Alison Gaylin Defies Genre: If I Die Tonight

Image result for alison gaylin authorAlison Gaylin is one of the many women leading the evolution of the crime fiction genre.  Her prose is precise and glowing, with characters that are alive and, to be cliché (which she never is), “come right off the page.” Less complex but equally as riveting as 2016’s What Remains of Me (still one of my favorite mysteries of all time), If I Die Tonight concerns a hit-and-run, a mysterious young man, and multiple relationships that are only moments away from surfacing as the novel progresses forward.  Gaylin is, once again, at the top of her game in this novel due out in March, 2018. But what makes Alison Gaylin such an amazing writer and why is everyone from Megan Abbott to Laura Lippman singing her praises?

It begins with Gaylin’s plots.  No one plots a novel quite like Alison Gaylin does, and any author or fan will speak up to this fact.  Her novels are so tightly plotted, it’s hard to imagine Gaylin without an outline by her side at any given moment during the writing process.  Yet, when asked about how she goes about plotting out her novels, her process seems more loose and less strict than that of other authors who stick firmly by their pre-written outlines.  Gaylin somehow creates a magic that is bewitching both for the reader and the critic, finding a way to mystify and conjure up a spell that will entrance readers throughout the entirety of the novel, and almost effortlessly so.

Another compelling aspect of Gaylin’s writing is her thoroughly developed characters, all of whom get equal page-time.  There’s Jackie, the mother of Wade and Conner, who’s trying to do her best as a single mother after her husband has left her years prior.   Conner, likewise, is struggling to keep up social appearances while his older brother Wade is somewhat of an outcast, someone who easily becomes suspect when a hit-and-run occurs in the beginning of the novel. Enter the rest of the vivid and vast cast of characters, from the novel’s victim, a high schooler who’s essentially the boy next door, his girlfriend and her friends, along with a pop singer well past her heyday and now desperately clinging to any sort of fame.  Also at the center of this mystery is Pearl, the newbie detective who just wants to have a suitable workplace and also may be running away from a past she cannot escape.

Obviously, there are a million places this novel can go, and Gaylin pushes each of her characters, as well as the plot and the reader, to his or her limits.  Gaylin is not afraid to push the taboo, as seen in What Remains of Me, and here she does so again, proving exactly how dark she can get in an already dark genre.  Those new to Gaylin are well past her breakthrough, what with her Brenda Spector series, and her fantastic standalone novels.  Now it’s simply time for the world to be aware of her genius, which seems as imminent as the ending of her novel: we know something is coming, we may even know what is coming, but when will it hit us exactly, and how?

Try to guess the ending of If I Die Tonight. Try and guess the killer, who is culpable and who is not, and you will find yourself shocked again and again with each turn of the page. In the end, everyone is culpable in one way or another, and no one is left getting off free. This book will warm your heart and rip it out again all in one paragraph, so be forewarned: Gaylin is not for the reader afraid of feeling, afraid of guessing, or afraid of turning into an investigator themselves.

A true master of the genre, each new book by Alison Gaylin is a book to be treasured.  In 2018, a year full of books by masters of the genre like Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Lori Roy, Alafair Burke, and others, this is truly a book that stands out among the rest.  Give If I Die Tonight a try.  You will not regret it.

Advertisements

Slivers of Truth: Lori Roy on Writing, Setting, and Success

Image result for lori roy authorMatthew Turbeville: Lori, it is such an immense pleasure to interview you.  Each of your books holds a special place in my heart and deservedly so.  Each of your books is so uniquely and individually different.  How do you develop the concepts behind your novels? How do they come to you? And how do you ensure that not one single book is remotely the same?

