is dear to my heart as well, and I think you’ll see her take up more of the spotlight in the coming book, because I have a story to tell about her and Pete will have a big role in that. It’s not a Pete book without Kathy and vice versa.
MT: I think one of the things that makes Pete so relatable are the struggles, personal and internal, that he faces on a daily basis. Did you base Pete off of anyone, and if so, how do you separate Pete from the real-life persona that inspired his creation? Also, how would you advise young or emerging writers to make their characters fleshed out and interesting?
AS: In terms of keeping your characters fleshed out and interesting – look at real people. Not just fictional versions or fictional stories. Think about people you know or grew up with, or that you interact with a lot – we’re a pile of contradictions and conflicting behaviors. Strive for reality in how you write your characters as opposed to trying to create iconic people that maybe don’t exist. If your characters are relatable and fleshed-out – something that only happens if you really dig deep and explore who these people are – the story will show up.
MT: Returning to advice for young or emerging writers, what advice would you give them in relation to how to succeed in a cut-throat industry like the publishing world? Would you mind sharing your own beginnings and struggles with printing the Pete novels, if there were any?
AS: Do the work. Write, rewrite, edit, revise, what-have-you. Work on your book until you can’t anymore, then give it to someone you trust to be straight with you. Don’t look for praise, look for someone who is going to slice up your work. Then revise again. Only then, when you feel like your work is complete and ready, should you start worrying about query letters, agents or publishers. Put your work first and the other stuff second. That applies to your books in perpetuity, not just the first one. The writing is sacred.
MT: In regards to feminism and Kathy, it’s amazing to see where every major female crime writer has blurbed your novels with incredible praise that is both genuine and full of admiration. Do you think Kathy and all of her layers helps other females, especially these female crime writers, relate to your books more and feel intensely about Pete’s world?
AS: I’d like to think so, but it’s not something that I set out to do in quite such a direct way. I wanted to write a realistic, complex and honest character that wasn’t just a foil to Pete, but was his better in many ways – that’s why Kathy exists and why she’s interesting to write for me, so I’m glad, if you’re right, and people respond to her in that way. I definitely wanted Kathy to be a prominent part of the series – I’m glad you recognize that, and that other writers are drawn to her, too, because she’s an essential part of the series and isn’t mentioned enough!
MT: As for Blackout, and its subjects dealing with cults and so on, how much time did you spend researching and developing a complex, incredible world where all of these very real scenarios can take place? FYI to the reader: cults are always interesting, especially with the talent of Mr. Segura.
AS: I spent some time reading books about cults and talking to friends and professionals who have some expertise in that area, especially as it relates to Miami and actual cult leaders who spent time there. I love research, but I never want it to feel like work – I like to ride that wave of interest and obsession through the “work” of reading books in an effort to support my fiction, so it feels as exciting when it shows up in my writing, instead of just rattling off facts, if that makes sense. I particularly enjoyed Jeff Guinn’s excellent book on Jim Jones, plus his Manson bio. Those two books stood out to me, if I had to point to specific works.
MT: I very rarely say this about male writers, as I think genuinely crime is becoming a woman-dominated genre and I do feel women are able to pull me in more quickly. And yet I, and many people who share such beliefs, have been roped in and taken for a ride in Pete’s world. He is a champion I want to root for. Harkening back to another question, what about your writing do you think ropes readers in? Feel free to expose any vanity in answering these questions—you are a writer not just to enjoy, but to learn from.
AS: Oh, that’s tough, because I’m so embedded in it, you know? I’d like to think I portray people who are really struggling but overcoming – who have flaws and problems but also want to be better, and that’s something anyone can relate to, I hope. Pete’s story is one of overcoming and trying to be better. So is Kathy’s.
MT: Can you, without giving away many spoilers, hint toward what lies ahead for Pete and Kathy, whether they are together or not? How long do you consider carrying on the story of Pete? It’s clear you love each character in your novel, even the villains more times than not. Megan Abbott once taught me to never judge your characters: you bring this philosophy to life with your no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point writing. Essentially, I wonder if you can give away any minor spoilers or clues as to what we are to expect from Pete #5.
AS: (I feel like I answered the Pete/Kathy question a bit above, so here’s my best shot at this)
The Pete and Kathy dynamic will continue to unfold – it just won’t be in a predictable way. I think we’ll find them in a surprising place in the pages of the next book. I’m excited because I don’t fully know where their story is going to go.
Miami Midnight will pick up a bit after the surprising ending of Blackout, and it’s a story of a malicious, lustful obsession and the lengths someone will go to hide their dark side. So far, it’s got a very seething, noir Brian de Palma vibe, which I’m enjoying.
MT: Referring back to Megan Abbott and writing, what is the best advice you’ve received regarding writing, and who has helped you most in your journey to success? Feel free to list as many examples or people as possible.
AS: Finish what you start. Don’t be precious with your work. Read obsessively. Don’t imitate but do honor the writers you admire. Don’t let the decorations get in the way of the work – meaning, don’t get caught up in things that distract from being the best writer you can be.
