WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Alison! I know you’re more than aware, but you’re one of my absolute favorite authors. The first book I read of yours was the brilliant, possibly flawless What Remains of Me, and I followed that with your series starring the wonderful investigator Brenna Spector. Do you mind talking about the evolution of your writing career? Other than brilliance and hard work, what strategies, choices, or leaps of faith did you make when climbing toward the top of the crime fiction community?
Alison Gaylin: Thank you for the kind words! As far as my evolution goes, I’ve made no conscious choices other than to keep trying new things, structurally, character-wise, and just in terms of the stories I tell. I try to do something different with each book, which is one of the reasons I moved form series to standalones (and may easily go back to series again). If I keep from boring myself, I have less of a chance of boring readers.
MT: Since your last novel and Never Look Back, a lot has changed. Can you tell us what recent events or issues with politics, the world, anything has helped shape how you view writing fiction and if you think the past few years has really changed you as a novelist, or on the other hand kept you grounded in your own ideas, craft, and genius?
AG: I try to escape from the real world when writing my books, but it can’t help but seep in there, can it? It’s very hard to say, but I think that especially crime novelists find that their work is deeply influenced by political and societal change, whether they want it to be or not.
MT: Your last novel was If I Die Tonight, which I feel was one of the best examples of using technology to execute a great mystery, the best since Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell, and probably before that. You’re written a really great Hollywood novel, one of the best as I’ve mentioned, and the sense of nostalgia and place is almost overwhelming. When you began writing Never Look Back, did you ask yourself if you were going to try and meet the two books in the middle? What did you decide your finished product would be like?
AG: I didn’t plan that, actually! As far as the modern technology aspect goes, I am a huge fan of true crime podcasts, and am fascinated by the role that the hosts play — they’re often much more intimate explorations of an event than straight-up journalism, with the hosts either having a direct relation to the crime, or finding themselves changed by the reporting of it. So I wanted to write a podcast host as a character. And while I do go back to a Southern California of roughly the same time period as What Remains of Me, it’s the Inland Empire, which is about as far from Hollywood as you can get.
MT: In part, the novel’s description reminded me of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, and while they are both so incredibly brilliant, they couldn’t be more different. What do you think is the importance in how you tell as a story, and what about the story itself? With readers finishing one of your novels, what do you want each reader to take away from the book, and what sort of experience do you want the reader to have?
AG: I think I just want to tell a good story that readers can get involved with. I like to surprise readers, because I like books that surprise me. That said, you certainly can’t please every reader. I think the best way to go about writing a book is to just tell the story that you want to tell, and in the best way you can.
MT: In a review of Never Look Back, I wrote the novel did, in part, remind me of Hitchcock’s adaptation of Psycho, and then from there the way Scream in the most meta of senses mimics the film’s opening scenes. When you were writing Never Look Back, did you map out the entire novel or did you let things happen as they came along? Were there major changes in the book when you went through rewriting and revision?
AG: There were some big structural changes I made in the rewrite. Initially, I’d started the modern scenes from Robin’s point of view, and then flashed back to Quentin. But it’s really such a complicated story, which goes back and forth between 1976 (in April’s letters) and today, that I found it made things clearer to just tell the modern scenes linearly. That meant starting with Quentin. And as a result, Quentin became a much more prominent and complicated character.
MT: I know that, even if I didn’t recognize these events at the time, there are times and places and stories from my life which have changed my life so incredibly. They have also changed my writing. The blessed Megan Abbott dragged me into the writing community and I was taken under your wing, among some other really phenomenal women writers. Do you feel any specific events have changed the way you write, why you write, and what you write about?
AG: I find that my writing has changed simply because I’ve gotten older and had more life experiences. From when I was very young, I’ve written about the things that frighten me. But while those things used to be more over-the-top (serial killers, etc.) they now have to do with more grounded and “real” fears — not knowing loved ones as well as you thought you did, losing those you love most — basically tragedies that are more within the realm of possibility.
