BEAUTIFUL WICKEDNESS

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BEAUTIFUL WICKEDNESS

In the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” the Wicked Witch of the West has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams—she has a castle and everything. She even has her own damned horde of flying monkeys. She holds dominion over her dark empire.

As viewed through the lens of 1930s male-dominated Hollywood, the Wicked Witch of the West—played with scene-stealing panache by Margaret Hamilton—is pure green-skinned evil. She brandishes a broomstick like a broadsword, and the thing she cherishes above all else is her “beautiful wickedness”—in other words, her ambition, verve and drive.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the rainbow, Dorothy longs for a world where she can express herself more freely than the black-and-white society she’s trapped in, where men can succeed and women cannot.

Dorothy is plagued by self-doubt. All roads in her small Kansas town lead nowhere. Her last name is Gale, but she’s far from gale force. Instead, she sings songs about soaring beyond the clouds like the birds do. She wants to break free but doesn’t know how.

Back in the 1930s, women weren’t supposed to want freedom. They were supposed to stay at home, rear their children and cook things like smothered cabbage and mashed potato cakes. Women who wanted more than that were considered heretics or worse—they were wicked.

So, what happens when Dorothy’s dreams collide with the ambitions of the Wicked Witch of the West?

First, her house lands on the witch’s twisted sister from East Oz, killing her instantly. Then Dorothy gets the ruby slippers. But these aren’t any ordinary shoes. C’mon, look at these things—they come with their own lightning.

However, Dorothy didn’t choose these shoes. Glinda, the supposedly Good Witch, forced them on her, which immediately put a target on our hero’s back. And from that point on, “The Wizard of Oz,” is about two women fighting over a pair of shoes.

Think about that a second.

But more importantly, Dorothy finally finds a road that leads somewhere. Eventually, through a combination of luck, innocence, hard work and friendship, Dorothy outwits the Wicked Witch, who melts upon contact with water (one presumes she never bathed) and bemoans the destruction of her “beautiful wickedness.”

Dorothy is hailed a hero in the Land of Oz. Ding dong, the witch is dead!

But it’s a hollow victory. Because when Dorothy taps her heels together, as instructed, she doesn’t wish for “girl power.” She doesn’t want rainbows anymore. Instead she asks to return to her colorless world, where one assumes she won’t go looking for liberation, equality or self-fulfillment.

So what’s the lesson here? The lion found his courage. The scarecrow found his heart. The tin man found his nerve. The Wicked Witch found her doom, and Dorothy found out that there’s no place like the kitchen.

Things have changed dramatically since 1939. We don’t need glittering shoes to find our way home. We don’t need good witches and bad witches. We don’t need magic wands. The curtain has fallen, and we can see the small man behind the smoke and mirrors.

We’ve found our courage. We’ve found our heart. We’ve found our nerve. We’ve found our beautiful wickedness.

Bio: Alice Blanchard’s new psychological thriller A Breath After Drowning (Titan Books) is out now.

FANTASTIC REVIEW OF "A BREATH AFTER DROWNING" IN THE CRIME REVIEW

FANTASTIC REVIEW OF "A BREATH AFTER DROWNING" IN THE CRIME REVIEW

A BREATH AFTER DROWNING is a stand-alone novel by accomplished writer Alice Blanchard. The novel follows Dr. Kate Wolfe as everything she thought she knew about her family and her sister’s murder gets turned upside down.

I won’t give away any more plot details, as this novel is far too well-constructed to spoil. However, Blanchard does a fantastic job of creating enough twists, turns, red herrings and ambiguous clues that this novel will keep you guessing right until the killer is revealed. Like other great novels, however, you believe the entire time that you know who it is (but you keep being proven wrong)!

Part of that effect comes from the superb pacing of the story. Subtly, Blanchard ratchets up the tension in tiny increments, from an exquisite slow burn that fills you with dread, to a furiously fast pace that rivals that of action thrillers. However the shift is so gradual that you don’t notice it happening until you are frantically turning pages at the end! Blanchard has done a masterful job handling this aspect of the novel.

She has also written an incredibly strong and nuanced protagonist in Dr. Kate Wolfe. While this novel is not particularly character-focused, Blanchard has captured both the strength of Dr. Wolfe and her vulnerability. This makes her a particularly appealing, human character to follow on her journey into the secrets of her past.

A BREATH AFTER DROWNING goes from strength to strength and is well worth a read if you are a fan of well-constructed, beautifully paced psychological thrillers!