MT: I want to thank you so much for stopping by taking the time to allow me to pick your brain. You are welcome back any time, what with your genius mind and brilliant series. Pete—and you and your career—are things I plan on following for decades to come.
AS: Matthew, this was an absolute pleasure. I’m so grateful you like these books and that they’ve brought you joy. It means the world to me. Thanks for the insightful and engaging questions.
Novels: A Land More Kind Than Home, This Dark Road to Mercy, The Last Ballad
Wiley Cash is both a miraculous writer of thrillers and suspense novels, while also summoning the Southern Gothic nature of O’Connor and Faulkner. While my favorite of his still remains This Dark Road to Mercy, there are strong merits to each of his novels, and you can fly through them so speedily, so engrossed by language and story, that you will find yourself having finished one of his novels in less than half a day. As a slow reader myself, I found that I could finish one of Mr. Cash’s novel so quickly—the language and dialect so true to the South, the visuals so cinematic and stunning. While A Land More King Than Home deals with two brothers who have to face the consequences of living in a place like North Carolina, This Dark Road to Mercy is a more straight-forward relationship dealing with two sisters and their father, both on the run from someone—you’ll have to read to figure out who. His final and most recent book, which made my MysteryPeople top 10 books of last year, is a divinely produces and driven at times by fast pace adrenaline, was considered a contender for the Pulitzer Prize and generally accepted as one of the best books of the year. While these novels do speak to me as a lover of literary mysteries and thrillers, they also transcend the genre in the ways that Megan Abbott’s newest books or Laura Lippman’s standalones move past simple mysteries and open up worlds we might not normally see or be aware of. Cash writes about race, class, and other pressing issues that are still prevalent today in the Southern regions (and elsewhere, too—we shouldn’t assume white privilege is only an issue in the South) of the United States, Cash is capable of creating characters of all types, usually working-class white men and women, but also people of color both in sometimes modern day North and South Carolina. The books engross you in a way that few other writers are capable of doing, and in the meantime, they deal with larger issues than many of Cash’s contemporaries. While Cash isn’t necessarily as capable of tackling the topic of race as, say, Ms. Lippman, he does his best to try and captivate the reader with his realistic depictions of different sorts of people. His most recent novel, The Last Ballad, goes in and out of modern day and early 1900s North Carolina, revolving around the life and death of a mother and an activist who was killed in the early 1900s. Meanwhile, This Dark Road to Mercy, a personal favorite, deal with a father who is on the run, the mother of his children dead, and he trying to rescue them while also attempting to save themselves. This Dark Road to Mercy shows Mr. Cash’s talents at his best. He manages to capture the voices of multiple people, including the young girl whose father takes her on the trip of their lives—across the Carolinas and into Myrtle Beach of all places, a city that captures the dirtiness and desperation of Southern lives, with its pavilion filled with blinking lights, a Southern version of Las Vegas. Cash is not afraid to dig into the noir and gothic nature of his writing, as well as fully develop his characters (and in just a few pages) while driving forward with tension, plot, and danger. Cash is not just a book read, a book club novel, or a novel to dive into on a rainy day. The masterful nature of Mr. Cash’s novels is something that should not be looked over or ignored: he may not be Faulkner, but he might be as close as we get (other than, say Woodrell) in this day and age where many Southern writers lack the respect and dedicated following they so often deserve. Mr. Cash teaches at UNC Asheville and is, hopefully, working on a new novel as you read this. Go out and pick up a copy of one of his books immediately.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Amy! I am so happy to get to interview you. I’ve been fascinated since I first encountered your debut thriller, The Roanoke Girls. It was astonishing, completely enthralling and enveloping. The most astonishing aspect of the book seems to be the voice of its protagonist, Lane. How did you go about developing such an intriguing voice? How did you come up with this character and, more importantly, her story?
Amy Engel: Thanks so much for this opportunity and for your kind words about The Roanoke Girls. For me, almost every book I write starts with a character. I knew from the outset that Lane was going to be polarizing. She can be cruel and self-destructive and impulsive. But she’s also trying very hard to do her best with the limited coping tools she has at her disposal. I wanted her to feel painfully human to the reader, both for good and for ill. So that was probably the vision I kept in the forefront of my mind as I was crafting her character. As for her story, I just tried to be as honest as I could about how a childhood like Lane’s would impact a person. Given her history, she was never going to be sunshine and light. She was always going to be dark and more comfortable with pain than with happiness. That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for her, though.
MT: This may be a spoiler, but I think it’s important to discuss. Incest and the taboo are major elements in The Roanoke Girls, just as they have been in many other great books in recent years, like Alison Gaylin’s What Remains of Me and Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger. What made you decide to focus on these taboo subjects? Also, how do you think this story is relevant today? What would you say your message is, especially to the female audience?