Lori Roy: Thank you so much, Matthew. It’s a pleasure to work with you on this interview. I have, thus far, always started my novels with setting. By that, I mean I am first inspired by an interest in a time and place. I’m not entirely sure what makes certain settings capture my attention, however they tend to be somewhat gritty and oppressive, and as such, they actively work against my characters.  I think of setting in terms of the part of the country I choose and the period of time. Both decisions are key to the obstacles my characters will face.   A rural and impoverished setting will pose certain challenges, as in Bent Road and Let Me Die in His Footsteps, and the cultural norms of a certain period of time will also give rise to obstacles, as in Until She Comes Home.

The settings, both place and time, largely dictate the voice or texture of whatever novel I’m working on. I fumble around until I find the voice I feel fits the work. There is also always a sliver of some universal truth that starts to simmer once I’ve begun a novel. However, I try to avoid focusing on that sliver as I’m writing.  Instead I focus on character and plot and let the sliver of truth work its way to the surface through the story. I spend a couple of years writing a novel and this sliver of truth is what keeps my interest.

As to how I keep my books from being the same…in a way, like many writers, I think I’m always grappling with the same questions. But I do like switching up my setting because I am regularly inspired by my research of a new place. In my most recent novel, The Disappearing (Dutton 7/18), I am writing about the present day for the first time. While this would probably seem easier than writing something set in the past, I’ve found it to be a great challenge.

MT: You’ve won multiple Edgar Awards and you’re a woman.  How does it feel to be one of the leaders in establishing crime fiction as a genre dominated by women writers, which is incredibly important in today’s world?

LR: Having published a few books now, I think paying-it-forward is the most important thing I can do. I was fortunate enough to learn from great teachers in the early days of my career. Each of them took time out of his or her own busy schedule to work with aspiring writers, so I try to do the same. As to the amazing work being published by women today and in years past, I think of myself as a student of their impressive work.

MT:  Who are some of your other influences, especially fellow female writers? What other influences do you have—what inspires you to write on a day-to-day basis?

LR:   I would say the love of writing inspires me on a day-to-day basis, but that wouldn’t be entirely true, because I don’t always love it. I find the first draft of a novel very difficult to write and I impose a schedule on myself to get through this early stage.  Once I have the framework, I find the process much more enjoyable and sitting down to the computer becomes easier. As to influences, my list could go on and on. Flannery O’Connor is certainly at the top of that list, as are Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and John Steinbeck. Mary Lawson is among my contemporary influences, as are Lisa Unger, Megan Abbott, Alafair Burke and Laura Lippman.

MT: I would almost describe your latest book, Let Me Die in His Footsteps, as transgeneric, crossing genres in new and unexpected ways, like the novel does with its hints of magic realism.  What made you decide to incorporate this element of writing—i.e., the girls looking down the wells—into your novel?

LR: This is a great example of the setting influencing my characters. As I researched Kentucky, I came across a good many traditions and superstitions that originated in various parts of the state.  Many of the more magical elements of the book—the know-how, the looking into a well to see the face of an intended, the empty rocking chair that rocks and means someone is going to die—were all rooted in Kentucky superstitions passed down through the years, though I tweaked some to fit my characters and plot. Not only did these elements inform on the way people were thinking at the time, but they also gave rise to obstacles for my characters.  They became the heart of the novel in many ways.

MT: What is your writing schedule like? How do you remain so productive and churn out such breathtaking literature?

LR: I usually try to write first thing in the morning.  If I’m writing a first draft, I can work for about two to three hours per day and I try to generate 1500 during that time. Once I have a first draft and am rewriting, I work the better part of the day. Because I’ve not been successful with outlining, I find I do a great deal of restructuring and editing. This phase will go on a long time.  I take breaks to walk my dogs or go to the gym, but that’s about it. I quit for the day around 5:00.

MT: One thing that strikes me about your writing is your voice.  Whether written in first or third person (which can often feel so personal one forgets it’s not first person), the voice is unique and personal to the character the narrative is following.  How do you establish voice for each book?

