Q. Why did you decide to write a mystery novel?
A. I love puzzles. Crosswords of course, and my more dangerous addiction, jigsaw puzzles (dangerous because collecting them takes up space and at some point the stacks may collapse on someone). As for mystery puzzles, Nancy Drew was an early pleasure, so the taste has been with me a long time. At the moment I’m hooked on Tana French, and Richard Price’s crime novels. If they’re fun to read, it made sense to see if they are fun to write.
Q. Are they?
A. Yes, if we skip lightly over the fact that all first drafts are torture. In my non-genre fiction, I know the setting of the novel and what it’s about before anything. I know where it starts and ends and what the ending means. But how it plays out emerges during the writing from place, time and especially character. With a mystery there has to be more emphasis on plot before writing begins. Also for me not all things are possible in plotting a mystery. I find it disappointing when a killer’s motives, when you finally learn them, are so alien, or crazy, that you either don’t believe the psychology or don’t learn anything about being human. I’m interested in psychologically familiar people who nevertheless do unthinkable things.
Q. But you have said you are fascinated by psychopaths.
A. Definitely. Psychopaths, con men, people without empathy or conscience. But I don’t think they are crazy. It’s not a break with reality or a mood disorder to lack conscience or empathy. It’s certainly a condition, but in my experience such people are much more common than we like to think. I have certainly dated at least two of them. (Joke. One of them.) Some scientists estimate the rate of occurrence at about one in twenty-five. The Harvard psychologist Martha Stout makes a case for the evolutionary value of having people without empathy in the human mix. Hunter-gatherers need to slaughter fellow animals at close range without being paralyzed with sadness about it; warfaring cultures have always needed people who can kill efficiently without coming home psychologically wrecked themselves. So nature has made provision for such people to be born in predictable numbers, but how do they operate in modern society, what does it look like?
Q. Death at Breakfast takes place in Maine, where you have set a number of novels. Is the whole series going to be Maine-based?
A. No, the next one takes place in the world of a school in New York State. This will make my third school novel, along with The New Girls, and Saying Grace.
Q. What is it about schools, for you?
A. A school is a moral universe, like life, but on a comprehensible scale. It has a complicated roster of constituents: the administration, the faculty, the trustees or schoolboard, the students, the parents. You can understand who’s in charge, what’s at stake, what happens when people who have chosen to belong to a particular community pursue their own agendas without compromise and without reference to the good of the whole. It can be a metaphor for politics, family, all the interesting things about being human. Being civilized means recognizing the need for balance in the community you belong to, your desires against everybody else’s. When people lose track of that, the novelist prospers.
Q. Your first Maine novel, More Than You Know, is a ghost story. Do you believe in ghosts?
A. It’s a love story, hate story, ghost story, about how damage in families (and cultures) is handed down through generations. But to answer the question, yes. I think it’s an experiential issue, much like whether someone “believes in” whatever we mean by God. If you’ve experienced a ghost, or a spiritual being of any kind minus a body, you don’t understand the question; if you haven’t, you don’t understand the answer.
Q. Questions of religion, or of spirit, come up in many of your novels. Can you comment?
A. We all have spiritual questions, no matter what we “believe.” Religion or spiritual practice is a huge part of so many people’s lives, how can a novelist not include it? My novel Still Missing, which is about a mother whose child disappears, operates on three levels. It’s a crime story: a child has been stolen, will he be found? It’s a psychological drama; in the absence of proof, a woman refuses to believe her child is dead. Her situation mimics paranoia, since everyone around her thinks she should believe something else, but maybe in this case she’s right and everyone else is wrong. Which is just what the paranoid believes. And it’s a parable of faith: Oh, Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief. I think all those layers belong in fiction, since they’re all around us in life.
Q. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
A. I don’t think wanting came into it. Some of my earliest memories are of trying to figure out how to express in words what was going on around me, what word describes that action or tone of voice precisely, how you describe that shade of green. What I wanted to do, then and now, was read. But you can’t get paid to do that unless you write. Maybe you can if you take up editing books or magazines, but those jobs require a great deal of social interaction, and I’m not wired up to tolerate that well. A need for solitude is at least as important a part of the job description for a novelist as the actual writing part.