AE: Honestly, I had the idea for the setting (a small town in Kansas with a creepy, gothic house) before I had the idea for the theme. I knew I wanted a story about family and the ways in which it can both lift us up and destroy us, but I played around with a couple of different ideas initially. I wanted a story that mimicked the feeling of the small town: isolated, insular, claustrophobic and that’s what eventually led me to the theme. I think the story is as relevant today as it was a decade ago or a hundred years ago. Familial sexual abuse is as old as time and it’s something we rarely talk about or look at in the light of day. It makes people uncomfortable in a way few other topics do and for that reason we like to pretend it doesn’t exist. But it does, and our unwillingness to talk about it only does more harm to victims. I’m not a big “message” author. I want people to enjoy my books and I want them to find their own meaning in what I write. But if pressed, I would say my message with The Roanoke Girls is that things like this happen every day, and it is never the fault of the victims, no matter what they did or didn’t do. It’s a horrible reality to live with, but you can survive it and life can go on.
MT: What are your writing habits like? Are you a morning or night writer? Do you write by hand or computer? How many drafts of The Roanoke Girls did you have to go through in order to reach this well-crafted and divinely spun masterpiece?
AE: Thank you for the lovely compliment! I tend to be a morning writer, but if I’m really in a groove I’ll write morning, noon, and night. I generally write on my laptop, although I will sometimes jot notes on paper when I’m out and about. I always keep a small notebook with me for just that reason. I tend to write pretty clean first drafts, but they also tend to be short. So I went through two drafts of the book before I sent it to agents and then had another round of edits with my publisher.
MT: You manage to effortlessly create suspense and also weave in family saga of sorts. You take into account all of, or most of, the Roanoke girls. What was the most important element of making this story about family, and both the ties that bind blood together but also the danger of family in certain ways?
AE: I am clearly fascinated with the bonds of family as all my books deal with that theme. I find it endlessly interesting the ways in which family shapes us. So much of who we are comes from the people who raise us and it can sometimes feel impossible to break those bonds even when we know we should. Families have their own rituals and rhythms and that can be so comforting. But sometimes, taken to the extreme, it can be suffocating or even dangerous.
MT: There seems to be lots of elements dealing with patriarchal (or, simply, the patriarchy) control over young women. In this book, women become brainwashed and tricked by father-figures, so much so that only Lane seems able to escape. What do you feel the message is here, and what made Lane strong enough to escape when she was younger?
AE: I think Lane was able to escape because she had a life before Roanoke. It wasn’t a good one, but she was at least able to fathom a world beyond Roanoke and Osage Flats. When I worked as a criminal defense attorney, I found that people tend to blame victims in crimes where there isn’t clear violence. Everyone knows who the bad guy is when a girl is chained up in a basement. But predators who rely on manipulation and charm leave behind victims who often end up bearing the brunt of the blame for what’s happened to them. Why didn’t she tell? Why didn’t she say no? I would never have let that happen to me! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of those words applied to victims. I guess my hope is that readers might identify with Allegra and the other Roanoke girls and recognize both the impossibility of their situation and their blamelessness in it.
MT: Of course, there are lots of elements of stories about small town life in The Roanoke Girls. Lane returns home and finds mostly everything the same, including the same people stuck in the small town. Would you say Lane has grown or stayed the same person throughout the entire book? What makes her story different from the other Roanoke girls who never got away? What makes her different from real-life victims who are unable to escape their abusers?
AE: I think by the end of the book Lane has definitely grown as a person. I think her early life away from Roanoke was one of the keys to her escape. I also think having unconditional love from Cooper was vital for her. Having someone who loved her even when she was at her worst, someone she couldn’t scare off or push away definitely helped Lane evolve.
MT: How do you feel about women being pitted against each other in literature? Do you see this in real life, and if so, did it ever affect your writing of The Roanoke Girls?
AE: I’m fine with women being pitted against each other in literature. Just like I’m fine with men being pitted against each other or men being pitted against women. All of those types of interactions happen in real life. Sometimes women can be terrible people, and I’m okay with acknowledging that. As long as the characters feel true to me and their actions make sense with who they are and what they’ve experienced, I’m all right with women behaving badly.
MT: You’re releasing crime books in a time when women are really taking over the crime industry, both as producers of crime fiction and also as consumers of these books. How do you think The Roanoke Girls stands out and why do you feel that your novel is important, especially at this time in our country, specifically for women but also for any audience in general?
AE: I think as much as the Me Too movement has opened up conversation and brought important issues to the forefront we still have a serious problem acknowledging and talking about familial sexual abuse. I’ve been saddened by the number of readers who’ve reacted negatively to the fact that I even wrote a book about the subject. As if not acknowledging the subject will make it go away. I think it’s vital that we talk about incest. It’s a particularly isolating crime and victims often stay silent because of the reactions they receive for speaking out.
MT: You manage to maintain suspense and intrigue constantly throughout the novel. Do you have any tips for new writers on maintaining these elements, as you do so effortlessly?
AE: Well, I don’t know if I do it effortlessly. And I also don’t know if I have any great advice, unfortunately. I don’t outline and try not to overthink a book as I’m writing it. I tend to just trust my instincts and let the story unfold. I would say to let your characters lead the way. If you can get readers invested in the characters and what is happening to them, then you’ve already gone a long way toward establishing suspense naturally.
