Describe your latest project.
It's called The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, and it's a book about a pair of haunted sisters. The Gray family has a secret ? a very literal family skeleton.
The younger sister, Laurel Gray Hawthorne, hasn't seen a ghost in thirteen years. She's in a passionate and seemingly solid marriage, she's a good mother to her teenage daughter, and her relationship with art and darkness is contained in her quilting. Traditional quilting is steeped in this sort of folksy, price-above-rubies, salt-of-the-earth femaleness. You think quilts, you think the Amish or your nice Gramma's sewing circle. But Laurel doesn't make that kind of quilt. Her work is based on the mind-blowing stuff made by Canadian folk artist Pamela Allen, and I don't think even Laurel is aware of how little her work actually connects with the traditional female roles she otherwise embraces.
Her pristine life shatters when the ghost of a dead girl comes to her bedroom, wakes her up, and takes her down to where the girl's body is floating lifeless in the backyard pool. No one knows the events leading up to the girl's drowning, and that ghost opens a door that lets the Gray family ghost return. Laurel has to go to her estranged sister, Thalia, for help, but Lord, that's trouble.
Thalia Gray is an actress. Capital A. I loved writing Thalia so much ? she's all appetite and she has no boundaries of any kind. She embarrassed the hell out of me and made me laugh until I almost wet my pants. Can you tell I love this character? Poor Laurel! Asking Thalia Gray for help is like leaping into a frying pan with only a thin layer of Crisco to protect you. The two of them set out on a life-altering journey that triggers revelations about their family's guarded past, the true state of Laurel's marriage, and what really happened to the girl who stopped swimming.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
At the mall in my hometown, there was a small corral with a pipe-and-drape puppet stage at one end. Parents could drop kids off and have 30 delicious minutes to practice rampant consumersism. It was 1982, and people needed time to buy things unimpeded by their offspring.
A high school kid would stand guard at the corral gate so no babies escaped, and two middle schoolers ? usually me and my friend Jennifer ? would squat on a shelf above the stage. We got five dollars a show, and all we had to do was dandle marionettes around while reading terrible fairy-tale scripts pinned to the drape in front of us. They were so poorly written that I suspect the author had never actually heard of the Grimm brothers. All three of the pigs and the wolf survived, Baba Yaga and Hansel and Gretel were mish-mashed up into a single, toothless story, and the prince's speech to the flopped-over puppet playing Sleeping Beauty was so inadvertently dirty-sounding that Jennifer couldn't get through it without giggling.
I was a terrible puppeteer. All my marionettes jerked and spasmed like they were having seizures. I liked doing the voices, though. I could do a trip-trap-troll that positively terrorized the preschool set. They loved that troll. I also went for the Oscar when playing Baba Yaga, creaking and shrilling my way through her overwrought lines. Alas, our boss started giving us tapes instead of scripts. After that, we just herky-jerkied puppets about while the tape played. I got bored and quit.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Sort of. In a way.
There's a fictional town called DeLop in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, and while I was writing the book, I resisted letting any of my characters get within 50 miles of that town. I didn't want to set a scene there. I didn't want to look at it, not head-on. It's a town my brain invented out of my understanding of the kind of poverty that my grandmother grew up in. This is not regular old Wal-Mart, rubber flip-flop poverty. It's insular, the kind we don't think we have in America, with actual hunger as a feature, and no electricity or phone or television connecting the people, even by wires, to the outside world. Even though she escaped it, that poverty broke my grandmother in several ugly and specific ways. I think I wrote the book to try to learn to forgive her, but she died while I was in the middle of writing it.
In the first draft of the book, I came at DeLop sideways, in references and brief flashbacks. In that draft, I had no characters that currently lived in the town, just one who had grown up there and gotten out. There were no scenes set inside it.
It ruined the book, quite frankly. The book had no meaty center, no beating heart, and I picked the whole thing up, all 100,000-plus words of it, and dropped it in the trash. I knew I had to start over, and I knew I had to be braver. So I went to a real town that could have been DeLop. Same approximate location. Same circumstances. My father wouldn't let me go alone, and I knew how serious this was when I saw him loading his gun into the car. That trip changed the book, changed my understanding of my grandmother.... The town was only three hours away, in Alabama, but it felt like we went a lot farther.
Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
Oh, I think we are. Fiction writers are, at least. I always want to make everything be a better story, and so I retell myself events and anecdotes. I retell them until I can't recognize them anymore, until no one can, and then they make their way into books. I generally like my made-up versions better because real life makes no sense thematically and is oftentimes not terribly entertaining. Novels are great, big, 97,000-word, doubled-up lies. We call them fiction while we believe everything in them is true, and yet we know for a fact that none if it actually happened.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Karen Abbott. I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but her debut, Sin in the Second City, reads like a novel. A really good one, too.
She came to an event I did when I was promoting Gods In Alabama. We went out and started talking books. She had just sold Sin via proposal to Random House and was in the middle of writing it. I was having a hard time with The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, still trying very hard not to go to DeLop, and so I suggested she and I start a small critique group with another friend, Anna Schachner, a brilliant short-story writer who had decided to work on a novel. I had had a little wine, you know?
The next day, I'm thinking, "Why did I ask that total stranger to be my crit partner? Lord, I hope she can write!" Then she sent me some pages, and I realized I'd lucked out. She's a gorgeous writer with such a broad vision; she can see all sides of a piece of history and make it come to life. Knowing her has made me stretch as a reader too. She has me reading nonfiction greats like Hank Klibanoff and Melissa Fay Greene, folks that I might not have picked up otherwise because I am such a fiction junkie.
How do you relax?
I watch television. I'm a veteran insomniac, and I do not think I would ever sleep without TV. A lot of people read at night to get sleepy, but if the book is bad, I put it aside, and if the book is good, I will stay up reading it until it is finished, and then I will lie there thinking about it.
So I put on the TV. I am picky about shows, though. It can't be one of my favorites. Buffy will not put me to sleep, even if it is an episode I have seen 50 times. Big Love, Dexter, Rescue Me ? all no good.... I will stay awake and watch.
Sitcoms work best. I like Scrubs and That '70s Show, but I will sometimes watch two or three episodes of those before the magic happens and my brain shuts off. You know what the perfect show is? Becker. I freakin' love Becker. I put it on, and boom! I pass out. I think I have seen the first eight minutes of every Becker episode ever made about four times now.
Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
Rock bands. Writers are perfectly lovely on tour, thank you. Rock stars tear up hotel rooms, gobble up boatloads of truly dangerous pharmaceuticals, and have sex with teenagers.
We drink a lot. We talk about books. We laugh until we get cramps.
Or maybe I am just hanging out with the wrong writers?
Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
Yes, please. Right now I have Bagel the hound dog; Franz Schubert, a Maine coon cat; Boggart the yellow kitten; and four gerbils individually named Snickers, That Cross Dressing Poet Tennyson, Alice, and Cozy Mole Mouse, but usually spoken of as a single entity called The Mice Ladies.
I'd also like a baby African hedgehog, so I can raise him up and call him Pigling Bland. And I need a horse again, now that my kids are older. And a nanny goat to keep the horse company. And an African Grey Parrot. I quite like snakes for their grippy, cool aliveness, so I'd like to have some sort of constrictor and also an enormous iguana so I could name him Gustav Klimt.
My husband says there is a mathematical formula for the number of animals I need to be happy: X plus 1, where X is the number of animals we have right now.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Books that are chock-full of God. In the good way.
The Solace of Leaving Early, Haven Kimmel
Wise Blood, Flannery O'Connor
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
The God File, Frank Turner Hollon
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving