WRITERS TELL ALL
A Belated Date With Someone From Our Past--and Our Future: Lyndsay Faye on Writing Historical Mysteries
Matthew Turbeville: Lyndsay, it is so nice to talk with you about one of your more recent books, Jane Steele. This book was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. The first question I’m most interested in asking is this: where did you get the idea for Jane Steele? Were you reading Jane Eyreat the time? How long had this novel been in the works?
Lyndsay Faye: Thank you very much for chatting, I’ve been looking forward to it!
I’m a big proponent of re-reading. Which for some reason appears to be a more “literary” and dignified practice when it’s men’sfiction we’re talking about. Jane Eyre is absolutely in the canon of great Western literature, but it’s also a romance, so it’s perceived as more self-indulgent to revisit it periodically than it is for a dude with frameless glasses and a flannel shirt to say, “Yeah, every year I head up to the cabin to do some fishing and make my way through all of Hemingway’s short stories.” Which is especially ironic because I also re-read “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” every six months or so, because I was in the restaurant business for ten years, and I’m no stranger to addiction, and it’s hands down my favorite short story.
Wherever you are in life, you’re going to get different impressions from the same book. And this last time re-reading Jane Eyre, I had a lot of concerns and questions. Specifically, when I was younger, I was totally on board with Mr. Rochester being swoony, and now I think, did you seriously just say to Jane that if she won’t listen to reason, you’ll try violence? Thank you, next. Why did Jane flee Thornfield without a penny to her name and then wander around in the wilderness without considering, I dunno, a little dumpster diving perhaps? Or maybe think to bring a map?
I want to be clear: I loveCharlotte Bronte andJane Eyre. I’ve been to the Brontes’ house and stared at the desk where she wrote it. But it occurred to me when re-reading as an adult, how did Jane, however precocious, have the agency to say to every grown-up in her life, you claim I’m immoral, but I know I have my own compass and I find you hypocritical? Isn’t it more usual that a girl would believe her authority figures?
So I then imagined, what if another Jane, a Jane lacking that confidence, bought the idea that she was evil—in what ways would that actually be freeing? I don’t think that Jane Steele is any braver than Jane Eyre, but I do think that she’s less constrained by some of the religious aspects of her time period, because she already thinks she’s lost her soul. That train has sailed, if you will. The horse has flown.
MT: I am always impressed by reading your writing at how, on one level, you tend to somehow grow with the language of the time period, while also incorporating your own style into the language of the book. How do you go about doing both of those things?
LF: Oh, thank you! Well, I think that while it might admittedly be the pinnacle of hubris to say this—screw it, I’ll say it anyway. People talk about setting as a major character quite often. In the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, for instance, London is there, London is present, even though Holmes and Watson are constantly going to the countryside to protect young women from nefarious snakes, you really live and breathe London. But I think that in my books, a major character is the English language. I’m obsessed with English. The slang, the organic nature of language, syntax, finding the very real dictionary written by George Washington Matsell that I used to write the Timothy Wilde trilogy, the nuances of it, ways language fails us, et cetera. So there are definitely linguistic flourishes I like—rhythmically, alliteratively, the way words sound, the cadence of them, the poetry, emphasis through repetition, where the commas live, etc. But I heavilyresearch the slang of any given era.
MT: One of the things I feel is most important about Jane Steele, the titular character of the novel, is that she’s so strong, independent, and frankly murderous at times. She is a woman who functions without needing a man by her side, whether that’s to love her or take care of her. How did you establish this sort of woman given the time period work without completely changing how the time in which Jane Steeletakes place?
LF: Ah, well, that’s an interesting question, and I love that you asked it, because women have been functioning without men since women have existed, when they need to. The subsection of women who were compelled to be completely dependent socially was wealthywomen. So we’re not really talking about women, we’re talking about an idealized Downtown Abbey top 10% of women. I’m not saying that only poor women had agency, that would be ridiculous, but the human instinct to stay alive is very powerful, and a lot of women did exactly that—whatever they had to do to survive.
What I changed wasn’t the women, it was the specific woman whose story is being told. Did she exist in the 19thcentury? Sure. Were novels about her published? Certainly not as often, and when they were, they mostly fell under either porn or cautionary tales. My Jane would have scandalized everyone. I mean, look at Anna Kareninaor Moll Flanders, which were both controversial, both written by men—we’re talking about a time period when even the idea of reading novels, even the idea of educating women, were both controversial.
Once the public knew that “Currer Bell” was actually a minister’s daughter, the tone surrounding the book changed significantly. As moral and occasionally even prim as Jane Eyrewas, it had very vocal detractors, which made Charlotte Bronte utterly furious. So I was specific about saying that Jane Steele is reading the second edition, which contained a blistering critique of its critics and in which Bronte flat out said, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion.” You can picture her replying to all of her one-star Amazon reviews, or getting into Twitter flame wars. It’s fantastic. That’s the woman who wrote Jane Eyre, and that’s the spirit I was trying to channel.
MT: This brings me to my next question. Well, really, it’s something to discuss: Intersectional Feminism. Jane, as well as certain other characters I won’t name due to spoilers, seem to embody the idea of intersectional feminism. I know you’re an advocate for all sorts of rights of many marginalized groups. How have you become so successful while speaking out against sexism, racism, bigotry, etc?
LF: For me, on some level, I think that your books will find their audience if you write them genuinely. Note that I don’t say earnestly, because those can be a mess. But there’s a difference between J. R. R. Tolkien saying, “I’m absolutely preoccupied by both language and British mythology,” and someone else coming along and saying, well that was a successful model when he did it, so I’ll try that and maybe make a buck. Jane Eyreworked because Charlotte Bronte put everything she knew and loved into that novel, and so even when it’s ridiculous, it’s still very effective.
I try to do the same, every time. It’s very personal for me. With Dust and Shadow, that was bringing the female victims of Jack the Ripper into the spotlight as truly human, instead of the more usual voyeuristic approach. With the Timothy Wilde trilogy, same deal--The Gods of Gothamhighlights religious bigotry because people were frothing about Muslims building a community center near Ground Zero and I was angry, Seven for a Secrethighlights African American struggles because people were losing their minds about a black POTUS and I was angry, and The Fatal Flamehighlights working women because there was a very calculated culture war against feminism. And I was angry. That all sounds very angry, but I’d like to assure anyone who hasn’t read my work that it also features true love, bravery, self-sacrifice, and jokes, because those things are also square in my wheelhouse of avid interests.
Ultimately, I really have to include marginalized groups in my writing, because in many respects we areour writing, and these Venn circles are my family, my friends, myself. I would not be capable of writing a novel about tricksy Wall Street high finance crimes. I know nothing about that. But you want a crime novel involving feminism, sexuality, race, creed, addiction, religion? I’m all in.
MT: What qualities of Jane Steele do you feel make her a proper representation of where feminism is or should be today? While your book could resort to being a novel of “white feminism,” it also avoids that subject by being intersectional. Would you be willing to talk about how you crafted Jane’s character?
