WRITERS TELL ALL
"That Dog Can Hunt!": S.A. Cosby on Expanding Characters, Minorities and Crime Writing, and the Paths We Choose
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Shawn! I really loved My Darkest Prayer, and with Blacktop Wasteland, your newest book, you’ve really shown more of your skills, taking this popular storyline—a poor younger man with a tragic background is an amazing driver and becomes involved in crime—and you help reinvent the story and add to it in so many ways. How did this book idea come about, and why do you think so many people will relate to it and love it with a book like Drive and movies like Baby Driver? How do you think being a black man in America complicates the narrative, drives it forward, and brings it to new heights?
S.A. Cosby: First thanks for having me. The idea for this book began as a short story that was published in the last issue of ThugLit ( shout out to Todd Robinson). The main character in that short story refused to go gently into that good night after I finished writing the tale. Eventually I decided I wanted to know more about him and that idea eventually became Blacktop Wasteland. I grew up in a small town in Virginia with limited entertainment options. Most times we ended up drinking cheap liquor, hanging out at a bonfire and souping up our rolling wrecks. Cars and the freedom they represent have always been a huge part of my life. My cousin used to take me with him to illegal street races where his Maverick would blow the doors off everyone else. I wanted to recreate the visceral thrill of doing 0 to 90 down a quarter mile.
I think being a black man in America doesn't so much complicate that narrative as gives me an opportunity to expand it. I can explore areas in my story that are often ignored.
MT: The protagonist in your new novel, Beauregard, is no stranger to crime, but he’s also got this amazing mystery, along with several other characters and their points of view at play. How hard was it to wrestle different points of view, timelines, and storylines in this tour de force novel?
SAC: Its challenging because I wanted to create a tight narrative with one POV but other characters wanted their time in the limelight. In the end I tried to give them strong supporting roles but i did my best to keep the main camera on Bug. In the end it’s his story but the other characters are like threads in a tapestry. they help to complete the picture.
MT: What books and movies do you feel inspired this? What books were your formative books, the ones that shaped you most, and what are your favorites now? What about authors? What authors and books really deserve more attention than they’ve been receiving?
SAC: As far as movies that may have inspired me one of the most important ones was HEll OR HIGHWATER. The way it talks about poverty and how it affects generations really struck a nerve with me. That being said it was still the story of two poor white men and in America there is a wide chasm between being poor and white and being poor and black. I wanted to tackle some of the same themes HOHW did but through the eyes of the people I knew and loved growing up back in my small town. Another film that really inspired me was Greased LIghtning The Wendell Scott story. Not so much narratively but because it told the story of the first black NASCAR driver in history. It talked about the hope and dreams of rural black Americans. As far as books I studied the modern masters. Walter Mosely, Dennis Lehane, Gillian Flynn , Daniel Woddrell, Ernest J Gaines, Zora Neal Hurston and so many more. My reading tastes are varied but I love stories that examine the dichotomy between who we are and who we think we are.
Right now I’m reading a couple of really good books. I’m reading Where The Light Tends to Go by David Joy. It’s truly a moving and lyrical book . I’m alternating between that and Chuck Hogan Prince of Thieves. But I tell you the writers that i look up to , the ones that are really pushing the definition of what crime fiction can be are Legion. Eryk Pruitt, Kelly J Ford, Kellye Garrett, Angel Luis Colon John Vercher, Jennifer HIllier Donald Ray Pollock ...these are just some of the writers that I look at and shake my head with wonder and awe at what they are able to achieve with the same 26 letters in the alphabet that are in front of me.
MT: There are so many tragic elements that come to play in the novel, dealing with so many different stories—all somehow connected to Beauregard. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, although we do know his father isn’t in the picture from the novel’s beginning. Can you talk to us about what role tragedy and intense traumatic events play in this novel, and how that might translate into real life and your worldview?
SAC: A lot of my work uses pain as a central motivator because pain is universal. Whether it's physical or emotional we all understand pain. Like REM said Everybody hurts. So when I write I tend to create stories that are centered about pain and our responses to it. How it shapes up and molds us even as we try to move through it and get over it. I think it’s the one thing that crosses all the cliched boundaries and hierarchies.
