WRITERS TELL ALL
"Part of the family--but not." Kelsey Rae Dimberg on her fascinating and dread-filled thriller GIRL IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR
Matthew Turbeville: Hey Kelsey! While everyone I know is eagerly anticipating the publication of Girl in the Rearview Mirror, I’m sure you are tired of hearing me go on about the novel. How did the idea of this novel come to you, and do you feel the novel remained on course or did it change over drafts, rewrites, revisions, etc?
Kelsey Rae Dimberg: To the contrary, I want to say that your enthusiasm for the book has meant so much to me! When you’re a new author (or probably any author) anticipating the publication of your book, there’s a feeling of anxiety and vulnerability, and inevitably, some negative reviews come along on Goodreads or wherever, which can really sting. Hearing from smart readers, reviewers, and so on who love the book is such a gift! So thank you.
OK on to the question, which is about the idea, and the evolution of the book. The original seed for the novel was quite small: I wanted to write a modern take on the classic noirs I loved, so I chose a handful of genre elements I wanted to use in my own book: an outsider who gains intimate access to a wealthy, powerful family; a scandal buried in the past that threatens to surface; and the notion of an ordinary person suddenly drawn into a crime. Who would have insider access to a wealthy family today? A worker, I thought, like a maid, or a nanny. I went with the nanny idea, since I’m fascinated by the way they’re almost part of a family—but not.
From that, I wrote the first draft. I nailed the basic outline: the Martins’ secret, the bigger plot twists, including the ending. Then the revision was years and years: working out who Finn, the nanny, was as a character and a narrative voice, giving her a past; building out the Martin characters and exploring their legacy; working out plotting and pacing and making sure all the puzzle pieces fit together.
One of my teachers in grad school, Lewis Buzbee, said writing is revising. Yep.
MT: You’ve lived in eight states, and you picked Phoenix as the setting for this novel. Why choose Phoenix, and how do you feel the area, the people, everything about the city and state play into making this such a great novel?
KRD: When I started the book, I had recently moved from Phoenix to San Francisco. In a practical sense, I wanted to write about Phoenix while it was fresh in my mind—the desert landscape, the colors, the heat and light, the culture, the politics. Before every writing session, I’d try to sink back into Phoenix in a way, and remember it physically; I wanted the heat to rise out of the pages. The setting worked well with the noir theme, too. The beating, blinding sun, the heat, lent an intensity to the book, especially during the slow burn of the first half. Toward the end, I tried to make the desert more surreal, emphasizing the mirages, and the heat shimmers, the looping freeways, and so on, as the narrator is uncertain about what’s really going on, is doubting herself, and is quite sleep-deprived.
MT: Megan Abbott, sort of a superstar now with best-selling novels and television shows, appears to be just as excited as I am about your novel. When you write, who do you write for? Are you searching to please audiences, your mentors and all the writers you respect, yourself? When thinking about who you write for, how does this decide how your novel will turn out?
KRD: What an interesting question, especially considered from my current vantage point, of trying to write book two, and feeling like I actually have an audience to consider, and an agent and editor who are going to read the drafts. It makes me miss being an unpublished author, in a way, because I wrote REARVIEW MIRROR mostly for myself, as an homage to noir, as a love letter to Phoenix, and even as a way to learn how to write a crime novel. The writing process felt very private, and even though I worked hard on it, and my goal was always to be published, I didn’t agonize about who would read it, exactly, and it would have seemed like a jinx to imagine my favorite authors (like Megan Abbott!) reading it.
That said, I’ve mentioned I had noir on my mind when writing, so I suppose that felt like my genre. As I came closer to being done, and to needing to find an agent, I realized that the crime and suspense world has a variety of subgenres, and I began to read more deeply, and had the pleasure of discovering so many fantastic writers in my search for where I “fit in”: Alafair Burke, Alison Gaylin, Flynn Berry, Tana French, Attica Locke, Harriet Lane, Lou Berney, Steph Cha, and so many more.
MT: You can’t get on Facebook, Twitter, etc, without seeing so many people discussing politics, often passionately, which really is a nice word for angrily. The novel and its protagonist, Finn, seem to be shaped, at least in part, by the political environment of the city, and the race for the grand patriarch of Martins racing for senator again. Do you feel that, with or without politics involved in the novel, this is a very political novel? In writing about politicians, did you feel a need to write the Martins in the way so many other writers have portrayed politicians and political families?
KRD: I find politicians fascinating; they wear their masks so openly, and as a writer I’m interested in digging behind that surface and exploring the contradictions between public life and private life. When I was writing the book, real life politicians kept having affairs, and they’d get dragged onto some talk show or other to apologize—usually with their wives in tow. I couldn’t stop thinking about those women, with their fixed, stoic expressions, standing in the spotlight. They made me start noticing all the ways in which a politician’s family becomes a prop—in rallies and events, clean-cut kids and supportive spouses make a politician seem “relatable” or “authentic”; after scandals, they can make the politician seem “good.” I wanted to get inside one of those families, and imagine what it would be like to live with that pressure and scrutiny.