MT: You do include a lot of technology in your novels, letting the reader feel you’re tracking their lives as technology grows and flourishes around us. You also are so great with empathy, love, and understanding. There are several characters essential to the story and the reader gets a strong sense of who each of these characters are. Each character is also so incredibly different. Are you naturally able to slip into a completely different person’s mind, or does this come naturally to you? Why is technology so important to your writing, especially with your two most recent novels?
AG: Well, I think it’s impossible to tell a modern story about people who live in the city or suburbs without technology playing a major role. I’m also kind of fascinated by social media and the role it can play — it’s very often a mixture of unreliable narrator and Greek chorus, and it can make you feel supported or surrounded. Talking about writing about what you fear most, a major fear of mine is to be misunderstood. And social media can really get you misunderstood fast, and on a huge scale. As far as slipping into characters’ minds goes, I have a background in theater, so I think that might be where it comes from – “getting into character.” There’s a little bit of me in every one of my characters, as different as they are.
MT: I don’t want to reveal anything—as it deals with the Hitchcock reference, the loss of a character which feels like the loss of a life in the real world. Your characters are alive and brilliantly real to your readers, and I wonder if they’re the same to you. What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to write for a character—an experience, an insecurity or horrible thought, a loss, their own death? Have you ever been so attached to a character in another book, tv show, movie?
AG: A couple of the deaths in Never Look Back were hard for me to write. But they were necessary to the story I wanted to tell. I’ve cried over the loss of many characters in other books, movies, etc. but the one that immediately comes to mind is Tony in West Side Story, because I was a kid when I saw it on TV for the first time, and the actor who played him in the movie looked very much like my dad.
MT: You bring a character—your famous Brenna Spector—has made something like a cameo inNever Look Back, just as Laura Lippman’s wonderful and groundbreaking Tess Monaghan is featured in one of my favorites of Laura’s, After I’m Gone. Do you think the two of you will collaborate with your private investigators, and could you pull in a few more different female characters in other crime fiction to make you own crime fighting sleuth type Avengers movie? God, that would be badass.
AG: That sounds amazing! Laura and I actually did write a short story together, which should surface, I think, next year. Tess and Brenna aren’t in it, but it is about two very complicated women, and it definitely was a blast to work with Laura.
MT: Crime fiction, mysteries, suspense novels—from personal experience in bookstores and as a librarian—are really the most popular of all the genres with adults, and the genre is growing for middle grade children and preteens, something I thought impossible after the passing of the great and incomparable Lois Duncan. Why do you think these genres are so important to people—Americans specifically? Do you think the genre serves a purpose now, now more than ever, and what do you want your readers act and react to when finishing reading your novel? (Side note: have you read any young adult mysteries in the past few years? If so, what would you suggest to our readers?
AG: Oh, I think the whole world loves crime fiction, because the stakes are high emotionally and often physically. Why are they so popular today? Hmm. Well, it’s been said that crime fiction makes sense out of the senseless, and there seems to be a whole lot of senselessness going on out there… As for recent YA novels, Greg Herren has written some terrific YA mysteries with a really likeable young gay man as a main character – Lake Thirteen comes to mind. I really loved that book.
MT: I won’t keep you much longer, Alison! First off, thank you for taking the time to be interviewed by me, one of your most intense fans ever. Do you mind telling us what you’re working on next, if you’re working on anything else? I’m sure all of the readers would love to know all the amazing things to look forward to, even if you’re only hinting.
AG: I am working on another book for Harper Collins that will be out in 2021. It’s basically about female rage – how it can be channeled and exploited. How’s that for a teaser?
MT: Thank you so much, Alison. Until your next book, we all will try to feel the void with some subpar books, and also the really truly great and phenomenal writers in the crime community. We can’t wait to see how successful this novel is. Writers Tell All loves you, Alison! Xx
AG: Thank you so much, Matthew! It’s really been a pleasure.
Please read review of Lippman's latest, and Order the Novel Here: https://www.amazon.com/Lady-Lake-Novel-Laura-Lippman/dp/0062390015/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Laura+Lippman+lady+in+the+lake&qid=1563853050&s=gateway&sr=8-1
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Laura! It’s always a pleasure to get to pick my favorite writer’s brain. Do you mind going into any detail you’d like about how Lady in the Lake was made? What were you hoping to accomplish, and how did you manage to create so many different points-of-view?