MT: Did you ever find yourself getting attached to characters, or overly attached? And how did you map out what was going to happen in the novel? Did you know from the beginning the ultimate twist, or did it come to you as you were writing?
AE: I get freakishly attached to characters. They feel like real people to me and I often have a hard time letting go of them when I’m done writing a novel. I don’t map out what’s going to happen as I’m writing. When I start, I generally know how the book will begin and how it will end, but the rest is a complete mystery to me. I may have some vague ideas, but it doesn’t solidify until I’m actually writing. Honestly, I wouldn’t say that The Roanoke Girls really has a twist. Or at least I didn’t write it thinking there was a twist. But I did know who the perpetrators were from the beginning.
MT: Who are the writers in crime fiction/mysteries, etc, that you admire most? Did any one particular author or work help you with this novel? What crime books and mysteries do you keep coming back to?
AE: My favorites are probably all the usual suspects: Stephen King, Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Laura McHugh. I especially admire the way Tana French crafts her novels. They are well-written character driven police procedurals that keep you up at night turning pages as fast as you can. It’s an almost impossible trick and she makes it seem effortless. I have a soft spot for prickly, difficult main characters and whenever I get nervous about writing such a person I look to Gillian Flynn and how fearlessly she creates her protagonists.
MT: How would you like men to approach this book, and what would you like them to take away from it—especially heterosexual cis-white men?
AE: What a great question. As I said earlier, I’m not big on articulating what I want readers to get from my work. I want each reader to have their own experience and there’s no right answer. But I would hope that in reading the book heterosexual cis-white men recognize the power they are inherently born with and the ways in which it can be so easily used to subjugate others. I am in no way implying that all men are predators, but with a place at the top of the totem pole comes a responsibility to wield that power in a way that does the least amount of harm.
MT: What role does love play in this story—familial, fraternal, sexual, romantic, etc? Why do you think it was important for Lane to have a love interest?
AE: Love is probably the central emotion in this book. Both love that nurtures and love that destroys. I think we sometimes have an idea that love is always a positive thing. But certain kinds of love can be poisonous and go hand-in-hand with shame and guilt. I wanted to explore all the varied types of love. I thought it was important for Lane to have a love interest so that she could have some experience of love that was positive. That’s not to say that her relationship with Cooper is always healthy. Their love is especially fraught and damaging when they are young. But they manage to grow and mature together.
MT: Recommend three books to follow The Roanoke Girls—not necessarily mysteries, or even fiction. What books would readers of The Roanoke Girls benefit from most after finishing your novel?
AE: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, and Faithful Place by Tana French. They all three explore love and family and the ways in which it can both nurture and destroy us.
MT: What were your biggest challenges in writing this novel? What hurdles did you have to overcome in order to make a book this cohesive, this intelligent, and this brilliant? Is there anything, looking back on the novel, that you would change? No spoilers, please!
AE: To be honest, this book just flowed from the first sentence. There were some points where I briefly wondered if I was going too dark, but it always felt like where the story and the characters needed to go. I don’t think there’s anything I would change; I’m still happy with how the novel turned out. I knew from the outset that the book wouldn’t be for everyone and that’s okay with me.
MT: There’s also this theme of brainwashing and gaslighting and so on, especially within the Roanoke home. The abusive relationship occurs within the family. Other than the reasons mentioned in the book, what do you think made Allegra stay behind?
AE: I don’t think Allegra had any concept that there was anywhere else to go. She’d never been outside a very small radius of the world. Beyond that, I think there was a large part of her that loved Roanoke, just as Lane said. She felt adored and cherished in that house and had been conditioned her whole life to believe that no one else would ever feel that way about her. We all have a fundamental need to be loved and Allegra’s need for love was expertly exploited to keep her stationary.
MT: What’s next for you? Do you have another book in the works? I’m sure our readers are dying to know after speeding through The Roanoke Girls.
AE: I do have another book in the works. It’s adult psychological suspense and I’m almost done with it (fingers crossed!).
MT: Thank you so much for allowing me to pick your brain, Amy! We love The Roanoke Girls, and we hope our followers will too. Thank you for shedding light on everything about the book, and we can’t wait for another book from you!
AE: Thank you so much for your great questions!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Kristen! As a relatively new fan to your protagonist Roxane, as well as your series, I wanted to thank you for being willing to let me interview you. I guess my first question would begin with the origins of Roxane. How did you decide you wanted to write a series featuring this woman, and what lengths did you go to in order to make Roxane accessible to every reader, including myself?
Kristen Lepionka: Thanks for having me! Roxane came about because I wanted to write the woman private investigator character I always wanted to read about but never quite found. Not that there isn’t lots of great female PI fiction out there, but I specifically wanted to write a bi woman, and a woman who’s just an absolute mess. There are about a zillion books with hard-drinking, bad-at-relationships male detectives in the genre, but not a ton of women. And on top of those things, I wanted to write her as a tough but vulnerable type, as often in popular fiction, female characters get to be one or the other, but not both. So that was the task I set for myself, and the first glimpse of Roxane I got was her lying on the carpet in her office, crazy-hungover and wishing the phone would stop ringing. Then I just kind of had to follow her around to see what she did.
