Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Jenny Milchman talks about AS NIGHT FALLS, acknowledgement pages, prison research, and more

Two desperate escapees from prison. A secluded house with a family and secrets. Both collide in Jenny Milchman's tense, nervy new novel, As Night Falls.  She is also the author of Ruin Falls and Cover of Snow, which won  the 2013 Mary Higgins Clark Award for best suspense novel of the year. I'm honored to have her here. Thank you, Jenny!

This novel is really like the threat of a razor against your throat--tight, suspenseful and terrifying. What sparked the idea? (I always think there is something that haunts an author and leads to a book.)

I do, too, Caroline—I call those genesis novels. Ones that have a clear creation story. I’m writing one now, in fact—my fourth book. It came to me at such a distinct moment in time, with such a specific trajectory, that I get goosebumps when I imagine telling the story-behind-the-story on tour. And actually, come to think of it, I know the origins of both my other published novels as well.

But not As Night Falls. This book is an enigma to me, and always has been. I can’t remember when or why I began telling the story to myself—a process that has to take place before I sit down to write. I have no idea how those two prisoners appeared to me, and still less how I came up with the reason they would invade my heroine’s home.

Here’s what I do know: This book seemed to write itself. Scene after scene, like a row of dominos, falling into place. It felt effortless. (Well, until the revising anyway. But that’s for another question). Although the story takes place in one night—about eight hours—there is a novel-within-the-novel that flashes back four decades before catching up to the present day at the end. And I was deeply inspired by one book when fashioning this part of the novel: Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

I was working as a psychotherapist when I read Shriver’s Orange prize winning tale, and I specialized in treating children. I remember feeling that Shriver got the process so exactly right—she brought to fictional life a dynamic I was seeing again and again in reality. In short, kids look to parents to put a lid on their natural aggressive impulses, and when parents turn a blind eye—for various reasons—that aggression will escalate. With As Night Falls, I wanted to write about a similar family structure—but one that would, arguably, have a happier ending.

And that is my—I hope not too frustrating—answer for how the story came to me!

Please tell us what the research was like? What surprised you?

I was lucky to be teaching at the time with an author I deeply respect, Les Edgerton. Les has an incredible grasp of story structure—and a dark, gritty voice—but I turned to him for help with neither of those things while writing As Night Falls. Instead, I asked Les to make sure I got my prison details right. That was the bulk of the research I did, since I knew about my heroine’s psychotherapy career from personal experience, and as I mentioned, most of the rest of the book just seemed to appear out of the ether. But I did want to make sure I didn’t put forth either a stereotyped or unrealistic portrayal of what it was like to be a convict.

What surprised me? That prisoners and guards usually maintain a balance of respect while inside. I thought I had this relationship down pat—hey, I read Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” a hundred times like every other writer. (Wait, has every other reader read that novella a hundred times?) But in most cases, apparently, the guards are not abusive, and they know that behaving aggressively will only cause a state of unrest that makes their job harder. I had to go back and do some rewriting when I learned that!

So much of the book is really about our strengths, what makes someone strong, and what reservoirs we sometimes find inside of us and how we use--or misuse those. Could you talk about that please?

I think you hit upon a theme in all my books, and one that comes from the very depths of me. To a certain extent, every character I write is a terrified kindergartener, getting dragged along the street by a bully. Or an ostracized sixth grader, afraid to speak up, let alone fight back. All of my protagonists come from places of weakness at the beginning.

And what does such a person do when catapulted into a situation that threatens everything she’s now come to have? What lengths will she go to, which pinnacles will she reach?

One criticism I fear being made of my work—although it hasn’t happened yet—is that it falls into something of a Disnified trap. Might doesn’t make right in my books. The scales of justice can balance as a character approaches her own version of happily ever after.

Because isn’t that a world we’d all like to live in, if we could? There are authors whose work I respect enormously because they are able to face in their fiction the lack of closure we live with day to day. I marvel at these writers’ bravery—as great as any my protagonists possess. That isn’t the place I want to go to for the length of time and depth of commitment it takes to write a novel, however. In my books, the mice can speak, if not dance and sing. The trapped princesses go free.

I don’t want to oversimplify because another dimension I feel compelled to explore is the fact that each villain is the hero of his or her own story. My bad guys have virtues, or at least reasons; my good guys have flaws. But the fact that in the books there are good and bad guys speaks to what you’re getting at, I think. What makes someone strong in a Jenny Milchman novel? It’s less genetics or environment or past experience or intention or any of a dozen other sources, and more this: they deserve to find strength.

I also want to talk about your stunner of an ending. How did that come to you? Especially that killer of a last line.There’s the climactic sequence, which was really an action scene to write. To me it felt inevitable—things had to go that way from the moment Sandy faced two prisoners entering her home that night. Things probably had to go that way from the moment Sandy was born. I don’t know that this sequence necessarily followed the right succession of events, or the best one. Only by a rather bizarre reckoning could the ending of As Night Falls be considered wholly happy. But I do think it was inevitable; at least, I couldn’t envision a more fitting alternative.