LF: Sure, absolutely. I crafted a lot of Jane Steele by playing opposites out in my head. Suppose that she essentially has the same life experiences as Jane Eyre, but at every crossroads, she makes a different choice? She kills the abusive cousin character. She escapes to London and blazes her own trail. A great example of this would be the structure of the slow burn angst bonfire my Jane shares with Charles Thornfield. She is absolutely the pursuer; he’s literally wearing protective gloves, suffering from PTSD, running away from her. Whereas Mr. Rochester makes some pretty bold forays when it comes to winning his Jane, I wanted mine to have a sex drive (women do, shh, don’t tell), and I wanted her to see who she wanted and just gofor him.
Regarding the whiteness aspect, I refuse to write books that are just about white people, although I make a point of never writing first person POV inhabiting a person of color. I’m not about cultural appropriation. So in Jane Steeleyou have this whole plot line about Sikh culture and the Khalsa and the Punjab, and that’s all amazing to me because there weren’t only white people in 19thcentury England, obviously! The East India Company had their fingers in every pie imaginable. Let’s write about those people, make them visible. I knew the year needed to be the year the Jane Eyre second edition came out, and then it was a matter of just choosing which foreign war my characters were going to get embroiled in. I’m making it sound less involved than it was, because I spent six months researching the Second Sikh War and the Khalsa, but I had an embarrassment of wars to choose from.
MT: How close did you want to follow in the path of Jane Eyre. In making Jane Steele a real-life human being (or, for readers, it seems to be), what did you have to “correct’ about Jane Eyrein an effort to make her a more realized human being and incredibly strong woman?
LF: Mmm, I only had to eliminate a few of the more melodramatic Gothic conventions, or at least poke gentle and loving fun at them. Horrible sadistic headmaster? Check. Disembodied voice crying out “Jane” from many miles away? No. And then there were the elements I turned upside down. Crazy wife in the attic? No. Corpses in the cellar? Absolutely. So I’m always grateful when people think she’s a realized human being, because while I made every effort to draw her three dimensionally, there’s a satirical aspect to the novel that battled me on that front.
And to the extent that Jane is three dimensional, every one of my narrators expresses at least a few aspects of me personally that are entirely genuine. I’m highly, highly self-critical and so is Jane. I’m also much more willing to defend a friend or even a stranger than I am to pay attention to self-care. In the Timothy Wilde trilogy, a big aspect of his effectiveness as a cop is that people love spilling their secrets to him, and that’s also autobiographical.
MT: How long did it take you to write this book? What is your writing process like? I’ve seen you note that you’ve written anywhere from 3,000 words to 6,000 words at one time. How do you manage to be so productive and also live a happy, healthy, wonderful life?
LF: Oh god, so please understand: 6,000 was my absolute record of all time, ever. 3,000 words is a very solid workday for me. Then there are the days where 0 words happen, and I want to make a point about this: I decided a long time ago that’s also work. And hard work, because you have nothing to show for it. It’s only wasted time if you quit. Because if you quit working on the manuscript, that time spent staring at a blank screen was admittedly wasted. But if you persevere, then that time was hard work, because if you hadn’t stared at it for that long, you’d never have figured it out at all.
But the second part of the answer to this question is actually—and thank you for giving me a reason to talk about this—I actually struggle with depression and am medicated for it, I am a trying-very-hard-to-recover alcoholic, and it’s a tough road sometimes. When I write characters who have mental health problems, unfortunately I write them effectively for a very good reason. I’m trying to actively be more honest about that.
MT: When did you decide you were a writer, and when did you decide you’d like to focus on crime fiction primarily, even if your work does usually transcend genre!
LF: Weirdly, I never actually did decideI was a writer at all. Dust and Shadowexists because I am obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and I threw one too many Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper incarnations at the wall and then looked in the mirror and thought, why not try it yourself? Nobody ever told me I couldn’tdo such a thing, after all. My parents are insanely supportive, so is my husband, and when I told Markt Restaurant, where I’d been working, that now I was going to write a novel despite never having taken a creative writing class, zero people laughed. They said of course you are, and showed up to my first book launch with a bottle of Dom. So much of my career I owe to how much positivity surrounded my early efforts.
MT: How long did it take you to get published, and at what age was your first book released? Do you have any advice for new writers who are struggling to get into the world of crime fiction?
LF: I was 28, and it took me about six months from finished manuscript and agency submissions to Simon & Schuster. But that dovetails very nicely into my advice: the reason Dust and Shadowgot snapped up like that is because I wrote my passion, and I did my job. Write the book you want to read, and then edit the daylights out of it. I did seven drafts of Dust and Shadowbefore sending out a single query letter. Do not assume you deserve a book deal because you finished a manuscript. That’s already amazing, by the way, and you should go have a champagne dinner about it. But editing is the real work of writing, and it’s work I happen to love.
MT: Can you describe to readers what your next book is about? And when will it be coming out? (P.S. to readers: I’ve had a chance to take a look at this novel and it’s notsomething to be missed—you will regret not buying it!)
LF: My next novel, The Paragon Hotel, takes place in 1921, and let me tell you, all the stereotypes about gangster dialect, they really talked like that. It’s enough to charm the skin off a tomato. And it follows “Nobody” Alice James, a white gun moll who’s fleeing the Mafia with a bullet wound and $50,000 in cash, as she’s rescued by a black Pullman train porter named Max and ends up in Portland, Oregon’s only black hotel. Who shot her and why? What role did she play in Harlem, where she grew up, and when did the trouble start? When a mixed-race child disappears, and the local Ku Klux Klan escalates their threats of violence, Alice throws her lot in with the Paragon’s residents, using her chameleonlike skills in every way she can.
The Paragon Hotelis pretty personal—I was born in San Jose, California, but I grew up in Longview, Washington, which is about 40 minutes by car away from Portland, Oregon. And I sort of famously asked my mom at age six what had happened to “all the tan people,” by which I meant all the people of color I was used to seeing and hanging out with. My mother basically had to tell me, well, I don’t think that tan people live here…? And after I started investigating this, it turns out that Oregon is the onlystate out of the 50 to write an exclusionary “Negro and Mulattto Clause” into their constitution, which forbade people of color to enter the state, do work, buy property, etc.
MT: You’re also a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and a writer who has written lots of stories dealing with Mr. Holmes (including a fabulous collection of Sherlock Holmes stories)! Going back to how you adapt to language of a time period, how did you develop a voice similar to Arthur Conan Doyle?
LF: Oh, thank you! I credit 100% of my ability to channel Holmes and Watson to my actor training. I read those short stories (and four novels, of course) obsessively when I was a kid. And I’m trained to be able to mimic voices, accents, et cetera. But the key to any effective Sherlockian pastiche is the Holmes and Watson relationship. They infuriate each other, they delight each other, they’d take a bullet for each other. It’s gorgeous. Who wouldn’t want an unconditional relationship like that? Who wouldn’t want that one friend who’d do anything for you?
MT: Do you have a book you dream of writing? I know that this line isn’t entirely Toni Morrison’s own, that it’s been said many times before she said it herself, but Morrison once wrote “Write the book you’d want to read yourself.” Do you feel like you’ve already done that, and if not, what might this book be about?
