By Leslie Lindsay
Diane Chamberlain skillfully weaves dual timelines in BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN, which carefully straddles the line between women’s fiction meets mystery and historical fiction.
I’ve been a longtime fan of Diane Chamberlain, so no surprise I jumped at the chance to read her her newest title, BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN (St. Martin’s Press, January 14 2019). She always takes big issues and spins them into an immersive story with all the feels.
BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN introduces two very strong, competent, and complicated young women across a dual timeline, 2018 and 1940, in small town Edenton, North Carolina.
In 2018, we meet Morgan Christopher, a 22-year old woman who has gone to prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Her dream of an art career has been put on hold–until a mysterious visitor (and her attorney) approach her with a ‘get out of jail free card,’ that she would be a fool to pass up. Her assignment: to restore an old post office mural in a sleepy southern town. Morgan doesn’t think she can do it–she’s not *that great* of an art student, and she knows nothing about art restoration, but desperate to leave prison, she accepts.
1940, North Carolina: Anna Dale, an artist from New Jersey wins a national contest from the Treasury Department’s Great Depression-era 48 State Mural Competition. Alone in the world and desperate for work, she accepts, much to the dismay of the residents of Edenton. For one, she’s an ‘outsider,’ from ‘up North,’ and two, the town already has an artist, Martin Drapple, who entered the contest, but did not win. The town holds prejudices and stereotypes, loyalties run deep, and secrets abound.
The mural is coming along. But strange images begin to appear in the wholesome mural: drops of blood from an ax, a knife in a woman’s mouth, the wheel from an Indian motorcycle. It’s dark and perplexing. And then something happens. Anna Dale is missing.
Diane Chamberlain expertly weaves these two time periods–and stories–together in a seamless whole. I loved the connection to art, small towns, conspiracies, madness, and violence.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Diane Chamberlain back to the author interview series:
Diane, welcome back. I am so taken with this story on many levels, but I really love the small-town vibe. Edenton, North Carolina is a very real place; you were inspired to write a story there after visiting. Can you tell us more about that initial visit and the seeds of inspiration for BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN?
Thank you so much for having me again, Leslie! Many years ago, I met a woman from Edenton who invited me to visit the town, telling me I was certain to “find” my next story there. While I did love the little town and its dozens of beautiful old homes and sweet waterfront, I wasn’t inspired to write about it. However, when I came up with the central idea for BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN—the painting of a post office mural in 1940—I immediately thought that Edenton would be the perfect setting. And indeed, it is.
“Chamberlain’s writing is reminiscent of a quilt made up of pieces from different people, places, and times, stitched together into a single, emotional story.”
Race relations play a very heavy role in BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN. Morgan Christopher is white, but her benefactor, Lisa Williams, is not. Nor is/was Lisa’s father, Jesse Jameson Williams. In 1940, when Anna Dale began work on the mural, race was an issue in Edenton. Can you talk a little about race relations then and now? Have there been any changes? What kind of research did you do to inform your writing?
Edenton had and still has a large African American population most of whom can trace their ancestry back to the days of slavery in the area, so race relations have been at the forefront of the town, past and present. As I started my research, I learned about a “Race Reconciliation Group” that a few people had started in the area. I contacted them, wondering if they might know of someone who could remember the area in the forties. I was invited to come to a meeting of the group, where I found 30-40 people of both races sharing the friendships that had been formed over the four-year life of the group. It was immensely touching. There were two older men in the group, African American, who were willing to let me interview them so I could understand what it had been like for Jesse to grow up in Edenton during Anna’s time. I also interviewed a white gentleman who had an encyclopedic memory of the town. I thoroughly enjoyed my research.
Really, you tackle a lot of ‘big issues’ in this book. There’s also mental illness and its connection to art. Anna Dale’s mother suffered from what you refer to as, ‘lively spells,’ and also ‘fits of melancholy.’ All along, Anna observed this in her mother. I think it’s safe to say she worried the same behaviors may befall her. What can you tell us about the connection to bipolar and art?
Psychiatric studies do show a link between bipolar disorder (particularly the manic phases) and creativity and I think that was definitely the case with Anna’s mother. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine if that’s also true of Anna.
I am intrigued with the process of art restoration. I am sure you had to do some research as you wrote BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN. What can you tell us about the process? Do you have any images of what you believe the post office mural may have looked like? How might we learn more about the Treasury Department’s Great Depression Mural Competition?
I had a great deal to learn about restoration and was lucky enough to know an art conservator in my area. She gave me an in-depth tour of her studio and the work she does. My problem was putting only enough in my story to allow the reader to “see” what Morgan is doing to the mural without making it a book about “how to restore art.” Anna’s mural is only in my imagination, as well as in the imaginations of my readers. There is quite a bit of information online about the Treasury Department’s murals, as well as several books on the WPA murals in general. Ironically, just this last year the US postal service issued post office mural forever stamps. (There may not be any left, since I think I may have bought them all!)
What three things can you not stop thinking or talking about? It doesn’t have to be literary.
1) Playing and singing with my friends in my weekly guitar circle. For most of my writing career, I had no hobby. It’s a joy now to have a few hours each week when I think of nothing other than “what song should we play next?” 2) Pilates. I’ve never been a committed exerciser and once I developed Rheumatoid Arthritis, it was even harder for me to work out. But four or five years ago I discovered Pilates—a type of exercise I can actually do and enjoy. I love it. 3) Right now, kitchen renovation. So many choices to make! So much work. So much dust!
There’s so much hard work that goes into writing. What do you find yourself doing—or contemplating–when avoiding the page? And do you have any cute dog stories?
Social Media is my downfall. I love posting on Facebook and Instagram and seeing what everyone’s up to. With the kitchen remodel, I can lose myself in Houzz and Pinterest pictures for hours. The Internet is a real productivity killer. It’s amazing how quickly time flies when you’re avoiding hard work!
Cute dog stories. . . hmm. Our Sheltie Cole is a mischievous little fellow. One night he clearly had a terrible tummy ache. We rushed him to the emergency vet, where an x-ray showed a mass in his stomach. They immediately did surgery. We’d been through that before with his brother…and with devastating results. This time, though, we were left laughing when the vet handed us a baggie full of thirty hair elastics. I now have a better lock on that bathroom drawer.
Diane, this has been delightful, as always. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
I think you did a great job! Thank you for the wonderful questions and for sharing Big Lies in a Small Town with your many readers.
Artist cover of cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow @leslielindsay1 on Instagram
For more information, to connect with Diane Chamberlain via social media, or to purchase a copy of BIG LIES SMALL TOWN, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Diane Chamberlain is the New York Times, USA Today and Sunday Times bestselling author of 26 novels published in more than twenty languages. Influenced by her former career as a social worker and psychotherapist, she writes suspenseful stories that touch both heart and mind.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012). Her work has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. She has been awarded as one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press and used with permission. Stamp images and Cole the Sheltie photo courtesy of D. Chamberlain. Image of Edenton, NC retrieved from on 11.26.19. Artist cover of cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. ollow @leslielindsay1 on Instagram]