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Debut author Daniel Nieh’s Beijing Payback is an international thriller, a meditation on grief and an action-packed coming-of-age story. College student Victor Li and his sister, Jules, are shattered by their father’s murder. But they’ve only just begun to mourn when they learn the shocking truth about their dad’s past: He wasn’t just the successful owner of three Chinese restaurants. Rather, he’d been a member of a global crime organization for decades, and he wants vengeance from beyond the grave.

We talked to Nieh about the genesis of the book, how his other careers have influenced his writing and the power of secrets.


At the very beginning of Beijing Payback, you include a Note on Language to help readers understand who’s speaking which language when, pronunciations, etc.—an extension, presumably, of your work as a Chinese-English translator. After serving as a conduit for communication among others, did sharing your own stories directly with readers seem like a natural next step for you? Via your translation work, are there things you’ve learned about yourself, about others, about communicating, that were particularly important to your writing?
Translation is great writing practice, because it requires being sensitive to idiom and turn of phrase. But the decision to write Beijing Payback in both English and Chinese stems less from my work as a translator and more from my experience as an American. In our incredibly diverse country, there are many places where another language is just as important as English, and the starting point of this book, the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, is one of them. In the same way that Junot Díaz and Cormac McCarthy have used Spanish in their novels to demonstrate the fluidity in which some Americans switch between the two, I wanted to show how Victor Li’s American family spans two languages.

Your work as a model is another way to convey messages, emotions and artistic intentions. How do you think your aptitude for such performance might inform your work as an author (not just writing, but doing readings, events, etc.)?
Being a model means facing the scrutiny of others and the insecurities of one’s self all the time. I remember when I first learned how to walk for a fashion show from one of my bookers at my agency in Beijing. In the dark hallway between half-built offices, he showed me how, throwing his head back and walking strong and straight without looking around—he was short, with long, flowing hair, and his self-chosen English name was Fab. He said there were two keys to success on the catwalk: being relaxed and being confident. As a model, failure is your friend. If you book 10% of the jobs you go to castings for, you’re doing great. Those experiences are a reason why I was able to complete a manuscript in the first place: I’m not afraid of failure, my own imperfections or the judgments of others.

“Being a model means facing the scrutiny of others and the insecurities of one’s self all the time. . . . I’m not afraid of failure, my own imperfections or the judgments of others.”

Victor Li plays basketball in college. Even though he’s not likely to make the sport a profession like his super-talented best friend Andre, he practices, plays and considers it a defining aspect of his life. What about his dedication to basketball, and the way he feels about the sport, helps him handle what happens when his life goes haywire? You’ve played basketball, too—what does the sport mean to you?
Like Victor, I was obsessed with basketball as a teenager and a young adult. I started out as an uncoordinated bench warmer, but eventually I became pretty good. The stuff people say about sports is true: You learn the value of concentration and perseverance. You achieve flow states. At a time when I didn’t know how to talk to girls or wear my pants, I could at least shut down the other team’s best scorer and then make a reverse layup on the fast break. In other words, basketball gave me my first taste of mastery, which is an incredibly engaging sensation. I later achieved mastery in the Chinese language and am working on achieving it in storytelling and prose.

Speaking of Victor’s life going haywire, the revelation that his recently murdered dad, Vincent, was not just a beloved restaurateur but also a founding member of a Chinese crime syndicate is shocking, to say the least! And a great way to kick off a series of ever-wilder adventures. Is the notion that we all have secrets something that strikes a chord with you and makes you want to explore it in fiction? Are you good at keeping secrets, or sensing when someone has one?
I’m terrible at keeping secrets! I love to converse and share with people, and to talk about people, because people are so interesting. I’m working on becoming less of a gossip. So this loquaciousness is a way in which I’m different from Victor and Vincent Li. I’m interested in the secrets that immigrant parents might try to separate from their new American lives—including their new American children. My father never speaks much about his life before he arrived in the United States on a refugee visa. Perhaps they aren’t fond memories. That’s the case with Vincent Li, who grew up in the Communist China that my father escaped. He wants to look forward, not backward. He doesn’t want his children to know what he’s done to make their lives possible.

“I’m interested in the secrets that immigrant parents might try to separate from their new American lives—including their new American children.”

