By Leslie Lindsay
Oh, I am thrilled (bad pun) to introduce debut mystery/thriller author Elizabeth Little to our literary blog. (Like the alliteration there?) Well, if you do then you may want to check out these other titles by our guest, BITING THE WAX TADPOLE and TRIP OF THE TONGUE, both give a glimpse into the linguistic quirks of mankind.
But really, Elizabeth is here to talk about her newest book—one I am currently reading—DEAR DAUGHTER (Viking, July 31).
Here’s what you want to know about this book: it’s good. Here’s what else you want to know: it’s often “paired” with GONE GIRL and THE GOOD GIRL (see my review here) across the web-o-bookstores. That means it’s edgy. It’s smart. It’s a mind-twist of psychological suspense and so much more.
Leslie Lindsay: Elizabeth, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. First, I am curious to know how your launch experience of DEAR DAUGHTER varies with that of your previous (non-fiction) books? More fan-fare? Less? And what kind of promotion are you doing for the book?
Elizabeth Little: My experience with DEAR DAUGHTER has been so different than with my previous two books: significantly more fanfare (inasmuch as we have fanfare in publishing). In part, I’d imagine, this is because there isn’t exactly a broad audience for narrative sociolinguistics, no matter how many jokes I tried to shoehorn in there. But I’ve also been lucky enough to get some fantastic coverage in the press for this book, and I am absolutely blessed with a group of dedicated and enthusiastic collaborators and coworkers at Viking. (Also maybe I’m just getting better at writing? I hope??)
But whatever the reason, I’ve had the chance to tour bookstores around the country with DEAR DAUGHTER, and it has been such an amazing experience to meet with booksellers and other rabid mystery readers. I used to work in publishing, so I thought I knew a thing or two about the business, but I’ve learned so much from my tour about what booksellers look for and what readers want—to the point that I’ve totally changed my plans for my next book!
L.L.: And so…the book! Wow. It’s masterfully done. I love reading it because, well you have such a finely tuned feel for words. For example, ‘speculative glint’ is a turn of phrase I came across while reading last night. And don’t even get me started on the sublime verbs you plucked from the verb tree: bellowed, jammed, jangled, mashed, swelled, swarming…you must have studied linguistics.
As with English, I’ve never had a particular facility with spoken languages, but I love to pick up grammars and dictionaries and to try to decipher sentences and stories in languages I’ve never seen before. I suppose I’m always trying to chase that same feeling I had when reading HOP ON POP—that magic “Aha!” moment.
All this time spent with foreign language grammars and dictionaries has, I like to think, made me particularly sensitive to English grammar and vocabulary. Although sometimes I wonder if it’s as much a weakness as it is a strength. I can very easily get lost in the construction of a single sentence when really I should be thinking about extremely basic matters of plot. And of course some readers might prefer a more pared-down writing style! But it’s a love of words that drives my love of writing, so I can’t imagine that changing any time soon.
L.L.: Full-disclosure: I had to look up the word ‘diaphanous’ because I was thinking it has something to do with two, as in di-; but I was wrong. Now I am using it all the time. For example, I told my hubby that our basset hound is so not diaphanous. And he chuckled. “Yeah…let’s put a picture of our geriatric basset in the dictionary next to antonyms for diaphanous.” But let’s get this back to the book. Jane is the main character and she, like the basset hound is not diaphanous (by the way, it means opaque, flimsy, delicate, lacy, sheer, thin). Did you develop this character with those anti-qualities in mind? And let’s look at her name: Plain Jane. Which she is not. Can you explain?
Elizabeth Little: Well, first of all, in the interest of mutual full disclosure there are definitely words in DEAR DAUGHTER that I discovered in the course of writing it. I guess I’m just an inveterate word hound to the end!
So many of my characters changed their names from the first to the final draft, but Jane has always, always been Jane. There is a plot-based reason for this—her mother named her very deliberately—but I’m also placing Jane at an intersection of allusions that Jane herself references: Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, and Jane Doe. DEAR DAUGHTER is part social commentary, part Gothic journey of self-discovery, and part whodunit (or, perhaps more accurately, whoisit). I also loved the incongruity of a celebutante having such a pedestrian name. Paris Hilton she is not.
Jane’s character, though, really developed organically as I wrote and revised (and revised and revised). I didn’t set out to make her in any particular way: I wanted her to be true to her history, to be a credible product of her unique circumstances, and eventually her voice made itself known to me. And sometimes that voice is absolutely the opposite of diaphanous! But that’s because—in my mind, anyway—she is terrified of letting the world see her very real weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Every time she cracks a joke or unleashes an insult she’s essentially saying, “Look over there!”
I was never interested in opening with a perfectly believable premise—I mean, it’s a high-concept mystery novel, not Marilynne Robinson—but I always aimed for psychological believability, no matter how tough that sometimes made Jane to take.
L.L.: The structure of the book fascinates me. It’s written (so far) as the after-effects of Jane’s time in prison for killing her mother. (I’m not giving away any spoilers, that’s fact stated on the back jacket). And then we have letters and emails, texts, police reports sprinkled throughout. Can you tell us a bit about how you determined the structure of the book? Did this go through copious revisions or did this structure pretty much “appear” to you that way?
