By Leslie Lindsay
Deeply compelling and highly disturbing at times, GOODNIGHT STRANGER is a suspenseful literary thriller with themes of grief, love, and human behavior.
This is one of those books that is as eerie as moving, for me, and also has a bit of magical realism/suspended belief that may excite and intrigue. As a debut, GOODNIGHT STRANGER (Park Row Books, July 30) is darn good.
Lydia and her brother, Lucas live in their family’s ramshackle home on fictional Wolf Island (just off Cape Cod) and while they are adults, they haven’t exactly ‘launched.’ Lydia is 28 years old when the story begins and she’s a college dropout with dreams of going back. She left Brown when her mother became ill. Her brother is a bit ‘different’ in the way he sees the world. Pathologically shy, Lucas spends his time doing odd jobs and living in the home shadowed by past events. And ghosts.
Lucas and Lydia are the two remaining children of triplets. The other child, who is referred to as ‘Baby B,’ died tragically as an infant. When Lydia sees a stranger step off the ferry one day, she is immediately drawn to him. Lucas is convinced this man, who calls himself Cole, is the reincarnation of their baby brother, Baby B. Cole somehow knows inside information about Lydia and Lucas, shares some of the same mannerisms. Could he actually be the reincarnation of this brother, one they never even really knew because he was only months old when he died?
Lydia is doubtful but continues a friendship with Cole while simultaneously doing her own research into who he might really be. The story takes us from the small island to the Cape and to Vermont where other, darker truths lie.
There were several gasp-out-loud moments for me, and I was super-intrigued with this concept of reincarnation. GOODNIGHT STRANGER is a well-written literary suspense about the power of grief and love, regrets and anxiety, loneliness, and the darker side of human behavior.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Miciah Bay Gault to the author interview series:
Miciah, I was so enraptured by these opening pages. As a writer myself, I’ve been thinking a lot about those illusive first 50 pages—which is really about beginnings—so what pulled you into this story? Why now? And what’s your take—in general—on the ‘first fifty?’
Miciah Bay Gault:
Thanks so much for all of this, Leslie. I love your summary of the book. And I agree those first fifty pages have such weight, don’t they? I worked really hard on the “first fifty,” trying to set up some of the major questions of the book, the mysteries, without moving too quickly and losing readers. I also needed to introduce readers to Lydia and Lucas, and to the island itself. I wanted the sensory experience of Wolf Island to start right away. I spent a lot of time writing and rewriting my descriptions of Cole, his small actions and his dialogue too, because I wanted readers to see him as I see him: charismatic, charming, but also controlling, intense. I wanted readers to sense danger when he entered the scene, but to not quite understand where it was coming from.
A couple years ago I was lucky enough to have the novelist Julianna Baggot as a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the MFA in Writing & Publishing program where I still teach. Julianna is like a force of nature: so smart and insightful. She looked at the opening pages of my manuscript, and suggested I try summing up the entire book in my first line. At first I resisted, because I couldn’t imagine summarizing GOODNIGHT STRANGER without including spoilers! But then I gave it a try, and I actually loved what I ended up with. It just seems magical to be able to sum up the entire book in the first line(s) without actually giving anything away. So that’s how I ended up with my opening:
“Baby B was our brother, and he’d been dead all our lives. For a long time I thought I’d see him again, but by the time I was twenty-eight, I believed that the dead stay dead. I knew that the space he left in our lives would have to be filled in other ways.”
And those first fifty? I’m guessing they went through close to one hundred revisions all told.
And then there’s this comforting, but slightly eerie concept of reincarnation. This is a pretty heady theme to weave into a debut. What is your understanding and stand on the topic?
Miciah Bay Gault:
Good and complicated question, Leslie! I’m not a religious person, but I’m interested in all belief systems, especially the narratives and mythologies of different religions, which I often find beautiful and haunting. I wasn’t raised with religion, but I consider my mom a spiritual person: she meditates every day, has a rich relationship with nature, and practices kindness and empathy.
My mom and her friends who are mostly just turning 70 now, were part of the New Age cultural movement, a term I don’t love because it feels reductive. I really admire the way that generation of women—a certain subculture, at least—committed to examining their own psychology, archetypal experiences, and spirituality. Reincarnation was one avenue of exploration.