MT: I really love that Roxane falls into the spectrum of LGBTQIA. Not only does this mean she is a more interesting, accessible character for many, but she (and you as her creator) is making headway in the crime fiction world as an LGBTQIA woman. Do you think that queerness is more acceptable now in crime fiction, or do you feel as if you’re one of the first people to really head down this road of writing incredibly diverse and intersectionally feminist characters?
KL: Queer characters have a bit of a hard go in the history of crime fiction. I think that’s changing as our world changes, which is a good thing, but there’s still a lot more to be done. Bisexuality is especially mistreated in popular fiction. If bi characters are included at all, they’re often characterized to be “deviant” or “untrustworthy” (something I wrote about here; read the comment section at your own peril…), which is a harmful stereotype, and often as a plot device too. So while I wouldn’t say that I’m blazing a trail here or anything, readers often tell me how much they like the fact that Roxane’s bisexuality is organic, it’s just part of her character, not a defining element of the story or a gimmick—that’s just what she is. Hearing readers respond to that in such a positive way is the absolute best.
MT: Speaking of queer writers, who are your favorite authors who fall into the LGBTQIA spectrum? I—as I’m sure my readers would, as well—would love to receive some fantastic recommendations for other books like your own.
KL: I adore the Dave Brandstetter series by Joseph Hansen, which was a total trailblazer when it was first published, nearly 50 years ago. I also enjoy Michael Nava, Ellen Hart, Katherine V. Forrest, Nikki Baker. Those are all mystery authors. As far as non-mystery, I adore Carol Anshaw and Stacey D’Erasmo, and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties blew me away this year.
MT: The tense, racially charge narrative of the first book (which I zoomed right through) is also very relevant today. What sources did you draw from in order to write such an incredibly layered novel? How did you decide this is what I want my first Roxane novel to be about?
KL: Well, the storyline in The Last Place You Look is inherently Midwestern, I think. The series is set in Columbus, Ohio (where I live), which is a pretty big city that is surrounded on all sides by rural nothingness. You can be in the middle of nowhere within fifteen minutes outside of the city, which makes it a very different place than the setting of a lot of mystery novels. And it creates complicated dynamics—liberal, blue city nestled in deep-red country. I grew up in a mostly-white suburb of the city and saw firsthand the casual racism that can occur in a place like this, so that’s the backdrop to the story that I wrote.
MT: Where do you think your novels stand politically? To be more specific: who do these novels speak directly to, or do you think—given the amazing voice of Roxane, and her endless accessibility—could the Roxane books be open for all readers? I’m sure that’s what you hope for.
KL: Ooh, good question. Yes, the Roxane series could be open to all readers—but she’s a liberal, queer feminist, as am I, so her voice, and the stories I choose to write, will always have that angle. So readers who take umbrage to liberal queer feminist mysteries probably won’t find much to like here. There’s a hope that one’s novels will be sort of “timeless,” e.g. capable of bringing enjoyment and relevance in ten or twenty years from now, not just at this precise political moment, which, of course, is scary as hell. But in the new book, I did manage one low-key Trump burn (and I’m so glad no one made me take it out).
MT: I’ve talked with you on twitter, and I’ve compared you to the works of Alex Segura, Sara Gran, Laura Lippman, and Attica Locke—all of these authors I’m sure you’re honored to be compared to. I used to think Laura Lippman was one of the few writers not of color to be able to write from the perspective of people of color. After reading The Last Place You Look, it seems like I might have to make an exception for you. How do you feel about that?
KL: I think that writing from a marginalized point of view that you have not lived through is so easy to get dead wrong. I do write about characters of color, but through Roxane’s point of view. The mystery genre isn’t known for being wildly diverse, unfortunately, but we need to give writers of color the space to tell their stories, rather than attempting to tell those stories for them. But I think it’s incredibly important for ALL writers to fill their fictional worlds with diverse casts that mirror the actual world we live in—not to get “credit” for including a bunch of minority characters, but because it’s necessary for creating a believable, realistic setting, and because good representation matters.
Attica Locke, Rachel Howzell Hall, Kellye Garrett, and V.M. Burns are all women of color writing mysteries that rock, by the way.
MT: Your second book in the Roxane series, What You Want to See, starts off like a typical private investigator novel, but rapidly becomes incredibly layered and human. How are you able to separate yourself from the typical private investigator series that don’t necessarily delve into the depths of human emotions? What about Roxane is able to help you be more empathetic and release an emotional catharsis for readers?
KL: There’s some scientific evidence that women have higher “emotional intelligence” than men do, e.g. more perceptive, sensitive, intuitive, etc. Therefore I think a female private investigator should automatically approach her cases differently than a male character would. But beyond that, Roxane herself is an emotional person, and she really internalizes the emotions of people around her, too. Solving her cases isn’t just a job to her—she is fighting for her clients just as hard as they’re fighting for themselves. Women are constantly being told to “calm down,” or “don’t cry at work” or “don’t get so emotional,” which is total garbage. I think I tapped into some of my own rage about that when I created Roxane’s character. Being stoic and emotionless doesn’t equal strong.
