WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Yrsa, I am so excited to talk with you about your work. You have an amazing history of publishing some of the best in crime fiction today. I would love to start with how you found yourself a professional writer. When did you realize you were a writer, and when do you feel you had your breakthrough? What novel do you feel is the book that really set you up for being one of the most important voices in crime fiction today?
Yrsa Sigurdardottir: I never imagined myself becoming a writer, not as a child, not as a young adult or as a semi grown-up. I was very content being an avid reader. I read non-stop and as an example, the year I turned twelve I set myself a goal to read one book a day – no graphic novels or baby books were allowed. I managed all the way to my birthday in August when I was given Gone with the Wind as a birthday present. I started reading and was immediately hooked, but the sheer number of pages meant it took me three days to finish instead of one and I was unable to recoup from that. Having spent my childhood with my nose between the pages of a book I was certain that the best way of becoming an empathetic person with broad horizons was to read. It allows you to place yourself in a variety of situations by entering the characters’ minds in a way that movies, TV and computer games do not – much less life as it is limited by your surroundings and individual circumstances. I also believed that if you do not read as a child you will not read as a grown up. When my son was about eight and showed zero interest in reading I became extremely stressed that he would grow up to be a bad person. I found that the books available to him at the time were not likely to fuel his interest and decided to write books for kids like him. I ended up writing five kids books and winning the Icelandic Children’s Literature prize for the last one (and the least one in my opinion). But my son never read them. He did however to my great surprise ending up becoming a reader when he was older. So I was wrong in assuming that just did not happen.
With regards to my realizing I was a writer and when I felt I had broken through – oddly enough I have a hard time seeing myself from the outside and in (if this makes any sense). I just love to write – when I don’t hate it. The hate bit helps because at some point during the writing process of every book I feel that I am not doing a good enough job and wallow in depression for a few days. This keeps me on my toes and ensures that I am very critical of my work. No author wants to write a bad book so I am sure I am not the only one that goes through the wringer while writing.
MT: You write multiple series, and also standalone novels as well. How do you decide which mystery or storyline belongs in a standalone novel, as opposed to one of your series? How do you determine what story belongs with what character or set of characters?
YS: Usually I make a conscious decision to write a standalone or not before I start thinking about the story itself. This happens during the writing of the book that precedes it. There are differences in the setup of each as the characters in a standalone have limited space for their “journey”. Their story must fit into one book, along with the developments in the underlying crime investigation. Characters in standalone novels are furthermore disposable which allows for more freedom in a way – as the writer you can kill them all off if that fits or feels right. In a series however the main characters have more space to develop and an added bonus is that you have them set up already when writing all other than the first installment. The downside to this is that it can be tricky to introduce these characters in a way that explains them to someone entering mid series without boring to death the readers that have read the previous installments.
MT: When writing so prolifically, and having characters so diverse, complex, interesting—how do you keep up with so many characters, and stay true to how you’ve envisioned them? Do you ever find problems with keeping up with so many different characters’ worlds in your novels?
YS: I do not find this difficult because I purge the previous book from my head when I am done – aside from the central characters if I am writing in a series. The fact that the characters in each book relate to the topic I am addressing helps a lot as well. A book that revolves around bullying for example (The Absolution) will introduce a very different set of characters than one about surrogacy for example (the book I just finished – working English title: The Fallout).
MT: One of my favorite of your novels, I Remember You, is labeled “a ghost story.” First, I’m wondering how you think literal ghosts are connected to crime fiction, but also, in film school we were always taught every character has a “ghost,” or a history which propels the character forward in their journey. What do you think the importance of this sort of ghost—a haunted past, for example—in crime fiction, and why do you feel it’s necessary for a mystery or crime novel today?
YS; I love stories where old sins or “ghosts” come to life and refuse to stay buried. To me it is a form of justice that you seldom witness in real life and I prefer my alternative reality to be different. If perpetrators of evil within my pages think they got away with their bad deeds, they should think again. However, this is not a universal truth. Occasionally the bad guy does get away in my books - to keep the readers on their toes.
MT: When you are in contact with fans from different countries, or me now, speaking English, do you ever feel more pleased with the translations of some books over others? I remember Boris Pasternak’s daughter being displeased with one of the English translations of Doctor Zhivago. Have you ever felt that way about a book having been translated?
YS: The only translation I am able to read with any sort of success is the English language one. Although I could worm my way through the other Scandinavian languages and the German one, I would not be able to judge their quality at all. I would be lucky to follow the storyline, even if it is my own. But I am extremely lucky with Victoria Cribb who does my English translations as she is just fantastic to work with and very, very good at what she does. In general, it is the translators that I never hear from that I worry about. There is always going to be something in the Icelandic text that needs explaining as the books are written for the original Icelandic readers. Victoria spots the places where someone not local will not understand what is being referred to or is not explained due to familiarity with Icelandic society and/or geography. She will point these places out and give me the opportunity to pad the text so that all readers will get my drift.
MT: Of all your books, which is your favorite? Which are you most proud of? Which do you think will have the most long-lasting effect? What is your writing process like, and how do you balance so many different books and projects? Your mysteries are obviously layered endlessly and brilliantly, and I wonder how you map out these vast, complicated, and expansive worlds. Do you mind briefly elaborating on this?
YS: I have a very hard time picking a single book but as the thumb screws are on I am going to say “I Remember You”. This is due to two things, the first being that I am a horror aficionado and it was such fun to write. Secondly, I built the book up in accordance to a theory I had regarding the difference between thrillers and clean-cut crime novels. By running the story through two separate threads where one followed a thriller structure (abandoned town) and the other, opposing story followed a crime structure (dead hide-and-seek son) – I was able to keep the tension high throughout.
I do not have a hard time layering or keeping track of threads etc. as I work in project management for large, mostly power plant projects, and a storyline is child’s play in comparison regarding complexity. I have this dream of setting up a huge idea board and connecting stuff with string in my office when working on a book idea. But it has never come to fruition. Presently my office has been taken over by a squatter (my daughter) so this is not likely to change very soon.
MT: Returning back to I Remember You, there are two separate storylines inside the novel (or so it seems) which intersect and affect one another in various ways. How do you go about making this work, and how does this affect real life? I’ve recently been watching The Bridgeafter my mentor suggested the show, and it’s so interesting to see so many different lives in the show playing out, intersecting, and bringing a massive story together. How do you feel your fiction, and your favorite crime fiction, reflects real life?
YS: I try to keep everything that I possibly can realistic and thus a reflection of reality. By this I mean the characters, society, landscape, culture, dialogue, and urban settings. Doing so one obtains a single degree of freedom that allows you to make the crime/murder more elaborate than what commonly happens.
To set up and connect various storylines or threads, a lot of thinking is required. As the author you control everything, the magic is in finding a way to weave everything together so that it does not appear random. It helps to keep in mind that none of us are exempt from the butterfly effect and therefore not masters of our own universe. Other people’s actions and decisions will affect us so it is not hard to see this happen to one’s characters. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how character A’s life can intersect or collide with character B and end up acting as a catalyst for the misguided actions of character C etc., etc. etc. It helps that I know what I am attempting to do, i.e. I know how what the end result of the intersections is supposed to be.
MT: What are your favorite books you return to when you need inspiration, if you cannot figure out a plotline or story problem, or perhaps if you’re exasperated and need a reminder of why you write? I know a lot of different writers have different books they turn to for this last question, the reminder for why they write. Do you credit any books for your need to become a writer, and for your success? What books helped inform you most in your formative years?
YS: Well. Although it might sound odd the writers that influenced me into becoming a writer were really the crap writers. The writers of boring children’s books. If it were not for them I would still be a very content reader. Today there is an abundance of fantastic book for kids so I guess I am lucky to have had my son when I did. But with regards to my go-to book I can’t recall any single novel that I revert to when I am feeling exasperated. There are so many good books available that I tend to read something new when I want to refresh. When it comes to my informative years, I know exactly the book that sent me on the path that I now tread, i.e. that of fascination of all things horror. This was a text book for doctors belonging to my father who was at the time taking a specialist degree in medicine and it was called something like The Complete Clinical Collection of Infectious Diseases. It contained the most horrible photos of boils, ulcers, pox, rotting digits etc. and me and my sister (aged about 10 and 7) would use every opportunity we had to peek inside. This lasted until my dad found out and removed the book from our house. It was however too late. We had been introduced to the lure of the awful and there is no going back. Decades later I still remember the page number with a picture of a girl our age missing a cheek, the back row of molars all visible.
MT: You’ve begun a new series featuring psychologist Freyja and the police investigator Huldar. The series is widely celebrated and here in the US much anticipated—with every new volume a welcome relief from all the crime fiction that seems like a regurgitation of the same plots and ideas. The first two books in this series released in America have been widely embraced and loved, and I wonder how you developed this series, and where you send it going, and if you have a specific end in sight?
YS: Just over a week ago I finished the last book in the series, number six. I find that it is best to quit before I get tired or the characters get stale. I chose to write this series with themes where the central crime revolves around social injustice or social ills. This made writing each installment interesting and fun. Soon I must decide what my next series will be like, who is the protagonist, will it be urban or more remote and so on. Once I have something that I feel very enthusiastic about I can start thinking about the first case. But I have a year to do this as my next book is to be horror, something akin to I Remember You.
MT: What’s your biggest criticism about crime fiction today? What do you love most about fiction in general—crime fiction and any other genre as well? If you were to give one of your books to everyone in the world in the hopes of creating some kind of change, or perhaps developing an understanding of some sort—what book would you suggest, and what effect would you imagine?