LF: Actually, this is an excellent question, because I have never written a book for any other reason than that I wanted to read it and it didn’t exist. I don’t know how to write any other way. There’s a reader itch I need to scratch, and if I need to scratch it, well…maybe there are others like me who might want to read the same thing, if I can do my job effectively enough, and really spill my guts on the page. If I hold nothing back, then maybe it will answer someone who needs the same story.
MT: While I’ve heard other literary luminaries than yourself, like Megan Abbott, state that crime is now a woman’s genre—written by women, produced for women—what do you feel are the major issues you and other women have had to deal with in making crime a “woman’s genre”?
LF: Oh lord, I feel nothing like luminous, but thank you! Well, I’ve seen both sides of this coin. On the one hand, women have tremendous buying power in the mystery genre, and there isn’t really any paucity of choice—we can find what we want, generally, read what we like, suss out the sort of books that really blow our hair back, and that’s great. And it’s also amazing that so many female crime writers (like Megan Abbott, naturally, Laura Lippman, Gillian Flynn, dozens of others) are respected, prolific, award-winning, and able to work in multiple media ouvres.
On the other hand, I was teaching an adult learning class featuring the Timothy Wilde trilogy one day and this older fellow, having read the back of The Gods of Gotham, raised his hand and said, “So this is supposed to be narrated in the first person by a male cop in the nineteenth century. Then I look at youand I have to ask—who was this book even written for?” So we’re not exactly batting a thousand yet.
MT: Would you ever write a sequel to Jane Steele, or maybe another modernization of a novel from that time period like Wuthering Heights, etc? And I have to ask—which piece of writing, book or stories, have you been most proud of? Which is most dear to your heart?
LF: Absolutely I would. I think it’s probably more safe to say that I’d be shocked if I didn’t! As to the other question, I wish I could answer it cleanly and say here’s my favorite, and it’s for these reasons, and have done with it. But I can definitely tell you my favorite character, and that’s Valentine Wilde. He started as a concept and became a self-portrait, he’s a complete wild card, he’s the moral compass of the whole trilogy, he’s unbearably obnoxious, he’s an incurably romantic bisexual, he loves fiercely, hates showing it, can’t escape his own brain, is overfond of toxic remedies for that condition, cooks to show affection, I could go on forever.
MT: Would you ever write a more “modern” novel? If so, which issues might you tackle? And of all the books you’ve written, which one would you give to the President of the U.S., for any reason you feel he needs it?
LF: I’m actually working on a modern novel right now! So not another word will I say on that subject. As for the President, I suspect I might be above his reading level. We could set him up with an audiobook, but that generally requires a certain amount of concentration to retain. So I fear we’re at an impasse there.
MT: Who are your favorite crime writers (especially of minorities or marginalized groups) and you can include fiction or non-fiction, stories, YA, etc. I want to hear your recommendations!
LF: This is one of my favorite questions. I blurbed a book recently that totally captured me: The Best Bad Thingsby Katrina Carrasco, which comes out on November 6th. Set in 1887 Washington Territory, a bisexual female protagonist who got booted from the Pinkertons and prefers to present as a man, plenty of fistfights, plenty of sex, immaculate historical detail. It’s marvelous. I’m also fully on board with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse’s superb Mycroft Holmes novels, and the sequel, Mycroft and Sherlock, was released a couple weeks ago. Found a fabulous queer YA fantasy recently called Of Fire and Starsby Audrey Coulthurst—I’m cool with princes coming to the rescue on occasion, but how much more fun is it when two princesses rescue each other? Especially when one is brilliant with horses and the other one is magic. Could that beany better?
MT: Lyndsay, you are one of my absolute favorite writers, it’s a wonderful privilege to be your friend, and just a marvel to read whatever book you come out with next! We love having you over at WritersTellAll, and look forward to seeing where you go with your own writing, and how you transform the genre single-handedly or with the other powerful women writers who work so hard to produce the best work possible. Thanks again.
LF: It is always absolutely my pleasure, and thank you very much for your kindness and support!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Sarah! I’m excited to talk about your books, the books you love, and your writing with you. Can you start by talking with me about how it felt to have you career really explode (or that is how it felt for so many of us) with the publication of Behind Her Eyes? I feel like everyone and their mother read that book!
Sarah Pinborough: It was both nerve-wracking and exciting! It's one of those weird things that never feels how you think it will feel and it still feels surreal when someone tells me they've read it. You spend so much time worrying about stuff in this business that you forget to enjoy the successes when they happen – you're already panicking about what's next! But yes, it's lovely to have so many people having read it all over the world, even if some of them weren't fans of the ending, I love that too! I'd rather have a passionate response – even if it's negative – than a shrug.
MT: Now you’ve written your latest novel, Cross Her Heart. How did it come to you, and how long did it take for you to form the idea of this novel, and for this book to really take shape and for you to move with it?
SP: I'm normally thinking about the next book while in the final third of the one before, so I'd been mulling it for a little while before sending the idea, and then once that was approved I started planning it out. It's a subject matter that has always fascinated me (we've had a couple of very high profile cases like that in the book in the UK) and I'd always wanted to explore it. With any book I like a couple of months thinking time before I do anything but that is normally started before finishing the previous one.
MT: There are so many women in this book, and the book seems to be really dominated by so many strong female voices, which is amazing. What do you think is so important about women dominating crime fiction now, and why do you think this change has come about (if it ever was not this way to begin with)?
SP: I can't really comment on a whole genre, and while I am definitely a feminist I'm not an overly political or angry person so I don't read any great 'movement' in it. From my viewpoint women authors have been doing well in crime writing for quite some time, but we are definitely going through a phase where people are interested in stories in which the narrative is driven by women and not just 'nice' girls or damsels in distress or a male police detective. We're curious about ordinary, or normal for want of a better word, lives and the secrets hidden in them. It shouldn't be a surprise really, to any of us, that female-centric novels are doing well because women make up most of the book-buyers and readers so of course they want characters they can identify with and where perhaps the villains are women too. And I hope most men are happy to read stories written by, and about, women too.
MT: Speaking specifically of your female contemporaries, but also men as well, who are your favorite female crime writers? Who are the writers you turn to again and again, and what are your favorite books to read over and over, both new and old?
SP: Gosh, hard to say. I love Sarah Lotz' work – The Three and Day Four were just brilliant. Gillian Flynn is wonderful I just wish she'd write more. Lisa Jewell is a great thriller writer as is Ruth Ware. So many! As soon as I've finished this I'll no dount think of a thousand more. Megan Abbott I always buy as soon as she has a new book out. I tend to go for thrillers rather than crime novels although of course there are crossovers. Contemporary men – John Connolly, Steve Mosby, Stephen King are among them. I don't read a lot of books over and over, but most of King's early stuff I would, Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, and actually sometimes old children's books I remember fondly from my childhood, and some Dickens.