MT: At some point in the novel, the criminal becomes the victim—again, I don’t want to go into spoiler territory, but it’s so interesting how we think this will be a normal heist novel, but that’s barely half of Beauregard’s story (if that much—really barely half of what we see). Can you talk to us about repercussions, consequences, and how that’s played a part throughout the lives of Beauregard, his father, and other characters in the novel?
SAC: Well its all about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons right? We are all recipients of an emotional inheritance. If you are lucky it’s one of growth and maturity. But for a lot of people we end up paying for the mistakes of our fathers and mothers. Our forefathers sometimes inure debts that come due on our watch. How we deal with those repercussions reveals our true character.
MT: Who do you feel is the real victim in the novel? Do you feel there are clearly defined roles, both in real life and in great fiction, including your own? What makes a character like Beauregard relatable and lovable despite planning and executing crimes, and what do you think is the appeal of the criminal world and dark side of people to readers?
SAC: I think everyone in the book is a victim to a certain degree but they also have varying degrees of agency. I think , or rather i hope readers are drawn to Beauregard because he is a fully realized complex character with a multitude of layers. Ultimately this is what the book is about. Can you be “ two types of beasts.” ? Or do you have to choose a path and follow it to the exclusion of all other roads? I don’t know if the book answers that question but i really enjoyed asking it.
MT: You’ve written really different novels—so very different—and also so very wonderful. What do you feel, when creating these incredibly diverse novels, is the most important aspect of writing? What really puts your writing above the rest, and ensures that this book will count, this book will be different, and this book will matter? What is most important to you?
SAC: I don’t if I think my books are that much better than anyone else’s but I will say I do my level best to tell an engaging story. No one is gonna care about your metaphors and symbolism if the story is boring. The story is everything. It’s the motor that drives the car. Whether the car is a hoopty or a boss high toned work of art depends on the individual writer but I try to make sure you are never bored reading one of my books.
MT: Diversity in crime fiction has come a long way (with writers of color, different sexes, sexualities, etc) but it’s also got a long way to go. You touch on a lot of hard and important points about being marginalized in America—not just about race—but why do you think that of all genres, crime fiction, mysteries, thrillers, etc, are the books that allow room for growth? Do you think anything we’ve talked about so far comes into play?
SAC: Because the desperation of living on the margins is tailor made for crime novels. The feeling of looking down the barrel of an electric that has to be paid or a medical procedure that you can’t afford lends itself to tales about our darker impulses. I like to say some novels that people would classify as “literary” like to do a lot of talking about how miserable their characters are. Crime novels have their characters do something about it. Now what they do may not be the best solution but by acting , by moving they determine their fate. As a black man growing up in the South so much of my life for so long was determined by someone else. Taking that power back is at the heart of a lot of crime novels regardless of the color of the protagonist but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I yearn to tell the stories of my people where we are sidekicks or magical wisdom spouting caricatures. Where we determine our fate even if its tragic.
MT: When you write, who do you write for? Yourself, a certain type of reader, critics? Do you think writing for different types of readers, or for yourself, affects how you write, and changes your writing?
SAC: I guess if I’m being honest I write for myself first. If I’m not into the story I’m not gonna finish writing it. But as I grow as a writer I do seek to write for a broader audience but in the beginning it’s for me. I gotta have fun with it. The thing about being a writer is that its such a solitary endeavour. It’s you and the computer or notebook and no one else. It’s like telling a nine month long joke then waiting a year to see if anyone laughs. You have to trust your instincts. You have to believe no matter how hard it get that you’re on the write track.
MT: When you were going through the writing process for this novel, what was it like? How many drafts did you complete and how many times did you have to go through revisions, story edits, anything? Can you give us a peek inside your creative process?
SAC: i think the main thing i want people to take from Blacktop Wasteland is an understanding of how hard it is to be the person you tell yourself you should be when the whole world seems to be telling you that you can’t.
MT: I know that I, for one, am dying to know what you’ll be releasing next. Can you tell us what book you’re working on now, or what your current work in progress is? I know that if they aren’t already hungry for more, fans will be ready after Blacktop Wasteland’s release for another S.A. Cosby novel.
SAC: I’m working on a rural revenge novel tentatively titled Razorblade Tears. its about two fathers one black one white both ex cons who seek revenge for their gay sons who were murdered in what at first appears to be a hate crime. As they seek revenge and learn to coexist they also seek redemption for not accepting their sons and their sexuality. it’s also violent as hell. LOL
MT: Thank you so much for talking with me, Shawn. I really loved reading your book, and I really loved getting to know Beauregard and really everyone in the novel. It was a joy getting to ask you these questions. Feel free to leave us with any lingering questions, thoughts, feelings, or anything else, and I really look forward to fans getting to know your book so well. I’m so excited for its release.
