FIRST, the acclaim:
— The New York Times
‘Elegantly imagined, finely tuned work.’
— The Miami Herald
"Hauntingly original, provocative, and dashed with wit—this literary ghost story changed the way I see the world." —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World
"Dressler’s chilly new story is one woman's unforgettable fight for visibility."— Booklist
"This poem of a novel, exquisitely written, introduced me to the inner life of a ghost and held me spellbound throughout. . . . I heard whisperings from the attic, from under the bed. M Dressler has written an extraordinary book, poignant and tragic." —Luanne Rice, New York Times bestselling author of The Beautiful Lost
Debuts are always thrilling, and this one was so wonderful, that yes, reader, I blurbed it. I'm so happy to have Ms. Dressler here, and I forgot to ask her, where she got that fabulous hair! Thank you so much for being here and I cannot wait to see what you write next.
I always think that writers are haunted to write the book they need to write. Was it this way for you?
Absolutely. I’ve always felt writing is a form of being haunted, so much so I even wrote this feeling, this awareness, into one of my early novels. A character, a writer, says about his own characters: “They come to you . . . It’s very strange, how it happens. They’re like ghosts, in the beginning . . . but ghosts who haven’t lived yet, or even been born. So you have to work backwards, looking for clues about them, about who they might be, from the way they haunt you. And in this way you never get away from them, and they never leave you.” I’ve never written a book without that sense of being stalked by someone who won’t come to light if I don’t sit still enough to pay attention, and who then stays with me . . .
But with The Last To See Me, a true ghost story, this feeling was even more pronounced. The way the book “arrived” was so haunting. I was simply sitting next to my husband looking out the window while we drove up a beautiful, craggy stretch of the Pacific Coast near Mendocino, California, and all at once I turned to him and said, “I think someone died here and didn’t want to leave.” I just meant to try out a story idea on him . . . and then, whoosh, Emma showed up. I could see her. Plain as day. Black hair. Cleft chin. Strong body in a white shirtwaist and dark skirt. Black boots. Strong hands. I’d never had that happen to me before: a character manifest so completely, so quickly. People ask me how I came up with her character, or how I made her ghost so “solid,” and I can’t remember anything more than that: Emma just arrived. That was the initial, swift haunting. The long, slow haunting was trying to live up to her story. It took a long, long time to write and revise this book. I put it away several times. I didn’t think I could do justice to Emma and her world—I might talk about the act of writing feeling like being stalked by a ghost, but I’d never written an actual ghost story before, or had a clue how to do it. Still I couldn’t imagine shelving her in the dark, leaving her. Especially because her story is about someone refusing to be invisible, someone who is a “nobody,” a poor, immigrant, working class girl, forgotten, demanding to be seen, to be known. In a way, more than any character I’ve written, she needed to reach an audience.
How scary was it (pun intended) to write a ghost story that would also be literate and compelling?
That was what took so long. And not because of any dearth of wonderful models out there, writers who’ve done it so brilliantly—Sarah Waters and Shirley Jackson and Daphne DuMaurier. It’s because it’s tricky writing a page-turner that also makes the reader want to linger on the page. With a gothic novel, you’re wrestling with a tide that wants to go in and out at the same time. You want the reader to feel both welcome and estranged, to feel “enjoyably claustrophobic,” as Publishers Weekly put it. And at the same time, you want, or at least I wanted, to do something much deeper than simply spook readers or make them feel creepy. I wanted to ask big questions. Who is it and what is it a culture most wants to erase, not to see, and why? Why are we fascinated by ghosts, but almost invariably want them, by the end of a story, to vanish? What does justice for the dead really mean? And how far are we willing to let a character’s resistance, her fight for justice, go? Ghosts stories are, at their heart, about controlling boundaries and borders. I tried to write a book that would make readers feel and shiver against the boundaries, and question them, too.
