WRITERS TELL ALL
Gwenda Bond is a Superhero Feminist Writing Powerhouse, and the Perfect Writer for Adults to Admire and Young People to Look Up To
Preface to one of my favorite interviews: I'm not really sure how I came across Gwenda Bond, a writer who is a powerhouse, a superstar in her own write, able to write for any generation but also treating them as intelligent as they are, and never writing down or up to them. I do know that I am, so far (I still consider this fairly early in her career--as I hope we get much more of her work) a very big fan of her Lois Lane series. In the trilogy, she does this strange and miraculous thing of both including and removing Lois from the superhero universe she is a part of and making Lois Lane a mystery-solving superhero of her own, outside of Clark Kent. One great thing about the series is how Gwenda is so talented and able o take all the major feminist aspects of Lois and magnify them, then couple this feminism with modern day America, with issues girls are facing, with their language and their technology and never once hesitating or compromising the need for perfect, refined storytelling that seems to come so natural to Gwenda. I think it's incredibly important to follow Gwenda's career--she's one of the most diverse writers I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. And do read everything by her, including her upcoming official Stranger Things novel--the idea of a genius like Gwenda contributing to such a major and magnificent world like that of Stranger Thing's is an amazing thing unto itself. I'm very excited for all the books Gwenda has to come, and I hope you are too.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Gwenda, it is such an honor to get to talk with you, one of the trail blazing leading ladies of young adult literature, and about one of my favorite young adult series, your Lois Lane trilogy (so far). The books—other than having stunning characters—are remarkable with or without their ties to the Superman comic franchise, and while Lois’s relationship with Clark is certainly one of the central points of the series, it’s certainly not the beginning or ending of her story. Would you mind tell us how this series came into being, and how it worked out that you were able to virtually reinvent the legacy of Clark Kent, the man only crippled by Kryptonite (although in many pages of the books it feels like his love for Lois could weaken him as well)? How did you find yourself setting out on the path to write young Lois’s story?
Gwenda Bond: Thank you so much for your kind words about the series! Like many things about my career, the answer is that’s it’s still somewhat of a mystery to me. I’d published a couple of novels that had gotten some attention and been generally well-recieved, but which did not set the world on fire. Somehow the right person at DC Comics’ parent company Warner Brothers and the publisher Capstone decided I was a good choice to write a new series about a teen Lois Lane and approached my agent to see if I’d be interested. That it came together kind of randomly is funny, because I always say -- only half-kidding -- that the Lois books were something I’d been training to write my whole life. I got a journalism degree partially because of my childhood love of the character (and also because I thought that’s how writers made money ;) ). My day job of 17 years, which I still had when I got the gig, was working with reporters as a government public information officer, and of course I’d done some freelance journalism myself. And obviously I’m a huge comic book nerd who has always been Team Superman.
So my only question when I was approached was whether I’d have freedom on the project. The last thing I wanted to do was get the opportunity to give Lois Lane an origin story and have it be terrible for reasons outside of my control. I was told yes and everyone was very much true to that.
MT: Before digging into Lois Lane—the Lois Lane and the Lois Lane of the future you’ve created—what is your writing process like? Do you have a certain number of words or page counts a day? What is an average day like with you and your job writing the great American young adult novel?
GB: Ha! Flatterer! My process tends to change a little bit book by book, and working on something like Lois Lane or the Stranger Things book that’s my next project is different than working on one of my original ideas -- a little bit. For one of those “intellectual property” or IP projects, obviously I don’t own the characters or idea and there’s a third-party in the mix. The main way that changes things is two-fold. The first is that it works much better for everyone if you can all get on the same page up front, which means a detailed outline is absolutely key. And it’s also key for the second reason: these kind of projects tend to have a much quicker turnaround than what we usually think of as normal in publishing, which can be slow. So you’ll typically have less time for deadlines, and the book will also go through production faster and come out quicker. I actually really like all these parts of doing IP, and I only say yes to things that I will be as invested in as anything else I might write.
I wish I could bring the efficiency of my IP process over to my original work, but that tends to be much messier. I outline, but not in anywhere like the same detail and there’s a lot more trial and error. But in terms of the everyday mechanics once I start writing a book, they’re not so different -- I’m trying to hit a certain goal most days. I will tend to write in the mornings or the afternoons, a specific time that shifts for every book. I try not to work at night unless it’s absolutely necessary, because it can be really easy to work round the clock when you live in your office and that’s not healthy for you or the work. I also might take off a week just to read when I’m not actively writing something. But in general I’m happier when I have a book in progress, so I almost always do.
MT: The most boring question of all, but I hope it’ll help any of our readers who want to be the Gwenda Bonds of the future: what is editing like for you? Can you describe your editing process to us? How essential is it in writing any of your books?
GB: So. Essential. Drafting is my least favorite part of the process. If I’m any good as a writer, it’s all down to my strength as a reviser. I love revision. I love working with an editor who sees where I’ve fallen short and helps me get where I wanted to go or didn’t even know I wanted to go. It’s the part of the writing process I look forward to most. When I’m drafting, I’m just trying to get a thing that can be fixed. The fixing is the fun part.
For me, revision is all about clarity. Being able to step back enough to see exactly how to reshape something to make it work better. In a mechical way, I tend to take an edit letter, avoid the ms. for a couple of days after reading it, then dive in and work my way through in a very linear fashion. I did something new with Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds (which is an adult book, not a YA actually -- though I’m sure teens will read it) that I think may become part of my revision process, because it was so helpful. I took the art off one office wall and got colored index cards for various POVs and double-sided wall-safe sticky things and then I made a heading for each chapter and gave every scene an index card where I spelled out the major action, any changes that needed to happen, if it was an added scene, etc., and which also allowed me to see the distribution of scenes in various characters’ POVs. Then I put a sticker on each card as I finished revising it. It was great to be able to see the whole book, but also to see my progress as I progressed toward the end.
MT: In this book, you represent Lois as a sort of feminist icon. You see her relationship with Clark Kent, starting as an online romance that everyone in Lois’s life seems to respect because they know Lois is smart and competent and able to make grown up decisions for herself. How did you decide who Lois was—no matter what age, but especially as a sixteen-year-old—in order to write these books?
GB: This is such a good question! I did a lot of thinking up front about just that, who Lois is, what makes her, well, her. What parts of her core self have to be there or it’s either not a Lois Lane story or a bad Lois Lane story. Lois and I have some similarities in personality, which I definitely think helped me get a handle on her. But a lot of it came from her voice -- once I could hear that voice, she was there. This is how it usually works for my characters.
I always joke that Lois is a gift to write because you could put her in a room and she’d create a story. She is a plot-machine. Because she’s a character who is never going to be finished, she’s not going to sit still or do what she’s expected to do or what she’s told. She’s going to do what she thinks is right, always. And, to me, the biggest key to understanding Lois is understanding the difference between what she’s like outwardly and what she’s like inside. Lois is vulnerable, she second-guesses herself, and has worries and anxieties just like anyone… But she shows them to almost no one. Except Clark.
MT: What were the biggest hindrances to writing this series, especially considering it’s a reinvention of a decades old comic book story with innumerable film and tv adaptations? Were there ever times when you found that the history of Superman and Clark Kent as well as his relationship with Lois Lane were interfering with your own artistic integrity? In an even more direct question, did you ever feel that however Lois had been limited in the past would affect how you presented her to young adults in the novel?
GB: I definitely feel there have been bad Lois Lane stories. Sometimes whole decades of them! For anyone interested in the character’s history, I highly recommend Tim Hanley’s excellent book Investigating Lois Lane (and all Tim’s books are wonderful).
I approached this as a fan, and so part of my job was to tell the kind of story that would delight me as a fan of these characters. I was very lucky in that I was presented with a barebones concept (Lois as a teen, working for a younger Perry White) that I had the freedom to flesh out. Warner Brothers and Capstone were on board from the beginning with my vision for the books and I can’t think of anything I wanted to do that I wasn’t allowed to do, honestly. In the few cases where they had issues with minor things, I feel like the solutions ended up making for stronger stories.
It’s always nerve-wracking when you’re working with characters that people have a strong emotional attachment to already, knowing that if you get it wrong or if people don’t like what you do, you will hear about it. But at the end of the day, you can’t write with those voices in your head. You have to tell the story your way and hope for the best. That said, I am extremely grateful to the long-time fans of these characters who became the fiercest supporters of these books. It means so much to have people who care about them feel you’ve added something important to the history of characters that have been around so long and carry so much cultural weight. These books were an absolute honor to get to write.
MT: I know I’m not the first person to bring this up with the Lois Lane books—I’ve read reviews, there are people comparing the series to another favorite of mine--Veronica Mars—but how did you decide to set out and make Lois a feminist icon, especially for a new generation of impression of young people, young women and men alike, who needed this somewhat mythical figure to be humanized but also grounded in a very strong moral stance? While it can be argued about the morality of Lois’s actions at some points in the novel, do you feel that you wanted to set her as an example for her young readers—your young readers—in an effort to try and, perhaps, rewrite history, as much as many people may frown upon that today? Do you think there’s something important in correcting the views and issues minorities like women of all color, sexuality, etc, face today when facing issues of women in media in the past?
GB: Lois is a feminist icon. She’s one of the best known pop culture characters in history, not just as “Superman’s girlfriend” but for her job. That’s very rare. So, I absolutely wanted to preserve that and amplify it. I tried to load in as many references to exceptional women -- and especially female reporters -- as I could. When a teen tweets that they got the Nellie Bly google doodle because they read my book, I’m so happy (especially because she was one of the original inspirations for Lois’s character). And so on. At the same time, I’m a huge romance fan and a fan of the Lois and Clark relationship as a relationship of equals (the swooniest variety of romance). But I also wanted Lois’s relationships with her new friends, especially Maddy, to be important.
Anytime you’re writing a 16-year-old (or, for that matter, someone much older), they’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to be figuring out their moral compasses and what is okay and what’s not. Lois would never claim to be perfect, but she will figure out a way to get the job done and protect people.
Comics are a living part of pop culture history. Our images of these characters and how they’re portrayed will always reflect our cultural times, whether intentionally or unintentionally. To me, there’s always a way to preserve what’s important about the characters, what makes them who they are, while moving the depictions forward to reflect the world around us and how it has changed. It’s important that we keep adding components and telling new stories in these universes. I can’t think of anything better to do with stories about heroes than righting wrongs.
MT: One of the most enchanting aspects of you young adult writing—and do not take this the wrong way, I mean this in the best way—but it’s often hard to tell if you are writing an adult novel for young adults or a young adult novel for adult. How do you feel your actual writing style plays a part in benefiting all sort of marginalized youths, and how do you think it will continue to benefit these youths from generation to generation by not writing down “on their level” but understanding, in a way you seem to do, that you can write a young adult book without having to explain every other word, phrase, or character action, like I’ve read in so many less capable hands?
GB: Well, thank you. I really feel we’re in a golden age of YA and have been for more than a decade now. So I personally feel like I could list authors I think are excellent at this for days. ;) Teenagers can see through bullshit. They aren’t only reading YA and they have many and varied interests and complicated things going on in their lives. I would never talk down to a reader, no matter their age. When I’m writing, I’m thinking about the story -- that does mean sometimes thinking about how to make sure scenes land a certain way with the reader, provoke a certain reaction… But usually if I’m doing something that I like in a scene, I can be fairly confident it will also work for the reader or a certain subset of readers. I just tell the story and I load into it the things that interest me, and I hope will also interest readers.
And I am not afraid of using references in stories, because many of the things I love most I came to through looking it up after a writer referenced it in a story whether it’s TV or movies or books. In the age of streaming, everything lives forever. I feel like art is a conversation and it serves no one to pretend you’ll make it timeless by cutting your story off from that. (YMMV.) And now having written YA, middle grade (with my husband), and for adults (Stranger Things), I can say that the story dictates any difference in approach for me, not the audience.
MT: What did you think was the importance of introducing all of these characters as young adults, sort of as a prequel to the comics, especially when you’re introducing characters as iconic as Lois Lane, and on an ironic level in the sense that she has no idea how important these people will be in her future, Clark Kent and Lex Luther? More importantly, what do you think is the importance of having Lois believe so strongly in her future as a writer and journalist, and why do you think it is important for Lois to have such a strong—if not protective—support system?
GB: Part of the fun of writing these books for me is just what you say -- the reader knows things that the characters don’t about what’s ahead for them. You can use that to create tension and expectation, which I hope I did. There’s a playfulness to that element that feels like it fits with the way I see the Superman mythos, more light-filled, a place with banter and goodness.
It’s kind of astonishing to think about the fact that Lois has been around since Action Comics #1, just like Superman and Clark, and yet we really never had an origin story for her. Sure, we know a little about her backstory and there are a couple of stories where she and Clark meet as young people. But we tend to meet Lois as an adult woman who’s already a Pulitzer Prize-winner. The character of Lois still has so much room left to explore, even after 80 years. That does seem to reflect the ways in which male characters and their stories have traditionally been valued more than those of women. This is why it’s particularly rewarding to get to be a part of the work so many people are doing trying to correct that and not just for women’s stories, but for all the stories that have been underrepresented. I want everyone to be able to see themselves in these stories, and I want every young girl with a story to tell to know who Lois Lane is. Because Lois is a hero we can all be -- the kind of person who uses her talents and skills for the good of others, who doesn’t have superpowers, but who has a commitment to justice. And, written well, Clark Kent and Superman are the opposite of toxic masculinity, modeling respect for women and other people as strength.
MT: You carefully navigate the waters of how Lois wades into the areas of danger the novels present and how she gets herself out and save rthe day—and how she must sometimes be saved. I think that some feminists, myself including, want to believe women are able to fight and complete every mission entirely on their own, but I think what you’ve done often enough in the book, which is so important for young people to understand today, is walk a dialectic between Lois wanting to venture out and find the truth on her own and her need for companionship and help every now and then. After all, no man is an island, right? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
GB: One of the things that makes me angriest is when people call Lois a damsel in distress or act as if that’s all there is to the character. Sure, Superman has to save Lois sometimes. Guess what? Superman also has to save the world sometimes! But because of sexism it’s only an issue when it’s Lois, and ignores the fact that usually the reason she needs saving is because she’s a hero without any powers. Lois gets in trouble because of her commitment to helping other people, to getting the truth, to fighing for what’s right. If I were in trouble, I’d 100 percent trust Lois to help me out of it. Needing help is not the same as helplessness. We do all need people, and learning to be okay with that is an important skill. That’s definitely something I wanted to explore with Lois.
I also wanted to reflect on the ways in which Lois shapes Clark’s idea of what a hero is. He’s learning from her already about what it means to be Superman, what to do with the powers that he has.
MT: Would you ever consider writing an adult version of the Lois Lane books—I have no idea if you have ever written an adult book before, or if you would consider writing an adult book, but I would love to see, I don’t know, jumping twenty years into the future how Lois Lane is with and without Clark Kent, her love interest and partner, and who she becomes after you have reimagined her as a young adult heroine. Do you think you’d ever write a book like this, a bridge between young adult and adult, a way to show how Lois Lane is still an independent, career-and-moral-driven woman who won’t stop at any costs?
GB: I just wrote my first book for adults, Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds, and I already have an idea for another one. I like to write all the things. And I’d love to write these characters again in any incarnation. Actually, I did have an idea of a scene of the first time Lois and Clark are in a newsroom together as adults in my mind from before I even started the first book in this trilogy. I know exactly what I’d do with them there.
MT: Do you think there will ever be another Lois Lane novel in the future? Do you already have one in the works? As far as work-in-progress events go, you’ve got a pretty big one coming up—I don’t know if you want to share any information on that with our fans, but I’m sure they’d love hearing about your future work in general!
GB: For now, I’m afraid the Lois Lane series is a trilogy. I’m glad I was able to end at a place that felt right for an ending. But you never know! I also know precisely what the plot of a book four would be, whether as a novel or a graphic novel format.