MT: How many books do you think you’ll write featuring Roxane? Is there a set number in your mind, or do you think there are endless possibilities for Roxane? Also, where or what do you think Roxane is heading into next?
KL: Oh, I’d love to write a million Roxane mysteries—she’s so much fun. I love listening for her voice. We’re similar in a lot of ways, but she does and says things I’d never do, so I’m sort of living vicariously through her. The third book in the series, which I’m writing right now, finds her brother Andrew in a bit of trouble that, of course, turns out to be way more complicated than it first appears.
MT: What was the hardest thing to write about when dealing with Roxane and her stories? How do you decide when a certain story belongs to Roxane, and what order to tell them in?
KL: Ironic for a mystery writer, but: plots don’t come naturally to me. I always joke that I’d write an entire novel of backstory if I could. (This is not a joke. This is my truest wish!) So Roxane’s character and the people in her life come very naturally to me, but I have to work a bit harder at the plot. Something that’s unexpectedly tricky in writing a series is that I have to reintroduce the supporting characters in each book in case a reader is jumping in mid-series, but in a way that isn’t annoying and repetitive to someone who has read the previous books. As far as deciding whether a certain story belongs to Roxane: I don’t feel like it’s my decision, so much as it is hers.
MT: I find it hard to write from the position of many queer characters because I often feel I need to defend and inform people instead of just telling a story. Have you ever felt the need to defend yourself and other people like you? Has this ever gotten in the way of genuinely good storytelling?
KL: Oh, it’s tricky for a lot of reasons. One, there is no such thing as “the universal queer experience.” So my portrayal of a bi character isn’t going to automatically resonate with all bi readers. And that’s okay—there’s no one book that will be everything to everyone. I just hope that bi readers understand that, and still can enjoy the character. I try to write about Roxane’s sexual identity as naturally as possible—nothing contrived or splashy or meant to titillate—but I’ve seen a fair number of Goodreads reviews along the lines of “this book is good but I didn’t like the main character being bisexual,” which, given that it’s by no means a focus of the story, is basically like saying “I don’t like bisexual people.” Just representing queer identities on the page is huge. Because eventually, the people who write reviews like that will be used to it and they’ll barely notice the bi characters. That being said, the story is the most important thing. If something isn’t working because of some exposition about Roxane’s bisexuality, I’ll definitely try to rework it until it flows.
MT: What does the future look like for Roxane? Do you know yet what her next case might involve? I love your books, and I for one cannot wait to see what comes next so I can re-read the whole series.
KL: The third book, which is tentatively titled The Stories You Tell, starts with Roxane’s brother Andrew getting a weird, middle-of-the-night visit from a woman he dated briefly, years earlier. She knocks on his door and begs to use his phone, he lets her, and then she leaves just as quickly as she came—and that’s the last anyone hears from her. The phone call she made sends the police straight to Andrew’s door. And when the missing woman is linked to the death of an off-duty cop on the other side of the city, the tensions only increase. For readers who are still feeling wary of Catherine, Roxane’s long-time on-off girlfriend, after the ending of What You Want to See, I can tell you that a bit of wariness is healthy…
MT: How did you get your start in writing? For aspiring writers who look up to you, what advice might you give them as far as writing, publishing, and so on?
KL: I wanted to be a writer when I was a kid. Either that, or a fashion designer. I split the difference and studied graphic design in college, and got a job in corporate marketing…all the while thinking about how much I’d rather be a writer instead. But being a writer means actually WRITING stuff. I used to be terrible at finishing my stories. I had no problem starting them, but I always abandoned them before I got to the end. Then, about ten years ago, I was like, “This is stupid.” I started a novel and made myself finish it. It was terrible, but so what—it was done. I had written a novel. That sort of unlocked something in my brain. I wrote three other not-very-good novels before I finally got to Roxane Weary, but they were learning experiences, and helpful in figuring out what kind of stories I wanted to tell. So my advice to aspiring writers is: (1) drop the ‘aspiring’ part of that description—if you want to be a writer, call yourself a writer (2) then (and this is the harder part) you have to actually write. Finish what you start, even if you think it’s garbage. Everyone’s first drafts are garbage. If anyone tells you they write beautiful drafts, they’re either lying or they’re an android. Give yourself permission to write messy, get to the end, and fix it later. You can fix anything once it’s written, but you can’t fix nothing.
MT: What is your writing habit like? Are you a morning, afternoon, or night person? How many words or pages do you try and put out a day?
KL: When people ask me this I always feel like a fraud. I am a supremely undisciplined writer. I don’t write every day, or have any kind of routine or goals, other than a looming deadline and a vague sense of terror about what would happen if I ever missed it. But I write fast, and even if I’m not at my desk “writing,” I am constantly, obsessively thinking about my work in progress and ironing out the kinks of the story. When I do sit down to write, I usually do it in big chunks.
