Gilly Macmillan is back talking about her new book, I KNOW YOU KNOW inspired by a historical murder case in a small town, plus her fascination with true-crime podcasts

By Leslie Lindsay 

A chilling and twisty murder mystery about two murder cases twenty years apart, a present-day podcast, in this framed tale, I KNOW YOU KNOW (William Morrow/HarperCollins, September 18). Gilly is always a pleasure and she’s here chatting about how as individuals we’re always evolving; plus studying historical photos to get things ‘just right,’ and tapping into childhood imagination.

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In just three short years, New York Times bestselling author Gilly Macmillan has made quite a name for herself in suspense fiction. I was most captured for WHAT SHE KNEW (2015) but her subsequent books have been just as good—what’s more, they are wholly original and don’t seem to follow the same path. I love the literary risks she takes to remain unique, while consistently producing top-writing and thought-provoking narratives.

Cody Swift lost his two best friends twenty years ago, when he was eleven. Now, a filmmaker, he wants to get to the bottom of the truth and so has begun recording and airing a podcast, ‘Time To Tell,’ about the grim murders. But there’s new evidence brought to light: a long-dead body has been discovered in the same location as the boys were left decades beforeThe new discovery launches a new investigation. Now, John Fletcher, the original investigator reopens the case from twenty years ago. Could the two murders be linked? How?

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I KNOW YOU KNOW is told in a frame-style of storytelling; that is, we weave in and out of past and present via Cody Swift’s present-day podcast, backstory of the detectives, present-day story of the detectives, and a present-day telling of one of the mothers of the deceased boys (Jessica Paige) who had moved on, remarried, and had another child.

Overall, I found I KNOW YOU KNOW a complex, multilayered tale about failed humanity, a miscarriage of justice, and how we cope with tragedy. 

Please join me in welcoming Gilly Macmillan back to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Gilly, it’s always, always a pleasure. I was so intrigued with those first few chapters. Your writing comes across gorgeous and effortless (though it is a grim scene). Can you talk about your initial inspiration for I KNOW YOU KNOW?

Gilly Macmillan:

It’s such a pleasure for me, too, and thank you for your kind words. Two things inspired the book. The first was an historic case I read an article about. The murders of two young boys had ripped apart a tight community similar to the one in I KNOW YOU KNOW. When I researched the case further, I came across an interview with the boys’ mothers which was very moving. These two women were still mourning their children and looking for answers twenty years after the boys’ deaths.

The second thing to inspire me was my love of true crime podcasts. Very often the most powerful voices you hear on these podcasts are the families of the victims, which fed my growing interest in how families move forward after they have been shattered by an appalling crime, something I’ve explored in Jess’s character in I KNOW YOU KNOW. Additionally, the first series of Someone Knows Something, a superb Canadian podcast, was written and narrated by a man who returns to his home town to look into an unsolved case. It was very powerful hearing him revisit his childhood home after many years away and inspired me to put Cody Swift in the same situation.

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Leslie Lindsay:

You typically set your stories in the town you live, Bristol. Do the places you mention in the book—the dog track, the IKEA, the Medieval town centre really exist? And what is it like to set a story where you reside? Does it bring the narrative more to life for you?

Gilly Macmillan:

The Glenfrome Estate is fictional but everything else in I KNOW YOU KNOW is, or was, real. Bristol’s city center was badly bombed during WWII and much of its medieval heart was lost, but small pockets remain and some extraordinary buildings were saved. I live very centrally so all of these places are part of my daily landscape and it absolutely helps bring the narrative to life. I visit all the locations I write about as I’m writing to look for detail. For I KNOW YOU KNOW I also studied historic photographs to help imagine the dog track and its surroundings. For the sake of the story, some of the details of the locations might not be 100% percent accurate by the time they appear in the book, but I try to keep changes to a minimum and recreate the atmosphere of the places as closely as possible.

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Leslie Lindsay:

Oh, and these characters! They are so multilayered. I found myself wanting to know more about Jess Paige, Charlie’s mother. She has quite a backstory! And John Fletcher, the detective seemed to have quite a presence. 1) Did you find yourself more intrigued or aligned with a particular character and 2) Do you ever think maybe one of them will show up in a future book?

Gilly Macmillan:

I related to Jess’s character because of how she struggles to be a good mother. I haven’t faced the challenges she has (thank goodness!) but I think a lot about how I parent, what I get wrong, what I get right and how to do better. Exploring that struggle through Jess’s eyes, with all the hardship she’s endured, was fascinating and challenging. John Fletcher was a favorite, too. He is complex and surprising and appeared on the page almost fully formed. He intrigued me from the start. I loved writing each and every one of the characters but I haven’t imagined them beyond the covers of I KNOW YOU KNOW yet. Never say never, though!

Leslie Lindsay:

I KNOW YOU KNOW seems to be the most complex narrative you’ve written to date. What’s your process like?

Gilly Macmillan:

I think you’re right. The complexity was a huge challenge. My process is more chaotic than I would like. I start my books with the setup and a few of the characters in mind, but I don’t have much more than a broad idea of where they will end and I work out how I’m going to get there along the way. This was a particular challenge in I KNOW YOU KNOW because of the complexities of the timelines and the way the characters relate in the past and the present. I didn’t quite tear my hair out during edits but I came close at times!


“Gilly Macmillan digs in deep and gets right to the heart of her characters in this rich and engrossing novel. Vivid, smart, and propulsive, I KNOW YOU KNOW [is a] thoroughly immersive thriller of the first order.”

