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Write On, Wednesday: NYTimes Notable Author Emily Arsenault talks about THE EVENING SPIDER, motherhood in the 19th century, living in old houses, ghosts, and more

By Leslie Lindsay 

A fascinating and gripping blend of psychological drama and historical true crime fiction from the late 1800s and inspired by a real-life murder on the east coast, THE EVENING SPIDER melds two young mother’s lives in this suspenseful ghostly tale by New York Times notable author Emily Arsenault.

EveningSpider pb
Told alternatively via (fictional) diary/journal entries and actual newspaper clippings from the 1800s and through a contemporary first person POV of young motherhood, THE EVENING SPIRDER is a suspenseful historical read. Could the house have something to do with the fact that both of these young mothers seem to be losing their mind, or could it be other, unresolved secrets harboring in the house, or the residents themselves?

I am absolutely honored to have Emily with us today.

Leslie Lindsay: Emily, thanks for popping over today. As a person who is very intrigued with old houses, motherhood, and madness, THE EVENING SPIDER was right up my alley. What inspired you to write this story?

Emily Arsenault: The initial spark was an experience I had in my own home—very much like my modern-day narrator’s. When my daughter was a baby, I would occasionally wake up the sound of her crying and someone shushing her over the baby monitor. It really terrified me at the time—I never came up with a satisfactory explanation for why it was happening. One might argue that it was static, or that new-parent anxiety was playing tricks with my brain—though I’m not really convinced! Anyway, a year or so later, after it stopped as mysteriously as it began, I felt removed enough from the situation to play with that experience and turn it into fiction. Doing so reminded me that I’d always wanted to write something that was, on some level, a ghost story. I’ve always loved ghost stories.

 L.L.: So how did you come across the Mary Stannard murder?

Emily Arsenault: My maternal grandmother was a Stannard, and her family hailed from the same part of southern Connecticut as Mary Stannard. I didn’t know about the Mary Stannard murder until recently, however. Oddly, I grew up hearing that an ancestor of my grandmother had been hanged in New Haven for poisoning her husband in colonial times. A few years ago, I asked my mother for specifics. She said she thought the woman’s name was Mary Stannard. I casually Googled something like “Mary Stannard New Haven poison,” and all of this information came up about a very different case—in which a Mary Stannard was the victim, not the murderer. It was in the late 19th century, rather than the 17th or 18th. I asked my mother if the story could have gotten mixed up over the years. She said no—she’d also heard of the 19th century Mary Arsenic Under the ElmsStannard murder in the past, but had probably just confused the names in her head. I’m still not sure of the veracity of the colonial era story—but in any case, I got hooked on the Stannard-Hayden case rather quickly. I read many of the New York Times accounts—and an excellent book called Arsenic Under the Elms by Virginia A. McConnell—before I really decided how I wanted to position the real murder case in the broader story.

L.L.: Let’s talk structure for a minute, something I often struggle with as a writer. I am sure there are several ways you could have told this story—it could have been a single person POV, completely historical, or more contemporary. How did you choose the method of part-ghost, part-historical, and part-present-day and multiple POVs?

Emily Arsenault: This happened pretty organically. I knew I wanted to have a modern-day narrator in a possibly-haunted house—inspired, somewhat, by my own experience. So that’s where Abby came from. But I also knew I wanted to have a story happening at the same time as the Mary Stannard trial. Naturally, then, someone from that era would be the “ghost” visiting Abby in modern times.  The voice of Frances’, the 19th century character, came to me pretty clearly early on. I really enjoyed writing a character struggling to maintain her sanity. I’m not sure what that says about me. Perhaps it just made it easier to take chances in the narrative.

L.L.: I particularly liked the 1800s account of Frances Barnett and 1886_report_drawingfound her story quite compelling.  As with any bifurcated novel (my favorite style of writing and reading, by-the-way), there have got to be sections or characters you were particularly excited to delve into. Weighing both France before Northampton Lunatic Hospital, Frances at Northampton, and Abby in contemporary 2014, was there a POV you enjoyed writing or researching more?  I know…kind of like choosing your favorite child!

