WRITERS TELL ALL
"I can't speak for anyone else, but for me this just felt normal": Akemi Dawn Bowman on the brilliant HARLEY IN THE SKY
Matthew Turbeville: We are so excited to talk to you about Harley in the Sky, an amazing book about a girl who may give up everything to pursue a dream. Can you tell us about how you came up with the idea for this novel and why you felt it is necessary to be told now? What do you feel when you know something—a book, a story—is necessary to be told?
Akemi Dawn Bowman: My first two novels revolved around abuse, trauma, and grief, so when it was time to draft my third book, I really just wanted to write something that would allow me to emotionally recharge. I wanted it to feel magical, while still being grounded in the real world. The circus felt like the perfect setting. And for me, I know a story needs to be told when it makes my heart light up. I’m someone who has a million ideas floating around, but for me to start working on one, I need to feel that spark. I like to think that if it feels important enough for me to want to write, then hopefully it will feel equally important to someone out there who eventually reads it.
MT: The book is a mixture of genres, just like how Harley is a combination of so many races, backgrounds, cultures, and so on. What do you think this says about American youths today, and how does it reflect where our culture is or is headed?
ADB: I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me this just felt normal. I’m multiracial, like Harley, and I’ve often struggled with feeling like I don’t “belong” to the cultures of my family. I’ve always felt like I wasn’t enough of any of the parts of my heritage, and that made it difficult to feel like I fit in anywhere. But I think maybe that’s the point—people similar to me don’t haveto fit in a box. We have a unique cultural experience, and we get to navigate that in new and personal ways. I think there are probably some interesting conversations to be had about what it means to have ownership over a culture, and how cultures grow and change over borders, generations, and time.
MT: There are so many betrayals in the first part of the book. Some are heart wrenching, even when we dislike certain characters—perhaps every character—for deceit and a lack of loyalty on their part. Why do you think this is so important to a story about circuses, coming of age, and the other adventures associated with this?
ADB: I like to think everyone has their own version of messy. It’s what makes us human. I write about characters making mistakes who are also trying their best because it feels real to me. Nobody in this world is perfect, and sometimes I think there’s too much of a spotlight on the mistakes people make rather than the journey that follows as a result of that mistake. People should be held accountable for the wrongs they do, but it’s also important to allow people to grow. Particularly when we’re talking about teenage characters, who are mostly still figuring things out as they transition into adulthood. I don’t expect my characters to be any more perfect than people in real life. And I think those coming of age themes will always feel timeless for that exact reason, regardless of whether they’re set in the circus or some other kind of adventure.
MT: The beginning starts with family of many kinds—I believe Harley refers specifically to the biological family and the found family. Why is family so important in your novels, and is family important to you as a person? Do you think, in some ways, so many young adult novels are about family for a certain reason?
ADB: Family is very important to me. The most important, really. But I also know that having a family is a privilege not everyone has. And I’m particularly aware of how that can feel for young people, who maybe don’t have parents who love them or a support system at home. It can be lonely, and extremely difficult to navigate, because there are so many emotions that come into play when you don’t have the kind of parental love that seems so normal to everyone else. Family is an important part of my novels because I want to give people hope, and let them know that even if they weren’t born with the family they needed, they can still find family through friendships. And I can’t speak for other authors, but it’s possible many of them write about family for similar reasons. Because whether someone has a family or feels the absence of a family, there’s a pretty good chance it plays a big role in that person’s life.
MT: Harley’s parents come across as truly loving and caring for her and her future. Do you think there’s a right or wrong answer on either side, with Harley or her parents, and what do you think is so great about the way you write things and present all of these conflicting views?
ADB: I think there are a lot of ways to be right and wrong. Sometimes what’s right for one person is completely wrong for another. And sometimes people can disagree, but both parties can still be right in how they feel. Not everything in life is black and white; maybe most things exist in a gray area. Hopefully this comes across through Harley and her parents, and the complicated relationships they have with one another (and Popo, too).
MT: The ending also has a lot to deal with family, with dreams, and with both disappointment and success. Can you talk about the ending—perhaps without giving away too many spoilers—but essentially whether or not you think we find ourselves in a sort of reflection of the beginning of the novel, or what the ending means to young people pursuing their dreams?
ADB: I’ll try to remain as spoiler-free as possible, but I like to think Harley fought hard to chase her dreams, and although the outcome wasn’t exactly what she’d planned in her head, she learned a lot about compromise and adjusting along the way. Even when we imagine our goals, it would be very hard to imagine the journey. Because the journey is often out of our control. Hopefully Harley’s story is a reminder for some people to be flexible, and to not be so hard on themselves and the people around them if things don’t go to plan.
MT: My heart still breaks, even after finishing the novel, of a really horrible (in my opinion) betrayal Harley commits to get what she wants at the beginning of the novel. Do you think there are certain betrayals we cannot see past, and do you think it’s realistic for those affected by this portrayal to even want to have anything to do with Harley? While it makes sense in the book, obviously certain characters (and readers) my take issue with Harley’s actions, and I wonder what you think her actions say about Harley.
ADB: Nobody gets through life without messing up. Sometimes it’s intentional, and maybe more often it’s by accident. But how we make amends, and how we turn the mistake into an opportunity to learn is so much more important, I think. Everyone gets to decide for themselves what they’re willing to forgive, and I could never make that decision for someone else. But Harley’s parents love her, and Harley knew she did something wrong. They worked through it in a way that felt right to them. I think perhaps any judgements towards Harley by the end of the book says more about a reader’s tolerance or limitations to forgiveness than they do about Harley.
MT: What were the really formative books in your life, and what books and happenings in the real world and other media you’ve consumed that have helped informed Harley in the Sky? The book is brilliant, and I’m so interested into what books really affected this, even if they had nothing to do with circuses at all!
ADB: I don’t know if this is just a “me” thing, but I’m not someone who can read other books when I’m drafting. I find it incredibly distracting, and I actively don’t want my writing to be influenced by anything else. I really lean into my own style of writing, because it feels natural to me. I have no idea if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it works for me. I will say though that there have been books over the years that have most definitely inspired me to want to be an author. Sometimes it’s the incredible worldbuilding, sometimes it’s the lyrical way someone can tell a story, but mostly it’s that magical feeling when a book comes to life, and characters feel real.That’s when I know a book is a gem. And it makes me want to write books that can be gems for other people. A recent favorite of mine that I will never stop talking about is THE PRIORY OF THE ORANGE TREE by Samantha Shannon. It’s truly a masterpiece.
MT: What is editing like for you—well, really, the whole writing process? Do you write in a certain way, space, or place? Do you need to clear your mind or do you just write freely, not letting anything affect you? How is editing for you, and how many drafts do you go through before completing a novel? For books like Harley in the Sky where circuses are involved, how much research did you have to go into?
ADB: I’m trying to be better at fast-drafting, mostly because I have multiple projects going on at once. My default style of drafting would slow everything down, as I’m someone who likes to edit as they write. In the past, I’d write a chapter, and then go back and edit line by line. But it isn’t necessarily the most time efficient work style, because I’m constantly making adjustments. Nowadays I try to just write as much as I can when I have the time available, because I know I can always go back and fix things. But I need to get the words down first. I tend to have a very skeletal outline, where I only really know the beginning, middle, and end. And HARLEY IN THE SKY went through many rounds of revisions—several on my own, and then several more with my editor. I also did alot of research when it came to the circus life aspect in Harley’s story. Originally, the circus was meant to travel by train, and I watched an entire documentary on what that looked like. But ultimately it didn’t feel right for the story, as I wanted the characters to explore the world a bit more. I also watched more trapeze clips on YouTube than I can even count, and read many, many articles on circus life. It was a lot of fun to research!
MT: What other young adult, and perhaps adult or middle grade books and authors would you suggest to readers of Harley in the Sky? I’m sure this book is developing quite the fanbase, especially with such high praise from critics including myself, and I wonder if there are any other authors you might recommend while we wait on the next great novel from you!
ADB: DON’T READ THE COMMENTS by Eric Smith, I’LL BE THE ONE by Lyla Lee (which comes out later this year!), THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER by Emily X.R. Pan, and anything by Ashley Herring Blake, Sara Barnard, and Brandy Colbert.
MT: What do you think this says about young women too, throughout the book, and in the many compromising positions Harley is forced to deal with as she navigates her way through this part in her life? What about seeing the world and really trying to commit to something affects Harley as a young woman?
ADB: I think there are a lot of important discussions about how we view women when it comes to having aspirations or goals that are long overdue. It’s also why I find it interesting that people would feel so unforgiving towards Harley. Because I’m not sure male characters are held to the same standards of morality and perfection. There are countless novels that exist where male characters make mistakes, are morally gray, or are even unapologetically the villain, and yet there are people who love them despite their flaws. And then there’s someone like Harley, who makes a mistake, acknowledges it, and tries to make amends in ways that feel right to her, but is put into a category of unforgiveable behavior. I think that speaks to real-life, and the double standards that exist when it comes to gender.
MT: Do you have another work in progress? Can you tell us anything about it, and what we can expect in your next work, and when to expect it?
ADB: I do! I’m actually working on two projects at the minute. The next book that’s set to publish is my sci-fi debut called THE INFINITY COURTS. It’s about a girl who dies and wakes up in the afterlife, only to discover it’s been taken over by an artificial intelligence posing as a queen. It combines my love of robots and superpowers with Jane Austen and period dramas, and I’m seriously so, so excited to share more soon. I also just turned in edits on my middle-grade debut called GENERATION MISFITS, which is about a group of sixth graders who meet through a shared love of J-Pop. It has Breakfast Club vibes, but with all the heart and worries of being eleven years old at a new school where all you want is to make friends. It’s very close to my heart! Both are set to publish in 2021.
MT: Thank you so much for joining us and talking to us about Harley in the Sky. We at Writers Tell All truly loved the book and cannot wait to read more from you. Please feel free to comment on anything you feel we didn’t touch on, or you want to elaborate on below. Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us, and thank you for this book. It is phenomenal and we hope all of our readers will pick up a copy and dig in to Harley’s story!
ADB: Thank you so much for chatting with me, and for all your thoughtful questions!
"I’ve always thought that detective stories and ghost stories are basically the same": An illuminating interview with Yangszee Choo!
Matthew Turbeville: I am so excited to get to talk to you about these genre crossing, nail-biting, beautiful and unforgettable novels with you. My first question regards your actual writing style though: when do you decide an idea is right, how do you decide it’s something you want to pursue longform and long-term and what is your writing process like? (Morning/night writer, how your revisions go, where you like to write, by hand or computer or otherwise?)
Yangsze Choo: Thank you so much for having me! I wish I could tell you that I get up every morning at five, exercise enthusiastically, and then sit down to write, but the truth is far more mundane and disorganized. Mostly, I feel that I’m bumbling around, doing housework and making repeated visits to the refrigerator for “inspiration”, all while yelling at my kids to pick up their clothes…
In order to write, or perhaps be any kind of creative (which includes drawing/painting/building bicycles etc.) I think one needs a lot of blank, empty space. For me, that translates to silence, so unfortunately I have been relegated to writing late at night after the house is quiet and my kids have gone to bed. This is terrible because I’m actually a morning person and don’t like being up late at night. There have been times when I was writing certain ghostly passages in The Night Tiger when I frightened myself and had to eat large quantities of chocolate in order to recover.