MT: When you begin writing a book, what is your process like? When you have a twist ending, like for example the twist at the end of Behind Her Eyes, which I’m sure most people are familiar with by now, do you have this figured out before you even begin writing or is it is something that comes to you?
SP: I always have the ending of a book in place before I start. So I'll get the vague idea and start brainstorming some plot points and characters but I can't start writing until I have the ending firmly locked down. The rest may change but the ending never does. With a book like Behind Her Eyes I can't imagine starting it without knowing how it ends. The whole story works towards that ending, right from page one!
MT: What is your favorite part of the writing process, and what is your least favorite part of the writing process? Is there a part about the writing process you find incredibly difficult, and have you ever almost given up on a book that later became a success?
SP: The only book I ever stopped writing half way was one when I was buying myself out of a contract so I could go to HarperCollins and write Behind Her Eyes, but who knows, I may go back to it one day. Plotting is the hardest part really I think, especially with a crime or thriller novel. You have to get the structure of it right and make sure you don't reveal too much too soon, and yet also leave enough clues so that a sharp reader won't feel cheated when the twists and turns come along. Sometimes writing high emotion can be hard. You have to be so careful with it. But I don't have a least favourite or most favourite part. It's that old Dorothy Parker (I think) quote that sums it up best 'I hate writing, I love having written.'
MT: A lot of people might be surprised to learn your career extends further back than Behind Her Eyes, or at least people in the U.S. might feel that way. Would you mind talking about your beginnings in writing, how you got introduced into the industry and how long it took before you published your first novel? How hard was it finding a publisher—or, better yet, an agent?
SP: Ha yes, most people in England too either only know me from Behind Her Eyes.. or perhaps 13 Minutes. But my first six novels were only sold in the US and were straight mass-market horror novels. I had seen some paperbacks in an airport in the States and bought them to read on the plane, and then when I wrote my first Horror novel I sent the first three chapters and and outline and they bought it. I got an agent after that – the usual sending out and getting rejections etc - although after that I changed agents several times before finding my 'one'. After those books I wanted to branch out and so I started mixing up my genres and trying different things and now I've been full-time for a decade.
MT: Not just as a woman, but as a person in general, have you ever been told that you couldn’t make it, or that you wouldn’t be successful? What’s the worst thing someone’s told you about your writing, and what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received regarding the craft?
SP: Ha, I'm sure I have but I don't pay any attention to negative stuff like that. I'm very focussed and very driven and don't have any sense of competition with others, only myself. People will always bitch, and gossip etc but if you're put off in this industry by someone telling you you won't make it, then you're not cut out for publishing because every step is tough and the journey is up and down like hills rather than straight up or straight down. I'm not sure what the finest bit of advice I've had has been but the most useful was actually from a TV producer when I was working on New Tricks (a BBC crime show in the UK) and he said, in a murder plot, the investigation can be as complex as you like, but what happens on the night has to be really simple.
MT: How much pressure, given your success in the past, have you felt to keep pushing forward and really keep producing novels? Do you have agents and publishers really pushing for you to put out a new book every year? How do you keep coming up with new and innovative ideas for novels to keep writing and for readers to keep reading?
SP: I don't think there is a problem with a book a year or every 15 months or so. For a lot of my career I was writing two a year, but now one a year or just over suits me and gives me time to work on other projects such as TV or film. Plus there are more promotional things to do for each book now so that also takes time. As for ideas, you train your brain to look for them in news stories and strange articles on line and the world and the people around you. Once you get a germ or spark from something then it grows into something of its own.
MT: I love asking authors this question. There’s a quote that’s attributed to a lot of different authors, and who knows how far back it really goes, but the saying is essentially “Write the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never been able to find.” Do you feel you have written that book, and if not, what book would that be?
SP: Ooh, that's a tricky one. I wrote a Young Adult Fantasy trilogy called The Nowhere Chronicles which I'm very proud of and I would have wanted to read as a kid. I think it's my most original and magical work.
MT: Which character did you identify with the most in this novel, Cross Her Heart? Which character did you identify with least, and did you ever find yourself judging characters and find yourself needing to take a step back and examine the book through a different lens? Do you ever find any parts of yourself leaking into the novels you write?
SP: A lot writers put part of themselves in most of their characters, even if it's done subconsciously, and I'm sure I'm the same, but in Cross Her Heart Lisa was based on a real person from the 1960s in the UK so I don't really identify with her so much. I like all the female characters in the book but none of them are me. Some of their reactions to events may be my reactions to events though. There is probably more of me in Adele and Louise from Behind Her Eyes.
MT: I’m sure our readers are all dying to know: what’s next for the great Sarah Pinborough? Do you already have another work-in-progress? What is it about—can you give us any teasers, or is it all under wraps?
SP: Ooh! Well, it's been slow – sadly my father got sick and recently died - and I'm late delivering but I'm getting there now. It's probably more in the vein of Behind Her Eyes than Cross Her Heart. It's dark and sexy really. It's set in Savannah, Georgia which is a place I just love and I'm describing it as Big Little Lies meets Midnight in the garden of Good and Evil. It's very twisty and I hope quite original.
MT: When you look back on the books you’ve written, which of your books is your favorite, and is there ever a book that, given the chance, you would edit or even rewrite completely?
SP: I'd definitely edit all the first six horror novels – well, I wouldn't because I really couldn't be bothered – but they definitely need that! I'm not really sure what my favourites are! I'm very fond of my three trilogies – The Nowhere Chronicles, The Dog-faced Gods and Tales from the Kingdoms. This might be because obviously trilogies are much vaster worlds and stories than a stand alone novels and you are living in them for longer. I'm proud of The Language of Dying and The Death House too. But I have to love Behind Her Eyes and Cross Her Heart too because they changed my life quite dramatically!
MT: Sarah, thanks so much for stopping by Writers Tell All and giving us some of the answers that our staff and our readers have been dying to hear from you. We are so thankful you decided to participate in an interview with us, and feel free to leave us with any questions, thoughts, opinions, or anything else before leaving. Again, thank you so much, and we can’t wait to see what you put out in the world for us to read next.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Dan! I’m so excited to get to pick your brain about your wonderful writing and specifically your recent novel Ill Will, which has come recommended to me by virtually everyone. The first thing I want to know—the first thing I want to know from most writers who craft excellent novels—is where did this idea come from? How did it come to be, and where did it originate?
Dan Chaon: I usually say that it started with a story my brother-in-law told me about a series of drowning deaths that occurred when he was in college. He and his friends believed they were the work of a serial killer, and I was fascinated by the story, but also fascinated by the idea that I was watching an urban legend developing in its infancy.
This is more or less true…but I don’t know whether it answers your second question: “How did it come to be…” which is much more about “germination,” rather than “origination.” There is a seed, I guess, but to me what’s more important is the way the seed sends out root systems and develops, which is in some ways beyond the writer’s control because there are so many variables. The original “idea” isn’t as important, ultimately, as where it takes you. How it transforms.