SYNOPSIS:

Sixteen years ago, child psychologist Kate Wolfe’s young sister Savannah was brutally murdered. Forced to live with the guilt of how her own selfishness put Savannah in harm’s way, Kate was at least comforted by the knowledge that the man responsible was on death row. But when she meets a retired detective who is certain that Kate’s sister was only one of many victims of a serial killer, Kate must decide whether she can face the possibility that Savannah’s murderer walks free. As she unearths disturbing family secrets in her search for the truth, she becomes sure that she has uncovered the depraved mind responsible for so much death. But as she hunts for a killer, a killer is hunting her…

HOW MY BOOK CAME TOGETHER

HOW MY BOOK CAME TOGETHER

Before I can sit down and write a 350-page novel, I need three things—a dream, a memory, and a true story that fascinates me.  Only then can the alchemy begin.

1.  The Dream:

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. 

Dreams contain an underlying truth.  What did this one mean?  I was suddenly homeless. I’d lost my identity.  An unknown force was threatening everything I held dear.  I’d been locked out of my own home—this ignited my imagination, and I became obsessed with its literary implications.

2.  The Memory:

My father was admitted to a psych ward after his first suicide attempt.  I remember visiting him there when I was sixteen years old.  The clocks in the waiting room told the wrong time, and the magazines were three years old.  Dad shuffled toward us in his pajamas and bathrobe.  He looked washed away.  His eyes were faded.  He talked to us as if he’d forgotten who we were.  As if something alien had replaced him.  This memory still haunts me, and it inspired the pivotal scene in “A Breath After Drowning” where, as a young girl, Kate visits her mother in the asylum.

3.  The True Story:

The murder of Jessica Lunsford effected me deeply.  She was a nine-year-old girl from Florida, who was murdered in 2005.  Her body was found 150 yards from her home.  She’d been buried alive.  Her death was so tragic and cruel, it filled me with anger and sadness.  I couldn’t imagine how her parents coped with such a loss, and so I gave their terrible pain to my main character. 

In my novel, “A Breath After Drowning,” child psychiatrist Kate Wolfe’s world comes crashing down when one of her young patients reveals things about Kate’s past that she shouldn’t know—things involving the murder of Kate’s sister sixteen years earlier.

In writing this book, I felt a powerful connection to Kate, a connection so strong it propelled the book forward.  She took the dream, the memory, and the true story, and she put it on her shoulders—I followed.

 

MY PARKA

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MY PARKA

When I was a little girl, I used to run away if a car pulled into our driveway.  We didn’t have many visitors.  I didn’t want to say hello.  My parents were only slightly less awkward than I was.

When I was in high school, I wore too much makeup.  My mother didn’t stop me.  “Do whatever you want,” she said.  “Just don’t tell me about it.” 

When I got too excited about something or had too many thoughts crammed into my head, I’d stop in the middle of a sentence and stare off into space. 

When I couldn’t express my feelings, I’d cross my arms and say things like, “No, that’s not what I mean,” because verbalizing things was difficult for me. 

When I was a freshman in college, my friends thought I got stoned a lot.  I didn’t.

When I was a senior, my friends thought I didn’t care about them.  I did.

When I wanted to hide, I wore a Sears parka with a fake-fur hood and synthetic padding, with low-ride jeans and cute little tops.  I wore my parka everywhere, in all kinds of weather.  Over the years, it became frayed and worn out, but I refused to get a new one because I could pull that hood over my head and become invisible.  When the hood was up, I could hide.  When the hood was down, I exhausted people with my exhausted eyes.

When I was growing up, you see, there was a wolf who would snatch the words right out of my mouth if I couldn’t articulate my thoughts at the speed of light.  A smiling, critical, judgmental wolf for whom I wasn’t good enough.  I was a sheep in a wolf’s house.

When I felt like the world was judging me, and I didn’t know who I was, why wouldn’t I hide?

When I took myself seriously, nobody else did.

When I understood this, I became a writer.

The Smell of Rotten Apples

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THE SMELL OF ROTTEN APPLES

Writer’s rituals have always intrigued me.  Stephen King starts his day by eating a piece of cheesecake.  Charles Dickens combed his hair obsessively while he wrote.  Victor Hugo wrote naked, wrapped in a blanket.  James Joyce wrote “Finnegan’s Wake” on pieces of cardboard, using crayons.  Truman Capote considered himself a “completely horizontal author” because he couldn’t write unless he was lying down. 

My favorite writer’s ritual is Friedrich von Schiller’s.  He was the pop star of his time, an 18th-century German poet and the author of Ode to Joy, which Beethoven set to music in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony.  Friedrich couldn’t write unless he smelled rotten apples.  He hid the fruit in his desk drawer and let it go bad.  His wife was appalled by the sweet stench permeating his office, and even his friend Goethe thought it was messed up.  But Schiller claimed the aroma heightened his creativity.  

