Wednesdays with Writers: Paula DeBoard talks about her new book, THE DROWNING GIRLS, keeping with the Jonses, juggling life, & how writing is like a conversation with readers & so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Dark, edgy, and chilling, THE DROWNING GIRLS is an unsettling story of the underbelly of a picture-perfect neighborhood, one filled with emerald green grass, glittering swimming pools, ritzy clubhouse, and gated entry. It’s what everyone dreams of: a life of opulence and, simply put, happiness.9780778318378.indd

But when the McGuiness family finds themselves living a 4,000 square foot McMansion, they soon discover they have been thrust into a world of secrets and lies just below the community’s seemingly flawless surface.

I couldn’t put this book down. With each turn of the page, I was utterly transfixed by the lengths the residents (and one in particular) would go to get what she feels she deserves. If you’re new to Paula DeBoard, then pull up a chair, grab a drink, and dive right in.

Leslie Lindsay: Paula, thank you so much for popping by to tell us a bit more about your newest thriller, THE DROWNING  GIRLS. We’re honored to have you! Ultimately, this story is about secrets and what lengths we go to cover them up. There’s also a deep-seeded thread of obsession, and while it presents a bit like FATAL ATTRACTION, it may also be construed as an obsession for happiness, for fitting in, for protecting one’s reputation. Can you talk about that, please?

Paula DeBoard: Thanks for having me, Leslie. I’m thrilled to be stopping by!

This story began for me as a fish-out-of-water tale as the McGinnises move out of their crappy rental in the city to a private upscale community, The Palms.  I played around with the story for a bit, imagining the situations these characters could get themselves into, despite having this relatively simple goal of improving their lives. Over the course of a few drafts, I came to realize that the book was really about competing desires, and the lengths people might go to get and keep the things they really want. The characters spend a fair amount of time and effort protecting their reputations and keeping secrets, since failure comes at such a heavy cost in this community. And yes—one character does have a dark obsession that in many ways drives the entire story.

L.L.: But our problems and insecurities have a way of following us anywhere; that “getting away from it all,” really doesn’t make a better person. Can you speak to that?

Paula DeBoard: Right—you’ve hit on what the main characters in The Drowning Girls are struggling with throughout the story. From the outside, The Palms offers this glittering, seemingly perfect life, but in reality, it doesn’t produce happiness. That’s true with the McGinnises, who somewhat naively believe that their lives will be improved by changing their living situation, and the Jorgensens, who move their child from one school to another, refusing to acknowledge that the common denominator of the problem is in fact their own child. I think the truth is that our circumstances and our physical setting can definitely influence our happiness, but who we are deep down inside is much more complicated—and that may be impossible to escape.

L.L.: I understand that part of your inspiration for THE DROWING GIRLS came from your own freelance work writing for a real estate publication showcasing fantastic new home communities much like your fictionalized The Palms. What is it about wealth and opulence that leave us wanting a slice of that life?

Paula DeBoard: One of my earliest professional writing experiences was a weekly gig where I would visit a new home community, tour the staged models, and chat with the sellers about their products. This was at the height of the housing bubble, and in my area (California’s Central Valley), the home models were flooded with people who were either local and “trading up” or selling a more expensive but smaller property in the Bay Area to provide more space and a quieter way of life for their families. I confess that I was just as interested in the buyers as the homes themselves, and my natural tendency to eavesdrop gave me quite a bit of insight into their lives. People were really going real estate-crazy, although the extent of that was only tragically obvious when the housing bubble burst. At one point, the homes in my neighborhood skyrocketed in value, and someone down the street from me cashed out on that equity for an H2—completely impractical for life in a city (or just about anywhere). Not to get too philosophical here, but increased home value seemed to give a whole lot of us an increased self-esteem, and a new sense of worth—an extrinsic value rather than an intrinsic one. Some of that perceived value is from keeping up with the Joneses, too—it’s hard to be happy with yourself when in some way you don’t feel like you measure up.

I do think it’s natural to want to improve our lives and provide more for our families—that’s at the heart of most home-buying decisions. But there’s an undeniable lure in the marketing for new communities, an implicit promise that if you buy into that vision, you’ll be happy. That’s what advertising is all about, but of course the promise of happiness is rarely realized through things we can buy. download (35)

L.L.: Let’s talk character for a bit, because I think this is the shining star of THE DROWNING GIRLS. Just when you think you can’t dislike anyone more than you thought possible, you do. This is how I felt about, Kelsey Jorgensen. Oh my…this girl (and I use that term loosely), is…well, disturbing. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but I was absolutely amazed at her audacity and anxious to see what she’d do next.  Was there any ‘real-life’ inspiration for Kelsey’s character? Did you read personality disorder textbooks in earnest to develop her? What is your process for character development in general? Do they come to you fully formed, or do they take some time to formulate?

Paula DeBoard: The characters in this book developed over time and several drafts, and with each draft, I found them growing more complicated and, particularly in the case of Kelsey, darker, too. In my former life, I was a high school English teacher, and now as a college professor, I still find myself spending a lot of time around people in their teens. Kelsey isn’t based on any one particular person, but she grew out of a few ideas that I was experimenting with—permissive parenting, the helplessness that parents must feel in the face of their teenagers’ use of social media and related technology, and a sort of “dark side” that pushes a crush to an obsession. I did read quite a bit about obsessions, and what I realized about Kelsey was that she must have had some “triggers” in her life that brought her to that point. It was beyond the scope of the book to fully introduce those, but I found myself feeling sorry for her in a way, because she was in the grip of something she couldn’t fully control, and deep down, she must have been desperately unhappy.