YS: I thought hard about criticism and must say there is nothing glaringly obvious that I don’t like about the genre status today. This is probably because it is so diverse, i.e. as a reader I am able to select what I am likely to enjoy reading and leave the ones I certainly won’t on the bookshop shelves. Sometimes I do get annoyed at the “necessity” to insert a “defective detective” into the mix as all of the good defects are already taken and hence they become increasingly outlandish.
The book of mine that I believe could have an effect would be the Absolution – the book about bullying. But as I mentioned earlier, bullies are not readers so they are unlikely to be affected. If they did however I would hope to scare them into being better people and draw their attention to the fact that they are pitiful. No content person bullies others. The book also contains a harsh solution for parents of children that are subject to horrendous bullying, i.e. lawyer up. Sue the bully for the loss of a life ruined. As parents are responsible for their kids in most legal systems this is a surefire way of getting them to address their problem kid. When faced with losing material possessions or money, the problem will suddenly become real and urgent to amend. As much of bullying is now online the burden of proof is simple, as is proving damages. Lost time off work, falling grades and so on. If a kid breaks your window or scratches your car you seek compensation from the parents. I do not see it is much different if a kid breaks your child’s happiness. I should note that I have never been bullied and my kids are lucky enough to have escaped this as well. But I have seen a few of my friends’ kids go through hell because of bullying and I cannot begin to describe how much I detest this behavior. It is unacceptable, no matter what your age.
MT: Before you published your first novel, how many drafts did you work through, and how many books did you write before your first book was actually published? What advice do you have for new authors? Anything from larger, broader advice and to perhaps very specific and unique suggestions are certainly welcome here.
YS: The first book that I wrote was published so I was one of the lucky few or perhaps it is easier here in Iceland to reach a publisher’s attention. I don’t do drafts. There is no first draft, second draft etc. There is only the one draft that I edit regularly while writing. I write ten chapters, then I read them through and distance myself from the authorship, i.e. read it like a reader. This helps me pinpoint pacing lags and storyline lacks and I amend this before continuing. I do the same after twenty chapters and after thirty. Usually my book is thirty something chapters so following the third review there is little left to do - other than taking the story by the hand and leading it across the finishing line.
This process includes sending each chapter to my editor when it is finished. Because I do it this way, once done I am done. There is no dreading the return of a redlined manuscript or the horrid re-write. The book I just finished was sent to print less than a week after I wrote the last word. For me this is the best way of doing it because you catch problem areas or dead ends, before they grow a strong root system that is entwined into the whole manuscript.
My recommendation to new writers are many. For one, write the book you would like to read, not the one you think will sell or be commercially successful. Authenticity is something you cannot fake when it comes to writing. Another thing that is very important to keep in mind if not yet published, is that a lot of aspiring authors start writing a book but not many finish it. It is hard to find the drive to keep going but persevere. Writing is hard, ungrateful work the first time around, no matter who you are. Keep in mind that your effort will be in vain unless you finish what you started.
MT: When completing a novel, how do you decide, “This novel is done. The climax matches everything the book has been building up to be—everything pays off, and I’ve accomplished a great novel, a great story, a great piece of writing I’m sure people will enjoy”? What do you do when you doubt yourself, and how do you decide when something needs to be changed, as opposed to a period of insecurity or doubt about your work in progress?
YS: Oh I am always filled with doubt and I never experience the feeling of having written a great book. My editor says he has kept the emails that I write him at the end of the writing process and will hand them over to me one day. They are extremely critical and every time I am trying to explain to him that the book should not be published because I am so afraid it is shit. Thankfully he is more grounded during this period of the process and manages to calm me down.
But I am in a better place when I am not about to hit send for the last time. As described above I quell doubts by reading what I am writing as a reader and amending when I find it not up to par or boring. This systems suits me very well and keeps the writing process challenging as to fix a lagging story I sometimes add something into the story that I have no idea how I am going to make work for the whole. After adding something like this I take a few days to think about how this will be seamless and fitting. Being the puppet master of what transpires on the pages it is always solvable.
MT: If you were a detective or investigator of some sort like in your novels, and able to solve any case in the world, cold case or new unsolved case, what might you start off with? What true crime case, solved or unsolved, intrigues you most?
YS: I heard the story of the Mary Celeste as a child and have ever since been absolutely enthralled by the mystery of what happened to those on board. Although there is no way that this can be solved today, I would so dearly want to know what transpired. Also the unsolved Hinterkaifeck murders in Bavaria come to mind and I would not be Icelandic if I did not want to know what happened to both Guðmundur and Geirfinnur, two men that disappeared in Iceland in the 70s. Recently, the convictions of those found guilty of these murders at the time were overturned, but the fate of the two missing men is still unknown. The official handling of this case has thrown a cold dark shadow over Icelandic society for decades and still does.
MT: Can you give us an overview over what we can expect from you in the coming years? The US is very often last to have translated versions of your novels released here, so we are lucky in already having books ready for our consumption. Your books are always stunning, and I’m sure your fans are eager to have some clue at what they might be able to expect from you in the future. Do you have any big books up your sleeve?
YS: Due to the translation process there are still 4 books in the Huldar and Freyja series yet to be published in the US. The next one to hit the market will be the Absolution which takes on social media bullying. I hope it will be well received although I do not think it will have an impact on those who bully as bullies are not typically readers. This is followed by Gallows Rock, The Doll and the Fallout – the last book in the Freyja and Huldar series.
The next book I will be working on now that I have put Freyja and Huldar behind me will be a standalone horror novel that I am presently mapping out in my head and very much looking forward to writing. It will however be some time before it will be available in English. I am also going to work simultaneously on another project that might be available sooner in English but that is sort of undercover at present. Long term (before I die) I hope to manage another six book crime series, an apocalyptic novel and possibly one sci-fi book. Being a smoker it remains to be seen if I can fit this all in.
MT: Crime fiction is now known to be read most widely by women, and the best books—in my opinion and others—are written by women. While this could be a random trend, do you have any opinion why minorities are turning toward crime novels, thrillers, suspense, and mysteries, and dominating the genre over the major writers a century ago, mostly straight white men?
YS: I am not sure why this is the case but I would assume that part of the success of women crime writers (and by success I mean the quality of the work, not only commercial) would be the fact that women are more inclined/adept at writing psychological angles and credible character traits. This is likely related to women having to solve issues through other means than force through the ages as well as being more disposed to empathy. But I should note that I do not see women as being a homogenous set of angels that always surpass men in the emotional department. An individual is an individual. There are shitty women out there as well as shitty men. Also, with regards to minorities in general, I think the crime novel is a fantastic venue for airing social injustice and ills - something that minorities get more than their fair share of. So this would very likely encourage good writing, i.e. personal experience of being wronged and a deep longing for justice.
MT: Yrsa, thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed for Writers Tell All. We love your books, your writing, everything about you. We cannot wait for more of your work to be translated and published here in the U.S. Your books are not just our favorites, as you’re something of a celebrity in the literary world here. We can’t wait to see what you release next, and feel welcome to leave us with any closing words, thoughts, ideas, or anything else you might want to add.
YS: Thank you so very much for all the kind words contained in the questions. I’m blushing a bit since I am of the generation when compliments were kept to a minimum as they were considered dangerous. They could end up causing people getting big heads you know. I could feel mine expanding as I typed.
But joking aside, thank you for your insightful questions and the opportunity to reach out to readers. I hope whoever reads this will find an interesting tidbit in at least one of my answers.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, guys. I am excited to talk about The Lying Room, your newest fantastic novel. I loved the book so much, and I can’t wait to reread it when I have the chance. Who came up with this idea? How did you decide it would be a standalone, and what do you two usually argue about (if you argue at all)?
Nicci French: We’re so glad you enjoyed it! It never feels right to say that one or other of us had an idea. Our books come out of conversations we have, things that we can’t let go of, things that get under our skin. As to what we argue about, we’re just as immature and petty as everyone else. We argue about who didn’t do the dishes, who left the socks on the floor. But we don’t argue about the books. Really, it’s all about trust. We know that we both want what’s best for the story. More than that, in a strange way, when we work together, we really become this other writer, Nicci French.
MT: Were you two already published authors before you met? How did you decide to go into the industry together?
NF: When we got married, in 1990, we were both journalists. In fact, we met on the New Statesman magazine. We didn’t really decide to ‘go into the industry’. Because we were both writing journalism, we started talking about whether we could collaborate one day, whether it would be possible for two people to write with one voice. Then we came across the controversy over recovered memory – people going into therapy and recovering memories of terrible childhood abuse. Being writers, we had a double reaction: we saw it as a tragic social problem and we also saw it as a great subject for a new kind of thriller. And because we’d come across it together, we decided to write it together.
MT: What is the editing process like? Do you both edit at the same time, or is editing a more than one at a time thing? Do you both need to be reading the book at the same time and commenting and making it great through whatever process you have? You’re quite prolific, so I’d like to understand that too—how the two of you work so fast and who contributes what to each project.
NF: Do we really work so fast? It doesn’t always feel like it! But we work all the time; it’s part of the fabric of our life. Our process is rather cumbersome and messy. One person will write a section and then send it to the other, who is free to rewrite, change, cut, add to, whatever. They then continue writing and send it back to the other. We’re constantly discussing as we write. Then, when we finish the first draft, we both read through it, talking all the time, taking detailed notes. One of us goes through the whole book, then the other goes through the whole book. It’s not for the faint-hearted!
