Trish Harnetiaux, for her first novel, has written a good thriller full of good plot twists that involves the classic Christmas event: The White Elephant gift exchange.
The novel, which reminds the reader of Clue and Big Little Lies, is partly based on a real life scandal in 1976 in which Claudine Longet was accused of the murder of Olympic skier, Spider Sabich.
The novel is set in Aspen, Colorado, with the office holiday party for the real estate firm owned by Henry Calhoun and his wife Claudine. While the white elephant exchange is always a competitive event it’s even more wild and intense this year since Zara, the hottest young pop star out of Hollywood, is in town and Claudine is determined to sell her the getaway home of her dreams.
The first big twist comes when a strange gift shows up in the mix: an antique cowboy statue. The gift makes sense only to Henry and Claudine as the statue is the weapon Henry used to commit a murder years ago, a murder that helped start his company and a murder that Claudine helped cover up.
The Brooklyn-based author’s plays How to Get into Buildings, Welcome to the White Room, and If You Can Get to Buffalo have been published by Samuel French. Her latest play Tin Cat Shoes premiered at Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks and she is currently developing Bender and Brian, an epic tale of subversive Breakfast Club FanFiction.
Scott Butki: How did this story come about?
Trish Harnetiaux: There just aren’t enough thrillers set at Christmas. I mean how many times can you watch Die Hard in December to get a holiday drama fix? It’s a time full of family, friends, and emotional turmoil – the perfect setting for secrets to slip. In a way, hasn’t it always just been a matter of time before an old murder is unearthed at a White Elephant Christmas party?
SB: Why did you decide to play with the idea of a white elephant gift exchange?
TH: The element of surprise plus the pure ruthlessness that the game encourages is a perfect hot pot of tension. I’m a big believer that the truth of who someone really is at the core is only revealed in times of stress and crisis. And, yes, Christmas.
SB: Did you research the real life murder mystery in Aspen, the case of Claudine Longet and Spider Sabich, as part of preparing for the book?
TH: Coming across the Claudine Longet case opened up a whole new part of the book for me. A true crime obsession. Sinking into the history of Aspen as this blend of both luxury destination and also a place that was built on a certain wild-west-frontier-type-of-vibe made it strangely unique. The lawlessness, or sense of that, the idea of Hunter S. Thompson and other gonzo-recluse-types being drawn to the same place as the Hollywood elite, again, another perfect storm of conflict. My dad was the person who mentioned the Longet/Sabich murder to me when I told him the book was set in Aspen. So, I guess I have to get him a really good Christmas present.
SB: What other research did you do?
TH: I’d been, but my husband and I went back when I was working on the book. So lots of walking around in the snow, observing, talking to people, a sleigh ride, and of course a ton of reading. The timeline of Aspen is fascinating – from silver rush to crash to the ski craze, celeb gentrification, and of course fashion coming to town.
SB: This is a very plot driven book with lots of great twists. Did you outline it out or see where the story took you?
TH: Yes, outline, outline, outline. Which is different than how I typically write plays. The plotting here was done at the start – but there were a few moments where something changed based on the momentum of the moment. It’s those realizations that are so fun when you’re working on a longer project like this, and it’s important to listen to them since they are not over thought.
SB: Did you base the fictional celebrity Zara on someone or a combination of people?
TH: I couldn’t point to one person as inspiration, but she was definitely based on the trope of a child star turned young celebrity that no one gives enough credit to for actually having the stuff. Being a hands-on musical visionary who is deeply involved in her own work who takes it seriously — while at the same time enjoying the luxury that fame and money brings her. I think she’s complicated because she comes in such a dismissible package. I like to think that is changing. It’s so dumb – and is built on what is a fading regime of men thinking young women have nothing to contribute. Which isn’t true at all. Young women will save us all.
SB: Which of the characters is most like you?
TH: This is like when I asked my teenage nieces if they liked Instagram or Snapchat better. They were like: that is an impossible question to answer. Aren’t we all so many people? What is most me is the structure. I’m interested in structure and reveal and how that works and figuring out what it takes to create momentum.
SB: Was it difficult transitioning from writing plays to this novel?
TH: I wouldn’t call it a transition as much as an addition. They are totally different. Writing a book like this takes a fierce editor and I would say mine, Sean Manning, must have gotten tired of writing the word digressive all over the first few drafts. Everything is, and should be different when writing a play or a novel. The tricks are all different.
SB: The press release for the book mentions that you are “currently developing Bender and Brian, an epic tale of subversive Breakfast Club FanFiction.” Can you say more about this? We are talking about The Breakfast Club movie?
TH: Yes, this is exactly correct. I’ve been working on this play for a of couple years now and it’s premiering in the spring at JACK in Brooklyn. It’s actually a deep meditation on failure. The play follows the story of the first, uncredited, two actors who were cast in the movie The Breakfast Club, but were then fired on the first day of filming when they were filming the scene where they – Bender and Brian – go to remove their jackets at the same time. It then follows their lives, forever intertwined, as they try their best to move on and be someone.
SB: What are you working on next?
TH: I just directed a short film that we’re in post for called I Don’t Think You’d Understand, am writing a 20 minute Christmas Carol play-let for families to read on Christmas Eve, working on a new, new play called California that basically only takes place in Washington and Oregon and follows a family on a disintegrating road trip, and getting Bender and Brian into fighting shape for this spring. Oh, and in early, early stages of a new fiction project.
But really, now? Fighting the good fight to get White Elephant to the right readers. Like you. It’s an escape book, I want people to escape.
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