WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Wanda, I am so excited to pick your brain about All Her Little Secrets. Can you tell me a little bit about this novel, how it came to be, and what your life and writing life has been like up to the publication of this novel? How did this novel come into existence, and what events and elements of your life have led up to this?
Wanda M. Morris: Hi Matthew! Thank you for having me. All Her Little Secrets is the story of a Black female lawyer who gets caught in the crosshairs of a group of unscrupulous executives following her rapid promotion to the executive after the death of her boss. Despite the body count, this book is really about family¾ the family we choose and the family that chooses us. This is the story of a woman who overcomes near insurmountable tragedy to forge a new life and protect the people she loves. Getting to this point has been an amazingly surreal experience. I’m glad people are getting to see a smart, sophisticated Black woman in the thriller genre.
MT: Names are important to many writers. I know Toni Morrison said she simply can’t write a character unless she knows the name, and they have to come to her almost immediately, with the conception of the character. Likewise, in your novel, names play an important role: there’s the name of the protagonist’s hometown (her real hometown), her own name (first and last) and white characters asking where she’s from, what her origins are, etc, and the names of others as well. What’s important to you when it comes to the names of people and places, and what role do you think the naming of things play in a novel both specifically to race, but also in other ways that may not be obvious to the reader?
WMM: I’m glad you asked that question because character names are very important to me. When I write books, I am very intentional about names. I want the reader to get a sense of who the character is by what they are called. Names can evoke a certain image or in the case of setting, a certain feeling. The town of Chillicothe sounds light and breezy and homey to me, a town was anything but for Ellice. Littlejohn was selected because I wanted to convey the irony of who Ellice is. She is not little in terms of her strength. And of course, like you mentioned, I wanted a name that was usual, and would elicit inquiry. With Ellice Littlejohn, I wanted her name to stand out, something uncommon so that she would be questioned about it. I think people like to categorize you by your name, find out your history and association. But because of the fractured nature of slavery in this country, a vast number of Blacks cannot trace their history back several generations as white people can do. Other names in the book like Willow and Lumpkin also evoke a certain image in my mind and hopefully in readers’ as well. Like Toni Morrison, I need to know the name of the character before I can fully flesh them out. Sometimes the names may change depending on how the character evolves over the course of writing the story.
MT: What books and other works have inspired you to write most, and this novel in particular? What novels and authors shaped you? What are some books you’d recommend to others, including those you feel don’t get enough attention and maybe should be more widely read?
WMM: Some of my favorite writers include Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. I love Attica Locke, Alafair Burke, Karin Slaughter, Gilly Macmillan, William Landay and Joe Ide. As for books I’m currently reading and recommending, I just started Alex Segura’s Secret Identity. It a really cool mystery that takes place in the world of comic book publication. It even has comic book graphics inside.
MT: What’s your writing process like? What’s writing been like in your life, and how do you find time to write? How long did it take you to write this wonderful novel?
WMM: I love talking about my journey to publication although it was not an easy one because I hope it inspires and encourages other writers. Someone recently asked me how long it took me from first draft to publication and it occurred to me that it has been 13 years (which is fitting because I’ve always considered 13 to be my lucky number!). I started a draft of this book and then put it away for 7 years because I convinced myself that nobody would want to read about a 40-ish Black woman who worked with awful people. I think people want an escape when they read a book and who would want to escape to the world I had created in this book?!
But 6 years ago, I had a health scare and I started to look at my life differently. I’ve always loved to write, so why not do what I loved to do. I pulled out the manuscript. When I read it again, I knew it was pretty bad, but that was okay. All first drafts are bad. I knew immediately I needed to improve my craft. I began reading about fiction writing and took night classes on creative writing. In 2015, I attended Thrillerfest, an annual conference of mystery and thriller writers held in New York City. There, I met so many authors, people whose work I read and admired and each of them was so accessible and generous with their wisdom and advice. I returned the following year and entered Thrillerfest’s Best First Sentence Contest – I was named one of the winners! It gave me confidence that I was on the right track, but I knew I needed some concentrated attention to my craft, so I applied to the Yale Writers Workshop using an excerpt of my manuscript and miracle upon miracles, I got in! Far and above, it was one of the best things to happen to my writing. I learned so much and met some really wonderful writers who helped me rethink and reshape my manuscript.
After the Yale Writers Workshop, I was ready to query agents. I did so with horrendous results. My queries either went into a black hole of which I didn’t hear a word back or I got a standard form letter thanking me but advising that the project was “not right” for them. I still felt deep down that I was on to something with this book, so I kept revising and polishing it. I queried some more. More rejections. But this time, some agents responded that they liked the premise but went on to give me specific comments about why the book wasn’t working for them. I took those comments and poured them back into my manuscript revisions.
While on my “Journey of Rejection,” I did a really smart thing – I built myself a community of support in other writers, some more advanced in the journey and some right where I was in the journey. I came to rely on their friendship, wisdom and insight. Rejection is hard and having people to support you along the way is hugely important. I joined groups like Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and Crime Writers of Color.
In 2018, I learned about Pitch Wars. Pitch Wars is an online mentoring program that pairs an unpublished writer with a published author for a three-month mentorship, at the end of which agents review the first page of the manuscript and may request to see the full manuscript. I worked hard during those three months with a lovely author named Wendy Heard. During the agent showcase, I got a large number of agents who requested to see the full manuscript. I knew for sure, this time, I would get signed with an agent. Again, more rejection! And while you would think I would have given up on this book, I didn’t. I had this mantra in my head that came from the lyrics of a gospel song by Kurt Carr. It says, “I almost gave up. I was right at the edge of a breakthrough but couldn’t see it.” I knew if I just stayed with this book, I would see a breakthrough.
In July 2019, I went back to where it all started – Thrillerfest. I participated in their pitch event and there, I met a lovely woman, Lori Galvin of Aevitas Creative Management, who became my agent. She is a fierce advocate for this book and my career. But above all, she is an absolute joy to work with. I tell my friends that I think this book was merely waiting for Lori to come along. After I signed with Lori, she gave me notes and I spent another nine months or so (the pandemic intervened and at one point I was not writing all!) working on more edits. We went on submission in July 2020 and 12 days later, we were in an auction! The book sold to the enormously talented Asante Simons at HarperCollins. Asante has been a godsend of an editor. She understood right away what I was trying to accomplish with this book. She has provided so much insight. Asante and my entire team at HarperCollins/William Morrow have been so supportive and generous. I am in very good hands.
As for my writing process, I tend to be a plotter. I need a loose outline of where the story is going. However, I never know how the story will end when I start, and I like that feeling of writing toward the unknown. I do have certain rituals too. I do all my first drafts in longhand with blue Pilot G-2 gel ink pens. I print out a hardcopy after I’m done and do all my revisions by hand, with a red Pilot G-2 gel ink pen. Crazy and old school I know but over the many years it took me to write this book, I tried all different ways of writing and this one works for me!
MT: What draws you to mystery novels, and why do you think they’re important to you as a reader and a writer? Do you feel they can accomplish some things more than others? Or execute something better? What’s most important to you when reading a mystery novel?
WMM: I’m drawn to mysteries because of the intellectual element of figuring out the puzzle in them. Whether it’s a thriller that hits the ground running and never lets up the pace or a slow-burner of a mystery that unfolds over the length of the book, I love them both. There’s something about the magic of trying to figure out what happens next and why characters behave in a certain way. I love writing in this genre for the same reasons. I want to explore why people do the things they do and what happens when they do. I also think analyzing this in the context of criminal behavior is a way to understand society and the people around us.
MT: Because I love them so much, I have to ask: what are your favorite courtroom novels?
WMM: My all-time favorite is Defending Jacob by William Landay. That book had me mesmerized. I have kids so I can empathize with a character who has a child that is hurt or in trouble. Of course, I love other courtroom novels like John Grisham’s The Firm and Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. Interestingly, All Her Little Secrets has elements of the legal system, but there are no courtroom scenes.
MT: How do you balance what I consider the great Southern novel (often character based, engrossed in this marvelous use of language, think Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina or Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland) and the fast-paced, adrenaline heavy thriller (especially like the novels of Karin Slaughter, although I may be stuck in the marvelously place-centric parts of your novel, wonderfully describing Atlanta)? How do you feel you approached the thriller in a unique way specific to your own voice as a writer?
WMM: I come from a background in corporate America so there are some passages in the book that come out of that experience. The interstitial chapters that deal with Ellice’s backstory gave me a way slow down and give the reader a moment to catch their breath in what was otherwise a fast-paced story. I don’t know if All Her Little Secrets is considered a great Southern novel, but it was important to me that this story occurred in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that this city was once the epicenter of the Confederacy’s military operations and also the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. To this day, you can still find landmarks and monuments of both eras standing throughout the city. Atlanta has a Black population of over 50% and there are still places called Dixie Hills and Plantation Drive as well as John Lewis Parkway. There are statues of Confederate soldiers right down the street from buildings like the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached. I thought the city of Atlanta, with all its dichotomies, would provide the perfect backdrop for a Black woman’s story of survival and perseverance in the “new South.”
MT: Writing the novel, like in many great stories, character and plot driven, you write in different timelines, bouncing back and forth with this really fantastic control of story and characters. What’s it like to write these different sections, to move back and forth between them, and do you think it’s harder or easier than writing a strictly linear novel?
WMM: Interestingly, it was easier for me to write in dual timelines. I struggled for years to find a way to explain why Ellice Littlejohn, the protagonist, would behave the way she does as an adult. It was only when I gave voice to the 14-year-old Ellice did the story really open up. The darker side of her character is borne out of Black female strength in the face of extreme adversity. Imagine you’re a young Black girl living in poverty, and you have a shot at getting out, but systems of oppression are working against you and threaten to take away that shot. How far would you go? And wouldn’t it be reasonable to believe that such adversity would stay with you for a very long time?
MT: What’s your relationship like with your characters? Is it important for you to strictly love them? Are there any characters you didn’t like at all in your novel? What makes a great antagonist?
WMM: Oh gosh, there are several characters in my book that I absolutely despise. But ugly, disgusting abominable beasts like them are necessary to the story. The stronger your antagonist, the stronger your protagonist needs to be.
MT: When you write a novel like All Her Little Secrets, with a great and strong punch of a social message and social commentary, what comes first—character, story, or do you have an idea, “This is what I want to write about?” Is it ever a combination of a bunch of things, and do you ever sacrifice aspects of one element to make room for another?
WMM: For me, it always starts with the character. I wanted to write about a strong Black female and what she endures. The social commentary was a natural outgrowth of that because living in America as a Black female is tough.Women in this society are stretched thin to be everything to everybody and Black women in particular, suffer the harshest rigors, whether it’s access to opportunity or economic parity with men. We are chastised for being too strong, called “the angry Black woman,” but conversely, we tend to be the most disrespected and maligned. Who wouldn’t be angry? There is a moment in the book, when Ellice returns to Chillicothe, and she looks around the town. She realizes who she is and what this town had made her, not an angry Black woman but a fighting Black woman yearning to be heard, respected, accepted and protected.
MT: What’s next for you? Are you working on a new novel? Can you tell us anything about a project you might be working on, and what we might be able to expect next from you?
WMM: I’m currently working on my next book about two Black sisters, embroiled in a white man's murder in 1964 in the Jim Crow south of Jackson, Mississippi. The sisters make a desperate run, one to the north and the other to a small town in Georgia. But their past is not far behind because a man with dark secrets of his own is in hot pursuit until all three lives converge in a deadly showdown.
MT: A quote often attributed to Toni Morrison includes the sentiment that you should always write the novel you’ve wanted to read but haven’t found yet. Do you feel All Her Little Secrets was this novel for you, or do you think that’s to come? If it’s to come, can you tell us what that novel might be like?
WMM: This is absolutely that book for me. I love the thriller genre. Look, I have an entire bookshelf of John Grisham and Joseph Finder’s books. I love their stories, but they weren’t my stories. I wanted to read stories about smart, sophisticated Black women who drove through speeding traffic or chased down bad guys in dark office towers. I wrote what I couldn’t find.
MT: Wanda, thank you so much for agreeing to let me interview you about All Her Little Secrets. I’m so thankful for you and this book, and it’s such a delightful, compelling read on so many levels. I really hope others will invest time, money, and the intellectual and emotional energy into reading this novel, and most of all be taken with it the way I was! I’m sure they will. Thank you so much again, and I’m so excited to see this novel make its way out into the world!
WMM: I enjoyed this! Thank you for having me.
Matthew Turbeville: Hey Clea! It’s so exciting to get to pick your brain about Hold Me Down. This is a really exciting and thrilling new crime novel that’s grounded in Boston and music and a lot of topics really relevant to America today and women in general. Can you talk a little about how you conceived Hold Me Down and how long it took to write? Did this novel in particular end up how you wanted it to be as when you first sat down to write the first draft? How did it change?
Clea Simon: I can try, Matthew, but honestly, I’m not sure I remember. I’ve been working on Hold Me Down for several years now. I don’t know how many drafts I went through, though I can tell you that every time I sent out a draft to a reader, thinking I was done, I would find issues – usually with the tense changes and I’d be appalled!
For me, this was the kind of book that gets deeper with each iteration, though. Like, take the songs in the book. I knew that Gal, my protagonist, wrote songs, and so I came up with some. But only after a few revisions did I realize how revealing these songs were – not only of what she thought she was writing, but what she was really showing about herself. (I have to add here that I love having these songs – because once they’re written, they stand on their own. Different characters react to them in different ways. Even Gal reacts to her own songs in different ways over time!) As for how it ended up: Yes, I’m really very happy with it.