MT: You have a murder, what appears to be a killing staged and prepared for the protagonists, and a lot of great suspects. What makes you decide a minor character or, rather, anyone who isn’t the protagonist can be a suspect, and what do you do to make the person seem suspicious and possibly play a role in a murder? I felt this was so important in The Lying Room.
NF: There is a technical answer to this and there is an answer that involves the emotional truth of the story and they are the same answer. The Lying Story could be seen as a kind of domestic noir. It’s a story of how mysterious we all are to each other, even those closest to us, our partner, our child, our friends. It’s about the vulnerability of ordinary life. It was important to the story that there was nobody Neve could feel entirely sure about, nowhere she was safe.
MT: What books do each you feel were helpful during your formative years, books which influenced you to become writers, and also books which you turn to for inspiration or ideas if you’re run dry?
Sean: ‘Helpful’ doesn’t seem quite the right word. I grew up passionately reading, watching movies, watching plays. I think I was influenced by all of it. But I’ll single out a few: I loved Sherlock Holmes’s London, the fog, the sense of mystery; his relationship with Dr Watson. John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Coldmixed the technical skill of Agatha Christie with the literary skill of Graham Greene; and nobody has written menacing dialogue better than Hemingway did in his miniature masterpiece, ‘The Killers’. Nowadays, I get inspiration the way I always did: reading all sorts of books, listening to music, looking at pictures, drinking wine, going for long walks with NIcci.
Nicci: Like Sean, I’m an ardent reader – not just of thrillers, but of many different novels, both contemporary and classic, and then biographies and histories, poetry books, recipe books… I remember when I first read Jane Eyreby Charlotte Bronte I was completely bowled over by the passionate and angry voice of Jane. I go back to that book year after year. But maybe the books I read and loved and pretty much knew by heart as a child were the ones that most formed me: Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books, Alan Garner’s uncanny novels. My mother read Wilkie Collins novels to me when I was about eleven and I’ve never forgotten their Gothic wonderfulness.
MT: What do you feel your greatest strengths are as writers? Do you think you complement each other, and that helps, or do you think you both have to work on the same issues to be better writers?
NF: That’s for other people to say! But I think that something mysterious happens when we write together. There’s a French expression, folie a deux, which describes two people who get together and commit crimes they would never have done alone. Think Bonnie and Clyde. There’s something in that about us. When we write together, we become something different, we perhaps push each other into areas we would never reach alone. But then, after almost twenty-five years of it, it’s still as mysterious to us as it is to anyone else.
MT: Is there a book you want to write—together or separately—which you feel is the book you’ve always wanted to find and read yourself? What would it be like? Or have you already written this book?
NF: That’s always the next book!
MT: The Lying Room is frightening in that it creates this world—our world—where a simple mistake, a risk, a bad choice leads to the destruction of life as we see it, learning of secrets we don’t want to hear, and yearning to rewind things just a bit and avoid this small mistake which led to something bigger. This is truly frightening, and all too real and common. What about that is so scary, and why did you decide to focus on a mistake so small (at least in my opinion, in relation to what happens later) and let it be blown out of proportion?
NF: You have to write ‘your’ book, and we always write about what frightens us. For us this is not a story of a huge terrorist plot. What frightens us is that fragility of ordinary life, how we are only one bad decision, one piece of bad luck, from finding ourselves in a horror story. The idea that we are all, all of the time, on thin ice: is there anything more frightening than that?
MT: What do you think is so important and interesting about the people closest to you having these crazily dark and daring secrets which they hide from the protagonist? Why is it so much more interesting with family members?
NF: Anyone who lives in a family has enough material for a lifetime of psychological thrillers. All families have their secrets, the mysteries, the things that aren’t talked about. Of course, families are good! We love our family! But also, family is the part of our life we didn’t choose, the thing we can’t escape, however hard we try.
MT: When something like this happens—like the experiences Neve has in the book—do you really think she can ever return to whatever her “normal” life was before?
NF: We really don’t think that. Every story is a journey and the characters are different at the end from what they were at the beginning. You can never go back, even if you want, and usually you shouldn’t want to. As the old saying goes, you can never step into the same river twice.
MT: When crafting Neve’s character, I wonder how you decided who she would be, and how her character was crafted to fit this murder, or was the murder crafted to fit Neve’s personality and make her more paranoid and such after finding the body?
NF: When we talk about a book, the story and the characters always come together. What character does this story need? Neve couldn’t be a young woman in her twenties. This is a story of people who have been married a long time, who have old friends, who are starting to feel stuck. Neve really chose herself.
MT: Both of you are married to writers, so I wonder: what is it is like to live and be married to another writer? Adam Johnson, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer, warned me never to marry a writer, and instead a surgeon “or something.” Can you explain this experience and lifestyle?
NF: If we were completely separate writers, the situation would be entirely different. We do our own writing, of course, but even so we explore the world as writers together, and we do interviews like this together. We can’t imagine it any other way. On the other hand, Philip Roth said that when a writer is born into a family, the family dies. Maybe one writer in a marriage is either one too few or one too many.
MT: People like to say “complex character” (or “complex women”) but I like to refer to them straight-forward as “unlikable women.” Complexity doesn’t necessarily make someone likable or unlikable. What do you think of the rise in popularity of unlikable women? I don’t know if I view Neve as unlikable—I rooted for her, but then again I love a well drawn out character going through a crisis, dark stories and such, so I may not be the best judge of this. Why do you think people are so attracted to even just the idea of unlkable women?
NF: You need to create drama and part of the drama should be between the book and the reader. You want to have a complicated relationship with the character. We love Hamlet but we also worry about loving a man who kills Polonius and drives Ophelia insane. Neve is a good person, we really feel that, but she makes mistakes, big mistakes. Even Neve isn’t sure what she thinks of Neve.
MT: Who do you feel are your true peers or even rivals today? Other than your own work, who do you think is creating the greatest crime fiction today and why?
NF: There is so much interesting writing at the moment. Just sticking to the UK, we could name Sophie Hannah, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Erin Kelly and we’d only be scratching the surface.
MT: If you’re both honest, which do you prefer—writing a series, or writing standalone books? What sort of series do you prefer—those which could go on indefinitely, or the series which are set up with only a certain number of books in mind?
NF: We enjoyed writing the Frieda Klein series, following her and her friends as they changed over the years. It felt like a very particular challenge. But when we came back to writing a standalone with The Lying Room, it did feel like we were coming home.
MT: Sort of in the same way of thinking, what book of yours do you feel is your favorite, and what’s the best or most important in your mind?
NF: In a strange way, our very first book, The Memory Game, is a favourite. It’s the book we wrote in secret, when we had four tiny children and were working full time and ‘Nicci French’ didn’t yet exist. From then on, we can stand back and look at them rationally. Each one of them represents a year in our life. Does one have a favourite year?
MT: What can we expect for you next? Is there another book already in the works? We are all excited to see what you release next!
NF: We’ve finished our next book. It’s called House of Correction and it’s about a woman who has to solve a murder while in prison, facing a charge of committing that murder.
MT: Thank you for talking with me. It is such a pleasure to read your work, and I cannot wait to read more. Please let us know anything we didn’t ask or I didn’t go into enough. I would love to hear about anything. For now, I’ll say goodbye and I hope I get to interview you and promote your novels again.
NF: The pleasure was ours!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Linwood! I’m really excited to talk about your nonstop thrill ride Elevator Pitch, which is sped along with a determination, force, and precision of a number of Jeff Abbott’s famous novels, and the dangers of living in today while haunted by the history of tomorrow. How did you come up with the premise?
Linwood Barclay: I was listening to the news in Toronto, where there has been an explosion of highrise condos, and heard that the city did not have enough elevator inspectors. And the idea, of a serial killer who sabotages elevators, was instantly in my head.
MT: The title Elevator Pitch works on a number of levels, at least two easily understandable to readers. Can you think of other ways the title works in the context of the novel and also our modern world, and how important is a working title to you and do you often change the working title before printing?
LB: There was never any other title. (Okay, at one point I suggested Going Down, but that sounded like a different kind of book.) The elevator pitch for Elevator Pitch is that someone is sabotaging elevators so that they pitch right down to the bottom of the shaft. It’s the only possible title.
MT: Your books are amazingly propulsive. As I said, they remind me of Jeff Abbott, the hands down master of suspense and thrills, able to capture the reader in any and all of his books. Everyone from my grandmother to other writers and such are able to appreciate your work—I mention my grandmother because she’s a famously voracious reader in the crime community and I always trust ARCs and such by her. She’s a big fan. What books and authors do youturn to for inspiration, for understanding characters, setting, story, and what books are just simply your absolute favorite, crime fiction or not?
LB: I tend to read writers I think are way better at this than I am, so the list is long. James Lee Burke immediately comes to mind. But I don’t read strictly crime fiction. I loved a recent bio on Mel Brooks. My favorite writer ever is Ross Macdonald, whose Lew Archer novels I discovered in my teens, and which made a huge impression on me.
MT: The world’s in a state of turmoil in most places, and I always feel like crime fiction—and all fiction is often crime fiction in one way or another—helps provide a certain balance to everyone who can’t make sense of other things. What book do you turn to in times of turmoil, and what book do you think more people should read, and which might help readers in general?
LB: I need to just turn CNN off for a week to reduce my angst level. When I am looking for the literary equivalent of comfort food, I read one of the early Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker. There’s solace in seeking out things you loved when you were younger, when there were fewer problems personally, and globally.