Victor, Jules and Victor’s friends are all in their early 20s. What is it about that life stage that compelled you to choose it for Beijing Payback’s central characters?
My understanding of the world opened up when I went to college and then to China. I learned that my privileged life was just one kind of life out there, and in fact, it was only possible because, elsewhere, people were working incredibly hard for very little pay. Those years are also the heart of that second phase of the child-parent relationship, when we have stopped idolizing our parents and started resenting them. There’s a third phase as well, when we learn how to appreciate our parents for who they really are. But the second phase is fascinating because it’s the time in which we define ourselves in contrast to the people who shaped us.

The desire for revenge, or at least comeuppance, is something we all experience, some much more intensely or dramatically than others. The Li family’s experience is certainly intense and dramatic! What do you think about revenge and the way it can intersect with grief or regret? Do you think Victor’s quest was ultimately a good or bad decision? Have you ever had the urge for retribution? Do any favorite revenge-themed stories inspire you?
I think we all have some experience of those urges, but they aren’t appealing to me. I don’t believe in the concept of “just desserts.” Without spoiling anything, I will say that this story is more about empathizing with people who do bad things—even to you or your family—than about deriving satisfaction from harming them. And the stories that inspired me—such as Motherless Brooklyn and Rule of the Bone—are also stories of confused young men setting out with a certain goal, being disappointed and growing up in the process.

The action scenes are exciting and suspenseful, and Victor’s what-the-hell-is-going-on asides inject some fun, too. Was crafting the action scenes a different process for you, versus writing scenes that were more focused on dialogue, inner monologue, etc.? Did you do anything to help visualize how those scenes might look and feel?
It’s hard to know how much detail to give. “He lifted his left foot, shifted his weight, raised his right hand”—snore. I eventually realized that I hold my breath when I read action scenes. I want to skip to the bottom, to the next set of quotation marks, and see how things turn out. So when I’m writing action, I try to avoid clichés and make it so the prose is too interesting to skim over. And I put myself in Victor’s shoes—if I were in a Beijing skyscraper at age 22 and bullets were whizzing by my head, what would I be focused on? In this way, the action is also character development: We see that Victor is freaking out in a relatable way, just like we would be, but at the same time, he’s skilled and resourceful, and he never loses his sense of humor.

Victor and Jules have to grapple not only with a host of new information about their father but also with how they feel about the privileges and safety they enjoyed even as Vincent’s crime syndicate caused others so much pain. What about the notion of the past being able to upend the present intrigues you? Do you think present-day beneficiaries owe something to those who were harmed in the past?
Every part of the United States is built upon the blood, sweat and tears of immigrants, many of whom crawled over corpses just to get into the country. The peaceful suburb where Victor grows up is no exception. I chose San Dimas because it’s the setting of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which is really a story about being oblivious to history. The globalized moment we live in is a truly bizarre pastiche that only seems mundane if we’re as oblivious as Bill and Ted. We drive Japanese cars, eat Mexican produce, shave our bodies with German razors and listen to music created by the descendants of African slaves. We live on stolen land. We live within a bloody history, and it’s still unfolding, even though the bleeding mostly occurs out of sight of those who have benefited the most.

At the end of the book (no spoilers here!), it feels like, just maybe, Victor’s story hasn’t been fully told just yet. Do you indeed have plans to continue his adventures? If so, any preliminary thoughts you want to share about that—or other writerly things you’ve got coming up?
I have always envisioned Victor’s story as a three-book epic. Rather than repeating a mystery formula, these books will show his evolution. I just spent six months overseas, researching the sequel. I won’t say where, but I will say that the main language spoken there is neither Chinese nor English.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Beijing Payback.

Author photo by Steven Patenaude

We talked to Daniel Nieh about the genesis of his book Beijing Payback, how his other careers have influenced his writing and the power of secrets.

In Tanen Jones’ debut novel, The Better Liar, Leslie learns she cannot claim her half of a $100,000 inheritance unless her sister does as well. She travels to Las Vegas to collect her long-estranged sibling, Robin—who, Leslie is shocked to discover, has very recently died. Then, Leslie meets a woman who could be her sister’s twin and hatches a plan: Mary, an aspiring actress, will accompany Leslie to Albuquerque and pose as Robin, and each woman will receive $50,000. They just have to fool several people for a week, sign some papers and collect the cash. What could go wrong?

