WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Emma, it is so exciting to get to talk with you. I have to say, I really did myself a disservice by sleeping on Little Deaths for so long (readers: that’s a hint. You should read this book. Immediately.)! How did the idea of the novel come to you? I read it was based on a true story?
Emma Flint: Thank you so much for the warm words and for your enthusiasm!
Little Deaths is indeed based on a true story. I first read about it when I was sixteen, and the details stayed with me until I began to write the book that would become Little Deaths.
In the summer of 1965, Alice Crimmins was a single mother living in an ordinary working-class suburb of Queens, New York. She had recently separated from her husband and was trying to juggle a job as a cocktail waitress with caring for her two young children. One hot July morning, Alice woke up to find four-year-old Missy and five-year-old Eddie missing from their locked bedroom: both children were later found dead.
Those are the bare facts of the case that intrigued me for over two decades. I remembered the haunting photographs of the smiling round-cheeked children, and the photographs of their mother taken during the police investigation. In each one she is dressed in tight clothes that show off her slim figure, with striking red-gold hair and thick make-up. She is at the centre of every photograph: tiny, doll-like, surrounded by bulky men in suits and cops in uniform, almost as though the photographer has posed the group to make her the focus. And yet, despite her vivid presence, she is strangely absent from each picture. Eyes cast down, lips pressed tight together, she refuses to look into the camera, refuses to engage with the audience.
I was fascinated by Alice and why she became the chief suspect in the murders of her children before the police even had confirmation they were dead. Little Deaths was borne out of my fascination with this ambiguous woman: she was a wife, brought up a Catholic and married in a Catholic church – yet she was separated from her husband and had multiple lovers. She was a mother who claimed to be devoted to her children, yet she worked long shifts in a seedy bar instead of staying home to take care of them, and locked them in their bedroom for hours while she slept late. She was bereaved and supposedly grieving, yet she continued to dress provocatively and to apply her heavy mask of make-up in the days following the discovery of her children’s bodies.
What fascinated me about her was why she behaved the way she did. I wanted to know if there might be another story to tell, beyond the obvious surface details.
As well as that, her story just didn’t stack up. She told the police she’d fed the children veal and tinned green beans for their last meal, but the autopsy on her daughter’s body found pasta in her stomach. Over the years that passed between first reading about the case and writing Little Deaths, I kept returning to this discrepancy. Of all the lies Alice could have told to cover up what happened, why would she lie about that detail – one that didn’t give her an alibi, one that was so easily disproved?
MT: How did you come about the style and structure of the novel? It feels very specific, very deliberately plotted, and probably obviously so. What made you write Little Deaths in the way you did?
EF: It took me a long time to get the structure of the novel right. I expect that writing every novel is a huge learning curve, and what I learned from Little Deaths was how to pace a story, and how to create suspense. I learned how important it is to feed the reader just enough information to intrigue, but not enough that the plot is revealed too early.
I realised fairly early in the writing process that I’d need a second narrator, as there is a lot of information that Ruth wouldn’t have been privy to: why reporters took a certain line on her, how the police investigation was going – and so the fictional character of Pete Wonicke was born. He gave me a lovely counterpart to Ruth: young, male, ambitious and pretty transparent. Not only was he a lot of fun to create, but he also gives the reader (yet another) biased view of Ruth. The interesting thing about Pete is that, unlike the other characters in the book, his view of Ruth changes in the course of the novel.
It was important that the reader feel a degree of ambiguity about Ruth Malone, and about the extent of her involvement in the deaths of her children. I wanted readers to question their own judgement, the judgement of the police and the media, and the motivations of other characters. Crime novels are all about lies: it’s the job of the writer to make them believable, and the job of the reader to work out who’s lying and why.
MT: The title Little Deaths is, at least to me, a play on words. I’m pretty sure most other people get it, but could you explain how the title plays into the overall novel?
EF: In a literal sense, the ‘little deaths’ of the title are the murders of Ruth’s young children, Frankie and Cindy.
The other obvious reference is to the French phrase la petite mort, which means a brief loss of consciousness, and in modern usage refers to the sensation of orgasm. Ruth uses sex as a means of deadening her emotions, and as a way of escape.
The title also refers to what the main characters leave behind. By the end of the book, Ruth no longer needs a man to look after her or to admire her. My second narrator, Pete Wonicke, has also changed, in terms of how he behaves and what he believes.
MT: You write incredibly complex women—and men, as well—but these women, while not always likable, were incredibly complex and complicated and captivating. What approach did you take to crafting these women’s personalities?
