Stuff & Nonsense 031: Always Crashing in the Same Car
It's been a rough week.
That said, this is the first newsletter of 2016 - so happy new year! Thanks for subscribing during the holiday break if you're new. Thanks for sticking with us if you're a veteran Stuff & Nonsense reader.
Let's kick things off with one of my favorite interviews in a while, followed by some book news and a few quick links, yeah?
In addition to being one of the nicest people I've ever met, Alison Gaylin's a great writer. I've loved her Brenna Spector series in particular, but I have to say her latest, What Remains of Me, is my new favorite. Dark, suspenseful, intricately plotted and sporting a fair share of surprises, Remains strikes me as an impressive jump forward. It arrives February 23, so be sure to reserve a copy. Enough from me, though. I'll let Alison explain the book and what drove her to write it. As always, this interview was edited for clarity, etc.
Alison, thanks so much for swinging by to chat. For those that might not know you, what’s the Alison origin story?
Oh, it's a long and sordid one... Actually, it's just long. To abbreviate, I was born in Connecticut, grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, went to college in the midwest, grad school in New York, and now I live in the Hudson Valley with my husband and daughter. I have eight published books, including the Brenna Spector suspense series. My ninth book, WHAT REMAINS OF ME, comes out on February 23. I've been nominated for the Edgar and Anthony twice, won the Shamus once. And I have a dog and a cat.
Your latest novel, What Remains of Me, hits next month and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying it’s an ambitious book and really evokes, for me, some of the best-known authors of domestic suspense. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration behind it and what the writing process was like?
Oh, thank you! Growing up in the L.A. area and having been, as a kid, an avid reader of both true crime and movie magazines, I've long been fascinated by Hollywood crime stories. That's basically what What Remains of Me is -- a chance for me to explore my obsession with this larger-than-life subject matter. As an entertainment journalist, I'm also really interested in how guilt an innocence can be driven by public perception, and how that perception can be shaped by the press. (It was true in the Amanda Knox case, and we're seeing it right now with Making A Murderer.) Since there were two related murder stories I wanted to tell -- one in 1980 and one in 2010 -- I decided shift back and forth in time in order to tell them. And I decided to tell the story through a variety of unreliable narrators -- the press being one of them. Interspersed with the 1980 and 2010 chapters are fictional "news accounts" in everything from TMZ to the Los Angeles Times to Rona Barrett's Hollywood to a true crime book to Buzzfeed (complete with comments). It was a challenge, but a lot of fun to write.
You're right, though: The book is, at its core, domestic suspense. As with any heavily hyped crime story, there are real human emotions and relationships driving it. And to me, that's the most interesting part.
Completely agree. Now, the theme of the book is that everyone has secrets - everyone has their lockbox with hidden tales or lies. How do you feel an average person would react when that box is opened? And is that part of what you try to explore in Remains?
Yes, definitely. No one who is old enough to talk is a completely open book. Everybody has something to hide, whether it's mildly embarrassing or of grave importance. Secrets -- and how far we'll go in order to keep them -- is a theme I wanted to look into.
This book really has it all - dark family secrets, Hollywood noir and the backdrop of murder. Why was this the book you felt you wanted to write now?
I really felt like doing something different. In my Brenna Spector series, I write about a New York PI with perfect autobiographical memory. What could be more different than What Remains of Me's Kelly Lund -- a convicted felon from Southern California with a fallible memory and a habit of compartmentalizing things she and other people have done?
In addition to the Brenna books, you've published a few really excellent standalone novels, too. Do you follow your mood when it comes to what you write next? Do you try to alternate? What are some of the differences and challenges a writer faces when writing a series or standalone book?
There's a lot to be said for writing a series. You have your main characters thought through already when you start the book, so you're in somewhat familiar territory. You know how they would react in different situations, and that helps when you're creating your plot. But that also puts the pressure on. You must be consistent. You must remember everything that's happened in previous books so the action can logically spring from where you left off. I believe that series characters should emerge in new books deeply affected and changed by what's gone down already -- especially since I'm dealing with a character who is unable to forget those events. So writing a new Brenna book can be somewhat limiting.
With a standalone, you can go in any direction because you are using all new characters. You have more story possibilities -- you can even kill everyone off if you want to. But you have that extra step in figuring out who everyone is. I really like doing both, and I like to alternate.
