My Interview with 'Criminal Element’
Q: You’ve taken some time off from writing, how has this hiatus shaped “A Breath After Drowning?” What made you want to write this particular story, and what did you set out to accomplish with your return to writing novels?
A: Life can knock you sideways. The main reason I took time off was that I was deeply affected by the death of my father, who took his own life. At the time, I wasn’t prepared for the effects of such a primary loss, which lasted for years. He was such a sweet, vulnerable man. Recovering from his death was like crawling out of emotional quicksand. When I write, I dig very deep, and the process stirs up pain. It’s like therapy. And sometimes you don’t want to face that pain.
Q: Describe “A Breath After Drowning” in 5 words.
A: Someone has been watching you.
Q: What are you currently reading?
A: Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge. She wrote the most amazing fiction about young women fighting darkness and corruption. Flannery developed lupus, like her father, and ended up living with her mother in Georgia where she raised peacocks. Her epiphanies about human weakness, our mistakes and dysfunctions, are some of the most enrapturing moments I’ve experienced reading books. I just love her.
Q: What draws you to writing psychological thrillers? What do you think drives their popularity?
A: I’m fascinated by the fear of the unknown. We fear the ferocity of the universe. We fear being swept away in the blink of an eye. We fear that the people we love aren’t who we think they are. Psychological thrillers give us a powerful, primal experience without having to live through it.
Q: How much do you draw on contemporary events in your writing?
A: Life is infused with contemporary events. You can’t avoid them. As a writer, I draw on my own life—that’s how I tell a story. I write from my dreams and my fears and things I’m passionate about. My fears and my dreams are contemporary.
Q: What do you hope readers will take from this novel?
A: I’m just honored if they buy my book.
Q: Give us a teaser: what’s next?
A: I’m writing a witchcraft thriller.
"What Would You Wear To Your Own Funeral?"
Here’s what I would wear.
One. My 1982 Lee straightleg jeans. Lee jeans, not Levi’s. They stretched everywhere I moved. They’re faded now, with tiny moth holes. I can barely get them over my hips. But these are the jeans I wore when my husband and I first got married and were just learning about each other.
Two. My Book Culture T-shirt. Book Culture is a bookstore on the upper East side of New York. I’ve never been there. I must go some day. My husband went there while I was home writing my new book (when you’re a writer, sometimes it seems like you never leave home). He surprised me with the T-shirt as a gift. I wear it to sleep at night. I wear it when I write. It gets stinky, but it gets softer each time I wash it. It’s as comfortable a thing as can possibly exist. I am a novelist, and I belong to the book culture. I’ll wear it to my grave.
Three. I’ll have on a black winter coat, quilted and super soft, plush and fleecy. I wore it all over London while on vacation there in the nineties. My husband and I had so much fun. We picnicked in Hampstead Heath, and a pit bull with brown spots and a broad smile ran across the entire length of the field to steal our Brie cheese, and it was so funny we let him have it. He wanted it so damned badly. He deserved it. We took pictures. We don’t have a dog. We have a picture of this dog. He will be in my coat pocket.
Four. Many years ago, my father went on a sabbatical to New Mexico, chasing his dreams. He joined an archeological dig in the desert, and after the dig, he came to visit me in Los Angeles and pulled a necklace out of his dusty backpack and gave it to me. It’s Navajo. Hand-strung. Rough pieces of turquoise. Clumps of nickel silver. Blue hearts and squash blossoms. He bought it cheap but this necklace is as precious as my memories of him.
Five. On my right ear I’ll wear a single vintage drop-dangle earring of a Victorian woman’s hand. Tarnished silver. Brass earwire. Palmistry jewelry. Just the one earring. I lost the other one at a job I hated. Actually, I lost it walking around a nondescript haunted neighborhood for an hour because I couldn’t bear to eat lunch with the lifers. Finding that earring became an obsession during my remaining days at that shitty job. I never found it. I’ve had some good jobs but also many shitty jobs in my life. Every single shitty job I’ve ever had has made me a better writer. Everything is an opportunity. To learn. To grow. To dream. To scream and write it all down. I remember when my husband gave me the earrings. I opened the pillow gift box. They were exquisite—the shiny, delicate hands. Now her hand is open, fingers outstretched, blackening, oxidized, surface-scratched, soft patina, so beautiful to me.
Six. The cheap beaded bracelet I was wearing when I met my husband for the very first time at college, and I drank too much out of nervousness and got sick to my stomach, and he held my hair while I puked in the toilet, and that’s true love.