Q. What do you read? What’s on your nightstand?
A. I don’t read in bed, because my husband is sleeping there during my reading hours. I have a nest in the living room. I’m on a Clive James kick at the moment, so Cultural Amnesia; I’m also in the midst of James Shapiro’s great books on Shakespeare’s world. 1599, a Year in the Life of Wm Shakespeare is about the year of Henry V and Hamlet. Next up is Shapiro’s 1606, the Year of Lear. I’m also reading a stack of books about true crime, including One of Us, The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, by Asne Seierstad, and a couple by the master art forger, brilliant con man, and very funny writer, Eric Hebborn. If true crime interests you, Helen Garner’s This House of Grief is unforgettable. Ditto, Dave Cullen’s Columbine.
Q. No fiction on that list?
A. Well just now I’m reading a lot for research. But I also review audiobooks, four or five a month, for AudioFile Magazine. Many of those are fiction, so all parts of the beast are being fed, just in different ways and at different times of the day. I just finished Mark Bramhall’s insanely good performance of Richard Russo’s wonderful new novel, Everybody’s Fool. That review will write itself.
Q. When do you listen to audiobooks?
A. When I exercise, or have rote chores to do. I walk a couple of miles a day if it isn’t raining or snowing. Or spend hours listening while mooching around the garden in the summer. Or I listen when I wash dishes or fold the laundry.
Q Death at Breakfast is often funny. What books make you laugh?
A. I laughed more, out loud, while reading Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs, than at any book ever. But I love Lucky Jim, Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, and P.G. Wodehouse and T.H White’s Once and Future King, and Nancy Mitford, and Christopher Buckley. I think Supreme Courtship is my favorite of Buckley; how can you not love a character called Blyster Forkmorgan? And anything by Elinor Lipman.
Q. What about poetry?
A. I read it in spurts, and I tend to read whole volumes that hang together like novels, rather than poems piecemeal. I loved The Beauty of the Husband, by Anne Carson. Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds is devastating. The Birthday Letters of Ted Hughes. The Changing Light at Sandover, by James Merrill, is so inventive it’s hard to fathom the mind that made it. Sentenced to Life, by Clive James, is incredibly moving.
Q. Is there a particular book that made you the writer you are?
A. Great Expectations. I love all of Dickens for his ability to be both deadly serious about his subject matter and at the same time helplessly funny in his storytelling. He is so shrewd about human nature that many of his characters or their quirks have entered our literary DNA. All the while he plays to both the lowest and the highest appetites in the audience, as does Shakespeare. His sentimentality hasn’t aged well, but the rest of it is eternal. It may have been more than anything the age I was when I read it, but Great Expectations is the novel where I got to the end of the book and in a thunderclap, understood how it was done. How the reader experiences it from beginning to end, but the creator of it worked the other way. That was the beginning of vocation.
Q. Before you wrote novels, you wrote about patchwork quilts. Is there a non-sequitur there?
A. No. I also once ghost-wrote a book about vitamins; that was a non-sequitur. The baby needed shoes. But making patchwork, for me anyway, was a matter of taking traditional techniques and found materials, but adding new notions about design, like exploding scale, or juxtaposing graphic planes. In patchwork I worked with available cloth, but pieced it into patterns that a pile of unsorted fabric would never achieve. You do the same thing in writing fiction. Your materials are observed human behavior and event; your techniques have been developed by the writers who have come before you. With them you make a design informed by the past and by the esthetic and psychological ideas of your own period and your own experience. It’s the same world we see in the scrum in the subway, or the crowd at the mall, but with patterns visible, meaning and order revealed.
Q. Do you have any advice for young writers?
A. You are the boss, and you are the employee. As a boss, you have to be unforgiving. As the employee, protect your work time as if you were going to be fired if you didn’t. If you don’t respect it, why should anybody else? Write every day; have a word count you expect of yourself and don’t get up until you’ve hit it. Even if you think you’re going to throw most of it away, exercise the muscle. Also, love the editing. Cut everything you can. When you get to the place where you haven’t cut anything in the last two pass-throughs and you’re starting to add things in, stop.