— Lisa Unger, New York Times bestselling author of UNDER MY SKIN


Leslie Lindsay:

As I read, a few themes came to mind: how we cope with tragedy, a miscarriage of justice, how everyone always has something to hide, and how we often seek to keep things perfect and pristine. After all, who really wants their dirty laundry aired? What do you hope your readers take away from I KNOW YOU KNOW?

Gilly Macmillan:

One thing I thought about as I was writing was how our lives change so much over the years and how many alternate possibilities there might have been for us along the way. In any one moment we are driven by a specific set of impulses: our moral compass at that time, the assumptions we make about our own lives and the lives of others and the things we have already done or had done to us. A decision we make in one instant could be very different on another day and that’s intriguing.

That pristine and perfect veneer you mention – often so painfully exaggerated by social media – tends to smooth life out in unrealistic ways. In I KNOW YOU KNOW I’ve tried to get beneath that. I wanted to challenge myself and my readers to consider how we feel about people once we get beyond our first impression of them and learn their secrets and motivations. People change and our views about them can change depending on what we know and where we are at in our own lives. This fascinates me and I hope it fascinates my readers, too.

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Leslie Lindsay:

Cody Swift wanted his childhood best friends back. Is there anything from your childhood you wish for, perhaps even little?

Gilly Macmillan:

Freedom from responsibility! I love my family and my career and I can’t imagine life without either, but the responsibility of managing both takes up so much of my time that I sometimes long for my childhood days where time seemed to stretch out forever and your imagination could roam without the daily anxieties that plague us as adults.

Leslie Lindsay:

Gilly, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but may have forgotten? 

Gilly Macmillan:

It’s been a pleasure for me, too! Thank you so much for having me. I am binge-watching Mad Men currently. I know I am very late to the game, but I’m enjoying it very much. Ozark Season 2 is next on my list. In other news, I’m very excited to be launching I KNOW YOU KNOW this fall and I’m currently editing my next novel, THE NANNY, which is a chilling psychological thriller set in an English country house with a cast of characters I absolutely adore. THE NANNY will be out in 2019!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of I KNOW YOU KNOW, please visit:

Order Links:

gillyABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gilly Macmillan is the New York Times bestselling author of What She Knew and The Perfect Girl. She trained as an art historian and worked at The Burlington Magazine and the Hayward Gallery before starting a family. Since then she’s worked as a lecturer in photography, and now writes full-time. She resides in Bristol, England.

 

 

 

 

 

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites: 

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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website. Image of Bristol rooftops as seen from library from G. Macmillian’s personal archives via website. Special thanks to WilliamMorris/HarperCollins]

 

 

T. Greenwood transforms the true-crime story that inspired Nabokov’s LOLITA in this this shattering gorgeous novel, RUST & STARDUST

By Leslie Lindsay 

Darkly brilliant imagined rendering of Florence “Sally” Horner and her mysterious disappearance in 1948 at the hands of a ‘moral abuser,’ RUST AND STARDUST glitters. She’s here chatting about her charming Golden Retriever, Phoebe, the rabbit hole of research, how she cranked out the first draft of RUST & STARDUST in only a month (and then revised for many more), and so much else.

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It’s 1948 in Camden, New Jersey when shy, lonely, awkward Florence “Sally” Horner is given a dare from a group of girls to steal something from a Woolworths. She’s desperate to join their club and so goes along with them. Just as she’s leaving the store, a man (Frank LaSalle) grabs her and catches her stealing. He says he’s with the FBI and she must go to their headquarters to confess her sins. But really, Frank LaSalle is fresh out of prison.

As the story unfolds, Frank’s lies become deeper and more brutal. Sally is scared but feels she has no way out of her situation. He takes her from Camden to the shore, Baltimore, Dallas, and California. RUST & STARDUST is a true story that has been fictionalized by the author to give it a novel appeal.

And so you wonder…the connection between this book and Nabakov’s LOLITA? The way I understand it, Nabakov was struggling with the manuscript that would eventually become LOLITA while Sally’s case was exposed in the media. It caught his attention and inspired characters in his book.

RUST & STARDUST is gritty but not obscene. Greenwood takes a gentle hand with the brutal aspects of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in the narrative. Readers get a sense of what is going on, but never is it blatant. Her words flow and glimmer and while the tale is disturbing, I felt such a soft spot for Sally and worried for her fate.

Greenwood’s research and intrigue with the case is evident in these pages, but so, too is her imagination. We ‘meet’ a colorful cast of characters, including a traveling circus at The Good Luck Motor Court in Texas as well as migrant workers in a citrus field in California. I found I simply could not put this book down. The chapters are short and told from the POV of several characters fully bringing the narrative–and Sally–to life.

Please join me in welcoming the lovely Tammy Greenwood back to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Oh, this book! It’s shattering and gorgeous and ruinous and everything else. I know you researched this story for over two years. But I have to ask—what prompted your interest?

T. Greenwood:

I was introduced to Sally Horner as a teenager when I read Lolita for the first time, though I didn’t realize it. A reference to her is embedded in one of Nabokov’s famous parentheticals: (Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?). It wasn’t until nearly twenty-five years later when I read an essay by crime writer, Sarah Weinman on Sally (and the connection to Lolita), that I encountered her again. Sally’s story, the tragedy of it, resonated with me, and I tumbled down the rabbit hole of research.

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Leslie Lindsay:

Can you lead us into your research a bit? Where did you start and how did you stop yourself from getting too entrenched and still allow the fiction to flow?