MT: I love that a lot of crime writers often pick a place, oftentimes even more than authors of different genres, and really develop the landscape and people of the setting of many or all of their novels. Can you talk about the world(s) of your different novels, and what brings you back to a place in more than one novel, and how you find something new to write about using place in each novel?
CS: I’m happy to talk about setting, but for me it’s the other way around. The stories I want to tell are so intrinsically bound up in their settings that these are never consciously chosen. The settings are part of the stories. I mean, I adore my city – the two adjacent cities of Cambridge and Somerville (what now we tend to call “Camberville”). It’s very artsy and weird and makes a perfect setting for my witch cat cozies – because we actually do have many active covens here. At the same time, with all the gentrification and development, we have some natural antagonists, for my protagonist Becca and her cats!
Hold Me Down is a very different book, obviously. In many ways, in general, the music scene is a perfect setting for a mystery because it’s a self-contained little subculture. People who care passionately about music are thrown together, making it a hotbed of relationships and also antagonisms. Add in various substances, and you’ve got a dozen different plots to kick off. But for me, this world was also important because it’s a world I know very well. It was home for me for many years, and I got to mine my own experiences for the book.
Of course, I also did my research and spoke to a lot of the old crew and came up with additional details that ended up helping me with the plot. Like, at one point, a friend who used to sing in local bands told me that she didn’t think anyone knew this, but that from up on stage, she could see all the way to the back of the club. What a great detail, right? So I have Gal noting that. But I also hope that readers can suss out that her perceptions might not always entail what we would call truth.
If I had one recurring theme in my music-world books – Hold Me Down and 2017’s World Enough – it is that memory and perception are flawed. That, thanks to nostalgia or denial, we all see what we want to see – and remember what we want to remember. I guess that’s true of me and the Boston music scene, so for those stories, I suspect I’ll keep on coming back to the clubs.
MT: Can you talk about your history with music, why it’s so important to you, and why or if you feel mystery novels and music go together? Do you feel there’s any connection or similarities between the two?
CS: I started my writing career as a music critic, and, before that, I played in bands. I was one of those people for whom a certain set of clubs served as a “third place,” you know – not my home or work. As the years have gone by, I’ve certainly done that less and less – but music, live music, has remained important to me. I started HMD pre-pandemic, so spending a couple of hours in a loud and crowded club was still a reasonable option.
When I talk about the music world – or club land, as I think of it – it encompasses a whole range of places: the bars and basement clubs, the stinky practice rooms – and anyone who has ever spent hours in a windowless basement cell trying to grind out something good knows what I mean – and the late-night load outs. The decaying burlesque theaters that have been repurposed for rock shows, and also the radio stations and record stores and even the tour buses of what we used to call “major label” bands, back when there were record labels.
Rock and roll has a thing about authenticity. Punk, especially, with its DIY ethos, is not simply supposed to be about entertainment. It is supposed to be about tearing something out of ourselves. Creating something out of nothing and hoping that it sings. That’s what we do as writers too, of course. In crime fiction, we’re looking for the truth – the whodunit or the whydunit. But on a larger scale as storytellers, as novelists, we’re also always looking for a larger truth: Who our characters are. What makes them tick. Why we care about them.
MT: What novels, recent or decades past, have helped shape you as a writer and informed or helped develop a book like Hold Me Down? Were there any books that helped shape you as a writer and the novel in particular during the writing process itself?
CS: I read pretty widely, and I think everything feeds into everything, so I’ll just say that I love Hilary Mantel and Lauren Groff and my new favorite find is Melissa Broder (check out The Pisces). I also review books for the Boston Globe and other places, and that makes me read very critically. I think I learn from all of these – what to do or not to do. I’ll be reading something and it will hit me, “oh, that’s an interesting way to deal with exposition…”
MT: What are your favorite music books? Novels in any genre relating to music? What are the best ways crime novels that somehow use music in a really great way that feel incredibly honest or true?
CS: I just wrote a piece on my favorite novels about music but that aren’t crime fiction! To excerpt myself, I’d start with Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, which is just poetic perfection (about jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden). Then I’d move onto Pagan Kennedy’s very funny The Exes, a fictional tale of a Boston band made up of two former couples and Walter Mosley’s RL’s Dream, a wonderful and moving straight novel – not a mystery – about a bluesman. Those are great books that I don’t see people talking about – so let’s give them a plug!
In terms of crime fiction, I love how Donna Leon and Kate Ross use (or used, in the case of Ross) the opera world and the theatrical backstage world. They so clearly knew it and lived in it, and that helps. There are so many others, and I’m going to pass on naming them because I know I’ll leave too many people out! What I don’t like are books that just try to put on the setting for the glitz. I mean, I used to love Anne Rice, but when she made one of her vampires a rock star, Lestat, I think, I lost it. She so clearly did not know the world, and it just read very false.
MT: What are the albums, bands, artists, etc that have shaped the novel? Could you give us a sample of what a music playlist might be like for someone who loves Hold Me Down, and also for you while you’re writing any of your novels? What type of music do you return to during the writing process?
CS: I do want to do a playlist! I think there ought to be some good tough women rockers up front: L7 and Sleater-Kinney for starters, and X and X-Ray Specs and the Bangles, and just kickass singers like Etta James, Barbara Lynn, Irma Thomas, and Kate Bush. But while I was writing this, I also found myself listening to a lot of male-fronted bands that had the right mood. Songs that I could hear Gal writing (and singing), like the Lazy Cowgirls, the Rankoutsiders, the White Stripes, the Nervous Eaters and the Outlets (both Boston bands!). And, of course, the Clash. Always the Clash.
MT: Do you feel (whether due to your own life or the time you’re living in) you could have written this exact novel—or something remarkably close to it—at the very beginning of your career, as opposed to now? As a writer, how have you changed over the years, and has this also affected you as a reader?
CS: No, I could not have. True story: I started World Enough 20 years ago, and it didn’t work. I didn’t have the writing chops to carry it off. More important, I didn’t have the distance, or maybe simply the emotional maturity, to see what it was really about: the false promise of nostalgia and the ways in which we choose to view the past. Hold Me Down deals with these same issues, but it goes deeper. There were issues in this book that I was not even aware of a few years back. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but one thing I have learned in the last few years is that it is easier psychically to take on responsibility, or even blame, than to acknowledge that we may have had no control over a situation. I didn’t know that when I started writing, and even if I did, I doubt I could have written about it.
MT: Like many great crime novels, Hold Me Down functions as a mystery and a nicely drawn character study. Which came first, the crime or the character, as far as the writing process is concerned, or how did they each shape one another? Why did you feel Gal was especially well suited for this story, and what are some other characters do you feel are especially well drawn in crime fiction?
CS: Thank you! I don’t think I can separate character and story here. Like the setting, they all come up together.
MT: If you had to group Hold Me Down with any other books currently being read today, or which should be more well read, what would they be? What books do you feel Hold Me Down could be in conversation with, and what books or authors would you like to see discussed with you and Gal?
CS: I’m thinking of other books that are really focused on their complex, flawed characters. I mean, in an ideal world, I’d like to put Gal up against Melissa Broder’s characters – or Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell! Within the genre, I’m a little stuck – I’m catching up on months of backed-up reading and I fear I’m not current and that I’m missing wonderful character-forward authors. I do know I’d be honored to be considered alongside Catriona McPherson, Naomi Hirahara, Laura Lippman, or Attica Locke. I am doing an event locally in March with the poet Lloyd Schwartz. We’re friends and we read each other’s works, so we’re going to have a discussion of our new books and the themes that appeal to us both.
MT: Do you have any books by rock stars, fiction or nonfiction? What’s something I probably haven’t read, but should? What would you recommend?
CS: I have Dr John’s memoir, Under a Hoodoo Moon. It’s not very good, to be honest, but I loved him and so it’s fun for me. A better music book by (sort of) the musicians themselves is The Brothers by the Neville Brothers with David Ritz. Other than that, if you’re looking for good music writing, I’d look for people who are writers first: David Hajdu, Anthony DeCurtis, Tom Piazza, and the like. David Hajdu wrote a very funny and utterly delightful skewering of the avant garde/art music scene called Adrienne Geffel. Now that’s a music novel!
MT: Did the answer to the mystery, the solution to Gal’s problem, or anything else essential to the novel change as you were writing it? Did you have any revelations regarding Hold Me Down or Gal as you wrote this novel?
CS: Yes! I don’t want to give any spoilers, but originally I did think that Gal’s recovery of what happened in her life would be the big reveal. As I wrote that, though, I realized there was more – that a bigger issue was her realizing the implications of her initial reaction. Is that vague enough?
MT: You’re an incredibly gifted and prolific author, and I wonder: what book of yours is your favorite, and are there any of your books you’d like to write again, either to correct an error or to simply enjoy the writing process all over? Are there any books you’d avoid all together? What’re you writing now? What book will you come out with next?
CS: Oh, I hate all my old writing – I see all the clunky bits – until I start reading something again and fall in love with it. And then I wonder, how did I do that? How will I ever do that again? As for what’s next, I’m working on a sort of creepy he said/she said about a couple very, very, very loosely based on my parents. She’s an artist. He is not. They have issues. I think it’s got a kind of Patricia Highsmith vibe, which surprises me, but there it is. I’m also trying to finish a draft of a more conventional (but, I think, very fast and fun) amateur sleuth set in a newsroom with a cop reporter with a weakness for bad boys. We’ll see if anyone wants to publish either of them!
MT: Clea, thank you so much for letting me pick your brain. I loved reading and rereading Hold Me Down and recommend it to anyone who wants to marvel in a slower-burning mystery about a complex heroine with an incredible story. I loved this book and can’t wait to see what you come out with next. I can’t wait to see what readers think as well!
CS: Me as well! That said, it was a pleasure to hang here today and to think about your thoughtful questions. Thank you, Matthew!
Matthew Turbeville: Welcome to Writers Tell All, James! It’s so great to be able to interview you about your incredible and stellar novel, Five Decembers. Can you tell us a little about the book and why you wrote it?
James Kestrel: I wrote it before the pandemic upended everything, and back then I was traveling a lot between Honolulu (my home), Tokyo, and Hong Kong. Whenever I’m in a new place, I like to walk around and explore the history. And I kept coming back to how these three places were connected, and how the sea in between them had become a chessboard from 1941 to 1945. I wanted to tell a story that grappled with that, and after thinking about it a while (I believe I was on a China Eastern Airlines flight, drinking a Tsingdao, when it all came together) I saw a way to use a character like Joe McGrady to propel a narrative.
MT: A lot of reviews I’ve seen have compared the novel favorably to All the Light We Cannot See, but I loved Five Decembers even more. I also really love the rare, great crime epic. It’s sweeping, it’s massive. Do you mind telling us a little about what it’s like to write such a sprawling novel, both in size and scope, and what research and other elements of the writing process went into crafting the novel?
JK: It was great fun to write such a big book. Everything I’d written previously had been smaller in scale, and crammed into a shorter time frame. Having such a huge canvas and such a long time for the story to play out was like filling my lungs with oxygen. I spent some time researching before I began writing, but then continued it as I was writing. With the research, the hardest part was to know when to stop. I was still researching after I’d sold the book, after it had been edited, and after it had been sent out to reviewers. When my editor at Hard Case finally confirmed that there was no longer any chance of changing things, I stopped researching because it would kill me to find something I wanted (or needed) to fix, if fixing it was an impossibility.
I spent a lot of time in the basement of the Hawaii State Library, which has a microfilm collection of all the local newspapers during the relevant time period. I also got a copy of the 1941 Oahu telephone directory, which was priceless, because then I knew where all the businesses were located. I ordered maps from the period, so I wouldn’t risk driving my characters down any streets that didn’t yet exist. And I spent a lot of time at the Waialae Country Club, hanging out with my 83 year old boss and his cronies, and listening to their stories.
Hong Kong and Japan were obviously much harder to research. Accurate period maps of Hong Kong were easy to find, and (because of my day job) I had a connection to a former Hong Kong detective. Tokyo was pretty much burned to the ground during the war, much of it on a single night. So walking around Tokyo isn’t a particularly good way of learning about what it was like in 1941—except there is one neighborhood, Yanaka, that miraculously escaped bombing. It’s a good way to get a handle on what Tokyo would have looked like. I also had some friends in Japan who take hospitality to another level, and they put me up for three nights in a hot spring town, in a guest house that used to belong to the Emperor. I’m not sure I want to know what they paid for that, but it was a fantastic way to become familiar with traditional Japanese domesticity (albeit on the high end).
MT: How do you manage the amount of information, historical and general, that goes into a novel? I’ve read some criticisms of other historical novels about the unnecessary factual information in the novels used to make the novels seem more authentic, but it feels like you use just enough, with sparse, almost poetic language. What books inspired you to write Five Decembers? What are your favorite novels, what are your favorite crime novels, and what are some of your favorite historical novels you feel have had a great impact on you, in general and in writing this novel?
JK: I research as deeply as I can, because I want to know things that would inform my characters or improve my understanding of them, even if those particular details don’t actually make it into the book. Case in point: I wanted to know what a Honolulu detective’s annual salary was in 1941. It’s the sort of thing you need to know, because it will dictate what kind of house he lives in, what kind of car he drives when he’s off duty, etc. But you don’t need to write a scene where he looks at his pay stub and multiplies it by 24. So I try to find out everything I can, but then try to let the story dictate what gets written down.
