From “The Stuntman’s Daughter” by Alice Blanchard

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"We passed the joint around, and as it got easier to inhale, I started noticing how the leaves seemed to be falling in slow-motion from the trees. I laughed with my mouth full of smoke. I got all caught up in the way my dark hair rested against my shoulder, like a photographic negative of snow blowing through an open door. My eyes fixed on my friend’s necklace, something I hadn’t noticed before—a tiny gold chain with a gold word at the base of her neck. Aires, gold lassoes for letters, riding her pulse. My thoughts felt about thumb-sized."

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.

 

 

NYT Review of THE BREATHTAKER

“Nothing about the delicately rendered psychological terrors of Alice Blanchard's debut novel, ''Darkness Peering,'' could have prepared us for the howling horrors of THE BREATHTAKER. Set in a region of rural Oklahoma known as Tornado Alley, this gale-force thriller charts the warped progress of a serial killer who strikes only during tornadoes and models his handiwork on their devastation. That should be enough of a charge for one book, but such is Blanchard's artistry that she whips up even more excitement by taking us joy riding with storm chasers who jump into their trucks and ride into the path of the big twisters. ''Heroin for the heartland'' is their catchphrase for storm chasing. As one enthusiast puts it, ''When you chased the wind, the ground fell away from under your feet and you were transported someplace else.''

Charlie Grover, the seasoned police chief of Promise, Okla., joins these daredevils when his 16-year-old daughter is kidnapped by the killer and driven into the eye of a majestic storm -- a plot development that satisfies genre conventions but seems superfluous in a story that gets more blood-pumping effects from its spectacular weather reporting. In truth, Blanchard writes so well that even her quiet descriptions of desolate towns and lonely people are good enough to rattle the rafters.”

By MARILYN STASIO, NY TIMES

Interview with Publishers Weekly about my novel "The Breathtaker"

Chasing Storms and Serial Killers

PW Talks with Alice Blanchard

by Melissa Mia Hall

PW: Your novel Breathtaker takes place during tornado season. Have you ever seen, or been in the path of, a tornado?

Alice Blanchard: No. I'm from New England, but my husband and I were driving cross-country to Los Angeles, and it was fascinating to see the landscape change, especially when we came to Oklahoma. Suddenly the land got so flat. It started raining buckets, and we drove past a stream that was almost up to the road, so we pulled into a gift shop and the people said there was a tornado warning. When I write, I start with some sort of image that haunts me or I'm obsessed with.

PW: What was the key image for Breathtaker?

AB: We were on a road driving between two farms. The vast expanse, the distance between the two farms, the flatness of the land, the incredible sky and then the sky slowly turning green. I also had another image that was totally unrelated, about a man who is grieving over the loss of his wife, but I kept thinking, most of us can sort of hide our grief and hold it within us, but he had these burn scars that represented some sort of pain, some loss. I like a hero who has it all out there and has to deal with it and can't run away from it.

PW: Charlie Grover, Breathtaker's police chief, is the man with the scars. What inspired you to pit him against a storm-chasing serial killer?

AB: I try to let the character become the story, rather than thinking up a story that I want to tell and then imposing it on the characters. I'm very interested when a person is confronted with something huge, when a character rises beyond what he thinks he's capable of. When someone murders, they rip through someone's life like a tornado will rip through a land and tear everything apart, so the metaphor of that is very organic to me, and that's how I put the two ideas together.

PW: Have you experienced an earthquake and thought of writing about a serial killer who only kills during earthquakes?

AB: [Laughs.] Yes, I was in the Northridge earthquake in '94. Close to the epicenter. It's very disturbing. The feelings might find their way into another story. I don't know. I like not knowing.

PW: What's more frightening: nature or man as killer?

AB: Man. Because we have a choice, to be productive and good or to be destructive and evil. It's frightening that some people choose to be destructive.

PW: What about people who feel they don't have a choice? This book's serial killer is corrupted at an early age.

