WRITERS TELL ALL
Dear Reader: Thank Oprah and All Other Holy Entities for Elizabeth Little and Her Brilliant Novel, DEAR DAUGHTER
Note to reder: Don't count on me prefacing every interview from here on out, but Elizabeth Little is a talent to be reckoned with, and DEAR DAUGHTER is a novel that sparks inspiration as much as it sparks interest. I discovered this novel (as if I'm the first person to read it--bitch, please) a year or so ago, and was so incredibly taken by it that I would manage to wipe this novel--which seem so incredibly vapid and basic on the surface, but is actually so incredibly well written and complicated and complex and unique if you turn just one page--from my mind so I could read it again and again. In a way, it became a novel of comfort--DEAR DAUGHTER is a novel that's more than just. story of finding yourself and learning who you are, but to give away too many details would to ruin something I willingly will deem a masterpiece. God knows, with the theory that every author improves with each book, what Elizabeth Little will come up with next and how completely and wholly it will shape the world. A further note: don't assume that Elizabeth's modesty is anything more than an element of the unreliable narrators we read in so many great crime novels. DEAR DAUGHTER is a feat and Elizabeth is a master wordsmith and--in case you don't believe me by now--I dare you to read the novel and not fall in love with it instantly and completely. Go ahead. Happy reading.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Elizabeth! I’ve loved your novel Dear Daughterfor the longest time—it’s one of those amazing novels that is both catchy and delicious while also being nuanced and beautiful. When you first decided to write a novel, or begin to approach an idea like this, how did the novel begin to form and how did it come to be the celebrated novel it is today?
Elizabeth Little:Oh, thank you so much for saying that. “Catchy and delicious” is a perfect way to desribe what I was going for.
When, after nearly a decade writing nonfiction, I finally decided to try my hand at fiction, my first few stalled attempts were all so stuffy and literary—stories that were absolutely dead on arrival. I had no idea what I wanted to write beyond “comedy of manners, maybe?” Suffice it to say, it wasn’t going well! But then, one night, I got lucky: I received the breaking news alert from CNN about Amanada Knox’s release, and I was up for hours thinking through what it would be like for someone with that level of notoreity to try to reenter American society after all that press coverage, after all that time in prison, and I think it was that night or the next that I wrote the first draft of the chapter where Jane cuts off her hair and prepares to go out into the world. And then it was off to the races. It really was like being kicked in the head by the muse. The right idea really has a sort of gravity to it.
MT: You’ve created a character in Janie that is both incredibly likable and incredibly unlikable at once. Through your careful and creative use of humor, pop culture, and a very elaborate personality that stems back even further than the crime that has defined her, you’ve developed a woman and a voice that draws the reader right in. How did you find Janie’s voice and her history, and how long did it take you before you were entirely comfortable in writing from her point-of-view?
EL:To be honest I’m not sure I was ever comfortable writing Jane—I was fluent in her language, certainly, but she’s so angry and lonely and pricklythat writing her could be exhausting at times, particularly when her mood would bleed into my own.
I’ve only written three novels (one of which I threw out), so I’m hesitant to make too many generalizations about my process, but I think it’s safe to say I really prioritize getting the voice right from page one. I can’t understand a character until I have a feel for her use of language, and I can’t possibly hang a plot on a character I don’t fully understand.
One of the reasons I think I was able to write Dear Daughter so quickly is that I locked in on Jane’s voice very early on—I think it was maybe a week after I had the initial idea that I wrote the line, “Other girls dreamed of sex or drugs or cigarettes; I’d’ve given my left kidney for some [totally unnecessary expletive] Pantene.” And as soon as I saw that on the page I knew who Jane was: wry, relentlessly provocative, and deeply committed to playing up the worst possible version of herself. And whenever I would feel myself drifting off course, I’d go back to that line and remind myself. For better or for worse, this is who Jane is.
MT: One of the truly genius and innovative aspects of this novel is how, between chapters from Janie’s point of view, there are snippets of reports from newspapers and articles from tabloid that make the novel even more entrancing? How did you come up with the idea to make use of this sort of media invented within the book, and if you’re being honest, what was harder: writing Janie or writing these reports on her life, both in relation to her crime and after she’s been removed from jail?
EL:That was something I was doing from the very, very beginning. I’ve always been fascinated by the game of media telephone that results in a given accepted narrative, and living in Los Angeles (and being married to a filmmaker and surrounded by storytellers in a wide range of media) has made me even more sensitive to the disparate forces that determine celebrity. So a very early exercise I did with this book was to write a scene from Jane’s perspective—then to write that scene from the perspective of a well-meaning prestige screenwriter—then to write that scene one more time as if that screenwriter received a bucketload of terrible studio notes. They were so much fun I decided I had to incoporate them into the final manuscript.
Which had the added and unexpected benefit of giving me an entertaining way to dump exposition and to give readers a little bit of a break from Jane’s very deep 1st person POV, whom I love deeply but can be exhausting to be around.