MT: What is your favorite aspect of writing, whether it be finding yourself caught up in another world or having control over something that isn’t your own life? How much of your own life do you incorporate in these books? Might we see any of you in Roxane?
KL: Writing mysteries is great fun because I get to punish the bad guy, which doesn’t always happen in real life. Another thing I love about writing is being able to explore the darker side of human nature and what makes people tick in situations of emotional intensity, which I think is really interesting. In real life, such exploration is “nosy.” But in writing, it comes with the territory. Roxane and I are similar in that we’re both bi, and she shares my sense of humor and mild cynicism, but she’s much bolder than I am. I do drink whiskey, but not nearly as much.
MT: Thank you so much for letting me interview you, Kristen. It was such a pleasure to read your work and also, I have to admit, I am biting my nails waiting for another addition to the series (hopefully I’ll even get an ARC!). You are an author wiser and more talented than your years, and I am so thankful to get the chance to pick your brain.
KL: Absolutely! You had excellent questions. I really appreciate your enthusiasm for the series (and I’ll definitely hook you up with an ARC next year).
Jennifer Finney Boylan is a prolific author of several books, including the literary mystery Long Black Veil. She works at Columbia University and is a constant advocate for trans-rights, as well as many other causes she holds close to her heart. Last year, with the publication of Long Black Veil, Ms. Boylan was interviewed by Matthew’s Canon.
Matthew Turbeville: Hello, Jennifer! I am so excited to interview you on behalf of Mathew’s Canon. I’ve talked to so many people about your thriller, Long Black Veil, and everyone seems to be as obsessed as I am. Can you tell me where the idea for this story came from?
Jennifer Finney Boylan: Several years ago, I visited Eastern State Peniteniary, the ruined prison in Philadelphia. There it sits, not far from downtown—the oldest prison in the country, originally designed by Benjamin Franklin. It stayed open until 1971. It’s a truly creepy place, and of course I immediately thought, well this would be one great place to set a mystery.
I made that trip with an old friend from high school. And so I also thought, as we walked through the remains of Eastern State—about how people change over time. And the prisons that we build for ourselves. And the lengths to which people will go to find their freedom.
MT: I find it so hard to write about queer men—I’m gay myself, and I often find that when I write from a perspective including my own, especially a people that’s historically been marginalized, I can’t seem to separate myself from my characters. I want to defend myself. How difficult was it for you to write from a perspective similar to your own? Did you have a method of distancing yourself from the novel?
JFB: I don’t try to distance myself, not really. I’m sure there are echoes of my own experience in the six or seven core characters in Long Black Veil. There’s a trans character whom I’m sure people will recognize certain parts of myself. I don’t worry about characters seeming too much like me—probably because what I hope that closeness brings is a sense of realism and urgency.
MT: I am so happy to be promoting and sharing your book with our fans at Matthew’s Canon. When you first came out as being trans, did you ever think, “There’s going to be a day where I can write about people like me, with real experiences and real problems, and people are going to love it?” I know that, what with the “It Gets Better” campaign and so on, young people often feel lost and without hope. It’s amazing what you’ve accomplished.
JFB: People react to transness in different ways, depending on where they live, and what they know. Some people find any discussion of trans identity curious and strange, like all of us just landed here from Venus. Others—especially younger people—kind of roll their eyes, like they can’t believe we have to go through Trans 101 all over again. The trick, I guess, is to bring the first group of readers along, without boring the second.
Yeah, I always hoped that I could write about trans identity in a way that treated our experience as quotidian and normal. I’m not sure that’s exactly what I do in Long Black Veil, but it’s getting closer.
MT: Speaking of young people and hope, what message do you send to young trans youth? There was one part of your novel, Long Black Veil, that refers to—and sorry if I botch your wording—telling the truth about who you really are from the beginning. Do you think this is a piece of advice you’d give trans children across the nation?
JFB: Well, it’s a thing I yearn for. I don’t know that we’re there yet. Of course I encourage everyone to live their truth, and to be brave. But there are dark pockets in this country, and around the world, and I know that for many people, coming out still means risking everything—losing family, losing jobs, being exposed to violence and homelessness. So while I want all that to change, in the meantime I encourage people to manage their transitions, to come out with a strategy for their lives and their future.
MT: What is your writing process like, and how long does it take you to put out or write out one of your novels? You seem to be quite prolific.
JFB: I have been doing this for a long time now, since I got out of Wesleyan in 1980. It takes about 5 years to write a book, and to re-write it, and to re-write it again, and to go through the whole production process of publication. Is that prolific? I’m pretty much working all the time. There are a lot of stories I want to tell.
MT: I made the mistake of reading the comments on your book—most of which are extremely positive, but there seems to be a lot of heterosexual cis white men spewing whatever they want. One comment asked why you continue to write about trans women—and yet there seems to be no one commenting on why the late John Updike wrote primarily about heterosexual cis white men. What do you think of this reviewer’s comments?