Next up is the Stranger Things book, which will be out in February, and you can look forward to a whole new friend squad I got to create for Eleven’s mom Terry in it. And I’m hard at work on an unannounced YA that I’m having entirely too much fun with.
MT: Thank you so much for joining us, Gwenda. It was such a pleasure interviewing you and getting to know more about your writing, Lois, and yourself. Please feel free to stop by Writers Tell All at any time in the future. We love you and your work here. And please feel free to leave us with any commons or thoughts! Until next time, Gwenda.
GB: Thank you so much for this interview, Matthew. I appreciate your support and enthusiasm so much, and I can’t wait until I’m interviewing you about your own novels someday!
Jeff Abbott's Biggest Competition is Himself, and He's Blown Us Out of the Water with THE THREE BETHS--DON'T MISS OUT
Matthew Turbeville: Hey Jeff! I am so excited to talk to you on Writers Tell All, as you are one of my many mentors, writing friends, and someone who has helped me whenever you could. I was especially looking forward to The Three Beths, which extended my expectations. You’ve had a very rough year for anyone, and still managed to produce a book despite that. Do you mind discussing what it’s like to throw yourself into work and really produce a great work of fiction on a very narrow time schedule?
Jeff Abbott: Thanks for having me as a guest and for the very kind words.
I took more time than usual for a book, given that our house burned down and dealing with the aftermath and the rebuild is like having another full time job. So. . .I don’t know that I did this in a narrow time frame. I think I did throw myself into it as much as I could, because writing the book was an escape from dealing with the headaches of the fire. And frankly, this is my job, and I had to keep doing it regardless of there being a fire. I’m grateful that my editor and my publisher were so understanding, since I took more time than usual and the publication date had to be moved back a few months.
MT: Where did your idea for The Three Bethscome from, and would you mind talking about what it’s been like writing more everyday thrillers about women characters, especially starting with your last novel Blame,which was also welcomed with amazing acclaim from your peers and critics alike? What made you decide to go outside yourself and write about these women characters, and do you have a favorite?
JA: Well, first, the idea for The Three Bethscame from a couple of different places. I thought about those missing persons cases you sometimes hear about where the police are convinced that a loved one or a relative had a hand in the disappearance, but they can prove nothing. So the accused, and the rest of the family, has to go on with their lives. What would it be like to be living inside that family, to be loyal to a missing parent and yet to also be loyal to the parent who is accused of murder? What goes on behind those walls? And then the other idea came from doing a search on social media once for an old friend, and seeing exactly how many hits I got just typing in her very common first name. . .it struck me that if I wanted to find a number of Beths, or Jeffs, or Michelles, that was easy to do. And then, because I write crime fiction, I wondered what kind of crime or deceit might involve people with the same name. Sometimes my ideas are like Lego blocks that snap together into a bigger something or shape. . .that was where the two driving thoughts of the book came from. I get the idea, and then I start fleshing it out by asking myself a lot of questions of the who, why, what variety.
Re writing female characters, I don’t know that I am going outside myself. I write them as human beings. For years in writing the Sam Capra series, the character of Mila Court got such a huge response from my readers, so I felt like I could try to write a female protagonist, and there were female colleagues in the crime fiction world who encouraged me. And as writers we’re supposed to use our imaginations, our experiences, our empathy. I don’t think I have a favorite. I think Jane in Blameand Mariah in The Three Bethsare two of my strongest characters. They are damaged but brave and persistent and determined, which is what I try to be as well.
MT: This novel, The Three Beths, really feels like a natural and effortless evolution (which usually means it required a lot of effort on your part). Do you mind elaborating on how you feel your writing and actual process and methods of producing a book have changed in the past few years? What was it like publishing your very first novel compared to now?
JA: I have never used one exact process. Sometimes I think of the main character first; sometimes I think of the plot first. I try not to be overly regimented about how I start. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I just start writing a few scenes. I do think that as time has gone on I take more time to plan and plot now than I did in the past. I spend more time thinking. And when I’m in the last hundred pages, I tend to re-outline the whole book, to make sure that I’m paying off expectation, wrapping up subplots, bringing the protagonist to face their greatest threat. It helps me to finish the book with more confidence.
My first novel was published in 1994 and the business has changed so much I’m not sure a comparison to know is useful. I will say it remains as much a thrill to see my book on the shelf now as it did all those years ago. I think it is a challenge not just to get published but to stay published.
MT: The escalation of the plot of The Three Bethsfeels both rapid and casual, building and building to the epic climax in a way that feels very natural for the reader. We don’t jump from everyday domestic thriller to something outrageous with The Three Beths. It all feels so planned out and very calculated in the best way. What was it like—the journey to The Three Beths—and how much of the novel’s ending did you have planned out before you actually began writing?
JA: I really believe writing is rewriting. And this was a book that went through a lot of rewrites. I finished a draft of it right after the house burned and was very pleased with myself that I had done that in the midst of disaster but then I read through it and it wasn’t working for me. It didn’t feel like my best work. So I merged characters, slashed subplots, tightened my focus on Mariah and her father Craig, and then the book started to take on a stronger shape and drive. I pared down tremendously. So if it feels calculated in a good way, it came from a place of panic and fear that I had to get the book under control. The thought that I could fail on a big scale was a huge motivator.
Re the ending, I thought a lot about it before I wrote it or even committed to it, and how these characters reach that moment of twisted fate, and I finally embraced it. I won’t say more than that.
MT: You told me some of our mutual favorite female writers encouraged you to write from the point-of-view of a female protagonist, or rather two female protagonists inBlame. What was the conception of The Three Bethslike and did you have any women cheering you on in particular here?
JA: Well, I think I answered how the book was conceived before, but as to writing a female protagonist, it was something I discussed briefly with some other writers, mostly women, but also men, and they all gave me a vote of confidence that I could handle it. Writers such as Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, JT Ellison, Meg Gardiner, and Megan Abbott, were all encouraging when I would express concern or doubt. That was more at the beginning of the process; I was fine once I really started writing.
MT: While we’re talking about great female writers, who are your favorites in and out of the genre—the authors who really move you and change the way you think about writing? What are some books you turn to again and again if you get stuck, or need some inspiration?
JA: Well, all the amazing writers just listed above. I also enjoy Alafair Burke, Lisa Scottoline, Laura Benedict, Karin Slaughter, Kate Atkinson, J. K. Rowling, Celeste Ng, N. K. Jemisin, Margaret Atwood, Lori Roy, Terry Shames, Ursula Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Ruth Rendell, Helen MacInnes…and I’m sure I’m forgetting several more. I think at different points they’ve all inspired me.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing The Three Beths? There are a lot of characters you juggle around, and you do it well but when I imagine taking on such a broad cast of characters, all of them hiding their secrets and with their unsaid motives—I can’t imagine trying to do what you did with this book. What would you say was the hardest part of writing this book, and what is the hardest part of writing any book?
JA: The rewrite I alluded to earlier was the hardest part. I was savage in the cutting and reordering and rewriting. Asking myself on every page, does this scene work? How can I make it stronger? How can I make the story tighter? How can I make this character more compelling? How can I build more suspense? How can I avoid making this confusing to the reader? I wondered if I would have a book left at certain points. And I hate throwing away scenes, but you have to. You must. That’s also for me the hardest part of writing any book. Ideas are easy, the execution is hard.
MT: What do you think are the key aspects of suspense and mystery to keep a plot going? What are your own little secrets, if you don’t mind sharing? What do you feel is the most important piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten—from another writer, a mentor, a friend, etc?
JA: Well, the key aspect is emotional involvement. No one will turn the pages if they don’t care about the characters. So even with a character like Mariah, who is damaged and difficult and a reader could turn away from her. . .she wants her mom. She wants her family back. She wants to be loved and understood. So every reader can hopefully relate to that. And beyond that empathy, you have to put the characters in a dire situation that threatens what they want most from their lives. As far as secrets, I only have one. . .I often finish a day’s writing in the middle of a sentence. For me, it’s easier to get started again the next say if I finish that sentence and then write the next one. As far as good advice, an artist friend—who makes his living as a painter—once told me to be prolific. I think he is right. I’m happy when I’m producing work.
MT: What is your next book like? Do you already have a work in progress, and would you mind hinting at what it might be about with our readers? You are pretty good about putting out books often and prolifically, and you never settle for less than the best quality. What do you think is the best motto or piece of advice you can take or give when writing so constantly, so regularly?
JA: The next book I’m writing is another suburban suspense novel set in Lakehaven, same as Blameand The Three Beths. It’s a drama about a family starting to come apart at the seams after a member of the family discovers a body. I don’t want to say more than that. I also really need to start on the next Sam Capra project, as I’m asked about it regularly by readers. I don’t know if I have special advice about be prolific. I mean, this is my job. I do it on a very regular basis, as we all do our jobs. If I don’t have an idea, I look at my mortgage payment or my son’s college tuition and boom, an idea! Boom, I feel like writing. I’m not very precious about the writing part of this work. You have to sit down and type the words and fix the words and make them stronger.
MT: Jeff, I am so excited to see what comes next for you. As an avid reader of your books, I’m excited to see how you’re never afraid of change and trying new things. I am more than excited to see where writing takes you from here on out. Feel free to leave us with any comments or suggestions, and know that you’re always welcome here at Writers Tell All.
JA: Thank you Matthew, for your interest in my work and for your kind encouragement and support.
"I Just Don't Know Anything Else": The Brilliant David Joy on Writing Crime Literature--Where Place and People Are So Important
David Joy's novel THE LINE THAT HELD US is just the latest in a series of novels by the author that test the boundaries of the genre, reinventing some of the genre and reinvigorating other tired areas of the genre that feel tired and used up in other hands. Joy's track record is nearly spotless and every one of his novels feels like a great event, a book to build upon the history of his home and his own personal history chapter by chapter. We are thrilled to feature an interview with the remarkable and endlessly talented David Joy. The photos here are provided by Ashley T. Evans (Joy's photo) and Putnam (the novel cover).
Matthew Turbeville:David, I have been a big fan of your work ever since the publication of your novel, Where All Light Tends to Go. You have a gift for language and story, matched with a certain rawness and intensity that reminds me of Daniel Woodrell combined with Christa Faust, except closer to home. I’m from South Carolina and, obviously, am familiar with the settings of your books. The first question I’d like to ask you is how do you come to decide to write a novel? Where does the idea of a novel come from for you? Are you more character or plot oriented in early stages? Could you describe this process?
David Joy:I think most of the time story for me begins with an image, or maybe a fragment of an idea. Typically that image or idea contains at least one character and when it first arrives I have absolutely no idea who they are so really that’s the first question. Who are they? How did they get there? Why are they there? Where are they going? That’s probably the longest part of the process for me is just getting to know those characters intimately, to the point that I know damn near everything about them. Sometimes I might live with a character in the back of my head for years. Right now I’m in the middle of a novel and there’s another character that will probably wind up being the focus of the next book and he’s constantly tumbling around in the back of my skull, just sort of evolving into whatever he’s going to become. I always make this same tired joke, but it’s the truth, and it’s that even if one of my characters doesn’t go to Waffle House in the book, I know how they would’ve ordered their hashbrowns. You get to know them in that way and then it’s just a matter of dropping them into situation. You can drop them into anything and you know how they’re going to react, you know what they’re going to say. Novels develop that way for me. I’ve never plotted anything going in. I tend to drop them into a situation and follow blindly until they take me to the heart of the story.
MT:What about Appalachia and the South in general makes it such a great and compelling setting for crime and noir novels?
DJ:I don’t know that I think Appalachia or the South is better cut out for crime and noir than other settings, or at least I’ll say that there’s incredible crime and noir being written all over the place. But I do think there’s a certain mystique about rural settings. Part of that is just the abundance of empty land. There are a lot of places to hide a body. I think about the county where I live and right this minute there are places in Jackson County that you could call 911 and it might take an hour for a deputy to get to your house. When you live in a place like that it sort of develops its own capacity for order. A lot of folks think of it as lawlessness, but it’s the opposite of lawlessness. It’s law and order driven by self-preservation and necessity. The other thing about crime here is that it’s rarely a random act of violence. Someone gets shot and it’s familial. It’s their cousin. It’s their brother. When crime happens in this place, you know the person who did it. You went to school with him. You go to church with his aunt. The degrees of separation that exist in places like cities, that doesn’t happen here. Everything is just closer and more personal. I think those realities can be really advantageous on the page.
MT:Your novels, while sizzling and electric, are also compact and demanding the reader to pay attention to every single detail. In many ways, you’re able to fit much more story and character than writers who author novels twice your length. How do you construct such elaborate and bone-chilling stories while fitting them into such small spaces?
DJ:I love novels that are really contained. A lot of the writers I admire most are just really good at that. I think about someone like Daniel Woodrell and what he was able to do with Tomato Redor The Death Of Sweet Mister. There’s so much happening in those books and yet you can devour them in a single sitting. Jim Harrison was maybe the master of that, take a novel like Farmer, or distill it farther and think about all those novellas. He owned that form. We’re talking about stories that are sometimes only 30,000, maybe 40,000 words, and yet you never leave the table feeling hungry. It’s like cooking stock. You start with the bones and cook them down for hours, and when the bones are out of the pot you reduce the stock by half. That’s the way I want a novel to work. I want it to be rich. I don’t have any interest in leaving all of that extra water in the pot.
MT:What was it like, being a Southern writer authoring books about Appalachia and trying to get into the publishing industry? How long did it take you to secure an agent and later publisher? Do you think the area you write about as well as the strong voices of your character helped encourage agents to take on your novels or is your story more complicated than that?
DJ:I don’t think I experienced any set backs or hurdles as a result of being where I was from. The hope is that the work stands for itself and I think that’s what got me where I am is the work. I do think some of the things that may have been harder for me boil down to the fact that I didn’t come out of any sort of MFA program. That’s not to say looking back I would’ve wanted to, but that is to say that those writers tend to have a much better understanding of how publishing works in general. They leave those programs with a lot of knowledge about the industry and a lot of connections that I just didn’t have. Truth be told, I just sent a letter to an agent and she happened to fall in love with the story. Before I sold a book I’d never traveled anywhere. I’d never really left North Carolina. I’d certainly never been on an airplane. I remember when I was in New York City for the second time—I think it was for a tour Putnam did with me, M.O. Walsh, Ace Atkins, and CJ Box—but I can just remember staring out of the window of that high rise hotel room looking out over that city and I just started crying. I was overcome with emotion. And what it boiled down to was the simple fact that all I did to get there was to write a letter. I wrote a letter and sent it from the mountains where I live to a woman in New York City who I’d never met and my world changed forever.
MT:Your novels are so original and so wholly themselves, not echoing back to any author in particular, other than perhaps Daniel Woodrell, who seems to write about similar characters in a very different setting. Who were your greatest influences both growing up and now writing as an adult? What books shaped the way you see the world and write the most?
