- Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz
If you’re out and about tomorrow night, have we got a great event planned here at the store! Alexandra Burt joins us to speak and sign her latest psychological thriller, The Good Daughter (also our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for February) on Tuesday, February 21st at 7 PM. The Good Daughter follows a daughter’s search for her own, and her mother’s, true identities. The novel takes place in a small Texas town, and weaves together modern-day murders with historic injustices for a well-crafted and suspenseful tale.
Molly Odintz: You’ve spoken a bit about the experiences that inspired you to write The Good Daughter – could you tell us a bit about the real story behind the characters in the novel?
Alexandra Burt: The Good Daughter was inspired by the demise of a marriage I witnessed. A middle-aged woman disappears and her husband finds their house void of her belongings. There are questions but no answers and he makes it his mission to get to the reason as to why she left him. Through detective work her life story unfolds and with every passing day more secrets come to light. It becomes apparent that he knows next to nothing about her; thirteen years of marriage yet she has remained a stranger. This is not just the whim of a middle-aged woman looking to end a marriage, but bombshell after bombshell explodes and a story unfolds of victims she has left in her wake.
When I found out her entire family suffered from mental illness, I struggled to assign blame, I bounced back and forth between judging her and absolving her from guilt. She was in no way responsible for any genetic predisposition regarding her mental health—but I questioned the choices she had made that impacted people around her, especially her children. In The Good Daughter Dahlia says about her mother: “Before she committed a crime against me, there were crimes committed against her. And though I know one cannot understand someone else’s pain, I want to say that hers was much heavier, reached much further beneath her skin.”
I wrote The Good Daughter because I felt the need for her story to end, to conclude itself into some sort of lesson learned, something fathomable; after writing the book, my preoccupation with her story became less powerful. Her life still haunts me and I have a feeling it will for a long time.
MO: I loved the creepy cricket imagery – so perfect for a Texas setting! Can you tell us a bit about Texas as a sort of character in The Good Daughter?
AB: There was an organic relationship between the setting of Aurora, Texas, and the crickets. In Texas, crickets are a plague of biblical proportions. You can’t escape them; they cover sidewalks and buildings, especially after periods of prolonged dry weather. Crickets are a symbol of the ugly parts of someone’s past that can’t be denied and the secrets we keep. A little known fact about crickets is that they display cannibalistic behavior and killing a few makes things worse. I chose a fictional town because the character Memphis has created this fictional story about her life, this condensed version that Dahlia, her daughter, can no longer accept. Big cities conjure up sentiments of loneliness and abandonment with literally millions of people around but small towns are places where secrets just won’t die. In The Good Daughter the past only comes alive because the characters find themselves in the same place where the past has been stuck in a dilapidated farmhouse, almost lying in wait. Small towns are unforgiving that way. It was a perfect setting for the story.
MO: The characters in The Good Daughter take the families they can get, assured in the knowledge that they probably can’t do better, yet frequently surprised by the secrets their loved ones hide. What did you want to explore about mother-daughter relationships, and family in general, in the novel?
AB: I revisit mother-daughter relationships because it allows me the opportunity to live vicariously through my characters. My mother passed away when I was in college and her passing left such a vast black hole—I felt grief beyond loss, beyond darkness and despair. Her death was the end of nurturing, the end of safety, and the end of who I was. I was no longer a daughter. Eventually I became the mother of a daughter, and I was able to speak for both sides. I love to explore the mother-part as much as the daughter-part, I step inside that relationship and I poke around, see what they are made of, what it takes to pull them apart and bring them back together. We become parents and raise children and we have to define what our childhood was all about and what it means to be a good parent. It’s a very profound experience, much more than I expected it to be.
MO: You’ve described the novel’s setting of Aurora, TX, as like any small town in Texas. We cover the topic of small town secrets quite a bit on this blog – what drew you to a small town setting?
