Writers on Wednesday: How characters are like ‘lost souls’ at the airport, ghosts, old farm houses, and more in Elizabeth Brundage’s ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR

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By Leslie Lindsay 

ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR is like a slow boil, starting out  with tender delicate prose  and reaching a gritty climax.all-things-cease-to-appear-1

The story is  harrowing. Spooky, even. The characters are cold and stiff (quite literally, and that’s not just for the ones who are dead). ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR is written almost in a frame style, that is, the book opens with a murder, then becomes filled in with a deliciously creepy and unsettling backstory/character study into the mind of sociopath, finishing off with an end-cap to the murder set in the first few pages.

It’s at first blush, a ghost story, but there’s so much more to it, combining dark noir with gothic in a story about two families, one farmhouse, all of whom are wrapped in their own unhappiness, with a ribbon of art history, like a river running through connecting the gruesome unsolved murder.

I am super-honored to have Elizabeth Brundage sit down and chat with us about her inspiration, her process, and the book. Please, join us.

Leslie Lindsay: I understand there’s a real-life house that inspired you to write ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR. Can you talk about that, mainly because I’m completely intrigued with houses, architecture, and the stories they encompass, but also because I love a little tingle up my spine, too.

Elizabeth Brundage: Who can resist a good ghost story?  We all know that house in town with the dark windows, the rusty swing set in the back – we can’t seem to pull our eyes away from it.  We know that something happened there, something bad.  There are actually two houses that inspired me to write this book.  First, there was the house where the real ax murder occurred, in an upstate New York suburb.  I went to look at houses with a realtor who originally told me the story about a horrific murder that had happened in the neighborhood and was still – and still is – unsolved.  That actual case served as inspiration, the underlying foundation upon which I built this novel, but the characters are all inventions – just about everything in this book is made up except for some of the details of that case and the frustrating reality that the murderer was never brought to justice.  Years passed and three books later I finally decided to download-1write about it.  At one point over all those years we rented a little house in a rural town near where my husband was working.  It was an early nineteenth century cape in an historic country hamlet and it turned out to be haunted.  I had never lived in a house with ghosts before!  I was as skeptical as the next person, but after living there and experiencing some of the weird things that happened (you can read the full story on my website) I became a believer.  I decided these true experiences could come together in one novel that ultimately considers some of the abstract questions so many of us consider when we think about death.

L.L.: You start the story with the murder of Catherine Clare and then go backward in time to an amazing backstory, shaping the lives of all these characters. In that sense, it’s very noir. But it also sort of reads as a frame story. Can you talk about how you decided to structure ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR? Was the murder your ‘hook,’ to use a writerly term, or was it just the most organic way to lay out your story?

Elizabeth Brundage: Organic is the key word in your question, which is to say that I wasn’t conscious of writing a “frame” story although it very much seems to be the definition of one.  And while the murder serves as an essential “hook” to involve the reader, it wasn’t what interested me most; I was much more interested in exploring the relationships of the people whose lives were affected by the murder.  I think when something like this happens in a town, the townspeople never forget and the story is told again and again and the scene of the crime becomes as much a landmark of the place as the church on Main Street or the post office or the bar that fortifies the legendary town drunk.

Brundage’s searing, intricate novel epitomizes the best of the literary thriller, marrying gripping drama with impeccably crafted prose…

~Publishers Weekly [boxed review]

L.L.: And there are a lot of characters. Almost all of them—even the unsettling, creepy ones—I liked. Because they are flawed, because they are real. Do you have an affinity for any one in particular? (I know, I know…kind of like choosing your favorite child.)

Elizabeth Brundage: My favorite character is Cole for his sweetness, kindness, his perceptions about the people around him.  I also have a soft spot for his brother, Eddy, because he reminds me of my husband in his early 20s.  Justine is my favorite female character because I recognize her as a woman I would be friendly with.  I admire her strength and courage and determination to do what’s right and good in life.  She is someone who has become the best or at least the most honest version of herself – I think so many of us strive to be that.

L.L.: There’s a fun, late-1970s, early 1980s vibe about the book, I’m curious what your research (if any!) was like to get things ‘right?’   