DJ: Early on it was the typical suspects for someone like me—Faulkner, O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown, William Gay, Daniel Woodrell. Those were the first novels I really fell in love with and it’s because those writers were writing about places I knew and the people I loved. It’s pivotal that you fall in love with a single book for you to become a lifelong reader. What seems to happen is that the one book leads you to a second and the second to a third and before long you’re snatching everything off of every shelf that you can find. My tastes have evolved and broadened. I’m still interested in telling the same kinds of stories, but the stories I enjoy reading are different. I read a lot more poetry than I do fiction. I love Maurice Manning and Rebecca Gayle Howell and Ray McManus and Frank X Walker. My favorite book of poetry I’ve read this year was Kevin Young’s collection Brown. Some of my favorite things I’ve read this year were manuscripts. I read a new story collection called Sway by a Kentucky writer named Sheldon Lee Compton. A few years ago he had that brilliant collection The Same Terrible Storm. I also read a debut novel manuscript by a writer I love named Leigh Ann Henion. The novel’s called Behold That Vanishing Graceand it’s this sort of Edward Abbey meets Barbara Kingsolver eco-thriller. She’s one of the most talented voices in Appalachia, in America for that matter. I loved this book of nonfiction called The Man Who Quit Moneyby Mark Sundeen. I usually mix up the nonfiction with the novels. I read John Branch’s The Last Cowboys, and that’s an incredible story. I also loved Michael Finkel’s The Stranger In The Woods, just the pacing he was able to create in a book of nonfiction. I think it’s been a really great year for the novel. There’ve been a lot of books I enjoyed: Steph Post’s Walk In The Fire, Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, Taylor Brown’s Gods Of Howl Mountain, Robert Gipe’s Weedeater, Leesa Cross-Smith’s Whiskey & Ribbons, Thomas Pierce’s The Afterlives, Silas House’s Southernmost. I think my two favorite novels I’ve read this year are Richard Powers’ The Overstoryand Tommy Orange’s There There.The Overstory is almost biblical in scope. From those opening lines of, “First there was nothing. Then there was everything,” to just the sort of layered storytelling. That book’s a tremendous accomplishment. Then Orange’s book came out of nowhere. It’s one of the richest debut novels I’ve read in a long, long time. I reread that novel as soon as I finished. I think that book is damn near perfect. Right now I’m reading a new novel by Gabino Iglesias called Coyote Songs, and that son of a bitch is just getting better and better! I’m also rereading a book by Rick Bass called The Deer Pasture, which is obviously wonderful because everything he’s ever written has been wonderful, but ultimately it boils down to the fact that it’s deer season and I’d rather be up a tree than sitting here behind a computer.
MT:I’ve always viewed you as a fairly successful author—so many people I know, novelists and not, not only read your books but relish them. A David Joy publication is something of an event. Did you feel with the success of Where All Light Tends to Gothat you were a success? Which of your books to date is your favorite, and would you mind elaborating on why?
DJ:I think what you or I would consider success and what the publishing industry considers success might be pretty different, but that said I’ve been very fortunate to have the readership I’ve had. At the end of the day that boils down to all the hard work of my publisher. I’ve got an editor I’d follow into a burning building. I’ve got an incredible publicist who consistently gets my work placed in the right hands. I’ve got an entire marketing team that’s always working their ass off to think of new ways to push a book. I’ve just been very fortunate to work with the people I’ve worked with. I still don’t know that I’ve ever felt successful. Maybe I just don’t know what that looks like. I’d love if I hit some sort of big list or if I took one of the larger prizes or something like that, but if that happened I still don’t know that I’d be able to say, yep, I’ve made it. I don’t spend much time thinking about any of that. I focus on the work. I just want to tell a good story. As far as my personal favorite, it’s The Weight Of This World, and that’s definitely the book that has sold the least. I just really like the language in that novel. It’s rich. I also know what I was trying to do with it and I think it was ambitious. I admire that. I don’t want to write simple books. That said, the book is incredibly dark and maybe that’s why it didn’t do as well. I think it takes a brave reader to engage with and embrace that type of story. Most people aren’t willing to take those sorts of risks. Most people are scared of being uncomfortable.
MT:What continues to drive you to write? Your home? Your family? The people—friends and acquaintances and otherwise—you know? Or something bigger, greater—possibly hard to define in just a few sentences? What pushes you through first drafts and second drafts and revisions, and have you ever almost given up on a novel?
DJ: I’ve always been rooted to story. I grew up in an oral storytelling tradition where adults expected children to be seen but not heard. That sounds strange to some people, maybe, but what it taught you as a child was the value of listening. I grew up listening to uncles and aunts and grandparents and church elders tell stories. I grew up hearing oration and learning to recognize that moment when a story turns. My grandmother remains the greatest influence and greatest storyteller I’ve ever known. So I think I just grew up believing in the importance of story and the power of story. That’s the same thing that pushes me today. I absolutely wholeheartedly believe in literature as a vehicle for social change. George Saunders had that beautiful idea that prose when it’s done well has the ability to serve as empathy’s training wheels. I love that thought and I believe that idea to my bones. That’s what I love about reading books, it’s that ability to walk in someone else’s shoes for a little while. More than anything else, that’s what I’m striving for.
MT:I’m very rarely a fan of male writers, both for personal and aesthetic reasons, but yet you and Daniel Woodrell and a handful of other spectacularly gifted male writers have caught my attention and held it through many years. Even though I often prefer female writers, I’ve never read any writer other than you who has caught the South I know so well in such an accurate and particularly truthful light. Why do you think your portrayal of this region of the country comes across as so true and honest?
DJ:Quite simply, I just don’t know anything else. I’ve spent my entire life in North Carolina. I’ve spent half of it here in the mountains. People always tell young writers that old cliché of write what you know and I don’t know that I think that’s a necessity. There are piles of writers writing about things they didn’t know. There are piles of writers who write to know. I’m just someone who has always found everything I needed right here in this one place. It’s that Eudora Welty idea of one place understood helps us understand all places better. It’s what James Joyce meant when they asked him why he always wrote about Dublin and he told them, if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. I think every story I ever want to tell can be told right here with the people and place I know. I don’t feel limited by that in any way. As far as the honesty, I’m just incapable of anything else. I think my give-a-fuck is broken.
MT:Your most recent book, the recently published The Line That Held Us, at once carries the beauty of poetry and the brutality of crime. What drew you to this premise and what was your favorite part about writing this book? Similarly, what the hardest or most grating part of writing or finishing this novel?
DJ:That balance, I think, comes from studying writers like Cormac McCarthy and William Gay. I think both of them were capable of making incredible acts of violence palatable through language. You’d read these horrifying scenes, something like that moment in Gay’s short story “The Paper-Hanger” where the child’s body is in the freezer, and the language would just be so astonishingly beautiful and poetic that you’d find yourself relishing moments that would otherwise turn your stomach. I love that sort of balance. With The Line That Held Us, my favorite thing about that book was just developing the character of Dwayne Brewer. I wanted to write a really memorable antagonist, someone like Lester Ballard in McCarthy’s Child Of Godor Granville Sutter in Gay’s Twilightor The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” It was incredibly satisfying to bring that character to life and to paint him in such a way that people fell in love with someone they’d normally despise. There was so much opportunity for ambiguity with Dwayne, so much space to paint the walls gray.
MT:In the South, or in crime fiction in general, what would you like to see more of? What sort of people would you like to see more represented by crime writers like these people, or characters similar to these people written by existing crime writers? And are there any genres, tropes, or plotlines in crime fiction you feel tired of and are ready to see writers move on from?
DJ: I think what I want is a stage inclusive of more voices. I want the microphone to be handed to people who have historically been silenced. I want to hear the stories of marginalized people. And as bad as things seem some time, I think we’re getting to a place where that’s happening more often. I think we’re at a really interesting time in literature. People are paying attention to voices and stories that weren’t getting that same recognition even ten years ago. That’s comforting. Now obviously we’re not where we need to be and there is still an incredible amount of work to be done, but I do find solace in the direction we’re headed. As far as tropes, I’m tired of people, identity, class, and region being written as tropes. Appalachia is not a trope. The rural, working poor are not tropes. Homosexuality is not a trope. Misogyny is not a trope. Racism is not a trope. And yet we continue to allow people in privileged places to use them as such. So what I’m sick of are people who don’t know a goddamn thing about any of it capitalizing off of the current relevancy. I’m sick of the publishing industry rewarding people who don’t know a fucking thing about what they’re writing about, and I’m sick of readers gobbling that shit up at the trough. I’m sick of people being disingenuous.
MT:What are the keys to creating tension and dread in a novel, which you have done so masterfully for a while now? What do you think are the most important rules and guidelines up-and-coming crime writers should know and stick to? Do you have any advice for aspiring crime writers?
DJ: I don’t like the idea of rules. I think there are things that you can notice a writer doing, or a group of writers doing, that makes something work, but then there will be another writer doing something so differently and they’re accomplishing the same thing. I think a lot of young writers or people who are just aspiring to write look for answers to variables as if there’s some sort of equation. As if, once I know the answers for a, b, c, and dI can plug those into a2+b(c)/d=ewhere e represents a good book. The truth is that it just doesn’t work like that. What works for me might not work for someone else at all. I say this because I spent a lot of time when I was younger trying to emulate what writers I admired were doing believing that if I just did that then I could write the book. What eventually happened was that I started to notice that there were things I did that maybe other people didn’t do, couldn’t do, and that there were certain things that helped me work. Once I was able to recognize that and focus on that and trust in that, the work has been a lot easier. There are no universal rules for creating meaningful art. The only common thread that ties every single artist I’ve ever known together is an unrelenting compulsion to create.
MT:What do you think is the biggest misconception about Appalachia and the people who live there? If you have addressed this issue in your work, what have you done or if you could what would you do to correct this issue through the course of a novel?
DJ:I don’t think that I could narrow the misconceptions down to anything singular, because there are just so, so many. That said, I think people continue to talk about this place as if it’s just some small town you can hop in a car and drive through. “Oh, I’ve been to Appalachia,” they’ll say. The truth is that we’re talking about a region that stretches across 13 states, 420 counties, covering some 205,000 square miles. That’s 40,000 square miles bigger than the entire state of California. So imagine trying to narrow California down to any sort of singular image. You can’t. You just can’t. And that’s what people don’t get about this place. They keep wanting to present the region as this narrow image because I guess it’s easier. Maybe because it reinforces the narrative they want to hear. I don’t know. What I do know is that this place is incredibly complex and diverse, and none of that is being shown by bullshit books like Hillbilly Elegy, which seems to be the only thing anyone has read from this place in the past decade. If you want to know what this place is like, if you want to have any sort of understanding about this region as a whole, read broadly. Read Wendell Berry and Maurice Manning and Frank X Walker and Crystal Wilkinson and Rebecca Gayle Howell and Ricardo Nazario y Colon. Read Silas House, Ron Rash, Lee Smith, Denton Loving, Darnell Arnoult, Robert Gipe, Ron Houchin, Pam Duncan, Elizabeth Catte. Read Charles Dodd White and Mark Powell and Jane Hicks and Karen Salyer McElmurray and Gurney Norman and Leigh Ann Henion and Sheldon Lee Compton. Read all of that and you might start to have some sort of grasp of the complexities of this place. Read all of that and if you want more names I’ll be happy to lengthen the list.
MT:David, I think I’ve taken up enough of your time and energy, and I really appreciate you taking the time to engage in this interview with me. I am, of course, interested to know what your current work in progress is like, if there is one. I’m sure our readers are dying to know. As for anything else, feel free to close with any questions, comments, suggestions, or thoughts you feel necessary before ending the interview—and thank you again so much.
DJ:I’m currently finishing up a novel titled When These Mountains Burn. I don’t know when that book will release, but I’d guess sometime in 2020. The novel is the story of these two lives—one an old-time Appalachian father whose son dies of an overdose, and the other a 30s something heroin addict—that run unknowingly parallel. Eventually those lives twist together and get tied into a knot. I think largely it’s a book about a shifting culture, the extinction of old mountain ways. The story is set during the 2016 wildfires because that time just felt so volatile. There was the election on the television, the sky was yellow with smoke, the world was literally burning down outside our windows. I just remember it felt like the end of something. That’s probably not a very good elevator pitch for folks wanting plot synopsis, but that’s what I’m working on and I’m awfully proud of what it’s shaping into.
A Belated Date With Someone From Our Past--and Our Future: Lyndsay Faye on Writing Historical Mysteries
Matthew Turbeville: Lyndsay, it is so nice to talk with you about one of your more recent books, Jane Steele. This book was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. The first question I’m most interested in asking is this: where did you get the idea for Jane Steele? Were you reading Jane Eyreat the time? How long had this novel been in the works?
Lyndsay Faye: Thank you very much for chatting, I’ve been looking forward to it!
I’m a big proponent of re-reading. Which for some reason appears to be a more “literary” and dignified practice when it’s men’sfiction we’re talking about. Jane Eyre is absolutely in the canon of great Western literature, but it’s also a romance, so it’s perceived as more self-indulgent to revisit it periodically than it is for a dude with frameless glasses and a flannel shirt to say, “Yeah, every year I head up to the cabin to do some fishing and make my way through all of Hemingway’s short stories.” Which is especially ironic because I also re-read “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” every six months or so, because I was in the restaurant business for ten years, and I’m no stranger to addiction, and it’s hands down my favorite short story.
Wherever you are in life, you’re going to get different impressions from the same book. And this last time re-reading Jane Eyre, I had a lot of concerns and questions. Specifically, when I was younger, I was totally on board with Mr. Rochester being swoony, and now I think, did you seriously just say to Jane that if she won’t listen to reason, you’ll try violence? Thank you, next. Why did Jane flee Thornfield without a penny to her name and then wander around in the wilderness without considering, I dunno, a little dumpster diving perhaps? Or maybe think to bring a map?
I want to be clear: I loveCharlotte Bronte andJane Eyre. I’ve been to the Brontes’ house and stared at the desk where she wrote it. But it occurred to me when re-reading as an adult, how did Jane, however precocious, have the agency to say to every grown-up in her life, you claim I’m immoral, but I know I have my own compass and I find you hypocritical? Isn’t it more usual that a girl would believe her authority figures?
So I then imagined, what if another Jane, a Jane lacking that confidence, bought the idea that she was evil—in what ways would that actually be freeing? I don’t think that Jane Steele is any braver than Jane Eyre, but I do think that she’s less constrained by some of the religious aspects of her time period, because she already thinks she’s lost her soul. That train has sailed, if you will. The horse has flown.
MT: I am always impressed by reading your writing at how, on one level, you tend to somehow grow with the language of the time period, while also incorporating your own style into the language of the book. How do you go about doing both of those things?
LF: Oh, thank you! Well, I think that while it might admittedly be the pinnacle of hubris to say this—screw it, I’ll say it anyway. People talk about setting as a major character quite often. In the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, for instance, London is there, London is present, even though Holmes and Watson are constantly going to the countryside to protect young women from nefarious snakes, you really live and breathe London. But I think that in my books, a major character is the English language. I’m obsessed with English. The slang, the organic nature of language, syntax, finding the very real dictionary written by George Washington Matsell that I used to write the Timothy Wilde trilogy, the nuances of it, ways language fails us, et cetera. So there are definitely linguistic flourishes I like—rhythmically, alliteratively, the way words sound, the cadence of them, the poetry, emphasis through repetition, where the commas live, etc. But I heavilyresearch the slang of any given era.
MT: One of the things I feel is most important about Jane Steele, the titular character of the novel, is that she’s so strong, independent, and frankly murderous at times. She is a woman who functions without needing a man by her side, whether that’s to love her or take care of her. How did you establish this sort of woman given the time period work without completely changing how the time in which Jane Steeletakes place?
LF: Ah, well, that’s an interesting question, and I love that you asked it, because women have been functioning without men since women have existed, when they need to. The subsection of women who were compelled to be completely dependent socially was wealthywomen. So we’re not really talking about women, we’re talking about an idealized Downtown Abbey top 10% of women. I’m not saying that only poor women had agency, that would be ridiculous, but the human instinct to stay alive is very powerful, and a lot of women did exactly that—whatever they had to do to survive.
What I changed wasn’t the women, it was the specific woman whose story is being told. Did she exist in the 19thcentury? Sure. Were novels about her published? Certainly not as often, and when they were, they mostly fell under either porn or cautionary tales. My Jane would have scandalized everyone. I mean, look at Anna Kareninaor Moll Flanders, which were both controversial, both written by men—we’re talking about a time period when even the idea of reading novels, even the idea of educating women, were both controversial.
Once the public knew that “Currer Bell” was actually a minister’s daughter, the tone surrounding the book changed significantly. As moral and occasionally even prim as Jane Eyrewas, it had very vocal detractors, which made Charlotte Bronte utterly furious. So I was specific about saying that Jane Steele is reading the second edition, which contained a blistering critique of its critics and in which Bronte flat out said, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion.” You can picture her replying to all of her one-star Amazon reviews, or getting into Twitter flame wars. It’s fantastic. That’s the woman who wrote Jane Eyre, and that’s the spirit I was trying to channel.