Seven. Sunglasses. I love the idea of wearing sunglasses at a funeral. People don’t like it when you wear sunglasses, especially if they can’t see your eyes. One guy tried to kick me in the head once because I was wearing mirrored shades.
Eight. I’ll be wearing a yellow gold ring with a black onyx stone on the fourth finger of my left hand. It has an Art Deco shank and open-weave mount. My husband found it in an old mason jar filled with wood screws, washers and roofing nails. One day, while visiting his folks, he felt an impulse to rummage around in the basement, and he emptied the jar on a workbench, and out spilled the ring. Had his grandfather hidden it there? Were there other rings in other jars strewn around the old basement? We’ll never know. His parents are gone. The house is gone. But it’s my wedding ring now. It’s magical. I cherish it.
Nine. My beat-up Beatle boots. I wore them to see Patti Smith, The Ramones, The Dead Boys, X, The Pixies, The Smithereens, Til Tuesday, Rash of Stabbings, Mission of Burma, Husker Du. Heels worn down. They make a funny scraping sound when you walk. You can feel the road beneath their soles.
Ten. I’ll be holding a preserved rose flattened between two pieces of cellophane. My husband presented it to me on the morning we got married by a justice of the peace. A single cut flower. A rose bud. We put it in a vase and set it on the coffee table, and by the time the civil ceremony was finished, the rose had blossomed to full bloom in a beam of sunlight. Things like that just don’t happen—until, of course, they do.
What you wear to your own funeral is about who you really are. What you’ve done. Who you loved and were loved by.
This is a love story.
What would you wear to your funeral?
If you liked this, then you might like my new book “A Breath After Drowning.”
Before I became a writer, when I was in my teens, I loved to draw and paint in an old chicken coop my father had converted into an art studio. This is a drawing I did of a recurring dream I had. I would fly high above the city, then down into my house through an open window and into my room, where I would see myself sleeping.
Dreams inspire writing.
I grew up in a small farmhouse in the shadow of high-tension wires, surrounded by red maple woods and runoff ponds full of trembling tadpoles.
20 years later, I lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood with a single window facing an interior corridor. I had a sofa-bed and one plant. One night, I had a dream about finding a dead body immersed in one of those rust-colored ponds. When I woke up, I felt such sorrow for the dead girl, she inspired me to tell her story. She became Melissa D’Agostino, the young victim in my psychological thriller, “Darkness Peering.”
A few years later, my husband and I lived in an apartment building on the fabled Sunset Strip. We had a pool on the roof. In a dream, I had a memory of the two of us driving through Oklahoma and nearly getting caught in a tornado. We sought shelter in a fast-food joint and watched the sky turn green. In the dream, we didn’t escape--the tornado hit and tore us apart. I woke up shuddering and wrote the first chapter of my second thriller, “The Breathtaker.”
I see things more clearly through the filter of dreams.
One day at work, I discovered a small spot on my finger that concerned me, because I hadn’t noticed it before.
The spot turned out to be nothing, but before I knew it was nothing, every day I would put ointment on it and then stick a band-aid on my finger.
I bought the ointment at an independent health food store on the corner near my apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The owner of the health food store didn’t like me for some reason. He fumed whenever I came in. He was a young, serious-looking guy with a goatee.
I bought a lot of organic vegetables there. I’d been having anxiety attacks at work and was striving to improve my overall health. So my boyfriend, who later became my husband, and I made salads together every day using the organic vegetables.
The serious-looking guy never said what his deal was with me, but whenever he rang up my vegetables, he’d launch into an explanation of where the organic produce came from and then shake his head and scowl like he didn’t approve of me, presumably about something I had done. I was a good customer, so I didn’t understand. Okay, maybe I did understand—he was a dick. But he sold excellent organic produce.
It turns out that the health food store got their organic vegetables from a local farm and he wanted to make sure all his customers got a chance to buy them—not just me. I guess I bought too many organic vegetables—broccoli and lettuce and tomatoes and cucumbers, et cetera—and I was supposed to feel ashamed that I was buying too much. He was food-shaming me, even though it looked like there was plenty to go around. Surely, there were other people in the neighborhood making salads every day.
I had a boring job at a famous university. I was a staff assistant. I was twenty-eight years old. I did typing and filing and menial shit. That’s where the anxiety attacks came from.
One day at the job, we got a new photocopier. It came with an instruction manual and had a lot of stupid buttons, and I was so bored, I photocopied my hands.
Here it is. You can see the band-aid covering up the spot that turned out to be nothing.
Photograph by Polly Grice
A three-year-old, screaming, and her stern-faced mother saying, “Use your words. Find your words.” Where? How? A vortex of nano-particles choking my throat. Holding my breath until I turned blue.
A skinny dark-haired tomboy, scowling at the world.
I couldn’t spell. I inverted letters on the page. Went became want. Hole became howl. How are you? became Who are you?
I struggled to read. I trudged over to the big round reading table in a pissy mood. All my friends could recite aloud, but when it came my turn, I was quickly overwhelmed by the hieroglyphics drifting across the page.
My teacher would say, “Try again.” Ugh. I developed a stammer.
My father told me not to worry—he’d struggled with reading once, too. He showed me an illustrated book, and inspired, I wrote my own version of Alice in Wonderland. Alice follwo’d the rabbit down a howl. Bown, bown and bown she want.
Awkward and lost. A wildness in my eyes.
Deathly afraid of failing in school, I finally learned how to read by falling in love with the characters in stories. To this day, I can’t explain why or how, but suddenly I was reading everything I could get my hands on. And my imagination soared.
I hated school, but what I really hated was confinement. Dry lectures and big windows with perfect views of blue sky and green grass.
My stomachaches sometimes fooled my mother, and I’d stay home and write.
Skinny, scrawny, too much makeup caked over the eyes. Self-conscious about my K-Mart clothes.
I got my first dictionary. Right away, I looked up dyslexia.
My grandfather once wrote me a check for a million-trillion dollars, which I kept in my coat pocket until my mom made me throw it away. On our walks in the woods, he would make up stories about fairies who lived in the roots of trees. Each time I visited, he would say, “You can have any book in my house.” His books were leather-bound and dusty. He’d flip through the pages and read aloud, and I loved the sound of his voice. He gave me confidence. He made me love words.
I decided. I would write books.
And so I wrote, and when I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t breathing.
Pencil-thin, greasy long hair, distracted smile, rebellious.
I wrote essays about fruit flies and being a nonconformist.
I wandered the halls. I wanted to disappear. Everyone was rushing. Why?
A shallow-breather hiding inside my parka. Impulsive girlie-girl. Creative. Curious.
I had my core group of friends. We hung out together, majoring in alienation. We wrote and read and talked a blue streak. My first writer’s group.
A sullen Bambi lost in the forest. Not always understanding what people were saying but taking things too literally.
I attended college in the city, as far away from the woods and the barns and the cows as possible. I took drugs and drank beer and made new friends and enemies.
My father’s letters to me—meticulously handwritten—would often have words crossed out, with corrected spellings written above them. And sometimes his corrected spellings were misspelled.
I starved myself. I didn’t eat well. I wasn’t sure why. I wrote about my confusion. Cynicism was my core curriculum.
I called home, looking for assurance, full of secrets I couldn’t share with my parents. I was thoroughly down the rabbit hole. My mother and I would talk about practical things.
Then she would hand the phone to Dad.
“Hi,” he would say.
“Hi,” I would say.
“How are you?”
We no longer spoke the same language.
When the conversation was over, I’d say with relief, “I love you, Dad.”
“I love you, honey.”
I’d hang up and write about those things I couldn’t say to him—stories about love and childhood and hometown friends and things I missed and dreams I wished would come true.
I’m a published author. I still struggle.
I’m not sure what my story can teach you.
I just never gave up.
My Interview with The Frumious Consortium
Q: Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. How did “A Breath After Drowning” evolve?
A: I was haunted by the image of a mother abandoning her daughter in the waiting room of a psychiatric hospital—silver crosses draped around the young girl’s neck and rosaries wrapped around her wrists. Why? How could a mother abandon her child like that? I became obsessed with this betrayal, and it ignited my imagination.
Q: You’ve said on your website that “Dreams inspire writing.” How did you learn to translate the ephemera of dreams into the (relative) concrete of words when you were first starting?
A: Each one of my novels was inspired by a dream. Before I wrote “A Breath After Drowning,” I had a dream that my husband and I came home and couldn’t get our front door open. I slid the key into the lock but it wouldn’t turn. Inside, the phone was ringing off the hook, and I knew in my heart something horrible had happened. That dream was the seed that grew into my new novel.
Q: I really took to heart your words on How To Be A Writer, one of the first blog posts on your website. I would probably do better myself for spending less time on the Internet. Do you adhere to any particular writing regimen, disconnecting aside?
A: I wake up at four or five in the morning. There’s a narrow window of time and mood that opens and I need to jump through it or it might close again. So I sit down at my desk and start writing. If I get stuck, I follow Ernest Hemingway’s advice: “Write the truest thing you know.” That has always worked for me.
Q: Aside from writing thriller novels, you’ve also won awards for your short stories. I love your quote on marrying the sweeping scope of thrillers with the personal epiphanies of short stories in your fiction. Do you ever find yourself preferring writing one form to the other?
A: I love them both equally. But there are fundamental differences—in the short story, I’m examining my main character’s most profound moment through a microscope. With novels, I’m viewing an entire galaxy through a telescope.
Q: We usually like to ask whether an author is a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) or a plotter, but I imagine that, in order to write any sort of mystery novel convincingly, you have to plot heavily. Did you find yourself surprised, however, by any unexpected directions in the plot in “A Breath After Drowning” took outside of what you’d planned?
A: I’m both. I write an outline, but I love being surprised by what organically happens, as well. For example, in “A Breath After Drowning,” I’d planned early on for one of my characters to be deeply evil. But then, months later, another character became the villain. I love when that happens, and it happens all the time. In truth, writing fiction is a profoundly mysterious process.
Q: “A Breath After Drowning” provides an intimate look at the mental health care system from intake to outpatient, historical to present, especially for troubled adolescents. I was impressed by your research on the subject, and am curious as to your opinion of the state of mental health care in America today.
A: Allow me to answer that question more personally. My father was bipolar, and growing up with that was like riding an emotional roller coaster. It has affected my entire life and informs everything I write. But there are good therapists out there who can guide you through the pain and turmoil.
Q: What is the first book you read that made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!”
A: “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” by Joan Aiken. It inspired me to write my first novel when I was seven years old. It was a murder mystery, and it began, “It was a rainy day in Lond, England. It was raining halfway up to my ankles.” LOL.
Q: Tell us why you love your book!
A: I love the nasty dark bristles of evil juxtaposed against innocence.
BOOKS THAT OWN ME
I own a lot of books. Hundreds. Stacked on tables, crammed into bookshelves, packed away in boxes. Usually, I’ll read a book once and that’s it. Occasionally I’ll come across a book I truly love, and I will turn to it again and again. These pages are dog-eared. The jackets are missing. I don’t own these books—they own me.
Here’s a short list of my favorites:
Susan Minot wrote a book called Monkeys about growing up with lots of brothers and sisters and having a father who slowly loses his mind. The entire family dances around the elephant in the room, and the children try to fix the world for their parents but can’t. I love this book, and I love this writer. Minot’s young characters speak with the disturbing honesty of children stuck in hell.
“The Ballard of the Sad Café”
In The Ballad of the Sad Café, Southern Gothic author Carson McCullers penned a love story about an awkward, tall woman who falls in love with a short, cagey stranger. The stranger breaks her heart, makes her look like a fool, and then leaves the small town she’s stuck in forever. What’s not to love about a storyteller like that? McCullers was a fearless woman writing crazy fables of tragic love at a time when women were supposed to behave like Doris Day.
Rosemary Woodhouse is the face of all that is good in Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, one of my favorite books. She’s modern, optimistic, funny, vibrant. She loves her husband, who turns on her in the most vicious way imaginable, forcing her to become the primal mother who wields a knife to protect her child. Rosemary is everywoman, wanting life to be good for the people she loves, until she comes face to face with true evil. Instead of shrinking, she fights.
The characters in J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories can’t cope with the hypocrisy of the adult world—how we lie to ourselves, how we betray each other daily. My favorite story in this delicious collection is “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” In it, Seymour Glass is losing his mind. He went to war, and now he’s back, married to Muriel, a shallow young woman who doesn’t understand him. Seymour loves her, but that only makes his sense of isolation more painful. While his wife is preoccupied with frivolous things, Seymour sits on the beach and talks to three-year-old Sybil, who calls him “See more glass.” Seymour tells Sybil about bananafish, an allusion to his inner turmoil. It’s the story of a man who can’t contain his pain any longer, and somehow it’s funny and sweet and poignant… and the most hauntingly realistic thing I’ve ever read.
“Silence of the Lambs”
Gorgeously written by Thomas Harris, Silence of the Lambs is a chilling look at the fine line between good and evil. Clarice Starling grew up poor and struggling, but the one thing that kept her afloat was her father, a cop who believed in justice. After he died Clarice got sent away to live with relatives, where she witnessed the slaughter of the spring lambs. The death of the lambs drove Clarice to become the kind of person her dad would’ve been proud of. But it’s just the kind of psychological weakness Hannibal Lector preys on. Clarice needs his help to stop a psychotic creep from skinning more victims, and she allows Hannibal to probe her psyche, but instead of manipulating and controlling her, Hannibal comes to admire this dauntless woman. Clarice is a hero who can’t be corrupted and she outwits both monsters in the end.
