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.
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.
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.
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 ether, chloroform 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?
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?
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.
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 decades 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:
ABOUT 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.
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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]