MT: What was your journey like to writing this novel—both in “becoming” a writer, whatever becoming might mean to you, and also in getting the novel published? I loved Hard Case Crime, and I’m so interested in how the publisher got its hands on such a brilliant novel too!
JK: This one is a bit tricky, because James Kestrel is a pseudonym. This is the tenth novel I’ve written, and the seventh I’ve published. I wanted this book to stand apart, though. The way I got to Hard Case Crime was pretty straightforward: my agent sent me a list of a dozen or so publishers she wanted to submit to, and I asked her to add Hard Case. The entire time I was writing the novel, I thought it would be a perfect match. And I am so glad it ended up where it did. Hard Case has a fantastic (brilliant, even) editor named Charles Ardai who was not only instrumental in reshaping the book from its first draft, but who has also been an unwavering champion of it since the day he made an offer.
MT: Do you feel the novel has any particular relevance today? I think about McGrady, the protagonist, and his sort of forced exile during the war, and there’s a sense of claustrophobia, of great change and unrest that rings true today, too. When were you writing this novel and were there any events going on in particular you feel affected the way the novel was shaped?
JK: I hadn’t thought of the forced-exile connection to our current world, but now that you point it out, it’s definitely there. I wrote this book before the pandemic, though, so that certainly wasn’t intentional.
MT: Language and style is such an important part of your novel. You have this beautiful, poetic style that’s filled with these unfurling sentences, and also a lot of staccato-like precision. When you write and revise, how closely do you pay attention to the actual style of your prose, and what’s that revision process like for you?
JK: Wow—thank you! Sometimes I’ll read passages aloud to make sure they have the right rhythm. The book is told from a close third-person perspective, so I wanted the prose style to echo the character of McGrady as much as possible. When he’s thinking like a beat cop, the sentences come out like he’s banging out a report on a rusty typewriter. But I had to spend some time adjusting the sentence structures and the pacing in the middle section of the book to better fit the scenes in which McGrady has been knocked out of his element and off the course of his investigation. He’s not thinking like a cop there, but like a bewildered man trying to keep a handhold on the world.
MT: The quote often attributed to Toni Morrison, about writing the novel you’ve always wanted to read, is something I’m always interested in. Do you feel you’ve read that sort of novel before, and if so what might it be? If not, do you think Five Decembers is the book you always wanted to read, or do you think that’s still coming?
JK: I’ve never talked to him, but I believe James Ellroy must have felt that way while writing The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential.
MT: What book or books do you feel Five Decembers might be most in conversation with, or paired with for the most interesting effect? What about other forms of art? Does it work as a response or complement any other work in a way you want to draw attention to?
JK: What an interesting exercise—like a wine and cheese pairing, but for books and other forms of art. When I was writing the story, I’d often listen to 1940s jazz. It wasn’t something I’d listened to at all before getting into this novel, but I it certainly put me in the right frame of mind.
As for book pairings, I would be interested to see what other people think of the comparison with All the Light We Cannot See. Now comes the embarrassing moment where I have to admit that I have not yet read that book. It came out shortly after my son was born, so I was kind of tied up. Then I was writing my book and the last thing I wanted to do was read an acclaimed World War II novel. What if it knocked my socks off, and I stopped writing mine? What if his voice was so powerful I couldn’t hear my own, and started borrowing his? But now I can read it, and I will.
MT: What’re you working on next? Can we expect another book from you in the near future, and if so, do you mind sharing any information about the novel?
JK: Right now I am trying to work my way out from beneath a mountain of pandemic-induced lethargy. I do sort of have an idea, though, inspired by some research I did for Five Decembers which had no direct connection to the book. All I can say is that I was researching denominations of US currency in circulation in 1941, inspired by the fear that I’d have McGrady hand someone a $5 bill, only to be told by a notaphilist / mystery reader that there was no such bill until 1954. My fear turned out to be ungrounded, but in the process I stumbled across something incredibly interesting.
MT: Thank you so much for letting me pick your brain, James! It was such a thrill reading your novel, and I hope others will pick it up as well. It’s a great novel and really deserves all the attention it’s getting and more. Thank you so much again, and I can’t wait to see more from you!
JK: Thank you so much. I’m truly humbled that you read the book at all, let alone that you enjoyed it.
Buy Five Decembers here.
Prolific author Clea Simon (A Spell of Murder) delivers an enchanting, guitar-shredding crescendo of a novel in Hold Me Down, a novel that can just as easily draw comparisons to Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams as Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything. Simon writes about former rock star Gal, who becomes invested in the mysterious death of a former roadie after a reunion show to benefit a former bandmate who has recently died of cancer, the illness having left her husband and daughter in debt. The novel delves deep into issues of rape, sobriety, fame, and the various ways we cope with the past and remember events and life so differently, while never letting go of a profoundly lyrical and gripping writing style that so permeates Simon’s writing as a whole. Simon clearly has a vast knowledge of music and understands all the behind-the-scenes components well, using crime fiction to investigate the horrors of trauma and the various ways we all cope, some more successful than others, leaving the reader with the question: is this a murder mystery, or something more? I’d argue the latter, with Simon pointing to the complexities of human nature, emotion, and our ability to stomach the truth and the different ways and various extremities we use when protecting those we love. As a new uncle myself, I can say that Hold Me Down hits hard and wonderfully, with the perfect balance of emotional complexity and mystery and complex character study. I was engrossed in Hold Me Down, a wonder which works on many levels, just as much as an electric rock-n-roll novel as it is a gristly murder mystery. Simon excels at delving deep into human emotions and what makes each of us tick, revealing a gift for a tremendous amount of empathy that works for both her protagonist and also some of the characters guilty of even the most heinous crimes—Simon isn’t necessarily interested in redemption as in understanding that we are not all simply black or white, good or bad. She has so much love for the people of her novels, but never sacrifices the pure noir bent of the story, always finding the edge to her multilayered characters. Simon’s latest is an absolutely not-to-miss book, a beautiful and contemplative rush of a novel you’ll want to read over again, just in case you missed anything the first time around—or just because, like the urge to listen to any favorite rock song. Simon’s prose and story is just as electric and hypnotic and breathless as the best albums you play on repeat to experience all the feels and all the fun, all at once. Fans of Megan Abbott, Alison Gaylin (especially What Remains of Me and If I Die Tonight), and Jessica Knoll will delight in Simon’s writing.
You can buy Hold Me Down here.
Aimee Bender on THE BUTTERFLY LAMPSHADE, Mental Illness from the Inside, Writing that Matters, and the Book(s) that Awe Her
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Aimee! I know you know this by now but I’m one of your biggest fans and I am so happy to have read your latest novel, The Butterfly Lampshade. I know the first thing I read by you were your stories (this was years ago) and I’m always curious for those writers who excel in stories and novels alike, how do you decide when the story you’re telling is a novel, and how do you stick with something long enough to write it at novel length? What behind the novel—and this novel in particular—drives you to see it through?
Aimee Bender: Thank you so much, Matthew! I always love talking to you about books and writing. So, let’s see. With a novel, it takes me a long time to find the thing I want to continue writing about—and so I’ll write a lot of scenes/moments/images and see what sticks, what I want to return to. Sort of like throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall, if the stuck spaghetti will somehow eventually form a book, a shape, a sculpture?
MT: I recently said that Miriam Toews’ newest novel seems to take a lot from you—I also think of one of her oldest novels, All My Puny Sorrow, about family and mental illness. In very different ways, you both present mental illness, and those who fear it, at times as feeling the illness is perhaps fated, destined, or inevitable. What about this character and the lampshade itself contributes to this most, and what other books (or really anything) would you put The Butterfly Lampshade in conversation with?
AB: I want to read her latest. She’s incredible. I like this idea of books in conversation—for TBL, I was thinking a lot about stories where something comes alive, the Toy Story types, The Velveteen Rabbit, Ovid’s story of Galatea, the sculpture, suddenly moving, with pulse, and vitality. Even Frankenstein animating out of the bodies of corpses. But then wanting those ideas to also go along with conversations about really what is real and what isn’t. I think of Elyn Saks’ incredible memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, about her schizophrenia from the inside, and what it has been like for her. She goes into psychoanalysis because she wants to work with the anxiety that aggravates the psychosis, and lies on the couch, says things like, I killed a thousand people today. And she and the analyst would then deal with that, knowing that she was not an actual murderer. I find this incredible, truly moving in the deepest way. The courage to wander into those darkest places of the mind with another person, exploring.
MT: The protagonist, Francie, deals with losing her mother in a sense, to mental illness and hospitalization, when moving to stay with her aunt, uncle, and their newborn baby near the beginning of the novel. A lot of Francie’s narrative deals with accurately—or perhaps the better word might be solidly—cementing her memory as a sort of fact, especially when life threatens to unravel as Francie’s cousin prepares to move off to college. Can you explain about the format of the novel, how it contributes to Francie’s mindset, and what it was like writing the novel this way? How did you construct this novel, and would you describe your process and it worked with Francie’s story?
AB: Often you hear that backstory drains drama from a narrative, and maybe it was the rebellious part of me that didn’t want to follow that, that felt the dark past had such a pull on this person, and that the real tension remained in the past for her, as she sat in a quiet space in the present, perhaps finally ready to tackle it. (And to tackle it meaning here something fairly quiet-- to look at it, to consider it, feel it.) It’s a basic tenet of psychology, (and history) to think that the past is with us, as Faulkner famously said, “isn’t really past,” so I just wanted that to be the drive. And that the present would be about sitting literally and figuratively with this transitional moment in her life.
MT: There is so much love in your writing, and The Butterfly Lampshade feels like a love letter from yourself to readers, the empathy even more intense than your other (also phenomenal) books before. Do you mind talking about your history as a reader, and also the past few years or even decade and what you feel has led you to write this way, along with this specific book, and especially now?
AB: Ah, that is really so nice to hear, Matthew. It’s hard for me to gauge as I’m so close to it all, so this kind of response is very gratifying. I don’t really pick how I’m writing, but I do keep wanting to write about connection, and at the same time I have a lot of solitary characters, so it’s kind of this back-and-forth, wanting to write about contending with the self, and then seeing how that plays out with other people. I’ve been thinking so much about Ishiguro’s latest novel, and how he conveys a feeling-state, how he really creates an emotion that only can be made out of his book. And that is a kind of powerful empathy I want to emulate—to pass along an experience in such a way.
MT: What is, in your mind, the hardest part about writing? When you write, when you read a story to the crowd, if not general readers do you have a specific audience in mind? Is there any reader in specific you feel you most want to please with your most recent work?
AB: I think starting is hardest for me. Once something seems to have some energy/movement in it, then I have somewhere to go. But the dreaded blank page! This is why I love the writing exercise as a way to move things around in the brain. And re readers—I think I do now really write for someone, and it’s that someone that feels really connected to what I’m doing. I don’t know who it is, but it’s for that reader. With Lemon Cake, a couple people wrote and said it meant a lot ot them, that they felt I’d written it for them. And I wrote back and said, well, then I did; I wrote it for you. And I believe that. A book is a kind of missive into outer space. So good when it’s found, when someone receives the missive.
MT: Which books have you loved most recently, and are there any books that ground you in particular, or have helped inform you or change you greatly, especially in the past decade?
AB: So many! I’m right now reading Claire Vaye Watkins’ new novel, which comes out in October, and is stunning. I just finished The Secret Life of Church Ladies which is so inviting, so open, so hot, so able to hold feeling and cut away the bullshit. I am rereading an Agatha Christie book right now also because I had a craving. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. How I gasped as a teen reading it! I loved her so much when I was 13, sitting in class, doing silent reading time, gawking at the reveals.
MT: In the past you’ve frequently written a lot of magical realism, or perhaps works adjacent to the genre, and I wonder what you think writing magical realism, or any different you prefer or love, can do that other genres might not be able to do. Is there an advantage to writing certain genres and can you specifically think of stories that might be told one way but wouldn’t work in another form?
AB: Yes, absolutely—I think books are so often trying to get at the worlds below the world, what’s humming underneath, and so it’s not always easy to articulate, in fact it is meaningful BECAUSE it is difficult to grasp/articulate/find words for. So then we need to and get to use whatever we can to try to capture something so fleeting that is also a part of our human experience. Why not use magic? Why not use anything/everything that feels right in the moment?
MT: What’s a book you feel you wish you’d written, and is there a story in short or long form you haven’t written yet but want to? If so, can you give us any clue as to what it might be like?
AB: I think most often here of Borges’ short, “Borges and I” where he says, so beautifully, that he feels himself more in “the laborious strumming of a guitar” than in his own work. How I sometimes feel, listening to Kate Bush, that she says the thing I’m trying to say. But I don’t really wish I’d written her song. It’s more that I just want to feel that my own listener-ship is real, that if I really think I “get it” then that matters. And so I believe that’s what’s underneath the question. As Zadie Smith says, the reader is a true participant, the “amateur musician” playing the piece the composer made, contributing, learning, expressing. So a reader, then, IS, in a way, “playing” the book that she loves. She is writing her part of it, her engagement with it. That matters, and it is the beauty of the act of reading. We can’t minimize that.
MT: Does the novel feel like it has a different meaning or place in the world now that we have a new president, are in a new decade, are all changing and living a new life? Do you think the book is somehow different than what you set out to write? How do you change, edit, develop a work while the world is changing so drastically? The question seems so relevant when thinking about The Butterfly Lampshade specifically.
AB: Great question, and hard to answer. Yes, it does feel different. Awareness is growing. But a writer also needs to follow what is findable in the moment, which means it’ll live in the time it’s written, flaws and gaps and all, and hopefully will have enough of a wide view to last beyond its moment.