JFB: I try not to read reviews, except the good ones.
MT: Are there any queer writers you especially love? What about women writers of crime fiction? I saw that you’ve received great reviews comparing your work to the crime/literary greats like Megan Abbott.
JFB: I think my favorite trans writer is Joy Ladin, who writes about gender identity within the context of faith. And yes: Megan Abbott is spectacular.
MT: Why did you choose the Philadelphia Eastern State Penitentiary as a major setting for this novel? Was there any significance behind the setting that the reader cannot gather from reading the book alone?
JFB: (see above)
MT: What made you decide to make this a work of “crime fiction”? I ask this because it seems like every book about queer people must be a work of crime fiction, given the fact that we as a whole are not treated like human being, and the murders of trans people (especially those of color) are unfortunately high in this day and age.
JFB: I admit that I struggle with this a little bit. Because yeah, stories of trans people are often stories of crime, and I chafe against the cliché of us always being on the receiving end of violence. At the same time, that’s often the reality of our lives.
MT: What books inspired Long Black Veil? What about music, movies, television shows, or real people?
JFB: I’m not sure there was a direct influence—although I can tell you that my two favorite writers are Jennifer Egan, of A Visit From the Goon Squad, and George Saunders, of Lincoln in the Bardo. I love their inventiveness and their weird optimism, even within this terrible world.
MT: Long Black Veil has been both a critical and, in some ways, commercial success. Do you think there’s more of a market for books featuring queer characters? And how do you think this book can help people—anyone, really—in this strongly negative and sometimes extremely dangerous political climate?
JFB: Well, each of the characters in Long Black Veil is searching for something—many of them have arrived in middle age never quite having become themselves. By the end, some of them find what they’re looking for, and some do not. I am hoping that readers will find in these characters models for different kinds of lives to live—and the ones who find their joy are generally the ones who take the risk to live their lives with authenticity and love—even though those risks often come at great cost. This is true for everybody, but it’s especially true for queer readers now. What can any of us do except try to live our lives with courage and love, in the face of the darkness we now all face? If you want to refute the forces of evil, what else can you do but refute them with the truth of your life, by getting up every day and walking through the world with your head held high? They hate it when you’re not afraid. It drives them nuts.
MT: What was your favorite thing about writing this book? What was your least favorite thing? What is your writing process like, beginning to end? Are you a morning person or night writer for example? How many drafts did Long Black Veil go through on its way to becoming the book it is now?
JFB: I write in the morning, when the residue of the dream world is still clinging to me. And as the coffee kicks in. I try to write every day when I have a project going on—from about 9:30 AM to noon is “magic hour.” I think LBV went through a dozen drafts or so. It started to cohere around the fourth or fifth draft. But the detective trying to solve the case didn’t join the book until late—although he’s not much of a detective. In the end, the reader’s found the solution long before he does. What the detective finds out is not the solution to the crime, but a solution to his own life.
My favorite moment in the book is toward the end, when the cast has re-assembled at Eastern State during a time when they’re having a costume party event there, and people can’t tell the people who are only pretending to be in danger from the ones who actually are. There’s also a scene with a fake electric chair I’m rather fond of.
MT: What advice would you begin with in helping beginning writers? Is there anything you’d encourage them to do, or something you advise against?
JFB: Work all the time, and lower your standards. The first draft is supposed to suck. The trick is not learning how to write—if you just keep typing, you always come up with something. The trick is learning how to re-write. How do you read your work critically? How do you keep what you like in the subsequent drafts while fixing the problems? I think you need to write all the time, preferably at the same time every day, with no exceptions. Set a quota for yourself—whether that’s 1000 words a day or three hours at the desk, or whatever works for you. But always work. Just because you don’t strike oil one day doesn’t mean you’re not a good writer. That just means it wasn’t your day. Next day, get back to work. Refuse to die.
MT: What book is up for you next? What book is your dream book to write? Will you continue with crime fiction, or move on to something else?
JFB: I have a couple things in the works right now, one of which is kind of a memoir of masculinity. I want to write about the disappeared country of manhood the way you’d write about a place where you were born and then left, in hopes of a better life. I’ve been living here in Girl-land for twenty years now, about a third of my life, but who I am was still shaped by my years in Boyland. I’m like an emigrant of gender. I have my green card as a woman, and I love the land in which I now live as a naturalized citizen. But I will always speak with something of an accent, and now and again, I will remember the green hills of the place where I began. I’m so glad I’m not there any more—in Ireland, they call those years of deprivation The Great Hunger—which is how I think of my days pre-transition. And yet, I did live there. I would like to write about this, probably in memoir form.
MT: Thank you so much, Ms. Boylan, for agreeing to be interviewed by me. Your work is astounding, and I believe it will continue to make great changes for the people who need it, just like your previous work has done. You are a phenomenal writer, and I believe it would be utterly heartbreaking for anyone to miss reading your work. I am looking forward to reading whatever you write next, and am so thankful to get to know you.
JFB: You’re very kind, and I thank you. Get yer Veil on!