I write organically (that is to say by the seat of my pants) and often discover the story as I write it. This is why it takes so long for me to write books. The Ghost Bride took about five years, and The Night Tiger four years.
MT: What authors inspired The Night Tiger and The Ghost Bride? What authors today helped you develop your own voice as a writer and author these great, now well-known novels? What book or author do you feel helped you grow most as a creator?
YC: There are so many writers that I adore—Haruki Murakami, Isak Dinesen, Susanna Clarke, Yoko Ogawa, Tana French—to name just a few. I think what they all have in common is the ability to transport the reader to a completely different world, where snow is falling outside a grand house in Copenhagen, or a professor who has lost his memory and experiences each day anew. When you read a really good book, there’s this frisson of excitement when you snuggle in deeper into the story and fall into another world, forgetting all that is before you and becoming someone else for a little time. That’s the magic of reading. I hope we never lose it.
MT: You have a lot of the mystical and magic in your writing—there’s horror, there is this place between magical realism and fantasy, and you balance everything so well. How do you feel this differs from other writers, and how do you manage to balance so many elements so well? You can easily move from one genre to another, combining all into one supergenre, the great Yangsze Choo novel. How did your own type of novel come about?
YC: Thank you for your kind words—I’m so delighted and honoured that you enjoyed my books! Actually when I started writing, I just wanted to write a story that seemed interesting to me. So I put in all these elements, including dreams, ghosts, and promises. Also, murder mysteries! I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of parallel or mirror worlds—places where things are not what they seem, whether that’s the Chinese world of the dead, or a dream world where people talk to you in deserted railway stations.
Speaking of railway stations, I remember very clearly traveling by train from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, in those days when we still had the old trains and it took about eight or nine hours, rattling along very slowly and stopping at all these small towns. There was something both magical and tedious about such a journey, watching the towns appear and disappear, and long stretches of the track winding through green jungle, all while looking out for interesting landmarks. That, and my own nostalgia for a historic Malaya long gone, led to many of the elements in The Night Tiger.
In some ways, you could say that all novels are a journey of some sort, and The Night Tiger in particular does remind me of one. The strange occurrences in the book are like landmarks or signals that you watch out for from a train window. And from time to time, a door opens or closes to somewhere new.
MT: Speaking of your own type of novel, how hard is it for someone—an author, any author—to invent a way of writing all their own, and outside of yourself, who do you think is the most creative and unique in telling stories today?
YC: I am a huge, huge fan of Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell). The first time I saw that book, it was in huge pile stacked in the front of a bookstore. I didn’t know anything about her or the book, which had just been published. They had two colours of the hardcover, so I seized one, flipped through the first page, then bought it to take home, where I spent the next two days devouring it. That is a very happy memory and one that I’m sure fellow book lovers have also experienced with different novels—that sensation of discovering something new and wondrous, a world that you had no idea existed. That’s the kind of feeling that I would love to give readers in turn.
MT: You talk a lot about curses, ghosts, magic, fate—what draws you to these ideas, and why do you think they’re important today? When looking at these recurring ideas and themes in your novels, what do you feel you want the reader to take away from the novel upon finishing the book?
YC: Sometimes I wonder whether we are continuously writing the same book, or the same story: exploring, turning, and examining it anew. I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami’s, and I get that feeling from his novels. Yet I really enjoy them and love being immersed in his world and prose. Mirror or parallel worlds has been a theme for my own writing, and how we as humans can accept the existence of completely contradictory ideas (ghosts and dream messages, interspersed with scientific data!) and be emotionally ok with all of them.
Part of this is the world that exists in your own head; one where events move towards a purpose that may exist or not—who is to say which one feels more real to you? That is the dream-like feeling that I think we all occasionally get and that I’ve tried to capture in my books. It is an escape and also a terror and delight.
MT: Which book was the hardest to write? What do you find makes things hardest to write for you, and how do you get over these hurdles and to the finish line—and so well!
YC: I’ve only written two books so far (though I’m working on a third right now), but I’d say that The Night Tiger was harder to write than The Ghost Bride, partly because it was such a complicated and ambitious narrative, weaving two storylines together at once. It also covered a number of subjects—colonialism, men and women, foreigners and locals, dreams and reality—that I’m still vaguely shocked that I managed to squeeze them in!
People have asked me whether I wrote each story out separately, and then put them together. The sad reality is that I’m not organized enough to do something like that. I wrote the whole book pretty much as the reader experiences it—one chapter at a time, swapping out the narratives. Part of it is that I didn’t know what was going to happen next, so I really couldn’t plan. This absence of outlining has been both my bane and a source of unexpected joy.
MT: There are also elements of lots of crime, intrigue, and mystery in your novels. What do you think is so important about writing of crime in today’s world? What are your favorite crime novels, and do you believe every novel is, essentially, a mystery?
YC: My youth was spent reading pretty much every Agatha Christie novel I could get hold of, and later on, other favourites include PD James, Ian Rankin, and Tana French among others. I do think that all good books contain some sort of mystery, though it appears in different guises. Whether it is the unraveling of a relationship, the demise of a dream, or the discovery of a dead body… the mystery is what calls out to us as readers to examine and explore, not just the world of the novel, but our own hearts as well.
MT: What are the connections between your novels? How do you feel they play together versus separately? Do you feel like you made a natural transition from one book to another easily? Which book is your favorite, and which was hardest to accomplish?
YC: I once heard a great quote from Elmore Leonard when he was interviewed on NPR. When asked which was his favourite book, he replied “the one I’m working on”. I thought that’s so helpful—you have to love the book that you’re currently working on, otherwise you’ll be tempted to give up (I know I often am!).
In terms of the two books I’ve completed so far, I’d have to say The Night Tiger is my favourite, and was also the harder one to write. As I mentioned earlier, that’s partly because it was much more ambitious than The Ghost Bride. Also, I noticed later that I tried to write each novel in very much the historic vein appropriate to its time period, so The Ghost Bride is written as a Victorian Gothic novel, with vocabulary and imagery.
One thing that I enjoyed about writing The Ghost Bride was being immersed in the Chinese world of the dead, with its antiquated imagery (even for that time), and burned paper offerings. It’s a world rich with superstition and ritual, where cultural expectations constrain behaviour. Yet that was also a little difficult to deal with in terms of plot, as I tried to keep my protagonist, Li Lan, historically accurate to a sheltered girl from a once-wealthy family. I was also learning about pacing and plot as I wrote that book, and there are definitely things I would have done differently if I had to rewrite it today! But I suppose all writers feel like that to some extent—a novel is never quite “done” or good enough.
The Night Tiger is set in 1931, when they had electricity and trains, so that was a lot more entertaining to write about! I’d read Somerset Maugham growing up, which helped with the background of colonial Malaya, and I have also always loved the crumbling, gracious colonial bungalows left over from that era in Malaysia. One thing I noted was that 1931 was closer to the 1920s in terms of fashion and popular culture. Beyond that, the fact that The Night Tiger is a dual narrative allowed me to play around with characters and setting in a faster and more complicated way. I really enjoyed that, though it was also rather challenging.
MT: Some authors are outspoken about the number of books a writer should author in a certain period of time. Do you ever say, “Hey, I’m moving too fast” or have any beliefs of your own? How long does each book take you, and how many more books do you have in you currently? I know I have a thousand books fighting in my own head, waiting to be written.
YC: Oh dear, I’m afraid I’m a very slow writer. I often feel terribly guilty about that. It took me about five years to write The Ghost Bride, and four for The Night Tiger. In between, I got stuck and had to put each novel aside for a while when I ran out of ideas.
A great deal of fiction writing for me occurs off the page, when I’m walking around or doing something mindless, and an idea will pop up. That’s the best feeling, though it doesn’t always happen and sometimes I go for long periods of drought. It’s very hard to sit down and write. I know other people who are much more disciplined and can do this, but for me, the creative process requires a lot of empty space, including silence. That’s very hard when you have kids barreling around the house and shouting!
MT: With violence, with crime, we also see magic related between the two, and controlling the two, in your novels. What do you feel is the connection between these elements, specifically magic and mysticism and crime?
YC: I’ve always thought that detective stories and ghost stories are basically the same, except that they start at different ends of the tale. Both address the mystery of a crime or someone’s passage into death, and both require an audience or a detective to unravel what happened. And in the end, there is some sort of resolution or reason. The magical part, I suppose, comes from our wishful desire to know exactly what happened, and that can manifest in many ways, from a talking crow to a message from the dead. Or perhaps, it is simply the possibility of a neatly wrapped answer.
MT: What do you have planned next? Is there a book being published, a work in progress, or some other book we should be looking forward to which is only in your head for now?
YC: I’m currently working on a third novel, which I’m excited, hopeful, and despairing of, depending on which day (or time of day!) you talk to me. The story itself is still being formed, but I wanted to write about snow and a cold climate. I spent part of my childhood in both Germany and Japan, and some of the most vivid and poignant memories I have are of snow falling. The silence, the soft cold, and the feeling that the whole world was being made anew when you woke up to a thick blanket of snow. So I started off by setting my new book in Manchuria (northern China) in 1908, but we’ll see where it goes. I’m still trying to figure that out!
MT: Thank you so much for being interviewed by us at Writers Tell All! We are so happy to have read your books and look forward to reading much more from you in years to come. Please feel free to stop by any time, as we will always be fans, and please let me know below if you have any thoughts, questions, concerns, or comments you want to share with our reader. Thank you so much!
YC: It’s been my pleasure and honour. These were such fun and wonderful questions. Thank you very much for having me!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Sheena! Before I get started on the novel, I wanted to hear about your background with writing—how did you start writing fiction, and how many novels did you author (or revisions gone through) before you published your first novel?
Sheena Kamal: Hi Matthew! My background is all over the place, but right before I wrote my first novel, The Lost Ones, I was working in film and television. Sometimes as an actor, and then sometimes on the production side of things. The aim was screenwriting, but it never worked out. The Lost Oneswas the first novel I attempted, and I wrote it in about eight months. I didn’t do much revising before pitching to agents. Once I had one, I revised it once and it sold. Then I did another revision for my publishers.
MT: Who are your favorite crime writers? What about your favorite writers in general? What authors shaped you during your formative years, and what book or books do you turn to if you ever get stuck in a novel, need a fresh way of viewing something, or just want to reread a book in general?
SK: I love Attica Locke, Liz Nugent, and Alison Gaylin. Writers in general… there are so many. My new favorites are Sally Rooney and Oyinkan Braithwaite. The book I turn to most often is The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. There’s something about the language in it that I find incredibly beautiful. It always unlocks something inside me, just by immersing myself in his prose.
MT: What is your writing process like in general? Do you write by hand or do you write on a computer, or some other way? Do you tend to write everything out at once or edit as you go? What are your writing habits like?
