Photograph by Polly Grice
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.
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.
"Words count" is the opposite of "word count."
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.
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
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!
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…
“I would venture to guess that Anonymous, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” — Virginia Woolf
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.
“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.”
“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.”