T. Greenwood:

I began by looking at every archived newspaper article I could find about the kidnapping. I also studied genealogy sites and census records to determine familial relationships and addresses and occupations of her family members. I haunted obituaries.

This novel covers a large geographical terrain; La Salle took Sally from Camden, N.J. to Atlantic City to Baltimore, then on to Dallas and eventually San Jose. In the 1970s when I was a little girl, my family often drove to Atlantic City in the summer, where I performed (singing and dancing) on the Steel Pier. I have always wanted to write about this old Atlantic City, and so the fact that Frank and Sally spent time there felt almost serendipitous to me. I did a tremendous amount of research about Camden. (I am forever indebted to a marvelous historical website) I read extensively about the neighborhood in Baltimore where she was enrolled at a Catholic School. I also studied the history of their Dallas neighborhood, discovering that the traveling circus often stayed at their trailer park when they were passing through town. I also learned about a neighboring night club which was host to a shady cast of characters at that time. And then, when I had exhausted every resource I could find, I gave myself permission to fill in the blanks. I dreamed up the rest – including several characters. I tried to stay as true to the facts that I did know, but exercised my full creative license in imagining what life must have been like for Sally during this ordeal, as well as for those she left behind.

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Leslie Lindsay: 

You chose to tell RUST & STARDUST from the POV from several characters—Sally, her sister, Susan, brother-in-law Al, her mother Ella. I like this because it gave me a sense of what was going on ‘back home,’ when Sally was in the grips of Frank. Was this telling deliberate on your part, or did it arise organically?

T. Greenwood:

At first the story belonged almost exclusively to these characters. For the first couple of drafts, I wrote around Sally. I think it was too daunting and scary to inhabit her consciousness given all that she went through. But I knew I needed to go there eventually, and when I finally did, I realized that while the narrative was kaleidoscopic, that Sally was always that bright bit of light at the center.

Leslie Lindsay:

I have an eleven-year-old daughter. I think you once mentioned that your youngest daughter was eleven when you started RUST & STARDUST. How did that affect your telling of this story?

T. Greenwood:

I think it was, in part, what drew me to her. Eleven is a magical age. It’s that odd cusp between childhood and adolescence. Everything about eleven is fragile. I wanted to capture that in Sally’s character. Of course, Sally isn’t nearly as savvy as my own twenty-first century daughter – the book opens in 1948 – but there were more similarities than differences, I think: that longing to fit in, that push and pull with her mother, that precarious innocence.

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Leslie Lindsay:

Ella, the mother of Sally…I think she had a really tough, bitter life. Not only had she been widowed twice, but she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and scraped by on her sewing and piecework. And then this awful thing happens to Sally. Can you tell us a little more about her character? Do you think she had any psychiatric issues?

T. Greenwood:

It’s important to state first that Ella’s character is fictional. I was inspired by what I knew about her (her occupation, her economic status, her having been widowed by a man who committed suicide). But everything else I gleaned solely from the multiple photographs I located of her and the brief commentary that she offered to the various reporters who interviewed her.

One of the most difficult aspects of this story for people (myself included) to understand is how Ella could have put her daughter on a bus with a stranger. And so, my biggest challenge was creating a character and a scenario in which this would be plausible.

In 2015, I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis (the symptoms of which are exactly like rheumatoid arthritis). For nearly six months, before my rheumatologist found a medication that worked, I was in crippling pain. Chronic pain is not only physically but mentally debilitating. Pain becomes, quite literally, a cage inside which you exist. I knew right away, that I wanted Ella to be inordinately preoccupied – by grief, by financial struggles, and by physical pain. It was the only way I could justify – to myself anyway – the ease with which Frank was able to snatch her child right out from under her.

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Leslie Lindsay:

I understand there’s a true crime book coming out this September about the ‘real’ LOLITA. Sarah Weinman THE REAL LOLITA: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World, Ecco]. Are you familiar with it? I so fell in love with Sally through RUST & STARDUST, I feel I’ve got to read it. Thoughts? Also, can you tell us more about that LOLITA connection?

T. Greenwood:

Yes. At the time that I read Weinman’s essay, I was unaware that she had plans to write a book-length non-fiction account of Sally’s life (and her ordeal’s influence on Nabokov). I actually found out about Weinman’s book proposal just as I preparing to submit my own for publication. I worried a little that there would be no need for two books about Sally. However, in the end, I think they are nice companion pieces. Weinman’s research is comprehensive. She interviewed surviving family members and others who knew Sally, and her book provides an ample overview of the crime. She also explores the connection between Sally’s ordeal and LOLITA as well as Nabokov’s reluctance to acknowledge this influence. But while our agendas are similar – to give a voice to this forgotten child – our respective approaches are fundamentally different. She is a journalist, and I am a novelist. THE REAL LOLITA is a work of reportage, RUST & STARDUST is not true crime, but a fictional rendering of this crime. My hope is that my work not only offers information about Sally’s life, but – through Sally – touches on the larger themes of vulnerability and abuse, of motherhood, and of survival. My goal has always been to offer the reader a glimpse inside what it must have been like for Sally and those who loved her. I would say, if you don’t want to know what happens to Sally, you might want to wait to read the factual accounts of her life until after reading the novel so as not to spoil anything.


“Greenwood’s glowing dark ruby of a novel brilliantly transforms the true crime story that inspired Nabokov’s Lolita. Shatteringly original and eloquently written, Rust and Stardust is a lot about how what we believe to be true can shape or ruin a life, and the bright lure of innocence pitted against the murk of evil. So ferociously suspenseful, I found myself holding my breath, and so gorgeous and so unsettling in all the roads it might have taken, I kept rereading pages.” 