SK: I write daily, on my laptop. When I’m on the go, I usually have a notebook to jot ideas down in, but my handwriting is almost illegible, so not much is accomplished there, I’m afraid. I edit as I go, usually.
MT: I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but will you tell our readers a bit about what your new novel concerns, where we find Nora (if you think that should be given away), and for fun, how it ranks for you out of the novels you have published so far?
SK: Ha! It’s impossible to rank your babies. I think the ending of my latest Nora Watts novel is the best ending I’ve ever written, though, and for me there’s definitely something special about that. In No Going Back,Nora realizes a shadowy figure from her past is hunting her, and this threatens the life of Nora’s daughter Bonnie. Nora has to find him first, to protect both her and her daughter’s life.
MT: How did you come up with Nora Watts, and how far did you see her story going from the first book? Was there ever initially meant to be more than just a “book one”?
SK: Nora came to me one day as I was sitting in a television production office in Toronto. I didn’t set out to write more than one book at that time. I just wanted to see this idea to fruition. It was my first novel, and I wasn’t thinking beyond the task of getting it done. Once it was on submission with publishers, however, I realized it could have more life to it and I started to think beyond the first book.
MT: What do you think draws you back to Nora again and again? How did you develop her voice and learn who she was through your writing? How hard is it to catch a voice for a character, to grow a unique personality, and how does one character shape or mold to fit a story or character they might be attracted to or opposed to?
SK: I didn’t develop Nora’s voice so much as I followed it by instinct. That’s what draws me to her, really. I can always pick up her voice, so it’s very natural to me.
MT: What’s the hardest part about writing in general, and what’s the hardest part about writing Nora? Do you ever feel she takes the story in places you don’t want the novel to go? What are your favorite parts about writing Nora?
SK: Writing is a daily slog, isn’t it? But I love it and wouldn’t see my life any other way. Nora constantly surprises me, so writing her always feels like she’s taking the novel far away from the outline I’ve submitted to my publishers.
MT: What’s one thing you want readers to take away from your novels, especially No Going Back, other than a fun reading experience?
SK: Ultimately, I want them to be entertained, and love Nora as much as I do.
MT: What do you hope Noratakes away from the book?
SK: Oh, man. I want her to have some peace. I want her to be happy and start eating healthier. I want her to trust people more and do things that bring her joy. Obviously, these things aren’t going to happen, but I can only hope.
MT: Have you ever written something that’s shocked you, either about a character or even yourself? What is writing like for you as a personal journey?
SK: I mentioned this briefly earlier, but the end of No Going Backshocked me. I can’t really talk about it without giving it away, though. As for writing, it’s the tool I use to understand the world, and a huge part of my personal journey.
MT: Have you ever been emotionally struck or stuck during the writing process, and has there ever been a part of writing—a scene, a character, an event in a book—which has proven particularly difficult for you emotionally speaking?
SK: Yes, it’s all difficult emotionally speaking, because I write first person, present tense. At times it feels like things in the novel are happening to me. It’s just the way my imagination works.
MT: Say you had a super team of private investigators and ongoing series characters, recent or not. The Avengers of the crime world, say. Who would you put together and why and how would they fit together?
SK: I would have a crime fighting duo. Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and Lisbeth Salandar. I think those two would have the most deliciously antagonistic chemistry, and I would love to see a mystery unfold with those two at the helm.
MT: A lot of people attribute the quote about writing the book you’ve never found but always wanted to read to Toni Morrison. Do you feel you’ve written or read that book yet, and if you haven’t, what might that book be like?
SK: I think that about all my books, because they are so unique to me, my experiences and my worldview. And what I want to write about changes as I change.
MT: What are you writing currently? Do you have another work-in-progress ready, and how is your work responding to what’s going on around the world currently?
SK: I am polishing a draft of a novel to send to my agents. It should be ready soon. I think the landscape is going to change, absolutely, but since this book isn’t political—the crime it deals with is very personal—I think it will be fine. How my work responds to the current situation in the world will adapt as I understand the fallout of what we’re going through. But I’m not there yet.
MT: Thank you so much for speaking with us, Sheena. I can’t wait to see what comes out of the rest of your career, which I know will be explosive and packed full of tons of great books. I’m so thankful you’ve talked with us, and feel free to leave any lingering thoughts, ideas, or messages with readers and fans! Thank you again, Sheena.
SK: Thank you for having me! I wish you all the very best, and hope you stay safe and healthy.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Megan! I’m so glad I got to reach out to you about your marvelous new novel Sin Eater. Before I begin with the questions, can you tell us a little about the novel and why you felt it was so important to write this novel now?
Megan Campisi: Sin Eateris a historical fiction mystery set in a reimagined Elizabethan England.
It follows 14-year-old May Owens who is condemned to be a sin eater. In this role, she hears deathbed confessions and, at the funeral, eats ritual foods representing the confessed sins on the dead’s coffin, thereby taking the sins onto her own soul. As a sin eater, she becomes a pariah in her own community. But as the novel progresses, she turns this curse into an unexpected source of power. She uncovers a series of murders that reach all the way to the queen and sets out to solve them using her untouchable status. It’s a story about an isolated young woman finding her strength and also finding her people.
While Sin Eater’s story is proving very timely (a young woman persevering through intense isolation), the reason I wrote the book when I did was very practical. My background is in theater, and I am mostly a playwright. When my first child was born, getting to rehearsals in addition to my day job (teaching at a theater conservatory) became so challenging, I decided to give long-form prose a try. I had been mulling over writing a coming-of-age historical mystery with a sin eater protagonist, and it seemed like the perfect project for the moment.
MT: I was pulled into this book, in a way I was pulled into some books by Avi when I was younger, and some other books with historical settings by adult authors like Lyndsay Faye. One really captivating way was how you were able to use different forms of language but still captivate the reader—how do you feel you did this effectively, what was your greatest struggle with establishing this strong sense of language?
MC: In creating the language of Sin Eater, I was inspired by nursery rhymes and fairy tales. For me, nursery rhymes are magical snippets of cultural history that get passed down from generation to generation like a game of telephone. And like telephone, the story becomes distorted as one generation shares it with the next. Some words remain the same, but others lose their meaning or take on new meanings. I’ve always loved this mix of mystery, invention, and history. I’ve tried to bring those qualities to Sin Eater.
MT: Similarly, you also had a strong sense of character for the protagonist, May, and who she was from the very beginning. Can you describe you develop character, and how long it took to find a voice and character for Meg? Did you develop the book from character, or develop the character from the book?
MC:The story and main character evolved in relation to one another. I knew I wanted May to be a “late bloomer” and possess a vulnerability that made me protective of her. At the same time, I wanted her to be resourceful and resilient. It took time to find that balance. Similarly, her journey follows the transformation in how she sees herself, the world, and her place in it. I tinkered with that journey throughout the writing and editing processes.
MT: Where did the idea of a “sin eater” come from? How did the idea evolve—from sins translating to food, and women responsible for eating these sins? How did you relate all of this back to Eve?
MC: I’m a history nerd, so when I encountered sin eaters, I was hooked. But for my story to work, it couldn’t remain a post-mortem ritual, as it was historically. Sin eating needed to be a deep communion between two people that was woven into the fabric of society. The ideas evolved from there. Eve seemed like the perfect representation of Lucifer in this “alt history” because she embodies the Christian concept of original sin.
MT: What books and authors influenced Sin Eater most? What books, authors, and genres influenced you most during your formative years, and what book or author influenced you most in general, and is your favorite?
MC: For Sin Eater, I was influenced by historical fiction writers like Peter Carey and mystery writers like C.J. Sansom. As a child, I loved Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicornand M.M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess. As for a favorite author, it’s so hard to choose. I am a huge fan of David Mitchell and George Orwell. But if I have to choose just one author, it’s Toni Morrison.
MT: May has a clear understanding at one point of the book that there is a concept of light and darkness within every person. What do you think is important about this concept and why is it so important to who May is?
MC: Good and evil were concepts that occupied a lot of my thoughts as a child (I was raised Catholic). It took me many years to understand how subjective these qualities are, and that my own view mattered. That, to me, is the heart of May’s journey.
MT: What do you want readers to ultimately take away from Sin Eater, and why do you feel this is important in today’s world? What do you think is the most important part of Sin Eaterand how did you come across this idea, theme, or subject in your writing of the book?
MC: May’s story is about deciding who you are for yourself and about finding your people. These themes are deeply rooted in my own experience growing up and choosing to lapse as a Catholic.
MT: What is your writing process like? Are you a big planner? Do you outline or write as you go? How many rewrites and revisions do you go through in your rewriting process? How long did it take to make Sin Eaterthe amazing book it is today?
I’m a visual, physical person. When I outline, I paste sticky notes all over a large board. Then I can “see” the plot and move it around as I like. As for my process, I write whenever I can, as much as I can. When I began Sin Eater, my first child was nine months old, I was pregnant with my second child, and I had a full-time job teaching at a theater conservatory. I couldn’t be precious about when, where, and how I wrote. It took two and half years to write the book. The last six months was just editing.
MT: There are strong connections to Christianity and Christians both then (the historical period when Sin Eatermight be set) and now, and there are strong connections to cult thinking, and the way we are affected by cult mentality. What’s so important about the reason young and older people need to think for themselves and not fall into a cult way of thinking, and what do you think May is in this type of thinking, and does she defy cult thinking or does she play into it over the course of the book?
MC: This gets back to what I want people to take away from the story:May learns to decide who she is for herself. She also finds a community that accepts her for who she is.
MT: What was your favorite part about writing this book, and what was the hardest part about writing Sin Eater? Were they the same thing? What did you learn from writing Sin Eaterand are there any parts of the writing process you’d never want to go through again?
MC: I love world-building. Creating the “alt history” was a pleasure. The hardest part was the mystery: it took time to figure out how much to reveal when. I learned so much from the process, but would gladly do it all again. I truly loved writing the book.
MT: Were there any parts of the book you felt you had to fight to keep in place when writing the novel? Were there any parts of the book you didn’t want to keep in the book that are now a part of the final product?
MC: The editing process was remarkably smooth (in large part thanks to my fabulous editor, Trish Todd,at Atria Books.) The published book completely reflects my choices.
MT: Would you ever return to the world of Sin Eater in your future books?
MC: I don’t have any plans to right now.
MT: Do you have a new work in progress or a book on the way to being published? I know I for one cannot wait to read whatever you publish next. Will you give us any hint to what this next book or work in general may be about?
MC: I work on multiple things at once. One is another historical fiction novel about women spies in the American Civil War. It centers on women’s relationships with each other across a deep political divide and whether that divide can be bridged—something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.
MT: In May’s world, and in Sin Eater, whether resulting in death or just the testing of morals and ethics, what do you feel is the greatest crime in the book, and why do you feel it’s so important to readers?
MC: The greatest crime is a society taking away a person’s voice and personhood. In Sin Eater, I’ve tried to chart an individual revolution in the way one woman sees herself to remind people that change can start at home and grow from there.
MT: I loved your book so much, Megan, and I’m so glad you agreed to talk about the book with us. We are so thrilled to have you talk to Writers Tell All. We wish you the most success with this book. Feel free to leave us with any lingering thoughts or ideas you feel weren’t discussed or talked about in depth, and thank you again for working with us and being involved in an interview for this website. We loved your book and encourage all of our readers to buy or preorder and read this book!