SAC: I just want to thank you for giving me the chance to talk about Blacktop Wasteland. I’m proud of the book. As Bug would say I think “that dog can hunt!”
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Susan! I’m so excited to talk about your upcoming novel, The Silence. Before we begin talking about the novel, would you mind telling me a little about how you got into writing, and how hard it was to sell your first book? What were some obstacles you faced, and which were the toughest? Did you ever almost give up on writing all together?
Susan Allott: Hi Matthew! I started writing The Silencethe year I turned 40, which was also the year my youngest child started school. I’d been trying to write before that, and had always wanted to write a novel, but it was the peace of the empty house that allowed me to finally get started. The obstacles included trying to keep going with the book during those busy years when I was working part time and raising my kids. Writing requires you to be selfish, to forget about everyone and everything apart from your fictional world, for long stretches of time. Sometimes it’s hard to justify that, especially when you doubt you’ll ever be published.
I never wanted to give up on writing altogether, but I came close to giving up on The Silence once or twice! It’s the first novel I wrote, as well as my first published novel, and I taught myself to write with this book, making all sorts of mistakes in the process. It took me 7 years to write The Silence,and I guess all the hard work paid off because when my agent submitted the manuscript to publishers we had interest from Harper Collins within 24 hours, and they went on the buy the book.
MT: Will you tell our readers about The Silence—a novel about multiple crimes, even though you manage to stick to a phenomenal story with so few characters? What inspired this story, and how did you come about developing this novel in its complex, emotionally riveting, expertly spun form?
SA: The Silenceis about the investigation of a missing person which brings all sorts of secrets to the surface; family secrets but wider historical ones too, all of which have been hidden in plain sight for a long time. The novel was inspired by my failure to immigrate to Australia in the nineties. I left and went back to London, and promptly fell in love with an Australian man who I went on to marry! So the Australian setting came out of those experiences. It felt sometimes like Australia was forcing me to make my peace with it, like it wouldn’t let me go.
I’d written several chapters of The Silence, and had a whole cast of characters, when I read a book called Australia, the History of a Nationby Philip Knightley. He mentions a policeman living in Victoria, a southern Australian state, who gets home from work and cries on his veranda because part of his job is to remove Aboriginal children from their families and take them to state institutions. I already knew about the Stolen Generation but hadn’t thought of writing about it. But this policeman and his personal conflict felt like a way in. I wanted to know how someone would cope with realizing that something they believed to be right was in fact wrong, and had caused untold pain. It also helped me to develop the theme I was already tackling, about the enormous pull of home.
MT: What was it like writing from not just multiple points of view, but multiple timelines and managing to keep the mystery alive and the tension high? You do everything so expertly, and I was amazed at how despite jumping around to different decades and people, I was glued to the book. That takes real talent.
SA: Thank you! I wrote the 1967 timeline first, and for a long time I thought it would all be set in that time period. It dawned on me quite late in the day that I needed the 1997 timeline to give the book the mystery and suspense I wanted. When I came to write Isla as a 35-year-old I found that I knew her already, because I knew her so well as a child. I knew all her formative experiences. So it all came together at that point.
I used a program called Scrivener to plan out the book, and I think I’d have been quite lost without it. It helped me to manage all the different points of view and fit the 1997 chapters around the 1967 ones. It also allowed me to move chapters around so the reveals came in at the right place, and to make sure the timelines were balanced correctly.
MT: While set in multiple places outside of the U.S., what do you think U.S. citizens could learn from The Silence? I imagine a lot of people may read the book and finish feeling they understand the world in different ways, or are at least thinking about the world when the book was set and now in different lights.
SA: I think a lot of the themes inThe Silenceare universal. The characters are all trying (with varying degrees of success) to manage the good and bad in themselves, learning how to face up to their flaws; these things aren’t country-specific.