We spoke to Jones about her experiences as a first-time novelist, her take on the mutability of memory and why we’re so fascinated by the idea of doppelgangers among us.


Congratulations on your first novel! Has the experience so far been what you thought it’d be, in terms of what it’s like to write a whole, entire book? Or wait for other people’s feedback and edits? Or hold in your hands a finished book with your name on it?
The biggest surprise has been the enthusiasm other people have shown for The Better Liar from the start. I came into the publishing world with a little behind-the-scenes experience, having worked at an academic press and interned at a fiction imprint, and I know that it’s typically a long road. I had written novels as a kid and spent college compiling a thesis of short stories, but The Better Liar was the first novel I wrote as an adult, and things moved very quickly for it. I mostly felt intense relief at receiving professional edits and copyedits, like, yes, God, please tell me how to make it better.

No one can prepare you for how surreal it is to hold a book you wrote. There was a period after college when I wasn’t writing anything. I stopped talking about writing because I got angry with myself: Why should I go on talking and never doing? My partner, whom I’d been with for two or three years, didn’t know that’s what my ambition was, because I became so embarrassed to bring it up. To remember how awfully small I felt about it then and look at my own book on my shelf now—I feel very grateful to have crossed those years.

You previously worked as an editor of criminal justice and law textbooks. Did this work spark your interest in creating your own stories? Were you able to use things you learned from your previous career in The Better Liar?
It did a little! I worked on a criminal justice title that had a chapter about women and crime—why women don’t commit most types of violent crime as often as men, or why it isn’t reported that they do. As far as I’m aware, no one really knows for certain why this is. But we have lots of theories, and one of them is social ties, that because women are more pressured to perform the labor of childcare and maintain social relationships on behalf of the family, they are less likely to become disaffected. That pressure was compelling to me. It was something I too have experienced in certain ways, and because it was invisible to me until it wasn’t, it was only possible to bear until I realized I was bearing it. I wanted to write about that feeling.

It was so interesting to see the characters’ different approaches to lying. Even though the inheritance scam was her idea, Leslie is so tense and furtive, while her pretend-sister Mary maintains a daring and open attitude. Was it fun to move between Leslie’s attempts to maintain control and Mary’s what-could-go-wrong decisions? Did you employ any rituals or practices that helped put you in the various narrative headspaces?
Writing this book felt like acting, and since I usually write entire scenes at a time, I typically had at least 24 hours between roles to recalibrate. Leslie’s scenes were definitely more difficult, as she turns so much of herself inward. I worked hard to give this book genuine emotional weight, and to do that I had to deeply empathize with and reason my way through decisions I would never make in real life, which often felt quite destabilizing when I surfaced from a writing session.

As for rituals, I played certain songs over and over to keep pace with the scene I was running and rerunning in my head. I must have played “Wedding Bell Blues” 4,000 times while I wrote this book.

Do you see aspects of yourself in your characters? Does one (or more) of them remind you of yourself in any particular way?
Yes and no. Between the three narrators, I’m more of a Leslie, I think. I have a really comprehensive Google calendar, and I would rather eat glass than fail publicly. But I’m queer like Mary and Robin, and Mary has my taste in music. Robin has my inability to let anything go.

“No one can prepare you for how surreal it is to hold a book you wrote.”

Your story is a delightfully complex one, with three points of view, so many layers of lies and deception and lots of revelations. Did you lay out the entire novel before you started writing, or are you more of a let-the-thoughts-flow sort?
I lay out every twist and turn, for every draft, and I write chronologically, even for rewrites. But I do invent smaller things as I go along, or I discover that certain scenes need more or fewer beats to achieve the right pace. I read my work aloud to myself sometimes, and I’ll even tap along with it, making the rhythm of the writing audible, and fix lines that go on too long or ending paragraphs that don’t strike the right note. I wrote the first draft very quickly, pushing myself through the entire novel just to reward myself with the experience of writing the ending I had in my head, a big percussive finale that I couldn’t wait to put down on paper. That ending, although I rewrote its tone several times, never changed in essence throughout the editing process. It was what made this book special from the start.