A novel about a serial killer drowning college bros would be different depending on who wrote it: imagine ILL WILL by Ottessa Moshfegh, or ILL WILL by Victor LaValle, or ILL WILL by Alice Munro. Or imagine ILL WILL by Dan Chaon at age 30. They all have the same core idea, but they’re all completely different books.
So the concept of the “originating idea” feels like a kind of red herring, in a way. I have a lot of canned, glib answers to this, because it’s a question one gets asked a lot. But there’s a mysterious aspect to it, too, something unanswerable. The “idea” somehow begins to communicate something to you that’s deeply personal—somehow this very abstract concept sent out tendrils that caught me at the right time, and autobiographical stuff—like being a new widower, like trying to be a single parent to teenaged sons, like growing up in 80’s redneck Nebraska—all that material got pulled in and intertwined with this urban legend my brother-in-law told me about.
MT: A lot of people have viewed this as a horror novel, or at least, when I’ve asked to be “scared by a book,” a lot of people have suggested Ill Willto me. Did you intend when initially writing this book for it to scare so many people, or at the very least creep them out?
DC: Yes! I definitely knew early on that I wanted ILL WILL to be a horror novel. Before it had a title, I called it “The Peter Straub Novel,” and Straub’s classic works were definitely a deep influence.
But I have a complicated relationship with horror. I was a very scaredy kid—terribly afraid of the dark, hard time going to sleep, etc. I was almost ridiculously easy to terrify, and I once buried a comic book in the back yard because it frightened me so much. I wish I had burned it.
At the same time, my mother really loved horror. My mother was a difficult person who suffered from serious mental illness, and a lot of my memories of being close to her have to do with cuddling together and watching scary movies on TV. So at the same time that I knew I was going to have nightmares, at the same time I was too afraid to look at the screen, I was also experiencing warmth and friendliness from my mom, who didn’t give out such things often.
I suppose I have a confusion between being loved and being frightened—and that might be the core of ILL WILL right there, ha ha.
MT: How do you approach crossing genres the way you do? There seems to be so many elements from so many genres in Ill Willand they’re all executed so well. What’s your secret—if there is a secret?
DC: I don’t think there’s a secret. I have just tried to write toward the authors that I’ve loved and who have moved me—I want to evoke both Ray Bradbury and Ray Carver, Shirley Jackson and Ann Beatty. All fiction is fan fiction, in a way—you fall in love with books when you’re a kid, and then you try to sing to those books so that they can hear you.
MT: Was it challenging writing from so many different perspectives and adapting to so many different voices and, in turn, views of the world the novel occupies? How did you accomplish this, and is there a trick to make this feat any easier?
DC: Writing from a perspective outside of your own is one of the most rewarding aspects of fiction, in my opinion. But it’s also dangerous, because it reveals your prejudices and blind spots and challenges your powers of empathy--which, of course, we’d all like to think are limitless. But they’re not. We can only go so far outside of ourselves.
One trick to writing someone very different from yourself is to give them some trait that you are familiar and sympathetic with, some kind of foothold that allows you to get into their mindset. If you’re writing about a type of person you hate, give them your most personal, embarrassing secret, and that often makes it harder to jump to easy judgement.
I personally also count on having early readers who can give me feedback. I write from the point of view of women quite a lot, for example, but I rely on getting responses and suggestions from women in my life, like my sister and my female friends. Because, never having been a woman, there are just some things I can’t know or understand.
MT: What is one of the major things—ideas, thoughts, etc—that you want readers to take away from books like Ill Will? How would you like to change the world, or, at the very least, a single person’s view of the world?
DC: I don’t really think a lot about changing the world—or changing another person, or inserting thoughts and ideas into my writing that will be influential or whatever. I know it happens—I know that books have deeply influenced me, and my view of the world--but when I’m writing, I don’t feel like I have a lot of control over what the “message” is.
For me, I think the main effect is the process of going deep into a world that delights or disturbs you but which you also recognize. It connects with you in a way that feels like a memory. There’s a quote from Joyce Carol Oates that I love—she wrote it in a review of Ann Tyler’s novel The Amateur Marriage—and I think it perfectly explains what I want to do to my readers: “When the realistic novel works its magic, you won’t simply have read about the experiences of fictitious characters, you will have seemed to have lived them; your knowledge of their lives transcends their own, for they can only live in chronological time. The experience of reading such fiction when it’s carefully composed can be breathtaking, like being given the magical power of reliving passages of our own lives, indecipherable at the time of being lived.”
MT: The novel carries this idea of whether or not a series of deaths is perceived correctly as being committed by a serial killer or coincidence, etc. Where did this idea come from? Are there any true crime books or real life cases that inspired this part of the novel?
DC: As I mentioned above, I was influenced by the urban legend of the “Smiley Face Killer,” which my brother-in-law told me about. But I was also influenced by many cases of “Satanic Panic” which happened during the eighties and nineties. Rusty’s case draws some of its details from the West Memphis Three trials, which are detailed in the wonderful documentaries Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills; Paradise Lost 2: Revelations; and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. I should also mention that one of my favorite short stories of all time is also based on this case: Cary Halliday’s “Merry-Go-Sorry.” I still talk to that story almost every day, lines from it randomly pop out in my head.
MT: Who are your favorite authors working today? Who are your favorite horror authors, your favorite crime writers? Which books would you say have had the most significant impact on you as a writer?
DC: I’m not sure how comprehensive you want me to be—I can be a compulsive list maker—but I’ve been thinking a lot about Denis Johnson lately. He was very important to me when I was a young writer, and then I sort of lost track of him, and then this year I read his posthumously published short-story collection, Largesse of the Sea Maiden, and I was just blown away. It’s so commonplace to use the word “breathtaking,” but it describes an actual rare and physical occurance—you’re so stunned that you can’t breathe—and that was what happened to me when I read the last lines of the Denis Johnson story called “Triumph Over the Grave.” I couldn’t take a breath but my chest felt like it was still expanding and weightless.
We get that kind of magnificent experience only a few times in our reading life, I think.
Other recent stuff: Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel,Sabrina; Ari Aster’s film, Heredity;Abbey Mei Otis’ collection of stories, Alien Love Disaster; Nico Walker’s novel, Cherry; Lucy Biederman’s The Walmart Book of the Dead,A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass; Rosalie Knecht’s Who Is Vera Kelly?; Lana Wachowski’s insane and moving finale of the Sense8 series on Netflix—God!! There is so much good stuff out there now, in all genres!
MT: Did you ever find yourself bleeding into the pages? Was there ever a moment you felt too close to a character—whether you identified with him or her, or you were just completely in their headspace? How do you feel when this happens, if this happens to you?
DC: That headspace is the most important thing to me. The moment when a character in a novel syncs with your own life in an unexpected way, when a fictional insight suddenly makes a link and you see something about your past experience that you’d never seen before—that’s the reason I write. I don’t write autobiographically at all, but at the same time my novels and stories are always deeply personal. In the process of living another fictional life, we get glimpses of our own that we couldn’t have seen before. That insight can be enlightening, but also sometimes shocking and troubling, as well.
MT: How long did it take for you to get started as a novelist? How many novels did you write before finally getting one published? What advice would you give to aspiring novelists today, those hoping to have the amount of success you’ve had?
