Points of View: Q & A with Alison Gaylin

 Alison Gaylin is one of our favorites, and she was kind enough to answer some questions from our contributor, Matthew Turbeville. Below is their conversation about her writing. 

Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Alison! It’s so nice to get to talk.  I’ve wanted to pick your brain ever since a friend turned me on to What Remains of Me.  How did you get the idea for If I Die Tonight?

Alison Gaylin: Hi Matthew! Wonderful to talk to you as well! A couple of years ago, there was a hit and run incident in my area involving two boys from rival high schools. My daughter was younger than them, and what fascinated me was the way the story took on a life of its own among that younger crowd – how many false details were being spread about the incident that seemed to become “truer and truer” the more often they were repeated. So that was where the germ of the idea came from. I wanted to write something set in my area, and I had all these ideas for characters (Pearl, I’d come up with a long time ago, but she was a character in search of a story) so I used the idea of a hit-and-run in a small fictional town and took it from there.

MT: How do you manage such a large and varied cast of characters? It seems like it would be hard to keep up with so many personalities as a writer.

AG: Yes, there are a lot of characters (I always wind up doing that!) But to me, it’s not the amount of characters but the amount of points of view that pose the challenge. I decided I was going to tell the story from four distinct points of view: Pearl, Connor, Jackie and Amy (with one more POV toward the end.) Each character has a number of other characters within her/his particular world (with many overlapping). Since these points of view were all so different in my mind, it wasn’t that hard to keep track.

MT: Did you know the ending to If I Die Tonight before you began writing the novel?

AG: I knew what everyone’s secret was, and what really happened on the night in question. But I didn’t know how it would wind up playing out and how all those secrets would all be revealed until late in my first draft.

MT: What is your writing process like?

AG: I tend to write a lot late at night, and then make it coherent in the morning. And since I have a family and a day job (I work three days a week at a magazine) I’ve learned to write wherever and whenever I can. A lot of What Remains of Me was written on buses and trains. I still get a little carsick reading certain pages.

MT: Were there any characters you were particularly attached to? Any characters you didn’t like?

AG: I was probably most attached to Pearl. I had the idea for her backstory a long time ago, so she’d been in my mind the longest. But I also really enjoyed writing Jackie because, as the mother of an only daughter, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be raising boys. I liked writing all the characters, though. Finding that shred of humanity in an otherwise “unlikeable” character is really rewarding.

MT: You’ve approached many taboo areas in your writing: incest, rape, pedophilia, etc.  Is it hard for you to write about these topics?

AG: I think it’s harder on my editor than it is on me! I tend to write about things that make me scared or angry, and I think it all comes down to betrayal. No matter how taboo or shocking the turn of events, I’m really just writing about betrayal over and over again.

MT: What books inspire you to write the way you do? Who are, in specific, your favorite female writers today?

AG: Oh, I have so many of them, many of whom have also become great friends. Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott write wonderfully complicated, fascinating characters. Alafair Burke and Lisa Lutz write such compellingly paced stories that I can’t pick up one of their books unless I can afford to lose an entire day to reading. Also Alex Marwood, Katia Lief (now writing as Karen Ellis) Wendy Corsi Staub, Lori Roy… honestly I have too many favorite female writers to name!

MT: How do you write so prolifically? Where do you find the time to write so frequently and with such ease and grace? As a fellow writer, I can’t help but be a little jealous.

AG: That’s so nice of you to say. But honestly, the only way I can finish anything is to realize that the first draft is going to be the absolute worst piece of trash anyone has ever written. The good news is, trash or not, it will be finished, and when something is finished, you can always improve it. I should have said this in the writing process question, but really, my writing process is 80 percent heavy rewriting.

MT: Your last book, What Remains of Me, was up for numerous awards.  How does it feel to know that fans and critics alike adore your work? Do you feel the need to cater to a certain audience?

AG: I was thrilled that What Remains of Me got so much love! But I think my only concern as a writer is to write the best book I can. If I Die Tonight takes place as far from Hollywood as you can get, and though it’s told from multiple points of view, it has a pretty straightforward timeline (unlike What Remains of Me, which goes back and forth). I like trying something a little different with each book. It makes it less boring for me (and hopefully for readers too!)

MT: What Remains of Me and If I Die Tonight are so very different.  How do you jump not necessarily between genres, but between totally different books with such ease? Your whole bibliography seems so vast and completely different.

AG:  I think that, while the settings and characters of my books do tend to be completely different, it’s harder for me to let go of themes. The idea of an outcast teen being made into a boogeyman plays out in both books (Kelly by the press, Wade by his peers on social media). Also, the idea of how the powerful (wealthy) use the powerless, how callous human beings can be to each other and how we never really know those closest to us are prevalent themes in both books. (You can definitely find those themes in the Brenna Spector books, too!)