I guess the easiest way to say it is that I’m agnostic about reincarnation, both as a tenet of many Indian religions, and as a western new-age concept of exploration. It’s a beautiful and fascinating idea.
I found the setting of GOODNIGHT STRANGER so atmospheric, wholly enveloping. I swear I could taste the salt water on my lips and feel the dampness of the gray November days. I understand you grew up partially on Cape Cod. How much does setting inform your writing? Do you see it as a sort of character?
Miciah Bay Gault:
I love that, Leslie. I hope everyone feels saltwater on their lips while reading GOODNIGHT STRANGER. I’m not sure I would call the setting a character, but I think you ask that question because you’re really astutely pointing out how setting is kind of inescapably tied to character. In fiction, characters are not only influenced and formed by their setting, often the plot unfolds because of how the characters respond to or push against their setting. And in some ways the language available to us is tied to the imagery and metaphors of that fiction’s particular setting. Not to mention mood! Setting makes mood, and the mood helps readers know how to approach a novel.
I did grow up in part on Cape Cod. We moved there when I was thirteen, the summer before I started high school. When we moved to the Cape, I felt home, despite the fact that I’d had many homes in many different states already. I think of myself at that age as very receptive, searching for identity. When I read in a high school English class about Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball I had the lovely, adolescent belief that he was describing me, my experience, although I was open to all aspects of my new setting, not just Nature. I was very influenced by the smells and tastes, the colors and textures of the Cape. The sensory imprint of the place definitely made its way fully into GOODNIGHT STRANGER.
Wolf Island is super important in the novel, not just an aspect of character development, but an important part of the plot. Several plot turns hinge on the ferry that runs between the island and the mainland. And Lydia’s complicated relationship with her home—she adores Wolf Island at the same time that she feels trapped there—is deepened by the fact of it being an island. In some ways she is literally trapped there.
Just recently, I had been doing some reading about the differences between literary fiction and genre fiction. It can be a little hair-splitting at times. My sense is ‘literary fiction’ is more about character and voice and less about plot, but that’s still important, too. There’s also the unique and gorgeous way of using words that tend to be more ‘literary.’ Where do you sit on that discussion? What genre would you consider GOODNIGHT STRANGER?
Miciah Bay Gault:
It’s funny because I definitely wasn’t trying to write a book in a genre. I just didn’t think of it in terms of genre. I had two goals for my book: I wanted to write a book that would make my writing teachers proud of me. And I wanted to write a book that readers couldn’t put down. So I did work really hard to write a book that would keep readers turning pages, and at the heart of my book there’s mystery, and a sense of danger, so we’ve been calling the book “literary suspense” or “literary thriller” which makes sense, but is almost accidental. I didn’t mean to write a literary thriller!
I think of pure genre books as following a kind of formula, following a lot of rules. This isn’t a criticism. Writing that follows the rules can still be pretty brilliant—I mean think of a sonnet! But literary fiction doesn’t follow the rules of genre—although more and more frequently literary fiction borrows from genre writing and the result is really exciting.
To give an example, I just finished The Changeling by Victor LaValle, an amazing book that’s really hard to categorize. It’s literary, in that there’s exquisite attention paid to the characters, setting, and sentence level writing, and the themes are large and complicated. But the book also borrows from horror, and folk/fairy tale. The result is astonishing.
Another great example is The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry, a literary speculative detective novel. The book borrows from and pushes against detective novel tropes, and it’s just thrilling to experience the result. A completely charming and delightful book.
“Quietly chilling…A suspenseful meditation on the many ways in which the past, consciously or not, shapes the present, the novel flirts with fantasy but ultimately stays grounded in the elemental realities of wind, tides, and the eroding foundations of memory.”
As a first-time novelist, I am always interested in process, specifically your road to publication. It’s grueling! Can you walk us through?
Miciah Bay Gault:
A few years ago I had an essay published in Tin House. It was the highest profile lit mag I’d been published in, and I thought: maybe an agent will read the issue of Tin House and see my work. So I wrote in my bio “Miciah Bay Gault is writing her first novel” or something like that—just wanting to throw that out into the world in case my ideal agent happened to read the issue.