MT: You put out about a book a year. How are you so effective and productive? Do you feel real life ever gets in the way? What is your general schedule like, both for an average day for the great Linwood Barclay and also for each individual session of writing, editing, revision, rewriting.
LB: I spent 30 years in newspapers, so writing is a job. You get up and go to work, and aim to get 2,000 words done before the whistle blows. I’m at my desk usually by 8:30 and go till about 3 p.m. with plenty of wandering about in between. I think life gets in the way on occasion no matter what you do for a living. Writers are not special that way.
MT: For those people who want to be “the next Linwood Barclay,” what advice do you have to give to upcoming and new writers, and what do you think the crime community is missing today? Recently, Agora was launched, promising great crime fiction by diverse authors. I’m very excited to see this, but I was wondering what you’ve thought about different authors, diversity in crime fiction, and where we’re going with the genre.
LB: I don’t honestly think about the big picture a great deal. I write to my strengths, do what I think I am good at, without thinking about the genre as a whole. But more diversity will only make the crime-writing community stronger. As for advice, if you want to be a writer, you need to be a reader. And if you think you want to be a writer, but aren’t currently writing, then maybe you’re more in love with the idea of it than the actual work.
MT: Are there ever books you want to give up on? How many books did you write before first being published? I know some have only written the one, never failing, while others have written three, seven, and some numbers are outrageously high and too often to list.
LB: I wrote several novels in my late teens and early twenties I could not sell, and we can all me thankful for that. But after 25 years in newspapers I was ready to give it another go, and that novel was published.
MT: I’m also writing a piece on fiction writers and their most undervalued or overlooked works. I was wondering if you had any ideas for who you would name—and what titles you would list—for most overlooked work by a great author? How do you feel about your own books? Is there one book you feel never sold well or reached as wide of an audience, despite the blockbuster author you are today? What would that be, and why do you feel more people should read it?
LB: One writer I believe deserves an even greater readership than he currently enjoys (and he’s not doing at all badly) is Michael Robotham, from Australia. As for my own work, I may be too close to judge. I think last year’s book, A Noise Downstairs, was one of my best and I would not object if more people decided to pick it up.
MT: Elevators are scary for a lot of people—they not only provide height, but machinery that isn’t always reliable, as shown in your book—especially if, in extreme cases like the story depicted in your book, a fictional character was able to control the elevators and kill people this way. What are the scariest things for you, and what can you absolutely not write about? There are a few things that I can’t write about, but mostly they are things I found gross, my abject, the things that make me feel sick when I look at them or talk about the issues.
LB: I don’t know that there’s any subject I absolutely would not write about, but there might be limitations in HOW I write about it. There’s violence in my novels, but I don’t spend a lot of time on the gory details. The reader can fill in those spots with their own mental images.
MT: We know the elevator, or something involved the elevators, will kill so many people. What do you think about this keeps people reading, despite knowing where most of the danger is involved, and why do you think you’re able to keep them in suspense we know so much will revolve around the elevators? What do you think the secret to building and keeping suspense continuous through the whole novel?
LB: A thriller needs momentum. The plot is a kind of engine, and the writer is putting his or her foot to the floor. You’re in that car and it’s not safe to jump out so you might as well enjoy the ride.
MT: You mention one way to die—a scarf, I believe, getting stuck in an elevator—which was a very memorable and frightening thing for me—elevator, heights, suffocationand possible decapitation, depending on the circumstance. There was a scene like this in the movie Final Destination, or one of the sequels, and I also read Wes Craven added a scene into Scream 4, one of his final films, where he’d seen in the news a police officer was shot in the head but kept walking. What do you feel are the best sources of inspiration for bone chilling death scenes which keep the reader terrified and interested in both the most thrilling and worst ways? Most people wouldn’t believe Wes Craven’s story if it weren’t listed in the news, and so I wonder if anyone has actually questioned anything similar in your books?
LB: Not that I can recall. And anyway, my answer is: it’s a thriller. I want to root it in the believable, but I’m going to take a few liberties along the way.
MT: Recently, with the death of Toni Morrison, I think our country has finally realized literature is significant, her loss felt so intensely by so many of my friends, many of them not even big readers or members of the literary community or crime community. What authors do you regret not being able to interview, talk to, befriend because of their death? One I’ve thought about often is Reynolds Price. I love his work and he died in 2011, not far from my home in South Carolina, and it’s a big regret of mine how I never summoned the courage to meet him.
LB: I would love to have met Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, Donald Westlake. I’m lucky to have met, and had dinner with, Ross Macdonald (real name Kenneth Millar) and his wife Margaret Millar when I was 21. And I very much miss Margaret Laurence, and wonderful Canadian novelist who was a mentor and friend to my wife and me. I wish we could still sit around her kitchen table and trade stories.
MT: What’s next for you? You’ve written standalones, series, trilogies—what book or books do you have in mind? How far ahead do you write, and how far ahead do you plan? Do you plan out each book step by step, and do you ever give yourself wiggle room for any sort of improvising or unexpected writing you feel is necessary to the rest of the novel?
LB: Once I have a hook for a story, a “what if,” I figure out who did what and where I want to end up. I have the big picture in mind before I begin, but I don’t know the opportunities that exist in the big “mushy middle” of the novel until I get into it. As for what’s coming next, I’m not saying a thing.
MT: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us at Writers Tell All, Linwood. I cannot wait for your next book (which I’m sure will be out soon, and will be great!). Feel free to tell us anything about the book so we can go ahead and pre-order, and for any readers who haven’t already read Elevator Pitchand Linwood’s other novels, please do so at your earliest convenience! His books are unforgettable.
LB: Elevator Pitch will have to keep you entertained for the time being. But not to worry, I’m hard at work.
In which the incomparable Kendare Blake invites us into some of the worlds she's created--and how lucky are we!
Note: Before we begin, you can order all of Kendare Blake's books here. And here. And here! It's very shocking to find an author as accomplished (and so young!) as Kendare Blake who is willing to open up so much of her heart and her own world, as well as the many worlds she creates, for us readers. I'm so delighted to let you know that Kendare the person is just as brilliant and kind as the worlds she creates. Kendare, along with a few other writers, are straddling multiple age groups and genres, breaking rules, and refusing to treat young people any less than the brilliant media consumers they are. I loved reading Kendare's work, and talking with her is just as magical as you'll see. I highly encourage all of you to buy her Three Dark Crowns series, but also all of her books--I believe it was Lyndsay Faye who introduced me to Kendare's work initially? Her books require your attention in the grandest of ways, absorb you and more often than not, you don't want to leave the worlds Kendare creates (even when you're heartbroken and lost and lonely and but you're still cheering on all of her complex, vulnerable, powerful, and unmatchable characters. I loved her work, and I am sure you will too. Without further ado, Kendare Blake.
Matthew Turbeville: I’m extremely excited to talk with you, now that you’ve concluded your epic Three Dark Crown series. Would you mind telling our readers about how you came up with this series? Did you have each book planned out in advance?
Kendare Blake: I did NOT have each book planned out in advance. I didn’t have ANY of them planned out in advance, and I didn’t even know that the last two would exist until after the second was written.
How I got the idea though, that I can tell you: it was a swarm of bees. A ball of bees. Like, an actual ball, made out of 100% actual bees. It was at a book event, and the ball of bees had parked itself right next to the hotdog truck where I intended to order many hotdogs. Needless to say, everyone at the event was afraid to go near it. But a handy (and very conveniently located) beekeeper who happened to be attending the event told us not to worry: when bees form a ball like that they’re on their way to a new hive. In the middle of the ball is their queen, and their only concern is protecting her. So we could have all the hotdogs we wanted. Which was, a relief. That truck sold Seattle dogs, and I am VERY partial to a Seattle dog.
BUT—I was fascinated by this bee story. Why was the queen in the middle? Did she travel like that often? It seemed like a lot of trouble just for a trip to Target. So I pestered this beekeeper who very politely answered my bee questions. The one that stuck with me was this: When a queen bee leaves her hive, she lays several baby queen eggs. And when the baby queens hatch, they kill each other until one is left, and she gets to take over the old hive. When I was driving home from the event, I just really wanted to do that to people, and that’s when I started writing Three Dark Crowns.
MT: There are many characters, all important, in the novel. How did you manage to make each character count, eat person important, and each life significant? Was there ever a point you felt you got too attached to a character? Was there a time when you perhaps disliked a character you were writing?
KB: I loved every character in this series. Did they frustrate me at times? Sure. Most of the last book was just me rocking back and forth in front of my computer screaming, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!!! But it was never hard to make each of them count. They earned their way into this story and you better believe that they fought to stay in it.
MT: I do have to ask—is it more thrilling to write from the point-of-view of a hero, or someone you might deem a villain? Who would you say are the heroes in the series, and who are the villains?
KB: To be a good hero, or a good villain, you must be compelling. So for me, there’s no difference in writing a “good” person, or a “bad” one. There are no villains in the Three Dark Crowns series; there are only people with different goals and different points of view, making their own choices. A lot of people might say that the current ruling class of poisoners are meant to be the villains, but I never thought of them that way. In their view, the poisoners are on top for a reason and everyone else is a fool. Poisoning is their culture. They take pride in it, and don’t think of themselves as unnecessarily cruel.
MT: I love that your books are considered young adult, but you never condescend to your readers by assuming they won’t understand language or characters. I’ll come back to characters next, but what about writing—the way you write, the language you use, the way you switch points-of-view—how did you manage to avoid explaining everything to the reader without sacrificing your writing style or anything else about your use of language?