Laura Lippman: I started out just wanting to tell the story of a woman who decides to reinvent herself at mid-life. Early on, I realized that the story was Maddy's incurious, errant path, that she was so focused on one story that she couldn't see a dozen other stories around her. So I began writing these one-off chapters about the people she barely noticed.
MT: In so many ways you are the writer every writer wants to be. For the longest time, you’ve been building on your novels, the lengths changing but you are always somehow manage to finely hone the books. With Sunburn, we see this book so slim, a perfect mixture of James M Cain and Anne Tyler. How do you feel you are progressing with your writing, what do you think are the biggest influences at this point in your career, and what books would you say influenced Lady in the Lake?
LL: My peers are a big influence. Other writers, too, but my day-to-day work is energized by the writers I know because it feels as if all our books are ongoing conversations about our genre -- what can it do, what should it do. Thinking specifically of Megan Abbott, Alafair Burke and Alison Gaylin here, but there are so many writers I could name.
MT: I know I’ve always said no book would beat After I’m Gone for me, pretty much with any author. Yet, 2019 has seen my obsession with many books, including the marvelous Lady in the Lake, and I wonder what your thought are on what I think is an abundance of great books this year, especially (in my mind, at least), most of them seem to be by women? What books are your absolute favorites this year?
LL: Well, see above, although Megan won't have a book out this year. Naming favorites is tricky; I'm going to miss some people. But there are a lot of rising stars. It's like a meteor shower out there, and that is probably a mixed metaphor at best.
MT: I have always said you are the only few writers who I think can write outside of who you are, and in most of the time I’m referring to race. Who was the hardest character to inhabit in Lady in the Lake, and was there a character you really didn’t want to leave? Which authors today do you think you’d trust with writing outside themselves? One example I love is Steph Cha’s new and also brilliant novel Your House Will Pay. Like you, she has such patience and love for everyone in the book, while also being able to look critically at everyone.
LL: They were all hard, even the easy ones, if that makes sense. I sweated the most over the chapter with Paul Blair -- a real person, a wonderful person, someone who's beloved in Baltimore years after his death. But they were all hard. Harder still were the people who didn't get to tell their stories, in their words -- Ferdie, E.Z. Taylor.
As for writing outside one's own story -- it helps if you've lived in a world where you're not considered the cultural default. But, in the end, it's something that anyone should be able to do, if they really push themselves.
MT: So, I wrote an article earlier this year about the new private investigators, and how on top of Tess Monaghan and Kinsey Millhone, these authors will continue the legacies of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Some readers were angered, saying no one could inhabit a space previously occupied by, say, Chandler. And yet you have Lady in the Lake, and I feel comfortable saying you more than rival him as one of the modern masters of crime fiction. Why do you think people—especially men—have such a hard time realizing there are new and very well written private investigators, and in your case a book just as poignant and beautifully written as a novel by Chandler?
LL: I don't think I can answer that without sounding pompous or self-satisfied. I do think that crime fiction has some old-school readers (and writers) who haven't expanded the definition of crime novel.
MT: You’re not a stranger to success, but at least for me, hearing my grandmother say this book beat Gone with the Wind and From Here to Eternity for her, I realizedSunburn was making some really big waves. So many people have been fans, and I’ve always made friends promise if I bought them a copy, they’d buy someone else a copy. And they never hesitate in doing so. What do you think so specifically about Sunburn spoke to so many people? I don’t remember anyone saying “I read Sunburnbecause it was short,” as a lot of my friends do with other authors. You really hit a home run with mostly everyone, and I’m so interested to hear why you think Sunburnappealed to so many people.
LL: I think everyone is curious about women who don't act as we think they should. Nasty women, if you will.
MT: A lot of your novels, because of the time they are set in, because of many reasons really, I associate with songs. I know people can go through me tweeting you constantly about After I’m Gone, and I believe Sunburnrefers to a TLC song (although I could be wrong), but what song would you feel defined or fit very well into Maddie’s world?