And it worked! An agent saw my essay, read in my bio that I was writing my first novel, and emailed to ask about the manuscript. I happened to be in labor with my youngest child when I got the email, so I know that this was exactly 6 years ago. I got back to her immediately (well, when I returned from the birthing center!) and that was the beginning of my relationship with my agent, Jenni Ferrari-Adler from Union Literary. We decided to work together even though the manuscript wasn’t ready to send out yet. Her feedback was invaluable, and I’m so grateful that we began our relationship even before the manuscript was fully formed.
When we were sure it was ready, Jenni sent the manuscript out widely and… it didn’t sell. Devastating! This had been my dream for as long as I could remember, and I was so scared that this was the end, that it meant I would never “make it” as a writer. But a few kind editors had given really thorough feedback and invited me to resubmit once I’d revised. I remember Jenni encouraging me to revise, saying, “Every writer has their own story about how their book comes into the world. This could be yours.” So we worked on the book for another two years, concentrating mainly on narrative tension. Those two years of revision were a lot of work, and a lot of doubt and fear. But what can you do? If you’re a writer you keep writing.
We sent it out again, and this time it found the perfect editor, Laura Brown at Park Row Books. I’d just met Laura at AWP the week before she read my book, and I knew I loved her. So when she made an offer on the book, I was thrilled.
All in all, I worked on this book for fifteen years before holding a finished copy in my hands.
As I read, I found some similarities to between GOODNIGHT STRANGER and THE CHILD IN TIME (Ian McEwan) meets MY DARLING DAUGHTER (Margaret Leroy) with a touch of THE BOBCAT (Katherine Forbes Riley), with a bit of Diane Chamberlain’s earlier works (especially those set on water) and maybe a bit of Anita Shreve. What—or whom—influences your writing?
Miciah Bay Gault:
A lot of my favorite writers are short story writers: John Cheever, Kelly Link, George Saunders. These three writers share a kind of lyricism I’m inspired by, and a strangeness/darkness that just thrills me. I also think they’re brilliant in terms of structure—the shape of their short stories is just beautiful.
But because I’ve loved and been inspired by short story writers, I found myself a little unanchored when it came to writing a novel. When I was trying to understand narrative tension in GOODNIGHT STRANGER, I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, James Scott’s The Kept, and Rebecca Makkai’s Hundred Year House.
Over the years I’ve been very influenced by Wilkie Collins, who was a contemporary of Dickens. His most famous books are The Woman in White and The Moonstone, which are just this delicious mix of pulp and gothic thrills. He tells his stories by collaging together narratives from various points of view with newspaper articles, diary entries, and other fictional documents.
(Also I’ve added the books you’ve mentioned to my reading list! Thanks!)
Miciah, this has been so informative and enlightening. Thank you! Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Miciah Bay Gault:
I love all your questions, Leslie. Thank you!
For more information, to connect with Miciah Bay Gault on social media, or to purchase a copy of GOODNIGHT STRANGER, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Miciah Bay Gault grew up on Sanibel Island, Cape Cod, and other places by the sea. A graduate of the Syracuse MFA program, she now teaches in the MFA in Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is the coordinator of the Vermont Book Award. Goodnight Stranger is her first book.
Goodnight Stranger is on the long list for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Cosmopolitan says it’s “one of the best literary thrillers you’ll read this year.” It was named one of the 10 smartest beach reads of 2019 by BBC Culture, as well as a must-read crime title by Book Riot, and Elle Canada says it’s the book to bring on your summer road trip.
Miciah’s fiction and essays have appeared in The New York Times’ Modern Love column, Tin House, LitHub, Electric Literature, Salon.com, The Sun, The Southern Review, Agni, The Literary Review, and the anthology Contemporary Vermont Fiction (Green Writers Press, 2014). She’s the recipient of a Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant.
Miciah was the editor of the literary journal Hunger Mountain for 9 years. Before that she was a high school English teacher, a swing dance instructor, a barista, and a nanny. Currently obsessed with snowflakes, luck, and Shirley Jackson, Miciah lives in Montpelier, VT with her husband and three children.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website on 9.3.19. Artistic book cover image designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow me on Instagram for more like this].