LR: Finding the voice for a particular novel is a bit like tuning an instrument or trying to tune a station on an old-fashioned radio. I adjust a little here and little there until I hear the voice come into tune.  I like to read various things from whatever era I’m writing about, or if I’m writing in the present as I did with my upcoming novel and the one I’m working on now, I read about the history of a place.  It all informs on the present and on the characters and slowly that voice comes into tune. I’m also a believer that nouns are of great importance in establishing voice.

MT: You tend to write “period pieces” or “historical narratives,” books set in a different time and place than what we’re used to with crime fiction.  What inspires you to do this and what do you hope to accomplish in doing so?

LR: While doing research for Until She Comes Home, I stumbled across an essay written as an introduction to a cookbook published in 1954. It spoke of mothers struggling to raise children as extended families moved farther and farther away, and of mothers being bombarded by news from the radio and television and newspaper, and of no longer having the friendly butcher to rely on but instead a large, generic grocer, and of having more technology in the home that was meant to make life easier but instead meant more and more was expected of them. I read this passage to a group of friends who were sitting nearby as I was doing my reading, all of them mothers too, and they nodded their heads. Yes, isn’t that true, they all said, and were shocked to hear I was reading about the obstacles facing mothers from 1954. I understood in that moment why I’m compelled to often write about the past.  While much has changed over the years, much has not. Writing about the past can illustrate that the struggles of long ago aren’t so different than the struggles today and that we’re not above repeating the same mistakes.

MT: Was it always your dream to become a writer? If not, how did you get into writing?

LR: When I was very young, I dreamed of being a writer but got no further than designing the cover art for a novel I never wrote. In college, I studied accounting and I worked as a tax accountant for many years.  When I decided to stay home with my children, I began to study writing. I worked for ten years before I sold Bent Road, my first novel.

MT: In today’s challenging political climate, what do you expect your stories and characters—especially your incredible women characters—to say? What do you want people to take away from them?

LR: I would reflect back on my answer regarding why I write about the past. On one hand, I find myself writing about people with a powerful and innate need to belong. On the other hand, I write about those willing to cast aside the weaker among us for the sake of money, power or reputation. I’ve seen these themes rise up in all my work and though they’ve tended to rise up in plots that take place many years ago, we continue to see people desperate for a sense of belonging and those who would cast them aside in our headlines every day.

As to my expectations for what my stories and characters will say to the world…I had to think about the answer to this question for quite a while. In the end, I decided I have no expectations.  I work very hard to write authentic, warm-to-the-touch characters who are struggling to reach a goal. I give them something to want and something to need and then place obstacles in their path.  As they struggle to find their way, they are forced to make choices and those choices inform on what types of people they are.  What are they willing to do in order to succeed? What will they not do? By taking this approach, I find my stories end up with much to say, but I don’t set out with any expectations.

MT: What has been your most challenging book to write to date? What book has been your favorite to write? How difficult was it to break into the writing industry?

LR: I’ll start with my favorite book to write. That was certainly Bent Road. I say that because I wrote my first novel with no thought of publishing it. I wrote for the love of it. I didn’t think about how it might be received or if it would be reviewed or if people would like it.  My most difficult book to write has been The Disappearing. I found it difficult for a few reasons.  It is my first book set in present day, and as such, I had a harder time tuning in the voice. It’s also a novel inspired by actual events surrounding the closing of a boys’ reform school that operated in north Florida for over 100 years. Though the novel doesn’t take place at the school and instead takes place in the years immediately after its closing, it was important to me that I remained respectful to the people who suffered there as children.

As to breaking into the writing industry, I wasn’t nearly as savvy as many aspiring writers are today. I thought very little about the publishing industry when I was writing what would become my debut novel.  Instead I was fortunate enough to study with great teachers and in doing so, I met other writers who have become great friends.  We worked together in writing groups over the internet, encouraged each other and challenged each other’s work. All these things were important in helping me break into the industry because they helped me write a novel that captured the attention of an agent and then an editor.