But quite a few reviewers outside of Australia have commented that they didn’t know about the Stolen Generation and they were shocked that it happened at all, and that it continued right through the 1960s. I think there’s a commonly-held idea of Australia as a country blessed with good weather and space and abundance, where the common man can have a high standard of living and enjoy the great outdoors. But there is a much darker side to Australian history, which is inextricably linked to the legacy of British invasion and colonial influence. I think it’s an interesting aspect of history and it provides a good backdrop to a story about shameful secrets.
A few U.S. reviewers have also commented that there are some parallels with the way native Americans were treated by white settlers, so I think there’s a lot for U.S. readers to connect with and reflect on.
MT: You did not set the book in today’s world, but instead in many other different time periods, from the late 60s and 90s mostly. Were you able to remember or know enough about these times in order to write about them successfully, or did you ever have to research to get a particular fact or issue with the story straight?
SA: The 1960s timeline needed a lot of research as I wasn’t born then, but luckily there’s a lot of material to draw on and I was able to find a large number of books, films and images from that period. I also went back to Australia a few times to visit my in-laws and took dozens of photos and visited places that were significant to the book. My husband’s paternal grandparents immigrated to Australia in the 1950s so the family history was quite helpful.
In comparison the 1990s timeline was much easier as I lived in Sydney for a while in the ‘90s and had some strong memories of that time. But I still had to research things like what an Australian police uniform looks like, for example. I spent a lot of time on google earth mapping out the route from Sydney to Ropes Crossing; things like that. And I had it all checked by several Australian readers too, including an Aboriginal man based in New South Wales who gave it his approval.
Easily the most important source while writing The Silencewas the National Library of Australia oral history project, where Aboriginal people who were removed as kids, or whose family members were removed, talk about that experience. There are hundreds of recordings and I listened to some of them several times.
MT: Is it ever hard to kill off a character, or give a character a particularly unfortunate ending, history, etc.?
SA: There were a couple of scenes that I found hard to write. I knew what I needed to happen so I wrote those scenes relatively quickly with the help of some strong coffee which, combined with what I was writing, made my heart pound! I did go back and edit those scenes but actually they didn’t need too much revision. I think it’s important to let bad things happen to characters sometimes, if that serves the story. A few reviewers have said there’s a particular scene that made them cry and I’m quite proud of that.
MT: Did you always know the solution to the mystery, or the end of the novel? If not, when did the answers present themselves to you?
SA: I didn’t know the solution to the mystery from the outset. I allowed myself to be open minded about it, and for a while there were a few possible outcomes in my mind. Once I’d made my mind up I was able to steer everything in that direction. The reader has come a long way with these characters by the time they get to the closing chapters, and I wanted them to have a rewarding finale. An ending needs to answer the questions that the book sets up at the outset, to hold some surprises but also to have a sense of inevitability to it, so the reader thinks, ‘of course!’
I re-wrote the ending a few times, without changing anything from a plot perspective, but just trying to get the pace right. I wanted the ‘what happened to Mandy?’ question to be resolved at the same time as the questions Isla needs to answer about her family and herself, and I needed Isla to figure it all out in a way that held the tension between what she knows and what the reader knows. I was still re-writing those chapters in the very final round of edits with my publisher.
MT: Other than books, are there major things which influence your writing? How do you write or edit to avoid being influenced by these issues, or to rewrite scenes or whole chapters, etc., to keep the book flowing seamlessly?
SA: I don’t really have a problem being influenced by external things. It’s good to be inspired by books, movies, music and so on, but once I sit down to write I can usually trick myself into believing nobody else exists (not even me). I do it by absorbing myself in my fictional world, and the deeper I get into that world the easier it is.
The thing I found very difficult was the transition I had to make once I knew my book was going to be published. There was a period of about a fortnight during the first round of edits with my publisher, where I was totally frozen with fear and self-consciousness. I couldn’t get myself into that zone of believing entirely in the world of my book. I kept thinking ‘what will my dad / friend / sister think of this?’ It was awful! I got through it by going to a friend’s house and editing for a day in a new location. It got me into a different mindset, just by physically leaving my kitchen table. It got gradually easier after that.
MT: What was your worst fear and greatest hope when writing the book? Did you write for yourself, something you knew you would like, or were you ever pressured to write something you, your agent, your editor, etc. might think would sell? I know it’s a tough question, but would you mind talking about the two, and which might be harder for you or other writers?