—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World


Leslie Lindsay:

Can you tell us a bit about your writing routines and rituals? Any cute dog stories?  Mine is curled up under my desk. She thinks she’s helping…

T. Greenwood:

Mine (Phoebe – a golden retriever) is curled up next to me right now! When I am working on a book, I wake up early (5:30 or so) and after grabbing a cup of coffee go straight to my home office. I try to avoid email and social media (try being the operative word) and just begin working. I only write for a couple of hours each morning, and then have the rest of the day to do all those other things I need to do: teaching, researching or reading, and driving back and forth to my daughters’ school and the ballet studio where my oldest daughter spends most of her time. I like to write my first drafts rather quickly – usually in four to six weeks. The revision process is the agonizing and lengthy one for me. I wrote the first draft of RUST & STARDUST in a month. And then I revised it for another eighteen months.

Leslie Lindsay:

What’s on your fall reading list?

T. Greenwood:

Probably all those books I didn’t get around to this summer. I am researching a new book, which means lots of reading for that project. But I am looking forward to playing catch up: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is on my list, as is The Summer I Met Jack by Michelle Gable, The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris, and Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon. Those are just a few in an enormous, teetering stack.

Leslie Lindsay:

Tammy, it’s been a pleasure, as always. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

T. Greenwood:

Only, “What next?”! My next book,  KEEPING LUCY, will be out next August. I won’t say too much about it yet – except that it explores the lengths to which a mother will go for her child. It’s also about one woman’s staking claim to her own life. Like RUST & STARDUST it’s a period piece – this time set in 1971. The novel begins in a tony Boston suburb and ends at a roadside mermaid show in Weeki Wachee, Florida.

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of RUST & STARDUST, please visit: 

Order Links:

  • Amazon
  • Barnes & Noble
  • BAM!
  • IndieBound
  • iBooks

TAMMYABOUT THE AUTHOR: T. GREENWOOD’s novels have sold over 250,000 copies. She has received grants from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, Christopher Isherwood Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Maryland State Arts Council. Her novel Bodies of Water was a 2014 Lambda Literary Awards Finalist; Two Rivers and Grace were each named Best General Fiction Book at the San Diego Book Awards, and Where I Lost Her was a Globe and Mail bestseller in 2016. Greenwood lives with her family in San Diego.

 

 

 

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press and used with permission]. 

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Bestselling author and award-winning journalist Robert Kolker talks about the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK), the evolution of sex work, how our justice system isn’t always fighting, his forthcoming book, and more in his true-crime narrative LOST GIRLS

By Leslie Lindsay 

A PUBLISHERS WEEKLY top ten book of 2013 about an infamous Long Island serial killer (LISK).

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Award-winning investigative reporter, Robert Kolker delves into the LOST GIRLS like someone writing fiction. LOST GIRLS (Harper, 2013) is  deeply researched and backstories of all the girls (who worked as on-line escorts) are explored. For this, I found the writing very compelling and humanizing. Kolker goes back, way back, to the origins of these girls’ lives, namely foster care and other challenging situations. We see how easy it might be to fall into the throes of prostitution: drugs, drama, death, dollars…it seems like an easy way to make a buck.

That would be the first quarter or so of the book. The next half or so is about how these girls–Melissa, Maureen, Megan, Amber, Shannan go missing, end up dead. Is there a serial killer on the loose? Is it just coincidence that their bodies all wash up on the same Oak Beach shore, could it be that death is the fate of sex workers? It’s hard to say. Kolker does an exceptional job of giving a clear and unbiased portrait of each girls’ family. 

And then we dive into the forensics of the matter. There are some ‘whodunit’ moments and cast of suspects, but no one seems to be talking.

Please join  me in welcoming Bob Kolker to the blog couch as we chat about this deeply researched, yet completely unsettling, true crime tale.

Leslie Lindsay: Bob, it’s great to have you. I know LOST GIRLS is a work of nonfiction about five women connected by the same criminal investigation—a suspected serial killer (or killers) operating in Long Island from about 1996 until about 2010. What struck you about this case that you had to dive in? Is it your geographic proximity, being in Brooklyn, or something else?

Bob Kolker: Thanks, Leslie—I’m glad to have the chance to talk about LOST GIRLS.

I first learned about the five women in LOST GIRLS while covering the case of the Long Island serial killer for New York magazine in early 2011, shortly after the first four bodies were discovered along a desolate stretch of highway near the southern coast. By then, people who followed the headlines knew that the five women all connected by this case were oddly similar: petite, in their twenties, and working as escorts online. But when I started to learn more about these women’s lives, and I saw that everything that society might commonly assume about them was wrong. They weren’t social outcasts. They stayed in close touch with their families—their mothers and sisters, and, in some cases, ex-husbands and children. What they had in common, I discovered, was that they all came from parts of the country the media overlooks—poor, struggling areas where becoming a prostitute might not have been the most desirable path, yet somehow has become a valid, almost normal option. 

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What started as reporting on crime and murder became also about misogyny and class, and the shocking differences in how our criminal justice system treats the rich and poor. While I hoped the book would maintain visibility for the case, I also hoped the LOST GIRLS would help explain why these women where more than just what the media was painting them as. I wanted to find out why they felt they had to work in the shadows to survive—and to explain how the shadows sadly became the perfect place for a killer to find them.