MT: This brings me to my next question. Well, really, it’s something to discuss: Intersectional Feminism. Jane, as well as certain other characters I won’t name due to spoilers, seem to embody the idea of intersectional feminism. I know you’re an advocate for all sorts of rights of many marginalized groups. How have you become so successful while speaking out against sexism, racism, bigotry, etc?
LF: For me, on some level, I think that your books will find their audience if you write them genuinely. Note that I don’t say earnestly, because those can be a mess. But there’s a difference between J. R. R. Tolkien saying, “I’m absolutely preoccupied by both language and British mythology,” and someone else coming along and saying, well that was a successful model when he did it, so I’ll try that and maybe make a buck. Jane Eyreworked because Charlotte Bronte put everything she knew and loved into that novel, and so even when it’s ridiculous, it’s still very effective.
I try to do the same, every time. It’s very personal for me. With Dust and Shadow, that was bringing the female victims of Jack the Ripper into the spotlight as truly human, instead of the more usual voyeuristic approach. With the Timothy Wilde trilogy, same deal--The Gods of Gothamhighlights religious bigotry because people were frothing about Muslims building a community center near Ground Zero and I was angry, Seven for a Secrethighlights African American struggles because people were losing their minds about a black POTUS and I was angry, and The Fatal Flamehighlights working women because there was a very calculated culture war against feminism. And I was angry. That all sounds very angry, but I’d like to assure anyone who hasn’t read my work that it also features true love, bravery, self-sacrifice, and jokes, because those things are also square in my wheelhouse of avid interests.
Ultimately, I really have to include marginalized groups in my writing, because in many respects we areour writing, and these Venn circles are my family, my friends, myself. I would not be capable of writing a novel about tricksy Wall Street high finance crimes. I know nothing about that. But you want a crime novel involving feminism, sexuality, race, creed, addiction, religion? I’m all in.
MT: What qualities of Jane Steele do you feel make her a proper representation of where feminism is or should be today? While your book could resort to being a novel of “white feminism,” it also avoids that subject by being intersectional. Would you be willing to talk about how you crafted Jane’s character?
LF: Sure, absolutely. I crafted a lot of Jane Steele by playing opposites out in my head. Suppose that she essentially has the same life experiences as Jane Eyre, but at every crossroads, she makes a different choice? She kills the abusive cousin character. She escapes to London and blazes her own trail. A great example of this would be the structure of the slow burn angst bonfire my Jane shares with Charles Thornfield. She is absolutely the pursuer; he’s literally wearing protective gloves, suffering from PTSD, running away from her. Whereas Mr. Rochester makes some pretty bold forays when it comes to winning his Jane, I wanted mine to have a sex drive (women do, shh, don’t tell), and I wanted her to see who she wanted and just gofor him.
Regarding the whiteness aspect, I refuse to write books that are just about white people, although I make a point of never writing first person POV inhabiting a person of color. I’m not about cultural appropriation. So in Jane Steeleyou have this whole plot line about Sikh culture and the Khalsa and the Punjab, and that’s all amazing to me because there weren’t only white people in 19thcentury England, obviously! The East India Company had their fingers in every pie imaginable. Let’s write about those people, make them visible. I knew the year needed to be the year the Jane Eyre second edition came out, and then it was a matter of just choosing which foreign war my characters were going to get embroiled in. I’m making it sound less involved than it was, because I spent six months researching the Second Sikh War and the Khalsa, but I had an embarrassment of wars to choose from.
MT: How close did you want to follow in the path of Jane Eyre. In making Jane Steele a real-life human being (or, for readers, it seems to be), what did you have to “correct’ about Jane Eyrein an effort to make her a more realized human being and incredibly strong woman?
LF: Mmm, I only had to eliminate a few of the more melodramatic Gothic conventions, or at least poke gentle and loving fun at them. Horrible sadistic headmaster? Check. Disembodied voice crying out “Jane” from many miles away? No. And then there were the elements I turned upside down. Crazy wife in the attic? No. Corpses in the cellar? Absolutely. So I’m always grateful when people think she’s a realized human being, because while I made every effort to draw her three dimensionally, there’s a satirical aspect to the novel that battled me on that front.
And to the extent that Jane is three dimensional, every one of my narrators expresses at least a few aspects of me personally that are entirely genuine. I’m highly, highly self-critical and so is Jane. I’m also much more willing to defend a friend or even a stranger than I am to pay attention to self-care. In the Timothy Wilde trilogy, a big aspect of his effectiveness as a cop is that people love spilling their secrets to him, and that’s also autobiographical.
MT: How long did it take you to write this book? What is your writing process like? I’ve seen you note that you’ve written anywhere from 3,000 words to 6,000 words at one time. How do you manage to be so productive and also live a happy, healthy, wonderful life?
LF: Oh god, so please understand: 6,000 was my absolute record of all time, ever. 3,000 words is a very solid workday for me. Then there are the days where 0 words happen, and I want to make a point about this: I decided a long time ago that’s also work. And hard work, because you have nothing to show for it. It’s only wasted time if you quit. Because if you quit working on the manuscript, that time spent staring at a blank screen was admittedly wasted. But if you persevere, then that time was hard work, because if you hadn’t stared at it for that long, you’d never have figured it out at all.
But the second part of the answer to this question is actually—and thank you for giving me a reason to talk about this—I actually struggle with depression and am medicated for it, I am a trying-very-hard-to-recover alcoholic, and it’s a tough road sometimes. When I write characters who have mental health problems, unfortunately I write them effectively for a very good reason. I’m trying to actively be more honest about that.
MT: When did you decide you were a writer, and when did you decide you’d like to focus on crime fiction primarily, even if your work does usually transcend genre!
LF: Weirdly, I never actually did decideI was a writer at all. Dust and Shadowexists because I am obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and I threw one too many Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper incarnations at the wall and then looked in the mirror and thought, why not try it yourself? Nobody ever told me I couldn’tdo such a thing, after all. My parents are insanely supportive, so is my husband, and when I told Markt Restaurant, where I’d been working, that now I was going to write a novel despite never having taken a creative writing class, zero people laughed. They said of course you are, and showed up to my first book launch with a bottle of Dom. So much of my career I owe to how much positivity surrounded my early efforts.
MT: How long did it take you to get published, and at what age was your first book released? Do you have any advice for new writers who are struggling to get into the world of crime fiction?
LF: I was 28, and it took me about six months from finished manuscript and agency submissions to Simon & Schuster. But that dovetails very nicely into my advice: the reason Dust and Shadowgot snapped up like that is because I wrote my passion, and I did my job. Write the book you want to read, and then edit the daylights out of it. I did seven drafts of Dust and Shadowbefore sending out a single query letter. Do not assume you deserve a book deal because you finished a manuscript. That’s already amazing, by the way, and you should go have a champagne dinner about it. But editing is the real work of writing, and it’s work I happen to love.
MT: Can you describe to readers what your next book is about? And when will it be coming out? (P.S. to readers: I’ve had a chance to take a look at this novel and it’s notsomething to be missed—you will regret not buying it!)
LF: My next novel, The Paragon Hotel, takes place in 1921, and let me tell you, all the stereotypes about gangster dialect, they really talked like that. It’s enough to charm the skin off a tomato. And it follows “Nobody” Alice James, a white gun moll who’s fleeing the Mafia with a bullet wound and $50,000 in cash, as she’s rescued by a black Pullman train porter named Max and ends up in Portland, Oregon’s only black hotel. Who shot her and why? What role did she play in Harlem, where she grew up, and when did the trouble start? When a mixed-race child disappears, and the local Ku Klux Klan escalates their threats of violence, Alice throws her lot in with the Paragon’s residents, using her chameleonlike skills in every way she can.
The Paragon Hotelis pretty personal—I was born in San Jose, California, but I grew up in Longview, Washington, which is about 40 minutes by car away from Portland, Oregon. And I sort of famously asked my mom at age six what had happened to “all the tan people,” by which I meant all the people of color I was used to seeing and hanging out with. My mother basically had to tell me, well, I don’t think that tan people live here…? And after I started investigating this, it turns out that Oregon is the onlystate out of the 50 to write an exclusionary “Negro and Mulattto Clause” into their constitution, which forbade people of color to enter the state, do work, buy property, etc.
MT: You’re also a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and a writer who has written lots of stories dealing with Mr. Holmes (including a fabulous collection of Sherlock Holmes stories)! Going back to how you adapt to language of a time period, how did you develop a voice similar to Arthur Conan Doyle?
LF: Oh, thank you! I credit 100% of my ability to channel Holmes and Watson to my actor training. I read those short stories (and four novels, of course) obsessively when I was a kid. And I’m trained to be able to mimic voices, accents, et cetera. But the key to any effective Sherlockian pastiche is the Holmes and Watson relationship. They infuriate each other, they delight each other, they’d take a bullet for each other. It’s gorgeous. Who wouldn’t want an unconditional relationship like that? Who wouldn’t want that one friend who’d do anything for you?
MT: Do you have a book you dream of writing? I know that this line isn’t entirely Toni Morrison’s own, that it’s been said many times before she said it herself, but Morrison once wrote “Write the book you’d want to read yourself.” Do you feel like you’ve already done that, and if not, what might this book be about?
LF: Actually, this is an excellent question, because I have never written a book for any other reason than that I wanted to read it and it didn’t exist. I don’t know how to write any other way. There’s a reader itch I need to scratch, and if I need to scratch it, well…maybe there are others like me who might want to read the same thing, if I can do my job effectively enough, and really spill my guts on the page. If I hold nothing back, then maybe it will answer someone who needs the same story.
MT: While I’ve heard other literary luminaries than yourself, like Megan Abbott, state that crime is now a woman’s genre—written by women, produced for women—what do you feel are the major issues you and other women have had to deal with in making crime a “woman’s genre”?
LF: Oh lord, I feel nothing like luminous, but thank you! Well, I’ve seen both sides of this coin. On the one hand, women have tremendous buying power in the mystery genre, and there isn’t really any paucity of choice—we can find what we want, generally, read what we like, suss out the sort of books that really blow our hair back, and that’s great. And it’s also amazing that so many female crime writers (like Megan Abbott, naturally, Laura Lippman, Gillian Flynn, dozens of others) are respected, prolific, award-winning, and able to work in multiple media ouvres.
On the other hand, I was teaching an adult learning class featuring the Timothy Wilde trilogy one day and this older fellow, having read the back of The Gods of Gotham, raised his hand and said, “So this is supposed to be narrated in the first person by a male cop in the nineteenth century. Then I look at youand I have to ask—who was this book even written for?” So we’re not exactly batting a thousand yet.
MT: Would you ever write a sequel to Jane Steele, or maybe another modernization of a novel from that time period like Wuthering Heights, etc? And I have to ask—which piece of writing, book or stories, have you been most proud of? Which is most dear to your heart?
LF: Absolutely I would. I think it’s probably more safe to say that I’d be shocked if I didn’t! As to the other question, I wish I could answer it cleanly and say here’s my favorite, and it’s for these reasons, and have done with it. But I can definitely tell you my favorite character, and that’s Valentine Wilde. He started as a concept and became a self-portrait, he’s a complete wild card, he’s the moral compass of the whole trilogy, he’s unbearably obnoxious, he’s an incurably romantic bisexual, he loves fiercely, hates showing it, can’t escape his own brain, is overfond of toxic remedies for that condition, cooks to show affection, I could go on forever.
MT: Would you ever write a more “modern” novel? If so, which issues might you tackle? And of all the books you’ve written, which one would you give to the President of the U.S., for any reason you feel he needs it?
LF: I’m actually working on a modern novel right now! So not another word will I say on that subject. As for the President, I suspect I might be above his reading level. We could set him up with an audiobook, but that generally requires a certain amount of concentration to retain. So I fear we’re at an impasse there.
MT: Who are your favorite crime writers (especially of minorities or marginalized groups) and you can include fiction or non-fiction, stories, YA, etc. I want to hear your recommendations!
LF: This is one of my favorite questions. I blurbed a book recently that totally captured me: The Best Bad Thingsby Katrina Carrasco, which comes out on November 6th. Set in 1887 Washington Territory, a bisexual female protagonist who got booted from the Pinkertons and prefers to present as a man, plenty of fistfights, plenty of sex, immaculate historical detail. It’s marvelous. I’m also fully on board with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse’s superb Mycroft Holmes novels, and the sequel, Mycroft and Sherlock, was released a couple weeks ago. Found a fabulous queer YA fantasy recently called Of Fire and Starsby Audrey Coulthurst—I’m cool with princes coming to the rescue on occasion, but how much more fun is it when two princesses rescue each other? Especially when one is brilliant with horses and the other one is magic. Could that beany better?
MT: Lyndsay, you are one of my absolute favorite writers, it’s a wonderful privilege to be your friend, and just a marvel to read whatever book you come out with next! We love having you over at WritersTellAll, and look forward to seeing where you go with your own writing, and how you transform the genre single-handedly or with the other powerful women writers who work so hard to produce the best work possible. Thanks again.
LF: It is always absolutely my pleasure, and thank you very much for your kindness and support!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Sarah! I’m excited to talk about your books, the books you love, and your writing with you. Can you start by talking with me about how it felt to have you career really explode (or that is how it felt for so many of us) with the publication of Behind Her Eyes? I feel like everyone and their mother read that book!
Sarah Pinborough: It was both nerve-wracking and exciting! It's one of those weird things that never feels how you think it will feel and it still feels surreal when someone tells me they've read it. You spend so much time worrying about stuff in this business that you forget to enjoy the successes when they happen – you're already panicking about what's next! But yes, it's lovely to have so many people having read it all over the world, even if some of them weren't fans of the ending, I love that too! I'd rather have a passionate response – even if it's negative – than a shrug.
MT: Now you’ve written your latest novel, Cross Her Heart. How did it come to you, and how long did it take for you to form the idea of this novel, and for this book to really take shape and for you to move with it?
SP: I'm normally thinking about the next book while in the final third of the one before, so I'd been mulling it for a little while before sending the idea, and then once that was approved I started planning it out. It's a subject matter that has always fascinated me (we've had a couple of very high profile cases like that in the book in the UK) and I'd always wanted to explore it. With any book I like a couple of months thinking time before I do anything but that is normally started before finishing the previous one.
MT: There are so many women in this book, and the book seems to be really dominated by so many strong female voices, which is amazing. What do you think is so important about women dominating crime fiction now, and why do you think this change has come about (if it ever was not this way to begin with)?
SP: I can't really comment on a whole genre, and while I am definitely a feminist I'm not an overly political or angry person so I don't read any great 'movement' in it. From my viewpoint women authors have been doing well in crime writing for quite some time, but we are definitely going through a phase where people are interested in stories in which the narrative is driven by women and not just 'nice' girls or damsels in distress or a male police detective. We're curious about ordinary, or normal for want of a better word, lives and the secrets hidden in them. It shouldn't be a surprise really, to any of us, that female-centric novels are doing well because women make up most of the book-buyers and readers so of course they want characters they can identify with and where perhaps the villains are women too. And I hope most men are happy to read stories written by, and about, women too.
MT: Speaking specifically of your female contemporaries, but also men as well, who are your favorite female crime writers? Who are the writers you turn to again and again, and what are your favorite books to read over and over, both new and old?
SP: Gosh, hard to say. I love Sarah Lotz' work – The Three and Day Four were just brilliant. Gillian Flynn is wonderful I just wish she'd write more. Lisa Jewell is a great thriller writer as is Ruth Ware. So many! As soon as I've finished this I'll no dount think of a thousand more. Megan Abbott I always buy as soon as she has a new book out. I tend to go for thrillers rather than crime novels although of course there are crossovers. Contemporary men – John Connolly, Steve Mosby, Stephen King are among them. I don't read a lot of books over and over, but most of King's early stuff I would, Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, and actually sometimes old children's books I remember fondly from my childhood, and some Dickens.