LL: Maddie's music is kind of a journey, although it's not described in the book. I imagine her moving from the sort of songs Dean Martin was singing on his variety show -- I watched a lot of Dean Martin shows to get into that mid-60s vibe -- to traditional jazz, the music Ferdie like.
MT: It would be easy for a writer less aware, less capable, etc, to turn Maddie into what I’ve heard so many people refer to as a while savior. And yet, Maddie isn’t completely dependent on saving black people or anyone different from herself. She makes a big move at the beginning of the book and this new life which does, in many ways, give her a chance to pretend she’s helping racial minorities, Maddie also is doing many things for herself. You never really try and show in an obvious way how this works, and that’s what’s so amazing about this novel. For people to write these really complex characters with different wants and needs, characters like Maddie, how do you think you’d instruct authors today trying to do this, and why do you think you’re so successful at walking a dialectic, making sure to show both sides to everything?
LL: Maddie's a white destroyer, she is so careless with other people's lives. My advice, as always, is to think about writing your characters a little smaller than life.
MT: I feel like this is really a continuation of the previous question. So many readers hate “unlikable women.” I’m not a fan of replacing unlikable with “complex,” but where do you think we are with female characters deemed unlikable and how readers view them, and do you think there’s any importance in writing characters like this?
LL: I'm going to say something radical -- forget likeable versus unlikeable, a lot of people, women included, just don't like women. There are certain concerns as a writer you just have to shrug off early on. "Will readers like my characters?" is one of them.
MT: The idea of self-destruction, people walking into a trap they’ve set for themselves, it’s so appealing to me. I think of the ending of the original run of Veronica Mars, in the third season finale “The Bitch is Back,” which Veronica goes so far with her revenge, what might continue would concern the destruction of Logan, her long-time love interest, and especially, possibly worse of all, her father, Keith, too. In crime novels, mystery novels, any genre really, what do you think is so important about destiny, and do you think you’re especially drawn to this? I think of Rachel, the love-of-her-life (I’m trying to be vague and spoiler free), and that major heartbreaking twist near the end of After I’m Gone, as well as some of your other books too.
LL: I'm not sure I'm a big believer in destiny? But some of my characters are. As you know, there's a psychic in Lady, and she believes in her powers. And it turns out that she does foretell the future. Or does she? Maybe she simply provides Maddie with a detail and Maddie finds the context that fits what she thinks she knows.
MT: In fiction, I’ve heard “this is not your battle” or “this is not your war,” similar things like that told to major characters again and again. Where do you think our characters, and ourselves as actual humans, have to learn the line we can and cannot cross? Do you ever feel you’ve crossed a line, touched on things you shouldn’t, or is there actually anything a writer shouldn’t write about?
LL: Speaking only for myself, yes, I have made mistakes, crossed some boundaries I shouldn't have crossed -- and I probably will again. John Irving, via Garp, said we are all terminal cases. But we're all also works in progress, or should be.
MT: I’ve read a lot about the impossibility of ending a novel, or at least having a really great or perfect ending. A lot of your novels—I’m thinking Sunburn, Wilde Lake (which I love and feel I don’t talk about enough), After I’m Gone, and this novel as well, end in a sort of open way. Instead of killing every character off, having a Sopranosstyle ending where we know nothing—instead you have all these possibilities, and while we do know some things about the fates of the character, I’m interested in why you tend to choose books that can continue in the readers’ minds. What do you look for in an ending?
LL: A single image. I'm always thinking about the single image at the end of the book.
MT: When will we see Tess again? Have any stories planned out for her, or does she seem far off for now? I remembered some post or statement saying you weren’t done with her, and she’s definitely made appearances in some of your standalones. What keeps drawing you back to Tess, all these years later? What feels so essential about who she is, and the stories she tells amd also how they are told?
LL: Tess has a cameo in the novel I'm working on. But it's getting harder and harder to write about her because she's making fewer mistakes. I love Tess, I'm proud of her. She's like a young friend who's come into her own -- and she doesn't need me so much anymore.