MC: Thanks so much for reading and for your great questions!! Stay safe and well!
Megan Campisi is a playwright, novelist, and teacher. Her plays have been performed in China, France, and the United States. She attended Yale University and the L’École International de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. The author of Sin Eater, she lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.
I had the amazing opportunity to sit and talk with Robert Doyle about his new novel, Threshold, which I'd describe as a nice collision (it's intense at times, which is great) between the odd and vivid writings of Marilynne Robinson, the more autobiographical novels of Mario Vargas Llosa (more Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter), and some of the philosophical nature of writers like Iris Murdoch (only sadly without the murders and suicides and dramatic plot twists!). A brilliant book, something to consume slowly and all at once, Threshold is yet another reason to contact your local indie bookstore and purchase something by a great writer.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Rob! I’m excited to interview you, so I’ll go ahead and begin. This--Threshold—isn’t normally what people imagine when they think of their favorite novels. Yet, it’s absolutely absorbing and amazingly well written. Were you ever scared writing the novel—something like this, a travel log of sorts, a discussion of work, of authors, of creativity—that this novel would never see the light of day?
Rob Doyle: Not really, the reason being that it’s my third book and so I knew readers (and my publishers) had a certain confidence in me to try something new, something different. The first two books (Here Are the Young Menand This Is the Ritual) gained a gratifying amount of praise, which internally gives you a certain degree of licence. Also, three books in, you know what you’re doing, you’re not a rookie, and so when I embarked on writing a book that blended personal confession, humour, essay, fiction, and various other elements, I was reasonably confident it would be given the green light.
MT: Lev Grossman, I believe, made a case that there are too many people writing so much that great literature is hard to find, or becoming devalued. You touch on this briefly, with conflicting feelings. How do you feel about the state of literature today, and how do you feel all groups of people are being represented, and not just white men like you and I?
RD: I think literature is doing just fine, and will always do just fine: along with art in general, and perhaps religion too, it’s humankind’s great adventure into the unknown, into the abyss which turns out to be made of pure light. Which is not to say that a vast quantity of bad books aren’t getting written – more than ever, even. But you have to trust that the good stuff will get a hearing, and devote yourself to seeking out and relishing it, books from the past as well as the present. As Schopenhauer wrote, the art of not reading is of vital importance: that is, the art of not being distracted by whatever the great reading public happens to be getting in a lather over at a given moment, because they’re more than likely excited over something rubbish. Unless of course they are excited about mybooks, in which case I urge everyone to join in the adulation and the book-buying! As for the question of representation, I’ve always been a very international reader, reading a lot of stuff in translation, and because there’s a greater demand these days for diversity, there will likely be ever more of it available, which I welcome.
MT: You talk extensively about Bolano, who is at once a very publicly troubled and interesting person, and now a mysterious deceased author hipsters choose to read to stay cool. What drew you to Bolano, and why do you feel he fit into the novel so well? Would you consider him a character in the novel, even?
RD: Far from being merely an author for hipsters, Bolaño is a friend for life! I go back to his books regularly – in fact, all this week I’ve been reading a few pages of his collection of non-fictional writings Between Parentheses every morning, as a sort of tuning fork for my own writing day. I love how his mind works, that sense of humour, the combination of lunacy and control. I love his generosity, his endless fascination with all-but forgotten writers - minor poets, doomed novelists and so on. In Threshold I take a trip to Blanes in Spain where he lived, and reflect on his life and work, but mainly this is a means to get to grips with more personal questions of my own (and an excuse to take a nice long train journey from Paris to the Costa Brava and back again).
MT: While you do talk about literature extensively in the novel, what are the books that you feel shaped you in your formative years? What are the books you look to for inspiration now? Who do you feel are the most important authors working today, fiction or nonfiction (or anything else)?
RD: Here are some key writers for me: Friedrich Nietzsche, Roberto Bolaño, Rachel Kushner, Michel Houellebecq, Geoff Dyer, Svetlana Alexievich, J.L. Borges. As for books that shaped me in my formative years, all through last year I wrote a weekly column in The Irish Times, on precisely this question. It can be read on the ‘Column’ section of my website robdoyle.net. Needless to say, many of the books that formed me are also the ones that deformed me.
MT: The novel defies so many typical conventions, and you’ve received lots of praise for Threshold. Why do you think people are attracted to this book, and do you think it will last—honestly speaking, since you’re so honest about yourself in the book—and might it have a big effect on literature in the now, and in the future?
RD: Lord only knows. I think there’s no way of ever knowing the answer to those questions – you just have to give it your all while you have it in you to write, and hope that posterity shows favour on you. I mean, in the long run, we’re all bound for oblivion, what with the eventual heat-death of the sun and all of that. Even Shakespeare will eventually disappear, if the species which is his native audience wipes itself out. Our only hope, then, is the Singularity.
MT: You talk frequently about women, masturbation, sex, adventures (often with women)—so many men, male authors I mean, have thought of women as distractions to their work, but I don’t know if that’s the case here. Do you feel women, or rather sex and romance in general, is beneficial or detrimental to the design of one’s writing and the power of a novel today?
RD: For all the carnage and chaos of my life, most of the goodness in it has been brought into it by women. Most of the badness in it too, come to think of it. But yes, I’ve always found love and romance highly inspiring, and more than inspiring, nourishing and a source of meaning. That’s what love is, a kind of nourishment. And it nourishes writing and art as much as it nourishes the spirit.
MT: What do you think is the truest part of the book? How hard is it to write about oneself and remain true, if you try to remain true about yourself and your experiences at all?
RD: I would say that allof the book is true - even the parts that are invented or exaggerated. Furthermore, I would say that all my books are true, even the ones that are more explicitly fictional. What I mean by this, of course, is that fiction, if it’s any good, expresses truth in the form of illusion. That said, the ‘Rob’ who is the narrator of Threshold both is and isn’t me: he’s a persona of myself, like me in many ways, but not absolutely identical with me.
MT: Who do you want to read this? Every writer, I think, has one writer, one celebrity, one person in their life they’re secretly writing for. I really believe this to be true, but you can correct me if I’m wrong. Do you think you really wrote this novel for someone, or at least hoped a certain person would pick the book up and read it, and perhaps learn from it in whatever way imaginable?
RD: Wooh! An interesting question, though I’m not quite sure if there is an answer, or if there is, what it might be. Well, I guess there is one obvious answer, which is that I want everyoneto read Threshold, and then to buy copies for their mother, their cousin, their spouse and their self-isolating neighbour.
MT: My mentor, a wonderful and amazingly talented and famous author, loves Malta. It’s her favorite place. What do you feel your favorite location is (you definitely said NO to the US) and do you think it’s beneficial to your writing? What is your writing style like, when establishing a writing pattern, when including or excluding something from a book, when developing characters and voice? What’s the most important thing for a writer to remember when creating something like this brilliant novel?
RD: The latter question first: for me, trial and error is absolutely the most important thing. That’s how I create each book, and of course ‘trial and error’ means not being afraid of error, of going down a blind alley before retracing your steps and striking out in another direction. As for my favourite location, well, there is more than one - there are quite a few really. As I imagine becomes clear in Threshold, I have a great love for the cities of Paris and Berlin (though for quite different reasons – they are as unalike as two European capitals could be). Right now I’m in quarantine in Rosslare Harbour, County Wexford, in the southeast of Ireland. My favourite location at the moment is this lovely house, and the beach and cliffs just past the harbour, where I go walking every day.
MT: What is the hardest part of writing a novel, and what was the hardest part of writing Threshold?Was there a scene, a series of discussions, a whole chapter you considered removing from the book, and if so, do you still wish you had, considering the critical acclaim you’re receiving now?
RD: All the parts of writing a novel are the hardest part! Well, perhaps that’s not true – some scenes or voices or passages come easily, and that’s a joy, but not a frequently occuring one. I tend to splurge out a rough draft of a chapter or scene first, and then rework it over and over till it’s as close to perfection as I can get it. I kind of sort of partially vaguely considered thinking about removing the penultimate chapter, ‘Psychopomp’, which concerns taking LSD in Paris while researching the work of the surrealist André Breton. Arguably Thresholdwould have been a somewhat tighter read as a whole if I had done so, but that’s okay: it is what it is, as the Zen-like saying goes.
MT: What would I be surprised to find on your bookshelf?
RD: Perhaps The Holy Bible. I was raised a Catholic, but fell out of the faith as a teenager and never looked back. However, over the years I’ve come to hold a new respect and admiration for many aspects of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus. I bought a bible a couple of years ago with the idea of reading it through, one book at a time, but I never got round to it. Every now and then I’ll dip in and read a massacre-scene or some arcane list of laws. There’s a lot going on in that book.
MT: Toni Morrison is often accredited with the quote regarding writing the book you’ve always wanted to read but never have found. What’s the book you’ve always wanted to read but never been about to find? Do you feel Threshold, or one of your other previous works, fits this bill?
RD: Absolutely, Thresholdfits the bill! Morrison is right, it’s imperative to write exactly the kind of book you want to read. If you do that, you can’t go far wrong. Another way to say this is that artists, or good artists anyway, become masters at following their instincts, being true to their natures, their preferences and aversions, their boredoms and fanaticisms. I hope to continue to do this for the rest of my life, with each book I write.
MT: Threshold is so strange and wonderful, about something and nothing, everything at once and so little at the same time, and it’s brilliantly written and wonderfully absorbing (I believe I’ve used all these words before), but what would you say the book is about, and why is it necessary today? Why do you think people should read the book, and what do you feel you’ve accomplished in this writing that hasn’t been done before?
RD: I would simply say that Threshold is the most intimate, personal, revealing book I’ve yet written – but also the most fun, the most colourful, the most humourous and the most expansive in terms of its themes and settings. It’s got a bit of everything: there’s travel and philosophy, art and humour, mysticism and psychedelic drugs, madness and optimism, sex and loneliness. It’s a book about the struggle to write, also the struggle to live, to find some sort of transcendental truth in the midst of the turmoil and confusion of being alive.
MT: At the end of the book, there’s mention of a tomb, which reminds me of a New York Times article I read on the death of books, and I wonder which books you think will die and fade away in time, and what you think literature and the literary world needs more of nowadays. Why end with a tomb, other than some metaphor for the end of the book?
RD: That’s the ancient pre-Christian tomb in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, I believe. It’s where the narrator and his friends go to undertake one final and major experiment with DMT, the incredibly powerful psychedelic drug that some people even believe permits us to travel to other dimensions of reality. I didn’t intend it as a metaphor for the end or the death of books – but if you want to read it that way, who am I to say you’re wrong!
MT: Do you have another work-in-progress on the way? I have to admit, I think my readers will be buying your books for the first time, which is exciting, and when they’re done I bet they can’t wait for more.
RD: I’m very superstitious around talking about what I’m working on before I at least complete a first draft, so I’m afraid all I can say for now is that I’m working on something entirely non-fictional. In the meantime, my first novel Here Are the Young Menwas adapted for a film starring Anya Taylor Joy, Dean Charles Chapman and others. It’s not out yet but when this coronavirus situation is over, I hope you’ll be able to see it.
