MysteryPeople Q&A with Alison Gaylin

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Alison Gaylin’s What Remains Of Me is one the year’s best novels. What Remains of Me follows protagonist Kelly Michelle Lund in two different timelines: an Eighties setting leading up to the murder of a director and Lund’s arrest; and a present-day setting wherein once again, Lund becomes the suspect in a murder following the death of her father-in-law, a famous actor and once the best friend of the murdered director.  The novel takes a fascinating and engaging look into celebrity and celebrity crime.

Alison will be joining William Boyle, Bill Loefhelm, and Megan Abbott tomorrow, Tuesday, August 2nd, at 7 PM, for a discussion of the new noir. We were able to get some answers out of her earlier.

MysteryPeople Scott: What drew you to celebrity crime and scandal?

Alison Gaylin: I’ve been drawn to both for pretty much my whole life! I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles called Arcadia. My parents had no connection to the movie industry, but my mom was a big pop culture follower and a huge reader of everything. She subscribed to Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, so I was reading Army Archerd’s column as a young kid, scanning for bold-faced names. I sneaked dishy books like Miss Rona, and loved celeb autobiographies (Lauren Bacall’s was a favorite)  At 10, I found and read a copy of Helter Skelter — in which the darkest of crimes occurs in the most glamorous of settings — and I was fascinated, terrified, hooked… That fascination has stuck with me as an entertainment journalist,  but even more so in the fiction I like to write.

MPS: You continue to learn more and more about Kelly, yet she remains enigmatic. How did you handle her as a character?

AG: Well we don’t always tell the truth, even to ourselves. Kelly is somebody who has survived by compartmentalizing, so even her internal dialogue isn’t going to tell all. I liked writing a character whose motives and emotions aren’t so easily accessible. To me it not only added to the mystery, but made sense as to who she’d be as a person after the type of life she’s led.  I also liked writing all the faux press coverage of Kelly — the excerpt from the fictional true crime book in particular. Usually in crime fiction, fake newspaper clips are included to tell the “real story,” but in this book, I wanted to explore the idea of the press being yet another unreliable narrator. (Because really, it so very often is.)

MPS: How did you manage the two time frames of the story?

AG: I had time lines for both time 1980 and 2010, so I knew everything that happened in both periods, more or less before I started writing (though some things changed, of course.)  When I wrote the book, I did it in the same order as it appears, shifting back and forth as I wrote it. I found myself going back and adding scenes to earlier parts of the book when I realized that it would color 2010 events more if we knew more about what happened in 1980, or vice versa. It was almost like writing the book and rewriting it at the same time. I hope that makes sense!

MPS: What was the biggest difference in writing this standalone as opposed to the Brenna Spector trilogy you just came off of?

AG: It was freeing to come up with a completely new characters, especially so to write a main character who is a criminal. I like writing the Brenna books and will come back to them, but after three books about a woman with perfect memory who wants to do the right thing, it was refreshing to write someone a bit less reliable!

MPS: Family is often you in your work. What makes it a good source for crime fiction?

AG: I think relationships between family members are the most complicated and with the highest stakes. They are the people we believe we would die for. I also like writing about the things that scare me. And as a mother, daughter and wife, I find the idea that we might not know family as well as we think we do especially terrifying.

MPS: You are a master at giving the reader an unexpected ending. What is the key to subterfuge as a writer?

AG: Thank you! You know, I’m not sure! I do try and create the characters first.  Before writing anything, I think about what everyone’s secret is, how it’s hidden and what’s at stake if it’s revealed. Escalated efforts to hide those secrets are what usually drive my plots, and the better the characters are at hiding them, the more surprising the reveals turn out to be.

Come by BookPeople Tuesday, August 2nd, at 7 PM, for a panel discussion on “New Voices of Noir.” Joining us for the panel discussion are crime writers Megan Abbott, Alison Gaylin, William Boyle and Bill Loehfelm. You can find copies of What Remains of Me on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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