MT: What advice do you give to new and emerging writers? How did you break into the business?

AG: Be persistent, but don’t be inflexible. And read! If an agent or publisher gives you constructive criticism, use it. Rewrite. I had an agent for my first book, and she sent it around to a bunch of publishers, most of whom said they liked the characters but not the plot. I took it back, read around 100 crime fiction books, and over the course of about five years rewrote the book from page one. I then sent it out again, got a new agent, and sold the book. (It was called Hide Your Eyes, and it was nominated for an Edgar for Best First Novel.)

MT: Do you have a favorite work of yours? What book are you most proud of?

AG: I think I’m always proudest of the most recently published book, and most horrified by the work-in-progress.

 

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If You Like Alison Gaylin…

Alison Gaylin is known for her well-conceived, incredibly intricate and deeply-plotted thrillers.  She is not afraid to steer toward the taboo, and has written everything from books involving incest to pedophilia and rape.  She is one of the rising stars of the mystery genre, a woman whose talents cannot be measured easily or gauged casually.  She is incredibly talented, with praise from Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott to top everything off.  Her novel What Remains of Me remains a favorite at MysteryPeople and was also an Edgar-nominee for Best Novel of the Year.  Her upcoming novel If I Die Tonight is a thriller to be reckoned with, with multiple leading characters and infinite threads that combine in an utter explosion.  Check out below for some suggestions for reads you might enjoy if you enjoy Gaylin’s work.

 

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman:   Girls on Fire is a thrilling mystery debut that deals with two girls whose friendship may be too close to comfort.  Like Gaylin, Wasserman is not afraid to steer toward the taboo and her brilliant use of language and thrilling back and forth between characters leads to a surprisingly and ultimately incredibly dark conclusion. This is a book not to be missed.

 

 

Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran: Claire Dewitt is a character reminiscent of Gaylin’s series character Brenda Spector.  Equal parts humor and serious, thought-provoking mystery, Gran is a great writer who ropes in the reader and keeps them hooked from beginning to end.  This mystery revolves around the death of a white, wealthy man in New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina.  Issues of race and sexuality are prevalent in this narrative that will leave you begging for more (and luckily there is a second book in the series!).

 

Good as Gone by Amy Gentry: A favorite of MysteryPeople, not to mention a fellow Texan, Gentry is a writer well beyond her years.  Her debut novel is a riddle filled with more riddles—there’s the issue of a kidnapped daughter returned home, only is she really the daughter her parents have been looking for, or an imposter—someone else entirely? This is a book that any mystery lover will enjoy (even though, quick trivia note here, the novel was not intended to be a mystery, so what a wonderful surprise for us all!).

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.

Congrats to the Edgar Award Nominees!!!

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We were happy to see many of our favorite books and authors nominated for this years MWA Edgar Awards. Many of the books that made it into our Top  10 lists of the year, like Reed Farrel Coleman’s lyrical noir Where It Hurts and Alison Gaylin’s tale of celebricide What Remains Of Me, made the cut. Two of our favorite debuts of the year, Flynn Berry’s Under the Harrow (a tale of sisterly revenge) and Joe Ide’s IQ (an imaginative take on Sherlock Holmes, set in South Central LA), made the list for best first novel.

This may be the first year of mother-daughter nominees, with Patricia Abbott up for Best Paperback Original for Shot in Detroit and Megan Abbott up for Best Short Story for her contribution to Mississippi Noir. Some of out favorite anthologies, including Mississippi Noir, St. Louis Noir, and In Sunlight Or In Shadow: Stories Inspired By The Painting Of Edward Hopper had at least one story nominated for Best Short Story.

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Scott’s Top Ten of 2016 (Make it a dozen. Okay, fifteen or sixteen.)

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

This was a great year for crime fiction. Established authors experimented with new ideas or pushed what they were doing further. People with great debuts in 2015 proved it wasn’t just beginners luck this year. 2016’s new releases were so good, it was difficult to narrow them down, so I put a few together and made it a dozen.

97803991730351. Anything and All Things Reed Farrel Coleman

This year Coleman started a new character, ex-Suffolk-County-cop-turned-sorta-PI Gus Murphy (Where It Hurts), ended the series featuring dwarf detective Gulliver Down (Love & Fear), and delivered a Game Change in the life of Robert B Parker’s Jesse Stone (Debt To Pay.) All of it was executed with a poet’s choice of words, haunting emotions, and believable leads in a struggle to find who they are and what matters to them. He also had brilliant short stories in the anthologies Crime Plus Music and Unloaded. It wouldn’t surprise me if Reed made out some moving grocery lists as well.