MT: When you begin writing a book, what is your process like? When you have a twist ending, like for example the twist at the end of Behind Her Eyes, which I’m sure most people are familiar with by now, do you have this figured out before you even begin writing or is it is something that comes to you?
SP: I always have the ending of a book in place before I start. So I'll get the vague idea and start brainstorming some plot points and characters but I can't start writing until I have the ending firmly locked down. The rest may change but the ending never does. With a book like Behind Her Eyes I can't imagine starting it without knowing how it ends. The whole story works towards that ending, right from page one!
MT: What is your favorite part of the writing process, and what is your least favorite part of the writing process? Is there a part about the writing process you find incredibly difficult, and have you ever almost given up on a book that later became a success?
SP: The only book I ever stopped writing half way was one when I was buying myself out of a contract so I could go to HarperCollins and write Behind Her Eyes, but who knows, I may go back to it one day. Plotting is the hardest part really I think, especially with a crime or thriller novel. You have to get the structure of it right and make sure you don't reveal too much too soon, and yet also leave enough clues so that a sharp reader won't feel cheated when the twists and turns come along. Sometimes writing high emotion can be hard. You have to be so careful with it. But I don't have a least favourite or most favourite part. It's that old Dorothy Parker (I think) quote that sums it up best 'I hate writing, I love having written.'
MT: A lot of people might be surprised to learn your career extends further back than Behind Her Eyes, or at least people in the U.S. might feel that way. Would you mind talking about your beginnings in writing, how you got introduced into the industry and how long it took before you published your first novel? How hard was it finding a publisher—or, better yet, an agent?
SP: Ha yes, most people in England too either only know me from Behind Her Eyes.. or perhaps 13 Minutes. But my first six novels were only sold in the US and were straight mass-market horror novels. I had seen some paperbacks in an airport in the States and bought them to read on the plane, and then when I wrote my first Horror novel I sent the first three chapters and and outline and they bought it. I got an agent after that – the usual sending out and getting rejections etc - although after that I changed agents several times before finding my 'one'. After those books I wanted to branch out and so I started mixing up my genres and trying different things and now I've been full-time for a decade.
MT: Not just as a woman, but as a person in general, have you ever been told that you couldn’t make it, or that you wouldn’t be successful? What’s the worst thing someone’s told you about your writing, and what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received regarding the craft?
SP: Ha, I'm sure I have but I don't pay any attention to negative stuff like that. I'm very focussed and very driven and don't have any sense of competition with others, only myself. People will always bitch, and gossip etc but if you're put off in this industry by someone telling you you won't make it, then you're not cut out for publishing because every step is tough and the journey is up and down like hills rather than straight up or straight down. I'm not sure what the finest bit of advice I've had has been but the most useful was actually from a TV producer when I was working on New Tricks (a BBC crime show in the UK) and he said, in a murder plot, the investigation can be as complex as you like, but what happens on the night has to be really simple.
MT: How much pressure, given your success in the past, have you felt to keep pushing forward and really keep producing novels? Do you have agents and publishers really pushing for you to put out a new book every year? How do you keep coming up with new and innovative ideas for novels to keep writing and for readers to keep reading?
SP: I don't think there is a problem with a book a year or every 15 months or so. For a lot of my career I was writing two a year, but now one a year or just over suits me and gives me time to work on other projects such as TV or film. Plus there are more promotional things to do for each book now so that also takes time. As for ideas, you train your brain to look for them in news stories and strange articles on line and the world and the people around you. Once you get a germ or spark from something then it grows into something of its own.
MT: I love asking authors this question. There’s a quote that’s attributed to a lot of different authors, and who knows how far back it really goes, but the saying is essentially “Write the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never been able to find.” Do you feel you have written that book, and if not, what book would that be?
SP: Ooh, that's a tricky one. I wrote a Young Adult Fantasy trilogy called The Nowhere Chronicles which I'm very proud of and I would have wanted to read as a kid. I think it's my most original and magical work.
MT: Which character did you identify with the most in this novel, Cross Her Heart? Which character did you identify with least, and did you ever find yourself judging characters and find yourself needing to take a step back and examine the book through a different lens? Do you ever find any parts of yourself leaking into the novels you write?
SP: A lot writers put part of themselves in most of their characters, even if it's done subconsciously, and I'm sure I'm the same, but in Cross Her Heart Lisa was based on a real person from the 1960s in the UK so I don't really identify with her so much. I like all the female characters in the book but none of them are me. Some of their reactions to events may be my reactions to events though. There is probably more of me in Adele and Louise from Behind Her Eyes.
MT: I’m sure our readers are all dying to know: what’s next for the great Sarah Pinborough? Do you already have another work-in-progress? What is it about—can you give us any teasers, or is it all under wraps?
SP: Ooh! Well, it's been slow – sadly my father got sick and recently died - and I'm late delivering but I'm getting there now. It's probably more in the vein of Behind Her Eyes than Cross Her Heart. It's dark and sexy really. It's set in Savannah, Georgia which is a place I just love and I'm describing it as Big Little Lies meets Midnight in the garden of Good and Evil. It's very twisty and I hope quite original.
MT: When you look back on the books you’ve written, which of your books is your favorite, and is there ever a book that, given the chance, you would edit or even rewrite completely?
SP: I'd definitely edit all the first six horror novels – well, I wouldn't because I really couldn't be bothered – but they definitely need that! I'm not really sure what my favourites are! I'm very fond of my three trilogies – The Nowhere Chronicles, The Dog-faced Gods and Tales from the Kingdoms. This might be because obviously trilogies are much vaster worlds and stories than a stand alone novels and you are living in them for longer. I'm proud of The Language of Dying and The Death House too. But I have to love Behind Her Eyes and Cross Her Heart too because they changed my life quite dramatically!
MT: Sarah, thanks so much for stopping by Writers Tell All and giving us some of the answers that our staff and our readers have been dying to hear from you. We are so thankful you decided to participate in an interview with us, and feel free to leave us with any questions, thoughts, opinions, or anything else before leaving. Again, thank you so much, and we can’t wait to see what you put out in the world for us to read next.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Dan! I’m so excited to get to pick your brain about your wonderful writing and specifically your recent novel Ill Will, which has come recommended to me by virtually everyone. The first thing I want to know—the first thing I want to know from most writers who craft excellent novels—is where did this idea come from? How did it come to be, and where did it originate?
Dan Chaon: I usually say that it started with a story my brother-in-law told me about a series of drowning deaths that occurred when he was in college. He and his friends believed they were the work of a serial killer, and I was fascinated by the story, but also fascinated by the idea that I was watching an urban legend developing in its infancy.
This is more or less true…but I don’t know whether it answers your second question: “How did it come to be…” which is much more about “germination,” rather than “origination.” There is a seed, I guess, but to me what’s more important is the way the seed sends out root systems and develops, which is in some ways beyond the writer’s control because there are so many variables. The original “idea” isn’t as important, ultimately, as where it takes you. How it transforms.
A novel about a serial killer drowning college bros would be different depending on who wrote it: imagine ILL WILL by Ottessa Moshfegh, or ILL WILL by Victor LaValle, or ILL WILL by Alice Munro. Or imagine ILL WILL by Dan Chaon at age 30. They all have the same core idea, but they’re all completely different books.
So the concept of the “originating idea” feels like a kind of red herring, in a way. I have a lot of canned, glib answers to this, because it’s a question one gets asked a lot. But there’s a mysterious aspect to it, too, something unanswerable. The “idea” somehow begins to communicate something to you that’s deeply personal—somehow this very abstract concept sent out tendrils that caught me at the right time, and autobiographical stuff—like being a new widower, like trying to be a single parent to teenaged sons, like growing up in 80’s redneck Nebraska—all that material got pulled in and intertwined with this urban legend my brother-in-law told me about.
MT: A lot of people have viewed this as a horror novel, or at least, when I’ve asked to be “scared by a book,” a lot of people have suggested Ill Willto me. Did you intend when initially writing this book for it to scare so many people, or at the very least creep them out?
DC: Yes! I definitely knew early on that I wanted ILL WILL to be a horror novel. Before it had a title, I called it “The Peter Straub Novel,” and Straub’s classic works were definitely a deep influence.
But I have a complicated relationship with horror. I was a very scaredy kid—terribly afraid of the dark, hard time going to sleep, etc. I was almost ridiculously easy to terrify, and I once buried a comic book in the back yard because it frightened me so much. I wish I had burned it.
At the same time, my mother really loved horror. My mother was a difficult person who suffered from serious mental illness, and a lot of my memories of being close to her have to do with cuddling together and watching scary movies on TV. So at the same time that I knew I was going to have nightmares, at the same time I was too afraid to look at the screen, I was also experiencing warmth and friendliness from my mom, who didn’t give out such things often.
I suppose I have a confusion between being loved and being frightened—and that might be the core of ILL WILL right there, ha ha.
MT: How do you approach crossing genres the way you do? There seems to be so many elements from so many genres in Ill Willand they’re all executed so well. What’s your secret—if there is a secret?
DC: I don’t think there’s a secret. I have just tried to write toward the authors that I’ve loved and who have moved me—I want to evoke both Ray Bradbury and Ray Carver, Shirley Jackson and Ann Beatty. All fiction is fan fiction, in a way—you fall in love with books when you’re a kid, and then you try to sing to those books so that they can hear you.
MT: Was it challenging writing from so many different perspectives and adapting to so many different voices and, in turn, views of the world the novel occupies? How did you accomplish this, and is there a trick to make this feat any easier?
DC: Writing from a perspective outside of your own is one of the most rewarding aspects of fiction, in my opinion. But it’s also dangerous, because it reveals your prejudices and blind spots and challenges your powers of empathy--which, of course, we’d all like to think are limitless. But they’re not. We can only go so far outside of ourselves.
One trick to writing someone very different from yourself is to give them some trait that you are familiar and sympathetic with, some kind of foothold that allows you to get into their mindset. If you’re writing about a type of person you hate, give them your most personal, embarrassing secret, and that often makes it harder to jump to easy judgement.
I personally also count on having early readers who can give me feedback. I write from the point of view of women quite a lot, for example, but I rely on getting responses and suggestions from women in my life, like my sister and my female friends. Because, never having been a woman, there are just some things I can’t know or understand.
MT: What is one of the major things—ideas, thoughts, etc—that you want readers to take away from books like Ill Will? How would you like to change the world, or, at the very least, a single person’s view of the world?
DC: I don’t really think a lot about changing the world—or changing another person, or inserting thoughts and ideas into my writing that will be influential or whatever. I know it happens—I know that books have deeply influenced me, and my view of the world--but when I’m writing, I don’t feel like I have a lot of control over what the “message” is.
For me, I think the main effect is the process of going deep into a world that delights or disturbs you but which you also recognize. It connects with you in a way that feels like a memory. There’s a quote from Joyce Carol Oates that I love—she wrote it in a review of Ann Tyler’s novel The Amateur Marriage—and I think it perfectly explains what I want to do to my readers: “When the realistic novel works its magic, you won’t simply have read about the experiences of fictitious characters, you will have seemed to have lived them; your knowledge of their lives transcends their own, for they can only live in chronological time. The experience of reading such fiction when it’s carefully composed can be breathtaking, like being given the magical power of reliving passages of our own lives, indecipherable at the time of being lived.”
MT: The novel carries this idea of whether or not a series of deaths is perceived correctly as being committed by a serial killer or coincidence, etc. Where did this idea come from? Are there any true crime books or real life cases that inspired this part of the novel?
DC: As I mentioned above, I was influenced by the urban legend of the “Smiley Face Killer,” which my brother-in-law told me about. But I was also influenced by many cases of “Satanic Panic” which happened during the eighties and nineties. Rusty’s case draws some of its details from the West Memphis Three trials, which are detailed in the wonderful documentaries Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills; Paradise Lost 2: Revelations; and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. I should also mention that one of my favorite short stories of all time is also based on this case: Cary Halliday’s “Merry-Go-Sorry.” I still talk to that story almost every day, lines from it randomly pop out in my head.
MT: Who are your favorite authors working today? Who are your favorite horror authors, your favorite crime writers? Which books would you say have had the most significant impact on you as a writer?
DC: I’m not sure how comprehensive you want me to be—I can be a compulsive list maker—but I’ve been thinking a lot about Denis Johnson lately. He was very important to me when I was a young writer, and then I sort of lost track of him, and then this year I read his posthumously published short-story collection, Largesse of the Sea Maiden, and I was just blown away. It’s so commonplace to use the word “breathtaking,” but it describes an actual rare and physical occurance—you’re so stunned that you can’t breathe—and that was what happened to me when I read the last lines of the Denis Johnson story called “Triumph Over the Grave.” I couldn’t take a breath but my chest felt like it was still expanding and weightless.
We get that kind of magnificent experience only a few times in our reading life, I think.
Other recent stuff: Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel,Sabrina; Ari Aster’s film, Heredity;Abbey Mei Otis’ collection of stories, Alien Love Disaster; Nico Walker’s novel, Cherry; Lucy Biederman’s The Walmart Book of the Dead,A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass; Rosalie Knecht’s Who Is Vera Kelly?; Lana Wachowski’s insane and moving finale of the Sense8 series on Netflix—God!! There is so much good stuff out there now, in all genres!
MT: Did you ever find yourself bleeding into the pages? Was there ever a moment you felt too close to a character—whether you identified with him or her, or you were just completely in their headspace? How do you feel when this happens, if this happens to you?
DC: That headspace is the most important thing to me. The moment when a character in a novel syncs with your own life in an unexpected way, when a fictional insight suddenly makes a link and you see something about your past experience that you’d never seen before—that’s the reason I write. I don’t write autobiographically at all, but at the same time my novels and stories are always deeply personal. In the process of living another fictional life, we get glimpses of our own that we couldn’t have seen before. That insight can be enlightening, but also sometimes shocking and troubling, as well.
MT: How long did it take for you to get started as a novelist? How many novels did you write before finally getting one published? What advice would you give to aspiring novelists today, those hoping to have the amount of success you’ve had?
DC: I think I’ve always been a novelist. My earliest memories are of telling stories to myself—making dioramas with plastic army men and dinosaurs, building cities out of blocks, pretending I was looking for a werewolf in the garage. Nearly every kid I knew did the same thing, but the only difference is that I didn’t stop or lose interest in the make-believe world. My imaginative life was—and remains—a big part of my daily experience. And that’s the thing that really matters to me.
The success part is a different story, and I feel less qualified to speak of it. I’ve just been lucky. Somehow, I’ve managed to find people who like my work, but I don’t feel like I’m particularly special or talented. I know plenty of people who are equally good at what I do, but who didn’t get the same breaks I got. I also know people who have done a lot better than me, who I don’t think they’re as good.
I don’t know. What amount of success is enough? To publish a book? To get good reviews? To have a bestseller? To win a prize? To have your books taught in colleges? To have your work made into a movie? To become an eternal household name, like Shakespeare?
The truth is, you have absolutely no control over that stuff. You can only keep plowing forward, and focus on the pleasure of trying to make something that pleases you. Maybe it will please someone else. Maybe not.
Of course, this is hard advice to take, and I have wasted more than my share of hours worrying about success, parsing rejections, nursing grudges, etc. I wish I’d spent all that time writing.
MT: Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what kind of music? What other sort of art and media has informed or influenced your views and practices in writing?
DC: Yes! I make playlists that become the soundtrack to the piece that I’m working on, and these playlists are important ways for me to discover mood and character and scene.
I’ve been reading this book by Robert Evans called A Brief History of Vice, and in one chapter he talks about how ancient our relationship with music is. Many anthropologists believe that the discovery of music is older than the discovery of fire. Even Neanderthals are believed, by some, to have been able to sing.
Did you know that music produces dopamine in our brain? Sometimes as much a hit of cocaine! So it’s a kind of drug, and I use it to get into a kind of trance state that allows you to imagine fictional worlds and characters vividly. Anyone who wants to know what was on my mind as I wrote the last two chapters of ILL WILL should just watch this video.