MT: Rob, thank you so very much for being interviewed by me here for Writers Tell All. I love being able to interview great minds like yours, and I hope we get to meet one day, and maybe be included in some of your wild adventures (preferably not too wild). Until then, I hope you have so much success with this new book, and I hope you enjoy all of the acclaim and hopefully sales you’ll be getting, and I hope I can contribute to that in some way. Please feel free to leave us with any lingering thoughts or ideas or anything else you have left to say. Thank you again, Rob. Writers Tell All loves you.
RD: Hah! Thank youvery much Matthew – it’s been a pleasure. I promise that if I do write about you, I won’t get you to do anything too wild. At least, nothing I wouldn’t do. Stay safe, stay healthy, and thanks again for your questions.
Matthew Turbeville: I know you’re perhaps the most raved about debut standalone of the year, and so I want to keep this brief. Can you tell me when you decided to write this story? It takes a lot for a story, a character, a plot, anything to push a writer through a whole novel. When did it occur to you Your House Will Pay had to be written, and why did you push so hard to write it? I know it took longer than your average book.
Steph Cha: I decided to write it in 2014, though my first foray into the material was through a short story, written for an anthology of Asian pulp. The story was about a young woman finding out her mother murdered a child during the L.A. Uprising in 1992. When I finished it, I knew there was a lot more in there that I wanted to explore, and once I decided to follow the brother of the victim as well as the daughter of the shooter, I felt like I had a novel to write. It was enough to consume my working life for the next four and a half years.
MT: Very few authors have the ability to stand on all sides of a very political, very divisive issue and look at things objectively, but you do things so well. Other authors I can think of include Attica Locke and Laura Lippman, who do a really great job at listening and not just telling. What do you think is so important for everyone who wants to write about someone who’s not themselves, and what do you think you had to keep telling yourself to do when you were writing Your House Will Pay?
SC: Alexander Chee has some great advice on this subject (https://www.vulture.com/2019/10/author-alexander-chee-on-his-advice-to-writers.html). I think it’s important to question your own motives on the front end, to interrogate and edit yourself as you write, and to be open to critique when you think you’re done. You have to be willing to put in the work and accept the responsibility that comes with writing someone else’s experience. It took a long time for me to flesh out Shawn and his family in Your House Will Pay, and I’ll admit it was much harder than writing Grace and the Parks. I did a lot of research, and I did a lot of work, and whether or not I did Shawn justice, I can at least say I poured everything I could into his character. I know him viscerally well.
MT: Who are the most underrated novelists today? Especially crime novelists, too? What books do you think should be read, and possibly celebrated or studied, but don’t receive the recognition they need? Who are the authors really breaking through and necessary to our country and world today?
SC: In the crime world, I’d say Nina Revoyr, Sara Gran, Elizabeth Hand, Lisa Brackmann, and Rachel Howzell Hall—all have some devoted fans but are not as widely read or celebrated as I personally think they should be.
MT: You’re a seasoned writer. You’re an expert writer. You’re young. What is your advice to fellow young writers, why do you feel you’ve succeeded so young, and what do you think the best advice you’ve ever received is, even if it took you forever to take the advice?
SC: I mean to be honest I got to start young because my parents are rich and I got to start a risky career with no debt and the knowledge that I had a safety net should I fail. This isn’t true of every young writer, of course, but it’s often a factor, and it makes me wary of dishing out sage advice. I guess one piece I will mention is that I always thought of fiction writing as a magical pursuit when it’s really just a lot of work—you don’t have to be some special writerly person to do it. It’s entirely possible to write a novel if you have the time, inclination, and follow-through. Also, definitely read as much as possible.
MT: This book took you a while to write. I can understand a lot of what must have taken a while to struggle with, but what might readers be surprised to learn you struggled with, and what was the hardest thing about writing a novel like Your House Will Pay?
SC: Coming from a mystery background, I always thought of myself as a natural plotter, but it turns out the genre conventions are an enormous help, and I had a much harder time plotting once I could no longer rely on them for the structure of my novel. I did much better when I gave in and outlined, something I hadn’t felt much need to do for my earlier books.
MT: Do you have a work in progress or finished book ready to publish, coming soon maybe? You know all of your super fans (aka me) are really ready for this. We love your writing and wonder if we’ve said goodbye to Juniper Song as well.
SC: I wish I did, but I haven’t even started my next novel yet. I keep putting it off, and now we’re in a global pandemic and I’m having a baby. It’ll happen, but will probably be a while until I have a new book out again. I do know it won’t be a Song novel, though I can see myself circling back to her one day, many books down the line.
MT: Years from now, alive or dead, when there’s a great American book list of the 21stcentury and one of your books (probably more) is featured on the list, what’s the one word you hope will be used to describe you and your work? Do you think crime novels will be featured more heavily this century? Thank you for having me, Steph. You know what your writing means to me personally, and I speak for myself and not the crying fangirls who make up the rest of Writers Tell All. All my best--
SC: Shoot, let’s go top shelf—how about ingenious? Really, I hope people read my work and find it thoughtful and illuminating and hopefully entertaining, even though it’s kind of grim. I think that’s how I think of my favorite crime fiction, so that’s what I aspire to write. I hope crime fiction continues to flourish this century and I see no reason it shouldn’t. Crime and injustice are not going away.
Alex Marwood is in the Building: THE POISON GARDEN, Cults, and the Interview You've Been Waiting For
It's rare I get to interview someone so important and essential in the literary industry, and it's rare that this person gets to be a part of my life. I won't gush, even if I want to, but I will acknowledge that Alex Marwood has had one of the greatest influences on my life, and I'm so incredibly thankful she writes and is in my life. Every book she writes is incredible, and I cannot wait until you discover her.
I also want to thank Erin Mitchell, an essential part of the literary industry and the person THE POISON GARDEN is dedicated to. The dedication is there for a reason. Erin is a rockstar. No one does it better--this is true for both these women.
Buy the US version of THE POISON GARDEN here, and purchase her other books here.
Matthew Turbeville: We’ve talked about cults, and I’ve read some of your interviews and thoughts and research on cults, and it all seems really relevant to what’s going on in the world today. People thinking in this binary black-and-white pattern, a commitment to one way of thinking without questioning any of their beliefs, etc—I’ve seen a lot of people contribute a rise in the popularity of cults in media as just a fascination with groups pictured more in horror movies than they are in real life. What are your opinions as to why cults are so popular, and why did you choose to make this part of the subject of The Poison Garden?
Alex Marwood: I’m not sure that popular’s the right word for it. Prevalent is more like it. And there’s no question that cults, or at least a rigid and often aggressive, cultish adherence to belief systems, are on the rise at the moment, and I think the whys will be the subject of hundreds of PhDs in the future.
My own theories: governments and other bodies the world over have been inflicting social engineering on their populations for decades now – see, for instance, the way smokers have gone from ordinary people to wicked villains in the course of a generation – and social engineering necessarily involves the employment of slanted information, half truths and misrepresentation intent. It’s hardly surprising that a population that’s been trained up from birth to allow themselves to be gaslit should fall for the same techniques used by less well-intentioned organisations. Postmodernism and the moral relativism it promotes have left a lot of people casting about for stability, but ill equipped to tell the difference between an objective fact and an opinion. And the internet, far from exposing us to other people’s views as we believed it would, has made it increasingly possible to convince yourself that “everyone” thinks the way you do. There are 4.13bn internet users worldwide. If you hold a view that’s held by, say, 1% of the population, that still gives you the ability to find 14.3m people who think like you. Honestly, you’d get greater variety of thought and opinion in your local bar than in most people’s follower lists on social media. Add on top the fact that every conceivable organization on the planet, from political parties to flat-earthers, has adopted the bullying tactics of denunciation, deliberate miscontrual, word salad and hyperbole formerly generally seen in teenagers, Stalinism and Scientology, and you’ve something close to a perfect storm of gullibility and conformity.
MT: You have this haunting effect on people--hat do you think about your books disturbs people in particular?
AM: I don’t really set out to gross people out, but I don’t think there’s much to be gained from shying away from accurate description, especially in books that are, after all, addressing some pretty disturbing topics. So, you know – I just describe stuff. That, after all, is what Stephen King does, and he’s the best of all at this. And I keep qualifying words – my adjectives and adverbs – to a minimum. If you have to tell the reader that something is disgusting, or frightening, then you’re failing at describing it properly. Also, I research. And I tend to employ all five senses in my descriptive writing; people often leave one or more out, and most things one experiences involve the full sensory bag.
MT: There’s a lot of talk about how to make unlikable characters “likable,” whatever you take that to mean. Yet your books are some of the very best, and people often comment there are no likable characters in the books. The same goes with so many of crime fiction’s best novels. Where do you draw the line with likability, and what do you think is so attractive about a character who isn’t perfect?
AM: It’s like that great Tolstoy line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – still up there in my top ten opening lines. It’s as simple as that. And realism. Unerringly nice people don’t exist, except in their own heads. One person’s “nice” is another person’s “prig”. One person’s heroic soldier is another person’s fascist. But it’s also true that the unerringly evil person is also a very rare thing. Many a gulag guard has been a loving parent; the serial killer Harold Shipman’s patients (he was a GP) still sing his praises to this day.
I think this really came home to me when I read Anne-Marie West’s memoir of growing up with her father Fred and stepmother Rose, two of the UK’s most horrific serial murderers. When Fred committed suicide in prison, Anne-Marie, who had been abused throughout her childhood, was absolutely devastated, just as most ordinary children are at the death of a parent. I’m interested in the fact that people are complicated. I don’t really care, honestly, if some people find it hard to deal with that reality.
MT: Continuing on the idea of “unlikability,” is there an exercise, method, or trick you use to help us follow along a story with such unlikable characters? (I’ve stopped using quotes by now, I think. They’re annoying.) It seems few people have problems buying your books and speeding through them, and yet they don’t like characters they feel aren’t redemptive in some way. Do you think this is a trick of yours, a secret relationship between the reader and the character, a combination of the two or something else?
AM: I think most of my books are redemptive, in their own rather elliptical way. Certainly I think all my books before The Poison Garden contain a character or characters who grow in some way, learn about love, or sacrifice, or forgiveness, or simply about themselves. The Poison Garden is a bit different: it’s certainly the bleakest book I’ve writer, but the world of cults is a bleak one and the path we’re going down as a society is a bleak one too, if we don’t manage to correct. And even in TPG, Romy gets what she is seeking. But it’s a book about obsession and broken minds, so Romy’s sense of fulfilment might well not be to most people’s tastes. But look – with this book I wantto scare us! I really want people to wake up and start questioning all their assumptions, before it’s too late! So if I’ve sent shivers down your spine by the end of that book, I’ve done as well as I can.
I don’t really have a trick, as such. I just… if I’m getting bored myself, it usually means I’ve gone wrong somewhere, so I’ll go back and pick what I’ve done apart until I can continue without doing so.
