Jenny Milchman’s debut, Cover of Snow, just won The Mary Higgins Clark award. Her follow up, Ruin Falls also deals with family and their secrets. Jenny comes by the store this Monday, June 16 at 7PM, so we caught up with her recently to ask about family, her upstate New York setting and suspense.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the idea for Ruin Falls come about?
JENNY MILCHMAN: We were on the road–as I am wont to do; with my debut novel I set out on a 7 month/35,000 mile book tour with my family–when we arrived at our hotel for the evening. We’d been upgraded to a suite, which is always a pleasure when it happens…life can get confined when you spend a lot of it in a car. But when I went to tuck the kids into the sleeper sofa bed, it occurred to me that in a suite, the children sleep close to the exit door, while the parents are a whole room away. In my jittery-with-travel, peak-nerved state, this struck me as the scariest scenario in the world. I knew I was going to write a novel where the mom sleep-stumbles into the outer room of a hotel suite…and discovers that her children are missing. But I also knew that because of the kind of writer I am–and also the kind of person–the children in Ruin Falls would have to be safe. The mom would know they were safe, and the reader would too. So the suspense in the novel was going to derive not from the kids being in peril, but from whether my heroine could become someone who’d be able to get them back.
MP: You weave two time frames together. Did you know that was the approach you were taking from the beginning?
JM: I wish I had known! Maybe if I had, the novel wouldn’t have gone through nine drafts :). In fact, almost every single one of the stories that ultimately come together in the book had to be rewritten from scratch after I finished Ruin Falls. I had earlier versions in as placeholders, but neither the characters nor the time line worked. Some people have said, “I had no idea how everything was going to connect.” And some readers like that while others don’t, but it was actually just what I was going for. As a reader, I love a book where bit by bit, piece by piece, the story becomes a whole.
MP: The settings for your books are in everyday suburbia with characters who live a lifestyle close to yours in reality. Does the writing pop out from observations in your life and you putting a “what if?” spin on them or do you apply a world you know to your dark thoughts?
JM: Both my novels take place in Wedeskyull, a remote town in the Adirondack mountains of New York state. I am fascinated by small towns, and especially by the clash between old-timers and newcomers that exists in some of them. But you’re right–my characters tend to be women who are living very ordinary lives. They are working and parenting and being wives and friends and neighbors. They don’t realize how close they are to what I call the thin gray line–the horizon of the Before and After. I see that line in almost every situation I am part of. Once a fictional counterpart steps over it, and their lives are upended into something decidedly not ordinary, my character is going to have to become someone stronger, smarter, better than she ever was before. More honest. And I find that transformation extraordinarily cathartic and liberating to be part of.
MP: Both of your books deal with marriage. What draws you to that dynamic?
JM: It’s funny that both do deal with husbands who have secrets because I wouldn’t have said it was a particular area of interest or concern. Huh. Doesn’t this writing business shine a light–for authors as much as readers? The truth is that my husband and I have a very open and honest relationship. We spend a great deal of time together–we both work from home and the road–and I don’t think secrets could survive for very long. So the husband preoccupation must come from somewhere else, and I just haven’t tracked it down yet. Secrets, though, do consume me. And I think that family members harbor some of the deepest. Which brings us to your last question.
MP: Can you tell us a little about what you have in store for your readers next?
JM: My third Wedeskyull novel has just been acquired for release in 2015. It’s called Hard Time and tells the story of a woman who opens the front door to find two prisoners on her doorstep. And this time it’s not the husband with the secret…but the wife herself.
Jenny Milchman will read from & sign his new novel here at BookPeople on Monesday, June 16th at 7PM. You can pre-order signed copies of Ruin Falls now via bookpeople.com, or find a copy on our shelves in-store.