MT: What book are you working on now? Or stories? Can you hint at any work to come? Also, how was writing a children’s book? What was gratifying specifically about that experience?
LL: I'm working on a novel that's an urban version of Misery with a hint of Zuckerman Unbound, A Novel Called Heritage and another book whose title just completely slipped my mind.
MT: There are so many great (and some terrible) books being printed today. Who, if you were to guess, who be the emerging or newer authors who will be leading all of fiction and specifically crime fiction in general? I’m obsessed with Steph Cha’s new novel, and she is clearly a formidable talent in my mind. Who do you think show most promise, and who do you look forward to hearing more from?
LL: Wow -- I'm terrified to answer that question, you know I'm going to leave someone out. My primary hope, fear is that we're going to be hearing from an ever-growing diverse population of writers. We still have a little problem of hashtag Crime Fiction Too White. And, yeah, I guess I'm part of the problem.
MT: Laura, you know you are both one of my favorite people and writers. I really am thankful to get to “talk” to you, and I’m so glad you agreed to speak with me. I really am wishing you the best, and I hope 2019 and 2020 are going to be more than great for you. I can only hope you come do a book signing out in Hogeye, South Carolina. And everyone needs to read Lady in the Lake, coming out in July. Thank you again.
LL: Thank you, Matthew!
"Part of the family--but not." Kelsey Rae Dimberg on her fascinating and dread-filled thriller GIRL IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR
Matthew Turbeville: Hey Kelsey! While everyone I know is eagerly anticipating the publication of Girl in the Rearview Mirror, I’m sure you are tired of hearing me go on about the novel. How did the idea of this novel come to you, and do you feel the novel remained on course or did it change over drafts, rewrites, revisions, etc?
Kelsey Rae Dimberg: To the contrary, I want to say that your enthusiasm for the book has meant so much to me! When you’re a new author (or probably any author) anticipating the publication of your book, there’s a feeling of anxiety and vulnerability, and inevitably, some negative reviews come along on Goodreads or wherever, which can really sting. Hearing from smart readers, reviewers, and so on who love the book is such a gift! So thank you.
OK on to the question, which is about the idea, and the evolution of the book. The original seed for the novel was quite small: I wanted to write a modern take on the classic noirs I loved, so I chose a handful of genre elements I wanted to use in my own book: an outsider who gains intimate access to a wealthy, powerful family; a scandal buried in the past that threatens to surface; and the notion of an ordinary person suddenly drawn into a crime. Who would have insider access to a wealthy family today? A worker, I thought, like a maid, or a nanny. I went with the nanny idea, since I’m fascinated by the way they’re almost part of a family—but not.
From that, I wrote the first draft. I nailed the basic outline: the Martins’ secret, the bigger plot twists, including the ending. Then the revision was years and years: working out who Finn, the nanny, was as a character and a narrative voice, giving her a past; building out the Martin characters and exploring their legacy; working out plotting and pacing and making sure all the puzzle pieces fit together.
One of my teachers in grad school, Lewis Buzbee, said writing is revising. Yep.
MT: You’ve lived in eight states, and you picked Phoenix as the setting for this novel. Why choose Phoenix, and how do you feel the area, the people, everything about the city and state play into making this such a great novel?
KRD: When I started the book, I had recently moved from Phoenix to San Francisco. In a practical sense, I wanted to write about Phoenix while it was fresh in my mind—the desert landscape, the colors, the heat and light, the culture, the politics. Before every writing session, I’d try to sink back into Phoenix in a way, and remember it physically; I wanted the heat to rise out of the pages. The setting worked well with the noir theme, too. The beating, blinding sun, the heat, lent an intensity to the book, especially during the slow burn of the first half. Toward the end, I tried to make the desert more surreal, emphasizing the mirages, and the heat shimmers, the looping freeways, and so on, as the narrator is uncertain about what’s really going on, is doubting herself, and is quite sleep-deprived.
MT: Megan Abbott, sort of a superstar now with best-selling novels and television shows, appears to be just as excited as I am about your novel. When you write, who do you write for? Are you searching to please audiences, your mentors and all the writers you respect, yourself? When thinking about who you write for, how does this decide how your novel will turn out?