I think a lot of people mistake redemption for “being caught and punished”, by the way. If you’re that sort of person, I’d humbly suggest that my books aren’t for you!
MT: This book was a particularly grueling process for you, or so it seemed from the outside—it produced this masterpiece, but it was taxing. Can you talk about your process in creating The Poison Gardenand how you got it to the place it is today, where we can see it in print?
AM: It took me three years to write. Partly because I went down a bit of a rabbit-hole with the research – honestly, I could read about cults for the rest of my life and still not know all there is to know. Partly because seeing the stuff you’re writing about playing out in front of you all over social media is quite a disturbing sensation. But mostly because I was prescribed a drug that had horrendous side-effects that left me basically non-functional for eighteen months. Anyway, it’s done now, and I don’t really want to go back there. But one day soon I shall murder an arrogant doctor in a novel, and everyone who knows me will cheer.
MT: In my opinion, your darkest book—for me, the one I actually felt sick while reading, but couldn’t stop because it was so good—was The Killer Next Door. I remember repeating to myself, “Wow, she isn’t afraid to go there.” Is there a place you are too afraid to go to, and if you don’t mind sharing, would you explain why?
AM: Oh, plenty of places. Paedophilia. And torture porn. And on a personal level, I’m unlikely to do anything that sparks my quite horrendous levels of claustrophobia. I keep a pair of scissors in every room at home, and in every suitcase, in case I have to get out of constrictive clothes in a hurry – no, really, and I’ve used them, several times, and needed a lie-down with a beta blocker afterwards – and the one type of horror movie that is guaranteed to really pump my adrenalin is caving movies. Can’t do it. Nope.
MT: Which of your Alex Marwood books has not necessarily been your favorite but perhaps your most personal? You don’t need to share details, but I’m interested in what book pushed you hardest, and perhaps made you examine parts of yourself you didn’t think to look at before. What book threw you for a loop?
AM: Different questions! The one that pushed me the hardest was The Poison Garden. The most personal? The Darkest Secret. Mila is the character the most like me – or me at that age anyway – I’ve written, and though I didn’t start out intending to, I spent a lot of time working through my own history, and my grief at the impending death of my father, through her. I’m still really fond of her, and wish her well.
MT: Is there a book or subject you haven’t written about yet which you want to write, and possibly can’t wait to write about next? What interests you the most right now, and quite honestly, what do you find scariest about the world today?
AM: So much. It’s always a question of fining stuff down to something that will actually make a book at the time when you’re embarking on the next one. At the moment I’m a bit obsessed with grooming. Not the way you’d think, though. Like I said, I don’t do paedophilia. But it’s a huge issue, particularly here in the UK, and I really want to explore what happens to the groomed, what becomes of their lives afterward, because there are many ways to be so.
MT: How did you get started writing, and what were your formative books? (I say “formative books” like I know what this could mean, what age range this would be, and I think it’s something our beloved Laura Lippman mentioned to me once—but however you take that, what were your formative books, what were the books which shaped you to be the great writer you are today?)
AM: Oh, God, literally everything. I was a lucky kid with an adult library card, and a rural (ie, long periods of boring) family home stuffed to the rafters with generations of books, so my reading was constant and eclectic. Stephen King, obviously. But I think James Herbert’s The Ratsreally got me going down this path. And Jaws. And several dozen horror anthologies – I really started out as a horror enthusiast more than crime. But then, you know – Agatha Christie (the whole of my tenth summer), Kurt Vonnegut (over and over again, all of my teens), Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and George Elliot. But also Rider Haggard and MR James and the First World War poets and the Victorian Gothics and Isaac Asimov and Patricia Highsmith and Daphne de Maurier and Dorothy Parker and Saki and Wodehouse and my granny, Margaret Kennedy. And tons and tons and tons of non-fic: memoirs of derring-do, histories, murderers’ biographies, war stories, explorers’ tales, psychology books, pirate yarns, anthologies of disasters and inventions and unlikely deaths. Here’s the No1 thing with getting to be a writer: read. Greedily and adventurously and taking your time before you dismiss an entire genre as not your sort of thing.
MT: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given, and what’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given? What do you think—for struggling debut writers, or those just beginning a work in progress—is essential for any writer to know when beginning this sort of life—a life of writing, of creativity, of loneliness at times, and joy and love at others?
AM: Best: you will never write anything that everybody likes, so stop worrying about it.
Worst: write what you know. Seriously, stop with that. If we did that, the literary world would consist of nothing but navel-scratching (and mostly dull, as writers often lead quite small lives) memoir. If you don’t know about something, find out about it. We live in a wonderful world where you can find out about anything.
Essential thing: for me, I’d say be careful who you show your work to. I only ever show my uncompleted stuff to people who have (or might have) a vested financial interest in its success. This is for two reasons: one, the people who love you might well mislead you about the quality of your work from entirely good intentions, and you’ll never improve that way. Two, more people want to put hopeful creatives down, for a million different reasons, than you realise. Why put yourself in a position where someone who isn’tout for your best interests (or whose best interests don’t combine with your own) can take a bludgeon to your tender heart and leave you sobbing on the floor?
Other essential thing: you need to be tough in this game. If you can’t handle rejection and criticism, even the unfair kind, you’re probably best off out of it.
Sophie Hannah talks to WTA's Kristi Hixon on the Supernatural and Being Nosy in her new novel PERFECT LITTLE CHILDREN
Kristi Hixon: Ms. Hannah, thank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you about your work. Your novels have become integral to my day-to-day routine. I find myself reading or listening to whichever novel I’ve discovered or recently discovered, reading your work in all my spare time. I’m so excited to hear your thoughts, feelings, and answers to these questions.
Your novels fascinate me by how they turn what feels implausible into something that could actually happen. While you deliver resolutions that satisfy, it feels for much of the books like the pieces cannot come together until you expertly make them link near the end– which I find thrilling. How do you decide how a story will end? Is this something you know from the beginning, or do you solve your crimes alongside your characters? Do you ever change your mind about where the story will end? Do you ever consider not providing a solution to the mystery, and are there really any actual solutions in some of your darkest and most frightening novels?
Sophie Hannah:I am never aware of *deciding* how the story will end - what happens, instead, is that at a certain point an idea will present itself (appearing in my head almost like magic!) and I will think, ‘Yes! That is my perfect ending!’ I very rarely change my mind about an ending once I’ve committed to it. In fact, that has only happened once. But, often, I decide to add one detail or a little twist to a pre-planned ending - just something to take it to the next level and make it even better.
I never consider leaving the mystery unsolved, no. I feel I owe it to readers to solve the mystery, but I do like to leave one or two tiny areas of ambiguity for them to wonder about. In Perfect Little Children, I want readers to have to decide for themselves whether Beth’s actions throughout the novel are morally correct or not.
KH: How and at what point do you decide whether a novel will feature supernatural/paranormal elements? What do you feel ties crime fiction with the supernatural and paranormal?
SH: Only one of my novels - The Orphan Choir - has been at all supernatural. I always decide upfront, because I think books should make it clear if they’re supernatural or not from the outset. There’s nothing more annoying than starting to read what you think is a psychological thriller, only to find that the solution to the mystery is ‘ghosts did it by magic.’ I think the link between crime and supernatural is often the mystery. Supernatural fiction is very often mystery-based, like crime fiction. The driving question is often ‘Who is this ghost, what the the heck is he doing, and why?’
KH: Your female protagonists are amazing – complex, diverse, and compelling – are you more likely to base a character on someone you know well, someone you’ve just met, or even yourself? How do you develop characters, and at what point does each person and each voice become real to you?
SH: Most of my female protagonists are imaginary projections of me, as I might be/behave in certain situations. I start with plot and then ask, ‘What would he/she/they do?’ - because plot is real and concrete and character…doesn’t really exist. There is no such thing as ‘character’ as a stable essence within a person. There are simply people and how they behave, and that can change. So I start with plot and then ask myself what my fictional humans would do in response to those plot points.
KH: How do you decide which stories will be part of a series and which will be stand-alone novels? How does your process change based on that decision? What do you have more fun writing: novels in series, or your equally great standalone novels?
SH: All are equally fun to write, and the most fun of all is being able to do one, then another, then another - I am a writer who thrives on variety! If I could, I would move house before starting each new novel! When I have an idea, I just know instinctively if it’s one for Poirot, one for Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer, or a standalone.
KH: The stand-alone novels allow you to explore characters at close range but for a shorter period of time and actual text, unlike the time we continue to spend with crime solvers in your series. Do you find it easier or more challenging to give life to a character if he/she will appear mainly in one novel rather than throughout a series? What’s harder or easier about complicating a novel by providing only the one novel and therefore more limited space to the character?
SH: Both have harder aspects and easier aspects - but hard is not bad! I love the challenge of thinking, ‘What’s the constraint/obstacle here?’ and then ‘How can I overcome it?’
KH: Though Simon Waterhouse doesn’t solve the mystery in Perfect Little Children, there is no shortage of strong investigative work. Beth makes a pointed statement about looking out for one’s fellow man as she steps into the role of detective, and her growing investment into solving the mystery surrounding the Braids paints a convincing picture of the appeal detective work holds for its practitioners. How is the experience of giving the investigative reigns to an amateur sleuth different from following the perspective of trained and authorized detectives? Why leave the detective work to Beth and Zannah, and what do you feel are the strengths and weaknesses in the results they find?
SH: This is a crucial point! The central moral question in PLC is: when do we have a moral duty to stop politely minding our own business and start poking our noses into the business of another family? If Beth were a cop, her job would be to investigate, but…she’s not a cop, she’s a massage therapist! So she could ignore her strong suspicion that terrible things are happening in the Braid household - but would she be morally culpable if she did so? (I think she would - and so does she!) But so many people think, ‘I’ll just mind my own business’ and allow terrible things to be done - it’s basically what is known in the political sphere as ‘the bystander problem’. Beth is unwilling to be a bystander.
KH: Wyddial Lane fascinates me. I, like, Beth, was unable to stay away from the appeal of the house and those living inside. It houses such a quirky group of people, even outside of number 16. Were you inspired to create Wyddial Lane by anything in particular? What does Wyddial Lane mean to you?
SH: It’s based on a private road that I know, near where I live. The houses are all well set back from the road and all look as if they’re hiding something. It’s very atmospheric. It’s the kind of road where people obsessed with preserving their own privacy would live - and whenever someone is obsessed with privacy/their house or garden not being at all overlooked, I always wonder what they’re so keen to hide. All the gardens I’ve ever had have been somewhat overlooked and…so what? Someone will see me reading an Agatha Christie book in the garden? Who cares?
KH: Lewis seems like the kind of guy one would meet at a fraternity house – charming, funny, successful. But his unique interest in murmurations is certainly intriguing. How did you land on that particular quirk? What do you feel it adds to the novel and why do you think his fascination (which becomes our fascination as well) is so important?
SH: My husband went through a phase of banging on about murmurations all the time - and making me come and look at them! I thought that, though they were impressive, they could also look quite sinister - and that encapsulates Lewis Braid: impressive in a way, but also (Beth suspects) possibly sinister.