L.L.: LOST GIRLS is such an intricate web of drugs, death, drama, and yet you find a way for readers to ‘get to know’ these girls, their families of origin, and little quirks about them. Can you tell us what your research process was like?

Bob Kolker: I’m very lucky to have had spent 17 years as a writer of feature and cover stories at New York magazine, where I got a lot of experiencing interviewing vulnerable sources for articles involving a variety of sensitive issues, including sexual abuse, the loss of family members on 9/11, and the police shooting of Sean BellIn each case, I do what I can to be sensitive and even empathetic in my reporting, while retaining the impartiality and distance that is required for responsible storytelling. That’s a challenging line to walk, but I’m grateful to have a lot of experience walking that line.

When I approached the women’s families about a book, I made it clear that I considered it my responsibility to move beyond the headlines and present complete portraits of each woman. I spent a lot of time in the hometowns of each woman, speaking to friends and relatives alike.  I kept coming back to the families in order to demonstrate that I wasn’t just doing a quick take on their lives, but really wanted to take their stories seriously.  It took a lot of time, but I’m very grateful to all of the families for their candor and trust.

“[Lost Girls‘s] sense of mastery carries over into Mr. Kolker’s lean but ductile prose. Reading this true-crime book, you’re reminded of the observation that easy reading is hard writing.
                                                                       – Dwight Garner, The New York Times

L.L.: We should back up a little and say, the women all involved were sex workers. In the late-1990s and early 2000s, the industry shifted a bit with the introduction of the Internet. Now prostitutes/call girls/escorts could lure johns anonymously through on-line ads on Craigslist and also Backpage. Since LOST GIRLS was published in 2013, how do you see that Internet sex world evolving? And do you believe the investigation would have been handled differently if the women weren’t sex workers?

Bob Kolker: You’re totally right that the Internet has revolutionized sex work. There’s no need to walk down a dark street anymore to be a sex worker, or to have a pimp, or to work for an escort service that takes most of your earnings. You don’t ever have to leave your own house. And so more women who lead more or less normal lives are often drawn into it because it promises an economic freedom they feel is unavailable to them otherwise. All five women I wrote about grew up in families where, in the social sense, prostitution was not seen as a move up. And yet for each of them, the decision felt like an entrepreneurial one: Rather than surrender their financial fate to a minimum-wage job with no benefits and no future, they decided to go into business for themselves.

Since LOST GIRLS was published, the sex work conversation has gone mainstream, with cover stories about legalizing prostitution in the New York Times Magazine and New York magazine.  I’ve seen the coverage of serial-killer cases skew more toward treating the victims as real people and not stock characters in some police procedural. And the inequities of the criminal justice system are getting a lot more attention now, from media outlets like The Marshall Project. If LOST GIRLS played some part in that, I’m of course very happy.

But to answer your question: Yes. I absolutely believe that if these women came from a different social strata, the police would have taken their disappearances more seriously and worked to find them and solve their murders more aggressively. That aspect of the mystery is, at least to me, not unsolved. It’s crystal clear.LostGirls_AF

L.L.:  There are new developments in the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK) case. In 2016, Shannan Gilbert’s younger sister killed her mother in cold-blood, it appears. The sister was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and pleaded insanity. Shannan was believed to be bipolar. Does mental illness factor in to this case at all?

Bob Kolker: I continue to follow the case closely, and while there are still no suspects, there’s always something new happening. I didn’t think I could be shocked anymore, but I certainly was brought low by Mari Gilbert’s [Shannan’s mother] murder. Mari is a major character in LOST GIRLS, which of course reflects how large she loomed in real life. She had worked so hard to get justice for her daughter Shannan, and for the police to treat all of the victims with respect and dignity. That her mentally ill daughter Sarra ended up killing her while experiencing delusions seems worse than unfair. Many have suggested that mental illness was something that Sarra shared with Shannan. I’m concerned that might be too pat an explanation for why Shannan disappeared: Just saying Shannan was crazy lets a lot of culpable people off the hook.

I’m also paying special attention to the case of James Burke, the police official in Suffolk County who was jailed recently after rising up to the department’s top spot, even though it was widely known just how jaw-droppingly corrupt he was. It seems clear that Burke worked to keep the FBI away from the LISK case, presumably because the feds were investigating him for various abuses and he didn’t want them anywhere near him. Imagine if the FBI had been able to help earlier. Maybe we’d have a suspect by now. There’s no telling what effect the corruption of the Suffolk County justice system had on this case.download (54)L.L.: There’s also the mystery of Dr. Peter Hackett, and his involvement in Shannan’s disappearance. According to the investigation, Shannan knocked in his beach cottage door demanding help. He denies this. But then he’s also called her mother offering condolences. It seems he’s hiding something. He’s since moved from Long Island and is living in Florida. It seems to me that the authorities would have their guy if bodies stopped piling up on Oak Beach now that he’s not there. But perhaps it’s not that simple?

Bob Kolker:  The police never seemed to take Hackett serious as a suspect, but he certainly seems to be at the center of the events at Oak Beach on the night of Shannan Gilbert’s disappearance. I have an exclusive interview with Hackett in LOST GIRLS, and you can see in our conversation how he seems to dissemble even when asked the simplest, most verifiable questions. I am convinced that Hackett and other neighbors at Oak Beach are hiding something important about what happened to Shannan that night. I think we’d have much to learn from what they know.