Elizabeth Brundage: I did a lot of research, but I grew up in the 70s and a lot of the period details I relied on came from memory.  The Country Squire Station Wagon that Catherine drives, for instance, was the car I was allowed to drive in high school to get to my ballet lessons.  I can still remember rolling down the windows to smoke (sneak) a cigarette on the way home. download-2

L.L.: What was your timeframe for writing this novel? It’s complex and so well done, and spans about twenty years, it’s in a sense, a beast. But a good beast, a darn good one.

Elizabeth Brundage: Thank you, you’re right – it is a beast!  The book is loosely based on a real cold case that I heard about back in the 90s.  It stayed in my mind for over 20 years before I could actually write about it.  I wasn’t really keen on writing a story about an ax murder and years passed, years of thinking and thinking, before I found and understood the other characters, the farm, the boys, the people of the town, and could make them real on the page.  That may sound strange when I use the word “found” but, in the early stages of writing a novel, finding your character(s) is something like trying to find one person in a crowded airport – until you find him, you are just fumbling along like a person with jetlag, disoriented, confused, weighed down with heavy bags.  Once you find your character, the trick is getting him into your car, hearing him speak, smelling him, searching his pockets, trying to get your hands on his passport to see where he’s been and where he’s going.  Writing a novel takes time.  There’s just no way around it, you can’t really do it fast.  This book took me years to write because I kept having characters show up at my door – lost souls.  They’d stand there looking at me, their suitcases at their feet, waiting for me to invite them in.

L.L.: The story is about how guilt shapes the present, how sometimes it’s not just places that are haunted, but people, circumstances. It’s about finding truth, it’s about *being* the truth. At least that was my read. What do you hope readers take away from ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR?

Elizabeth Brundage: I really like your summary, Leslie, and I hope other readers take away what you did.  I think it’s true that as life goes on we all become a little bit haunted by some of the bad things we experience in life.  We can recover and move on, but we never forget. As life happens to us, we change shape – under dramatic circumstances, we can even become a different version of our original selves.  I was interested in the old farmhouse being a kind of monument to hard times, the landmark of a terrible crime.  I suppose I’d like readers to take away whatever strikes them as meaningful.  All readers are certainly not alike.  People read certain books for different reasons.  I am always looking for something new when I read – I want to be gently enlightened by a character’s perspective or insight.  I would hope that readers empathize with Catherine, who is stuck in a bad marriage to an increasingly dangerous man and can’t seem to find her way out. The theme of loss runs through the book and I think we all experience loss in our lives, the loss of a loved one, the loss of a home or the sense of safety, the loss of our childhood selves, the loss of love – but there are also the elements of light and love that guide us forward, the beauty of nature, faith, trust, the relationships that bring us joy and keep us safe. download-3

L.L.: What’s keeping you up at night? What’s inspiring you? And hopefully it’s not ax murderers!

Elizabeth Brundage: To write fiction, you need to be a close observer of life, a keen listener.  You want to try to understand what motivates behavior.  I think it’s important to know the world of your characters, whatever world that is.  You have to know your people.  Like most writers, I am trying to reflect some aspect of the world I see around me.  People are the reason I write.  There is no shortage of interesting people out there – our lives are rich with problems and struggle – conflict – and when you come right down to it we are all just trying to get through the day.

L.L.: What did I forget to ask, but you’d like to answer?

Elizabeth Brundage: Your questions were wonderful, Leslie, and I was so happy to have the opportunity to answer them.  Thank you!!

L.L.: Elizabeth, it was such a pleasure! Thank  you so much for your time and wonderful read.

Elizabeth Brundage: My pleasure – thank you right back.

For more information, or to connect with Elizabeth Brundage on social media, please see:

elizabeth-brundage-author-photoABOUT THE AUTHOR: Elizabeth Brundage graduated from Hampshire College, attended the NYU film school, was a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, and received an MFA as well as a James Michener Award from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has taught at a variety of colleges and universities, most recently at Skidmore College, where she was visiting writer-in-residence. She lives near Albany in upstate New York.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these various social media channels:

[Cover and Author images courtesy of H. Tobin at Viking and used with permission. Cape Cod style home and Ford Country Squire station wagon retrieved from Wikipedia; winding road image from all retrieved 9.12.16].

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