Elyse Discher

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For fans of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, part of the joy in anticipating her latest novel is wondering what genre the author will use as a canvas for her talents this time. While often falling somewhere within the category of speculative fiction, the tones and settings of her work are legion, from a thrilling tale of rival vampire gangs in Mexico City to a romance between telekinetics in a Belle Epoque-inspired world. We talked to Moreno-Garcia about drawing from the gothic thriller for her latest novel, Mexican Gothic, and how she defied its conventions based on her own family history.

What inspired you to write a gothic novel?
My most recent novels were Gods of Jade and Shadow, a fantasy quest across 1920s Mexico, and Untamed Shore, a noir set in 1970s Baja California. I wanted to try my hand at something different and gothic novels are by default very melodramatic types of narratives with many meaty elements to choose from. Plus, they seem to have gone out of vogue so it was fun to go into a sub-genre where few people are going these days.

Why did you choose to set this novel in the 1950s?
Real life historical constraints. I wanted it to take place in a time period where Mexican mines would have closed so that we were in a town that was once active and now was dying. This would have to mean after the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero conflict ended. That placed me solidly in the 1930s or 40s. I ended choosing the early 1950s because I knew enough about it from stories in my family and it’s the beginning of a huge period of industrial change in Mexico.

“For them, it’s probably better to live in a rotting house than to have to accept their heyday is long past.”

In many ways, Noemí defies gothic heroine conventions—she’s not naïve or a tragic figure, rather she’s confident, worldly and aware of her agency. How did you develop her character?
Years ago I had a lovely picture of a great-aunt of mine, which I lost when I moved. It showed her in a fancy dress with a gentleman, sometime in the 1950s. She was wearing a dress that bared her shoulders and looked extremely confident and pretty. I began to imagine the party she attended and the character grew from there. Mexican and Latin American characters are often shown as people who are suffering, uneducated immigrants and I wanted a character that doesn’t fit the stereotypes readers expect. No brown woman who is riding La Bestia and yelling in italics “dios mio!” every other sentence and reminding you how wretched she is.

High Place is almost a character in itself in this novel. Were you inspired by an actual house or location or was it purely a place in your imagination?
The town that inspired this novel is real. It’s called Real del Monte and it’s in the mountains of Hidalgo. It was formerly controlled by British forces and there was a very important mine in the area. There is also a British cemetery in the town, which I’ve visited and which I thought looked like something out of an old horror movie. The town is very cold and misty. People are surprised by this every time I tell them a town in Mexico could be cold, but it’s true. It also rains quite a bit at certain times of the year. The geography of Hidalgo is very interesting.

Symbols of decay play a significant role in this novel. Can you talk about how you tied those symbols of rot to the Doyle family specifically and why?
I think it might be interesting to have a haunted house that is in a new pristine condition. Perhaps a cursed Airbnb. But I love old things, so in this case everything is falling apart. At the same time, the Doyles just keep clinging to their majestic past and outdated lifestyle. For them, it’s probably better to live in a rotting house than to have to accept their heyday is long past. But it’s not like anyone who has ever oppressed others wants to hand away the keys to the house.

Many Gothics contain supernatural elements. How did you determine how “ghostly” this novel will be?
Ah, the Scooby-Doo factor. Gothic novels are classified by scholars often as “male” or “female.” The male ones have explicit supernatural or fantastical elements and are more violent. The female ones don’t have supernatural elements, and at the end, what seems like a haunting is revealed to have a natural source. There’s also an important romantic element. I think I created a conundrum of classification because Mexican Gothic is all of the above at the same time.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Mexican Gothic.

The female characters in this novel are all under some form of patriarchal control. Noemí is at High Place at the behest of her father, Virgil controls Catalina and Howard controls everyone. Was this purely a function of when the novel was set or was this intended to be a commentary on the dangers of the patriarchy?
When my grandmother was a young woman in the 1950s, she wanted to attend medical school. Her father wouldn’t let her because that meant she would go to school with men, so instead she went to secretarial school and then married. This was very much the rule in that time and place: Women in Mexico got the right to vote in 1953. You’d marry and you were under the control of either a husband or a father. But if you go back, gothic novels are very patriarchal. It’s a “master of the manor” situation where the woman is often in a subordinate position to the man, which also produces a frisson of erotic excitement. At the same time, Noemí seems to be very much aware of all of this. If she were a modern woman, she’d probably dub herself a Final Girl.