MT: What are you working on now? What can we expect in your next novel?

LR: The Disappearing is my next novel and it will hit shelves in July, 2018. Here is a brief synopsis of what to expect.

When Lane Fielding fled north Florida after high school for the anonymity of New York City, she never thought she’d return. But twenty years later, this time leaving behind her cheating husband, that’s exactly what she and her two daughters have done. Now Lane is tending bar, living under her parents’ roof on the historic Fielding Plantation, and planning how to escape the crimes of her father–crimes that date back to his role as the director of a local boys’ reform school. A role that some claim turned sinister.

Things take a turn when just six months after moving back to Florida, Lane’s older daughter disappears. Lane initially fears a serial killer–like the one who traumatized north Florida in the 1970s–has again set his sights on her small town. Ten days earlier, a Florida State student disappeared, and ever since, everyone has been keeping a close eye on the town’s girls. But when Lane’s younger daughter admits to having made an odd new friend, Lane must consider that her older daughter’s disappearance is payback for her father’s crimes. Or perhaps for her own.

With reporters descending on the town, chaos reaching a fever pitch, and events taking increasingly surreal and sinister turns, Lane is faced with too many enemies and too little time to bring her daughter safely home.

MT: What advice can you give to new and aspiring writers? What about young women who are looking to make their way to the top just as you have done?

LR: I would refer back to what was most important in helping me break into the writing industry.  My best advice to aspiring writers, men or women, is to work on your craft and write the best book you can.  Nothing else will matter until you’ve done that.  Work in a writers’ group and challenge yourself to help your fellow writers become better, stronger writers.  In working to become a better editor of others’ work, you’ll also become a better editor of your own work.  You’ll learn the rules of the craft and why the rules are rules.  All these things will help you advance your work, and I believe this has to be the first step.

MT: Lori, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you.  It was such a delight being able to pick your brain.  I wish you nothing but luck in the rest of your career, and I can’t wait to read your next book!

LR: Thanks to you, Matthew. I greatly appreciate the time you’ve spent with my work and with the thought you put into your questions.

 

Transgeneric Masterpieces: Furthering the Genre in Lori Roy’s Let Me Die in His Footsteps

Let’s face it.  By this point, we don’t know what to expect from Lori Roy.  This talented writer leapt onto the scene in 2011 with Bent Road, an extraordinary novel about family ties, scorned lovers, and women—yes, women—and their roles in America’s past.  The only—or one of the very few—consistencies in Roy’s writing seems to be her interest in the past, not exactly a nostalgia so much as an exposure, a way of shedding light on the past as it actually was, not as how people dream it up into being.  This interest in the past, as well as an incredible gift for prose and characters, setting and atmosphere, has earned Roy two Edgar Awards, one for Best First Novel and another for Best Novel.

Roy is one of the few women to earn such an honor, and she has fought hard to do so.  Roy’s writing is stellar, her smoothly crafted sentences all pieced together carefully like an elaborate puzzle.  What connects the reader most to Roy’s writing, something that she has noted herself, is the likability of her characters. Take Annie from Let Me Die in His Footsteps as one example of her excellence in this area.  Roy has created a singular voice and character who screams past the borders of the pages into the reader’s very mind, echoing there for some time with both joy and admiration.  This, Roy says, is one of the aspects of good writing that helps create suspense for the character, and if Roy’s masterful storytelling is any clue, she’s right.

Let Me Die in His Footsteps reads almost like Southern Gothic meets magical realism, with girls seeing their future husbands in the reflections of well water, curses, and family feuds to boot.  I myself have found myself reading Let Me Die in His Footstep again and again, passing the book on to friends and family members who have found how they adore the protagonists (yes, there are multiple narrators) as much as I do.