AB: That's one of the things we need to address when children are abused, neglected or betrayed by parents who are supposed to be taking care of them, loving them. When we as a society allow that to go on, we reap the result. We need to find ways to educate people to prevent the cycle of violence.

PW: Is it difficult to describe gory scenes and violence?

AB: Yes. Some of the forensics are tough. I also like the idea of not glossing over murders. When you're glib about murders, you're doing a disservice because murders are horrific. We get into trouble when we don't think about the victims. When we don't think about the lives of the people who are gone, we could lose that moral line between what is good and what is evil.

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…

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“I would venture to guess that Anonymous, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” — Virginia Woolf

Yard Sale Doll

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I found this doll in a yard sale, and bought it for fifty cents.

If you squeeze her, air comes out of a tiny hole at the top of her head and she squeaks.

She’s very old and very beautiful, and it’s something about the fairytaleness of her existence that I love.

Or perhaps it’s the rabbit, or her patent leather shoes, or her serrated collar.

Her eyes are excited about life, and also innocently blank.

She makes me think about Alice in Wonderland, my namesake, and therefore of rocking-horse flies and wormholes to the Underland.

I see blue streaks on her dress and running down her back, and I think part of her used to be blue.

She stands on my desk, leaning against the wall, heels on a tray full of seashells, watching me as I work.

She is lost. She is found.

My latest on Oceano!

"El aliento de los ahogados" ("The Breath of the Drowned") presenta una historia aterrorizante, oscura, escalofriante y compleja. ¡Ya está a la venta!

 

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.

HOW TO BE A WRITER

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HOW TO BE A WRITER

Love words.

Be brave: you're going to suck.

Listen to criticism, especially when it stings.

Be humble. You have to face a blank page every morning.

Get off the internet.

If you love words, you want to paint the world with them. You love pounding out the first draft, revising, editing, polishing—all of it. If you love words, big bursts of inspiration are a pleasure. Getting lost in the weeds is a pleasure. Finding clarity after months of hard work is a real joy.

There are days when words are wooden on the page. You can either build a coffin with them or you can build a bridge.

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.

Shimmer

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

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"Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper." — Ray Bradbury

What I'm reading

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My current favorite authors are Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson, Blake Crouch, JD Salinger, Flannery O’Connor, Stephen King, Truman Capote, Gillian Flynn, Jack Kerouac, Joyce Carol Oates, Edith Wharton, Cormac McCarthy, Dennis Lehane, John Fante, Carson McCullers, Haruki Murakami, Thomas Harris, Caroline Kepnes, Raymond Carver, Vladimir Nabakov, and Tim O'Brien, to name a few.

AN EXCERPT FROM “LIFE SENTENCES” BY ALICE BLANCHARD

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“Anna and I used to cheat in Sunday School,” Daisy confessed all of a sudden. “Did you know that, Mom?”

Lily frowned. “No.”

“We never cheated in regular school or anywhere else. At least I didn’t. I can’t speak for Anna. But we cheated in Sunday School.”

“Whatever for?”

“Out of spite, I think. We couldn’t stand our teacher, Mrs. Galina. She was so dementedly happy all the time, so sickeningly Up-With-People, you know? My attitude was that she didn’t deserve our respect.”

“I don’t pretend to understand you girls.” Lily tipped her face skyward and blinked as eddying, dizzying snowflakes caught on her eyelashes. She looked like a child with her face held like that.

“I feel bad about it now,” Daisy said.

“You don’t sound like you feel bad.”

“I bumped into her one day after Anna was hospitalized for the first time. I was feeling pretty glum, and when I saw Mrs. Galina coming... I gave her such a dirty look. I wanted her to know how much I hated her. And do you know what she did?”

Lily shook her head.

“She smiled at me. She said hello. She was genuinely friendly. It shocked me. It was as if she could see right through me. She could see how miserable I was, and she didn’t care whether I hated her guts or not. She was going to like me anyway, in spite of myself.”