KRD: What an interesting question, especially considered from my current vantage point, of trying to write book two, and feeling like I actually have an audience to consider, and an agent and editor who are going to read the drafts. It makes me miss being an unpublished author, in a way, because I wrote REARVIEW MIRROR mostly for myself, as an homage to noir, as a love letter to Phoenix, and even as a way to learn how to write a crime novel. The writing process felt very private, and even though I worked hard on it, and my goal was always to be published, I didn’t agonize about who would read it, exactly, and it would have seemed like a jinx to imagine my favorite authors (like Megan Abbott!) reading it.
That said, I’ve mentioned I had noir on my mind when writing, so I suppose that felt like my genre. As I came closer to being done, and to needing to find an agent, I realized that the crime and suspense world has a variety of subgenres, and I began to read more deeply, and had the pleasure of discovering so many fantastic writers in my search for where I “fit in”: Alafair Burke, Alison Gaylin, Flynn Berry, Tana French, Attica Locke, Harriet Lane, Lou Berney, Steph Cha, and so many more.
MT: You can’t get on Facebook, Twitter, etc, without seeing so many people discussing politics, often passionately, which really is a nice word for angrily. The novel and its protagonist, Finn, seem to be shaped, at least in part, by the political environment of the city, and the race for the grand patriarch of Martins racing for senator again. Do you feel that, with or without politics involved in the novel, this is a very political novel? In writing about politicians, did you feel a need to write the Martins in the way so many other writers have portrayed politicians and political families?
KRD: I find politicians fascinating; they wear their masks so openly, and as a writer I’m interested in digging behind that surface and exploring the contradictions between public life and private life. When I was writing the book, real life politicians kept having affairs, and they’d get dragged onto some talk show or other to apologize—usually with their wives in tow. I couldn’t stop thinking about those women, with their fixed, stoic expressions, standing in the spotlight. They made me start noticing all the ways in which a politician’s family becomes a prop—in rallies and events, clean-cut kids and supportive spouses make a politician seem “relatable” or “authentic”; after scandals, they can make the politician seem “good.” I wanted to get inside one of those families, and imagine what it would be like to live with that pressure and scrutiny.
So, yes, the novel is about politics, but considered from the domestic angle, and with politics examined as a career. I’m troubled by the way a politician’s personal ambition and career goals drive his decisions, when the public wants to believe that principles, logical thought, and careful compromise drive our government.* That contradiction troubles me deeply, and if I’m cynical about politicians in the book (spoiler alert: I definitely am), that’s the core of it.
*This sentiment may seem hopelessly naïve given the state of things—but I hope we don’t become too jaded to believe in and demand a better government.
MT: Nearly everyone in the novel has a “ghost.” The ghosts haunt them, haunt everyone around them, and ultimately can be destructive if not dealt with correctly. How did you go about deciding who certain people were in the novel, and did you give them ghosts before or after writing about these characters? One character I’d love to have seen more a ghost of is the mother, Marina, although I suppose this makes her more mysterious, elusive even. I’m so curious as to what a novel centered around Marina would look like.
KRD: I love this question! Many characters had a ghost from the start. Philip has Tina, his college girlfriend (I think college-aged Philip is also a ghost for middle-aged Philip). The Senator had James, the prodigal brother (Philip is haunted by him, too—poor Philip). Finn gained a ghost late in the revision process; originally her past was only hinted at, which wound up feeling vague.
Many people have mentioned Marina as feeling mysterious or elusive compared to the other characters, and I think to me that’s in part because Finn doesn’t like her, and doesn’t consider her as carefully as she does the others.
That said, I think James, Philip’s brother, is Marina’s ghost. They were dating in high school, and even got secretly engaged before he died. Years later, she married Philip. Is she just an ambitious woman who wanted into this prestigious family? Or perhaps she never really got over James? Or she’s really fallen for Philip, for his charm, but over the years of marriage has tired of his act? Maybe a little of all three. Marina seems icy, but part of that is that she is more honest than Philip about what she wants and about the intensity of the pressure they’re under—because she doesn’t hide it, she’s seen as striving, cold, and calculating. Philip likes to loaf around and pretend he’s not interested in his own privilege. Philip can cause scandals and be forgiven; Marina is a middle-aged woman, and knows she’s going to be judged more harshly if she makes a mistake.