There are times when I worried that it was a little bit gimmicky … but also, gimmicks are fun, and at the end of the day, I want my readers to be entertained. So it probably won’t surprise you to hear that I’m also including interstitals in my next book (in the form of podcast transcripts this time).
MT: Janie’s character is, for lack of better words, very valley girl and nonchalant, very aware of the crimes against her and determined to solve a mystery that will take the course of the novel for Janie to understand, but also she is searching for her roots and where her mother came from and what connections her mother might have had to areas of America so foreign from Janie. What was so important about creating such a complicated character, and why was it essential for her to discover her mother’s life before she became, well, Janie’s mother?
EL:I started writing this book when my son was very young, so motherhood—what comes before and after, how it changes you, how it doesn’tchange you—was very much on my mind. And I think—becuase this is the way my brain works—that there was something therapeutic for me about imagining a worst-case scenario between a mother and her child. That maybe I hoped by really digging into a dysfunctional relationship like the one between Jane and her mother that I might be able to vaccinate myself against a similar future estrangement. So many people have asked me if I was working out my issues with my own mother in this book when the truth is I was working out my issues with me asa mother.
MT: In a sense, Janie is stumbling into a position and a place she is neither aware of nor prepared for. What were your favorite and most interesting methods of creating tension and suspense in a novel and setting like this?
EL: I very purposely put Jane in situations she was ill-equipped for because, frankly, it’s a quick and dirty way to generate suspense. Every single interaction was a test she could very plausibly fail. I’m simply not interested in folks who have it easy: I wanted her to be challenged every step of the way.
Another important tool for me in terms of generating tension is first-person POV. By staying in Jane’s (necessarily unreliable) head the entire novel, I was able to reasonably withhold information from the reader and also emphasize in an immediate, intimate way the very physical danger and discomfort that Jane was often in. I’m such a brain in a jar personally that visceral sensation is very difficult for me to write—it’s probably my biggest challenge with my current book—but I think it’s so important to try to get the reader to feelalong with a character in a suspense novel.
I think there’s also something very productive about not tricking yourself into believing that you’re going to be able to pull one over on your audience. Mystery readers are so clever and well-read and familiar with conventions and tropes and, so, are far more often than not going to outthink the author. So I just accept that the audience is going to figure out the end point and try to surprise them instead with how I get there.
MT: This is such a wonderful crime book, and while it is so unique unto itself, what authors and books published prior to Dear Daughtertruly interested you in writing a book like this? What books were most important to your formative years, and who are your favorite crime novelists today?
EL: This is always a difficult question for me because I’m a voracious and affectionate reader, and putting together a finite list of favorites is basically impossible. It’s probably worth noting for anyone trying to pick apart my influences that I wasn’t justa mystery reader as a kid—I also read a huge amount of romance, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Anything “genre,” really. For whatever reason, I’m just better able to connect emotionally to genre material. Maybe I just need made-up monsters to project my feelings onto, who knows! A question for my therapist, perhaps.
It’s also tricky to pick out my favorite crime novelists because the crime fiction community is so close-knit that I worry I will inadvertantly leave someone I love off and then I’ll have to avoid them at conferences for the rest of my life out of sheer, miserable embarrassment, and that would be terrible. So I’m going to take the fifth there. If you ever want an extensive list of romance recommendations, though, I am here for you!
MT: The sense of identity is so important to this novel, especially for Janie. How does Janie evolve and change in relation to her discovery of her own identity, and in what ways does her view of her mother change throughout the novel—without revealing too many spoilers, of course?
EL: You know, when I was living in New York after college, my roommate made up a list of things I liked and disliked so as to better manage my moods (she’s a saint), and right the top of the list of things I hate was “journeys of self-discovery.” So it’s a source of endless amusement to me—and to her, I hope—that I ended up writing what is unequivocally and very literally a journey of self-discovery. At the beginning of the book Jane has absolutely no idea who she is. She spent her adolescence constructing an identity designed to provoke and irritate and inflame a very specific audience … but now she finds herself without an audience. And if an It Girl falls in the forest and the paparrazi isn’t there to photograph her, does she make a sound?
Furthermore, she genuinely isn’t sure if she’s guilty or not, and that’s just an unbearable situation for her to be in. She may not mind being an asshole, but she truly doesn’t want to think she’s a killer. So her investigation is just as much about finding herself as it is finding her mother’s murderer (and, of course, those two things could be one and the same).
I’m not sure that Jane necessarily becomes a “better” person over the course of the book—that’s a trajectory that, on its own, doesn’t much move me—but certainly as she learns more about her mother’s past she moves closer to a more honestunderstanding of herself, one that isn’t so driven by media narratives. I think that’s all I can say without spoiling things, though!