KB: Explaining everything is storytelling poison. You know what I hate about horror movies sometimes, is when they have to go and EXPLAIN everything. I was so wary of the trailers for IT: Chapter Two because it looked like they were going to give Pennywise a full human backstory and I was like, shit, I don’t want to know that! I am almost always let down by the explanation. I adored US, but the last quarter of it really lost me. We don’t know everything, and we don’t need to.
As for condescending to readers and assuming they need things dumbed down for them? Never. I remember what I was reading at that age, and I remember that I read to challenge myself. I didn’t want books that held my hand. I wanted books that held me over the abyss.
MT: A lot of tremendous writers can write in third person but make the reader feel like they’re in the characters head, even if only briefly. I found myself so close to characters, one of your many great gifts in writing, and I loved being there, even if I didn’t like the character. How do you do this, and how do you decide if a book should be in first or third person?
KB: Deciding the POV is part of my pre-writing process. I think extensively about the story concept (because I only have the concept, not what is going to happen) and try to discern how it would best be told. Some things are easy: like when I write in first person, I know if I use past tense then the narrator is unreliable; the narrative has been colored by their experience. They’ve already distilled it in some way. So if I’m cool with that…ok. But if I’m not, I need present tense. Before my character can get their filthy mitts on it.
MT: Of the four books in the series, assuming we’re separating them into four completely separate books, which is your favorite, and which was hardest to write?
KB: Three Dark Crowns was the hardest. It was writing in a new voice, a new tense, a new tone, and it took me FOREVER to nail it down. I wrote that book over from start to finish no less than four times. Not because the events were wrong, or the plot was wrong, but because the way I told it was SHIT. But every book since then has gotten easier. I only had to rewrite Five Dark Fates like, one and a half times. Maybe twice.
MT: It was hard letting go of your series, so much so I had to read the final book many times over. I love how you complicate characters in a very adult and mature way, almost as if you’re preparing young adults for the future. I love that someone can love two people at the same time, complicating situations. I love all of the similar issues like multiple love interests (although thankfully the book never becomes a romance novel, or fantasy which switches to romance and stays there) and the way you complicate characters, even giving them conflicting wants and feelings. I don’t see this in a lot of young adult literature. Why do you think it’s important for young readers to see characters as complicated beings, even if the characters are just sixteen—we forget their age and instead focus on who they are as people.
KB: I tend to think that people are complicated at every age, and that’s compounded when they’re placed in complex situations that push them toward finding out what kind of person they really are. You never really know what you’ll do, until you’re pushed. Honestly, some of the most twisted games of mental chess I’ve ever played were played between friends and frenemies in high school. Is that not normal? Were we small town Machiavellians?
MT: When the series begin (and what a beginning!), there’s one sort of reigning, one sort of person governing over the land of Fennbirn. Later, things might change. Were you at all affected by what’s going on in the US and the world as a whole? Were there things you look back on having written, and you realize they were in some way influenced by the world around you?
KB: Well I’ll tell you one thing, it has been a great source of solace to be working within a matriarchy these past few years. It was wonderful to be able to convey these women in positions of power, heads of state, heads of families, heads of the church, and not for one second need to justify why they were there. It was natural to see them in those positions.
MT: I’ll try not to spoil anything, but in one scene at the end of the second book, One Dark Throne, we see this tragic incident, and one character leave the rest—this is my attempt at being incredibly vague, so I don’t ruin anything for any of our readers. Scenes like this were my favorite, overwhelming me with emotion and the power of your writing, the way you have with words, with characters. What do you think when you write these scenes? How do you write powerful scenes, if you don’t mind answering briefly, and really make these moments both grand and world-shattering for readers and characters alike? Have you ever read a book and felt this way, in the scene I described before (trying not to use spoilers)?
KB: Every book I have every loved has affected me that way. That moment where I take a deep breath and stop reading and really just revel in the author’s words, and what they’ve done. It doesn’t need to be a death, or a sad moment, or even anything particularly momentous. I love nothing more than a writer who can creep up on you and smack you in the face with significance.
MT: In the book, everyone says “Thank goddess” instead of “Thank god,” and I see some other television and books series using this phrase.
KB: Haha, yes, only boys who have been to the mainland say “god”. So, Billy and Joseph. Billy’s father. I think Madrigal might have ventured to say it once in a draft, but she did it (as per her usual) as a form of transgression.
MT: At the end of the day, when all is said and done, you’ve written a phenomenal book series. What’s even more amazing is—unlike some great fantasy series—I feel you pulled off a really great phenomenal ending, one that really works for readers, and helps teach writers today how to end their own series. You make every moment count, every character have their own fate (as mentioned in the title!)—we’re baffled at how you pulled this off, and are wondering how hard was it to end this final book, and the epic conclusion to the series?
KB: It was incredibly hard, because I love this place. I love Fennbirn, and I love every person on it. I love these young women. I want readers to know that, and to know how much it means to me to see them come to events in cosplay as one of the queens, to see their art…when they ask what so and so is up to these days I get a little misty. That readers have come to care for these people like I do (and to know them so well, too! I read a few of those AU posts and the way the characters are portrayed is so on point), it means the world.
BUT, I think you are being kind about the ending. I went into the ending knowing that it wouldn’t please everyone—that it couldn’t, there was no way because every reader wanted something a little bit different. So I know that some will be disappointed, or even angry. I’m sorry about that. The story ended the way it ended, the way it had to, after all of this. I’m glad for all the tears. All the anger. I’m grateful they care.
MT: What are you working on now? When can we expect another great Kendare Blake novel? I love the books so much—do you ever plan on returning to this world, or do you think the series is done for good? So far, what has been your favorite thing to write—any scene, chapter, or book can work!
KB: Another great one! Haha, Matthew, you’re really putting the pressure on! How about the next passable thing with my name on it? I feel like I could probably exceed that 😊But to answer you: I’m working on a book now about a string of unexplainable spree murders, the girl at the heart of them, and the aspiring journalist boy who is tasked with taking her confession. It’s inspired by the spree killings of Charles Starkweather in the 1950s, and the Clutter murders explored in Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD. My riff on it will have a supernatural spin, and will come out in 2021. So I guess, not for awhile? After that, I’ve got another female led fantasy in the works about an order of female warrior heroes, and the girl who desperately wants to join their order. And for Three Dark Crowns fans: one of the characters will be a former Queen Crowned.
MT: Thank you so much for letting us interview you, here at Writers Tell All. We love your writing so much, including all of your other novels and series. However, Feenbirn is a place we loved to visit, and hope to visit someday. Thank you so much for allowing us to get inside your head, and learn more about your writing and your books. We hope you’ll talk to us again in the future, Kendare!
KB: Thank you so much for having me! I’m so happy that you’ve enjoyed your time on the island. So have I.
Citation for photos: All photos are retrieved from Kendare's professional website, the Three Dark Crowns official Facebook page, and my favorite, the photo labeled "SECRETS!" from epicreads.com
First, buy this amazing book here.
I have said this only two or three times before, perhaps more than that, but Angie Kim's Miracle Creek is an astounding and amazing novel that has entranced me and continued to lure me for too many rereads of one book in one year. Nevertheless, buy the book immediately. If. you need a beach read, a lazy weekend read, or if you want to challenge yourself about so many tough issues, pick up a copy of this book and find Angie Kim as much a great storyteller as someone who makes you think, which is a blessing by itself.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Angie! I’m beyond obsessed with your debut novel, Miracle Creek. For the readers, it’s both an astounding mystery, a courtroom drama, and a beautiful depiction of family life, especially for first generation Americans and their parents. I saw that you are an “ex-lawyer.” How did you decide to go from practicing law to writing? What were your favorite books growing up, and what novels—especially crime—do you feel were most influential to you in making this book?
Angie Kim: First of all, thank you so much for your kind and generous words about Miracle Creek. It’s so meaningful for me to know that the book resonated with you.
As for your question about transitioning from law to writing, it was a circuitous route. I actually quit being a lawyer in my 20s, after I realized that my favorite part about being a lawyer—being in the courtroom—was a tiny part of practicing law. I transitioned to the business world at that point, first becoming a management consultant at McKinsey and then becoming a dot-com entrepreneur in the 1990s, and then became a stay-at-home mom. All three of my boys had medical issues as toddlers (they’re all fine now), and I started writing about that experience, almost as therapy. I turned to fiction when I realized that I didn’t want to publish my nonfiction pieces about my children, due to medical privacy issues.
Favorite books growing up—that’s a little tough to delve into, because I was born and raised in Korea. My favorite in Korea was probably a series called CANDY, about a plucky orphan girl. She’s similar to Anne of Green Gables, which was probably one of the first English books I loved as a preteen when I first moved to the US.
As for the novel that most influenced my writing Miracle Creek, that is probably Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. (In fact, the title is an homage to that book; Mystic River, Miracle Creek!) Because this is my first novel, I tried to learn by taking that book and deconstructing and analyzing its structure and plotting.
MT: Miracle Creekis about a place which can supposedly cure things like autism. I have a cousin with what I would call a more advanced form of autism, still unable to speak most of the time at eight years old, and it’s a struggle for his parents, and our family in general, but luckily he’s surrounded by so many people who love him. Yet even with my aunt, his mother, I’m touchy about bringing up the subject. It’s sort of like mental illness, which I deal with—it’s understood I have it, it’s understood I suffer with it, and yet it’s never to be talked about. How does it feel diving into topics a lot of people feel uncomfortable around, and how do you manage to execute the delivery and discussion of topics so well?