MT: Is there anything in writing, whether it’s in book form or tv, etc, that really bothers you about how mental illness is presented? Is there something—anything—you feel specifically gets everything right?
AB: Yes, I think often mental illness is presented in strange ways. The same way I remember a student once referencing schizophrenia as just all these funny voices in his head! Well, no. Or how my mother trained me, because her sister was mentally ill, to critique so many films, books, TV shows that made light of it in some way. In A Beautiful Mind, the character’s “voice” is personified because it’s a film, and it’s a handsome rakish actor talking to him, and it just feels really nothing like what I’ve observed in people who do suffer from actual voices that are in their minds and often tormenting them or certainly preoccupying them.
MT: I love that your books are so great even young adults (and younger age groups, sometimes) read them—what children’s books do you recommend for children today? I have a newborn nephew and one who just turned two, but of course would love to know what books you suggest for when they’re older (and I’m crossing fingers that they’ll be big readers).
AB: Oh, so many!! On all levels. A few that come to mind right this moment--Snow Music by Lynne Rae Perkins is such a great picture book when a child is crying. It is SO soothing. Several times it was the thing that quieted my twins, even in this snowless So Cal landscape we live in. My daughter’s current favorite book is El Deafo, a great graphic novel about a young girl who loses her hearing and has to cope. We also love Leo, about a ghost/imaginary friend combo, with Christian Robinson’s gorgeous illustrations. Wild Robot is just so good and I loved reading it, kept insisting we read more. And our go-to has been My Side of the Mountain, from the 50’s, about a boy running away from home and living in the Catskills for a year on his own. Figuring out how to make things work. A book of great freedom and independence.
MT: You’re such a great influence on the world, both for writers and people who seek you out purely as readers to enjoy a great book. I know I get to experience your work in so many ways, and it’s always wonderful to see that you’re just as great of a person as any of us could hope or deserve. Thank you for letting me interview you, and I’m so thankful for your new book, The Butterfly Lampshade, out in paperback now. I encourage everyone reading this to pick up a copy, even if I’ve already mailed one their way myself. Thank you again, Aimee!
AB: Oh, thank YOU, Matthew! You are such a generous presence, and every writer that gets the chance to talk to you must feel so special. Thank you for all you do for books and readers and writers!
Matthew Turbeville: Shawn! I am so excited to interview you about your newest novel, Razorblade Tears. How does it feel to be one of the biggest superstars in literature today, and what do you think it means to be who you are (a Black man in the South who actually knows where Fayetteville/Lumberton, NC is, for example) and what about you specifically do you think you bring to writing that makes everyone such intense (possibly crazed) fans?
SA Cosby: Well thanks for having me Matthew. I don't think I'm one of the biggest stars in literature or anything but I feel so moved that people are connecting with my writing in such a positive way. I hope that it shows people are willing to read different stories from different voices
MT: I want to note before we talk in depth about Razorblade Tears that I love turning people on to a book before Blacktop Wasteland you wrote called My Darkest Prayer. Can you talk about where your writing has gone between then and now, and how you’ve evolved as a writer through your novels? What books and authors and subjects pulled you into the world of My Darkest Prayer, and how is that different from now?
SAC: I think ,I hope, my writing has become more nuanced since MDP. I love that book. It was my homage to the books I grew up loving like Devil in Blue Dress or RED HARVEST . But it was also my 1st mystery novel and I think I was a bit overly impressed with my own metaphorical prowess lol. But Nathan Waymaker ( protagonist of MDP) is near and dear to my heart. Hopefully I'll get to talk to him again some day.
MT: I know some people may frown upon me bringing race, class, the area where we live in the country into this conversation, but I think it’s important to note that decades ago, Blacktop Wasteland and now Razorblade Tears may not have been possible or been published. This isn’t limited to who you are as a person, but also what you write about, and how you write your books and the characters in them. Can you talk about the way the books are shaped, and the voices of the protagonists, and the way you make your books and characters and stories so addicting?
SAC: I think that you're exactly right. Years ago fiction that starred African American characters had a small niche in publishing. The genius of someone like Toni Morrison cannot be denied. But publishers seemed loathe to give writers of color the same opportunity to experiment in multiple genres that they give their white counterparts. Writers of color who weren't explicitly ensconced in the "literary " camp were seen as a trend. I think today we can say we are not the soup du jour...we are the whole damn meal
MT: I’ve found myself in a lot of books over the years, and I found myself in Razorblade Tears both as someone who is gay and been a victim to hate crimes (though luckily not fatal on my end) and also in ways as the reluctant father figure, the person who’s become nurturing and loving in a very hesitant way. I have more than one great love now in my nephews, and it’s frightening to see how much of me is in them, my sister, my brother-in-law I love as my brother, and I wonder what inspired your passion for this story.
SAC: I had a very close friend who is close to my age who came out a few years ago to their family. It did not go well. At first I was saddened, then I was furious. I couldn't understand how a family could turn their back on their own blood. I wanted to examine that idea and since this is fiction, I wanted to have my characters change as they confront their own prejudice. Because I firmly believe writing is a vehicle of change.
MT: There are some obvious takeways from the book, and maybe some takeaways even I’m not aware of yet (although I’m eager to reread again!). Can you talk about what you hope any reader might get from your writing, and specifically now with Razorblade Tears?
SAC: I hope readers will realize that love is all that truly matters. I hope they realize that redemption is only possible when we confront our transgressions. And finally I hope they take away that you shouldn't wait to repair burned bridges.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this book? I hate this question, but feel now, with Razorblade Tears coming out, and how it’s more than just a great follow-up novel: were there any fears or a sense of anxiety going into writing the book that would follow Blacktop Wasteland, one of the most well-loved books in recent history?
SAC: I think the hardest part was ensuring I was telling the story in a way that didn't dehumanize any of the characters. That I allowed them to be living breathing people. That was the narrative challenge. I think personally it was a challenge to follow up BLACKTOP WASTELAND. The reception to that book was beyond any of my wildest dreams. I didn't want to let anyone down least of all my readers.
MT: There were some things about Razorblade Tears that threw me, but I also study structure, writing, screenwriting, and so some things I saw coming—and yet I couldn’t stop. I didn’t care. A lot of these things I know did surprise other early readers, but I wonder, whether something is surprising and a twist or something you don’t actually see coming, what propels you through great crime novels other than the shocking turns, and why do you think crime fiction is so important, especially today? What can it do that other genres simply can’t?
SAC: For me crime fiction is the language of the dispossessed, the lost and the broken. It's a universal story telling motif. For me as a reader it is endlessly fascinating. It's the continuous study of the best and worst of us. For me crime encompasses all other genres. A Thousand Acres is a crime novel. The Secret History is a crime novel. The Color Purple is a crime novel. Every novel is a crime novel because everyone has the potential to break societal rules
MT: Where do you start when you write a novel? What was Razorblade Teras like when you first began, and where did you see it going?
SAC: For me I have to sketch out the characters. I like to write character biographies. They never make it into the book but they give me a handle on my protagonist. Once I have that then I can begin.
MT: When dealing with race, class, sexuality, hate, etc, in fiction, or addressing issues in America, what are some issues you felt you had to confront in your novel, and is there a book, for better or worse, you feel your novel is in conversation with? What would you suggest others read along with your latest?
SAC: I think I'll always talk about race class and sexuality because these things are the foundational drivers of not only narrative but our shared communal experience. I don't know if there is a book I consider a companion piece but I was definitely inspired by Kelly J. Ford's COTTOMOUTHS. If you liked RAZORBLADE TEARS you will love that book. It's a rural noir with an LGBTQ heroine. It's so country and raw you can smell the chicken sh*t
MT: Did you write any characters you felt you couldn’t relate to, or maybe characters outside yourself, really in any of your books, and if so, did you ever feel it was hard to write these people and make them real? It never feels you struggled, but I know things can be a lot different on the other side of the page, typing on yoru screen (of if you’re a pro, writing by hand?)?
SAC: I think my villains tend to be awful people because the better your protagonist. I don't identify with them but I do my best to understand their motivation, even if that motivation is repugnant to me .
MT: What books do you feel people need to read today? What books, which authors do you think are most important to dive into today? What book would you suggest anyone to read, and what book would you say is something you turn to maybe keep writing if you feel out of sorts, or to remind you of a love for books?
SAC? Oh man that's a long list but I'll mention a few
Donald Ray Pollock
Ernest J. Gaines
Rachel Howzell Hall
And many many more
MT: I mentioned how I know people who obsess over you in a nearly scary way. You’re that great. Similarly, I wonder who are the S.A. Cosbys in your life, the ones you would kill the read, the authors you love completely?
SAC: I'm totally enamored with Donna Tartt , Dennis Lehane Walter Mosley and Stephen King and Nikki Giovanni. I'd love to have a beer with all of them.
MT: I love that you threw out Pat Conroy and The Prince of Tides once as one of your favorite Southern Gothic novels, something not everyone might consider fitting into the genre. What other books and tastes in general do you think people would be surprised to hear about? Are there any hot takes you can shoot my way? I love that you love Pat too.
SAC: Haha I don't have too many hot takes but I guess people may be surprised to know I grew up reading romance novels. My grandmother had a stack as tall as an azalea bush . I guess my only hot take is ...you can take classes to become a more technically proficient writer but ultimately you're either born a storyteller or you ain't. Nobody can teach you that.
MT: Can you give your superfans any hint at what you’re writing now, and what your next book make be like? How long do we have to wait? What can we expect?
SAC: I'm working on a Southern Gothic murder mystery that's like True Detective Season 1 meets Sharp Objects
MT: Shawn, whether it’s an interview here, or me virtually interviewing you in a private conversation, I always love talking to you about your work. Please stay in touch, and thank you always for being the great writer none of us deserve, but are so appreciative for. You are one of my favorite people and favorite authors, hands down, and I hope there are some people reading this interview and finding out about My Darkest Prayer, or buying a copy of all your books for a friend, or themselves. I hope everyone gets to read your work. It’s phenomenal and deserves to be preserved and cherished and celebrated. You deserve all the best. Thank you, Shawn.
SAC: Thank you for having me Matt. It's been a pleasure.
Meredith Davidson & Matthew Turbeville: Ruth, I am so excited to talk about your novel. I was hooked from the initial description, and I couldn’t stop reading and rereading as I went on. I find folklore, family legends, the histories we carry from our ancestors so intriguing. Why do you think these things are so important to people, and can you point to whether living with a legacy on our names, or superstition, or lore effects life for the better or worse?
Ruth Gilligan: Wow, talk about a big question to start us off! But a good one, definitely. And thank you so much for reading (and rereading) the book, I’m thrilled you enjoyed it. Needless to say, I also find these layers of belief completely intriguing. There’s this thing we call Religion with a capital ‘R’, then there is the slightly less official or formal realm of folklore slash superstition (although I have all sorts of thoughts about who gets to decide the cut-off point between these two) and then, as you mention, there are the family stories and traditions that get passed down from one generation to the next. I think in many ways, all these layers can offer roughly the same kinds of rewards and restrictions – whether it’s comfort and continuity, a sense of higher purpose, or whether it’s a stifling or prescriptive presence, as if your life choices are being dictated in all sorts of damaging ways. I have definitely experienced all those facets of faith at some point in my life.
MD/MT: What first interested you in family traditions, lore, history, and legends? What about different regions of countries or parts of the world change the way we view these different aspects of life and the past?
RG: I grew up in Ireland, which of course is known for being a fiercely religious country, but amidst all the talk of Catholicism and Protestantism, there is also this lesser-known realm of Irish folklore and superstition which, for many, is still alive and well. And what’s fascinating to me is that it’s not an ‘either or’ situation – plenty of people can have a house decked out with crucifixes and sacred heart statues, but also still believe in fairies and pagan rituals. For some that might seem contradictory, but as I mentioned before, I think the lines between these beliefs – or types of belief – are so nebulous anyway. There’s no logic and that’s the messy, beautiful point (and indeed, that’s the messy, beautiful starting point for a novelist).
MD/MT: One character, Una, wants to perhaps become a butcher, but is limited by her sex. Obviously, this should be viewed as form of sexism, but what does it say that patriarchal values, control, and lineage shapes Una so much from a young age, and how, if at all, might she and other women be able to step outside this?
RG: What does it say? It says welcome to Ireland, where the Guinness is good and the patriarchy is alive and well! I’m being facetious (slightly), and obviously times they are a-changing, but historically – and this goes back to the ‘fiercely religious’ thing – women and women’s bodies have been treated pretty appallingly in my country. The Church has so much to answer for and, like I said, progress is definitely afoot (see the historic result of the 2018 abortion referendum), but there is a still so much residual trauma – and rage – from the manifold ways in which Irish women have been systemically suppressed.
MD/MT: What was so important about setting this story during a certain time period, possibly other than issues dealing with Mad Cow’s Disease?
RG: The novel takes place over the course of a single year – 1996 – which, for me, was such a crucial pivot point in Irish history. As you mention, it was the year of the Mad Cow Disease, or BSE, crisis, but it was also the year in which Divorce was finally legalized in Ireland; the year the first gay kiss was shown on Irish TV (homosexuality had been decriminalized just three years previous); it was the year the Celtic Tiger began – that huge economic ‘boom’ that ultimately propelled Ireland onto the global stage. The millennium was around the corner, the Spice Girls were on the radio – there is a narrative of progress on the air; a sense of leaving the past, and the old ways, behind. In that way, it felt the perfect setting for the book and all the tensions I was interested in exploring.