Roy writes about women.  She writes about women who are fighting to establish a place in their world or, in the case of Annie in Let Me Die in His Footsteps, she writes about women who are trying to step outside of their set roles in society, the curses that bind them to the people they are supposed to be as opposed to who they actually are.  When I first began reading Let Me Die in His Footsteps, I felt the air catch in my throat, the way Roy tells Annie’s story, the story of her mother, the story of her aunt who may or may not be evil and cursed like Annie, all raw and real and so incredibly delightful.  This is a book you submerge yourself in, ignoring the real world for a moment in an effort to understand these characters and how their past fits into your present.

Ms. Roy’s subtext is subtle, but there’s clearly a lot to get from her writing.  She is not a woman to press her reader with over-the-top ideas or slam them with political views they may not share.  Roy is the type of writer to express her views through her characters and through their stories, as any fine writer might.   Let Me Die in His Footsteps does not rely on the familiar tropes of crime novels alone, but instead is told like a beautiful unwinding coming-of-age story that glows with warmth and reality despite its magical nature.  While enchanting and sometimes magical, Roy’s writing is also firm and gritty, and to quote another great writer of Southern Gothic literature, Flannery O’Connor once said, “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.” Ms. Roy is doing a grand job. That is without a doubt.

Sophomore Triumph: Laura McHugh Strikes Hard in Arrowood

Laura McHugh is a writer to be delighted in—a crime author who both seems old to the genre while creating incredibly new and ambitious works of fiction adored by fans and critics alike.  Her debut novel, The Weight of Blood, won the International Thrillers Writer award, lining up McHugh with the toughest of her competition.  Ms. McHugh is known to be a night writer, and this comes through with many of her scenes in her two novels to date—including her most recent stellar accomplishment, Arrowood.

Arrowood is at once a dark tale of crime and corruption and a vivid family saga.  McHugh incorporates some of the best of her own locale and the history of her characters in creating one of the most vivid and suspenseful reads I’ve come across in quite some time. While The Weight of Blood is frankly flooring, Arrowood takes the idea of memory, family, and the unreliable narrator to such new heights it’s remarkable this novel even exists.

One immediately thinks of fellow-heavyweight Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places when approaching Arrowood’s premise. A young woman returns home after many years—and creating and cultivating many secrets of her own—only to be contacted by the leader of a group of people who try and solve murder mysteries, a man who believes he has solved the mystery of what happened to her sisters decades before. It’s a spicy premise but the similarities between these two great novels pretty much stop here.  Arrowood is a novel not to be defined by comparisons, defying all expectations inside its pages.

Arrowood is at once strikingly brilliant, incredibly frightening (so much it makes one seem vulnerable in the best and worst of ways), intriguing in its mystery and enchanting in its incredibly elaborate setting.  McHugh weaves a nearly perfect narrative, with a pitch perfect voice for the story, around a decades old mystery that seems both impossible and inevitable to be solved.  The reader learns early own how they will be completely satisfied with the conclusion of McHugh’s sophomore effort, if only because of Ms. McHugh’s writing abilities, so all-encompassing and wise-beyond-their-years.

Returning to the comparison between Gillian Flynn and Laura McHugh—and there really is no true comparison, these are two women who write in their own right, in their own way, in their own settings, in their own voices, with stories like loaded pistols ready to be fired right in their readers’ direction—the crossing of ideas and storylines, the telling of two similar stories by two completely different writers seems inevitable here.  Just as Gillian Flynn had to expose the murky, dirty side of one untruth, so Laura McHugh has to expose her own.  If anything is to be learned from McHugh’s novels, it’s that we know nothing, not the novel’s ending, not the novel’s twists and turns, and certainly not ourselves, either as the reader or the narrator.  But what narrator really knows their own story?

As for McHugh’s third book, little is known about the follow-up that can probably only be described as “epic.” Count Laura McHugh with other Lauras (like Ms. Lippman), with the Gillian Flynns and the Megan Abbotts and the Alison Gaylins of the world.  She deserves the credit that’s due to her, and any reader deserves the chance to find themselves lost in the pages of her novels.