MT: As I’ve mentioned before, one of the greatest elements of your writing, other than the suspense and extreme tension you’re able to create, is your humor. I’ve read from other luminaries like Louise Erdrich that she claims one of the hardest aspect of writing is incorporating humor into her writing. How is writing humorous lines or scenes for you, and why do you think this sort of writing is important to a novel like this?
EL: It’s very gratifying to hear this,becauseto be honest, I think of Dear Daughter as a comedy—not that you’d know that to look at the cover. (The title, for instance, was never meant as an allusion to the letter that Jane recieves two-thirds of the the way through the book—for me it was initially a play on the terms parents use on new mommy message boards.) I admit that it’s not quite as arch as I’d envisioned it—initially I was going more for something like To Die For before I started to care a little bit too much about my own characters—but it’s definitely meant to be funny.
I’d agree that comedy—whether we’re talking situational humor or one-liners—is really difficult to pull off, especially when threading a tonal needle like this one, and the only way to make it work, I think, is to make sure the humor is always, always in character. That way even a failed joke isn’t a total loss: It can still round out a reader’s understanding of a character.
But maybe that’s just my way of excusing the jokes that don’t land.
MT: With Dear Daughter, do you mind disclosing what your favorite parts of writing this novel were, and what the most challenging aspects of writing Dear Daughter were?
EL: Writing a novel is, I think, a lot like giving birth in that it’s an excruciating experience that you forget the specific pain of almost immediately. So while I know intellectually that I agonized over Dear Daughter, when I think back on it my memories are very fond and rosy. It was a marathon I felt very lucky to be able to complete.
But generally I can say that the drafting process is always miserable for me, while the editing process is typically nothing less than exhilirating. I was very lucky to have an extraordinary editor for Dear Daughter—and I have the same editor for my current book—and she really does bring out the best in me. It’s a joy, truly, to see where her notes take me.
MT: How long did it take you to write Dear Daughter? How many incarnations did it go through, and what were some of the most significant changes you made in the novel? How hard was it finding an agent for this novel if you didn’t have one already, and what was the publication process like for you? Was the whole process fairly smooth or were there several bumps in the road?
EL: All told, I want to say about a year? There were some stops and starts along the way, though, and I was still finishing up my second nonfiction book when I first had the idea, so from conception to publication I think it was a little over two years? It was all very smooth, to be honest. I’d published before—and worked in publishing for several years—so I had a pretty intimate understanding of the publication process, which meant that nothing really caught me off guard. Also, I have a brilliant agent who I’ve worked with for my entire career, and she is verygood at solving problems before I’m even aware of them. So who knows, maybe it was actually an incredibly bumpy process!
MT: There are so many up-and-coming writers, so many aspiring novelists who look up to you and your success and wonder how they can accomplish feats similar to yours. If you had to address any of these readers, or even yourself prior to the publication of Dear Daughter, what advice would you give a growing novelist trying to make an impression on the literary community?
EL: There’s so much in the publishing world that is absolutely out of the author’s control, so my advice to young writers—now and forever—is to focus on the craft. Dear Daughter was my debut novel, yes, but before that I’d published two nonfiction books and had been working as a writer or in writing-adjacent fields for more than a decade, and I know absolutely that I couldn’t have written Dear Daughter without that experience and hard work. Too many beginning writers, in my mind, obsess about plot and twist and narrative gimmickry when what they should be doing is learning to write a damn good sentence. The original plot for Dear Daughter was such garbage I can’t even remember it—what caught my editor’s eye was my use of language. Cultivate your voice; polish your prose; and for God’s sake, don’t be boring.
MT: Similarly, what do you think are the greatest and most important aspects that make up a crime writer of any sort?
EL: An impossible question to answer, I’m afraid. There are as many different kinds of crime writers as there are crime readers, and the strengths they bring to the page are so varied. I will say that I have found that crime writers are, on the whole, an incredibly kind and generous group—but I’ve always figured that’s because we somehow exorcise our darker demons through our work.
MT: Elizabeth, my readers and I are dying to know: what book is next for you? I know from our correspondence you have been working on another manuscript. Do you mind revealing anything about the book at all? What can you tell us without revealing any major spoilers?
EL: My next book is called Dissolve, and it’s the story of a film editor who finds herself drawn into a decades-old mystery when the lead actress on the movie she’s working on is muderered. I’m working on revisions with my editor now, so I’m hoping it will be out next year.
MT: Thank you so much for agreeing to being interviewed by me, Elizabeth. I am so thankful to get to pick a brilliant mind like yours, and, of course, I can’t wait to see what work you produce in the future, and the long and impressive career you’re sure to have ahead of you. Do you have anything you’d like to leave us with, any thoughts or comments, questions or suggestions? And again, it was a great pleasure getting to know more about you and your book, Elizabeth.
EL: Thank you so much for giving me the chance to answer your very thought-provoking questions! I only hope I remembered Dear Daughter well enough to have given you decent answers!