I’ve posted some of my playlists to my tumblrpage, and also a couple on Large-Hearted Boy.
MT: How many drafts did you go through writing Ill Will? How many drafts do you usually write of a novel on average?
DC: The question of “drafts” is hard to quantify for me, since I revise constantly as I’m working.
Usually I write a chapter or section in longhand first, then transfer it to the computer—changing stuff as I do so—and then I print it out and re-write it in longhand again, back and forth. And then, since I don’t work from an outline, things will change as I go along, and I’ll have to go back and rewrite sections again. So I don’t know how many actual “drafts” of ILL WILL I wrote. Maybe dozens?
But I don’t want it to sound like rewriting is a drag. I actually love it—it’s the most fun part of writing for me, that process of transforming a scene or a description or deepening a character. The hard part, for me, is forcing myself to write the original words and sentences and paragraphs!
MT: What book is next for you? Do you have a work in progress? What can fans expect to read or see in the future from the great Dan Chaon?
DC: I have a contract for two new novels, but I’m not ready to really talk about them yet!
MT: Dan, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. At Writers Tell All, we really loved Ill Willand are excited to see where your career takes you. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, questions, comments, or the like. I’m so thankful to have had the chance to correspond with you.
DC: Thanks, Matthew! I appreciate your thoughtful questions, and I’m thankful that Writers Tell All is connecting readers to books and authors they might not have heard of!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi William! I’m really excited to talk to you about one of this year’s most highly anticipated and coveted new novels, The Lonely Witness. It’s received praise from every major star-studded noir writer. What drew you to the premise of the novel and how did you develop it, and how long was it cooking in your brain before you took to paper and pen?
William Boyle: Thanks so much, Matthew! Great to talk to you. And thanks for the kind words. The main character in The Lonely Witness, Amy Falconetti, was a minor character in my first novel, Gravesend. I was drawn back to her, to seeing what she was up to; I was worried about her. I’d been working on another book for about eight or nine months, A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, a book that’ll actually come out next year, and The Lonely Witness was knocking on the door the whole time. The day I finished the first draft of Friend, I launched right into The Lonely Witness. I’d been thinking about it a lot and I wrote the first draft in about three months, just totally on fire with it, working every day before and after my day job.
MT: The title doesn’t lie. Every character in the novel seems to be so lonely in so many different ways. Living secret lies, a lie to one another really. What attracted you to this issue: loneliness? And why do you think loneliness is such a major driving factor in noir novels?
WB: Well, the easy answer is that I’ve always been lonely or that I’m always afraid of being lonely. I think I’m obsessed with lonesome voices, singers that echo the feeling of being alone: Jason Molina, Sharon Van Etten, Elliott Smith, Cat Power, Townes Van Zandt, artists like that. I think one of the loneliest things I’ve ever heard has to do with Elliott Smith. When he was living in New York in the late ’90s, he was a regular at a bar that I sometimes went to when my regular dive was closed. I never saw him there, but I heard a story about him leaving the bar after closing and walking back to Brooklyn through the subway tunnels, drunk as hell. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s stayed with me. I wanted to write a book that felt like that. I’ve been to that place. I know that sort of loneliness. I think noir is always about outsiders, and I think that’s one of the main things that draws me to the genre. I remember seeing Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour as a kid and being knocked out by a story set so far outside the edges—failures, people on the run, people who don’t fit in. It’s a lonely business, fucking up and not fitting in.
MT: What are some of your favorite noir classics about loneliness? There’s In a Lonely Place, but what other books would you look to, or did you look to, both for inspiration for this novel, and also just to explore the concept of loneliness in general?
WB: I loveIn a Lonely Place. Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? comes to mind. It’s brutal and beautiful. I wouldn’t call her a noir writer, but Jean Rhys is one of my patron saints when it comes to writing about loneliness. All of her books fit the bill, but I went back to Voyage in the Dark and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie when I was working on The Lonely Witness. David Goodis is a master of it: The Moon in the Gutter, Street of No Return, Cassidy’s Girl, so many of his books are a huge inspiration in this regard. Charles Willeford’s Pick-Up is a big one.
MT: There’s also this very extreme sense of a need to escape, not only for Amy but for everyone in this book—and not just from place. Although, I would like to note that most people involved in novels about escape dream of one day moving to cities like New York, not escaping from its confines. What drew you to this issue and how did you flip it on its head?
WB: I think that’s another thing that’s always drawn me to noir, this idea that there’s something better somewhere else if this one thing will just go right. So the idea of escape—wherever the characters are from—is always about the promise of being someone better in another town or city. Growing up in Brooklyn, I was lonely and I felt outside of things, so I dreamed of places like Canada and California because I imagined a different version of myself in these places. I do think it’s interesting that New York City is a place people often want to escape to and that my characters are looking for a way out. I think home, wherever it is, can just feel like a place you’ve got to break away from. You can get trapped by a neighborhood or town. Gravesend is especially about that. You carry that weight around with you everywhere. I like the idea that Amy’s initial escape is even smaller—from Queens to Brooklyn. I felt that when I moved to the Bronx for a couple of years; it was a different experience of the city and everything felt new.
MT: When you set out to plot this novel, what and how did you decide what went where and what happened when? Were there many changes from the first draft to the last draft, and how long was the writing process for this novel in general?
WB: I like to set characters adrift in the world. I had the advantage of knowing Amy from Gravesend.The inspiration for the book came from a visit with my grandmother back home in Brooklyn. She was housebound and had communion delivered weekly. She also had a woman sitting with her a few days a week, a sort of caretaker while my mother was at work. This was when her dementia was in its nascent stages and she could still be alone some of the day. That woman, my grandma’s caretaker, was the mother of a kid I went to school with; I liked him back then but he’d gone down a pretty dark path somewhere around junior high. I started to wonder what would happen if he just showed up instead of this woman, and what if he’d turned out bad. And then there was Amy, still in the neighborhood after Alessandra split—I was reading a lot of Dorothy Day, and I saw how Amy had embraced the good part of the Catholicism of her youth and how she was trying to make meaning of her existence in a new way. Those things came together, and the book just opened itself up to me. I didn’t have an outline. I knew where it started and I knew where it would end, and I had a few other things along the way I knew would happen. The rest was a mystery that revealed itself it to me as I wrote.
I wrote the first draft of the novel in about eighty days. I was working constantly. I’d wake up at 5 a.m. and try to get three hours in before I went to work (I’m an adjunct instructor and also work at a record store). I’d scrape out time wherever I could. It was a good feeling, to be so wrapped up in it. I didn’t take any time off from the book—except for three days where I wrote a screenplay. There were some changes between the first draft and last draft but not a ton—mostly just stuff that filled in cracks based on great editorial input from my agents and my editor. There wasn’t an epilogue in the first draft. I feel like it really helped that I wrote the book in one mostly unbroken stretch—I’m always afraid of losing the thread and I never lost it here.
MT: You have a tight, tiny, compressed book squeezed into just over 200 pages, but an elaborate set of characters who are all fleshed out and fully developed by the novel’s end, or at least to an extent. How did you make this up and were there any additional characters you had to cut?
WB: No characters that I cut. I knew Amy was the star here, and I knew Fred and Vincent and Mrs. Epifanio and Diane and Mr. Pezzolanti would figure in as major characters, but I honestly didn’t know that most of these other characters would show up until they did. Alessandra is the main character from Gravesend; I didn’t see that she’d be back until she suddenly was. I love almost nothing more than writing minor characters and imagining whole lives for them even though they’re only present for a page or two. Cab drivers, bar patrons, waiters and waitresses, funeral home directors, church secretaries, old women sitting up in open windows, a couple of shut-ins, whoever. Hell, that’s how this book came to be. Amy was one of those characters in Gravesend. I thought about her a lot and wanted her to have her own book.
MT: When writing outside yourself, like writing as a woman when you are a man, how did you prepare yourself to author this novel and get inside a woman like Amy’s head? What exercise do you do, what book do you read, in an effort to become more acquainted with the character you’re writing?
WB: I just think about being true to the character, true to the stuff she loves. It’s important for me to think about what she’s reading and listening to. It’s also important for me to be true to the women I know and love and aware of what they expect out of fiction. Any good character needs to be messy and complicated. I’m always consuming art by women, listening to what women creators say in conversation and in interviews. One of my favorite films is Mikey and Nicky, which is written and directedby Elaine May. It’s a movie about men written and directed by a woman, and it’s a tender movie about gangsters. I don’t think someone else could’ve done exactly what May did in making those characters.
I don’t know that I did a lot to prepare other than what I always do: read books, listen to music, and watch films that vibe tonally with what I’m trying to accomplish. Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Calleris one of those movies that really impacted me on a subconscious level when I saw it, and I was thinking about it a lot here. Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan was an influence—the shifting identities, the city as hideout, the cast of wild characters. Kate Lyn Shiel’s performance in Kate Plays Christine was a big inspiration. So was Sophia Takal’s Always Shine with Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin Fitzgerald. There was also lots of Sharon Van Etten, Cat Power, Nina Simone, and Angel Olsen playing in my headphones at all times.
MT: What made you decide to make Amy’s character a lesbian, and do you think her sexuality somehow played into her loneliness, especially given she had reverted to Christianity at the novel’s beginning?
WB: Amy was a character who just sort of appeared in Gravesend—one I hadn’t seen coming but who had a small and pivotal role as someone who Alessandra connects with. She’s based loosely on one of my best friends from college, who I don’t see too much anymore because she lives far away. It was a way of spending time with her or at least imagining her into this part. I do think Amy’s sexuality played into her loneliness. Part of what drew me to telling her story was that she had stayed behind in her ex-girlfriend’s neighborhood and that this was a place where she would feel especially like an outsider. When you’re alone and you find solace in church and through the writings of someone like Dorothy Day, that can be a powerful thing—especially if you’re capable of being moved by faith. I grew up Catholic and I’m Catholic-haunted now, a non-believer who sometimes yearns to believe, and I think a lot of that went into Amy.
MT: What are your favorite crime novels written by women? What are your favorite crime novels written by queer authors?
WB: Everything by Megan Abbott and Sara Gran—they’re my two favorite writers. Impossible to choose favorites from them, but their most recent books are always tops for me, so I’d pick Give Me Your Hand and The Infinite Blacktop in a pinch. Vicki Hendricks’s Miami Purityis one of my all-time favorite books. I love Dorothy B. Hughes, especially Ride the Pink Horse and In a Lonely Place. Vera Caspary’s Laura. Margaret Millar’s Beast in View. Laura Lippman’s Sunburn knocked me out. Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Helen Nielsen’s Detour and The Woman on the Roof. Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters is a masterpiece. I was a little late to Maggie Estep’s Ruby Murphy books, but Hex is now one of my all-time favorite books. I love Melissa Ginsburg’s Sunset City. Susannah Moore’s In the Cut is a book I think about nonstop. Mercedes Lambert is a writer I discovered just last year--El Niñois a lost classic. Charlotte Carter’s Rhode Island Red is another lost classic I only recently discovered. Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight is killer.
Patricia Highsmith, of course--The Cry of the Owl might be my favorite of hers. I really like Vin Packer (aka Marijane Meaker), especially The Girl on the Bestseller List. I love Virginie Despentes; I just read Pretty Things and it blew me away. There’s a queer feminist bookstore called Violet Valley in the small town of Water Valley, Mississippi, right up the road from where I live, and last time I was in I discovered Sarah Schulman’s After Delores. It’s a great New York City novel that I’d never even heard of, and I couldn’t believe that it took me so long to find it—and not in New York City, where I’m from, but here in Mississippi.Val McDermid’s great. I haven’t read as much of her as I should, but I love The Wire in the Blood. And, finally, I love Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandtsetter books, especially Fadeout, and John Copenhaver’s Dodging and Burning is a recent book I really dug.
MT: At times, the novel coasts along like a regular crime novel, and then there’s the whydunnit rather than the whodunit which propels us forward at the conclusion of the novel. How were you able to switch in and out of these two subgenres—straight forward crime and then mystery—in order to deliver the conclusion of the novel in one whole piece?
WB: I’m not sure I was ever really thinking of the novel that way as I wrote. I guess, at times, it did feel like I was writing a paranoid thriller, but I mainly viewed it as a tragedy surrounding Amy and her father Fred. Everything else kind of swirled around that, added tension and purpose, but that was the center of it for me, so I knew it was going to end with that tragic set piece. I wasn’t really trying to subvert the mystery element—it just wasn’t my main concern.
MT: You write about a sort of deceit, the use of other people for material or personal gain, and I’m wondering how you feel that reflects on noir in the past, and if you’re willing, how that might reflect on your own experiences as a writer?
WB: One of things I’m interested in as a writer is desperation. I think noir is all about desperation. We have characters who are desperate to survive, to escape, to find connection, to get dough, to get out of something bad, to get out of something good. Whatever the reason, desperation is the driving force. And I think that’s where deceit comes from. When someone’s pushed to the breaking point, they deceive people who have trusted them or they deceive strangers. One of the smartest things I’ve ever heard about writing is—and I can’t find the source, I originally heard it secondhand—is from a film director who said (I’m paraphrasing, probably getting it a bit wrong), “Real drama happens when the villain says something true.” I think a lot of my work turns on that notion. I’m not interested in one-dimensional villains. Or likeable heroes. Everyone’s complicated. Good characters are capable of deception. Bad characters are capable of kindness.
MT: At the end, which isn’t totally unexpected, I saw Alessandra as a manipulator and Fred as something of an abused martyr. Obviously, there are some gray areas in between, but this says a lot about familial love and romantic love within noir novels. How do you feel about these two types of love (and other forms of love) within noir and what do you think is the truth that lies there and how can it be presented on a larger scale?
WB: I don’t think Alessandra comes off looking very good, that’s true, but I love her and I sympathize with her. She’s looking out for herself—that’s what she does. That’s how she survives. And there’s so much pain in Fred. As someone who is estranged from his own father, I put a lot of my feelings on the matter into Amy. She doesn’t forgive Fred for abandoning her. Why should she? It’s one of Amy’s many complexities. I think noir often hinges on love and honor. Fred, after all he’s done wrong, is willing to die for a daughter who can never love and forgive him. And I think the night that Amy and Alessandra have in the hotel, that’s central to the book. You want to escape to a moment like that forever, but nothing gold stays. Things fall apart. And that’s what I ultimately trust about noir. It doesn’t paint a perfect picture. It tells you the truth: happiness is fleeting and trouble is on the way.
MT: How do you think Amy’s character evolves throughout the story, and why do you think she makes the choices she does? Do you view her as a hero or as a villain and if neither, how would you explain her as someone in between?
WB: In no way do I think of her as a villain. I do think she’s heroic in the ways that she grapples with faith and doubt and identity. I try not to get hung up reading Goodreads reviews that bash her as stupid or crazy or unbelievable; I don’t think any of those things about her. She’s lost in the world. She makes bad decisions, sometimes with purpose, often because bad decisions initiate change. In some ways, she’s my riff on Rosanna Arquette’s Roberta Glass from Desperately Seeking Susan.
MT: Ultimately, like most noir novels, this is a story of loss. Great loss, for many people. There are issues with religion, issues with romance, issues with paternity and familial love, and ultimately how all of this can or cannot be redeemed, and how we might be betrayed by anyone. While the novel can certainly speak for itself, I’d love for you to speak to this topic, and possibly reference to any parts of the text you feel necessary.
WB: I think that’s absolutely true. What we lose and how we lose it defines us. Losing her mother and witnessing that crime as a teenager, those are the things that set Amy adrift. I think she feels loss in a holy, almost mystical way. Over the course of the novel, loss presents itself in other ways. The dive where she tended bar has transformed into a theme park dive. The Roulette Diner is on its way out. The city’s changing—rents are astronomical and the old good places are shutting down, replaced by chain stores, banks, and frozen yogurt joints. This loss also manifests itself in Amy. She almost cries when she looks at Camilo José Vergara’sphotos of ruined buildings and crumbling cities over at Gwen’s.