The idea that people aren’t who we think they are is, of course, great fun (and sometimes scary) to think about—what about the notion of hiding in plain sight most fascinates you?
I’m obsessed with spies and identity and deception. Part of the idea for this book came from thinking about how the only way to understand a family dynamic is to be inside it, but once you’re part of it, you can no longer see it clearly—so I wrote an outsider who could pretend to be an insider. I’m not sure where my obsession comes from, maybe because I spent adolescence feeling that my appearance obscured me. There are a lot of adult men who like to exercise their egos on young girls. I grew frustrated that they saw me as such an easy target. I used to wish I could shock them with the truth of me somehow—grow 10 feet or take off my face. But of course they wouldn’t have been at all shocked or even particularly interested in whatever truth I had to show them.

Albuquerque served as an intriguing backdrop for your story. The line about how backyards there “look like aquariums waiting to be filled with water” was particularly evocative. What about the city made it an appealing choice for you? Have you spent much time there, and/or did you visit to research the look and feel of the area?
My mother grew up in Albuquerque, and my grandmother still lives there. I visited almost every year as a kid and still go for holidays. I wanted to write about a place I was familiar with, and I’ve always thought Albuquerque would be a good place to set a noir. You can jump and see the whole city, it’s so flat, which lends it an interesting visual contrast to characters who conceal almost everything.

Although I’ve been many times, you can credit all the street names in the book to my grandmother, who got in her car and literally drove every route in the book to fact-check it for me. She was so excited that I set the book in her hometown but very concerned that Albuquerque locals would know me for a fraud.

“I read my work aloud to myself sometimes, and I’ll even tap along with it, making the rhythm of the writing audible.”

Since your book is called The Better Liar: Are you good at spotting when someone might be hiding a part of themselves or practicing some other form of deception?
Probably not! Luckily, I think most people lie about smaller things: lies to seem more together, or more likable, or to keep from burdening other people. I almost always buy it, and I constantly believe that everybody else has a very easy, Instagram-ready life.

What’s coming up next for you? Perhaps a book tour, a relaxing vacation or another novel (no pressure!)?
I’m taking off work January 14 to walk around NYC and try to spot my book in bookstores and cry, and then on January 15, I’ll be launching the book at Books Are Magic in Brooklyn! Please come and see me—I’ve never met any of my readers in real life yet, and it would mean so much to me.

I do have another book in mind right now. It’s not what people might have expected me to write after The Better Liar, but it’s just as twisty. Wish me luck.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Better Liar.

Author photo © Rachel Thalia

We spoke to Tanen Jones about her experiences as a first-time novelist and why we’re so fascinated by the idea of doppelgangers among us.

Accomplished, tormented artist Miranda Brand is at the heart of Sara Sligar’s Take Me Apart. Alas, readers and protagonist Kate Aitken may only meet Miranda after her death, via the paper detritus she has left behind: letters, news clippings, receipts, legal documents, prints and lecture notes. The famous photographer’s son, Theo, hires Kate to archive Miranda’s personal effects in preparation for auction. It’s an exciting opportunity and, Kate hopes, just the thing to reset her own career and mental health. But Callinas, California, while beautiful and beachy, is an insular small town rife with relentless speculation about Miranda’s death. As the days pass and the questions persist, Kate’s professional fascination evolves into personal obsession. Was the artist’s purported suicide actually murder?

It’s easy to see why Take Me Apart earned a spot on many lists of 2020’s most-anticipated titles, including BookPage’s own Women to Watch. Sligar is herself an artist of words, and her debut novel will unsettle, provoke and linger.

The cover of Take Me Apart is intriguing upon first look, and ultimately reveals itself to be very well-suited to the tale that lies within. Did you have any input into the cover-art process? How did you react when you saw the final cover and held your first book (congratulations!) for the first time?
I love the cover so much! It’s by Alex Merto at FSG, and I am so grateful to him and Rodrigo Corral, the art director, for all the work they put into it. It took a while to find the right cover, since everyone wanted it to appeal to both mystery/thriller fans and literary fiction fans. But we got there! I’m glad it took so long since we wound up with something so amazing and graphic and eye-grabbing. Seeing the final cover was definitely emotional for me. It made the whole process feel more real.

“But one influence you can definitely see in Take Me Apart is the influence of gothic literature—I love spooky, atmospheric books.”