MT: There’s a pretty significant event—more than an event—which I believe happens about midway through the novel. Girl in the Rearview Mirrorgoes further than the reader might expect—I certainly didn’t expect certain things in the book to actually happen, even though, in hindsight, they felt necessary, fated. Did you ever have a tough time writing these scenes? I know I personally get attached to characters sometimes, and they become so real I become terrified of what could happen to them. I can’t imagine how you felt about any of the characters in your novel.
KRD: There are some pretty dark moments in this book, both bad things happening to characters I loved, and characters I loved making weak or immoral choices when tested. These scenes were hard to write. It helped that I felt they were necessary to the story, and I took every one seriously and they have real consequences for the story and the other characters. I didn’t want to use violence or tragedy cheaply, just for thrills or shock value.
I will say that, as an early writer, I struggled to make anythingbad happen to my characters. They were universally mild-mannered, and averse to conflict, and even major confrontations wound up quiet and polite. In my second fiction class ever, my professor read one of my scenes aloud to the class and said, witheringly, “You were all probably raised to be nice midwestern people, but it’s hard to write interesting fiction about very nice, polite people who muffle every feeling and reaction.” (I’m paraphrasing.) At the time, it was embarrassing and even scary—I felt like he’d announced an insurmountable flaw in my work. Of course, all it meant was that I needed to study and practice how to write conflict, confrontation, difficult emotions. And you know, he did me a great favor; he made me a better writer.
MT: As a writer, and specifically as a crime novelist, what books helped shape you, especially in your formative years, and what crime novels (and other novels too) helped you through the process of writing and getting this book ready for publication? Are there books or writers you frequently return to?
KRD: Lots of classic crime: Raymond Chandler, Vera Caspary, Margaret Millar, Patricia Highsmith, Sebastian Japrisot. Each has a distinctive, gripping voice, which is that elusive element that sinks or lifts a story. Some modern writers I love I mentioned before, but some that specifically helped were: Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, with its immersive sense of place that’s both gorgeous and menacing; Megan Abbott’s tightly coiled women and girls; Benjamin Black’s way of introducing bit characters with one or two killer paragraphs that just nail them, their looks, their voice, their angle; and Elizabeth Brundage’s dark plots and sense of menace.
MT: I admire you so much—this is your first novel, and already you’re going for the hearts of all your readers. So many writers don’t understand how readers very rarely care about the identity of the killer as much as why killing happens, what drives people to do something possibly horrible and why they would actually give in or go so far to get what they want. The book, with all of its twists and jaw-dropping events, seems more focused on how Finn sees the world, and how this is transformed in this part of her story. What were the ideas you most wanted to get across? When starting to write, who did you want Finn to be, and how did you want her to change over the course of the novel?
KRD: I’m so pleased that the novel went for your heart, and that the characters rose above the action. I agree that in crime, the puzzle matters, but I’ll read a flimsy puzzle with strong characters over a complex puzzle with cardboard characters any day.
Finn is at the heart of the book, and her journey is from (relative) innocence to experience. At first, I thought she’d be a wry outsider, with a dry narrative voice that tended to skewer the Martins and their circle. After a few drafts, I realized she was too insulated from the family; she had nothing to lose. So she became closer to the Martins; I gave her a boyfriend that worked for the Senator, and a past that leaves her hungry for a surrogate family. Yet I kept some element of that early Finn, too; she is still an outsider, after all, and able to see the pretense in their world. Still she’s dazzled by it, which some readers have disliked her for—but I think we’re all a little dazzled by celebrity or wealth; both are just so revered in our culture.
As far as getting ideas across… I want the book to confront things I find perplexing and alarming in real life: privilege, power, wealth, ambition, politics. But as the story takes shape, and the characters build, those ideas sink into the background, and ideally the characters themselves grapple with them in different ways.