And then there’s what I think of as more of a denouement or epilogue. It’s told from a secondary character’s point of view, although this person is the source of the whole story in a way. She’s watching the main characters at a distance, seeing where they wound up.

When I was in the thick of writing As Night Falls, I woke up in the middle of the night, and wrote that entire epilogue scene down on a few scraps of paper. It changed a fair amount in the rewriting, but the essence of that ending was captured at 3 a.m. one morning. And the last line of it stayed exactly as jotted down.

I think the line may have the most resonance for people who have read all three of my books and have come to know the fictional Adirondack town in which they are set. In Wedeskyull, winter closes in like a claw and doesn’t release its grip for a long time. In As Night Falls, the weather becomes one domino in the row that causes everything to fall. And in the final line, the weather is a metaphor for the fact that no matter how ghastly things may get, the sun does come out and shine, however briefly.

There also are some surprising (and heartbreaking) revelations about family, how a mother shapes a son, how a sister grapples with a damaged brother. Do you think family can heal as much as it hurts?

I think family is probably the healing property of life—but I don’t necessarily mean the families we are born with. There are also the families we construct. Those families may include spouses, partners, children. They may include aging parents or parental figures who need care. They may be made up entirely of fur babies, beloved pets. They may be our students if we’re teachers, our patients if we’re nurses or therapists or physicians or PA’s, our troop members if we’re Girl Scout leaders, the people we encounter as volunteers at a soup kitchen or shelter, or as members of a church or temple or mosque. The possibilities for family are endless, and by being around them, yes, I do believe we can heal. Ourselves and others.

In As Night Falls, Sandy has created a new family because the one she came from was so annihilating, so damaging. And when that new family is threatened, it’s the one thing Sandy can’t stand to lose. In a way, she’s escaped her family of origin, but she hasn’t really. It still has the power to fell her, to suck her down. Only by becoming strong enough to save her husband and daughter can Sandy fully inhabit the life she has built versus the one she was given.

And we all have the power to do that—it just may happen in less dramatic ways.

This might seem like a weird question, but I always read acknowledgement pages and yours, at seven pages long, was fascinating. Not only did you give us a window into your life, but there was such a generous spirit, especially to other writers. (“Writers need writers,” you write, and they do indeed.) Can you talk about all of this? I think the writing community, when it is cooperative, rather than competitive, saves lives, spirits, and enriches our work.

It doesn’t seem weird at all! I love reading acknowledgments too, and I take great care in writing mine. (The horror at the thought of leaving someone out!) Anyway, I’m so glad you enjoyed them.

The writing community is how I finally got published after an eleven year journey/struggle/battle. I’d gotten close a lot of times—and I do mean a lot: Over the course of those years, I worked with three different agents and we had fifteen “almost-offers” on novels that were submitted. (An almost-offer happens when an editor wishes to acquire a book, but doesn’t get buy-in from her editorial board or someone else at the publisher). My first published novel was the eighth one I had written.

What made it happen in the end was that an author whose work I love—but whom I didn’t know except as a fan—agreed to read my unpublished manuscript. As if that wasn’t enough of a leap, after reading it she handed it over to her own editor. This author’s editor became my own weeks later. So it took me eleven years and a few weeks to get published. When it happens, like love, it happens.

Dennis Lehane talks about writers “sending the elevator down” and that is what I’ve been lucky enough to experience in the writing world. Unlike the music or film or theater industry, which seems to be rife with competition, I haven’t seen that in publishing. Perhaps it exists and I’m not privy to it. But I think by putting a great deal of support out there—as you do, Caroline—we invite support and good will back into our lives and our creative processes.

If anyone reading this column is running for the elevator, shout out to me. I’ll hold it for you.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My book-in-progress! Well, I’m also headed out on tour for As Night Falls this summer, and planning a three month, 100 stop tour is pretty consuming. But the story I’m currently writing is always the most blissful, and right now, I am lost in its world. I wonder if my heroine will triumph? I wonder if she’ll be able to find one of those families-of-her-construction?

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

Your questions were all so incisive and penetrating. You spoke to how we dig deep as writers, and what that kind of mining brings to our work. Completing this interview, carrying it around with me (figuratively) for a few weeks, was such an empowering experience.

But I’ll address one less optimistic dimension lest people who are struggling in their journeys—towards publication, or towards a completed book—feel alone. I’ll ask myself, What is the hard part?   There are two, and they both start with the letter R, and they both cause me fits and pain and grief at times.  Revision.  Rejection

None of us gets out of this game alive, right? But by encountering writers like you, Caroline, who build a web of connections and offer insight into each one, we can sure play a few fantastic rounds.  One more R word, and it’s the name of this author game—we do it with every book we write, friend we meet, story we tell—not to mention the overarching theme in As Night Falls.

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