So, yes, the novel is about politics, but considered from the domestic angle, and with politics examined as a career. I’m troubled by the way a politician’s personal ambition and career goals drive his decisions, when the public wants to believe that principles, logical thought, and careful compromise drive our government.* That contradiction troubles me deeply, and if I’m cynical about politicians in the book (spoiler alert: I definitely am), that’s the core of it.
*This sentiment may seem hopelessly naïve given the state of things—but I hope we don’t become too jaded to believe in and demand a better government.
MT: Nearly everyone in the novel has a “ghost.” The ghosts haunt them, haunt everyone around them, and ultimately can be destructive if not dealt with correctly. How did you go about deciding who certain people were in the novel, and did you give them ghosts before or after writing about these characters? One character I’d love to have seen more a ghost of is the mother, Marina, although I suppose this makes her more mysterious, elusive even. I’m so curious as to what a novel centered around Marina would look like.
KRD: I love this question! Many characters had a ghost from the start. Philip has Tina, his college girlfriend (I think college-aged Philip is also a ghost for middle-aged Philip). The Senator had James, the prodigal brother (Philip is haunted by him, too—poor Philip). Finn gained a ghost late in the revision process; originally her past was only hinted at, which wound up feeling vague.
Many people have mentioned Marina as feeling mysterious or elusive compared to the other characters, and I think to me that’s in part because Finn doesn’t like her, and doesn’t consider her as carefully as she does the others.
That said, I think James, Philip’s brother, is Marina’s ghost. They were dating in high school, and even got secretly engaged before he died. Years later, she married Philip. Is she just an ambitious woman who wanted into this prestigious family? Or perhaps she never really got over James? Or she’s really fallen for Philip, for his charm, but over the years of marriage has tired of his act? Maybe a little of all three. Marina seems icy, but part of that is that she is more honest than Philip about what she wants and about the intensity of the pressure they’re under—because she doesn’t hide it, she’s seen as striving, cold, and calculating. Philip likes to loaf around and pretend he’s not interested in his own privilege. Philip can cause scandals and be forgiven; Marina is a middle-aged woman, and knows she’s going to be judged more harshly if she makes a mistake.
MT: There’s a pretty significant event—more than an event—which I believe happens about midway through the novel. Girl in the Rearview Mirrorgoes further than the reader might expect—I certainly didn’t expect certain things in the book to actually happen, even though, in hindsight, they felt necessary, fated. Did you ever have a tough time writing these scenes? I know I personally get attached to characters sometimes, and they become so real I become terrified of what could happen to them. I can’t imagine how you felt about any of the characters in your novel.
KRD: There are some pretty dark moments in this book, both bad things happening to characters I loved, and characters I loved making weak or immoral choices when tested. These scenes were hard to write. It helped that I felt they were necessary to the story, and I took every one seriously and they have real consequences for the story and the other characters. I didn’t want to use violence or tragedy cheaply, just for thrills or shock value.
I will say that, as an early writer, I struggled to make anythingbad happen to my characters. They were universally mild-mannered, and averse to conflict, and even major confrontations wound up quiet and polite. In my second fiction class ever, my professor read one of my scenes aloud to the class and said, witheringly, “You were all probably raised to be nice midwestern people, but it’s hard to write interesting fiction about very nice, polite people who muffle every feeling and reaction.” (I’m paraphrasing.) At the time, it was embarrassing and even scary—I felt like he’d announced an insurmountable flaw in my work. Of course, all it meant was that I needed to study and practice how to write conflict, confrontation, difficult emotions. And you know, he did me a great favor; he made me a better writer.
MT: As a writer, and specifically as a crime novelist, what books helped shape you, especially in your formative years, and what crime novels (and other novels too) helped you through the process of writing and getting this book ready for publication? Are there books or writers you frequently return to?
KRD: Lots of classic crime: Raymond Chandler, Vera Caspary, Margaret Millar, Patricia Highsmith, Sebastian Japrisot. Each has a distinctive, gripping voice, which is that elusive element that sinks or lifts a story. Some modern writers I love I mentioned before, but some that specifically helped were: Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, with its immersive sense of place that’s both gorgeous and menacing; Megan Abbott’s tightly coiled women and girls; Benjamin Black’s way of introducing bit characters with one or two killer paragraphs that just nail them, their looks, their voice, their angle; and Elizabeth Brundage’s dark plots and sense of menace.
MT: I admire you so much—this is your first novel, and already you’re going for the hearts of all your readers. So many writers don’t understand how readers very rarely care about the identity of the killer as much as why killing happens, what drives people to do something possibly horrible and why they would actually give in or go so far to get what they want. The book, with all of its twists and jaw-dropping events, seems more focused on how Finn sees the world, and how this is transformed in this part of her story. What were the ideas you most wanted to get across? When starting to write, who did you want Finn to be, and how did you want her to change over the course of the novel?