I have a tendency to do this, I guess—to talk about my characters as if they are real people that I might bump into in the course of my daily life. Over the course of writing a book—and it’s been this way with each new project I tackle—I find that I begin to think of them not as inventions of my own mind, but as actual human beings. When I get to that point, the story begins to take on a life of its own.

L.L. THE DROWNING GIRLS isn’t exactly about more than one actual drowning as the title suggests, but could perhaps be used metaphorically. Can you speak to that, please?

Paula DeBoard: I initially pitched the book as The Drowning Girl, and then as the story evolved, I realized how several characters in the book were in “over their heads,” so to speak. The title is meant metaphorically, although the reader will encounter someone being pulled from a backyard swimming pool within the book’s opening pages. Ultimately, the metaphor goes back to the idea of wanting more—it’s those things we most desire that can be our downfall.

L.L.: I’m working on a novel now in which I have similar elements as THE DROWNING GIRLS. Not a community of wealth, per se, but a small-town in which everyone knows everyone, it’s all a bit “Main Street, USA,” but the town is more than what meets the eye. Dark, chilling secrets bubble at the surface. I thought I had it all figured out and then—oops—I didn’t. Do you ever “write yourself into a corner,” and how do you back up and gain perspective?

Paula DeBoard: Yes—I do this far more than I like to admit. I wish I was a writer who developed a strategic outline during the drafting process and then stuck to that outline religiously, but I’ve found that it just isn’t my style.

I love the EL Doctorow quote that says, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

This approach is very freeing for me as a writer, but the consequence is that I sometimes do feel that I’ve worked myself into a corner, where it just seems logically like the story simply can’t move forward. I’ve learned not to panic too much when this happens. It’s usually a sign that I need to take a step away from the manuscript for a few days. During this time, I try to do some mundane, repetitive things—jog on a treadmill, work in the garden, walk my dogs, repaint something (I’m forever repainting something), and all the while, I allow myself to just think about it. Inevitably, I see that I need to back up just a bit, and then a new direction will open up in front of me. It’s a bit like those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I used to love
when I was a kid, the ones that would say, “If you open Door A, go to page 56.” And then on page 56 it would say, “Your mom is waiting on the other side of the door, and it’s time to go home. The adventure is over.” images (19)But the next time through, you choose Door B, and the adventure continues. Part of this is really about humility as a writer—I love to believe that after writing a few books I have it all figured out, and it’s not always so pleasant to realize that I don’t. But the story is inevitably better for “rethinking” things along the way.

L.L.: I understand you teach writing, too. Can you share a bit about that part of your life?

Paula DeBoard: Of course! Sometimes it feels like I have two completely separate lives, but there are happy moments (like right now) where they get to intersect. I’ve been teaching since 2001—eight years at a high school, two years at a junior high, and the last five years at the college level. Although I love where I am right now—a lecturer in writing at the University of California, Merced—every level has brought its own challenges and triumphs. By the end of a semester, I’m usually ridiculously proud of how far my students have come in their written expression, and it’s an amazing validation to see that they are more confident and ready to use their writing skills in the next stage of their lives.

Sometimes, I admit that it’s a bit of juggle. I’m both producing my own creative work and assessing student work with a critical eye. It’s always a relief to approach the end of the semester and know that I can devote myself to my own work for a while, and by the time the new semester starts, I’m itching to get back into the classroom. Writing—whether creative or critical—is about having a conversation with a reader. I love being on both sides of that conversation at different points, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

L.L.: Is there anything obsessing you nowadays? Of course, nothing like what was obsessing Kelsey, right?!

Paula DeBoard: The truth is, I suspect I have a very addictive personality. Luckily, my addictions are confined to somewhat acceptable things, like staying up very, very late to finish a book (at this moment, it’s Caroline Kepnes’s HIDDEN BODIES), a habit I’ve had since childhood. I have to limit the time I spend on Sporcle, an online trivia site. Although I’ve never been a math whiz, I do have a weird obsession with numbers, like license plates and strings of digits that have surprising patterns. I can feel myself growing steadily less cool here, so maybe I’ll end this by saying that I have a true-crime obsession, too. I know way more than is healthy about serial killers, and I’ve never missed an episode of Criminal Minds or any of those late ‘90s shows narrated by Bill Curtis, like Cold Case Files and American Justice. Those were the absolute best. And now that I think about it, they are probably archived online.

L.L.: Anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Paula DeBoard: No; this has been great! I’d just like to end with some gratitude for interviewing me (thanks!), and for my readers, whether they’ve been with me since The Mourning Hours or have just discovered my work with The Drowning Girls. And of course—a shout-out to Will and our four-legged ones. Right now we’re all sitting in the same room, and life feels just about perfect.

L.L.: Paula, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. It was so much fun! Best wishes with THE DROWNING GIRLS.

Thank you, Leslie!

For more information, or to follow, please see: 

Paula Treick DeBoard - author pic 2016Author Bio: Paula Treick DeBoard holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine and divides her time between writing and teaching. Her novels include The Drowning Girls (2016), which was selected by Target as part of its Emerging Authors program, The Fragile World (2014) and The Mourning Hours (2013), soon-to-be re-released in a mass market paperback format. Professionally, she is a member of PEN America, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and the Womens Fiction Writers Association. She joined the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced in 2015, and lives in Modesto with her husband Will, two small dogs with surprisingly vicious barks, and the world’s least patient cat.

[Cover and author image courtsey of Paula Treick DeBoard. “Keeping Up with the Joneses” image retrieved from, “Choose Your Own Adventure” image retrieved from]. 

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