DC: I think I’ve always been a novelist. My earliest memories are of telling stories to myself—making dioramas with plastic army men and dinosaurs, building cities out of blocks, pretending I was looking for a werewolf in the garage. Nearly every kid I knew did the same thing, but the only difference is that I didn’t stop or lose interest in the make-believe world. My imaginative life was—and remains—a big part of my daily experience. And that’s the thing that really matters to me.
The success part is a different story, and I feel less qualified to speak of it. I’ve just been lucky. Somehow, I’ve managed to find people who like my work, but I don’t feel like I’m particularly special or talented. I know plenty of people who are equally good at what I do, but who didn’t get the same breaks I got. I also know people who have done a lot better than me, who I don’t think they’re as good.
I don’t know. What amount of success is enough? To publish a book? To get good reviews? To have a bestseller? To win a prize? To have your books taught in colleges? To have your work made into a movie? To become an eternal household name, like Shakespeare?
The truth is, you have absolutely no control over that stuff. You can only keep plowing forward, and focus on the pleasure of trying to make something that pleases you. Maybe it will please someone else. Maybe not.
Of course, this is hard advice to take, and I have wasted more than my share of hours worrying about success, parsing rejections, nursing grudges, etc. I wish I’d spent all that time writing.
MT: Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what kind of music? What other sort of art and media has informed or influenced your views and practices in writing?
DC: Yes! I make playlists that become the soundtrack to the piece that I’m working on, and these playlists are important ways for me to discover mood and character and scene.
I’ve been reading this book by Robert Evans called A Brief History of Vice, and in one chapter he talks about how ancient our relationship with music is. Many anthropologists believe that the discovery of music is older than the discovery of fire. Even Neanderthals are believed, by some, to have been able to sing.
Did you know that music produces dopamine in our brain? Sometimes as much a hit of cocaine! So it’s a kind of drug, and I use it to get into a kind of trance state that allows you to imagine fictional worlds and characters vividly. Anyone who wants to know what was on my mind as I wrote the last two chapters of ILL WILL should just watch this video.
I’ve posted some of my playlists to my tumblrpage, and also a couple on Large-Hearted Boy.
MT: How many drafts did you go through writing Ill Will? How many drafts do you usually write of a novel on average?
DC: The question of “drafts” is hard to quantify for me, since I revise constantly as I’m working.
Usually I write a chapter or section in longhand first, then transfer it to the computer—changing stuff as I do so—and then I print it out and re-write it in longhand again, back and forth. And then, since I don’t work from an outline, things will change as I go along, and I’ll have to go back and rewrite sections again. So I don’t know how many actual “drafts” of ILL WILL I wrote. Maybe dozens?
But I don’t want it to sound like rewriting is a drag. I actually love it—it’s the most fun part of writing for me, that process of transforming a scene or a description or deepening a character. The hard part, for me, is forcing myself to write the original words and sentences and paragraphs!
MT: What book is next for you? Do you have a work in progress? What can fans expect to read or see in the future from the great Dan Chaon?
DC: I have a contract for two new novels, but I’m not ready to really talk about them yet!
MT: Dan, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. At Writers Tell All, we really loved Ill Willand are excited to see where your career takes you. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, questions, comments, or the like. I’m so thankful to have had the chance to correspond with you.
DC: Thanks, Matthew! I appreciate your thoughtful questions, and I’m thankful that Writers Tell All is connecting readers to books and authors they might not have heard of!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi William! I’m really excited to talk to you about one of this year’s most highly anticipated and coveted new novels, The Lonely Witness. It’s received praise from every major star-studded noir writer. What drew you to the premise of the novel and how did you develop it, and how long was it cooking in your brain before you took to paper and pen?
William Boyle: Thanks so much, Matthew! Great to talk to you. And thanks for the kind words. The main character in The Lonely Witness, Amy Falconetti, was a minor character in my first novel, Gravesend. I was drawn back to her, to seeing what she was up to; I was worried about her. I’d been working on another book for about eight or nine months, A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, a book that’ll actually come out next year, and The Lonely Witness was knocking on the door the whole time. The day I finished the first draft of Friend, I launched right into The Lonely Witness. I’d been thinking about it a lot and I wrote the first draft in about three months, just totally on fire with it, working every day before and after my day job.
MT: The title doesn’t lie. Every character in the novel seems to be so lonely in so many different ways. Living secret lies, a lie to one another really. What attracted you to this issue: loneliness? And why do you think loneliness is such a major driving factor in noir novels?
WB: Well, the easy answer is that I’ve always been lonely or that I’m always afraid of being lonely. I think I’m obsessed with lonesome voices, singers that echo the feeling of being alone: Jason Molina, Sharon Van Etten, Elliott Smith, Cat Power, Townes Van Zandt, artists like that. I think one of the loneliest things I’ve ever heard has to do with Elliott Smith. When he was living in New York in the late ’90s, he was a regular at a bar that I sometimes went to when my regular dive was closed. I never saw him there, but I heard a story about him leaving the bar after closing and walking back to Brooklyn through the subway tunnels, drunk as hell. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s stayed with me. I wanted to write a book that felt like that. I’ve been to that place. I know that sort of loneliness. I think noir is always about outsiders, and I think that’s one of the main things that draws me to the genre. I remember seeing Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour as a kid and being knocked out by a story set so far outside the edges—failures, people on the run, people who don’t fit in. It’s a lonely business, fucking up and not fitting in.
MT: What are some of your favorite noir classics about loneliness? There’s In a Lonely Place, but what other books would you look to, or did you look to, both for inspiration for this novel, and also just to explore the concept of loneliness in general?
WB: I loveIn a Lonely Place. Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? comes to mind. It’s brutal and beautiful. I wouldn’t call her a noir writer, but Jean Rhys is one of my patron saints when it comes to writing about loneliness. All of her books fit the bill, but I went back to Voyage in the Dark and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie when I was working on The Lonely Witness. David Goodis is a master of it: The Moon in the Gutter, Street of No Return, Cassidy’s Girl, so many of his books are a huge inspiration in this regard. Charles Willeford’s Pick-Up is a big one.
MT: There’s also this very extreme sense of a need to escape, not only for Amy but for everyone in this book—and not just from place. Although, I would like to note that most people involved in novels about escape dream of one day moving to cities like New York, not escaping from its confines. What drew you to this issue and how did you flip it on its head?
WB: I think that’s another thing that’s always drawn me to noir, this idea that there’s something better somewhere else if this one thing will just go right. So the idea of escape—wherever the characters are from—is always about the promise of being someone better in another town or city. Growing up in Brooklyn, I was lonely and I felt outside of things, so I dreamed of places like Canada and California because I imagined a different version of myself in these places. I do think it’s interesting that New York City is a place people often want to escape to and that my characters are looking for a way out. I think home, wherever it is, can just feel like a place you’ve got to break away from. You can get trapped by a neighborhood or town. Gravesend is especially about that. You carry that weight around with you everywhere. I like the idea that Amy’s initial escape is even smaller—from Queens to Brooklyn. I felt that when I moved to the Bronx for a couple of years; it was a different experience of the city and everything felt new.