Elizabeth Little: The initial inspiration for the book came from the CNN breaking news alert that went out when Amanda Knox’s conviction was overturned in 2011. I started writing DEAR DAUGHTER—about my own infamous murderess released back into the wild—the very next day. It seemed natural to open with another CNN alert, and it was an easy step from that to other types of text. I lucked into it, in other words. But it turned out to be such a useful tool for expository purposes, for pacing purposes, and for plot purposes—sometimes I needed to let the reader in on information that Jane would never have supplied herself.
Otherwise, I stuck to a very traditional three-act structure, and even though the details of the plot changed radically as I wrote it, I always kept that basic structure the same: an inciting event, two major turns, a mid-point sea change, a dark night of the soul. There are plenty of writers who would yawn at that choice, but it’s a classic structure because it generally works. (And, um … is a great crutch for us beginning writers.)
L.L. And now I have to ask about St. Louis. It’s such a big-little city, but we don’t know each other. You’ve since moved to L.A. and me, well I’m in Chicago. But, there’s some really great writers of late who have popped out of the Show Me State (Laura McHugh in Columbia, Gillian Flynn has ties to Kansas City, Daniel Woodrell in the Ozarks, and there’s a bunch more). What is it, in your opinion that gives Missouri writers a grit that’s unlike others?
Elizabeth Little: That’s a great question that I’m not sure I have an answer to! I’ve been told on numerous occasions that Missourians have to compensate for their fundamentally friendly, Midwestern exteriors with equally menacing interiors, and I always laugh, because inevitably the people who say this with such authority have never been to Missouri except on a layover. We’re always just thrown in with Kansas and Iowa and Nebraska and—weirdly—Ohio. (Why not Illinois? I think because everyone knows Chicago is cooler than anything in Missouri.)
I don’t think of myself as Midwestern at all—I think Missouri and Missourians as very much their own demented creatures. Maybe there is a environmental element to this. Even though I grew up in the city, when I think about my home state I think about all the camping trips I was forced to go on. It was always damp; there were always possum. No matter what the season, if the ground was warm, it was just from the heat of decay. Caves aren’t intriguing or beautiful or mysterious: they’re flash-flood death holes. It’s a bit of a fancy, I suspect, but even though these trips can’t possibly comprise more than 5% of my childhood and adolescence, this is the land that I feel the most connected to. There’s a literal darkness to the landscape, and I feel that same darkness in my bones.
Or maybe I’m just a weirdo.
L.L.: What is the single most important thing a writer can do to improve his or her chances of getting published? I know, big question…but we all want to know!
Elizabeth Little: It’s different for fiction and for nonfiction, but for fiction I’d say that you have to make sure you have a hell of a query letter. When I worked in publishing, a big part of my job was sifting through the slush pile, and what I learned was that the sheer volume of queries means that a writer has to catch the agent’s or assistant’s eye immediately. The first two sentences of that query letter have to wow the agent. And then you have to capitalize on that interest by showcasing your unique voice as a writer. There are many ways to do this—with style, with humor, with smarts—but it has to sparkle, and it has to be you. A great query letter should be so full of personality that I would be able to know who wrote your sample pages even if they didn’t have your name on it.
(I hate the word “slush,” by the way, because those were people’s dreams I was handling, but I guess you do have to distance yourself emotionally or you’d be passing along every single query to your boss, which is not what they pay you (very little) for.)
L.L. What is currently obsessing you?
Elizabeth Little: As I’m sure you understand, it’s tough to find too much free time when there’s work to be done and a child to be raised. But when I do have a quiet moment, I’m currently spending a lot of time reading about comparative religion and the history of Christianity. I’m a truly terrible Catholic, so I’m not sure where this is coming from (guilt, probably), but there you have it. And the concurrent language obsession is New Testament Greek. I spent several years in my youth studying Ancient (Attic) Greek, so I definitely have a leg up here, and there’s something about the very manageable size of the vocabulary that is appealing to me at a time when my work and home life very often seem totally unmanageable.
I also read so, so many mystery and romance novels. Again, it’s tricky to do with a little kid and a husband who for some reason really likes to hang out with me. But I’ll confess something: Sometimes I’ll pretend that I’m taking a shower when really I’m hiding in the bathroom with a book!
L. L. What haven’t I asked that I should have?
Elizabeth Little: What am I reading right now? (A: The Paying Guest by Sarah Waters. It’s magnificent.)
And, even more importantly, who is my all-time favorite St. Louis Cardinal? (A: Bob Gibson.)
L.L.: Finally, can you tell us what you are working on next?
Elizabeth Little: I can! I’m currently working on my next book for Viking, which at the moment I’m calling DO AS I SAY. It’s the story of a well-meaning therapist with some serious boundary issues whose patients start dying under mysterious circumstances. I can also tell you that an important character from DEAR DAUGHTER will play an even more important part in this story….
L.L. Thanks so much for being with us today!! We’ve so enjoyed you.
[author image: Jonathan Vandiveer, courtesy of Elizabeth Little. DEAR DAUGHTER over image courtesy of Viking/author, other image covers retrieved from Amazon on 8.26.14]