97803995743202. The Second Life Of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton

Possibly one of the best crafted crime novels in a decade. Nick Mason finishes a twenty-year stretch in five due to a criminal kingpin who runs his empire from the inside. Upon Mason’s release the kingpin’s lawyer hands him a cell phone that is the condition of his release – he must answer the phone at any time and do whatever he is told on the other end. Everything Hamilton sets up in the first few chapters falls beautifully into place by the end.

97803162310773. You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

This dark, morally complex tale looks at ambition and the dynamics of family support for their gymnastics prodigy daughter as the family and community react to a murder that occurs in their sporting community. Abbott further pushes the boundaries of noir.

97805254269434. An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson

Sheriff Walt Longmire, Henry Standing Bear, and Deputy Vic Moretti find themselves having to solve a mystery in a town overrun by a motorcycle rally. Guns, outlaw bikers, federal agents and a woman from Henry’s past all play a part in unraveling the final mystery. Johnson strips down the cast to his most essential characters for one of the most entertaining books in the series.

97800623698575. What Remains Of Me by Alison Gaylin

A multi-layered psychological Hollywood thriller, in which a present-day murder of an actor is tied to the past murder of a director, and the same woman gets blamed for both. Gaylin’s character development beautifully dovetails with a plot that is never revealed until the final sentence. Beautiful, stunning work.

97803991739506. The Innocents by Ace Atkins

The latest and angriest of The Quinn Colson novels has our country boy hero and Sheriff Lillie Virgil solving a torturous murder of a former cheerleader, dealing with the worst aspects of Southern small town society. A book that enrages as it entertains.

97803079612737. Dr. Knox by Peter Spiegelman

Spiegelman introduces us to his new series character, a doctor who keeps his Skid Row clinic afloat by making “house calls” with his mercenary pal to the rich, famous, and criminal, who don’t need anything reported on medical records. A very interesting, complex hero, and an interesting look at L.A.

97812500099688. Murder At The 42nd Street Library by Con Lehane

In Murder at the 42nd Street Library, Con Lehane introduces us to another great new character, Raymond Ambler, Curator of the Crime Fiction Collection for the New York Public Library and amateur sleuth. A satisfying mystery with a lived-in, warm look at friendship and a worker’s look at New York.

97819438181749.City of Rose & South Village by Rob Hart

The seconds and third installments following unlicensed private eye Ash McKenna takes him to two very different places, tracking down a stripper’s daughter in Portland and a solving a murder on his friend’s Georgia commune, charting a progression of a broken man putting the pieces of himself together. Plot and character meld seamlessly into this compelling tale of a lone hero who feels he can not be a part of the society he helps.

978076537485110. Night Work by David C Taylor

This follow up to veteran screenwriter David C. Taylor’s debut, Night Life, has police detective Michael Cassidy protecting Castro during his famous New York visit. Taylor makes the city and period a living, vibrant thing coming off the page.

11. Shot In Detroit by Patricia Abbott9781940610825

This story about a photographer who gets obsessed with a project involving young black men challenges us at every turn about race, class, and art and crime fiction itself. It is a book where the author complements the reader by assuming you are as intelligent and open to difficult topics as she is.

978098913299212. Genuinely Dangerous by Mike McCrary and Kiss The Devil Goodnight by Jonathan Woods

Two dark wild rides through a pulp hell that is pure Heaven for crime fiction fans. if Barry Gifford was still running Black Lizard he would have signed these guys up.

Three Picks for September

Only the Hunted Run by Neely Tucker9780525429425

D.C. reporter Sully Carter is back, caught in the middle of a mass shooting at the capitol that ends with the murder of an Oklahoma congressman. When the captured killer forms a bond with Sully, Carter becomes embroiled in a whydunnit involving identity, madness, and those ignored by society. This series gets better and deeper with each book. You can find copies of Only the Hunted Run on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

9780399171437


Robert B Parker’s Debt To Pay by Reed Farrel Coleman

When a psychotic hitman returns to Jesse stone’s life, looking for revenge, the Paradise police chief has to go to Dallas to protect his ex wife from him. Coleman uses a simple, suspenseful plot to as a sturdy narrative line to hold some messy, complex emotions to light in this game changer for the series. Robert B. Parker’s Debt to Pay comes out Tuesday, September 13th. Pre-order now!

9780062369857


What Remains Of Me by Alison Gaylin

One of my favorite thrillers so far in 2016 is already out in paperback. Gaylin examines celebrity and crimes in the spotlight, looking at murders in two different decades and families connected by the woman accused of both. A deep, dark, psychological tale that keeps twisting until the final sentence. What Remains of Me comes out in paperback Tuesday, September 27th. Pre-order now!

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.

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