MT: In the beginning, Amy feels like a source of comfort. She visits elderly women, gives them communion with the wafer and such (I’m not as familiar with Catholicism as I should be—it’s not as big of a part of the South as it is elsewhere) and she seems to be trying to atone for past sins. What do you feel makes her suddenly jump from one life to another, and do you feel that’s commonplace in the real world?
WB: I don’t think she’s trying to atone for past sins necessarily; I just think she’s finding purpose in something else at the moment. I definitely feel like it’s commonplace in the real world to jump from identity to identity—to be one thing, define yourself a certain way, and then to abandon that. I think just she’s looking to feel content with something, not to feel restless or displaced or alone.
MT: One thing that struck me is how jarring and shocking your novel can be. An example is when Amy just casually reflects on witnessing a murder when she was younger. The murder comes out of nowhere, presented in such a nonchalant manner she might have been thinking about the dinners her mother used to make when she was a kid. This effect is repeated several times throughout the novel. What was your intended purpose, and what do you hope this says about the real world and noir itself?
WB: I wanted seeing Vincent—and being curious about him—to trigger the memory. It’s something she’s felt removed from for a long time; Alessandra is the only person she’s told. The action of the novel is set over a very short span of time, a few days, and I don’t like to sludge it up with too much exposition. Since it’s close third person, only the one POV, I wanted those memories to come naturally to Amy, exposed, brought out into the light, giving meaning to decisions she winds up making. How she acts with Bob Tully defines her response to the Vincent situation.
MT: There are so many characters clinging to people who they are losing or have lost. Do you think we ever fully have a hold on anyone, and how do you think the novel reflects on this issue?
WB: Personally, I hope we do. The pessimistic side of me knows that everything can fall apart at any minute. Art is a way of dealing with this. Telling stories is my way. There are always the characters to hold onto. I think the novel is about fighting to survive through loss, about endurance in a time of crisis.
MT: The Lonely Witnesswas a hit for those in the crime community and really anyone who loved noir. I know you already have another work coming out, and possibly another work-in-progress. Can you give us any hints as to what those might be about?
WB: I have a new novel coming out in March 2019 called A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself. It’s about two women in their sixties, one a mob widow, and the other a retired porn star. They’re on the lam from trouble. It’s a screwball noir, inspired by Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild and Married to the Mob. Right now I’m bouncing back and forth between working on two new books, but I’m reluctant to talk about them because I’m superstitious that way.
MT: I really am so grateful to have been able to interview you, William, and so sorry for getting the interview to you so late. Thank you for speaking with us at Writers Tell All and feel free to stop by another time with any future books and the like. Feel free to leave us with any thoughts, questions, concerns, or comments. And, once again, thank you.
WB: Thanks so much for the thoughtful and generous questions, Matthew. It was really my pleasure. I hope to talk to you again soon.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Paul, it’s really great to get to talk to you about your new book, Bindi. I was discouraged at first, and want to clarify for all potential readers—it is considered an uplifting,sometimes heart-warming book, but definitely not in a bad way. I was convinced this description would mean there would be little substance or depth to your novel, or perhaps your book would be too overwhelmingly optimistic in a way that might be disappointing. Bindi does anything but disappoint. It does stir one’s emotions and pull at your heartstrings but only in the best way. How did you come up with the idea for Bindi, and how did you approach it—character or story first, and how long did this novel take to develop before you finally presented it in its final form?
Paul Matthew Maisano: I certainly understand your concern. Messages of hope in literary fiction are a tricky business. But then I remind myself that hope, more often than not, is a response to longing and despair. I couldn’t have had one without the other. In terms of the initial idea that would become this novel, it’s hard to separate the roles that character and story played in its inception. The novel is told from four perspectives, but it would be fair to say that only two, Birendra’s adoptive family, came to me relatively fully formed. I was initially focused on the relationship between siblings who had grown apart as adults, despite clinging together and caring for one another as children in a broken and loveless home. Over the course of the five years I spent writing Bindi, my initial focus broadened and finally shifted primarily to Birendra, the boy at the heart of the novel.
MT: Was Bindi always meant to help the reader emote to such a degree? There are clearly some pretty intense moments in this book, filled with all sorts of feelings of loss and joy, and I wonder if you always intended it to be this way, and how you approached Bindi as a book that would arouse all of these emotions in the reader without being too saccharine or—well, for lack of a better word, “cheesy.”
PMM: I honestly cannot say that I set out to help the reader emote. In my experience, trying to create a family, whether chosen or born into, is a painful and joyful endeavor. I don’t know that I could have written this family differently. That the book had this effect on you is deeply gratifying. There will no doubt be those who do it find it “saccharine.” Some people thrive on despair. Many people are suspicious of hope and wear cynicism as a guard against being hurt and disappointed, as if that’s possible. Bindi may not be a favorite novel among cynics, but I can’t say if that makes it an important novel for them and others or not.
MT: What was the experience like, entering so many different viewpoints and people, some probably similar to you but others probably so far off and different from you entirely? How do you feel you’ve learned to embrace characters who are incredibly different from
you, and why do you feel it’s so important for writers to do so?
PMM: When it became clear that I would have to write from the perspective of Indian characters in order to tell this story, I was naturally apprehensive. Would I be sensitive enough? Would I get every detail right? Would they be believable? A concern that students occasionally bring up in the workshop environment is who has the right to write certain characters. To me this is ultimately well-intentioned but facile thinking. There will always be detractors, but I think some people forget that we would have almost no literature and probably no literacy at all if writers hadn’t begun writing beyond their experiences. Imagine the implications of that. In the end, I realized that all I could do was treat the characters the same: with love and compassion, with openness. Whether you like your characters or not, whether they are of primary importance to the story or not, whether their lives resemble the author’s life or not, all characters must be respected and treated as whole, complex beings with emotional lives even an author can’t possibly access entirely.
MT: How did you get your start as a writer? At what age, or what major life event, if any, led you to believe and understand “I am a writer”? How was your journey through life with writing, including being in a prestigious MFA program?
PMM: As a sophomore in high school, I went through a rebellious phase and had a particularly antagonistic relationship with an English teacher. One time I turned in a short story instead of the essay that had been assigned to us. I can’t recall if she gave me credit for it or not, but she encouraged me to keep writing fiction. And I have, though it was another fifteen years at least before I began to allow myself to think of writing as a viable career path. I left a “career” in 2007, along with the United States, and I went travelling for four years. By the end, I’d decided to return home to join a community of writers and receive an MFA in fiction.
MT: MFA programs are becoming more and more frequent these days, and we see more and more that it’s almost impossible to be published sometimes without an MFA, especially when writing certain genres. How do you approach the importance of an MFA program, and do you think it’s necessary for every writer, or is each writer different? What advice do you give aspiring writers?
PMM: I’ve actually been to two MFA programs. The first was not particularly well funded, but it was close to the beach, which appealed to me after my travels, which frequently brought me beaches and islands throughout the Mediterranean, Asia, and New Zealand. After my first semester, however, I struggled to convince myself that an MFA was worth accruing any debt, despite the valuable support of faculty and fellow students. So my first advice is to think long and hard about getting into debt. After all, it’s not a professional degree, and it offers no guarantees. As I was unwilling to get further in debt, I ended up working nearly full-time. This defeated the purpose of the MFA, which, in my opinion, is primarily to give writers the gift of time to write and think about writing. I applied to transfer and was accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I was guaranteed tuition remission and a stipend during my time there. I can’t say what’s necessary for every writer, but I certainly acknowledge how instrumental my time in Iowa was to completing and ultimately publishing Bindi.
MT: What are the books that have enabled you to write a book like Bindi? Obviously books by Asian writers should be listed here, but would you mind listing all of your favorite influences, from youth until now? What authors and books do you return to again and again, for form or inspiration or something else?
PMM: I’ve always struggled with this question, which is so similar to another that asks me to compare myself with other writers. It’s not that I think I’m so unique, it’s simply that, when I’m writing, the last thing I’m thinking about is what other writers would do or have done. I’m undoubtedly influenced and this may be evident to some in my style of writing, but it is not conscious. I think I’ve always been an emotional reader, which is to say that what sticks with me is the feeling of reading or having read a book. I may not remember plot details or character names, but I remember how it felt to move through the pages. The first time I lost myself completely to a fictional world on my own I was eight. I was in my elementary school library and found The Boxcar Children series on one of the shelves. I sat down in the aisle, opened the first book, and found the scent of the pages intoxicating. And then the story swept me up. Is it therefore meaningful that my first novel is about an eight-year old orphan? Perhaps. Since then, I’ve learned there are many ways to be swept up by fictional worlds. A few of my favorite reading experiences (of novels) to date have been: Midnight’s Children; Another Country; The Idiot; Sons and Lovers; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Black Boy; Good Morning, Midnight; The City of Your Final Destination; The Mandarins; Pride and Prejudice; Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Humboldt’s Gift; Lady Chatterly’s Lover; Laughter in the Dark; To the Lighthouse. This last book is probably the one I’ve returned to most often. I think it’s brilliant, bold, and beautiful. With her tale of the Ramsays, and particularly Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf gave us a great gift. Each time I read it, I find myself transported utterly and surprised at every turn, as though the story weren’t entirely familiar to me.
MT: The roles of parenthood and ownership are very important and clear in the pages of Bindi. Why did you choose to write about this topic in specific at this point in time, and why is it so important to talk about it now?
PMM: I think the story came to me as it did because there was no clear answer to any one of the questions I wanted to explore. It seems to me that we do claim our relatives, some to a greater degree than others, and this can lead to the purest love or the most devastating betrayal, as well as everything in between. In the case of parents, the question I posed is whether or not there is a way for siblings to love and support each other beyond the psychic wreckage of their shared nuclear family? And if not, as adults, what happens when one sibling acts in a way that the other finds hopelessly unforgivable, especially if it’s reminiscent of one or both of the parents? In terms of one’s right to be a parent, no matter the circumstances leading to that chosen role, I turned the question on myself and my characters: who has the right to decide the fate of a child, to deem a potential mother’s love worthy or unworthy, to judge an orphan’s adoptive home “right” or “wrong”? The answer was always that it’s complicated, we’re humans, and we can only do our best and encourage each other to be better.
MT: I love asking mostly every author I get the chance to interview that old quote that is attributed to so many authors, most frequently Toni Morrison, about how you should write the book you’ve always wanted to read but never found. Do you feel in Bindi you have written that book, or is that book still to come for you?
PMM: There are so many novels I still look forward to reading. For me, reading and writing are very different acts, but they are both rooted in the desire to connect with others at the deepest possible level. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’ve always assumed Toni Morrison was addressing the glaring absence of opportunities for readers and writers of color to engage in this great gift of literature.
MT: What was the most difficult aspect about publishing your first book? Did you ever feel you should have written something “safer,” and did you ever feel that you needed to compromise your vision in order to see your work published?
PMM: I’ve tried not to question the story I wanted to tell, which is not to say there haven’t been many times I was worried I wouldn’t succeed. Perhaps the biggest risk was committing to a message of hope, despite the loss and longing that the characters experience. But this, too, became essential to the book, and to me, in the years leading up to its publication. I was fortunate in that this aspect was never questioned by my editor.
MT: What do you hope that readers will take away from this book? In fact—to take from numerous other interviews with famous writers, a favorite question of mine too—if you were to give the president this book and, just assuming, he actually read it, what would you hope he’d
take away from Bindi? What other book would you give him by another author and what would you hope the president—or, again, anyone—might take away from the book?
PMM: I suppose I’d like readers to come away recognizing how complicated things really are, even as we try to simplify our lives, and that the tendency we have to make snap judgments about people, their actions, and their intentions is never going to be fair. So little in our world is black or white, right or wrong, one way or the other. We have to be willing to get a little uncomfortable, especially those of us who’ve grown up privileged in one way or another, in order to discover the transformative power of compassion. That being said, I think there are some people beyond humanity’s reach, and I guess Trump is one of them. I wish I believed he was capable of reading a novel, let alone benefiting from its message, but I don’t. In any case, I think everyone should be reading Baldwin right now. He was one of our greatest minds and his essays and fiction, though written sixty years ago, are as essential and compelling today as they always have been. If I had to choose one book, being a novelist, it would probably be Another Country.
MT: What do you think is the most important role of the writer in this time in history? Which writers, including or excluding yourself, are exhibiting these traits or acting out this role best, and where do you see the role of books and writing heading as our world continues to grow and change, for better or worse?
PMM: I think a writer’s most important role is to communicate in earnest. As I said, we need to complicate not simplify our understanding of the world and people in it. Writers must make that effort, too, and hopefully we succeed in casting light upon the challenge in a way that offers even the least amount of guidance. I’m an optimist, out of necessity. I have to believe that books will continue to provide refuge for writers and readers. I’d like to believe that there is room for messages of hope in literature, as well as tales of despair.
MT: What was the hardest part of writing Bindi? Did you ever find yourself wondering if you could actually complete the novel? Was there a specific part of the writing process—whether a specific chapter, or a kind of rewrite, anything really—that nearly stopped you from letting Bindi see the light of day?
PMM: I began writing the novel as both an escape from the growing disillusionment I felt about the world around me and an outlet for the cynic within. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that cynicism became a way of guarding against a life of despair. What began as a semi-satirical novel had to transform over time into something else, something compassionate, tolerant, and as non-political as possible. There were times when it felt my novel was kicking me out, and what I discovered was that it was the lingering veneer of satire that was being rejected by my characters and the novel itself. I had to find compassion for characters whose actions I personally found unforgivable. I had to learn to love them as people even if I couldn’t respect their behavior. I think what helped me get through it was the simple fact that I was writing a novel about family. The struggle to overcome these mixed feelings where family is concerned, especially in these increasingly partisan times, is quite common and demands our attention, as well as our patient persistence.
MT: What is the next book or work we can expect from Paul Matthew Maisano? Are you already developing a work-in-progress or are you taking a break, touring your book and the like? What can fans of Bindi expect from you next?
PMM: I have three very different projects in mind. I’ll soon be settled enough to learn which story captures my full attention. Until I know more, I hesitate to say what to expect.
MT: Paul, I really appreciate you taking the time to stop by Writers Tell All and answer some questions and really get fans excited about your work. I wish you the best and hope you will give us the chance to work with you again in the future. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, suggestions, questions, and the like. And thank you again.
PMM: I’m so grateful for the opportunity, and especially for your thoughtful and engaging questions. Thanks so much for reading.
Lydia Millet Has Stopped by to Talk About Her Career as One of America's Most Important and Diverse (and INTERESTING) Writers--Here We Go:
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Lydia, I am so happy to finally get the chance to interview you for Writers Tell All. I really do love your work, and would love to start with a fairly simple question before getting into anything too heavy. I don’t know if you’d consider yourself prolific, but you certainly have written your fair share of diverse, incredibly unique and profound and critically acclaimed novels, and I’m wondering: how do you manage to keep up the steady output? What drives you to be a novelist, how did you come to be a novelist, what was your journey like to publishing your first work, and how did you come to be as successful as you are today?
Lydia Millet: Stop, I’m blushing. I don’t think I can offer you a captivating origin story. I love reading, I love making things up, I love being caught up in a piece of writing that feels ecstatic. So when I get to do those things I’m satisfied. I’m fortunate to have a day job I love too, in conservation, and I wouldn’t want to give it up, so I have to thread those lines of work through each other. I find myself complaining about getting enough time for my books occasionally, and it’s true I don’t get enough time, but — actually this just struck me — what’s probably more true is that I don’t mind the combination. I like that act of threading.
MT: Your novels are described as often comic or heartbreaking or comic and heartbreaking, approaching many different genre tropes while remaining veryLydia Millet, each in their own right. When you’re writing a novel, do you think in terms of genre, and how do you go about plotting a novel and writing and executing any work, as well as editing and polishing this work as well?