MT: When you set out to plot this novel, what and how did you decide what went where and what happened when? Were there many changes from the first draft to the last draft, and how long was the writing process for this novel in general?
WB: I like to set characters adrift in the world. I had the advantage of knowing Amy from Gravesend.The inspiration for the book came from a visit with my grandmother back home in Brooklyn. She was housebound and had communion delivered weekly. She also had a woman sitting with her a few days a week, a sort of caretaker while my mother was at work. This was when her dementia was in its nascent stages and she could still be alone some of the day. That woman, my grandma’s caretaker, was the mother of a kid I went to school with; I liked him back then but he’d gone down a pretty dark path somewhere around junior high. I started to wonder what would happen if he just showed up instead of this woman, and what if he’d turned out bad. And then there was Amy, still in the neighborhood after Alessandra split—I was reading a lot of Dorothy Day, and I saw how Amy had embraced the good part of the Catholicism of her youth and how she was trying to make meaning of her existence in a new way. Those things came together, and the book just opened itself up to me. I didn’t have an outline. I knew where it started and I knew where it would end, and I had a few other things along the way I knew would happen. The rest was a mystery that revealed itself it to me as I wrote.
I wrote the first draft of the novel in about eighty days. I was working constantly. I’d wake up at 5 a.m. and try to get three hours in before I went to work (I’m an adjunct instructor and also work at a record store). I’d scrape out time wherever I could. It was a good feeling, to be so wrapped up in it. I didn’t take any time off from the book—except for three days where I wrote a screenplay. There were some changes between the first draft and last draft but not a ton—mostly just stuff that filled in cracks based on great editorial input from my agents and my editor. There wasn’t an epilogue in the first draft. I feel like it really helped that I wrote the book in one mostly unbroken stretch—I’m always afraid of losing the thread and I never lost it here.
MT: You have a tight, tiny, compressed book squeezed into just over 200 pages, but an elaborate set of characters who are all fleshed out and fully developed by the novel’s end, or at least to an extent. How did you make this up and were there any additional characters you had to cut?
WB: No characters that I cut. I knew Amy was the star here, and I knew Fred and Vincent and Mrs. Epifanio and Diane and Mr. Pezzolanti would figure in as major characters, but I honestly didn’t know that most of these other characters would show up until they did. Alessandra is the main character from Gravesend; I didn’t see that she’d be back until she suddenly was. I love almost nothing more than writing minor characters and imagining whole lives for them even though they’re only present for a page or two. Cab drivers, bar patrons, waiters and waitresses, funeral home directors, church secretaries, old women sitting up in open windows, a couple of shut-ins, whoever. Hell, that’s how this book came to be. Amy was one of those characters in Gravesend. I thought about her a lot and wanted her to have her own book.
MT: When writing outside yourself, like writing as a woman when you are a man, how did you prepare yourself to author this novel and get inside a woman like Amy’s head? What exercise do you do, what book do you read, in an effort to become more acquainted with the character you’re writing?
WB: I just think about being true to the character, true to the stuff she loves. It’s important for me to think about what she’s reading and listening to. It’s also important for me to be true to the women I know and love and aware of what they expect out of fiction. Any good character needs to be messy and complicated. I’m always consuming art by women, listening to what women creators say in conversation and in interviews. One of my favorite films is Mikey and Nicky, which is written and directedby Elaine May. It’s a movie about men written and directed by a woman, and it’s a tender movie about gangsters. I don’t think someone else could’ve done exactly what May did in making those characters.
I don’t know that I did a lot to prepare other than what I always do: read books, listen to music, and watch films that vibe tonally with what I’m trying to accomplish. Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Calleris one of those movies that really impacted me on a subconscious level when I saw it, and I was thinking about it a lot here. Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan was an influence—the shifting identities, the city as hideout, the cast of wild characters. Kate Lyn Shiel’s performance in Kate Plays Christine was a big inspiration. So was Sophia Takal’s Always Shine with Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin Fitzgerald. There was also lots of Sharon Van Etten, Cat Power, Nina Simone, and Angel Olsen playing in my headphones at all times.
MT: What made you decide to make Amy’s character a lesbian, and do you think her sexuality somehow played into her loneliness, especially given she had reverted to Christianity at the novel’s beginning?
WB: Amy was a character who just sort of appeared in Gravesend—one I hadn’t seen coming but who had a small and pivotal role as someone who Alessandra connects with. She’s based loosely on one of my best friends from college, who I don’t see too much anymore because she lives far away. It was a way of spending time with her or at least imagining her into this part. I do think Amy’s sexuality played into her loneliness. Part of what drew me to telling her story was that she had stayed behind in her ex-girlfriend’s neighborhood and that this was a place where she would feel especially like an outsider. When you’re alone and you find solace in church and through the writings of someone like Dorothy Day, that can be a powerful thing—especially if you’re capable of being moved by faith. I grew up Catholic and I’m Catholic-haunted now, a non-believer who sometimes yearns to believe, and I think a lot of that went into Amy.
MT: What are your favorite crime novels written by women? What are your favorite crime novels written by queer authors?
WB: Everything by Megan Abbott and Sara Gran—they’re my two favorite writers. Impossible to choose favorites from them, but their most recent books are always tops for me, so I’d pick Give Me Your Hand and The Infinite Blacktop in a pinch. Vicki Hendricks’s Miami Purityis one of my all-time favorite books. I love Dorothy B. Hughes, especially Ride the Pink Horse and In a Lonely Place. Vera Caspary’s Laura. Margaret Millar’s Beast in View. Laura Lippman’s Sunburn knocked me out. Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Helen Nielsen’s Detour and The Woman on the Roof. Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters is a masterpiece. I was a little late to Maggie Estep’s Ruby Murphy books, but Hex is now one of my all-time favorite books. I love Melissa Ginsburg’s Sunset City. Susannah Moore’s In the Cut is a book I think about nonstop. Mercedes Lambert is a writer I discovered just last year--El Niñois a lost classic. Charlotte Carter’s Rhode Island Red is another lost classic I only recently discovered. Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight is killer.
Patricia Highsmith, of course--The Cry of the Owl might be my favorite of hers. I really like Vin Packer (aka Marijane Meaker), especially The Girl on the Bestseller List. I love Virginie Despentes; I just read Pretty Things and it blew me away. There’s a queer feminist bookstore called Violet Valley in the small town of Water Valley, Mississippi, right up the road from where I live, and last time I was in I discovered Sarah Schulman’s After Delores. It’s a great New York City novel that I’d never even heard of, and I couldn’t believe that it took me so long to find it—and not in New York City, where I’m from, but here in Mississippi.Val McDermid’s great. I haven’t read as much of her as I should, but I love The Wire in the Blood. And, finally, I love Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandtsetter books, especially Fadeout, and John Copenhaver’s Dodging and Burning is a recent book I really dug.