After studying literature and history in pursuit of your M.Phil. and Ph.D., what eras, genres or authors resonate most with you, whether as inspiration for your own work or as books you treasure as a reader?
I read widely across many genres. I think genre is a very meaningful concept in that it represents a contract with the reader and a relationship with literary tradition. But I also think that genre divisions can be used to marginalize readers or invalidate books. I love to read romance, mystery, horror, literary fiction, speculative fiction and memoir, but I also love some books that aren’t in any of those genres. In terms of influence on my writing, it’s a grab bag. But one influence you can definitely see in Take Me Apart is the influence of gothic literature—I love spooky, atmospheric books.

Which character came first—Miranda or Kate? Was one of the women more challenging to write than the other?
Miranda came first and was easier to write. Mostly because her sections, which are told through archival documents like letters and journal entries, are more confessional. Kate is more a restrained character, so it took some time for me to figure out how to let her guard down enough that the reader could connect to her, while still presenting her the way I envisioned. There were always going to be two characters. It was just a question of figuring out how those two characters balanced each other.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Take Me Apart.


You must be quite adept at gleaning stories and truths from research and archives, thanks to your work at a museum and your years of scholarship. Have you assembled your own personal archives? What do you think we can learn from what people choose to save or discard, how they preserve it and the value assigned to various artifacts?
Well, I have assembled the raw material of my own personal archives by never throwing any papers away! But I would not say the papers are organized like an archive. I did think a lot about what it would feel like to have someone come in and organize my papers. I would kind of love it, because then I could find everything, but I would also hate it, because (as we see in the novel!) the person organizing the archive gets to make their own story out of your life. Any archive tells us not only about the psychology of the person who created or saved the documents, but also about the psychology of the person organizing it and how they interpret the documents.

What led you to choose New York City in the 1970s and 80s as the era for Miranda’s photography and her husband Jake’s painting? What made that time period and those art forms feel right to you for your characters?
I think it was more important for Miranda’s photography than for Jake’s painting. Without giving too much away about the book, I think Miranda is more authentically connected to that moment in art, which is intentional. I was very interested in that time period because it had so many brilliant, successful female artists, many of whom took a very autobiographical approach to their work—Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman, among many others. I wanted to explore that question of autobiography in art, as well as the differences in expectations for male and female artists, and that era seemed like the perfect fit.

You explore mental illness in empathetic and unflinching depth in your book—from Miranda’s and Kate’s perspectives as they suffer and attempt to find peace, as well as from the viewpoints of those who care about them and attempt to provide help. What was most valuable for you as you researched and created these characters?
I wanted both characters’ experiences with mental illness to be realistic and complex. With many mental illnesses, the experience is not a unilaterally negative one—even behaviors that seem destructive from the outside can feel comforting or relieving or exciting from the inside, although they can also feel deeply painful. I think the most valuable thing was just talking to lots and lots of people about the book, so that I could feel confident in the complexity and range of the representations.

Our society worships and elevates fame, but through Miranda we see the ways in which the pressure to produce, fulfill expectations and make money can harm mental health, familial relationships and the talent that drew the fame in the first place. Why was it important to you to explore the corrosive aspects of celebrity in this book?
I’m very interested in the question of ownership and entitlement when it comes to artists and celebrities. Why do we take their lives so personally? Why was I sad when Heidi Klum and Seal broke up? I don’t know either of them! They’re probably living their truths! In Take Me Apart, Miranda craves fame and recognition; she wants to leave a mark on the world, and fame gives her that opportunity. She does have a kind of immortality that other people don’t have. But as you say, that immortality does come at a price for her, and the price is higher than it is for the men in her life. I wanted to explore that trade-off.

Dubiously successful surfing lessons, an astoundingly ill-advised cake and potential romance with Theo . . . all are bright spots amid the darkness and despair Kate uncovers as she archives. How did you maintain your own lightness of being, so to speak, as you worked through the more wrenching elements of the story? 
I’m glad those moments were bright spots for you! I didn’t want the book to feel unrelenting. I wanted there to be ups and downs. Some parts were very emotional for me to write, but I’m not sure how to say which ones without giving big spoilers. I guess the question about lightness of being is really a question about self-care. I have gotten better at self-care over the years. Mostly for me, it means letting myself stop and do something new when I hit a wall. Dogs help!