KH: Which did you decide on first – the characters’ personalities or the mystery they’d find themselves trying to solve? Did one influence the other? Does the mystery come into play once the character is created, or does the mystery make the character? Do you think this creative method also reflects on real life?
SH: Mystery first, always! And yes - real life is plot-first too. We only get to see what kind of people we/others are once we notice how we’re behaving in response to the plot points of our lives.
KH: I read Beth’s tenacity as both empowering and limiting, simultaneously. She’s able to break down barriers between herself and the truth that seem to be built firmly in place, but in doing so, she risks discord with Dom, interruption of her business, etc. What is it that drives Beth’s need to know the truth about the Braids, despite the inconvenience of finding out? As a crime fiction writer, do you see that same vivacious curiosity in yourself? There’s danger and intrigue in curiosity, and in so many novels, characters are dragged into place through curiosity, but what else leads them—like the protagonist here—to actually act on their interests and desires regarding the lives of others? (Not a big risk-taker myself, so I’m living vicariously here.)
SH: Beth knows that in order for evil to thrive, it’s only necessary for good men (and women) to do nothing. She doesn’t want to be a nothing-doer. She’s brave and determined not to let something dangerous continue if she can help it! She’s also nosy/curious and wants answers. I can totally relate! I would 100% hunt down the answers if I saw two kids who apparently hadn’t grown in 12 years! If a mystery like that doesn’t get you moving, there’s almost no point having brain cells at all!
KH: Dom seems to be the voice of reason in many ways (though Beth may disagree), interested in what Beth has seen only until he feels that interest threatens his family’s day-to-day. Do you think most crime novels have a character who is the voice of reason, and if so how often do you feel this is actually the protagonist or narrator, if it’s possible for someone pursuing a crime so intensely to be rational and using well thought out plans and ideas?
SH: I find it really interesting that some readers identify with Beth and some with Dom. The cautious voices-of-reason are all on Dom’s side, and the ‘We must find the truth and save the day’ brave, nosy people are on Beth’s side. I am 100% Team Beth. Obsessive truth-hunters work well in crime fiction. No one wants to read a mystery novel in which the protagonist decides that, actually, he/she can live without knowing the answer and making sure the bad guy gets punished.
KH: Even while investigating the mystery surrounding the Braid family, Beth seems like a pretty great mom: she’s somehow managed to get her children to be open with her about school and even their romantic relationships. I’m very impressed by the balance she finds between her own needs in investigating and discovering truths, and satisfying what’s necessary to have a happy family. Do you think it’s possible for people—especially women—to satisfy themselves as well as others, even whole families?
SH: Totally! The family in the book is basically my family, and I always find time to talk to my teenage kids about their issues, however busy I am. And sometimes I find time to investigate real-life mysteries too. Though never (yet) about children who appear not to have grown.
KH: The book is lots of fun – a real-page turner. But it also offers some interesting insight about friendship, family, perception, intuition – I could go on. Other than the thrills and chills we get from reading the novel, what do you hope us readers will take away from the story?
In some of your books, especially Did You SeeMelody?, we see a woman travel to find the truth or peace in something, often in another place, and sometimes in America. What’s important about traveling great distances to reach self-satisfaction and fulfillment?
SH: I want readers to think about families and how they can be great, but how they can also be scary and oppressive. I also want people to be braver and take action if they think something horrendous is going on (especially involving children) in another family.
I love America and do book festivals/tours/events there often - and I started to want to write about it. I especially love Arizona and Florida and often dream of escaping there to sit next to a beautiful swimming pool in the sun!
KH: Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now? I’m so thrilled to see what comes next.
SH: Just putting the finishing touches to my fourth Poirot novel, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, which is out in August!
Here’s the blurb:
Hercule Poirot is travelling by luxury passenger coach from London to the exclusive Kingfisher Hill estate. Richard Devonport has summoned him to prove that his fiancée, Helen, is innocent of the murder of his brother, Frank. There is one strange condition attached to this request: Poirot must conceal his true reason for being there from the rest of the Devonport family.
On the coach, a distressed woman leaps up, demanding to disembark. She insists that if she stays in her seat, she will be murdered. A seat-swap is arranged, and the rest of the journey passes without incident. But Poirot has a bad feeling about it, and his fears are later confirmed when a body is discovered in the Devonports' home with a note that refers to ‘the seat that you shouldn’t have sat in’.
Could this new murder and the peculiar incident on the coach be clues to solving mystery of who killed Frank Devonport? And can Poirot find the real murderer in time to save an innocent woman from the gallows?
KH: Thank you for your time! It’s been a privilege and a delight. Perfect Little Children lived up to my exceedingly high expectations, considering how much I love your writing, your characters, your stories, and everything you put out into the world in general. It’s a book I was able to use as my own escape and journey even in neglecting chores and other responsibilities. I wholeheartedly recommend readers let those dishes pile up as they busy themselves instead with Beth in uncovering the secret of Thomas’ and Emily’s youth. Thank you Sophie, and feel free to leave us with any thoughts or ideas regarding your novels, the questions, or anything else. I’m so honored to be able to interview you.
Matthew Turbeville: Alexandra! It’s so great to interview you for Writers Tell All. This is extra special because you’re also a recording-artist/voice actress. Can you tell us what it’s like to record for books and works by other authors as opposed to recording for your own novels? Do you have more freedom recording for your own novels?
Alexandra Monir: Thank you so much!! I actually have only recorded my own audiobooks. But I am a recording artist/songwriter, so I am very much at home in the studio, which made the audiobook recording process so much fun.
MT: This book is about hope. Possibly a last hope for those on Earth. Many of your characters are traveling in hope of reaching alien life. Can you tell us where you got the idea for the first and second book, and if you do believe in this hope, and where this also might spring from?
AM: I got the idea for The Final Sixwhile listening to a radio interview with an aspiring astronaut who had applied for the experimental MarsOne mission. This was a woman who was married, with a family and a full life on Earth, who was willing to leave it all for the chance to see and to colonize Mars. That was so wild to me, and then I had the thought—what if it wasn’t a choice? What if people were drafted to space, just like people have been drafted into war? And the reason for this particular draft would be to find a new home for humanity, after all the climate change crises here on Earth. A lot of this theme came from my own concerns about climate change, though I certainly have a lot of hope that our current and next generation can save the Earth. But I also have hope for what lies beyond our planet, too.
MT: One person is left on earth, and the other narrator is sent on the mission to search out alien life. You’re writing from two different point of views—how do you summon the ability to write from two very different voices, and what is writing this like? How hard is it to switch back and forth between the voices? Do you work with outlines and heavily plotted details so you can do one voice all at once, or do you have other methods?
AM: It is definitely a challenge- I hope I managed to succeed at it! The best way I could think of to differentiate the voices was to wear my actress hat while I wrote—to put myself in each character’s shoes while writing their chapters. Reading aloud also helped a lot, too—that’s usually when I would notice the spots where Leo’s voice might sound too much like mine, and then I’d revise to fit his character better. And yes, I do work with outlines!
MT: What books influenced this and what other books were the most influential during your “formative years”? Which book or books would you say most influenced this series?
AM: I’ve always been fascinated by space, so I think that longstanding interest was the biggest factor influencing and motivating me to keep writing this story! As far as particular books and movies that inspire me: Contact, Interstellar, The Martian, Gravity, and Arrival are all amazing and furthered my love of space-set stories!
MT: What’s the hardest part about writing these novels, and any novels? I have come across writers—and even have this problem myself—of challenging my own characters because in a way they’re your babies. You want to protect them. What do you find the hardest about writing these great characters, voices filled with such life, and what necessary evils do you have to do in killing your darlings?
AM: I actually don’t mind throwing difficult stuff at my characters—I feel like that’s the only way a good story gets told!—but if I struggle with anything in terms of killing your darlings, it would probably be that I often get attached to certain scenes that may or may not work with the plot, but because it’s a beautiful character scene, I’ll have such a hard time cutting it! But I’ve learned that when something doesn’t move the story forward, alas, it has to go!
MT: When setting up a series like this, how do you map things out? Is the whole series mapped out, or are you unable to plot more than one book at once? Are you more in the mode of jumping from one place to the next without planning much ahead? The books seem so well thought out and crafted, I’m sure you must do a lot of planning? What is it like writing such well-written series?
AM: I usually have an overall view of where I’m going across the series, but in terms of detailed plotting, I have to go one book at a time, especially because you can have an idea of what you want the story to be, but it inevitably evolves as you’re writing. So if you outline too far ahead, in my experience that can sometimes box you into a corner!
MT: When you write these novels, you push the limits of characters and usually have cliffhanger endings to chapters to keep the readers going. How do you arrange to keep readers turning the page, and what do you think the hardest part of this aspect of writing novels might be?
AM: I think cliffhanger chapter endings are so important, because you have to give your reader a reason to keep turning those pages! I like to end my chapters on either an exciting reveal or an intriguing question, and in either case, it has to up the stakes of the story. The challenge is making sure it’s organic to the story and not just throwing in an “Omg!” twist out of nowhere- you have to read through the manuscript a number of times to make sure your cliffhangers are authentic and serve the story.
MT: What do you think is so appealing about being chosen? In so many great young adult series, including your own, the protagonists are somehow singled out, incidentally or purposefully, and they are considered chosen, some characters even called “the chosen one” or “the chosen ones”? What do you think the draw is like for young people who read these books?
AM: Great question! I think the answer is that it’s wish fulfillment. At all levels of life, but especially in adolescence, we’re dying to be chosen: to be noticed and asked out by the guy or girl we like, to be chosen as the lead in the school play, to be voted Homecoming Queen, to be picked by a top-choice college, etc. I think book series like Harry Potter and so many others take that wish fulfillment and dial it up to 100- you’re being chosen for something so huge, which creates a lot of drama and story complications, but underneath all that is the wish fulfillment we’re all secretly hoping for. To be the special one, plucked from obscurity for a great adventure!
MT: Your dialogue is great, and as I mentioned, your voice is alive and refreshing. Do you ever feel that there’s a character you prefer writing, and are there ever any characters you dislike writing? What about scenes? What are your favorite scenes to write, and what are your least favorite scenes to write? Do you relate to any characters in particular, and if so, how?
AM: Thank you so much!! I had a lot of fun writing the snarky dialogue between Beckett and Naomi, actually! ;) Overall though, it was the conversations between The Final Six that I loved writing the most—their banter, friendships and fights allowed me to write normal teenage emotions and relationships in the midst of such a heightened, high-stakes world. Those relationships helped keep the book grounded, I think!
MT: A famous writer once told me never to view a character as a complete villain, as all people are complex and very few are completely evil. She instead implied that I should look at one’s wants versus another’s. How do you feel characters and their different wants play out in the novel, both for themselves and against one another? What do you think is important to having any sort of conflict exist for characters?
AM: That’s a great way of looking at it. The characters’ differing wants really are the crux of the conflict in this story. For example, what Beckett is after is diametrically opposed to what Naomi and Leo want, and that conflict has MAJOR repercussions. You have to have the conflict, because that is the key to a story- there really is no story without it!