KRD: I’m so pleased that the novel went for your heart, and that the characters rose above the action. I agree that in crime, the puzzle matters, but I’ll read a flimsy puzzle with strong characters over a complex puzzle with cardboard characters any day.
Finn is at the heart of the book, and her journey is from (relative) innocence to experience. At first, I thought she’d be a wry outsider, with a dry narrative voice that tended to skewer the Martins and their circle. After a few drafts, I realized she was too insulated from the family; she had nothing to lose. So she became closer to the Martins; I gave her a boyfriend that worked for the Senator, and a past that leaves her hungry for a surrogate family. Yet I kept some element of that early Finn, too; she is still an outsider, after all, and able to see the pretense in their world. Still she’s dazzled by it, which some readers have disliked her for—but I think we’re all a little dazzled by celebrity or wealth; both are just so revered in our culture.
As far as getting ideas across… I want the book to confront things I find perplexing and alarming in real life: privilege, power, wealth, ambition, politics. But as the story takes shape, and the characters build, those ideas sink into the background, and ideally the characters themselves grapple with them in different ways.
MT: When I was in film school the first time (long story), we learned how Chinatown is both complicated and extremely simple, a very simple story cast like a web over the movie to make the mystery seem so complex. How did you determine the timeline of your novel, and who did you decide how to reveal each part and each clue? Did you know the ending of the novel from its very beginnings?
KRD: Chinatownis one of my favorite movies, and was probably the biggest inspiration of the story, so I’m pleased you mention it. I agree: the true story is simple, but the narrator misunderstands so many things, and is misled by everyone around him, so it feels complex. That felt very real to me. I don’t love those mysteries where the infallible detective delivers a speech at the end in which he knew every motive of every character all along. I’m interested in the ways we misunderstand the people around us—because they may lie to us, but also because of how we feel about them, or just because we don’t have all the facts. Finn’s strong emotional reaction to Iris’s revelation, for example, colors how Finn interprets later events; she’s not an unemotional Sherlock Holmes analyzing things from afar, she’s in the mess and trying to make sense of it.
I wrote the ending in the very first draft, so I always knew how it would end up, but the rest of the action changed quite a bit. Because of the limits of Finn’s point of view, I made a timeline with every single character’s actions and location, both in the past and in the present day, so that I could know what happened, obviously, and plant clues, but also so when Finn had a conversation with someone, I could track what she believed vs. what the other person had going on. Sometimes she’s overhearing other people talk to each other, and I needed to bridge that gap: what would they be saying to each other? How does Finn interpret, and misinterpret, their words?
MT: I think it’s James M Cain who says every word counts in a novel, and said he made every word count in his novel. How do you feel about this with your writing? And also, with characters, do you feel every character in a novel is essential to the novel and its plot? Were there any characters you cut but wished to keep, and are there any characters you wish you’d cut from Girl in the Rearview Mirror.
KRD: I hear this advice often, and it’s not bad advice. But I also love a good immersive book. I love to get a vivid sense of place, a mood, well-described characters, backstories and rumors and gossip; I like when a smaller character gets an unexpected closer look; I don’t mind a digression. Tana French and Kate Atkinson are two of my favorite writers, and both of them exercise plenty of freedom in storytelling. Raymond Chandler, too, serves heaping portions of words—so many metaphors, so much description—and it’s fantastic.
In short, I admire writers who write lean, but I don’t consider leanness to be the primary virtue of a book.
MT: The crime family is incredibly close, loyal, loving. You already have a lot of praise from readers inside the crime community and your first novel is just now coming out. In my mind, the crime writing community is so much closer, less concerned with histrionics and more concerned with support and love. In ways, some people believe this is the opposite of crime fiction. What do you think is necessary in a writer for a great crime or mystery novel? What do you think is so important about people who understand and write crime and about criminals?
KRD: I recently went to Thrillerfest in New York City and got to meet many crime writers, and can attest that they really are lovely, generous, supportive, funny, smart. I don’t know exactly why this might be…perhaps we spend so much time in the dubious company of our characters that it’s a treat to get together with humans?
I think a good crime writer today is interested in examining factors arounda crime as much as the crime itself. What drives someone to commit a crime, psychologically, socially, economically, and so on? How does violent crime reverberate in the lives of people affected afterwards? How are detectives impacted by their exposure to violence? I’d also say more crime novels are moving from black and white—this person is guilty, this innocent—to gray, with guilt and culpability spread out from the crime, and notions of good and evil questioned.
MT: What do you think is next for the great Kelsey Rae Dimberg? Do you have another novel in the works, or some other creative work planned? Perhaps some much deserved time off? I know I’m ready for another book from you, which is obviously a little early but, what can I say, I’m a fan. And either way, I am so lucky to get to interview you and write about your novel. I can’t wait for my readers to get their hands on Girl in the Rearview Mirror. They will love it. It’s great getting to interview you, Kelsey!
KRD: Up next is another novel, a literary thriller set in San Francisco, that will probably feature the strange inner workings of a startup.
Thank you so much for being such a generous reader and supporter! I loved these thoughtful questions.