AK: It’s precisely because there’s a stigma to the subject of autism (and other chronic illnesses and special needs I explore in the novel, such as cerebral palsy and OCD) that I wanted to explore it. I’m close friends with a lot of parents in this community, having had children with chronic illnesses myself, and I think this can make it harder for parents to talk to each other about the challenges of their day-to-day lives, which isolates them. I’m so glad to hear that you, a person who’s had personal and family experience with some of these issues, feel like those issues were covered well in the novel and that you empathized with the characters going through those issues.
MT: Other than being an ex-lawyer, why did you choose to have the majority of the book take place in a courtroom? The execution of the book—in all chapters, in all positions in time and place—it was genius, brilliant and impossible to put down. Did you ever struggle with deciding how to write this novel?
AK: That was one of the first things I had to decide when starting this novel: the structure and format. I considered having it be a straight drama, with the novel beginning on the first day of the HBOT treatments when all the patients meet each other, with the explosion being the ending. I also considered having this be a murder mystery, but having the investigation take place in the days immediately following the explosion, long before the trial. I finally decided on the trial structure/format, and I’m sure that my decision has a lot to do with my own experience in the courtroom. I loved being in the courtroom and longed to return in some way, even if it was just through a fictional construct. I also knew of the dramatic possibilities inherent to the courtroom format (especially in criminal court), and that appealed to me as a writer as well.
MT: People most relate you most to Mary, the daughter of the Yoos, I assume for autobiographical reasons. Some people find that the characters in their books are nothing like them, but others (like myself) consider each character to be a part of them, and not just one. How do you feel your own experiences, life, and the journey you are beginning to travel as a novel come through in Miracle Creek?
AK: I’ve taken three separate strands of my life and woven them together for Miracle Creek. The first is my experience as an immigrant, moving from Seoul to Baltimore when I was 11. You’re right in that Mary is the characters who is most like me in many ways. The second strand is the courtroom trial aspect. And the third is my own experience doing HBOT with own my own kids, in a group “submarine” much like the one featured in Miracle Creek. I tried to take those experiences, which happened at different times in my life, and tried to braid them into a coherent narrative that I hope works.
MT: Growing up, being gay and mentally ill, I associated largely with outsiders in our community—lots of different Asian families, mostly Chinesse and Taiwanese (I had to learn certain words in Mandarin and Shanghainese in order to know when my friends’ parents were secretly talking about me). I didn’t love them because they were Asian, or because they were outsides, but because they felt like real people, growing up outside of this very limited and exclusive world here in the South. My friends were funny and brilliant—not just academically, but they watched and listened and read everything. There was nothing I could really shock them with. I’m wondering how your experience was, growing up, coming-of-age, all of these things in America.
AK: I think my own experience is one of isolation and loneliness, largely because I’m an only child and I moved away from my homeland in middle school, at the age of 11. I very much missed my close friends back home, and it was hard for me to make new friends here in the US because I didn’t speak English at all when I moved. I’ve since learned to speak English fluently and gained many close friends, but even so, to this day, this is something I carry around with me, the feeling of not quite belonging (or, at least, the fear of not belonging) and wanting desperately to do everything I can to fit in and be “normal.”
MT: I vividly remember one best friend, brilliant and graduating at the top of her class at Wharton, claiming her brother was making three (3) errors in his SAT practice, and how would he get anywhere, even something “like Berkeley.” Such a new thing with me, where white people in the town were considered to be brilliant to go to a state school, or even work as farm hands. I’d love to know if you dealt with any of these issues growing up with extreme differences in culture.
AK: Ha! I doubt that anyone (even the so-called tiger moms from Asian-American families!) would considered Berkeley to be a second-rate school that one has to settle for. I was lucky in that even though my parents wanted me to be successful, they’ve always been very supportive of my goals, even if they weren’t to pursue the “prestigious” careers. I majored in theater in high school, for example, and I think they would have been fine if I’d decided to pursue that instead of academics (which is what I ultimately ended up doing). They were also very supportive when I quit law and even when I decided to stay home to be a full-time parent.
MT: When you’re writing, revising, rewriting, etc, what is the process like for you? How do you cope with the struggles of being a mother, a writer—a job in which most writers find themselves loners, lonely, and every other aspect of your life? What advice do you give to new and aspiring writers?
AK: I don’t really have a standard process. I have a goal, which is to start or keep writing or finish a particular story or essay or chapter, and I keep sitting down in front of the computer until I finish drafting, and I keep sitting down and editing until I actually like what I’ve written. My advice to new/aspiring writers is to take time and develop your craft. Write short pieces—essays, short stories, flash fiction, whatever—and polish and polish and polish until you love them and are proud to submit them for publication. Then keep on submitting until you get published. I really think it’s important to have gone through this experience with shorter pieces before you tackle a book.
MT: What has the praise been like, especially from the reviews, the authors who love you so much, the readers who may love you more? How does this affect your next work, if you have a work in progress or something you’ve already finished?
AK: It’s been amazing to connect with readers and reviewers, especially those from the communities featured in Miracle Creek (parents of children with disabilities, immigrant families, etc.). It’s been really inspiring, and it makes me eager to tackle my next novel.
MT: I’ve seen you compared most often to other Asian authors, which I can imagine might be frustrating. I know if I were compared to individuals who share only a part of your life really limiting. What’s your response to this, positive or negative or neutral? Do you ever feel confined to writing one type of story, character, book?
AK: Not at all. I’m really proud of the fact that I’m part of the emergence of Asian-American authors who’ve come out with amazing novels in the last few years. In particular, there’s been such an amazing community of Korean-American women novelists who’ve come with amazing novels (Min-Jin Lee, Crystal Hana Kim, R.O. Kwon, Eugenia Kim, Jung Yun, Jimin Han, just to name a few!), and it’s been wonderful seeing their experiences and trying to follow in their footsteps.
MT: What can we expect next from you? Is there a book planned, in progress, finished, or something else? This book seems hard to follow but I can tell with your abilities you won’t have a hard time keeping the writing refined, the topics current and essential, and the characters and ideas nuanced and complex. Can you share anything with us about your future work?
AK: Yes! I’m working on my second novel, which is about a ten-year old boy who’s nonverbal (with autism). He goes on a walk in the beginning of the novel with his father, but only the boy returns home. Because he’s nonverbal, he can’t tell us what happened. His older siblings become obsessed with using assistive communication devices and therapies to get him to “talk,” to share with them what happened to the father.
MT: I really love your book. I really, really love Miracle Creek. It’s a brilliant book I hope all of our readers pick up, and also call their libraries throughout their state and request copies. The book is astonishing on so many levels and I really loved having the chance to read it, and to interview you. I cannot wait for your next novel.
AK Thank you so much, Matthew. I really enjoyed our conversation, and I’m grateful to you for sharing!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Patrick! I’ve enjoyed reading your novel so thoroughly, actually setting aside the time to read it multiple times. Something about your language, the story, the rhythm of it is changing. Before we being with questions about the novel, do you mind telling us how you found yourself in writing, how you pursued your career, and what being a writer has been like for you so far? What did your past projects, publications, and art lead to this novel?
Patrick Coleman: Thank you! You know, writing has been the one thing that’s always just made sense to me—maybe because it helps me make sense of things. (I have a bad memory and get easily confused.) So I’ve always done it. The career path hasn’t been linear, in part because life has a way of complicating things, so I ended up writing a book of prose poems and editing and writing for an exhibition catalogue before publishing a novel—but it’s all writing, and it has all be valuable. And the periods of not-writing, too—when there was too much work and there were too many life demands to write.
MT: Do you mind telling us what your writing habits are like? Are you a morning, noon, night writer? How much do you write a day? How and where do you enjoy writing? What is revision like for you?
PC: I’m generally an early morning writer. Having small children who like to get up very, very early has complicated that, so I try to be an anywhere writer now. When I’m writing a first draft, I don’t like having daily goals, so it can vary how much time I put in, and there are times when life (jobs, kids, etc.) makes a mockery of those goals. But you do what you can, and try to trust the process.
I’m obsessed with revision and love it in a way some people might call sadistic. It’s my favorite part: seeing what’s there, letting that seed new generative ideas and insights, and then chucking most of what you’ve done and starting over.
MT: What books and authors have inspired you in your journey not just to this book, but as a writer? What are your favorite crime novels and novelists? Do you have a book you return to when you’re feeling stuck writing, need inspiration, or just simply a good reread?
PC: That’s such a difficult question! I love everything, from the Star Wars novelizations as a kid that are responsible for me being anything of a reader or writer to Joyce’s Ulysses. I don’t come from a readerly family, and I wasn’t “schooled” as one when I was young—so, for example, when I headed off to college, my mom and I went to Costco and got the one-volume move tie-in edition of Lord of the Ringsbecause, in my head, I was thinking, “College: now I have to read the real heavyweight, capital L literature.” I’m glad for that now. Discovering a love for Jane Austen as a twenty-year-old man might be the ideal time, really.
For this book, Raymond Chandler is the obvious influence, but Walker Percy, Patricia Highsmith, Thomas Pynchon, Marilynne Robinson, Augustine, and Søren Kierkegaard hover over things, too, like a set of very odd ghosts. Whenever anxiety is getting the better of me or I need to be reminded of what writing can do, the poetry of Gary Young is a perfect prescription. For crime, the Cass Neary books by Elizabeth Hand are pretty unbeatable.