Q. What is your writing day like? Do you have any rituals or routines?
A. The whole day is part of the writing process, because to our sorrow, all fiction writers know that some of the work is done by the subconscious. You can’t make that happen, you can only protect the machinery so that it’s available to rumble to life. For me that means solitude and structure. I work at home. Having a space that is only for writing, even if it’s a closet, is helpful. I read the paper at breakfast, do email for a half hour, then start the ignition. I am allowed to read over and edit the previous workday’s output but only rarely may I go back farther, otherwise I’d spend forty years polishing the first 20 pages. I do not talk on the phone or in any other way communicate until I’ve done a minimum of 500 words. I often do much more, but am not allowed to do less. (Note to the young; when I first started out my rule was seven hours or seven pages a day, but I no longer have that kind of stamina.) Somewhere in there I take 20 minutes for lunch, sometimes after the work day, sometimes before I’m finished, if I’m starving, but I eat alone, in silence, reading. When I’m finally done for the day, I close the file and leave it alone until the next day’s work begins. You can’t edit as the writer; you can only do that as the reader, and for that you need distance. The rest of the day is desk work, exercise, meeting obligations, time with friends and family, then reading until midnight. The more I can protect that pattern, the faster the work goes, but more to the point, the better it is.
Q. Writing a novel, are there any people you share your writing with?
A. Never, during the creation of it. The writing can’t be judged apart from the design of the book, and until that first draft is finished, no one can tell if a scene is in the right place or doing what the story needs it to do, including me. There’s a whole long process from the end of a first draft to the place where I need an outside reader. I go over and over the ms. on the screen, cutting words, polishing sentences, rearranging things. Then I print it and edit on the page. Then I add all the new changes to the computer and maybe change characters’ names or make thin people fat, or otherwise make it new, then go over it all again. Only when I can’t tell any more what’s working and what I should do better do I turn to a totally trustworthy novelist friend. Once she gives me her notes, I start the whole process again.
Q How is reviewing an audiobook different from reviewing a piece of written work? Has reviewing audiobooks affected the way you tell stories?
A. For AudioFile Magazine, I’m reviewing the performance and production values, not the book. The reviews are 125 words each, haikus, really. As a judge for the Audie awards, the Grammys of audiobooks, the quality of the book is part of the final decision, but only as one of many criteria. I don’t think this reviewing affects the way I write fiction, but it certainly gives me a profound reverence for great audiobook performers. They have to do with their voices alone what actors on screen and in person can do with faces and body language and personal beauty. Amazing when you think about it.
Q. Many novelists also teach literature. What about you?
A. I can teach, and have taught, but the answer is really the same as that about wanting to be a writer. Teaching is a highly social interaction, and while I find it wonderfully invigorating to engage with others that way over books, it uses up the same internal capital as writing does, for me at least. The time away from their own work that many writers have given to teaching, has in my life been given to screenwriting.
Q. How does screenwriting compare to your work as a novelist?
A. To state the obvious, it is much more social. To collaborate with a producer or director who is really good at story is exhilarating, and to watch what happens to text that works on the page, or seems to, when the rest of the professionals get involved – the casting people, the set dressers, the wardrobe people, and above all the director and the actors, is incredibly interesting. In a novel you’re responsible for all of it, while with a script you’re responsible for dialogue and for problem-solving in the plot. How to show time has passed, how to shorthand backstory, how to rearrange story elements to get to the point faster, knowing what to cut – but even that, if you’re lucky, you do collaboratively. And then to see what the actors do with the words is fascinating, including when you discover that speeches that are just right on the page simply can’t be spoken, at least not by the actor who has to say them. You have to enjoy rewriting, though. I do. And of course the job comes with health insurance, and when you go to California they have to fly you first class; that part never gets old.
Q. Do you expect there is more screenwriting in your future?
A. I’ve already had incredible good luck in my screenwriting life. To have a producer like Stanley Jaffe buy (not option) my second novel, to have him hire me to write the screenplay, to see the movie actually made, is a really really rare experience. I’ve had the fun of working with Stanley often since. I’ve had the experience of picking up the phone to hear an unmistakable voice say, “This is Paul Newman.” (And of doing two projects with him.) I’ve flown home from LA to New York with Miles Davis, and been driven home in his limousine, astounding the neighbors. I don’t think it’s going to get better than that. Why push my luck, when there are still books I want to write, and so many I still want to read?