I decided to conduct an experiment and see if the smell of rotten apples would be a fruitful or futile contribution to my writing process.  Here’s what happened:

Monday, April 2nd:

I buy two Cortland apples and place them in a drawer of my writing desk.  I’m excited to try this.  It feels like resurrecting a small, odd piece of history.

Wednesday, April 4th:

I open the drawer before I start writing.  The apples smell slightly sweeter. 

Thursday, April 5th:

Hm.  No change.  Same color.  I smell Graham Crackers, maybe???

Sunday, April 8th:

It’s been a week and they’re still bright red.  Still not rotten.  I don’t know what they put in apples these days—chemicals to increase their shelf-life, for sure.

Wednesday, April 10th:

I decide these apples are no good, and throw them out.  I’m buying new ones.

Thursday, April 11th:

I buy two Macintosh apples.  See how this goes.

Friday, April 12th:

A faint woodsy smell from inside the drawer. 

Sunday, April 14th:

A slight discoloration.  A sweet, cidery tang.  Now we’re talking.

Wednesday, April 17th:

This cloying fragrance pulls me east, back to my childhood… long-lost sunsets in late August when school is just over the horizon.

Friday, April 18th:

Nectar-y grainy smell.  Down by the ocean, bulrushes, seagulls.  Summers on the Cape. 

Wednesday, April 19th:

I see brown spots on both apples.  Are they shriveling?  I might be imagining the shriveling.

Thursday, April 20th:

Okay, if nostalgia has a smell, then this is it—falling leaves, Halloween pumpkins, candy corn, picking apples with my family at the local orchard. 

Tuesday, April 23rd:

Tart.  Vaguely distracting.  Maybe not Schiller-level rot yet.  I don’t think this is it—but it’s the smell of playing outdoors.  Dusty hot feet.  Large hazy moons.  Falling asleep with the windows open.  Barn owls hooting back and forth.  Crickets. 

Sunday, April 28th:

I see a pattern of bruised spots over both apples now.  Should I be worried about ants? 

Monday, April 29th:

Here we go.  Funky now, almost like tobacco.  Barn-y.  Cidery.  Reminiscent of hay dust, cow manure, and siloes of fermenting grains.  Totally Schiller-esque.

Friday, May 4th:

When I open the drawer, I’m hit with a disturbing puckery smell.  Officially offensive.  Both apples have silver-dollar-sized mushy brown spots with fissures running through them.  Like leftovers you’d find in a serial killer’s fridge.  Fuzzy baloney-ish, black banana-y.

Saturday, May 5th:

I don’t want to open the drawer.  I really don’t. 

Monday, May 7th:

I open the drawer.  Rancid pulpy smell.  I try to imagine what Schiller found so inspiring about this, because it makes me want to throw up.  And it’s spring.  I don’t want to throw up.  The dogwoods are blooming.

Tuesday, May 8th:

I’m done with this.  I’m no longer intrigued.  I throw the rotten apples away.

The Verdict:

I don’t like input when I write—I need the world to disappear.  I wear earplugs to block out sound.  I sit in a corner with no windows or sunlight.  I don’t listen to music. 

The smell of rotten apples was distracting.  It only inspired me to clean out my desk drawer with disinfectant wipes.

Centuries later, few remember Friedrich von Schiller for Ode to Joy, but people like me remember him as the rotten-apple guy.

Too bad, because in Ode to Joy, he wrote this:

Joy, joy moves the wheels

In the universal time machine.

Flowers it calls forth from their buds.

Suns from the Firmament,

Spheres it moves far out in Space,

Where our telescopes cannot reach.

 

© 2018 by Alice Blanchard

 

 

"Words count" is the opposite of "word count."

My Interview with 'Criminal Element’

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?

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"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?

 

© 2018 by Alice Blanchard

***

If you liked this, then you might like my new book “A Breath After Drowning.”

Dreams

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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.

 

© 2018 by Alice Blanchard

THE SPOT

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THE SPOT

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.

 

© 2018 by Alice Blanchard

DYSLEXIA

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DYSLEXIA

Pre-school.

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.

Elementary school.

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.

Grade school.

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.

Middle school.

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.

Junior high.

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?

High school.

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.

College.

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?”

“Fine.  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.

Today.

I’m a published author.  I still struggle.

I’m not sure what my story can teach you.

I just never gave up.

 

© 2018 by Alice Blanchard

My Interview with 'The Frumious Consortium'

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

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:

“Monkeys”

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’s Baby”

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.

“Nine Stories”

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.

“The Exorcist”

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.

“Jesus’ Son”

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.

 

© 2018 by Alice Blanchard

Shimmer

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"Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there." — Joan Didion