As for the overall serial killer case, I’m as astonished as anyone that the police don’t have stronger leads, though that may well be because no one took these women’s disappearances seriously when they first vanished. I’m concerned that this might be a case that’s resolved five or ten or fifteen years later after someone confesses. That seems to happen a lot in serial killer cases. But it’s terrible that the perpetrator is still out there. I hope for an arrest as soon as possible. And I also hope for a greater understanding of what made these women so vulnerable to a predator. Their case is still very much alive, and readers can keep that in mind as they sift through all the clues themselves in LOST GIRLS.

L.L.: I could ask questions all day about the case, but I want to know more about your next book, HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD about a mid-century family who has a virulent string of schizophrenia in their family. How did you stumble across this find and what message do you hope to impart?

Bob Kolker: I’ve been very privileged to be interviewing a large family about everything they went through as mental illness tore through their lives at a moment when even less was known about mental illness than is known now. This family’s case was significant enough to be studied by NIH, but no one has told their story before. Along the way, I’ll also be telling the broader story of science’s search for the causes of schizophrenia. I hope this book does a little of what LOST GIRLS did, which is to offer readers a pathway into a world not quite like their own.

L.L.: What’s obsessing you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Bob Kolker:  My family just adopted a puppy. We did it kind of on impulse, which is very unlike us. None of us have had a dog before, either, so we’re freaking out and delighted all at the same time (shhh, it’s nap time).   On the literary side, I’ve loved Megan Abbott’s YOU WILL KNOW ME and Adam Sternbergh’s THE BLINDS.

L.L.: Bob, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? What you had for breakfast, what’s on your wish list this holiday season, your favorite book, or something else?

Bob Kolker: Once I stop researching my current book, I can’t wait to read KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON by David Grann.

 

For more information about the book, to connect with Bob via social media, or to purchase a copy of LOST GIRLS, please see:

KolkerAuthorPhoto.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Kolker is the New York Times bestselling author of Lost Girls, named one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books and one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Top Ten Books of 2013. As a journalist, his work has appeared in New York magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, Oprah, and Men’s Journal. He is a National Magazine Award finalist and a recipient of the Harry Frank Guggenheim 2011 Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, here:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of R. Kolker and used with permission. PEOPLE magazine image retrieved from author’s website, girls in case retrieved from Boston Globe books in a row from Amazon, ‘reading is my superpower’ from L.Lindsay’s personal archives, all on 11.18.17] 

 

Wednesdays with Writers: The cottage at the edge of the woods, a woman leaving, abandoned Texas farmhouses, crickets, and so much more in this interview with the lovely Alexandra Burt on her new novel, THE GOOD DAUGHTER

By Leslie Lindsay

A tale of family, loss, and coming to terms with ones identity in this richly complex and well-written second novel from international bestselling author of REMEMBER MIA. 

Alexandra Burt weaves a haunting story that grips you, shakes you, and won’t let you go. As a kid, Dahlia Waller remembers being shuttled across state lines from one seedy motel to the next, never formally attending school, and always wondering why she and her mother, Memphis, seemed to be on the run.

Years later, Dahlia’s all grown and has returned to her (longest running) hometown, rural Aurora, Texas and the dilapidated farm that holds secrets upon secrets. Something’s off, something’s always been off–her mother now anxious and paranoid, agitated, and secretive. She’s always been on the brink, but why is it worse now?

Told in alternating POVs with lush, poetic writing, the story slowly unravels. Keep in mind that THE GOOD DAUGHTER is not nearly as fast-paced as Burt’s debut, REMEMBER MIA (which has just been optioned for film!) and has more of a literary, supernatural element than her earlier work.  The overarching story to be horrific and haunting. I promise, you’ll remember the sensory details, the strong prose. the-good-daughter-blue-foil-003

Join me in welcoming Alexandra Burt back to the blog couch as she chats about THE GOOD DAUGHTER and all things literary.

Leslie Lindsay: Alexandra, it’s a pleasure to welcome you back; thank you for popping over. As always, I am curious about what made you write THE GOOD DAUGHTER, now—what, if anything was haunting you?

Alexandra Burt: Thank you for having me!  I often skim papers and magazines on the lookout for inspiration. Headlines make great stories but there are also our very own lives and the stories we witness firsthand that lend themselves to crafting a narrative. THE GOOD DAUGHTER came about as I was confronted with the demise of a marriage. I was a bystander yet it had an immense impact on me. I was left with so many questions and no answers and most of all I had never heard a tale of such proportions. Imagine a middle-aged couple and a ten-plus-years marriage coming to an abrupt end. There are no red flags, no infidelity, and no disagreements on financial decisions. Out of the blue, the husband finds their house void of his wife’s belongings. There are lots of questions but no answers and he makes it his mission to get to the truth. He has to eventually concede that he knows next to nothing about her; thirteen years of marriage during which she had remained a stranger.

Whatever little contact there is sheds some light on her actions; this is not just the whim of a middle-aged woman looking to end a marriage. She is irrational and not much of her reasoning makes sense but eventually her life story unfolds and with every passing day more secrets come to light. Bombshell after bombshell explodes but most of her past remains murky at best. The husband struggles with those revelations, feels he has lived with a stranger all those years, and eventually seeks counseling. He is told that more than likely she suffers from a personality disorder or two, among it paranoia.leave

Witnessing the impact of her actions, the trail of victims she has left in her wake, I struggled with assigning blame, I bounced back and forth between judging her and absolving her from guilt—she was in no way responsible for any genetic predisposition regarding her mental health—but I questioned the choices she made that impacted people around her in a very powerful way. Not so much her husband, but her children. But then, she too was a child once and that just added to the scope of the story. To quote from the novel, Dahlia says the following about her mother:

“Before she committed a crime against me, there were crimes committed against her. And though I know one cannot understand someone else’s pain, I want to say that hers was much heavier, reached much further beneath her skin.”