AB: Setting is literally my first thought when I start a project: which city/town/area lends itself to telling the story, how is the setting a mirror of the theme? I live in a small town in Texas and I have come across old farmhouses and buildings that have remained abandoned for decades. In cities, buildings are usually demolished and new ones take their place but in rural areas buildings sit undisturbed and are left to their own devices for decades. Most people don’t give them a second thought—but there are stories left behind within those walls, remnants of peoples’ lives. An abandoned farmhouse on the outskirts of a small Texas town is a metaphor for time passing yet being stuck in the past at the same time, and that creates the friction. Abandoned houses are not just bricks and wood and stucco but they are a state of being.
MO: What inspired the rather brutal folk magic in the book? What did you want to say about responsibility and ritual? What is the purpose of the witch in the novel? What is her message?
AB: There’s an elephant in the room/novel and it is the fact that the story has a witch in it. It was a peculiar yet crucial part of the story. A long time ago, wise women lived on the edge of their communities and made a living with herbalism, prophecy and divination as well as healing and midwifery. In The Good Daughter the character Aella lives on the outskirts of the town of Aurora, practicing folk magic. The ritual she suggests, as brutal and horrific as it is, is historically authentic and was relayed to me during my research. Aella’s presence in the story is foresight of justice to come; there’s a price to be paid for everything, nothing will be given to you without the universe demanding something in return. So be careful what you wish for. The truth Dahlia is after contains not only facts and explanations but also pain. It’s like tearing open curtains allowing sunlight to flood in—suddenly everything is exposed; cracks in ceilings, chipped china, and dented furniture. We have to take the good with the bad and we instinctively know that but often it comes as a surprise. Aella’s presence in the story is my paying homage to the wise woman in all of us.
MO: With your first crime novel, Remember Mia, you immediately became not just a Texas writer but an internationally best-selling author. How has it felt to reach bestseller status so quickly?
AB: It doesn’t cross my mind often, I’m just too busy. More than anything I’m incredibly humbled by the fact that people believed in me. A bestseller is the combined effort of countless people and I’m reminded of that when I get an email from my editor on a Saturday at midnight, the extent to which people go to help me succeed. All the copy editors and line editors, the booksellers, the librarians, and of course the readers. When I think of a bestseller, I think of all those people whose names do not appear on the cover of a book. I am so full of appreciation and so many people gave so much to make this possible. Eternal gratitude is what I feel and the hope that I have many more good books and some bestsellers in me.
MO: Who are some of your writing inspirations, both in the genre, and outside of it?
AB: I have a passion for crime fiction and a love for literary fiction so if an author can combine the two, I’m in hog heaven. One of my favorite books of 2016 was Descent by Tim Johnston, it combined crime and literary fiction. I adore classic crime writers like Patricia Highsmith and my favorite contemporary crime writers are all across the board. I have come across many novels that aren’t from known authors but were amazing, just blew me away. The name of an author is not important; if you captivate me, you will inspire me, regardless of the genre, literary or not. I’m always looking for a dark horse, an underdog, someone fresh and daring with a bold, weird tale that catches my attention and draws me in.
MO: As someone who has lived in multiple countries, would you be tempted to use Germany as a setting in some of your future work, or do you plan to continue writing Texas tales?
AB: Yes, I am tempted, very much so. I can’t say that I have a concrete story in mind but I have been thinking about the possibility for years. So the answer is yes, I am tempted but I’m not sure when. My next book is also set in Texas but I see myself mixing it up a bit in the future. Whatever the story demands is where I’ll take it.
MO: What are you working on next?
I am working on a book that is loosely based on and inspired by a true crime in which money allowed the guilty to evade criminal justice. I diligently follow unsolved crimes and there is one high profile crime that went unsolved and I have been fascinated with it for decades. The story is very much set in stone but it is structurally still wobbly. I’m still toying with it, trying to figure out what it demands.
You can find copies of The Good Daughter on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Alexandra Burt joins us tomorrow, Tuesday, February 21st, at 7 PM to speak and sign her latest.