Kelsey Ray Dimberg’s, Girl In The Rearview Mirror has all the earmarks to be the next big thriller, a damaged heroine who has her own secrets, a dark plot involving both family and politics that borders on politics, and an ending that leaves the reader with much to think about and get book clubs talking. It also is just damn well written. Kelsey was kind enough to take a few questions from us before she starts her way toward the big time.
My plot began with a riff on the quintessential noir opener, a girl coming to an investigator with a problem. What if, I thought, a child came to her nanny? She’s following me, I heard a little girl whisper. The nanny, Finn Hunt, doesn’t believe her—and is very mistaken. So the domestic element was the seed of the story.
I knew I wanted the mystery to center on a prominent family, and a nanny as narrator worked perfectly: an outsider with intimate access. Initially, Finn was a cynical observer, more like Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, but after a couple drafts, I realized that insulated her from the fallout. I shaved away her distance until she naively believes she’s part of the family. Her closeness makes it difficult for her to see the Martins clearly, or to tell when they’re lying to her. For much of the book, she’s unsure what’s going on, and at times wonders if it’s all in her head, which led to the more psychological thriller tones.
The Martin family patriarch is a US Senator, so there are political elements to the plot, but they’re very tied to the domestic side. I’m fascinated with the pressure and scrutiny a political campaign must exert on those tangential to the candidate. I also wanted to explore the way politicians use their families as branding tools. Think of a politician flanked by clean-cut children at a rally, or beside his supportive spouse after a scandal. What happens if the family becomes a liability rather than an asset?
What kind of challenge did a character who was both keeping her own secrets as she was unraveling other people’s create for you?
As a reader, it’s a pet peeve of mine when a narrator is obviously lying or withholding information about a crucial plot element. So although Finn is hiding her past, she’s doing so because of her own shame and guilt, not just to toy with the reader. Her own past mistakes and subsequent reinvention make her relationship to the Martins fraught—she’s always aware that she’s misled them to some degree, and that the price of honesty might be expulsion from their world. Her choice to take that risk and deliberately defy their warnings to keep out of their business was, for me, one of the core character-defining moments for Finn.
This being a debut novel, did you pull from any influences?
Around the time I started writing the novel, I became very interested in film noir. I was living in San Francisco, and went to Noir Fest at the classic Castro Theater, mainly to see the old theater, which was ornate and beautiful, and even had an old school organ player before the show. I can’t remember what the movie was, but I was surprised by how much I genuinely enjoyed it. I started to watch more noir. The strong, shadowy visuals, intense plot, and simmering mood captivated me. So I set out to write a noir novel, mostly for fun, as a break from the traditional literary stories I was writing in grad school. Of course, the noir turned out to be the story I actually wanted to write.
Some major influences: the movies Chinatown, The Big Sleep, and Out of the Past; and books by Raymond Chandler, Sebastian Japrisot, Megan Abbott, Tana French, and Elizabeth Brundage.
Much of the mood is created from small physical actions. What do you enjoy as a writer about using the micro moments?
One of my favorite elements of any book or movie is what I’d call texture: the details of setting and atmosphere, gesture and tone, and even costume.
When possible, I like to draw out the relationship between characters by using this texture, as opposed to stating outright how they feel. Gestures and tone of voice and silence can suggest so much about the dynamic between characters—and can make that meaning unstable, open to interpretation. So much of the story turns on how Finn relates to the Martin family, to her boyfriend (the Senator’s aide), and other characters—I wanted the reader to see how Finn might feel about a situation, but also be able to interpret it differently than her.
It struck for being a moody thriller, much of the book is played out in bright daylight. How do you think the brightness played into the book?
For me, the brightness plays multiple roles. On a basic level, it’s true to life: summers in Arizona are brutally hot; it feels as though your skin is baking if you’re out in the middle of the day. The sun is relentless and almost hostile. I wanted that intensity to enhance the slower burn of Finn’s uncertainty and tension, especially in the first half of the book. The brightness is also paradoxical: the light is actually blinding, which mimics Finn’s own inability to see the Martins for what they are, because she’s so close to them. Through the second half, I imagined Finn having a constant searing headache, and squinting into the light as she drives, and the surreal mirages of water on the highway mirroring her own uncertainty. Is this real? Am I imagining things?
The major reveal is a gut punch. How developed was it before you started the actual writing of the book?
I didn’t consciously plan for that moment, but it did come out in the very first draft. When I wrote it, I immediately felt that it revealed a deeper menace than I’d planned for, yet it felt (sadly) right. (Warning, mild spoiler ahead.) The Senator, who is part of the reveal, was a very peripheral character in that original draft, so in revision I made him more active in the plot—hence the reelection campaign and Finn’s boyfriend working with the Senator. That moment also made me realize I wanted to dig deeper into the mythology of this powerful family, and the pressures and privileges that control their actions throughout the book, including at the reveal.