Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Emily Arsenault talks about What Strange Creatures, balancing humor with terror, and how writing this book as a first time parent changed her, and so much more.

 Emily Arsenault wrote her first novel in fifth grade.  Her latest, What Strange Creatures, about family bonds, love, loyalty--and murder, is a stunner. She's also the author of The Broken Teaglass, In Search of the Rose Notes, Miss Me When I'm gone, and I'm thrilled to have her on the blog. Thank you so much Emily!

A brother arrested for murder, a sister who must prove his innocence, trying to save him when her own life is in turmoil.  Where did the idea come from? What made you haunted enough by it to write a novel?

To start with, I was pretty sure I wanted to write a story about a jaded brother and sister, and I was pretty sure I wanted their relationship to have some humorous elements. In very small ways, I based them on my mom and my uncle, who live a block away from each other in the same New England town in which they grew up. (Like Theresa, my mother eats out a great deal. And like her brother Jeff, my uncle is very frugal and scavenges her doggie bags.) Of course, I couldn’t write a novel about these two simply sitting together at a kitchen table and making wisecracks. I needed for them to have a challenge that would jolt them out of their sarcastic passivity. So I threw a murder at them.

How did you find out about Margery Kempe, the medieval mystic, and how does she function in the novel?

I learned about Margery Kempe through a survey of early English lit class when I was fulfilling credits for English teaching certification years ago. I was intrigued by her unusual life—particularly the fact that she managed to convince her husband to allow her to take a vow of celibacy—and to go on pilgrimages by herself—after she’d had fourteen children with him. When I started What Strange Creatures, I knew I wanted Theresa to have kind of a quirky dissertation topic, so Margery Kempe came back to mind. It wasn’t until then that I read the entire Book of Margery Kempe (her autobiography—which she had a scribe write for her, as she was illiterate). I was happy to find some very odd stories about her life that I was eager to share with readers along the way. Additionally, I wanted Theresa to have a thesis topic somehow related to religion, so she could struggle a bit with the concept of faith. Margery Kempe gives Theresa an outlet—albeit a bizarre and at time frustrating one—for reflection during very difficult times.

For such a terrifying scenario, there is also a lot of humor in the novel. How did you balance the lighter moments with the darker ones?

That’s a good question. This is my fourth book. My first book, The Broken Teaglass, had a lot of humor in it. The two after that didn’t have all that much, and when I sat down to write What Strange Creatures, I was determined to make humor a priority again. I decided that what had prevented it in book two (In Search of the Rose Notes) and especially in book three (Miss Me When I’m Gone) was that the murder victim was too close to the narrator for anyone to have very much of a sense of humor. That is, the tragedy of the victim’s death overshadowed the tone of the book. With What Strange Creatures, I made the accused close to my narrator instead of the victim. Still a pretty grim situation, but nonetheless Theresa and her brother tend to survive tough times through humor and sarcasm. They can’t help but continue that habit even when the situation is more frightening than any they’ve ever experienced before.
What surprised you about the writing?

This was the first book I wrote as a parent. I started it when my daughter was about five months old and finished it when she was about eighteen months. I suppose what was most surprising to me about the writing this time around is that it doesn’t always need to be torturous. I had relatively short writing sessions to work with each day (or every other day), and learned to get right to work and enjoy it as an entertaining “break” from parenting rather than something to get stressed about. Writing novels is a joy and a privilege, not a burden. This is not to say it can’t sometimes be difficult, but I believe that before I had my daughter I perhaps took my writing opportunities for granted.

What’s your writing life like? Do you have rituals? Do you map your stories out or just wait for the Muse (that pesky Muse never shows up when you want him/her)?

I wouldn’t say I have rituals. I guess I have little tricks to get me through. For example, since I am a sugar addict, I sometimes reward myself with a Coke or a cookie if I’ve reached a certain word count by the end of a writing session. I do plan my stories to some extent. I usually know what I think my ending is going to be before I start writing in earnest. I don’t usually know many of the specifics of how I’ll get there. Sometimes I change my mind about the ending about two thirds or three quarters of the way through the first draft, and have to go back and do some serious rewriting. Actually, this is usually what happens for me, and it can be a painful process. Often it requires me to throw away a great deal of material. I suppose I have a Muse, but she is sort of a deadbeat Muse. She visits me about twice a year, when things are already going well anyhow.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Ghosts! I am very excited about the novel I’m working on now, as it’s more of a haunted house story than a murder story. I’ve loved ghosts stories since I was a kid. This ghost story combines the unease of new parenthood with the suspicion that one’s family is “not alone” in their home. Lately, I’ve been wasting a lot of time watching mediums and ghost-hunters on Youtube. The book also has some historical elements that are new to me, and fun to research. Parts of the book take place in 1884.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

These were such great questions—I don’t have much to add. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss What Strange Creatures!

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