LM: You know, I just ease into a voice and keep going. Most often without malice aforethought. I don’t think of my novels ahead of time too often, except in vague daydreams.
MT: Your novels in general are shorter, and I admire you and your novels largely because it takes a lot of talent to take a novel half as length as a similar work and pack twice the punch. What are your opinions on being concise and to the point, or whatever you believe enables you to shorten your novels in length in order to deliver an amazing experience — emotionally, mentally — to the reader?
LM: Truncated attention span, probably. It’s important, in a conversation like this, to be honest. As a reader, I can’t stand the self-indulgence of overlong books. Some writers seem to treat their novels like a drunken party where they alone get to hold forth. Which, technically, sure. A novel iskind of like that. But you have to know when to leave for the night. People suffer from windbaggery. Bloviation. They sufferfrom this. They’re not self-aware. Their big, dull books are like a fast, sparkly car purchased during some me-time that should actually stay private. I don’t want to ride in those sparkly me-cars.
MT: What are the books that initially inspired you to write, and what are the novels you continue to read today that keep your writing, new or old? For your contemporaries, who are authors in a variety of genres — literary, mystery, whatever have you — that inspire you and keep you motivated? Is there any book you come back to again and again, a favorite or more influential book?
LM: I got a lot out of Karel Capek’s War With the Newts. I still think of it, though I first read it a quarter-century ago. Its end-time, apocalyptic direness paired with the humor of the upright, humanoid, and quizzical salamanders. Also Elias Canetti’s Auto da Fe, because of the deeply detestable protagonist. For style I love Virginia Woolf and Lydia Davis, for moral rigor I like Coetzee, and even though other people say it too, I’ll never get over Thomas Bernhard.
MT: While I’ve read a good bit of your work, both novels and shorter fiction, I try to go into an interview blind as to other interviews with the authors I’m working with and what authors have already said. One question I have is: do you feel your work is considered “feminist,” and if so how do you relate this, or any other ideas or agendas you may have in your work, other than the fantastic stories you relate? What do you think — from the million possible answers — is the most important role of the writer in writing?
LM: I hope my work’s considered feminist, among other ists, but I’d be surprised if that’s the first adjective that springs to mind for most readers. I often like to look over the heads of people, into the crowd. Beyond the crowd, into the trees. Up into the atmosphere. You know? All the oppressed should be lifted up, in a world that was full of grace. Women are clearly oppressed. After the poor, the largest oppressed group in the world. Of course, those groups do tend to overlap. So lifted up would be good for allof the oppressed. But not lifted abovethe rest, and I fear aspects of liberal culture have a tendency to do that at the moment, make fetish objects of historical and contemporary victims in what’s also a tidy act of self-legitimation and self-glorification. The moral heroism of the powerful yet oh so empathic! And those self-glorifying and identity-based tendencies are boomeranging on us painfully now. Those rains are raising crops of Trumps and Ailes and Bannons out of the dead land. It’s allof us we should be worried about. It’s the structures that keep the many down and elevate the few.
And to the “most important role of the writer” — that’s a genuinely hard question. Maybe I can say interiority, the act of speaking from one private mind to another. Speaking abstractly rather than only narratively, and cerebrally as well as emotionally. Speaking of the many as well as the self, the all as well as the individual.
MT: Each of your books carry with them both your own unique voice as well as the very unique and different voices of your characters. How do you go about developing, in addition to your own individual voice, each voice of the characters you write from? How hard is it to find a character’s voice, and do you have any tricks or methods to find a way to slip into the role of a character you’re writing?
LM: I think there’s slippage between self and narrative self and character self, and though they’re distinct there are also Venn diagrams among them. I think it’s disingenuous to claim that literary voices and characters are somehow perfectly differentiable. Language slides you down a slide, and maybe there are different slides for different characters, and maybe there are whole different playgrounds…OK. That may be my most belabored metaphor yet. If I have tricks or methods, they’d consist mostly of making sure that sentences follow naturally from other sentences, and that the paragraphs that result feel like coherent gestures with consistent tones. Let sound carry you along but be careful it doesn’t seduce you completely, I think. That’s how you build a voice.
MT: Your last novel, Sweet Lamb of Heaven, mixes a lot of elements from different genres, including thriller to a certain extent. In thriller novels especially, although really in all genres, it’s incredibly important to keep the reader hooked. What are your tricks to keep a reader glued to the page section after section, chapter after chapter, in any work of fiction, no matter what elements of any genre it may take on?
LM: All I can do is try to keep myself intrigued and try not to waste words. Not that I haven’t wasted them in the past — there’s been some wastage for sure — but I get stingier and stingier as time goes on. That might be the best advice I could give young writers if I were asked, just, don’t bore yourself. If you’re bored by a passage you write, it’s a safe bet everyone else is even more bored.
MT: Your newest work of fiction is an absolutely brilliant collection of stories, Fight No More, which shows a vast and wide array of talent for numerous forms of storytelling — stories about different characters, different people, and all so intensely real and consuming in their own way. I’m a writer too and have always found that my biggest weakness is writing short fiction. I know the “rules,” I love a good short story myself, but I can never seem to concretely produce a solid short story myself. What are your secrets to writing great short fiction, and what do you think are some of the biggest differences in approaching the writing of short and long form fiction?
LM: Well for me short stories are a playful form. There can be heavy stuff behind them or in the margins, but I think if you approach them as moments, fragments, or even paintings or snapshots, that may be a good way to end up with something you like.
MT: I am curious — of all the stories in Fight No More, which of these stories is your favorite? I also had never thought of how complicated it was that, in addition to actually writing an amazing series of short stories, one must carefully put the stories together in a unique and important order in an effort to create the greatest collection possible. What are your secrets to writing these great stories and, in turn, organizing the stories and arranging a book so that it really works? Have you ever found yourself compiling a collection of stories and come across a favorite, amazing story that simply just won’t fit in with the collection you’re working with? If so, how do you handle this situation?
LM: Um. I don’t mind the one called “The Fall of Berlin.” And in fact I don’t mind “I Can’t Go On,” the one about the pedophile, either. I have a weakness for the sad and the sick. For this collection I was asked to write an extra story, actually, rather than get rid of one, because my agent felt one of the characters needed more time. But I have to admit in my only previous collection, Love in Infant Monkeys, I included a story that really didn’t follow from the others as a kind of P.S. Not because it was so brilliant it couldn’t be omitted, sadly, but because I like intrusions and odd men out. I like to pull in an item that doesn’t belong.
MT: Our country is certainly something of a mess currently. The leader of our country, as well as the leader of many nations around the world, is something of a train wreck. This is a popular question of many publications and has been for years, and I really think that it’s my responsibility to ask this nation’s greatest writers again and again, especially in times like these: first, what work of yours — short fiction or long — would you give the president, and what (if he did read it, if he knows how to read) would you expect or hope he would take from it? Second, if you could give him any book by any other author, what would it be, and likewise what would you hope he’d take away from it?
LM: I’m so sorry — I can’t answer that! No matter what books they were, it’d be a thankless gesture. Like giving high-heeled shoes to a goat.
MT: Piggybacking off my last question, in our nation’s time of crisis, in the place our world is currently in politically, socially, etc., what do you think is the most important role of the writer in affecting the world (if at all)? What do you hope to be the long-lasting effect of your work, other than simply fine entertainment for innumerable readers?
LM: Right now we should all be writing about extinction. Climate change and mass extinction. We should take a deep breath and just walk away from identity politics for a while, despite the many prestigious and financial inducements to push our particularist agendas. See the answer re: feminism, above. We should write about the collective. We should write about what’s disappearing and can’t ever be gotten back. What’s being destroyed. We should write about how to stop it.
MT: Do you believe, like so many other authors, that a writer does continue to get better book after book, work after work, and either way what do you feel is your best work, and what do you feel is your favorite? Which work would you like to be remembered for ten, twenty, one hundred years from now? What do you feel this work says about your career and also about you, both as a writer and a person?
LM: Depends on the writer! Some have one book in them and at best repeat it. None of us wants to be one of those, of course. For me, I’d go back and edit the sh*t out of some of my books if I could. Does that mean I’m improving? As for favorite, or whatever — I’m still attached to an early one called My Happy Life. And I also like one called Ghost Lights, the second in the trilogy that ended with Magnificence. Though critics didn’t necessarily agree.
MT: Lydia, our staff as well as, I’m sure, many of our readers and fans, are huge fans of yours as well. We would love to know: what is next for you? Do you have a work in progress, or do you avoid sticking to strict deadlines and goals as opposed to delivering a novel or collection every year or two? We would love to know anything about your next work in progress, if there is one already in the works.
LM: I just finished a book called A Children’s Bible, a novel about a group of children and teenagers in a vast summerhouse who can’t stand their parents. And then a storm comes in. A big storm comes in off the ocean.
MT: Lydia, thank you for allowing me to pick your brain for Writers Tell All. Our whole staff is very appreciative of your agreeing to be interviewed, as we all love your writing so immensely, and think it is not important on just a literary level, but on a personal and national level as well. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, remarks, suggestions, or questions that have been nagging you throughout the interview. Again, thank you for allowing us to interview you, Lydia, and we really appreciate the chance to get to know more about your and your work.
LM: Well. Thank you for your kindness and your lovely and thorough questions.
Matthew Turbeville: I just read your novel The Chalk Man for the first time and it was incredible. My first question is this: Where did you get your inspiration for your book, how did you come up with such an intricate plot and is the final product what initially had in mind?
C.J. Tudor: The inspiration came from a box of coloured chalks that a friend bought for my daughter’s second birthday. We spent the afternoon drawing stick figures all over the driveway. Then we went inside and forgot about them. Later that night, I opened the back door and I was confronted by all these weird chalk drawings. In the darkness, they suddenly looked incredibly sinister. I called out to my partner: ‘These chalk men look really creepy in the dark.’
I started writing the book the next day! The plot developed organically. That’s how I write. I’m not a planner. And yes, the end result is pretty much exactly what I had in mind, fortunately!
MT: On a similar note, the ending is incredible. Did you know the ending before you started the book, or at least in the beginnings of writing the book?
CJT: I knew the ending about halfway through the book. As I said, I’m not a planner. I just start writing and see where I go. But at about 150 pages, I knew what the ending needed to be, so I wrote it there and then!
MT: What books inspired your writing? The Chalk Manworks on several layers, sometimes as a mystery and sometimes as a horror novel. Would you mind listing some of your favorite crime and horror novels, as well as which books specifically helped inspire you to write The Chalk Man?
CJT: Well I’m a huge King fan, obviously. There are a few nods to Stephen King novels in The Chalk Man. I also love Michael Marshall – Spares is a one of my all-time favourites. I’ve also read pretty much every Harlan Coben novel.
MT: How many novels did you write before you landed and agent and then a publishing deal? Was The Chalk Mana quick entrance to the literary world or were there years of hard work involved?
CJT: Over a decade. So, not a quick entrance. More like loitering around for years. I wrote three novels prior to The Chalk Man and many other unfinished ones.
MT: What was your favorite part about writing this book and what were your least favorite parts about writing a book like this?
CJT: I loved reliving my 80’s childhood and also all the very creepy parts. My least favourite bit was waking at 3am convinced I would never make the plot hang together!
MT: What is your writing process like? When do you start in the day, how many hours do you write in a day or, perhaps, words? Are there days when you don’t write at all?
CJT: When I wrote The Chalk Man I was working as a dog walker, traipsing through muddy fields for up to six hours a day. And when I wasn’t doing that I was looking after my little girl. Time was limited, so I fitted the writing in whenever I could.
Now, I’m very lucky and I can write full time. I usually sit down at my desk after I’ve taken my little girl to school. I’ll write from around 9am-1pm and sometimes again in the evening. I don’t do word counts. Some days are just more productive than others. I write almost every day but I don’t beat myself up if life gets in the way.
MT: Would you ever write in another genre? Toni Morrison said write the book you’ve always wanted to read. Is that The Chalk Manor is there another book up your sleeve, or sometime in the future, that will be the “book you’ve always wanted to read”?
CJT: I can’t see myself ever writing romance! I’ve always written what I love to read. That means, dark, twisty and creepy. Book 2 is out next year. I’m editing Book 3 and have plans for 4 and 5. They are all books I would pick up from a book shop. I just hope others do too!
MT: I’ve been told to never be judgmental of the characters in my novel. Were you ever judgmental of the characters in your book? Were and are there any characters you frown upon, and characters you truly love?
CJT: I try not to be judgmental either. There was only one character I really didn’t like. But even then, I think you have to understand the character’s motivations. I actually prefer writing flawed characters. They’re always more interesting. I have a soft spot for Ed.
MT: How do you successfully combine two genres—mystery/crime and horror? Which do you feel is the most important genre in this book?
CJT: I think the mystery is the most important part. That’s what keeps people reading, keeps them guessing. But I love horror. I love chills. I think the two go hand in hand. All thrillers have to have a scary element and the best horror and ghost stories have a mystery at their heart.
MT: Would you ever write a sequel to The Chalk Man? Are there any characters that still linger with you, and if so, do they have stories you feel need to be told?
CJT: No. I wouldn’t write a sequel. But I do have plans to bring one character back in Book 4.
MT: When writing a novel with two parallel time lines, what did you do to ensure that book would be successfully executed and for you to keep your mind intact?
CJT: I wrote all of the 1986 sections first. Then I threaded in the 2016 sections. That way I knew what had formed my characters as children and it made it easier to write them as adults. The hardest part of writing in two timelines is not losing your readers and not making one timeline more interesting than the other.
MT: How did it feel to receive such high place for you book? Were there any reviews that got you down? How do you respond to both fans and critics?
CJT: Praise and glowing reviews are amazing, obviously. For someone who has had a lot of rejection and taken the long road it means a lot. Of coursenegative reviews hurt. But you have to respect all opinions – the good, the bad and the ugly!
MT: I know of many authors who find themselves or their personalities or their histories bleeding into their work. Did you ever have a chalk club? Did any parts of you bleed into the characters or their histories?
CJT: Well, the gang of friends in the book is very much based upon myself and my friends as pre-teens in the 80s. Not so much in terms of our individual characters but in terms of the stuff we did and liked. Eddie’s dark humour is mine. But I don’t project myself onto my characters. They are their own people!
MT: What lesson or idea would you want readers to take away from the book? What would you want them to understand not just about the characters and story, but concerning the way you present the world around them?
CJT: Every action has a consequence. Be kind. Never assume.
MT: Are you the type of author who listens to music while writing your books? If so, what sort of music inspires you to keep writing?
CJT: I can’t listen to music while writing as I find it too distracting. But I do find music inspires me. I’m a bit of a rock chick. I love Frank Turner, The Foo Fighters, The Killers plus I have a bit of a weakness for My Chemical Romance (even thought I am not 15)!!
MT: Do you have another book in mind or that you’re writing, and if not, will you be writing another book sometimes in the future? For fans of The Chalk Man, what books would you recommend readers who just can’t get enough?
CJT: Book 2 – The Taking of Annie Thorne - is out next year. I’m editing Book 3 which will, hopefully be out in 2020. I have Book 4 planned out and an idea I’m excited about for Book 5.
So, basically don’t read anything else - just wait for my books every year!
Recently I’ve enjoyed The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stu Turton, The Bone Collector by Luca Vesta, The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd, The Anomaly by Michael Rutger and The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J Harris (plus many more that have probably just slipped my mind!) Also, books out next year that I recommend: My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing and The Last by Hannah Jameson.
MT: CJ, I want to thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to answer these questions and hope it will only encourage other people to read The Chalk Manas well. Please leave us with any comments, suggestions, thoughts, and so on.
CJT: Crumbs! Well, one thing I think it’s very important to get across is that anyone with talent and imagination can be an author. You don’t need to be educated at a certain school, you don’t need a degree, you don’t need to work in the industry or have contacts.
I left school at 16, grew up in the Midlands and was walking dogs for £10 an hour when I wrote The Chalk Man. If I can do it, anyone can.