SA: I did write for myself, and focused on trying to write the kind of book I was always looking for as a reader, which I could only describe as ‘a well-written page-turner.’ By which I meant a good plot andgood prose. I love literary fiction, but it does frustrate me when nothing happens at all for pages and pages, with no suspense or jeopardy. And I do sometimes find that plot-driven books lack the quality of prose that I love. So I wanted to write something that brought those two things together.
Luckily the kind of book I love to read turned out to be the kind of book that sells, so I didn’t have that conflict between what I wanted to write and what my agent / editor wanted. I don’t know what I’d have done if they’d wanted me to change the book in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with. It was always just a matter of bringing out the potential of the book, and I agreed with everything they suggested.
Regarding my hopes and fears. For such a long time all I dreamed of was to get an agent! It’s so hard to get an agent that for years I honestly couldn’t imagine anything beyond that goal. Now that I’m on the brink of publication I guess my dream is that I’ll get reviewed favorably and that readers will connect with it. My fear, conversely, is that it will sink without trace. Publishing into a pandemic is unchartered water so that fear isn’t without substance.
MT: Which character did you identify with most? I know you’ve had experience living in many places, correct? Did you feel the same sort of disconnect a lot of the characters felt when writing the book, a displacement, along with the feeling some characters have of not being able to return home again?
SA: The character I started with was Louisa, Isla’s mother, who is a British woman living in Australia, suffering terrible homesickness and unable to convince her husband that they should return home. I identified with that, having gone through something similar myself, and in the early drafts Louisa’s story was more central to the book. I came to the conclusion in the end that Louisa wasn’t working as a Point of View character, perhaps because she had too much of me in her. My most convincing characters are the ones who are less like me; I imagine them more fully.
Having said that, I think they all have a bit of me in them. I loved writing the chapters where Isla returns to Sydney after ten years in London, because I was able to describe the culture shock that I’d experienced myself as a Londoner in Sydney, feeling that my clothes and my temperament weren’t suited to this bright, upbeat city that was so incredibly far from home.
MT: What inspired you to keep writing the most? When you were having a bad day, writer’s block maybe, or just felt you were done, what kept you going? What is your writing process like generally? Are you a morning, afternoon, evening, night writer? Do you mind letting us in a little on your craft—and, hopefully, some secrets?
SA: I did quite a few creative writing courses and retreats over the years, and they were amazingly helpful for my confidence as well as for my writing. A good teacher or fellow writer telling you that your work is good is such a tonic. I have some good writer friends who I met along the way and we keep each other going.
I’m definitely a morning writer. I don’t have my usual routine at the moment because we’re in lockdown, which is a challenge, but usually I start work once everyone’s left the house, drink a gallon of tea, and don’t look up until they get home. On a good day I’ve forgotten to eat or get dressed. On a bad day the house is clean and I’ve made a casserole.
MT: If you have writer’s block or a bad day, who are the authors or what are the books you turn to in order to inspire you? What are the books which defined you most growing up, during your formative years, and as a writer?
SA: I’ve always been a big reader, and I studied English Literature at University, but I didn’t discover the books that got me writing until I was in my late twenties. My most re-read book is Behind the Scenes at the Museumby Kate Atkinson. I remember when she won the Whitbread prize (now the Costa) in 1996 and I thought, maybe it is possible for someone like me to do something like that. I didn’t gather the courage to try for a few more years, but it stayed with me. I was also inspired and influenced by Gillian Flynn’s early books, especially Sharp Objects. And The Slapby Christos Tsiolkas, which I admire for his incredible empathy, his skill at getting under a character’s skin. Beyond that, I devoured everything by Tim Winton when I was writing The Silence, because of his genius use of the Australian vernacular and the incredible sense of place in all his books. I was just starting to write about Australia when I discovered his writing and it was a huge inspiration.
MT: What do you feel is the most important trick to writing a mystery other people haven’t figured out yet, or perhaps may not know of? What are the mystery novels which have particularly blown you away, and what do you think made them so interesting and well done? Do you think you need a complex plot to write a great crime novel?
SA: I think the most important things with a mystery are atmosphere and pace. It should feel totally immersive. Certain questions need to be dropped in at the start and resolved slowly. You have to unwind the plot, dropping hints that are subtle but not too subtle. And I do think a mystery needs strong characters as the pace won’t be as fast as a thriller; we need to spend a bit more time with these people so we really care about their world and the questions the plot is building up around them.