EF: I initially became interested in Alice Crimmins because of what seemed like such a pointless, stupid lie about what she fed her children for their last meal, and as I began to write, I became interested in the lies that were told about Alice herself. Everyone had their own view of her: she was a grieving mother, a bitch, a whore, a victim, a murderer. I wanted to know why she provoked such strong opinions, and to create a character that would allow me to explore my own ideas of who she was.
In Ruth Malone – and indeed in Gina and Bette – I hoped to create a character who was neither straightforward nor easy to like, but who was real and rounded, and who readers could identify with because she wasn’t perfect. And now that Little Deaths is out in the world, I hope that readers will make up their minds about her – about the contradictory opinions about her voiced by the other characters, and about her guilt or innocence.
MT: When you’re writing a novel, what comes to you first, story or character? Something else? I know every author has his or her own methods. What books have influenced you in your own writing?
EF: All of the novels I plan to write – at least in the foreseeable future – are based on true stories, so in that sense the story exists before I begin to write. However, I definitely need to have a character who speaks to me, who has something about them that hooks me, in order to want to spend years with them.
When I came back to the Alice Crimmins case in 2010, I read something about how important make-up was to her: both in terms of the ritual of applying it, and as a mask, to hide her perceived flaws. The first thing I wrote was the scene in the opening chapter where she wakes up and goes through her morning routine – and once I’d finished that, I knew who she was.
I admire authors like Megan Abbott, Donna Tartt and Tana French, who write about crimes and whose work follows some of the conventions of traditional crime fiction, but who don’t sit easily within a single genre.
And when I’m writing, I like to imagine the darkest places that a character can go to, and to explore what people are capable of under extreme circumstances. My favourite aspect of writing is creating character through physical description, and exploiting those tiny essential details that make characters human. In those respects I’m influenced by a number of contemporary authors, including Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantel and Maggie O’Farrell.
MT: What do you think that someone in today’s modern world—even, perhaps, President Trump—could take away from Little Deaths? It seems like a very politically charged ways, at least in issues with gender and women—and rightfully so. This is a beautiful, complicated book.
EF: I find the idea of Trump reading Little Deaths both hilarious and deeply satisfying J
Of course, when I wrote Little Deaths I had no idea that he was going to run for President, let alone win the election. There’s something deeply and horribly ironic about a book like this being published in the same month as Trump’s inauguration and the global Women’s Marches. I think none of us had any idea that issues like the gender pay gap, harassment at work and the #MeToo movement – issues that have long been discussed among those affected by them – would become so prominent this year. As Oprah said, everything is changing – and it’s a privilege to be even a tiny part of that conversation, albeit a privileged (white, educated, employed and able-bodied) part.
I wanted to write a book that would cause readers to question their own biases, and to recognise how often we judge people based on appearance alone. I also wanted to float the idea of not taking anything that’s written in the media at face value. There is always an agenda.
MT: Why have so many points-of-view for the novel, other than for plot purposes? What were you doing by portraying the story from so many viewpoints?
EF: All through the writing of Little Deaths, I wanted to portray an ambiguous woman who was viewed in different ways by everyone who met her. Pete’s narrative, Frank’s statement, the press reports, the police and Gina all describe different versions of the same woman.
I chose to do this, not only because it’s a useful device for writing a crime novel, where the reader is attempting to work out the truth of what happened, but also because it’s how people are in reality. No two people give identical descriptions of a third person, or have the same experience with them. In Little Deaths, as in life, there’s no such thing as an objective view.
MT: Did you have any idea how you would end Little Deaths once you began? Did you know the ending? How well did you feel you knew the characters upon writing that first sentence?
EF: I didn’t know how I would end Little Deaths when I first began writing, but I wrote the final chapter about a third of the way into the first draft. I’ve done exactly the same with my second book. In neither case was it a considered decision, more a compulsion to get the final scenes down on the page. I can only think it’s my subconscious telling me that I need to know where my characters are going to end up, so that I can write towards that.
As I mentioned above, the first scene I wrote was the one in the first chapter about Ruth dressing and washing and applying her make up. Once I knew what she was afraid of, and what she was hiding, I had her character – and I’m proud that my first draft of that scene made it into the final novel, almost word for word as I originally wrote it.
MT: Is there a reason you set the novel in this time period, in this place, with these people? Can you elaborate on that?
EF: I didn’t set out to write a novel set in suburban Queens in the 1960s – had I stopped to think about it, I probably would have decided that writing in an authentic American voice, as well as attempting a historical novel and the recreation of a notorious crime, was far too ambitious for a debut British writer! Fortunately I had no idea what I was doing, and no idea how much work was involved. It was more that I stumbled across a story that gripped me, and a character I became obsessed with, and I had to write it. For the first four years, until I got an agent, it was just me and my notebook: I had no idea it would get published, and no real ambition other than to finish it.