MT: At times, the novel coasts along like a regular crime novel, and then there’s the whydunnit rather than the whodunit which propels us forward at the conclusion of the novel. How were you able to switch in and out of these two subgenres—straight forward crime and then mystery—in order to deliver the conclusion of the novel in one whole piece?
WB: I’m not sure I was ever really thinking of the novel that way as I wrote. I guess, at times, it did feel like I was writing a paranoid thriller, but I mainly viewed it as a tragedy surrounding Amy and her father Fred. Everything else kind of swirled around that, added tension and purpose, but that was the center of it for me, so I knew it was going to end with that tragic set piece. I wasn’t really trying to subvert the mystery element—it just wasn’t my main concern.
MT: You write about a sort of deceit, the use of other people for material or personal gain, and I’m wondering how you feel that reflects on noir in the past, and if you’re willing, how that might reflect on your own experiences as a writer?
WB: One of things I’m interested in as a writer is desperation. I think noir is all about desperation. We have characters who are desperate to survive, to escape, to find connection, to get dough, to get out of something bad, to get out of something good. Whatever the reason, desperation is the driving force. And I think that’s where deceit comes from. When someone’s pushed to the breaking point, they deceive people who have trusted them or they deceive strangers. One of the smartest things I’ve ever heard about writing is—and I can’t find the source, I originally heard it secondhand—is from a film director who said (I’m paraphrasing, probably getting it a bit wrong), “Real drama happens when the villain says something true.” I think a lot of my work turns on that notion. I’m not interested in one-dimensional villains. Or likeable heroes. Everyone’s complicated. Good characters are capable of deception. Bad characters are capable of kindness.
MT: At the end, which isn’t totally unexpected, I saw Alessandra as a manipulator and Fred as something of an abused martyr. Obviously, there are some gray areas in between, but this says a lot about familial love and romantic love within noir novels. How do you feel about these two types of love (and other forms of love) within noir and what do you think is the truth that lies there and how can it be presented on a larger scale?
WB: I don’t think Alessandra comes off looking very good, that’s true, but I love her and I sympathize with her. She’s looking out for herself—that’s what she does. That’s how she survives. And there’s so much pain in Fred. As someone who is estranged from his own father, I put a lot of my feelings on the matter into Amy. She doesn’t forgive Fred for abandoning her. Why should she? It’s one of Amy’s many complexities. I think noir often hinges on love and honor. Fred, after all he’s done wrong, is willing to die for a daughter who can never love and forgive him. And I think the night that Amy and Alessandra have in the hotel, that’s central to the book. You want to escape to a moment like that forever, but nothing gold stays. Things fall apart. And that’s what I ultimately trust about noir. It doesn’t paint a perfect picture. It tells you the truth: happiness is fleeting and trouble is on the way.
MT: How do you think Amy’s character evolves throughout the story, and why do you think she makes the choices she does? Do you view her as a hero or as a villain and if neither, how would you explain her as someone in between?
WB: In no way do I think of her as a villain. I do think she’s heroic in the ways that she grapples with faith and doubt and identity. I try not to get hung up reading Goodreads reviews that bash her as stupid or crazy or unbelievable; I don’t think any of those things about her. She’s lost in the world. She makes bad decisions, sometimes with purpose, often because bad decisions initiate change. In some ways, she’s my riff on Rosanna Arquette’s Roberta Glass from Desperately Seeking Susan.
MT: Ultimately, like most noir novels, this is a story of loss. Great loss, for many people. There are issues with religion, issues with romance, issues with paternity and familial love, and ultimately how all of this can or cannot be redeemed, and how we might be betrayed by anyone. While the novel can certainly speak for itself, I’d love for you to speak to this topic, and possibly reference to any parts of the text you feel necessary.
WB: I think that’s absolutely true. What we lose and how we lose it defines us. Losing her mother and witnessing that crime as a teenager, those are the things that set Amy adrift. I think she feels loss in a holy, almost mystical way. Over the course of the novel, loss presents itself in other ways. The dive where she tended bar has transformed into a theme park dive. The Roulette Diner is on its way out. The city’s changing—rents are astronomical and the old good places are shutting down, replaced by chain stores, banks, and frozen yogurt joints. This loss also manifests itself in Amy. She almost cries when she looks at Camilo José Vergara’sphotos of ruined buildings and crumbling cities over at Gwen’s.
MT: In the beginning, Amy feels like a source of comfort. She visits elderly women, gives them communion with the wafer and such (I’m not as familiar with Catholicism as I should be—it’s not as big of a part of the South as it is elsewhere) and she seems to be trying to atone for past sins. What do you feel makes her suddenly jump from one life to another, and do you feel that’s commonplace in the real world?
WB: I don’t think she’s trying to atone for past sins necessarily; I just think she’s finding purpose in something else at the moment. I definitely feel like it’s commonplace in the real world to jump from identity to identity—to be one thing, define yourself a certain way, and then to abandon that. I think just she’s looking to feel content with something, not to feel restless or displaced or alone.
MT: One thing that struck me is how jarring and shocking your novel can be. An example is when Amy just casually reflects on witnessing a murder when she was younger. The murder comes out of nowhere, presented in such a nonchalant manner she might have been thinking about the dinners her mother used to make when she was a kid. This effect is repeated several times throughout the novel. What was your intended purpose, and what do you hope this says about the real world and noir itself?
WB: I wanted seeing Vincent—and being curious about him—to trigger the memory. It’s something she’s felt removed from for a long time; Alessandra is the only person she’s told. The action of the novel is set over a very short span of time, a few days, and I don’t like to sludge it up with too much exposition. Since it’s close third person, only the one POV, I wanted those memories to come naturally to Amy, exposed, brought out into the light, giving meaning to decisions she winds up making. How she acts with Bob Tully defines her response to the Vincent situation.
MT: There are so many characters clinging to people who they are losing or have lost. Do you think we ever fully have a hold on anyone, and how do you think the novel reflects on this issue?
WB: Personally, I hope we do. The pessimistic side of me knows that everything can fall apart at any minute. Art is a way of dealing with this. Telling stories is my way. There are always the characters to hold onto. I think the novel is about fighting to survive through loss, about endurance in a time of crisis.
MT: The Lonely Witnesswas a hit for those in the crime community and really anyone who loved noir. I know you already have another work coming out, and possibly another work-in-progress. Can you give us any hints as to what those might be about?
WB: I have a new novel coming out in March 2019 called A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself. It’s about two women in their sixties, one a mob widow, and the other a retired porn star. They’re on the lam from trouble. It’s a screwball noir, inspired by Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild and Married to the Mob. Right now I’m bouncing back and forth between working on two new books, but I’m reluctant to talk about them because I’m superstitious that way.
MT: I really am so grateful to have been able to interview you, William, and so sorry for getting the interview to you so late. Thank you for speaking with us at Writers Tell All and feel free to stop by another time with any future books and the like. Feel free to leave us with any thoughts, questions, concerns, or comments. And, once again, thank you.
WB: Thanks so much for the thoughtful and generous questions, Matthew. It was really my pleasure. I hope to talk to you again soon.