MT: Do you mind telling us whatever you’d feel comfortable telling readers about your history with Christianity, and how it affects your writing, and how it’s shaped this book? I was raised Southern Baptist, and while I don’t consider myself religion, and I’ve long since cut ties with the churches I was involved with, it involves my writing so immensely. I would love to hear the positive and negative impacts of religion on the book.
PC: I grew up in a Catholic family—not the most dedicatedly Catholic, but it was a strong enough presence. In high school I found myself drawn into a more Evangelical-style church—there was better music and more girls—and I somewhat uncomfortably identified with that for about six years. I’d always struggled with doubt, was always pushing and pulling, but I started to see more of what was harmful in these Christian communities, these Christian cultures—was learning to see more of what was wrong about the world at large—and whether or not I “believed in” God or not seemed to matter less and less. That simple binary of “on” or “off.” I believe in a lot of things, and belief can be a powerful force for good or ill in the world—but if it’s going to do good, belief can’t be easy. It’s going to need to force people to ask very hard questions about themselves, about the worlds they move through, about their gods. So while I miss that feeling of easy belief—of asking God to listen to my fourteen-year-old’s problems and to solve them—I know it’s a nostalgia for something that isn’t good. In that sense, it’s like reminiscing about the time you got wasted but were the hit of the party. Fine for the time. Bad to build your life around recapturing.
MT: When I think of noir I think of a lot of Southern literature, but rarely ever LA literature, or anywhere not related directly to the South. There’s everything from Flannery O’Connor to Lori Roy, especially her new novel Gone Too Long. How did you incorporate religion into your novel successfully, and how do you feel your novel can be compared to these other great writers?
PC: LA noir and California noir have a deep, rich history in literature and in film—think German Expressionist filmmakers relocating to Hollywood because of World War II, people like Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. In fiction, we have Hammett, Chandler, Cain—later Ross MacDonald, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, the future noir of Blade Runner, and all the exciting exploration of the genre being done today, writers like Steph Cha and Viet Thanh Nguyen, in film and television shows like Veronica Mars or Brick, and on and on. I was conscious of working within that tradition—I’m not sure how what I’ve done compares to their work—and yes, you’re right that the religious thread has more often been one pulled on by Southern writers. California, at least non-indigenous California, is very much composed of successive waves of immigrants, and a lot of the very powerful influence our state has had on American Christianity is through Southerners coming west and establishing massive, often national ministries—prototyping new forms of Christian culture here as much as we’re known for new social media startups. There’s just as much of a religious character to Californians as there to Mississippians—many characters, of course—even if it’s a bit more sun-bleached and a bit less explored in fiction.
MT: You write from the point-of-view of (in my eyes0 a very unlikable protagonist. But I love that, as I get bored with perfect protagonists, and I think avoiding complex (and therefore in my mind read) characters, we never actually touch on anything true. How did you craft the narrator, his voice, and what were the tough choices you had to make when developing him?
PC: I’m a very likeable person, which is to say: I’m boring. You want to read only likeable characters? That’s fine. Really. Lots to choose from. Great stories, ones I love, too. And there are stories that ask us to care about unlikeable characters that don’t earn that ask—absolutely. What bugs me, though, is when characters are complex and contradictory because they reveal more of themselves, and that’s why they’re labeled unlikeable. That critical impulse is often particularly nasty when a woman writes a complex woman as a protagonist—which is to say, truthfully and with interiority. That unlikeable label becomes a hammer to any thoughtful engagement or empathy that requires some work on the part of the reader.
I’m not saying any of that necessarily applies to Mark Haines (the protagonist of The Churchgoer). I didn’t think of him in terms of likeable or unlikeable. Hainesisan asshole. But so is Philip Marlowe, and he gets away with it because he makes some clever jokes, is sometimes right, and doesn’t reveal toomuch of himself—he knows how to play the game of likeability just well enough. So that’s was what I wanted to surface a bit more, by letting Haines run mouth and his mind on the page more than usual: the assholery inherent in so many male characters we have, culturally, deemed good and acceptable, role models even. (See the bad fanphenomenon.) And then, in Haines, I was interested, too, in where his particular kind of assholery comes from, and what might emerge from it.
MT: Depending on whether you judge noir as a mode, style, or genre (I took too many classes on the subject in undergrad so I’m still stuck in this debate) there’s this idea for some people on how noir is the collection of evidence, the display, the truth there for you to window shop even if you never buy. Yet, if this is true, what does it mean for a religious, or formerly religious, character who’s participating in this mode/style/genre? How do we walk any sort of dialectic between the narrator’s present and past and the story he’s telling, given all of the conflicting natures inside him (which is part of what makes this book great)?
PC: It all comes back to a relationship to knowledge. There’s an irony in being a believer, which is that you don’t “believe” in the existence of a good God, a savior personally invested in your life—you knowit. You experience that as knowledge. Haines, when he breaks with God, flips that the other direction. He doesn’t believe the world is an amoral pointless shitshow. He knows it is one. Noir, or at least the kind of noir I love, disrupts both of those points of view. It leaves you in suspended complexity, to sort out your own salvation. That’s a good place to be, as a reader and as a person.
MT: The book is set in the early ‘00ss. I constantly am forgetting while reading the book that it’s not set in 2019, even if we have no indication that the book should take place in modern day America. Do you mind telling us a bit about why you chose the time period, how it plays in with the book, and if there’s a major reason or idea behind the time period? (It’s strange to think that, in ways, the ‘00s—everything set then is historical fiction.)
PC: It’s set in 2000–2001. It was important to me to represent that time, which was a unique moment in American culture and in American Christian culture. We’re seeing the fallout of a lot of that today. The cultures have evolved—in some ways for the better, but in others for the worse. Chris Pratt and Ellen Page fighting over whether or not Hillsong is an anti-LGBTQ church wouldn’t have happened in 2000. (Also: it is.) Kanye West and Justin Bieber being the pop faces of Evangelicalism would lead to a very different noir in that milieu. Even Oceanside, where a lot of the book is set, has changed massively from 2001. It’s all flux, right? But in art we’re trying to arrest that, just for a moment, and look more closely. There’s more drama and more magic in the specific.
MT: The book is a great example of steadily building tension and sometimes dread in a novel without piling on dead bodies for thrills (although I’m not necessarily opposed to this sort of book either). Do you feel you took a risk easing into the novel and introducing it as a crime story, even if the true mysteries in the novel don’t begin to unravel until a few chapters in. Although we do get some hints from Mark here and there.
PC: Was it a risk? I don’t know—you tell me! It was the only way to tell the story, from where I sat. A murder on page one wasn’t right for what I wanted to do. Chandler’s books don’t always zip into the action like a Lee Child novel, either. Simenon’s roman dursor Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books can take their time—and when they take their time is when they often do the most interesting things for me, as a reader. And I knew I couldn’t do a bang, bang, rape, rape, bludgeon, bludgeon kind of book. It’s not in my wheelhouse. I don’t have the stomach for it. You write what only you can write, in the end. And ultimately, one question I was interested in was the conflict between whodunnit puzzle-solving—that drive and impulse—and those harder to quantify mysteries and tensions and dreads. So the form has to fit the content.
MT: The country is in a lot of turmoil and there’s fear and hatred clashing in dangerous ways. With a book like The Churchgoer, given the chance to have everyone in the country read this book, what would you hope they take away from the reading experience? Is there an idea, message, or issue you would love for readers to examine and understand better through your work?
PC: It’s all there in reading the book, I hope: looking at anger and its limits, men and masculinity, our religious cultures and their entanglement with capitalism and politics, sexuality and gender. Evangelicalism has carried us, culturally, to some very disturbing places—and not only through its support for Donald Trump and Mike Pence. I’m wary of saying all that, though, because I want Christians of all stripes—Evangelicals and exvangelicals—to read the book, people of other faiths and no faith. I’m not by nature a polemicist, but Mark Haines is. As I’ve been saying to people: he’s not wrong, exactly, but he’s not right, either. I wanted that to be a useful and enjoyable tension for the reader.
But ultimately, I think The Churchgoeris about finding acertain measure of openness to mystery, to difference, to sitting with discomfort and being curious about our own knee-jerk responses—a willingness to contend with not-knowing, in all its forms—and that would go a long way for us these days.
MT: Mark meets a young woman named Cindy at the beginning of the novel, and she works as a catalyst in so many ways. His view of Cindy, his thoughts, his yearnings in the beginning of the novel are uncomfortable for readers to say the least. His relationship with Cindy is not clearly defined, but I suppose that’s the beauty of it—the idea that a relationship can be unique and stand firm in its own ground without being defined by the black-and-white idea of what a relationship “should” be. When going through every part of the development of this novel, how was Cindy first introduced, how did she become a real person and an important person, and how do you feel she drives Mark?
PC: Cindy is, for me, the center of the book. She’s very important to me; I started with her, actually. I’ve written the story out from her point of view. But for a number of reasons, I decided that it made more sense for me to write this entirely from Haines’ point of view. The tension, for this to be a story that it made sense for me to write, was more in how Haines could interrogate the kind of authority Evangelical Christian churches wield against women (among others), which is a part of Cindy’s story, but also his post-Christian white male hero complex, his drive to see conspiracy, to be the only one able to perceive the truth—which isn’t all that different from when he was a pastor. It’s hard to talk about this with spoiler-alerting, but how Mark sees her at the beginning—the kind of story he puts her in—is at war with her own independent life and choices, mostly happening off stage.