I still have so many questions. How well do we know the people we love? What are they capable of? Do people show their true colors or are they putting up a front? And if actions are the result of mental limitations, are we allowed to assign guilt at all?

I’m still unsure if I should feel empathy or outrage, but I wrote THE GOOD DAUGHTER as I was attempting to put her story into some kind of order. I felt the need to have a beginning and an end, for her story to conclude itself into some sort of lesson learned and strength gained. When it was all said and done, when the story was written, there was something fathomable; my preoccupation with her life seemed less powerful, like purging ghosts that live within all of us—I ended up prepared to move on, go on, live on, give forgiveness. Her life story still haunts me and I have a feeling it will for a long time.

L.L.:  Once upon a time, the working title of THE GOOD DAUGHTER was THE KILLING JAR. After reading, I’m beginning to understand why; there’s a good amount of ‘crickets in a jar’ within the narrative. I found it deliciously creepy. Can you tell us a bit about the significance of keeping crickets in jars, and then if you could talk a bit about how and why the title was changed?

Alexandra Burt: In Texas, crickets appear like a plague of biblical proportions, come out to mate, have a noxious odor and a shrieking chirp. You can’t escape them. I’ve seen them cover entire streets, sidewalks and buildings, especially after periods of prolonged dry weather.

In the story, crickets are a symbol of the ugly parts of someone’s past that can’t be denied and the secrets we keep that keep us bound to the past. A little known fact about crickets is that they have a tendency toward cannibalism so killing a few makes things worse. In the story all secrets must be exposed or they will grow exponentially, for everything that was done in the dark must come into the light.IMG_02321.jpg

When I start a new project, there’s a title. It’s the first spark that sort of develops, the seed if you will. The initial title I had in mind was Scent Of A Crime. It then evolved into The Killing Jar. A killing jar is part of entomology, the study of insects. It is literally a glass jar in which one kills insects. The jar has a thin layer of hardened plaster of Paris on the bottom to absorb the killing agent, usually some sort of chemical like etherchloroform or ethyl acetate. The insects are killed slowly by the vapors of the chemicals. There is a subsequent process to reintroduce moisture so insects can be pinned and handled without breaking.  It is a much more elaborate process but that’s the gist of it; killing jars are one step in the preparation of pinning insects.

The title ended up being THE GOOD DAUGHTER which is just as fitting; we all strive to be good daughters, we adore our mothers and consider them infallible until we get older and we have to destroy that perfect picture and must see them for what and who they really are; human, flawed, imperfect, and damaged in their own way. In the story Dahlia has been a good daughter for a long time but she eventually must press for the secrets her mother has kept all those years. In order to move on, the past has to be exposed and put to rest.

L.L.: Does that happen often, titles changing? A writer myself, I will deliberate on the ‘perfect title’ ad nauseam, and then still wonder if it’s any good.

Alexandra Burt: Preliminary titles are a way of giving a story oxygen during a first draft, propelling it forward if you will. At the same time lots of expertise goes into cover art and titles so I understand that publishers might feel the need to change titles. A book ends up on a table with lots of other books and has to compete and seduce the reader to be picked up. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was originally titled The Kingdom by the Sea, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth was originally titled The Year of the Rose. Sometimes a story is one thing in its first draft but then develops into something different altogether. Regardless if authors change it or publishers see fit to tweak it a bit, it’s quite common and an interesting process.

L.L.: I loved the old motel, The Lark, the abandoned farm, the supernatural elements, and the present-day mystery.  Were there any real experiences or places/towns that served as the ‘real’ backdrop for THE GOOD DAUGHTER? Is Aurora, Texas an actual place, can you talk about that, please?abandoned-farm-house-near-eddy-texas-1_thumb

Alexandra Burt: Aurora is a fictional small Texas town. I live in Texas and have come across old farmhouses and buildings around rural Texas that have remained abandoned for decades. They sit undisturbed and are left to their own devices. To some, an abandoned farmhouse is just an eyesore, a building with shattered windows and boarded up doors—most people hardly give it a second thought—but there are stories left behind within those walls. Regardless if they are rooted in reality or made up, there are remnants of peoples’ lives. An abandoned building is such a metaphor for time passing, nature taking over, at the same time the building remains stuck in the past. Houses are not just bricks and wood and stucco but they are a state of being.

There was one house in particular that caught my attention. It was up for sale about a mile from where I live. It sat on two wooded acres and was built in the ‘70s. It was a whopping 5,000 square feet, almost unheard of in the ‘70s. The description went something like this: ‘Grand is what this home literally is. Nice yard of two acres, shade trees, 20′ x 40′ pool. Architectural details around every corner, must see this home to appreciate.’ By the time I ran across the listing the house was unfortunately under contract. I found out it had been vacant for decades—the owner had inherited it from his parents but had never lived there, had built a modern bungalow in a newer subdivision—he just never got around to selling it. It came up in a discussion with a friend and she told me that she had actually toured the house and that it was a time capsule; Formica, shag carpet, in-ground bathtubs. Someone’s life had literally been abandoned; appliances were still plugged in, not one fixture, not one lamp had ever been replaced. There was wood paneling, gaudy furniture and décor that hadn’t been touched in decades. I didn’t see it with my own eyes but I was told the highlight of the property was the pool. The online pictures showed it in pristine condition, cornflower blue tile and clean water. Reality belied those photographs: according to my friend the pool was filled to the brim with frogs.

