What drew you to the world of suspense? I wrote four literary novels before I wrote Bittersweet. So although the book has been called a gothic thriller (accurately, I think, at least in hindsight) I didn’t set out to write a “suspense” novel. It’s been fun and fascinating to slip a bit into this other world, since it wasn’t where I started out. That said, I’ve always loved to read literature that sets my hair on end, and so it probably isn’t much of a surprise that I ended up starting to write books that endeavor to do the same.
Tell us about your new book. Bittersweet is the story of Mabel Dagmar, a plain Jane who’s invited—by her beautiful, wealthy college roommate, Genevra “Ev” Winslow—to spend the summer at Ev’s gorgeous family estate. When Mabel first gets there, she thinks she’s won the lottery, but soon she stumbles across a family secret or two, and by the time she realizes the Winslows are not at all what she thought they were, she’s in way over her head. She has to decide—does she risk her own life and expose the Winslows for who they truly are, or does she keep their secrets and become one of them?
This novel was such a romp to write; the twists and turns kept me on my toes. Even I didn’t always know how things were going to turn out!
Is there a lot of research that goes in to your books? Bittersweet is set at a fictionalized version of my grandparents’ vacation home up on Lake Champlain in Vermont. So I guess you could say I’ve been researching the book my whole life. It’s funny; that place is one of my favorites in the whole world, but that’s exactly why writing about it would not make great literature. The key was figuring out that Bittersweet was about Mabel getting pulled into the darkness of Ev’s family; I realized I could turn all the elements of this beloved place into something out of a Grimm’s fairy tale.
What author (besides yourself) do you think that everyone should read? A number of books very much influenced Bittersweet’s story of an outsider looking to belong in an elite world: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty; Donna Tartt’s The Secret History; Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children; Ian McEwan’s Atonement; and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, to name a few. Among the books I’ve enjoyed reading in the past couple of years are Lily King’s Euphoria; Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us, and Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion.
Favourite thing to do aside from writing: I’m a craft-nut. My sister is getting married in September and I spent yesterday making a pinwheel prototype (I plan to make about a hundred), ripping blue cloth into strips (for a banner), and grating up crayons (to melt inside wax bags to make flags). This craftiness definitely comes into play in direct proportion to how much work I need to get done on a given writing project (it’s time to start revising my next novel, June). But I try to think about it not as a form of procrastination, but as a way to use my mind and hands actively, which I find often flexes my writing muscle in unexpected ways (for this reason, I love to cook too).
Advice for someone considering a career in writing: It’s an incredibly rewarding job, some of the time. At its best, you have many readers, the chance at making a good income, and the ability to make your own hours, to work from home, to be more available as a parent and partner, etc. I think those elements are what a lot of beginning writers see when they find themselves wandering down this particular career path, and they are indeed to be celebrated.
But the truth is that this is a job with plenty of hidden (unromantic) pitfalls. Like any small business owner, I have to spend at least half of working time on self-promotion and paperwork (social media, email, author questionnaires, blurbs, fielding requests, etc. After 13 years in this business, I’m only financially solvent for the second time (my husband has been supporting me for most of the rest of that). And “success” is fleeting and not to be relied upon.
You have what it takes to be a writer if you are: humble, stubborn, self-starting, a good literary citizen, persistent, flexible, thrifty, and can’t imagine wanting to do anything more than making up stories for a living (which is why I do it).
What’s your poison?
By day: Ceylon tea, underbrewed, straight up.
By night: A glass of Barbera or Sancerre.