What surprised you most (and least) about what it was like to write and publish your first book? Are there any lessons learned, delights discovered, etc., that you’ll keep in mind as you embark on your upcoming second novel?
Probably the most surprising thing has been how much it becomes a team effort. You labor alone so long writing the first (and second and seventh) drafts, and then suddenly the door opens and other people come in! Surprise! Time to put on pants! It’s exciting. I have been amazed and honored by how hard the people at my publisher have worked on the book. It has been a deeply collaborative effort.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with BookPage readers about what’s coming up next for you?
I have a second novel under contract, which I am working on now! Stay tuned for that. I also continue to pursue my longtime dream of competing on the Netflix show “Nailed It!”, so if any BookPage readers have an inside track, please let me know.

Sara Sligar takes us inside her lovingly crafted debut thriller, Take Me Apart, which interrogates gender dynamics in the art world, the price of fame and the American cult of celebrity.
Interview by

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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John Fram, author of The Bright Lands, shares his fresh and frightening take on the small-town thriller and describes what it feels like to be compared to Stephen King.


What was the inspiration for the story? Where did the idea come from and what compelled you to see it through to the end?
All my life, I’ve wanted to read a suspense novel that featured a queer hero and dealt frankly with all the pressures and pleasures of the queer experience. One morning, over coffee, I realized that after spending years away from Texas, I would still be terrified to return to my hometown, even if something desperate were to arise and my family needed my help. I began to wonder what sort of chaos my queer hero could cause in just such a situation, especially if he came to suspect his hometown was hiding something from him.

The last author I interviewed laughed when I asked if she used a whiteboard to organize her plot. So I’ll just ask, what is your writing process and what did you learn that might help you next time?
The moment I started living in this book’s world, I found so much material—and so many characters—that I went more than a little overboard with the planning and the notes. This might be shocking, but apparently it’s not a great idea to write a rough outline that’s as long as a novel itself. Even after slicing out reams and reams of material, I still submitted a manuscript to my agent that needed to be cut down by another third. It was a humbling experience, but not an entirely unpleasant one. There’s nothing quite so thrilling as throwing 20 pages of decent material in the trash in the hope that five better ones will grow in their place. It takes faith, and maybe a streak of masochism.

“I think we’re all suckers for nostalgia.”

What is it about small-town America and football that is so eminently relatable to readers?
Oh, man, how long do you have? One of the greatest pleasures I take from a novel is the feeling of losing myself in a world where everyone is getting into each other’s secrets, making each other breakfast, robbing each other blind. On a purely technical level, small towns also give us a setting that’s easy for the reader to hold in her head, so to speak.

As for football, there’s something nice about a conflict in which we know exactly who to root for. Beyond that, I think we’re all suckers for nostalgia. Who doesn’t have some latent scent memory of bleacher steel, thunder, dry grass? We all love to suspend ourselves in the past again. What better way to do that than in a novel where everyone seems like someone you once knew?

Some early critics have likened the novel to those by Stephen King. Who are your influences, what did you learn from them and if you had to compare your writing to someone’s, who would that be?
The comparisons to Mr. King are more than mildly daunting. I think he casts a long shadow over all of us, though I didn’t actually have the courage to read him until I was in my late teens (when he, of course, rocked my world). When I was younger, my two idols were the British crime wizard Ruth Rendell and the almighty Alice Munro, who can teach us more about time and irony than anyone in English. Also, what little gay boy in the sticks doesn’t identify with Munro’s moody country girls, all eager to discard their childhoods?

A few years ago, I discovered Kate Atkinson and found, in her wry English observations, the courage to write in the voice my family used to tell stories at the table. Atkinson treats her characters in a way that’s imminently Texan: She regards them with compassion, brutal honesty and a bleak, gut-busting humor. So, these days, if I had to be anybody, I’d like to be the gay son that she and Stephen King never had.