MT: How do you explain abandoning a religion and a family at the same time? Do you think the two are closely connected, or—without spoilers—would you say this desertion was inevitable given Mark’s character and personality, or is this change in Mark a greater than what can be explained in an interview? Why might you say the loss of faith a great (and in your hands this case becomes very nuanced) way of approaching crime and loss in a secular world?
PC: Crime fiction is often about finding meaning in a chaotic world: seeing connections and invisible trails of causality, making sense. It’s also very often unrealistic—as much fantasy as The Hobbit—but that’s great, that’s what storytelling and art are all about. Faith works in a similar way. They both give you a story that makes sense, and that can include a story for your personal life—a heterosexual marriage, two kids, the whole plan. When the bottom drops out of one story—when you see that the story you’d considered truth was a fantasy—it’s easy to think all stories are lies. Grief can cause that. Trauma. And it’s probably true, in a sense—but it’s also the best place to build a life from. The two aspects of Mark’s backstory, going from a pastor who believed in the divine creation of the world to a hermit convinced that everything is meaningless, are alternate sides of the same coin.
MT: What’s up for you next? A novel, story collection, some sort of nonfiction? How do you feel this book in particular has shaped, and may continue to shape, your journey thought the literary world? If you can, what might our readers expect from you in months and years to come?
PC: I’m working on the next big fiction project, another genre-bending kind of a thing, but that’s probably all I can say about it for now. And writing new poems, though that’s a part of trying to stay alive and present. But everything is oriented toward the future in a different way, whereas The Churchgoerwas more toward the past—trying to see how we find a way through all of the very scary realities we’re facing down, climate change and political insanity and all the rest.
MT: Patrick, it’s been such a pleasure being able to present these questions to you in an interview, and I hope you’ve enjoyed answering some of them. I hope our readers are able to find copies of The Churchgoerand embrace the novel as an experience—sometimes delightful, more often than not sinister and dread-filled. Thank you again for being interviewed for Writers Tell All. We can’t wait to see what’s next.
PC: Thank you, Matthew! It has be great to talk about all of this with you.
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.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Samantha! I have to say, there are few books for me that live up to the hype, but My Lovely Wifei s one of those books. I can definitely say it’s a contender for my book of the year. Can we start with some basic questions, like how you got into writing, how many books you went through and how many drafts of this book you had to fight through before getting to this treasure of a read?
Samantha Downing: Thank you so much! I’m thrilled you enjoyed it so much. Writing really started as a hobby for me something I enjoyed doing but not something I ever though I’d get paid for. I think it was a natural extension of reading, which I love. And you have to love reading to love writing, in my opinion.
As for this novel, I wrote one draft and revised it. This is my twelfth overall novel (the first eleven are unpublished) and I don’t really write multiple drafts anymore. I write one and revise from there.
MT: There was a lot of Patricia Highsmith in this book, I thought, as well as some other really interesting “unlikable” protagonists (like in Lolitaor more recently Gone Girl). What authors and books did you continue to turn to if you ever were stumped or didn’t know what direction to take your characters? What books did you read growing up, as an adult, etc, which prepared you to write My Lovely Wife?
SD: I’ve always read thrillers. My whole family did, so these were the books that were always lying around the house when I was younger. I love all kinds of thrillers – from adventure to legal to psychological thrillers.
When I’m not sure what to do next in the story, I do one of two things: Go the gym or take a nap. I’m convinced the second one works better but the first is probably better for me.
MT: What attracts you about crime fiction, and what do you think is the greater, more wonderful role it plays in society? Women are the main readers and writers of crime fiction, and I wonder what you think of how this plays into our political climate and what the importance of crime fiction today says about where we are in the US and abroad?
SD; I think crime fiction and thrillers have always been interesting people because most of us will never be that close (thankfully) to this kind of thing. Most of us will never see a murdered body, much less investigate the crime. It’s like our collection fascination with the mob or with serial killers…these are parts of life the majority of people see only through books, movies, or TV shows.
Women have always been the biggest readers and now we have an amazing groups of crime and thriller writers as well. Mary Higgins Clark wrote what is arguably one of the first domestic suspense thrillers, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girlcreated a whole new wave of fiction that is still popular with both readers and writers.
MT: I expected the book to fall very much into the category of one of the spouses is a serial killer. Then I was expecting the novel to just follow both spouses as serial killers. But you really pulled out all of the tricks in the most magical (and dark and bloody) way and I loved it so much. When you execute elaborate twists like in this book—especially the seemingly effortless way you wrote the ending of My Lovely Wife, what did you have in mind and how long did it take to feel, again, effortless?
SD: To be honest…the lack of any plan. I don’t plot my books or outline them. I write chapter by chapter, idea by idea. Then I have to go back and revise it. As far as it feeling effortless…I’m glad it does! I don’t know if there’s a trick to doing it or maybe it was just a fortunate accident!
MT: What was the reception like by agents, editors, publishers for My Lovely Wife, and did anyone expect the acclaim you’d receive? When you first submitted the novel to an agent, was it any different than the novel we read now? What do you feel are the most important facts for new authors to keep in mind when approaching agents and trying to get books published?
SD: I wouldn’t be published if it weren’t for a friend of mine named Rebecca. I had no intention of submitting this book, just as I hadn’t submitted the others. She took it and sent it to a friend of hers who went to school with someone who is now an agent in New York. He contacted me and said the book wasn’t for him, but he referred me to Barbara Poelle, who is now my agent. She loved the book, and how twisted it was, and she said we’d either do well with it or we’d be put in a mental institution. I’m pretty happy it’s the former!
As far as getting published, I can only advise what I did – concentrate on the writing. That’s what it’s about, or at least it was for me. So when that friend came along and sent it to an agent…I had already been writing for twenty years. I had written twelve novels. And I had no idea anyone would wantto publish my work. I didn’t think it was good enough to query.
MT: You’re writing about serial killers and sometimes vicious murders, but also infidelity and heartbreak. I know this goes back to some of my earlier questions, but how do you feel My Lovely Wifeplays into the idea that all books are crime books, whether taken literally or not, and what do you think is the truly human aspect at the heart of your novel?
SD: Ultimately, this book is about marriage and it’s about family. That’s how I see it. The book is about a couple that goes to extreme measures to keep their marriage exciting and fresh. Family is important to them, so are the kids and their community. Well, mostly.
MT: I won’t say My Lovely Wifeis entirely new (although it is entirely brilliant), but it certainly does push a lot of boundaries within the genre. How nervous were you when presenting this novel so different from what is popular in the genre, and what are your views on unlikable characters and protagonists, and why are they so appealing today?
SD; I have to admit I disagree with the idea of “unlikeable” characters stopping someone from liking or reading a book. There are unlikeable characters in every genre, in literary fiction, and they exist throughout history. Characters don’t have to be likeable, they have to be compelling. You have to want to turn the page and find out what happens next. That’s what I look for in a thriller, and I think it’s what most people look for.
I think of all characters as both good and bad – because all good or all bad is boring. And I think they are appealing because they are more realistic. I know lots of people who are good and bad. I don’t know anyone who is all good.
MT: So many novels fall into this whole “She had a perfect life, perfect job, perfect man, perfect dog! And then everything went wrong.” In a way, you could argue that this does fit into My Lovely Wifein one way or another, but you really turn expectations on their head and we see this new examination of a trend in crime fiction that feels so old. How do you feel My Lovely Wifecomments on this trend—this genre within a genre—and what do you think the novel and you wanted to say?
SD: Genres can have a wide scope, I think. I’d rather push the boundaries and see how far it can be stretched. That can only be good for readers and writers!
I’m not sure I was trying to say anything in a “big message” way. The book has a lot of social commentary about communities, the media, and marriage in general, but there isn’t one overarching idea I wanted to convey. It’s more like observations. Everything I write has a lot of small observations.
MT: Assuming you had to recommend three authors of any genre to a reader, who would they be? How about three authors from any time in the crime genre to readers? What do you think makes them so special and important? What books do you respect from them most?
SD: In the crime/thriller genre, I would first sayRebeccaby Daphne du Maurier, because it’s so creepy and brilliantly done. The next one I would recommend is The First Deadly Sinby Lawrence Sanders, because it’s such a great detective novel with a relatable, flawed detective who solves his crimes with old-fashioned police work instead of with a brilliant, deductive mind like Sherlock Holmes. The last one is The Murder of Roger Ackroydby Agatha Christie because of that brilliant, infuriating twist. She set the bar high.
MT: What are you working on now? What can we expect from you next, and how long do you think we will have to wait? Do you want to go into any further detail about your writing process?
SD: Another thriller! Hopefully even more disturbing, but that’s all I can say right now.
MT: There are so many authors who write both series (with private investigators, police procedurals, etc) and those who only write series and those who only write standalones. Where do you think you stand? Would you ever write a series? And even if you wouldn’t, what would your series protagonist be like? How hard in general do you think it is for us to keep from letting our own personalities and views of the world seep over into our writing?
SD: Right now, I’m writing another standalone. I’m not against a series, it’s just not something I’m doing at the moment.
MT: Samantha, it was such a pleasure getting to read your debut novel, My Lovely Wife. I’m sure it’s already a major success but I do recommend it to all of our readers, a book destined to be a classic and a model for debut novels in all sorts of literature classes and MFA workshops. Thank you so much for speaking with us and please feel free to leave us with any thoughts or any other ideas you want to part with. I look forward to hopefully speaking with you again.
SD: Thank you so much for having me! This has been a lot of fun and you’ve asked some great questions. I look forward to doing it again when the next book comes out.