I’ve already mentioned her but I think Kate Atkinson writes superb mysteries and she knows how to layer her plot, giving us depth as well as momentum. I also have a soft spot for Barbara Vine, which is Ruth Rendell writing under a pseudonym. A Fatal Inversionis possibly my favorite of hers. And I loved Elizabeth is Missingby Emma Healey, which was made into a brilliant TV drama starring Glenda Jackson. Personally I don’t need a complex plot, in fact simplicity can be very striking. But I do need to be compelled to keep turning the pages, and a pervasive sense of unease.
MT: Can you give us any clues as to if you have a work-in-progress, and what it might be about? This is such a great novel, and I imagine people cannot wait to see how you follow it up!
SA: My current work-in-progress is a spooky mystery set in London about a young couple whose house renovations unsettle the history of a building, unlocking a pocket of time that starts to bleed into the present. They need to stop history repeating itself if they want to avoid the fate of the previous inhabitants. I’m enjoying writing about my own local area this time around – no need for google earth! – but it’s just as challenging as writing about the other side of the planet in many ways!
MT: Thank you so much for letting me interview you, Susan. I loved The Silenceso much. It’s sure to be a hit, and I encourage all of our readers to preorder the novel immediately. The book sucked me in. Please feel free to leave any lingering thoughts or questions you have, or anything you might want to say to the readers. Thank you again. It was such a pleasure reading your work!
SA: It’s been a pleasure for me too! I’m very excited to be published in north America. I hope you all enjoy the book! If you want to be kept up to date you could sign up for my newsletter on my website: www.susanallott.com
Kimberly McCreight (A GOOD MARRIAGE) is a damn fine writer with incredible talent, taste in books, and all the right answers!
Matthew Turbeville:Hi Kim! It’s so nice to talk to you about your new blockbuster of a novel, A Good Marriage. I devoured the book—it was amazing, and I highly encourage everyone reading this to buy a copy.
Can you tell us a little about the background of the novel, and your writing career? How did you become a writer, and how hard was it to get your foot in the door to publish your first novel?
Kimberly McCreight:A Good Marriageis set in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and takes place over a week in the summer when most of the kids are at sleepaway camp and their parents are gearing up for the event of the summer—an adults-only party with a sexually adventurous side. The party has always just been in good fun. Until this year, when a woman turns up dead afterward. When her husband is accused, he calls on an old law school classmate for help. Lizzie, the lawyer, is an outsider to Park Slope, and as she’s drawn into the neighborhood she quickly realizes that neither her friend nor his wife were who they appeared to be. But then neither is Lizzie’s own husband. Part domestic suspense, part legal thriller, A Good Marriage is also a genuine exploration of what it means to sustain a marriage over time—the secrets couples keep and the compromises they make in order to stay together—whatever the cost.
As for getting published, like a lot of writers, my road to publication was pretty long and awfully dark. It took me 10-plus years, four unpublished novels, and three agents to sell my debut novel, Reconstructing Amelia. And, no, it was not easy not to lose hope in the face of so much rejection.
MT:What is your writing process like? Are you a morning/evening/night writer? Do you have any strange practices or methods in writing, and would you mind sharing them with us? What about revision? Do you love it or hate it?
KM:I write every day, regular work hours, usually 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Of course, depending on the day, some of that time is spent on administrative tasks. I think the biggest quirk to my writing habits is how rigid they are and how many hours I write every day. To be clear, this isn’t because I am better than other writers—I am just slow. Or, rather, my process is. It can take me a dozen drafts to get to a version of the book that can be handed in to my editor. As for revision, my opinion of revision varies depending on what kind of revision you are referring to. For me, the hardest stage of revision is getting from the free-wheeling, book-length extended outline I create first to some semblance of a real first draft. That’s where the real heavy lifting is. It’s also the place where I’m most often convinced I may not pull it off. The later stages of revision are a lot easier, and more fun—when you’re just going in to make surgical changes.
MT:You’re also a lawyer. Another author I admire who’s a great lawyer is the amazing and wonderful Alafair Burke (shoutout to Alafair, my friend). Outside of actually knowing the law, what do you think you bring to writing through being a lawyer, and is there anything you get out of writing for practicing law?
KM:I love Alafair! She’s such a fantastic writer (and a really nice person)—her plotting and character development are equally deft and always so perfectly balanced. Her books are all fabulous, but I especially loved The Ex andThe Wife!