Emily Arsenault: I enjoyed writing Frances at the Lunatic Hospital best. Unlike with her narrative of a few years earlier, she can be completely honest in that setting. She’s already in an insane asylum—what does she have to lose? But the really fun challenge here was making her sound peculiar enough that the reader isn’t sure if she’s trustworthy.  Her years in the hospital have taken a toll on her psyche.250px-Northampton_State_Hospital_grounds

L.L.: I understand you are a mother yourself. How did your own experiences as a mother inspire, or drive your writing?

Emily Arsenault: On the surface, I probably resemble my modern-day narrator more than my 19th century one. (I have a young daughter and live in an old New England house). And of course I drew some small details from my own experience for Abby’s narrative. However, I felt equally inspired by Frances’ situation. She might not be crazy—she might just be a little odd. Still, “odd” isn’t really acceptable for a young wife and mother in her era. I feel like mothers still aren’t really allowed to be “different” today. I love my daughter and I love spending time with her—but sometimes, when we are around other mothers, I find myself trying to pretend to fit into a certain mold of a mother. I feel like there is less of this sort of pressure for dads. There are weird and quirky and distracted dads everywhere, and everyone finds it charming, as long as the dads are putting in some sort of effort to be good dads. Moms, on the other hand, are supposed to want to make organic baby food and speak to their children like early childhood education experts and enjoy arts and crafts and singing If You’re Happy and You Know It with great enthusiasmTruthfully, I find this pressure to be more of an annoyance than a real burden—but I’m lucky I live in the twenty-first century rather than the nineteenth. Frances pretends to be a certain type of mother—and when she fails, the stakes are pretty high for her. Certainly higher than they would be for me.

L.L.: What advice might you give to aspiring novelists?

Emily Arsenault: My advice would be to avoid self-editing too early. I know a lot of aspiring writers who can’t seem to get past their first chapter or two because they read their work too early and get frustrated that it’s not as good as their favorite authors’ work. You need to give yourself time and space to improve and find the elements of your work you like enough to develop. Try to write several chapters before looking back. Later you’ll certainly have to learn how to tear apart a manuscript. But save that for when you have a manuscript. Or two or three.

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L.L.: Is anything obsessing you now…what?

Emily Arsenault: I’ve been reading a lot of books and watching a lot of documentaries about the death penalty. The topic is very likely to come up in a distant future project. I obsess over this issue occasionally. Especially during football season. While my husband hogs the TV watching NFL, I go upstairs and watch death penalty documentaries on my computer.  It’s kind of an unhealthy dynamic, actually.

L.L.: Can you share what you are working on next?

Emily Arsenault: Right now I’m revising a young adult novel that will come out in 2017. It’s called The Dragon in the Leaves (although it’s possible the title might change), and it’s about a sixteen-year-old who reads people’s tea leaves. She ends up getting involved in the case of a missing classmate who might’ve been murdered. I’m also working on another adult book, but it’s too early to say much about it.

L.L.: Is there anything I should have asked, but might have forgotten?

Emily Arsenault: No, these were great questions and I appreciated the opportunity to participate in your blog!

L.L.: Thanks, Emily! It was such a pleasure reading THE EVENING SPIDER and catching up with you.

Emily Arsenault: Thanks, Leslie!

Emily Arsenault author photoBio:
 Emily Arsenault is also the author of The Broken Teaglass, In Search of the Rose Notes, and Miss Me When I’m Gone. She lives in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, with her husband and daughter.

Learn more about Emily and her books:

  • on her website
  • Like her Facebook Page
  • Join her newsletter for periodic updates about her books
  • I found this website absolutely mesmerizing and rife with photos and history of the Northhampton Lunatic Asylum, perhaps you will, too.

[Cover and author image courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers/publicist K. Steinberg. Cover image of Arsenic Under the Elms retrieved from Amazon on 12.20.15, E. Arsenault’s other book images from the author’s website and retrieved 12.20.15. Northhampton Lunatic Asylum images from Wikipedia]


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