What else does one do with that picture but write a novel about an old abandoned house and its former inhabitants confronting the past? [You might like this article about an abandoned Texas home]

L.L.: THE GOOD DAUGHTER felt like a mash-up of several of my favorite authors–reminiscent of Lisa Unger’s fictional town “The Hollows”(in her books, CRAZY LOVE YOU, INK & BONE, others), Elizabeth Brundage’s ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR as well as Mary Kubica’s PRETTY BABY, Lori Rader-Day’s PRETTY LITTLE THINGS with magical elements of Alice Hoffman interspersed. Bear with me; I’m getting to a question…how-–or who—influences your writing?images-14

Alexandra Burt: I love those authors! I remember reading Alice Hoffman many years back, before I even thought about writing and being completely enthralled. I’ve read all but one of the books you mentioned. I’m not sure that authors influence me, but yes, I see a commonality there. I am a huge fan of magical realism. I think I kind of see the world that way, it’s not a huge leap for me. I get some sort of tunnel vision once I work out a plot in my mind, after all, all authors tell the stories they feel compelled to tell. In the end who we are individually as writers is all we have and that’s what appears on the page. Being mentioned with the above authors is truly an honor. I hope I will always read as a reader, not as a writer. I love being swept away by a story, being consumed by it.

L.L.: Do you have any writing rituals? What does your writing space look like?

Alexandra Burt: My writing space is pretty average; I have an office with a desk, a laptop. Bookcases, a stocked bar (always comes in handy) and I write with the radio playing in the background. I try to write every day and I try to not think about my characters all the time—but I fail at both ends. Especially during the first draft, there’s no getting away from the story. The time I spend writing is minute in comparison to the time I spend thinking about it. I assign actors to my characters, I print out photographs of settings, and I collect items that the characters own, almost like a prop list in a play. I’ve mentioned obsessions, right? I have my entire novel plotted out on one sheet of paper or a dry erase board. It has to be condensed and I have to be able to take it in all at once.english-cottage-kate-winslet-cameron-diaz-library-office.jpg

Before I begin a new project, I rearrange the furniture and move my desk to a different spot. I clean the entire room, almost like a cleansing ritual to get rid of stagnant energy. It sounds very superstitious but it’s really just a spring cleaning. Out with the old, in with the new.

L.L.: Do you ever ‘write yourself into a corner?’ How can you reconcile the ideas versus the plot? That’s my biggest hurdle.

Alexandra Burt: Yes, I end up in corners all the time. Sometimes I feel trapped and I wonder if I should abandon the project altogether. There are two activities that get me out of such corners; one is walking. I walk obsessively and I believe that the forward motion propels my mind forward. Same goes for swimming; the repetitive and mindless motions allow me to focus. It’s amazing how sometimes I remain in a corner for days but then five focused minutes clear it all up. I guess the important thing isn’t how you get out of a corner but the knowledge that you do every time.

And then there are editors, those magical humans pointing us in the right direction. Worth their weight in gold, if not more.

L.L.: What do you hope readers gain from THE GOOD DAUGHTER? What would you say is the overarching message?

Alexandra Burt: To me the overarching message is that we all have to save ourselves, we can’t look for salvation by and through others. People can’t give us what they don’t have to give. If someone asks you to borrow a certain amount of money, for example, and you don’t have it, the person won’t insist. They understand the concept; you can’t give what I don’t have. The same goes for love or forgiveness. We have to save ourselves. It’s a hard lesson to learn but we must grow beyond the scars of our childhoods, and carve out our own lives.

L.L.: What’s obsessing you these days? What keeps you awake at night? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Alexandra Burt: True crimes are my obsession these days. Crimes that have people divided. Crimes that split opinions right between guilt and innocence. Seemingly average people accused of having committed atrocious crimes and the judgments we are willing to make even with limited information. There’s an unsolved crime that has had people obsessed for images-16decades and it demands I take a closer look.

L.L.: What should I have asked but may have forgotten?

Alexandra Burt: I guess you didn’t touch on the rather odd fact that the story has a witch in it? In the old days, wise women lived on the edges of their communities, making a living with
herbalism, prophecy and divination as well as healing.
In THE GOOD DAUGHTER Aella lives on the outskirts of the fictional town of Aurora. I am paying homage to the wise woman in all of us and she perfectly sums up life; there’s a price to be paid for everything. Nothing goes unnoticed, nothing will be given to you without demanding something in return. So be careful what you wish for.

For more information, or to connect with Alexandra Burt via social media, please see:

abbwABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alexandra Burt was born in a baroque German town in the East Hesse Highlands. She moved to Texas in 1993 and worked as a freelance translator. Determined to acknowledge the voice in the back of her head prompting her to break into literary translations, the union never panned out. She decided to tell her own stories.

She currently resides in Central Texas with her husband, her daughter, and two Labradors. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, a nationwide network of women crime writers.

Remember Mia is her first novel. Her second novel, THE GOOD DAUGHTER, available February 7 2017. She is currently working on her third novel.

I’d love to hear from you! Please, reach out to me, Leslie Lindsay via: 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of A. Burt and used with permission. Image of woman leaving from Seema’s blogspot, insect killing jar retrieved from Rice University Entomology blog, abandoned Texas farmhouse retrieved from, writing cottage retrieved from , all on 1.4.17]