MT: What are your greatest struggles when writing a novel? What are your writing habits like? Can you describe your process?
EF: When I was asked about this a year ago, I found it difficult to answer – I’ve come to realise that this is because I didn’t really have a process as I was writing Little Deaths!
Like most debut authors, my first novel was written over a long period of time while I was working full-time, and with no hope of publication or even of securing an agent. I wrote purely for pleasure, for experimentation, and because I had a story that I wanted to set down on the page. As my agent said this week, first novels are the outcome of protracted, intense, insular periods of writing that might have taken years to produce. However, after publication, you lose this interior life. You have to find a way to write while ignoring other people’s opinions and expectations, market pressure, and the pressure you place on yourself. You have to find a way back to the intense insular work – and doing this, over the last year, is where I learned my process.
I’ve come to realise that once I have the story and my main character’s voice – which usually come fairly quickly – I need to clear some space to just write for a while. That might mean clearing my diary for a week, or turning my email off for a fortnight, or even going away somewhere remote for a few days.
When I’m 30-40,000 words in, that’s the point to stop, take stock and look at what is the story that I’m trying to tell. That’s the point where I try to impose some kind of structure on it, to see where it’s going and what’s missing. That’s also the point where I write the ending, so I know what I’m writing towards.
But up until that point, it’s about writing for pleasure, experimenting with language, and letting my characters breathe and see what they have to say, without worrying about plot or pace or word count.
Someone very clever once said that the first draft is just for you, while the editing is where you create the draft that others will read. That advice frees me to be creative – and that’s the place where I do my best writing.
MT: How did you get your start in writing? Was it a long, hard road, or quick to success? What novel attempt was Little Deaths, and how many drafts and revisions did it go through before getting to the masterpiece we see today?
EF: I started writing Little Deaths in 2010. As I’ve said, I had no idea that I would get an agent and no thoughts about getting published: I was writing it for my own satisfaction at that point. I had attended various writing courses and was a member of a writing group, and the feedback I was getting encouraged me to take my writing more seriously. In 2013 I spent all of my savings on a writing course at the Faber Academy in London, and on taking six months out from work in order to make progress on my novel.
At the end of the course, we were offered the opportunity to read aloud from our work for two minutes. I couldn’t imagine anything would make me more nervous than I was already, so I chose the rawest and bravest and most visceral part of my book, and read it out to a room of agents and publishers. If I only had three hundred words, I wanted to make them count.
Two weeks later, I had offers of representation from nine agents and a publisher. Once I chose to sign with Jo Unwin, we spent another year working on Little Deaths together. In September 2015, the sixth draft went to publishers, and I signed with Picador in the UK and Hachette in the US.
The eighth draft was the last one where the content changed substantially, then we went through a further six versions with copyeditors and proofreaders. So the finished book is either the eighth draft or the fourteenth – I prefer to call it the fourteenth, because it felt like such a lot of work!
MT: What advice do you give you aspiring writers, people who want to make it “big” like how you have done? Obviously, a lot of authors say to read a lot, and other authors say to continuously write, but do you have any specific advice?
EF: My favourite piece of advice is: write what you want to read. There’s no point trying to second-guess the market, or write something because an agent you like once said on Twitter they wanted submissions in a specific genre. That’s what non-fiction is for: articles, blogs, things that are commissioned by editors who know what will sell.
You are going to be spending thousands and thousands of hours with this story, these characters, this language and tone: you have to want to do it more than anything else in the world. You have to write a book that tells a story that you feel only you can tell. You have to create characters that are unique to you. If you write something you are passionate about, you will want to spend time honing and polishing it until it’s perfect.
The most useful thing I’ve ever done as a writer is to join a writing group. Not only have they been invaluable sources of feedback, but because of the amount of critiquing I’ve given to others, I’ve definitely become a better critic and a better editor of my own work. Writing is a difficult lonely job: one of the ways you can make it easier is to build your support network and surround yourself with other writers who understand how hard it is and who can appreciate the good bits.
MT: What book do you plan on writing next? Is there a book coming up in the future from Ms. Emma Flint? I would be absolutely delighted.
EF: I hope there will be many more books! I’m working on book two at the moment, and have 2-3 others in varying stages of development. Book two is also based on a real crime, and is set in London in the 1920s. It’s about shame, obsession and fantasy, and a love triangle that ends in murder.
MT: Thank you, Emma, for agreeing to talk with me. We absolutely adored Little Deaths, and I’m sure that our readers will too. You are one of the most promising new voices in crime literature, and I’m thankful to get to know you a little better.
EF: Thank you so much for being so generous about Little Deaths. It’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you.