Many Gothics explore toxic families, but in this case the Doyles literally and figuratively poison the community they exploit. Were they based on any real family or were they meant to represent colonialism?
Mexico is a country that has been constantly in the thrall of colonizers, and they have often exploited its mineral riches. It started with the Spaniards but it didn’t end there. The first mining strike in North America happened in Real del Monte due to poor labor conditions. Colonization worked in other insidious ways. In the 1850s, the British government plotted ways to steal Mayan ruins. Around that time, two young children with a congenital disease, taken from El Salvador, were exhibited in London as “Aztec Children” and used to theorize on ideas of race, race-mixing and biological fitness. Eugenicist discourse, which lasted well into the mid-20th century and beyond around the world, often mixed with notions of race. The Doyles are an invention, but the eugenicist principles spouted by the patriarch of the family were real.


I absolutely loved this novel. Are you planning on returning to this genre?
Gothic horror? Not right now. I am trying to sell a noir and I have a sword and sorcery novella out sometime next year. But the other day I had a good idea for a Satanic panic book. We’ll see.


Author photo by Martin Dee.

We talked to Silvia Moreno-Garcia about changing genres in her latest novel, Mexican Gothic, and how she defied the conventions of the gothic novel based on her own family history.
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After writing Diamond, a nonfiction book on the allure of diamonds and the complexities of the international market and constant demand for them, journalist Matthew Hart has returned to familiar territory for his debut thriller. The Russian Pink follows U.S. Treasury operative Alex Turner as he explores the shady provenance of the titular diamond, which leads him to uncover a tangled web of fraud, crime and possibly treason.

We asked Hart why diamonds continue to fascinate him, how he kept all the double- and triple-crosses straight and whether we can expect more from Alex Turner.

What first drew you to the subject of diamonds, and what made you decide to return to this territory in fiction?
Diamonds are a parallel universe, and its enchantments are addictive. My baptism came when explorers put a drill through the ice of a frozen lake in the Canadian Arctic and discovered diamonds. I began to cover the diamond rush that followed and met people like Eira Thomas, a 24-year-old geologist on her first job. In a race against melting springtime ice, with water literally sloshing around her drill shack, Eira kept drilling long after her bosses had told her to quit, and struck the richest diamond pipe in that rich field.

Once I started writing about diamonds, I was drawn into the arcane world that gives them meaning. Suddenly I found myself visiting places like the bleak and staggeringly rich Namibian diamond coast, the polishing factories of India, the secretive headquarters of the London-based De Beers cartel. In that world, an object the size of a pea can be worth $10 million. It’s a world as much of the illusory as of the real, so it seemed natural to stay there when I turned to fiction.

“[Diamonds are] enthralling because the people who run the business make sure they are.”

Alex Turner is an interesting hero in that he really navigates a legal—and possibly ethical—gray space. Do you consider him an antihero?
If you mean flawed, sure. Alex lost his mother as a boy and grew up with an unloving father in African diamond camps. He was 22 when the CIA blackmailed him into working for them. So he has a pretty chilly sense of how things work. In the pursuit of people who are really bad, he won’t hesitate to cross into the outlaw world they try to hide in. He knows that world as well as they do.

But you raise the issue of ethics, and that’s important. Alex is cynical, but he knows what’s right and wrong. I think the reader can detect that some ballast keeps him even as he navigates the betrayals and treacheries of transnational crime. He loves his daughter, and while evil people can love their kids, too, the reader can recognize in Alex’s struggles with his own failures a man striving for at least integrity.

It seems like everyone surrounding Alex has an ulterior motive. How did you keep track of all the crosses and double crosses (and sometimes triple crosses)?
Oh, boy. I started with big sheets of newsprint pinned to the corkboard, with little squiggles to represent each character and boxes with coded shorthand to describe crucial plot points. Then I’d draw in arrows to show how the characters were going to deceive each other. I would fill in the whole sheet, fighting off my own growing confusion at the tangled mess. In the end I’d tear it off and start in again with a fresh sheet. Same result. Finally, I just waded in and let the characters take care of themselves as I wrote. If you understand their motives and objectives, and you know where they have to end up, I think it’s better to take the deceptions page by page, as the characters advance through the story.

Elements of this book felt very timely, including a fraught presidential election with possible Russian interference. Were you inspired by current events?
I set the book in the midst of a presidential campaign to give the plot two things: one, a ticking clock; and two, a climate of moral warfare. The story takes energy from that weather, when partisan passions are high. In that turbulence, it’s easy to imagine the powerful and rich—already wealthier than ever before in history—seizing the chaotic moment to get even richer.