What inspired the protagonist, Kelly? Was she based on any people you knew or saw in press clippings? How would you describe her and the journey she goes on in the book?
She is very loosely based on Amanda Knox, in that, as a young girl, she is accused of a crime and behaves in a different way than is expected of her. She is also inscrutable... someone who hides truths and compartmentalizes, so she's keeping secrets from the reader as well. Kelly starts out as a loner, devastated by the loss of her twin sister, socially awkward, a fish out of water at Hollywood High. Then she becomes friends with the daughter of a famous movie star and it changes her life completely. She is introduced to a world that seems glamorous -- but she discovers a lot of ugly things hidden beneath its surface, and she's changed by that. By 2010, she's been out of prison for five years after serving 25 for murder. She's hardened by her experience, but, as she finds out, she still has a lot to learn. In the course of the book, she uncovers the lies she's been told for years and finds out, along with the reader, who she really is.
I’m curious about what influences writers. What other authors do you point to? Were there any films or albums that lingered in your brain while writing that you think played a role in the crafting of Remains?
I went back and read some Joan Didion essays to get in that Hollywood frame of mind. "Girl of the Golden West," about Patti Hearst, was especially helpful (h/t Megan Abbott!) There's also an excerpt from a fictional true crime book in the prologue that I loosely based on Truman Capote's interview with Bobby Beausoleil. As for albums, there's a lot of music from 1979 and 1980 mentioned in the book. I listened to all of those songs repeatedly -- especially Joy Division's "She's Lost Control."
A great song!
I imagine you’re prepping for the release publicity rush in the immediate future, but can you talk about what’s next? Another Brenna, perhaps?
I'm actually working on another standalone right now. But I hope to go back to Brenna after that.
Thanks for doing this!
My pleasure! And good luck with your upcoming release!
You're reading The Crime Lady, right? Well, you should be. If you have, you'd realize that it's been a very busy January for Sarah Weinman. I even got to chat with her as part of the Pen American Center's #PENTen series of interviews, which was a soft way of announcing I'll be back for another year as one of the guest editors.
And, speaking of TCL, I was honored to see Down the Darkest Street listed among Sarah's favorite crime reads of 2016 (so far). The book's in great company, and it makes for a handy starter kit of books to get in the new year. The second Pete novel also found a home on Erin Mitchell's best books of 2016, which she released early in the new year. Erin's vote means a lot, and I hope you'll consider pre-ordering the book and the first Pete novel, Silent City, which is being reissued in March. Both via Polis Books.
Fellow crime novelist Erica Wright (I interviewed her a while back to discuss her two excellent crime novels, The Red Chameleon and The Granite Moth, which you should read!) also had nice things to say about Down the Darkest Street - in a fun, unique way: by postcard! Follow her postcard reviews at the aptly named Postcards Review Instagram.
Speaking of Pete, did you know that before his debut in Silent City, he actually crossed paths with Ash McKenna, the equally-reluctant PI from Rob Hart's must-read New Yorked and upcoming City of Rose? Well, they did. Bad Beat, a short story I co-wrote with Rob, came out on Tuesday and features our two protagonists teaming up to take down an illegal gun ring in the wilds of Jersey while on the hunt for a college QB with a tarnished rep. This was a fun project to collaborate on and I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. It's also a nice primer for both series. So, if you like this (and hey, it's less than a dollar wherever ebooks are sold! Try it!), you'll probably dig our novels, too.
Whenever Thuglit editor Todd Robinson does an interview, I read it. This is one of those times.
Here's a pretty compelling true crime #longread that I snagged from the always-great Sunday Long Read newsletter by Don Van Natta Jr. and co.
Nice, quick piece on the parallels between Chandler and sci-fi, with Adam Christopher's excellent noir/robot mashup Made to Kill as the hook.
A decent Scandinavian crime fiction primer.
The Cartel author Don Winslow on the murder of Mexico City Mayor Gisela Mota.
Great Megan Abbott essay on the Gone Girl/Girl on the Train success and how it shows what crime fiction readers want.
I would like to read this book. And this one: A new Neely Tucker/Sully Carter!
That's it for now. See you soon!