William Peter Blatty’s crowning achievement is a superbly written shocker and the definitive horror novel. Great thrillers are often about ordinary people confronting evil, and never has there been a more authentically ordinary character than Chris MacNeil. Despite the fact that she’s a movie star (there’s nothing ordinary about that), she comes across as a regular person—a divorced mom and compulsive worrier who lies awake at night fearing death and… what-the-heck-is-making-that-scraping-sound-in-the-attic? When a demon possesses her daughter, Regan, Chris is forced to battle not only the supernatural, but a medical establishment that cannot help her little girl. My vote for the ultimate horror Mom.
Denis Johnson’s legendary collection of short stories is a harrowing masterwork—hypnotic snapshots of young men who use drugs to ward off the suffering they feel every day of their failed lives. Each gemlike tale is carved from Johnson’s own vivid life experiences. We are transported into a radiant world full of ravishing beauty and raw visions. Johnson’s genius is that he has us willingly embracing the transformative power of human emotions—yearning, grief, and wonder.
I love these books with all my heart.
"Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there." — Joan Didion
I collect old photographs of forgotten people. Each one comes with a flawed face. I love the mismatched smiles, the dejected eyes, the primly clasped hands. The camera captures tiny insights like a time machine.
We fear that our lives are insignificant.
I grew up in a New England farmhouse that—I swear—was haunted. The rooms breathed. The foundation was made out of crumbling stones. You could hear insects chewing into the windowsills. The narrow attic stairs pitched upwards into darkness. My sisters and I hurried past that awful door.
We fear that our lives are meaningless.
We were poor. We took one bath a week. We shared one hair-dryer. We had one phone, nailed to the hallway wall, with a long cord that stretched around the corner and into the basement. I would close the basement door behind me, sit on the top step, and tell my best friend my worst secret.
We doubt the wisdom of our choices.
In the summer, we went barefoot. We had a beautiful wildness. We shrieked with laughter and slammed screen doors. We competed to see who could hit the most black walnuts into the woods with a golf club. We wore hand-me-downs. We ran into the fields like heathens.
Nobody has it all worked out.
My father struggled to keep us afloat. His car was always in the garage getting fixed. My mother cut our hair in the kitchen. She combed my bangs, then cut them straight across with a pair of scissors, like she was hemming curtains.
We fumble along.
Here’s a picture of me. My eyes are happy bright. I look a little goofy. I didn’t feel poor.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Mysteries: Surviving a Trifecta of Traumas
A damaged woman takes on a cold case--the abduction and murder of her younger sister.
By Tom Nolan
April 6, 2018
Boston's Kate Wolfe, the 32-year-old child psychiatrist at the center of Alice Blanchard's terrifying thriller "A Breath After Drowning" (Titan, 441 pages, $14.95), endured a grim childhood. Her mother was committed to an asylum when Kate was 10--and later committed suicide. Kate's younger sister was kidnapped and murdered in a horrific way. Her father retreated into solitude soon after.
But Kate survived her "trifecta of traumas" to devote her adult life to a career helping young people negotiate similar crises--in part as a way of assuaging the guilt she still feels for having left her sister alone the night she was abducted. It is all the more distressing, then, when an emotionally vulnerable teenage patient hangs herself as soon as Kate prepares to leave on a long-deferred vacation. "None of this was your fault," her old mentor tells her. "Sometimes the darkness takes over." In this case, the darkness won't let go. At her patient's funeral, Kate encounters Palmer Dyson, a retired police detective from her hometown back in New Hampshire. Palmer shares his doubts that the man convicted of killing Kate's sister--and soon to be executed--is actually guilty. After meeting the condemned man, Kate begins to have doubts of her own. It could be that the real killer is still at large.
With the ex-cop's guidance, Kate is soon acting like a detective in her own right: poring through old police files, considering alternative scenarios and using her psychiatric training to deduce the identity of someone Palmer is convinced is an undetected serial killer.
Bizarre coincidences and shocking revelations concerning former neighbors and Kate's own family members, as well as the murder of the mother of another one of her patients, cause Kate to question her own hard-earned sanity. But she'll need all her wits about her, and then some, to eventually do battle with one of the most memorable genre villains since Hannibal Lecter.
"Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper." — Ray Bradbury