The diamond known as the Russian Pink is almost a character in itself. Why do you think people are so enthralled with diamonds?
They’re pretty cool when you look at them up close, for one thing, and then there’s the whole romantic history stacked up behind them—the Koh-i-Noor and the Hope Diamond. But mostly they’re enthralling because the people who run the business make sure they are. I’ll give you an example. Oscar night, 1998. Gwyneth Paltrow won best actress for Shakespeare in Love. She appeared on stage in a $160,000 diamond necklace designed by Harry Winston. By the time the night was out Winston had 25 firm orders for copies of that necklace. And that’s not all. That same night on that same stage, Whoopi Goldberg and Geena Davis were also blazing away with fabulous diamonds. But here’s the real point. None of the three women actually owned the stones they were wearing. Every diamond was a loaner from Harry Winston. Basically, the stars were the jeweler’s billboards. Royalty does the same thing for diamonds. They invest the stones with the sacred aura of the divine right of kings. In the Tower of London, the longest lines are at the Jewel House, where the Crown Jewels are on display.

This is the first thriller I’ve read with a U.S. Treasury agent as a protagonist. How did you research that job?
Alex works for the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network—FinCEN—a bureau of the U.S. Treasury. They’re a secretive operation that reports to the Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. I read all I could about them. FinCEN’s mission is to safeguard the financial system from hostile powers and prevent criminal activities like money laundering. The Treasury has very powerful punitive measures available to enforce its interests, such as cutting off a bank’s access to the U.S. system, effectively ruining it. I simply created a super-secret agency of FinCEN—Special Audits—whose agents step outside the normal strictures of the law in their pursuit of the country’s most dangerous enemies.

In the acknowledgements, you mention the Hemlo gold rush and the Arctic diamond rush. Did those events inspire this novel in any way?
A mineral rush is the ultimate quest story. The searchers follow clues and discover the treasure. The Russian Pink moves with that wind under its sails, too. Their aim is to discover the truth behind the jewel, and part of that truth must be where it came from.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Russian Pink.

Are you considering an Alex Turner series, or will this book be a standalone?
I’ve just sent the sequel off to my editor! While I’m waiting for her notes, I’m working on the plot for number three. Alex and Slav Lily are keeping me company.

We asked Matthew Hart why diamonds continue to fascinate him and how he kept all the double- and triple-crosses straight in his debut thriller, The Russian Pink.
Interview by

Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel is a legal thriller set in an era with seemingly little in common with our own: the perilous world of 17th-century New England. But through a young Puritan woman’s attempts to divorce her abusive husband, Bohjalian explores how the sexism, shame and rampant gossip of the early American colonies are eerily persistent to this day.

What inspired you to write a novel of suspense set in 17th-century New England?
My work—at least my best work—is powered by dread. My books are slow burns. It’s not “action” in a conventional sense that keeps readers turning the pages, but rather a simmering anxiety.

And many of the Puritans lived with anxiety and dread: Satan was as real as your neighbor and they fretted constantly over whether they were saved or damned.

Now, when we think of New England’s history of hanging people for witchcraft, we beeline straight to Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. But in 1656, the governor of Massachusetts had his own sister-in-law hanged as a witch. And the first real witch hunt was Hartford, Connecticutt, in 1662—three full decades before Salem.

One thing many of the women executed as witches had in common was that they were smart, opinionated and viewed as outsiders; sometimes, they saw through the patriarchal hypocrisy that marked a lot of New England Puritanism.

I was looking for a way into a novel of suspense set in the 17th century, but one that I hoped would chart new ground. I came across a reference in the records of Boston’s Court of Assistants from 1672: A woman named Nanny Naylor successfully sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of cruelty. And I was off and running.

The way Mary and those around her think is very different when compared to a modern reader’s perspective. For example, Mary is always looking for signs from God or the devil. How did you get into the mindset of a 17th-century Puritan?
I’ve been interested in Puritan theology and the Puritan mind since college. I still have many of the books I read for classes then.

The Puritans kept diaries and ledgers, and those were important to me, because they used them to try and see if they were likely saved or damned.

Moreover, as stern and cruel and condescending as the Puritans could be, there were moments when they understood the inherent beauty of the world. They were not joyless. (They sure loved their beer.) My favorite example of this is the poetry of Anne Bradstreet. Bradstreet, along with Emily Dickinson, has been a muse for me since college, and her 17th-century legacy includes love poems to her husband, wrenching testimonies to loss and meditations on faith and doubt.