MT: When I was in film school the first time (long story), we learned how Chinatown is both complicated and extremely simple, a very simple story cast like a web over the movie to make the mystery seem so complex. How did you determine the timeline of your novel, and who did you decide how to reveal each part and each clue? Did you know the ending of the novel from its very beginnings?
KRD: Chinatownis one of my favorite movies, and was probably the biggest inspiration of the story, so I’m pleased you mention it. I agree: the true story is simple, but the narrator misunderstands so many things, and is misled by everyone around him, so it feels complex. That felt very real to me. I don’t love those mysteries where the infallible detective delivers a speech at the end in which he knew every motive of every character all along. I’m interested in the ways we misunderstand the people around us—because they may lie to us, but also because of how we feel about them, or just because we don’t have all the facts. Finn’s strong emotional reaction to Iris’s revelation, for example, colors how Finn interprets later events; she’s not an unemotional Sherlock Holmes analyzing things from afar, she’s in the mess and trying to make sense of it.
I wrote the ending in the very first draft, so I always knew how it would end up, but the rest of the action changed quite a bit. Because of the limits of Finn’s point of view, I made a timeline with every single character’s actions and location, both in the past and in the present day, so that I could know what happened, obviously, and plant clues, but also so when Finn had a conversation with someone, I could track what she believed vs. what the other person had going on. Sometimes she’s overhearing other people talk to each other, and I needed to bridge that gap: what would they be saying to each other? How does Finn interpret, and misinterpret, their words?
MT: I think it’s James M Cain who says every word counts in a novel, and said he made every word count in his novel. How do you feel about this with your writing? And also, with characters, do you feel every character in a novel is essential to the novel and its plot? Were there any characters you cut but wished to keep, and are there any characters you wish you’d cut from Girl in the Rearview Mirror.
KRD: I hear this advice often, and it’s not bad advice. But I also love a good immersive book. I love to get a vivid sense of place, a mood, well-described characters, backstories and rumors and gossip; I like when a smaller character gets an unexpected closer look; I don’t mind a digression. Tana French and Kate Atkinson are two of my favorite writers, and both of them exercise plenty of freedom in storytelling. Raymond Chandler, too, serves heaping portions of words—so many metaphors, so much description—and it’s fantastic.
In short, I admire writers who write lean, but I don’t consider leanness to be the primary virtue of a book.
MT: The crime family is incredibly close, loyal, loving. You already have a lot of praise from readers inside the crime community and your first novel is just now coming out. In my mind, the crime writing community is so much closer, less concerned with histrionics and more concerned with support and love. In ways, some people believe this is the opposite of crime fiction. What do you think is necessary in a writer for a great crime or mystery novel? What do you think is so important about people who understand and write crime and about criminals?
KRD: I recently went to Thrillerfest in New York City and got to meet many crime writers, and can attest that they really are lovely, generous, supportive, funny, smart. I don’t know exactly why this might be…perhaps we spend so much time in the dubious company of our characters that it’s a treat to get together with humans?
I think a good crime writer today is interested in examining factors arounda crime as much as the crime itself. What drives someone to commit a crime, psychologically, socially, economically, and so on? How does violent crime reverberate in the lives of people affected afterwards? How are detectives impacted by their exposure to violence? I’d also say more crime novels are moving from black and white—this person is guilty, this innocent—to gray, with guilt and culpability spread out from the crime, and notions of good and evil questioned.
MT: What do you think is next for the great Kelsey Rae Dimberg? Do you have another novel in the works, or some other creative work planned? Perhaps some much deserved time off? I know I’m ready for another book from you, which is obviously a little early but, what can I say, I’m a fan. And either way, I am so lucky to get to interview you and write about your novel. I can’t wait for my readers to get their hands on Girl in the Rearview Mirror. They will love it. It’s great getting to interview you, Kelsey!
KRD: Up next is another novel, a literary thriller set in San Francisco, that will probably feature the strange inner workings of a startup.
Thank you so much for being such a generous reader and supporter! I loved these thoughtful questions.