MD/MT: Why is Ireland a land rich with legends, and what other countries do you feel are so involved with history and lore? What countries would you like to read about in a book like The Butchers’ Blessing? What countries are underrepresented in this sense, essentially?
RG: Oh Jesus, so many of them! All of them! But fortunately, more and more gorgeous novels are offering insights into these rich traditions. A Girl is A Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (set in Uganda); The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (set in the Balkans); anything by Helen Oyeyemi – from Cuba to Nigeria to the UK, she braids a whole host of histories and folklores into her work. I’m always excited to see where she takes us next.
MD/MT: What role does sexuality play within this world filled with something akin to magical realism, as many critics compare this in a very positive way to Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife? I don’t want to reveal many spoilers, but how do you feel the Butchers might represent or work as a catalyst for the awakening of someone’s sexuality, and also why this character might or might not feel tied to the land of his birth?
RG: Ha, I didn’t see your Obreht reference before I typed mine. Great minds and all that! In response to your question, I think that so much of folklore and myth is about shapeshifting and fluidity; about metamorphosizing from one state to another (or perhaps, residing somewhere in between the two). This is something I love about Daisy Johnsons books (her short stories Fen or her novel Everything Under), and it’s something I definitely explore in The Butchers’ Blessing, both in terms of gender and sexuality. Regarding the character you’re talking about, he doesn’t necessarily see himself in the legends of his homeland, so he turns to the Greeks, immersing himself in their ancient tales instead. Again, this adds another layer to the novel, and shows how everyone finds their logic – or at least, searches for it, desperately – in a different place, a different set of narratives. I just hope his dreams of escape really do come to pass…
MD/MT: Where did the Butchers come from? What were they originally, if the idea of the Butchers have changed at all as the novel evolved, and what do you feel was necessary to change or reevaluate when shaping the book?
RG: This is a great question, mainly because I’ve been fascinated with how much the Butchers’ source has been discussed – or, more specifically, the question of whether or not they are made up. I like to think of them less as an invention as an amalgamation – when I was researching the novel, I came across so many different traditions and superstitions connected to cattle, most of which I had never heard of before. So I ended up pulling them all together to create this group of eight men known as the Butchers who wander the countryside enacting these ancient practices.
I only discovered really late into the editorial process that my British editor fully thought the Butchers were ‘real’. I suggested tweaking something about them and he looked at me horrified, like ‘you can’t do that.’ So then I explained; he was flabbergasted! But I think it raises all sorts of interesting questions about what is ‘real’ and what is ‘true’ – both in fiction and in folklore – and where we like to draw the line between.
One thing my editor did help me to reevaluate was just how key a role the gender stuff played in the novel – obviously I knew it was there (there was no doubt in my mind that this would have to be a group of eight men, not women), but I hadn’t fully thought through the implications of that, especially for the wives and children of the men involved. That was where some of the novel’s main tensions arose.
MD/MT: My own family is filled with lots of history and lore and curses. On top of being related to the family Tess is supposedly descended from in Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, I have researched that our first English ancestor (we are originally French, if I recall) was known only as the Demon. A lot of this, along with other things like mental illness, which is its own sort of curse, have shaped how I view my world. Do you ever feel like histories of the past, perhaps prophecies, curses, things we are expected to be or do actually shape or limit us as humans in our lives, whether on a daily basis or throughout our lives as a whole?
RG: Wow, that’s amazing! Tess & the Demon would be an excellent title for a family memoir… As mentioned above, I absolutely think these things shape us, for better and for worse. It’s all to do with self-fulfilling prophesies, and this exists on a super micro/intimate scale, and also on a societal one too. We are all raised on comments like ‘people in our family don’t do X’ or ‘little girls don’t do Y’ and so much of one’s life is spent trying to figure out which of those comments are helpful and which are a total hindrance (to put it mildly).
MD/MT: What books shaped you as you grew up, as you became a writer, and as you shaped this novel in general? What books do you feel influenced you the most and what book might The Butchers’ Blessing be in conversation with?
RG: In terms of this novel, the books of Evie Wyld and Sarah Hall were hugely influential. They are both British women who write these strange, dark, elegantly-structured novels steeped in a kind of gothic atmosphere, simmering with feminist rage (the same can also be said of Jesmyn Ward’s masterpieces). In terms of the book being in conversation, I was also hugely conscious of John McGahern and other (male) giants who make up the traditional (male) canon of Irish rural fiction. There is much to admire about these books, but also much to write back against (as showcased best, of course, by the inimitable Edna O’Brien).
MD/MT: What writers do you feel need more recognition, and which novel would you recommend to another writer, a reader, or anyone for any reason—perhaps it’s a favorite novel, or a novel you feel could change the way someone thinks. I always view books as the greatest gift, especially when a person is seriously taken into consideration and the gift giver provides a book they feel matches the recipient perfectly.
RG: I appreciate that I just mentioned her, and I also appreciate that she is hardly an unknown entity, but I really think we should all be shouting Evie Wyld’s name from the rooftops a whole lot more than we currently do. In terms of recent novels, again I know it won a huge award in 2019, but I am still struck by how few people have read Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. I think it is exceptional.
MD/MT: What do you want The Butchers’ Blessing to say to the world? When you look at what you’ve written, this beautiful novel you’ve likely slaved over, if a reader reads the book and enjoys it, what is one thing you hope the reader takes away after finishing the book?
RG: “Wow, you were right – the fact that I’m a vegetarian had zero impact on my enjoyment of this book.’ (I get asked that question an awful lot).
MD/MT: Tananarive Due said recently that in writing a horror novel, she could not write a character who didn’t want to survive, or want something, and actually be successful in writing a great novel or story. While The Butchers’ Blessing isn’t horror, which character do you think wanted something the most, and did you ever find it difficult to separate yourself from the characters and give them obstacles? So many authors I know have such a hard time putting their characters through any sort of hellish experience, which can be detrimental to writing in my opinion.
RG: Not at all, in fact, I sort of struggled with the opposite. As in, I never really thought of this book as weird or dark, partly because I am so in love with my characters that I didn’t really realise that some of the things they do may be considered weird or dark. So for example, I remember giving a really early draft to my husband to read, and he was like ‘do you really think it’s a good idea to have Úna trying to slit a mouse’s throat the very first time we encounter her?’ I was horrified slash mildly offended on her behalf, but I suppose I took his point. Now you get to hang out with her for a little bit first – you get to see the things that have shaped her and the way she is treated by the bullies in school – before she gets out her knife.
MD/MT: You vacillate between POVs so swiftly and cleverly it’s perhaps best done since Egan’s GOON SQUAD. Can you talk to us about the energy and thought put into ordering the timelines and speakers, the voices, and the reasons why the people who spoke were given voices?
What a compliment! Honestly I am obsessed with novels written from multiple perspectives; I love their structural intricacies and also the narrative pleasures that they offer – this can be in terms of the inherent mystery of how on earth the different characters are going to link up, or it can simply be the joy of getting to see the same scenario or relationship from totally different points of view. For the record, despite what some people think, I also find novels like this much easier to write – you get to stay with one character while they’re doing something interesting, and then as soon as it starts to get dull, you can switch. I am terrified by the prospect of just sticking with one character for a whole novel – I have no idea how you would keep things interesting for that long.In terms of choosing which voices would be heard in this novel, it was very important to me from the start that, even though the Butchers were the central premise, I wasn’t actually interested in following them on their travels – I was far more interested in the women and children they left behind. So that’s the reason behind Úna and Grá, a mother and daughter combo, then on the other side you have Davey and Fionn, a father and son combo, which offered a lovely symmetry. The book is so concerned with family and generations and what gets passed down, for better or worse, so the structure mirrors that.
MD/MT: It’s strange how when we were younger, we experienced this Mad Cow Disease issue that scared so many people, although not on the level of this pandemic. At the same time, or around the same time, we see Ireland in this novel and it’s so different, so far away as if we’re centuries away, frozen in our own separate times, like either our present existed or theirs did, but not possibly at the same time. Can you talk to us about the feel you wanted when writing the novel, and how Mad Cow Disease and the myth itself came together, quickly or in a slow evolution?
It’s funny trying to trace a novel back to a precise origin story, but I think for me there were two starting points that ultimately came together. The first, as I mentioned, was a longstanding interest in Irish folklore and the tension between different belief systems in a country that is so often considered just strictly Catholic. The second was a road trip with a friend of mine whose father used to be a farm animal vet. To pass the time, he started telling me all these crazy stories of things his dad had seen over the years, especially around the Mad Cow period. I found them fascinating and also couldn’t believe some of the stuff that was going on during my lifetime to which I had been totally oblivious. So I started to do some research, and then my ideas began to bleed (pun intended) into one another, until eventually The Butchers’ Blessing was born.
MD/MT: When I think of children killing animals, I remember specials on children who torture animals and kill them and turn out to be serial killers later on in life. They’re demented, strange, our abject in so many ways. But I read this novel and I am also transported to where I was supposed to go hunting for game, and when I killed my first deer at 7—something I did not ever enjoy doing—those with me tried to smear deer blood on my face. How do we create rituals to enable children to grow and mature or turn into something monstrous, and do you feel you’re addressing this in The Butchers’ Blessing? In a way, people experience the allure and repulsion of the Butchers, some separately and some simultaneously.
Jesus, that is an intense experience for a 7 year old. This might not be a direct answer to your question, but I think of all the descriptions of this novel (literary thriller, family saga, feminist folklore) the one I like most is ‘coming of age’ story. Because I think that Úna’s coming of age is at the heart of the book, but so is the country’s coming of age, or at least, its fumbled attempts to transition from one thing to another (and here I think your phrase ‘mature or turn into something monstrous’ applies beautifully).
MD/MT: Do you have any books coming out next? Anything to follow this brilliant novel? I know I would love to hear about it, as well as likely all of our readers.
So, further to my confession that single person narratives scare the crap out of me, I decided for the next book to set myself the challenge of doing exactly that. However, to circumnavigate the task a little (it’s nuts the tricks we play on ourselves as writers), I am now writing a novel with just one POV, but which jumps back and forth a lot through time. So it centres on this woman called Emily who is a sculptor and whose mother disappeared when she was a teenager, and who is now trying to decide whether or not to become a mother herself. There’s lots of stuff about art and womanhood and mother-daughter relationships; there’s also stuff about real life artists braided through as well. The working title is Umbilical and I’ve only a written a very rough first draft, but I’m enjoying it, and for now, that is enough.
MD/MT: Thank you so much for joining us to talk about your brilliant book, The Butchers’ Blessing. From start to finish, it’s this brilliant novel, a literary thriller of sorts, a saga and a coming-of-age tale, a novel about love and family and what we own of ourselves and what we have no control over. Thank you for allowing us to pick your brain and we hope you’ll come back from time to time. Please feel free to comment on anything else, and once again, it was such a pleasure reading this book and having the opportunity to experience what will likely become a sensational book read
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Caroline! I’ve been wanting to interview you for a while. I’ve read your previous books and loved them, but Providence seems like a whole new step in your journey as a writer completely. Can you tell me what initially sparked the idea for this book, and how or why you decided to pursue this novel?
Caroline Kepnes: Hi Matthew! I’m so happy to hear that. When I stated Providence, I was coming off two Joe Goldberg books that are all about the horrors of mankind, the danger of phones, books inspired by my fear that Man + technology + ego = oh SHIT! Providence shares the same theme, but it’s different in scope and atmosphere. I chose New England because I was nostalgic for my pre-internet youth. The library was closed at night, so even if there was a book you were dying to read…you had to wait. Technology lifted those boundaries and that change is still wild to me, this 24/7 access to information. By the second draft of Providence it was like okay, these characters are suffering from isolation and a sense of disconnect at a time when we are constantly reminded that we are connected. They would all possibly be better off if they let go of this person they can’t stop thinking about, but it’s not so easy. And that’s messy appealing territory to me. It’s like okay you can delete Facebook but it’s still there, which is horrifying. Yet we go through this pandemic and we’re all like socially distancing like Jon and Chloe and this is no way to live, as we know, and well…I’m happy I wrote that book when I did, when I wanted to because now it’s like…most of us are living like Jon Bronson. And that would for sure change my approach to the story.
MT: I really loved the book. It was refreshingly new and flawlessly written. You write from several different viewpoints here, so one of the first things I want to know, as a writer myself, is how you managed to tackle each of these voices and implement them in the best possible way? I’ve always admired people who write books from different first person POVs, and this certainly did not disappoint.
CK: For me, what makes the Joe books the Joe books is that you are completely restricted to his point of view. There is no escape. It’s as much about that dominating, sole perspective as it as about the story, you know? I want the reader to be stuck in his head and therefore on his side. With Providence, the first thing that came to me was Jon’s voice. Loud and clear and I was so passionate, couldn’t stop writing. But during the first draft, I was like Chloe’s voice came on strong. And the same way Joe had to be just Joe, I knew there could be no Jon without Chloe, without Eggs. I was like, It’s Martyr Wars! Eggs is al ‘Hey you kids have youth on your side. Let me tell you what it’s like to be old!’ I was nervous about this because it was so different from the You structure, but I really do believe that you gotta do the thing that scares you, that keeps you up at night.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this book? What was the easiest? How many drafts did you go through with Providence, and what was your writing process like?