A Good Marriage is part legal thriller, so being an attorney was directly relevant. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to write A Good Marriagewithout having gone to law school. But I was a corporate litigator, so I had only basic knowledge of criminal law. But at least I knew what I didn’t know. From there, I consulted a lot of experts to fill in the blanks.
More broadly, my law school training always helps me with structure and story, particularly because I write mysteries. What you learn in law school is to anticipate the opposing argument and solve against it. It’s similar to the misdirection required of a mystery—you have to anticipate how the reader will interpret certain facts and craft your red herrings accordingly.
MT:I love how you use transcripts and other ways of telling the story, including multiple points of view, to increase suspense and dread, and draw the reader forward. Were these parts included in the first draft of the novel? How did you decide to use multiple ways of telling the story, and how did you choose how to tell what?
KM:Every adult novel I’ve written has been from different narrative points of view, often different timeframes, and includes several different non-narrative elements. It’s just the way I see a story. And, believe it or not, there were even moreof these elements in early drafts of A Good Marriage! In the end it was way too complicated—my terrific editor, Jennifer Barth, was right about that. I ended up paring down the different elements, combining some and ultimately discarding others. The goal, of course, is to have those elements add suspense but not bog down the narrative. It’s a very tricky balance that you really need outside insight to get right. I was lucky to have the help of my amazing editor and wonderful agent, Dorian Karchmar, in getting the book there.
MT:When you write about a lawyer, do you ever feel you’re projecting any parts of yourself onto her character? What about the other characters, including the initial victim in the novel and the male characters? Do any of them seem to have a lot in common with you?
KM:For sure I have a lot in common with Lizzie, the main character in A Good Marriage. As a result, she was the hardest character to write. I had to work hard to separate her from me so that she could have a unique and fully developed personality of her own. But I share something in common with almost every one of the major characters. Without some connection, it’s hard to render characters in a believable way.
MT:There are amazing twists throughout the novel, including some pretty huge twists at the end. Did you start the novel with the ending in mind, or knowing the twists, or did the twists come as you wrote them?
KM:Well, first off, thank you! And I usually know the “who done it” or at least the “who didn’t do it” at the very beginning—because that does help to ground the spine of the story and it’s usually inextricably linked to the major themes. But in many ways “who did it” is much less interesting to me than the “why it happened.” The many twists and turns that get the reader to understand why are most definitely things I figure out along the way. Often those small plot discoveries end up being some of the most satisfying twists.
MT:A lot of thrillers depend on constant murders, bodies showing up, etc., to prove the writer can leave the reader in suspense and wonder. You use different techniques—would you mind talking about how you create conflict in the novel between multiple characters, and what’s necessary to keep the reader hooked?
KM:To me the greatest mystery in life is whypeople do the things they do—yes, including acts of physical brutality. But so much violence done between people never leaves a physical mark. I’m drawn to understanding why people hurt one another, but, more importantly, how they find the strength to keep on loving others despite that. In my books, the good and bad of all that often takes place between several different characters. Again, these aren’t things I work out in advance. Rather, they develop organically from the characters.
MT:What do you hope readers take away from this book?
KM:That a good marriage isn’t just one thing. It can, and does, mean different things to different people. And that’s okay.
MT:Are you working on anything new? A new work-in-progress you can maybe hint about to our readers? We’re dying to know what’s coming next. A Good Marriage was so fantastic, and I know that I for one cannot wait for your next book.
KM:Thank you! Yes, I am hard at work on my next book. Still first-draft territory, which means that terrible heavy lifting of first-round editing still lies ahead of me, unfortunately. But the fact that I love my work-in-progress anyway says something. My new book is about a group of college friends with a troubled past who reunite to head upstate from New York City for the weekend. While there, violence erupts, and soon the question becomes where the real threat lies—with the less-than-welcoming locals, or maybe somewhere much closer to home.
MT:Thank you so much for speaking with us at Writers Tell All. We loved your book so much and are glad we got to pick your brain for a moment. We can’t wait for whatever you release next. Please leave us with any lingering thoughts, ideas, or objections, and thank you again, Kim. The book was a total thrill ride and I promise readers it’s worth every cent.
KM:It was such great fun! It’s always a treat to talk with people who read the same book you wrote. And you asked the absolute best questions. Thanks for having me!