"When you spend your life wondering if you are damned or saved, you are constantly looking for signs."

One of the catalysts for the novel’s central conflict was, of all things, the importation of forks. Did the Puritans really consider them tools of the devil? How did you discover this?
I was preparing some short remarks years ago about the first Thanksgiving for my daughter’s elementary school, and I came across a passage in George Francis Dow’s Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that noted the Puritans did not use forks. They used knives and spoons and their fingers. When I embarked upon this novel, I recalled that tidbit and it led me down one of those great research rabbit holes.

By the mid-17th century, the three-tined fork was starting to gain favor in Europe. But it seems that the earliest “eating" forks found at New England archeological sites date from the early 1700s. The derivation of the word “fork,” of course, comes from “pitchfork,” and some scholars have argued that the implement had trouble gaining traction in New England because of its resemblance to the devil’s pitchfork. (The early forks were terrifying!)

Now, how many Puritans actually viewed them as the Devil’s Tines? I have no idea. But if you live in a world where Satan is an almost tangible presence? A three-tined fork is a great tool to make part of a spell.

I was struck by how, despite living more than 350 years ago, Mary’s struggle to escape an abusive marriage and her patriarchal upbringing still felt similar to stories we hear today. Do you think the power structures that kept Mary confined have changed that much?
In some ways, the Puritans were more progressive than we give them credit for. They viewed marriage as a civil ceremony and a wife who was granted a divorce from her husband was granted one-third of his estate. (I’m not saying one-third is fair, only that it is more than you might have expected.) At least 31 times, Puritan marriages ended in divorce.

But, of course, it was an inherently sexist culture. Exhibit A? It was a heck of a lot easier to get yourself hanged as a witch if you were female. In some ways, the culture defined toxic masculinity.

And just as today the burden of proof seems to fall unfairly on women so often that we actually need an #IBelieveHer movement, it was very difficult in the 17th century for a woman to win a dispute in a “he said/she said” confrontation. Of those 31 divorces, only one was for cruelty—what today we would call domestic abuse.

Yes, Hour of the Witch is set in 1662, but (by design) it is among the more timely novels I have written. I am confident most readers will get the reference when a member of Boston’s all-male Court of Assistants calls my heroine, Mary Deerfield, “a nasty woman.”

Why do you think the Puritans were so obsessed with witchcraft?
Because Satan and Hell and predestination were fixtures in their worldview. When you spend your life wondering if you are damned or saved, you are constantly looking for signs.

Moreover, how do you explain the tragedies that were part of their daily existence? The death and the disease and the accidents that left you disabled? Part of their answer was the devil and his human acolytes.

Mary’s concept of good and evil shifts dramatically throughout the novel. Is this born of necessity or of her world expanding or both?
My novels are character studies. It is character that interests me.

The great teacher of writing (and novelist and short story writer) John Gardner taught us that among the points that matter most in fiction is character transformation. And so I hope my characters change in the course of a story. And Mary Deerfield’s journey is certainly a tale of growth.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Hour of the Witch.

Part of this novel is a legal thriller. How did you research the complex legal system Mary finds herself tangled up in?
The Puritans didn’t have court stenographers, but they were avid record-keepers.

I hope the trial proceedings and the way a trial would have been conducted is fundamentally accurate. I had the great good fortune of becoming friends with L. Kinvin Wroth, professor emeritus of law at Vermont Law School. We first had lunch in the summer of 2001—20 years ago—when I reached out to him to discuss the novel I was contemplating about a Puritan woman’s attempt to divorce her husband. He pointed out to me the articles it was critical I read about 17th-century law and the first New England courts. He read a draft of the novel and patiently corrected my most egregious mistakes. I will always recall fondly our lunches over the decades in South Royalton, Vermont.

The power of gossip is very different in Mary’s life than it would be in the present day. How did the closeness of her community present a threat to her while still enabling the colony to survive?
The Puritans didn’t have Twitter, but they did have the whipping post and the stocks. They sure as heck weren’t slackers when it came to public shaming. And they depended to a large degree on people’s fear of shame to moderate their behavior (as if the fires of hell weren’t enough) and to keep order.

I find it interesting that both witchcraft and adultery were capital crimes, but no was ever executed for adultery.


Author photo © Victoria Blewe.

Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel is a legal thriller set in an era seemingly foreign to our own: the perilous world of 17th-century New England.

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