CK: The hardest part was that I wrote like 150 pages of Jon’s dreams and memories and I can be very stubborn. I did not want to cut those pages. So, I didn’t. I started writing Chloe. And as I was bringing her to life, I realized that I was clinging to the Jon pages because they were a place holder for things I wanted to show from Chloe’s point of view. You do therapy on your book, you know? I was in it with that book. I think I wrote six drafts. The easiest part was Chloe, a breath of fresh air, that and the fact that there are few things I hate more than an indoor fucking pool! And I loved writing about the city. I went to Brown and it was home for me. The Providence scenes were fun, embracing my cringey nostalgia for the slim, intimidating pages of the Dunwich Horror that stumped me in this college horror class where I was more interested in learning all the horrific stuff about Lovecraft. Another hard part was the science. I did so much research and went down so many rabbit holes about photosynthesis and I tried to squeeze it all in and it was like no. None of this goes in the book. This is not that kind of story. This is a sad love story about people who are moving from denial to acceptance of some terrible things that are out of their control. The writing process was emotional. I was so hyper-sensitive that things when I went out. The first time I heard that Hippocampus song “Way It Goes” I was at a concert. I got chills like, that achy and gut busting wailing, that’s my book!
MT: You’ve created books in the past—specifically You and its sequel—that are unlike nearly anything published in the literary industry today. What books influenced you with your previous two books, and what books have influenced Providence? Are there certain authors or books you return to constantly?
CK: Stephen King always and forever because of that intense joy you can feel in his storytelling, like he is so fucking happy to be getting this down on the page for you. That’s a very specific power that has always meant a lot to me. Whatever you want to call it, childlike joy, heat, urgency, it’s that crackling sensation that the person behind these words is locked in. Fucking love that feeling! I always go back to The Street by Ann Petry. Oh that book makes me feel alive and it’s this powerful read-me-now-or-else kind of intensity to her style. I love Anne Tyler, Joyce Carol Oates, Edwidge Danticat, Elizabeth Strout and Phillip Roth. I read Prince lyrics a lot too. And I open random pages of Brian Hiatt’s book about Bruce Springsteen songs. I like lyrics, tiny stories. It helps me figure out the drive in my long stuff to look at tiny divine things. I’m inspired and influenced by things that feel divine, where I catch myself reading something special—the screen door in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” or the drowning in Flesh & Blood or the Whitney Houston part of American Psycho or the racing the blossoming peach passage in Beloved--and I know that I will remember this forever, this work that is so purely from this on person expressing themselves in this powerful specifically them-ish way, is a part of my brain now. I think about that experience and I write my stuff until it feels like it’s a tiny bit closer to maybe just maybe being that way for someone else.
MT: Did you ever find yourself surprised to be writing a book like Providence? How long did it take to write, and did you ever question yourself along the way? What was your favorite part about writing this book, and what was your least favorite part in writing this novel? Was there a particular character’s voice you liked or disliked?
CK: I wasn’t surprised because I’ve always liked to get weird. I wrote a lot of short stories with kooky, unexplainable phenomena, like this one about a children’s librarian who has a freak medical condition where she starts talking about of her vagina. A very short story! I love the weird and I bet a lot of writers would say you do the weird thing that you can’t stop thinking about or else it gnaws at you. I had been doing research, I was in the early thinking stages kind of circling Providence and Nashua, thinking about why Lovecraft was so fucked up, about why Providence is so cool, why New England and horror just go together, but I didn’t have the story. Then one day I was driving into a mall that I hate in LA and I almost had a car accident. I shrieked, it was so close and it was my fault. I was shaking. I heard Jon Bronson in my head and I didn’t go in the mall. I turned around and drove home and wrote the first chapter. In the beginning I also wrote Magnus’s side of the story. The psychopath kidnapper had become my comfort zone, but over two years it was like no, Providence doesn’t need or want his perspective. I have never written a book where I wasn’t questioning myself. Every writing day I go from the high to the low over and over. Climbing out of that low is so often where I figure out how to fix things. As for favorites…I love Crane Coma Florie. And Eggs. There’s a lot of my dad in him, so that was cathartic. And it makes me happy that American Splendor and the Kiwis with the Grown Ups 2 podcast and Hippocampus all made the final draft. I’m really bitchy with myself about the pop culture stuff. It has to prove that it belongs in there or it’s gone!
MT: What do you think, as a genre, of supernatural mysteries and thrillers? What are your favorite examples of these books and what books or authors would you refer new readers to, or writers who are trying to attempt similar books?
CK: I think it’s because of the way my family was, we had every kind of book everywhere all over the house, but I think of the author as the genre, you know? People who read my books can find lists of all the books and authors I mention in my books. Read em! Paul Tremblay and Kim Liggett are two authors who know when to slow down, when to fly. There’s specific magic in the way tense moments play out in their books. Gabino Iglesias draws pictures with words. Wendy Walker is your very smart, intuitive best friend who’s telling you a story and she knows how your mind works. Bassey Ikpi’s memoir is thrilling and supernatural with language and it makes me want her first book of fiction. Alma Katsu’s middle name is atmosphere. Perfect Days by Raphael Montes is so fucking out there that I was a little scared to meet him in person but like most people who write sick stuff, he’s grounded and sweet. Read The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood and let it blow your mind out of ooh…the water! The North Water by Ian MaGuire is a this-is-how-you-write-action book, bleak and meaty. C.J. Tudor books make me feel enthralled in that late night supposed to be sleeping kind of way. The Iain Reid book you know is I’m Thinking of Ending Things and it’s dizzying, terrific. But did you read his nonfiction book The Truth about Luck? It’s about his friendship with his grandmother and it’s exciting to know that these books came from the same brain. I say when you love an author, read all of their stuff and the stuff they go on about too.
MT: How have you felt being praised by not only critics, but by Stephen King himself? When was the moment you knew “I’ve made it”? How has that changed your life and affected the way you not only work, but view the world?
CK: I get to use the word amazing because it is truly amazing to know that Stephen King read your book and was pretty rocked by it. I first had that “made it” feeling when I found out You was being published and then when people started reading it, it was this heavy, slowly building wave of whoa…people are really reacting to Joe. It’s changed my life in the sense that it’s really fucking awesome to have an audience, to have people a few mils away from my home making a TV show based on my books. That’s wild. And then I open my Word document and go back to writing because the one thing that doesn’t change, there is no way around it. You don’t get to be like yay I wrote unless you write. I have an addictive personality and I make sure that the addition continues to be the writing itself. Getting to make stuff up every day for a living is a dream and I’m grateful that I didn’t give up.
MT: Many people view this as a sort of crime novel. I would love to hear who your favorite crime writers are working in the business today—especially women crime writers, as the genre becomes more and more of a woman-centric business.
CK: I just found an advance edition of Laura Lippman’s first book and I read the promotional copy and it was like yes, publisher, you were right to be so excited. You knew what was coming! That jacket copy felt prescient for women in the business of telling tight, insightful stories of violence. There are so many fabulous books out there right now and last year in pre-Covid times, I got to go to Bloody Scotland and meet Lucy Foley and Shari Lapena and Ruth Ware and Sarah Vaughn and many others I admire. And two brilliant women writing great dark things to watch: Ani Katz’s debut A Good Man is phenomenal and taut. I can’t wait to see what she does next. Lindsey Cameron’s Just One Look is coming in 2021. My kind of book. Sick, funny, brilliant with Mike White vibes and just fucking fun.
MT: How do you feel about women in the literary world? To me, it seems like women are progressing forward, if not wholly taking over the industry at this point. More and more women and other marginalized people are getting their chance at grabbing their own piece of the pie or place at the table. How do you feel marginalized people are affecting the literary community in general, and what do you think things will be like in the years to come?
CK: There is a long, embarrassingly overdue sense of change with marginalized people flourishing while certain others who have long been at the table know that they can’t get away with that thing they said or did a few years ago. And that’s good. That’s progress. But it’s also like how are we fucking there yet? I went to high school and college in the 90s. Everyone I knew and respected was reading things written by people who were “different” because of fucking course we wanted to learn about the world. Otherwise, you’re saying only you and people just like you in certain surfacey ways are legitimate and relatable and how gross and sad would that be? What a boring way to live. I’m happy for kids in the “margins” who want to write and be in the business of storytelling because right now, if I were in their shoes, looking at authors shining in the hellscape of 2020, I’d be like wow, that table is looking more reflective of the tables in my daily life all the time and if she can do that, I can do that. So that’s a big win for the future.
MT: You have a very large fan base, and I’m aware that’s an extreme understatement. What has been your favorite reaction to your books, with fans either speaking to you in person, or writing in private? How do you feel you are influencing fans and writers alike, and what would you like to see come from your writing in an effort to change our country or even the world?
CK: I truly don’t know where to begin. Even before my book was published, when there were advanced copies floating around, I was so excited that whatever it was about the book…it was reaching people in this way that made them feel very verbal and enlivened and how cool is that? I buckled down and wrote a book to bring myself and my family back to life after some terrible stuff, and that’s the magic of writing, when the thing that made you feel good as a writer translates into the reader. Yay! I get these notes from people who tell me about why this writing speaks to them, means something to them, got them out of some kind of emotional jam and that’s the best. I love it. I’ve heard from people in recovery, people in abusive relationships. And then I hear from people are into reading because they want to write and my stuff entertained them and now they’re finally writing the thing because they feel empowered. And then there are the people who haven’t read in ages and they could get into something I wrote and now they are back on books and just yayayay you know? I love that electricity. I miss book events. I miss casual conversation because I love those interactions. I miss a balanced life and I can’t wait when being together to celebrate a new book is a thing we can do again. A change I’d like to see…I would love for my books to make people excited about books in general. And also, writing these books makes me super self-aware of the way I am around people, and what I might not know about people I’m interacting with. So I hope that it’s that way for readers, that when they close one of my books and go back into the world with all the real people, they are a little more hyper sensitive to the mysteries of humans.
MT: Speaking of our country, which of your books might you recommend to the current president of the United States of America? What book by another writer—or story, poem or poetry collection, essay or essay collection, etc—might you recommend to the president, and could you explain why? What do you think he would learn from these pieces?
CK: I think a lot of people would agree when I say that we are done trying to reach that man. Next!
MT: What is a dream book you’ve always wanted to write, or have you already written it? Is there a certain genre or book you’d like to make, and are there any genres you’d like to mix together? Toni Morrison, among other luminaries, has said write the book you want to read. What book do you want to read, and will you write it?
CK: That Tonti Morrison quote is so important. You was not the first book I ever wrote, but it was the first time I was like fuck it, no more trying to sound like an “author”. I was always me in my short stories, but I had the novel on a pedestal and I got self-conscious when I thought about a novel. And then with You it was like fuck it. That quote about writing originally, that advice I’m always drunk raving about, it’s time to put that into daily practice and be totally engaged and expressive in and yes, sometimes, embarrassed about what I am doing right now. Now, it’s a daily wellness check with the work in progress. I make sure that I am writing the book I want to read as I write it, and I am happy to say that right now, that book is You 4.
MT: How does the revising process work for you? In addition, how did obtaining an agent and working through the literary industry turn out for you? Have you found yourself traveling down an easy road to publication and later praise and much success, or has it been a long battle hard-won?
CK: I feel like you can’t do this if you don’t learn to enjoy rejection in all its forms and use it to grow and get better. I write every book a few times, and often my editor will do that brilliant thing of knowing what worked in the first draft, what I need to pull out of the second draft and so on. It’s like you make one part of it sing and then you want everything to sing like that but sometimes you get carried away and try too hard. And that’s where editors are gold. I have always had the same approach since I was a teenager. I put my head down and work as hard as I can and write and write and write. And then I lift my head up and reach out to everyone I’ve ever known like CAN YOU READ THIS RIGHT NOW. I’m not exaggerating. In high school I entered the Sassy Magazine fiction contest. I was obsessed with the magazine and I called 411 to get the phone number and cold called an editor to interview her for my high school newspaper…and ask if she read my short story yet. Such a little asshole, yes, but I feel like you got to have some Tracy Flick in you to get somewhere. I got an honorable mention and a typewriter in that contest, but the real prize of course was the positive reinforcement for light stalking AKA networking, journalizing. Years later in LA, I was a journalist and after the interview I would shut off my tape recorder and be like Hey do you want to read my script? Eventually I got an agent through a friend of a friend. It can’t be said enough: If you want to be a writer you have to write a lot. And I heard the word no a lot. Most people do. That’s where it’s always good to be in this because you love doing it more than you love hearing the word yes.
MT: What is the most difficult thing about writing, whether in the actual creative process or editing, or what might follow?
CK: Not writing is the most difficult and necessary part of writing. When I’m full steam ahead and up a 7 like super in it and productive and then it’s 1 PM and there are so many hours ahead and the fucking sun shines and I feel too only half on the planet to drive and my brain is buzzing and I go be a human but soon, no matter how good things are going, the panic comes that tomorrow morning I will wake up and not be able to do what I did in the morning and the whole not writing part of the day can be a bit long and gritty especially in these solitary times. Fun cycle!
MT: What’s next for you, Caroline? You’ve got a big TV show in the works with a trailer already set up, and you seem to be churning out books quite quickly. What is the next book (or otherwise) you’re planning on writing?
CK: It is so nice to hear you say that because it doesn’t feel quick to me, you know? So, thank you! I am just tweaking my first draft of the fourth You book. It’s due this month and then I’ll take a breath and go back to a book I put aside a couple years ago. It was a luxury for me that I got to put that draft in a drawer and let it sit there while I worked on the books. It’s really hitting me that wow, I wrote a couple drafts of that book and now we get to have a reunion!