MT: Again, there’s a sense of hope in this book. How do you see hope playing out in the novel and the series, and do you think any of this is influenced by what’s going on in the world today, and do you see hope in our world, a potential for hope, or the need for hope? The book offers some beautiful possibilities and I wonder what all this means both inside and outside the realm of The Life Below.
AM: I absolutely see hope in our world, and a perfect example of that is the young climate activist, Greta Thunberg. I think with people like Greta in our next generation, fighting for our world, we can and will make it a better one!
MT: Is there a book as a follow up to The Life Belowplanned? Do you have a work in progress already in your hands, on your desk, in your iCloud perhaps? Maybe you’re just already beginning to plan the novel? You seem like a hard worker!
AM: I do have a new novel coming out, in December of this year actually! It’s unrelated to The Final Six and The Life Below—it’s a superhero novel based on a well-known character, and I’ll be announcing the details soon! I have some other projects in the works, too- lots more to come! J
MT: Alexandra, thank you so much for being interviewed for Writers Tell All. We are thrilled to be able to talk with you and understand (or hope to understand!) your books, your writing process, your characters, and so much more about your writing style. Thank you so much for letting us have a look into your brain and your creative process. Feel free to leave us with any parting words!
AM: Thank you for this wonderful and thoughtful interview! I love reading other writers discuss their process, so hopefully mine can be helpful to your readers too. JAnd while there is no one “right” way to write a book, the key is to just keep writing—even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard, because that’s when the breakthroughs often happen!
"I like dark stories and always have, but not darkness for darkness’s sake": Lori Rader-Day on THE LUCKY ONE
As a crime writer, a crime reader, someone who reviews crime novels and interviews crime writers (as obviously seen below), I love a great mystery, whether this lies in the actual murder or the characters who commit crimes. I never miss a novel by the Lori Rader-Day (please see her books all out on Audible here and you're going to want to order the print version of The Lucky One here), a woman who is always changing, adapting, evolving. Each book is the previous book squared, a great mystery with a delicious plot line and unforgettable characters, always resulting in a conclusion you won't forget. Her last novel, Under a Dark Sky, absolutely destroyed me with its conclusion. She's a tough act to follow, and possibly the only author to top her own work. Enjoy this interview where Lori opens up about writing The Lucky One and how real things get--in so many ways.
Matthew Turbeville: Lori, this book, The Lucky One, is phenomenal. You’re coming off what I consider a really successful time with your last novel, Under a Dark Sky, and I see that you had real-life inspiration (perhaps a lot of real-life inspiration) for The Lucky One. Would you mind talking about the real-life inspiration and how it played a role in this novel?
Lori Rader-Day: The idea originated with a conversation with my new neighbor, an adorable young mother who announced one day that she had been kidnapped as a child. That certainly got my attention, and started the story of Alice Fine, kidnapped as a child and returned safely (as my neighbor had been, as well). I had been casting around for story ideas and considering a story among the real online sleuths who solve long-cold missing persons and unidentified cases. The story started to form from those two concepts. Later, I did some research about a missing case from my hometown, someone I had known, to see what kind of information was easy to find, what was reported, what was not reported. What was most useful about that research was really this feeling I got whenever I thought about my hometown case. That girl, who went missing at age 12 and was called a runaway, but wasn’t, is still missing. Her case reminds me that my characters are fiction, but they represent real people who have not had justice.
MT: A lot of the book deals with the elusive connections we have to the past—these things we remember, or perhaps think we remember, that may be true and may not. What’s the importance in the book about what we remember, what we remember being true and not true, and how do you think this plays out in the genre as a whole?
LR-D: Memory is elusive and faulty—we have learned in the last decade that eye witness testimony is almost entirely without merit, for instance. In our genre, so many of our stories rely on characters’ memories because they are characters with troubling pasts—story-wise, that just gives us something to work with—and because we want them to be as human as possible. Humans happen to have bad memories, patchy memories, and in the case of childhood memories, their own closely held interpretations of events they were too young to understand or to question. I try not to use flashbacks for this reason because I think flashback scenes aren’t true to how memory actually works. Real memories are fleeting, not fully fleshed-out scenes. That’s just my taste, though, not a rule.
MT: I saw a lot of true crime influenced the book, which makes sense. I was recently informed by the Jamie Mason—the brilliant Jamie Mason, I might add—that a book I was writing, based heavily on fact and true crime, needed to be toned down. Fiction often has to be more subtle than the often more unbelievable true crime. How do you feel about fact being stranger than fiction, and what influence (more specifically) did true crime novels, documentaries, podcasts, and so on have on your writing?
LR-D: Truth is totally stranger than fiction, so strange it’s hard to imagine how some kinds of crime novels will ever top what’s happening in the headlines right now. I have always had a true crime interest; I especially love true-crime books but I’ve also gotten into podcasts in the last year. When I discovered the Doe Network and some of the stories of unsolved missing persons cases getting matched with unsolved unidentified remains cases, I definitely tucked the idea of that site and its online community away. And then when my neighbor announced she had been kidnapped—true crime lived next door! Luckily, I’m writing fiction and can stretch and distort that bit of truth however I want. That was a lesson I had to keep re-learning with my next book, which is also based on a bit of history. In that case, the crime aspect of it was entirely fiction, so I had the necessary room to write the story I wanted. I just had to be careful with the characters who were based in truth. I didn’t want them embroiled in the fiction aspect of the novel.
MT: This book, The Lucky One, is so much darker than your previous books, all genius. This book though feels almost dirty to touch at points, but in the best way. I’m reading the storyline following Merrily, one of the protagonists in the novel, and at times I want to look away but I also can’t stop reading. What about the darkness in storylines is so appealing to you and to other readers?
LR-D: It’s a little dirty. I wanted Merrily to have her own online community, much like the one Alice has. It’s just…Merrily’s community wants something different from her, and provides something much different to her in return. It was pretty easy to imagine her situation and to make all the excuses she needs to make it fine. She isfine. She’s in charge of it until she changes things up and risks her safety. I like dark stories and always have, but not darkness for darkness’s sake. I don’t particularly enjoy serial killer fiction, for instance. People read fiction to put on other lives for a few hours, to live vicariously, to see and taste parts of life they don’t really want to encounter, and the lives readers want to take on vary greatly, from reader to reader and from day to day.
MT: What other books do you feel inspired The Lucky One? What authors do you feel need to be read more now, and are there any books or authors you want to give shout outs to?
LR-D: I read Deborah Halber’s book The Skeleton Crewas research for this book. It’s about the online amateur sleuth communities; about a third of the book is about Todd Matthews, one of the founders of the Doe Network. It’s a fascinating book. I also read James Renner’s True Crime Addictand Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Darkto write this book. Generally, I’m a big fan of crime nonfiction and highly recommend David Grann, Gene Weingarten, and anything by Susan Orlean (who doesn’t write crime specifically, but sometimes does. Sometimes she writes about dogs or libraries). I don’t know that I can say The Lucky Onewas inspired by any specific novels, but I learn something from a lot of my friends’ books. I would suggest Lou Berney’s November Roadfor learning about making every word count, Elizabeth Little’s Pretty as a Picturefor how a fully realized character feels on the page. For a modern thriller, Layne Fargo’s Temper. For a modern cozy, Kellye Garrett’s two Detective by Day books. For a modern private eye books, Kristen Lepionka’s Roxane Weary series. I could do this all day.
MT: Reading this book—and without too many spoilers—you often offer ways in which women knowingly or not are able to access power they may not be aware they have. Two characters find they have much more power in their own everyday business life than they might think, and I am wondering how you think this reflects on women in today’s world, especially given the limitations imposed on these women either before, during, or after they learn the truth about power they might be able to exert.
LR-D: I can’t speak for all women, but I can speak for some of them, I guess, since that’s what I do for Sisters in Crime. I’ll just speak for myself. I’m far more comfortable in that position. In The Lucky One, at least one character has power she doesn’t realize because it was never actually given to her—she’s infantilized in a way—and another thinks she has total control until she doesn’t. She’s innocent of where the limits of her power are and how to protect herself. I don’t think I meant to speak for all of womankind when I created those two characters, but I think a lot of women might understand how the characters could allow themselves to be led along. Our default, if we were allowed to live it, would be to trust those who should be trusted, to give people the benefit of the doubt. But girls aren’t allowed to stay trusting. The world comes for them much too early and always has, and I guess that’s the book I’ve been writing this whole time, since the first one.
MT: What was the toughest struggle you had to overcome when writing this novel? What was your favorite part about writing this novel?
LR-D: For this novel, the struggle was absolutely real. My dad died between the time I turned in the first draft and when I got my edit notes back, and let’s just say that grief is not a great writing partner. It was also a challenging book to write for a couple of craft reasons. I had chosen a different point of view than my previous novels, and then also the story I imagined was complex, so I had to map it out a bit. I’m usually a writer who just sees where the story goes, but I had the good/bad fortune to understand where I wanted the story to go early in the process, but then I had go write already knowing a lot. That doesn’t sound like a problem, does it? Except what I love about writing is the discovery, and knowing too much where I’m going can make the actual writing a drag. My favorite part about writing this novel, as with any novel, is anything but drafting the middle. The revisions were fun for this one. On my final edit, I took out 5,000 words. Not mandated by my editor—I just decided I wanted to reel in Alice’s sections to be a little leaner. Merrily got more room to play; she’s a more playful character.
MT: You have a talent from writing from many points of view and in many perspectives, like first person, third person from different characters’ points of view, and so on. What do you think is the most important part of deciding a perspective and point of view, and what do you feel is your greatest strength when writing from a person’s mindset, and occupying the character’s being?
LR-D: Point of view is my pet craft topic because I think it matters so much to how the reader experiences the story. It confines the writer in how they can tell the story and reveal information, so it’s not a small decision. I like being able to get into a character’s skin, so I will probably always want to write first person or third close, so that I can let the character’s thoughts play a little and tell us who she really is. I usually find the story there. For The Lucky One, I chose to write for the first time in a novel in third person, close. That was entirely because I had two points of view who needed to tell the story, but they were two women of about the same age. I didn’t think they would sound that different to the reader. So instead I used third-person point of view and let them keep a lot of their thoughts to themselves, which was a lot of fun. It’s all about keeping myself amused or I won’t do the work.
MT: What’s your current work-in-progress about? What can we expect from the great Lori Rader-Day next? Can you give us any hints, perhaps big hints even?
LR-D: I’m finishing up my next book now, and it’s a departure. It’s set in 1941 England and 1974 England, and I’ve had to do a ton of research to write it. The title isn’t finalized yet, so I can’t even tell you much, but… it has Agatha Christie in it. Briefly. And I stayed in her summer house as part of my research. I can’t wait to see what people think of it. That’s a lie. I have a lot of self doubt about this one, so I’m nervous to see what people think of it.
MT: Lori, thank you for letting me interview you once again. I really love your books, always try and champion them, and want all readers to know they should pick up copies of all your novels and read them immediately. It’s hard not to just inhale your books, the way we can race through the pages so quickly. Thank you again and please feel free to leave any notes or thoughts for the site or your fans below. We adore you and cannot wait for this book and all of your novels to come!
LR-D: Thanks for inviting me, Matthew! And thanks for the ongoing support!