I loved the intertwined real life and afterlife. I’m a big fan of quantum physics and I know scientists believe that time is a man-made construct, that everything might be happening at the same time. Do you think we are all forever reliving bits of our past, present and future all the time? Can you talk about this please?
So glad you asked. I think about time all the time. I think much if not most of what we do as writers is try to make sense of time by turning it into a story. I was simply sitting next to my husband looking out the window . . . I spend most of my time trying to organize time on the page, or teaching other writers how they might do it. I’m also obsessive about time. I organize my entire life, chronologically, into photo albums so that I can actually see time passing. I love and need schedules and deadlines. I hate being late. I got very upset, once, when a family member dismantled a family photo album. And you just don’t get “upset” in this way unless you have a strong suspicion that underneath it all time is not what it appears to be but is actually layered and fluid and complex and the only way you pretend it isn’t is by braking really, really hard every second or so.
Curiously, I’ve had one moment in my life (so far) when the human construct of time collapsed and for an instant I felt, or I thought I felt, time differently. It was when I learned that my father had died. I heard the news, and the floor dropped out from under me, and I floated. For about fifteen seconds, human time evaporated and I saw and understood my father’s whole life, his birth and youth and adulthood and death existed simultaneously, as a single unit, which meant mine did, which means your does, which meant everything does. I tried so hard to stay in that space of everything-all-at-once, because it was so powerful and so clear. And then I couldn’t stay there. My mind balked. I went back to making chronological photo albums.
What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out, scribble on legal pads, only use the computer, have rituals?
All of the above. I have legal pads and journals and once upon a time (not so much anymore) index cards that ideas and stories and scenes and summaries got scribbled down on, and then I’d spread them out all over the floor and build a runway toward the computer. Sometimes, when I know a story really well, I don’t need to map it out so much. The Last To See Me didn’t need many maps. The plot showed up soon after Emma did. But usually I’m flying over unknown country and I have to leave maps and outlines all over the place for myself, which is strange because basically you’re trying to plot a course to a continent that doesn’t exist yet, and half the time you have to ignore half of what you’ve jotted down, because nothing but your gut, no note, no index card, tells you that, no, that’s the wrong direction.
I also have rituals of avoidance. Like jumping onto social media. Though that’s really a ritual to get me into a word- and world-space before I start writing. I used to worry social media would be a distraction, and it can be, but for me it also helps me remember there are real people outside the world of my head and remember the power of words themselves—you can literally sit and watch people reacting to language on Facebook and Twitter.
And then there are the rituals—the best kind!—of celebration. After I finish every draft of a book, I always play the song that was on the radio when I finished the very first draft of my very first novel, twenty years ago (I can’t say which song because that’s private and part of the ritual but I play it really, really loud and dance and whoop all over the house). And then, when the first printed copies of one of my books arrive, I open up the box and I take out the top copy and I hold it up to the sky to all my ghosts, to all the people, like my father, who are no longer with me but who helped me become a writer and a human being—and I dance and say, See what we did.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
The next book. Always the next book. I always obsess when I finish a book and it’s published and I’m ready to start another one. What on earth makes you think you can do it again? Remember how hard that was? And then, after I’ve decided I’m going to write another book anyway, the central question: Who is it about? Not what, but who. There are so many stories that need to be told, so many perspectives that need to be heard. I try to write from a different perspective or perspectives every time, while still being aware of the limits and privileges of my own. I don’t want to tie myself to one type of character or book or genre, but I want to be very aware of the choices I make and what those choices mean outside the haunted space of my own head. So I obsess about the choices I’m making, and, again, I obsess about time. You only have so much time. Which story are you going to tell next? And then I decide. And then I get obsessive about all the details surrounding the story—right now I’m completely obsessed with mining—and all the while I know the obsessing is just another kind of ritual, because the truth is that the heart of a book, at least for me, is not the frenzy of obsession but the calmness of the characters stalking you. They come, they sit down on the dashboard in front of you as you ride along a lonely piece of coast. And that’s that.