MT: Thank you so much for speaking to me, Caroline. It has been an immense pleasure not only to be able to ask you questions, but to read and become an enormous fan of your books. Please leave us with any thoughts, comments, suggestions, remarks, or otherwise. We love hearing from you, and look forward to hearing anything you might have to say in the future.
CK: Thank you so much, Matthew. It’s a pleasure to talk with a fellow writer. I thank you so much for reading my work and having such interesting things to say. I can’t wait to talk again, which is more motivation to keep writing, so thanks for that too!
Matthew Turbeville: Micah, I love love love These Violent Delights and really think it’s so thought provoking and really opens up a lot of room for discourse, discussion, and understanding. Can you talk to me about the concept and development of the novel? What was your writing, rewriting, and revision process like?
Micah Nemerever: Thank you! I’m so happy to talk with you.
I’d been playing with similar plot ideas to These Violent Delights for a very long time, since I was a teenager myself, but nothing quite gelled until I conceived these particular characters in about 2011. I spent a lot of time doing written doodles about them, and I thought I had a handle on how to turn them into a book—and then I started writing my MA thesis concurrently and I learned that no, actually, I had no idea how longform writing worked. Then I started drafting the book in earnest in 2013, still with only a hazy idea of what I was doing. I had to teach myself how to write a novel by trial and error. The first draft took three years, and then I rewrote it almost from scratch, which took another year and a half. It was a long, long process, and I’ve had these characters in my head for so long that I’m a little bereft to be done with their story. I was obsessed with them. I could never have finished the book if I wasn’t.
I actually found the second draft to be more enjoyable than the first, even though it was more technically difficult. (Or maybe that wasthe reason. I do like a challenge.) I had to get the first draft out to see what shape the book ought to be—partly by looking at a lot of the first draft and going “god, nope, the opposite of this.” Analyzing the first draft also helped me pick out the plot and character threads that didn’t quite integrate with each other at that point, but that had the potential to do so. The second draft was an incredibly fulfilling experience, because I got to take this absolutely chaotic first draft and impose order on it. Which sounds a little megalomaniacal now that I say it.
MT: This book is clearly influenced in part by books like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but I’d love to hear about your own influences, what books really have spoken to you over the years, led you to These Violent Delights, and which books and authors you feel are undervalued and need to be read more.
MN: I’ve realized that my influences run a little older, which feels really appropriate for TVD, since it’s sort of an old-fashioned book in many ways. Patricia Highsmith was a massive influence, both on the pervasive fraught queerness and on the way I structured and paced the plot. I spent a lot of time thinking about The Picture of Dorian Gray—that intersection of gay desire and erudite aesthetics and moral crisis. Brideshead Revisited is definitely threaded through TVD in many ways, as is Wuthering Heights. Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman influenced me a lot during revisions in particular—it may be my all-time favorite book, and ever since I read it I’ve been yelling at basically everyone I know that they need to read it too. (Speaking of which, you should read Hangsaman, it’s queer and beautiful and devastating.)
Then there are the nonfiction influences, because I went to grad school, god help me. Nietzsche, Foucault, even some of the psychoanalytic theory around dialectical identity formation. And at one point in TVD Julian tells Paul that “Arendt is mandatory,” which feels more true every day.
MT: The book deals so heavily with issues of homosexuality and culture years ago and now. I love when the protagonist thinks about touching the objects belonging to a homophobic person, somehow tainting them out of spite. I have always felt the same way—like I’m somehow tainted by being gay. What do you think this book says about homosexuality, queerness, and how it fits in the crime canon?
MN: I really enjoyed working out Paul’s acceptance of being gay—it’s a process he never quite completes, but he shifts away from his insecurity and resigned self-disgust early in the book, and ends up becoming sort of defiant. He’s so alienated from the outside world already, and I think his eventual resentment of heteronormativity is a natural extension of that. I especially love that scene you mentioned, because it’s so rooted in the defiance he’s embraced. He’s this queer working-class Jewish kid surrounded by rich WASPs at an awful party, and he knows they think his very presence contaminates them, so he just runs with it. Adopting this fuck-you attitude toward heteronormativity is one of the positive developments Paul’s character undergoes in the book—and god knows most of his character development doesn’t take him in good directions. I’m proud of him for growing in this way, especially in a time when homophobia was even more prevalent than it is now.
Julian is an interesting case because he’s one of those gay kids who never really had the option of being in the closet, even in an environment with lower awareness that homosexuality even exists. Everyone around him kind of knows, even if they don’t know they know. He moves through the world as an obvious outsider, and he has to maintain his physical safety by playing it off as enigmatic superiority rather than letting people identify his queerness as the thing that makes him different. I think he’s defiant from the start, because he has to be.
MT: There’s a sort of love story in the novel—and I wonder, looking at the relationship between the two main characters, if you think love or obsession plays more into crime fiction and in this novel, or if it’s more complicated than that?
MN: I think for Paul and Julian, love is inextricable from obsession. Paul in particular puts Julian on a pedestal, and aspires to become him to the point of wanting to merge with him—there’s a pattern of imagery in his internal monologue about devouring him, dissecting him, so that he can understand him perfectly enough to absorb him. For various reasons at this point in his life he doesn’t know how to love without grasping too tight. And I think Julian enjoys the fact that Paul is obsessed with him. When I was planning the book, one of the things I wanted most was to tell a story about sincere love. Their deepest flaws feed off each other, but so do their best traits. But the boys are both seventeen in the worst way—and Paul is coping with a lot of recent severe trauma that has affected his ability to trust anyone, much less someone as mercurial as Julian is. So it’s a greedy, selfish love.
MT: Going back to issues with homosexuality, how do you think queerness adds to issues of desperation and obsession, and do you think this can be remedied in society and literature? Do you think this is a part of why and how the novel plays out?
MN: Oh, absolutely—especially for Paul. He’s at the age where he’s desperately trying to form an identity for himself, and he can’t see any healthy archetypes that he can model himself after. He has all these self-improvement projects that he uses to try and shape himself into a functional person, but he has no clear vision of what that would look like. It’s this aimless, desperate grasping for something, anything, he can use to anchor himself as a person. Julian is the first queer person he’s ever knowingly met, and he’s so adrift that he clings to Julian’s model of personhood with both hands.
It’s obviously an ongoing problem in real life, even now, and I don’t think the solution is as simple as offering queer role models. Paul would be alienated from a “role model” for the same reason I was as a teen—a positive role model might endure external hardships, but it doesn’t give you a way to account for internal weakness and vulnerability, especially the kind of anger you feel as a lonely teenager. Paul is drawn to Julian not just for his apparent wholeness and confidence as a queer person, but also for his disdain for mainstream society. Shaping himself after Julian is a way to accept his own anger—the problem in this particular case is that Julian doesn’t lead that anger in a healthy direction, and their relationship encourages Paul to become more and more angry rather than try to process it.
MT: What was your biggest struggle writing this novel, and what did you delight most in writing this novel?
MN: The thing I struggled with most was pacing. I had no instinct for it when I started writing. I had to develop an instinct through close study of books whose pacing I admired, and a lot of absolutely ruthless culling of segments of TVD that didn’t advance plot or character enough to justify their presence. I don’t believe in universal writing advice, and I love a lot of books with unconventional or even nonexistent pacing—but for me, and for the kind of writing I do, I have to maintain pacing by deciding that every single scene needs to either move the plot forward or reveal crucial character development. (Both, ideally.) There were so many scenes in the first draft that I loved for various reasons, but they didn’t meet the parameters, so they ended up on the guillotine. Especially for a fairly long book, there was no way to maintain the necessary mood and tension without being merciless with myself. I think it gave me a much better sense of pacing for my future projects, but it was hard-won, and I had to be truly terrible at it for a long time.
The things I enjoyed writing most were arguments and confrontations, which is one reason pacing was so crucial. I love writing moments where the tension snaps and everything finally boils over. Those are some of my favorite scenes in the book, and for different reasons all of them were exhilarating and shattering to write. But they are absolutely reliant on the rest of the book maintaining its momentum, and I had to kill a lot of darlings to ensure that those key scenes could be the payoff moments they deserved to be.
MT: In your own words, why do you think These Violent Delights had to be written? What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
MN: Honestly, so much of the reason TVD was written was that I was using it to process the memory of my own teenage anger. Especially how guilty and afraid I was about feeling anger at all—because I grew up in the Columbine generation, hearing from all angles that being angry or misanthropic or bitter about bullying made you a physical threat to the people around you. I could never understand the mass-shooter kind of violence, even at my angriest. But I still believed that my feeling rage at all was dangerous somehow, because society told me it was, and I was obsessed with the fear that under the right circumstances I too might become violent.
The protagonists of TVD have motives that my adolescent self would actually have understood—I felt love with the same gut-deep intensity that I felt anger, and in some ways it felt just as dangerous. Paul and Julian represent a kind of violence I feared I was capable of (though now I don’t think that I really was). Writing TVD was a way of processing those fears in retrospect, through these two characters that I came to love deeply and view with intense compassion. What they drive each other to do is monstrous, obviously—but I love them, in a way I was never capable of loving myself as a teenager, and writing the book helped me look back on my younger self with more empathy than I did before.
Writing the book was a cathartic and very personal experience, and until pretty late in the game I didn’t think it had much chance of being published at all. But it has turned out to resonate with readers who experienced similar anger or similar toxic relationships, and this is so touching and humbling that I can’t begin to articulate how it makes me feel. I hope the book can provide some readers with a similar catharsis to the kind I experienced while writing it. I hope they come away loving the characters as much as I do, even though what they do is unforgivable.
MT: Beyond college being a place of self-discovery, of freedom, what about the campus setting and the college life allows for crime to occur?
MN: For Paul and Julian, at least, I think college offers a rarefied environment that turns tangible moral reckonings into abstract theory—an opportunity to be performatively intellectual. The boys do have different levels of understanding about the degree to which moral theory affects the real world; Paul is attuned to systemic injustice in a way Julian has never had to be. But there are a lot of other ethical thought exercises that follow them home from the lecture hall without ever becoming quite real to them, and a lot of the decisions they make are rooted in theory rather than in real-world consequences. And of course they are both privileged to attend college at all, especially at a point in history where this wasn’t yet just the expected thing to do after high school—I think a lot of campus crime novels, this one included, are suffused with that privilege and the sense of intellectual superiority it can impart.
MT: Was this book a reflection on any other experiences in your own life? You don’t have to explain explicitly but I keep reading the book over and over and think, “God I’ve felt this” and “God, I’ve thought this,” and, “YES QUEEN I HAVE BEEN THERE.” Is there anything you’d like to talk about how reality might affect creativity?
MN: There’s definitely a lot of lived experience in there. I was, shall we say, a very specific kind of teenager—there’s actually a lot of my adolescent self in both the boys (Paul’s misanthropy and insecurity, Julian’s bitter pretentiousness). And I think a lot of queer people had a formative young adult relationship where they yearned to become the other person as much as they desired them. You just want to merge with them, maybe eat them a little bit. It’s a raw vulnerability that opens you up to an incredible amount of pain. So much of being a young queer person is grasping for an identity in a world that pretends you don’t even exist, and it makes you so susceptible to a certain kind of toxic codependency, especially if the other person encourages your worst instincts.
I don’t want to let my younger self off the hook here. I think that as imbalanced as the power dynamics can be in this kind of relationship, there is culpability on both sides for what you choose to do to impress each other. The real-world consequences in my own situation were minimal, mostly just interpersonal fallout. But I know I brought out the worst in this other person, even though I idolized them. The situation gave me a glimpse of the worst parts of myself, a capacity to be cruel that I then worked hard to grow out of.
TVD is in many ways a reckoning with the messed-up kid I used to be. The book ramps up that teenage cruelty until it reaches this catastrophic intensity, a worst-case scenario of what a toxic romantic friendship can become. And I love the characters so deeply, despite the terrible things that they do, that writing the book gave me a lot of retrospective compassion both for my teenage self and for the other person in that relationship. We were both such a mess, and our worst qualities fed off each other. I’m glad we never killed a man, at least—small favors.
MT: Do you think the novel could have taken another direction? Do you think there could have been a different outcome or ending?
MN: It took me a long time to settle on the book’s ending, which is funny, because in retrospect it feels like the only possible outcome for these characters and the choices they make. I went through so many other ending ideas, and none of them felt quite right until I landed on this one. They all felt rushed, or pat, or like they didn’t develop the characters as much as they deserved. This is the only ending that felt right, and it’s honestly one of my favorite parts of the book.
MT: Heartbreak is a blazing fury of sorts, and I can imagine the disastrous and disturbing ways I could act under circumstances, as well as other people too. I can’t decide what kind of heartbreak would cause me to act the most violently, most catastrophically, but I am so interested in your thoughts on this issue.
MN: One of the things I always need to know about a character—and this was especially important to this book—is what they fear most on an emotional level. Especially if a character is going to have a fatal flaw, for me it has to be rooted in that deepest fear. Without getting too deep into plot details, both Paul and Julian have weaknesses that stem from their most profound fears, and it is this fundamental frailty that propels them toward violence. In TVD’s case, the question I asked myself was how each character could be hurt by the other in a way that would hit them on a primal level.
It’s trickier to be introspective about this, since self-analysis is so different from building an imaginary human being from scratch. But for me, I think, the most dangerous kind of heartbreak would be a loved one being disgusted by the vulnerability I had trusted them with, and using it against me out of contempt. This is highly specific for a reason, and the times I’ve experienced it were the times I felt most as if my anger would destroy something fundamental about me. A lot of people react similarly to romantic infidelity, or to different varieties of emotional abuse. What I fear most is being regarded with contempt by someone I trust. Everyone has a type of intimate betrayal that would hurt them more than any other, and I think those are the moments that introduce the most primal volatility.
