Writers on Wednesday: The challenge in developing empathy and rendering complex characters, the allure & mystery of lake water, a 1930s Minnesota cabin, decades-old mystery, and so much more in Heather Young’s THE LOST GIRLS

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By Leslie Lindsay

It was the lake house in Minnesota that drew me to THE LOST GIRLS (William Morrow/Harper Collins, July 2016), the spellbinding debut from highly talented debut novelist Heather Young. Having lived in Minnesota briefly as a newlywed and then new mother, I eagerly dove into a narrative about the place I called home, about a place that shaped my early adulthood. In that sense, THE LOST GIRLS was wonderfully atmospheric, I felt the strong to-your-bones frigid winds whipping at my face, saw the thick, opaque ice forming over the lake, and felt the goose flesh on my arms as I imagined the faulty seals on the windows in that lake cottage.

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In the summer of 1935, six-year-old Emily Evans vanishes from her family’s vacation home on a remote Minnesota lake. Her disappearance destroys her mother, who spends the rest of her life at the lake house, hoping in vain that her favorite daughter will walk out of the woods. Sixty years later, Lucy, the quiet and watchful middle sister, lives in the lake house alone. Before she dies, she writes a story of that devastating summer in a notebook she leaves, along with the house.

And then we meet Justine, the grand-niece of Lucy who has recently been gifted the lake house in Lucy’s will. Ready for a change—or perhaps running from her past—Justine flees California for Minnesota, what results is the bifurcated narrative of two storylines, two time periods, yet one family trying to piece together the past.

Young writes with a skilled hand. Her prose is lyrical, haunting, and atmospheric. It’s ultimately a tale of sisters, the price of loyalty, secrets, and coming-of-age.

Grab a cup of coffee and sit a spell. Perhaps wrap yourself in that musty throw from the lake house and watch the waves crash along the frigid shore as we welcome Heather Young to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: Heather, I am thrilled you could stop by. I’m curious what was haunting you when you decided to write the story of Emily’s disappearance. Was it a single event, place, or something else that propelled the story?

Heather Young: Thank you for having me, Leslie! I’m happy to sit a spell. What haunted me when I wrote this book wasn’t the disappearance of a little girl, terrifying though that idea is to me as a mother. It was the relationships among her family, especially between her two sisters, 19A-Little-Winnie-Resort-cabin-1930s.tiff.jpgand how the secret of what happened to her slowly destroyed them all. I find family dynamics fascinating, and I wanted to write a story about a family whose bonds, already fraught, are placed in a crucible of loyalty, betrayal, regret, and unhealthy love, and explore how that plays out over decades.

L.L.: Let’s talk about water for a moment. There’s something so life-giving, yet tumultuous and mysterious about water.  It is at once life-giving and primal, yet disaster lurks. Can you talk about that, please?

Heather Young: I’ve always been fascinated by water, especially lake water. When I was a girl, my family spent a month each summer at a lake in northern Minnesota. It was very deep, and though its water was so clean you could drink it, its depth made it look nearly black. At its edges it was a place to play and swim, but at its heart it was so melancholy and full of secrets it felt as if it were alive. I loved the idea of setting a story beside a lake like that, that could become almost a character in itself.

“[T]he delicacy of [Young’s] writing elevates the drama and gives her two central characters depth and backbone…For all the beauty of Young’s writing, her novel is a dark one, full of pain and loss. And the murder mystery that drives it is as shocking as anything you’re likely to read for a good long while.”
— The New York Times Book Review

L.L.: In many respects, THE LOST GIRLS is a family saga spanning a least three generations and sixty years. Each character is sort of haunted by the disappearance of Emily, but for different reasons. Did these characters come to you fully formed, or did they require some careful crafting?

Heather Young: Since this is my first novel, there was a steep learning curve in everything, but especially character. Initially, every character was flat, defined by the one or two traits I needed them to have to service the plot. Yet when I read, I’m drawn to stories with complex characters, so my inability to create characters like that was frustrating. Eventually, I came to see that every character has a personal and specific point of view that needs to be honored. Once I began to honor that point of view, I was able to empathize with them — even pity them — and that helped me shade them in ways that made them more complicated and, hopefully, interesting.

L.L.: …And now I have to ask if there was any one character you had a particular affinity for? I know, a tough question!

Heather Young: It is a tough question! I love all my characters, but if I had to pick one, it would be Melanie, Justine’s ten year old daughter. She has a quiet strength about her, and bears her fear and loneliness with dignity and a complete absence of self-pity. She’s taciturn and prickly and fierce and very hard to love, but, unlike the generations who came before her, she will never find her life diminished by an inability to save herself. So I think she’s pretty cool.

L.L.: As a title, THE LOST GIRLS encompasses so much and has multiple meanings. Of course, the obvious is that Emily is missing, but there are others who have sort of lost their way. Can you speak to this, please?

Heather Young: It’s true, there are many “lost girls” in this story. Emily’s sisters, Lucy and Lilith, spend their lives at the lake where Emily vanishes, surrendering dreams of adventure and quieter hopes of love and family. Lilith’s daughter Maurie is lost in a more literal sense, wandering from town to town looking for the gilded life she thinks she’s owed. Maurie’s daughter Justine is so emotionally stunted she can’t connect with anyone, even her own children. However, even though the book is in many ways a meditation on loss, some of these lost girls do manage to be “found” in the end.images-1

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from this story?

Heather Young: Well, mostly I hope they love it and tell all their friends to read it! But more seriously, I hope it makes them think about their relationships with their own family, and about how those relationships cast shadows, for good and for bad, into the generations that come after.

L.L.: Switching gears a bit, I understand you are a former lawyer-turned-writer. How did your earlier career prepare you for that of a novelist?

Heather Young: When I first started writing, I thought my only relevant lawyerly skill was the ability to string coherent sentences together. Then I realized there was another skill I’d been cultivating all those years. As a lawyer, your job is to tell your client’s story. Usually, that means telling a story that makes a deeply flawed person relatable, and maybe even forgivable. It’s excellent training for being a novelist.

L.L.: What’s obsessing you nowadays? What’s captured your interest?


Heather Young:
At the risk of dragging this lovely literary discussion sideways into the muck, I’m obsessed with politics and the presidential election[…]It just seems that there’s so much at stake this time around. I [traveled]  to get out the vote in a swing state [yesterday], so at least I’m putting my obsession to work!

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

Heather Young: You didn’t ask who should play my characters in the movie! But that’s okay, because (1) there is no movie, and (2) I have no idea who should play them. I think that’s because the characters are so specific inside my head that no living person resembles them. So I guess it’s just as well Hollywood hasn’t come calling.

L.L.: Heather, it’s been a pleasure connecting! Best wishes and thanks for chatting.

Heather Young: It’s been my pleasure as well! Thank you for having me.

Heather Young (1).jpgAbout the Author: Heather Young lives just outside San Francisco with her two teenaged children and her husband. When she’s not writing, she loves biking, hiking, skiing, and reading books she wishes she’d written. THE LOST GIRLS is her first novel.

Connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, here:

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[Special thanks to L. Truskowski at HarperCollins/William Morrow. Cover and author image courtesy of HarperCollins. 1930s lake cabin retrieved from on 10.22.16, Lake Clearwater, Minnesota image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, also on 10.22.16]

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