MT: If you had to sit at a dinner table with four authors to talk about your novel (and maybe theirs too, but most specifically yours) who would you choose, and why would you choose them? Would you hope to learn from them, to teach them, to just engage in conversation? Living or dead!
MN: Oh gosh, I’m always so bad at this question because I’d also want the authors to like me personally. (This is why Patricia Highsmith is not invited, because she was notoriously cranky and I’d absolutely get on her nerves.)
I’ve always felt Oscar Wilde would be a fantastic dinner guest, though, and there’s definitely a bit of Dorian Gray running through TVD. Emily Brontë might be fun, because Heathcliff and Cathy were hugely formative to my interest in obsessive love stories—I know she’d probably glower at me suspiciously all through dinner, but I don’t think I’d take it too personally in that case. Shirley Jackson would be fabulous, mostly because I want to vibrate with emotions at her about Hangsaman. And I would love to talk with Donna Tartt about how class aspiration functions in her work—in The Secret History, certainly, but also in The Goldfinch. We have very different approaches to class dynamics, and my use of class in TVD was partly in conversation with hers, so it would be an interesting discussion.
MT: is there a new work in progress? How long do we have to wait before another great and brilliant book from you?
MN: I have a few things in development, and I’m looking forward to diving into them in earnest once all the (wonderful, terrifying) publication chaos dies down. One project started out as a novella but is turning into a short novel. It’s a queer love story between two troubled teenagers, though it otherwise doesn’t have much overlap with TVD—it’s sort of literary horror, set during the late Bush years, so there are a lot of themes around class and religion and internalized homophobia. And body horror, because that’s how I roll, apparently.
The other novel is going to be a beast. “Going to try to keep it under 700 pages,” that kind of beast. It’s set in the eighties and has a lot of thematic undercurrents around the AIDS epidemic and political paranoia, which feels increasingly more timely, unfortunately. It’s about an insular family of chess prodigies—it has a timeline of about a decade and an ensemble cast, so it’s got a lot going on. (The outline is four pages in Excel, god help me.) I’m really excited for this project, but it’s hugely ambitious, and I want to do something tighter and squirmier before I scale up in such a big way.
MT: Micah, thank you so much for letting me interview you. This book is going to shake the world. I sure hope so. And I hope you loved talking with us. Please leave us with any lingering thoughts, questions, ideas, input. I am so thankful to get to talk to you and I wish you the best with this book. It’s lightning.
MN: The pleasure in all mine. I’m so excited for the book to make its way into the world, and I’m so glad it resonated with you.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, David. I think that I have always been fascinated with other cultures, other people (not necessarily of different races, but really anyone who isn’t like me), and I’m so happy that especially in the crime community we are beginning to spread out and people who aren’t white men are able to have a voice. Your voice is especially strong, riveting—I can’t get over your book. It’s an astounding tour de force that tackles so many issues so elegantly while also keeping us glued to the page, wondering what will happen to Virgil and the people around him. Can you tell me a little bit about your background with writing and how you got started as an author?
David Heska Wanbli Weiden: Well, I’m just so deeply honored by your words and your praise for Winter Counts. I’m thrilled that you liked Virgil and Marie’s story! As for my start in creative writing, I’ve always been obsessed by literature, even as a little kid. I grew up in a pretty impoverished family in a rough neighborhood in Denver, and we didn’t even have a library anywhere near us. But, we had a Bookmobile that came to my elementary school every Friday afternoon. I’d check out around eight or nine books, and tear through all of them that week before returning to get more the following Friday. I knew, even then, that I wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t have the framework or resources to understand how to do that, as neither of my parents graduated from college. Watching my family get torn apart due to a lack of money, I made the career choices that so many poor kids make—be cautious, get educated in a field that pays decently, don’t take risks. For me, that meant getting trained as a lawyer and then moving to teaching at a college. But, about ten years ago, I decided to go ahead and follow my dream, even if it was fifteen years too late. I enrolled in the MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, studied there for three semesters, and later transferred to the brand-new MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico. These schools gave me the tools that I needed to learn my craft, and I was fortunate to sign with a literary agent—the amazing Michelle Brower—during my last semester of my MFA program. Michelle was wonderful in helping me revise and shape Winter Counts and then finding the perfect home for it with Ecco/HarperCollins.
MT: What were the novels you read that were your truly formative novels? What novels do you feel shaped you and your writing and your writing style? What novels and novelists (and really all writers) do you read today and love and recommend to our readers?
DHWW: As a kid, I loved genre fiction immensely. Science fiction, crime, horror—anything that told a compelling story and kept me glued to the page. In college, I drifted away from genre work and began reading literary fiction exclusively: John Updike, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Don DeLillo. I always loved Louise Erdrich’s books and have reread some of them five times or more (The Round House!) I should also note that I recently had the privilege to meet her and she’s one of the nicest and kindest people around, and I’m tremendously honored that she provided a blurb for Winter Counts. Anyway, the return to genre fiction for me came when I read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. That book absolutely blew me away, and I realized that a writer could tell an amazing story while developing complex characters and exploring challenging themes. Today, we’re blessed with so many talented writers who combine a page-turning story with terrific prose, imagery, and characters. A few writers I’d recommend are Benjamin Percy, Attica Locke, Craig Johnson, C.J. Box, Lou Berney, Steph Cha, Brandon Hobson, Stephen Graham Jones, James A. McLaughlin, and T.C. Boyle. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to meet a good number of those authors, and I can tell you that they are not only terrific writers, but great people as well.
MT: Why did you decide to write Winter Counts? It’s such an important novel in so many ways, a book that is so entertaining, but in many ways timeless, and I have to wonder when you decided, Yes, it is necessary for me to write this book now. Not when you had the idea, although feel free to elaborate on that too, but when you decided the book was necessary.
DHWW: Winter Counts was originally a short story that I wrote way back in 2011. I published it in the magazine Yellow Medicine Review in 2014, but the character of Virgil stayed with me. To be honest, I was somewhat scared at the idea of writing a whole novel based on these characters, but the idea just grew larger and larger in my head until I decided that it was time to expand the characters and the themes. Part of my decision to finally sit down and write the novel was the increasing amount of drug abuse occurring on the Rosebud Reservation. There are many, many houses on the reservation that are abandoned because they’ve been used as meth houses. I hope this book can shed some light on the broken criminal justice system on many reservations today as well as the scourge of narcotic addiction that’s destroying so many lives in Indian country.
MT: Were there any parts of the novel particularly hard to write about? I know some authors get particularly attached to their protagonists—I’m guilty to that—and it’s hard for us to make them suffer and provide obstacles for them to overcome (although somedays, when we’re pissed off, we’re ready to throw all the obstacles their way). How do you feel about Virgil, and how did you develop him as such a tough character with an amazing voice?
DHWW: Thank you for those kind words! I love the character Virgil, and the hardest part for me to write was his backstory—his tragedies and missteps. But I knew this was necessary to depict, so that he could move forward with his character arc. As for his voice, I did what so many writers do—like an actor, I tried to channel his worldview, his mannerisms, and his style into a distinctive cadence and perspective, and I hope I succeeded.
MT: I normally save this question for last, but do you have a work-in-progress currently, and will we see more of Virgil and his world? I really need to know this.
DHWW: Yes, I’m happy to share that there will be a sequel to Winter Counts, also published by Ecco. I have the broad outline of the story but am filling in the gaps right now. Stay tuned! Also in the works is a collection of essays on Native American issues. Although fiction is my first love, I really enjoy creative nonfiction as well, and I’ve published a few essays, most recently a piece—“Carlisle Longings”--in the literary magazine Shenandoah, which is about my grandmother’s time at the infamous Carlisle Indian School. I’ve also written a children’s book, Spotted Tail, and hope that I can write another one of those as well.
MT: I won’t ask big questions about the country or world, but what do you hope readers take away from the novel outside of an incredibly immersive reading experience? Why would you recommend the book to people outside of being entertaining?
DHWW: This is such a great question. Outside of (hopefully) being a page-turner, my desire is that readers will take away some knowledge about the shameful political situation on many reservations, where the federal authorities are refusing to prosecute a huge number of criminal cases, resulting in violent offenders being released with no punishment at all. And beyond that, I hope that readers learn about the incredible resiliency and character of the Sicangu Lakota people. Our nation is not often depicted in fiction, and I hope I’ve done justice in my portrayal, showing the humor, generosity, and spirit of the Burnt Thigh people.
MT: I’m queer, and when I was younger I read that—I believe—it was Michael Cunningham who said he didn’t want to be called a “gay writer” or “queer writer.” Do you think there’s a danger in being grouped into a certain type of author, or a certain group of authors, or do you think it’s effective and positive to be categorized this way? In my mind, there might be pros and cons.
DHWW: This is an interesting question, and I’m not sure that I completely fit in any one group. I know that I’m viewed as a Native writer by some, but I also get tagged as a crime writer and a children’s book author by others. And there are some folks who only know my academic writing and aren’t even aware that I write fiction. I don’t really mind any of these labels, as I use my experiences as an American Indian, lawyer, professor, and father to inform all of my work. I suppose the danger is that bookstores may not know where to shelve Winter Counts, a literary thriller set on the Rosebud Reservation. Should it go in the Native American, crime, or literary sections? My suspicion is that most will put it in crime, which is completely fine with me. Those are my people!
MT: I remember at one point you talk about Sioux vs Lakota, and to me it seems like so much about culture, the needs of a group of people, and the ways we relate to others can be lost in translation (especially when we don’t want to participate in learning about others). Do you think, in the novel, any of Virgil’s troubles relate directly to this idea of being lost in translation, or hearing what we (white people) want to hear? Did you ever feel pressured to write a novel not for you, but a book that white people would want to hear, like when Marie says “Sioux” instead of “Lakota”?
DHWW: Wow! I’m so thrilled you picked up on that. Virgil is an iyeska, which is a Lakota slur for half-breed. He exists in several different worlds but doesn’t always feel that he fits in anywhere. As a writer, I relate to this same dynamic, of course. I definitely struggled over how much context I should provide for non-Native readers, and whether our internal divisions and problems would be of interest to anyone who’s not Lakota. In the end, I decided that I would write as truthfully as I could about Native life while also being respectful and positive. I did make several decisions early on, such as the choice that my main character would not be an alcoholic, as I didn’t want to feed those stereotypes. In the novel, Virgil acknowledges past problems with liquor, but he doesn’t take a drink in the book.
MT: What or who do you feel is missing from the crime community, or literary community as a whole? What do you want to see written, and who do you feel needs to be heard more?
DHWW: I think it’s an amazing time for the crime fiction community. There are so many formerly marginalized voices that are now being heard. I’m a member of the group Crime Writers of Color, and it is filled with established and emerging writers who are telling stories in a new way and from new perspectives. And not just in crime, but there are wonderful new writers in various genres across the board, not to mention the explosion of talent in literary realism from new voices. I hope that this trend continues and becomes the new normal. As for what still needs to be heard, I’m hoping to read more crime fiction from emerging Native writers. There are nearly 600 Native nations in the United States, each with a different history and perspective, and I hope those unique stories get told.
MT: I ask this question a lot, but it’s often attributed to Toni Morrison, this quote about how you should write the novel you’ve always wanted to read but have never found. Do you feel you have written this novel, or do you feel it’s still to come?
DHWW: I’m a huge fan of character-driven crime fiction, and there haven’t been many of those written by Native authors or set on the Rosebud Reservation. So, I do feel that I wrote the book I set out to write, although it took me a while to get there. I’m happy with the way Winter Counts turned out, and I have a whole lot of people to thank for that. My agent Michelle Brower, my editors Zack Wagman and Helen Atsma, and all the folks who read early drafts, especially Ramona Ausubel, Ben Percy, Danya Kukafka, and my patient workshop colleagues at the Tin House Summer Workshop and the Voices of Our Nations conference. Of course, we’re always growing as writers, and I hope that I’ll be able to address some new issues and themes in my future work. For example, my young son Sasha was, sadly, present at a school shooting in May of 2019. He had to huddle in a closet and listen to gunfire just two classrooms away. Although he thankfully wasn’t injured, this was incredibly traumatic for my family, and I’m planning to write some nonfiction exploring this event.
MT: Was there ever a scene, a chapter, or an issue with the book that made you want to quit writing the book and move on to something else? What obstacles do you face as an author usually, whether it be creative, referring to the plot, an editing issue, or anything else?
DHWW: No, I never wanted to quit writing the book—it was a lot of fun! The toughest part of the entire process came near the end, when my editor at Ecco requested that I cut about 10,000 words from the manuscript. It was genuinely painful to lose entire scenes, but the book does read better now, so I’m grateful I was pushed in that way. And who knows, maybe I’ll be able to bring some of that material back. . .
MT: I’m really obsessed with your novel. I talk about it all the time, and I recommend it to everyone, and once I get more money, I’ll be preordering the book as gifts for holidays and birthdays for everyone. I want to thank you for letting me interview you. It’s such a privilege. Feel free to talk about any lingering thoughts, ideas, or anything else we didn’t cover but thank you so much again for the interview. I really am glad this book exists, and I’m glad you exist, and I can’t wait to read more from you.
DHWW: Thank you again for these great questions. I’m really appreciative that you read my words and that they resonated with you. We are lucky to have you in the crime fiction community!