There’s an obvious theme in the book about the pressures and expectations others put on a person, especially a star athlete like Dylan. His brother, Joel, is a gay man and faces his own prejudices. What compelled you to write about those pressures, and what lessons do you hope readers might take away from this novel?
I think subconsciously I understood that these two pressures aren’t all that different, though it took me until well into the writing process to articulate it. I’m not saying that the star athlete suffers as badly as the closeted kid next door, but both can suffer incredible pain if they fail to fulfill the need their hometown has for them. Once I had that epiphany, I realized I could expand the novel to encompass all manner of “other” people who are held to impossible standards or pushed out by society: women, people of color, the poor. I wanted to make the reader feel, if only for a few pages, how terrifying it is to be different in a place that doesn’t accept you. Ideally, that reader would feel empowered to kick down a few walls wherever they live. Otherwise, they’ll at least know why the weirdos like us won’t go away without a fight.

All of the characters depicted in The Bright Lands are richly layered and authentic. Did you draw from people you know in real life to help flesh out those characters, or are they more of an amalgamation of people you’ve met?
Like a lot of authors, I’ve always felt that I can turn a little invisible when I’m around people I want to know more about. Ever since I was little, I’ve blended into the edges of rooms and grocery lanes to eavesdrop on housewives, employees and schoolmates and gather up every odd turn of phrase or token of their inner life they might drop. It’s a valuable skill. After a few years, I realized I’d seen enough people to start stitching together a few of my own.

How much of yourself do you see in your characters? Did any of them reveal any truths about you that you hadn’t thought about until you saw it on the written page?
There’s a line about midway through the book that came to me only a few weeks before the book went out on submission. To paraphrase myself, it says that shame and fear, while one can lead to the other, can never be felt at the same time. I had worked a long, long time on the scene where that line appears, and when the words finally came together, I realized that it was maybe the only thing I’d learned in the first 25 years of my life.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Bright Lands.


For the first 200 pages, your book reads like a crime novel. We have a disappearance followed by the discovery of a body. But the further you get, the supernatural aspects become more prevalent. How difficult was it to balance those genres?
In its original form, this book was . . . I guess you’d say secular: no ghosts, no whispering voices, no shared nightmares. But I saw, in looking over that draft, that the text was so filled with strange, occult imagery—a deep hole, impossibly dark, kept creeping into all my metaphors—that I just sort of gave myself over to it during the rewrites. Introducing elements of the supernatural into a book with a carefully constructed mystery at its heart posed some incredibly satisfying technical challenges (to make sure the reader never felt cheated or done over) while also allowing me to heighten the drama for all of my characters. Yes, there are some strange powers at work in Bentley, but they’re simply enabling our culprits’ bad behavior. The darkness, in short, is already there inside them.

What do you hope a novel like The Bright Lands can do for readers in a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is gripping the world?
This might sound ridiculous, but I’ve found horror novels and thrillers to be weirdly homeopathic during this massive existential threat. I think this panic is driving home to the entire (straight, white) population something that queers and people of color and women have been saying for years: The world isn’t safe, and the people in charge are not looking out for you. Where can we find a better mirror to that reality than in a brutal piece of suspense?

What’s next for you?
If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to keep telling stories like The Bright Lands: character-driven supernatural thrillers whose monsters allow us to examine the sorts of scary truths we’d rather not acknowledge.

 

Author photo © Luke Fontana.

 

Something terrible lurks behind the facade of a small Texas town in John Fram’s thrilling debut.
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Failing technology and an unknown disaster loom over the events in Rumaan Alam’s smart and terrifying novel.

There’s a stranger at the door. The phone doesn’t work. We’re trapped here. These are some of the many thriller elements that writer Rumaan Alam incorporates into his new novel, Leave the World Behind. Yet despite the familiarity of these tropes, the 43-year-old novelist has written a wholly unique story that feels of the moment for all the darkest reasons.

Leave the World Behind features Clay and Amanda, white parents from Brooklyn who have rented a summer home in an isolated part of Long Island. Their vacation has just begun when the house’s owners, George and Ruth, a wealthy Black couple, arrive unexpectedly in the middle of the night. George and Ruth apologize for interrupting the family’s vacation, but there has been a strange blackout in New York City.

A blackout doesn’t seem like such a big deal, Amanda thinks. She’s not entirely convinced that George and Ruth are who they say they are and wishes they would leave. But the homeowners explain that they sensed they would be safer outside the city. Safer from what, no one can be sure.

“That parental fear is really a primal fear.”

Alam wrote the first draft of Leave the World Behind in only three weeks, during what he describes as a “fevered state.” The novel is a true departure for the author, whose previous books, Rich and Pretty and That Kind of Mother, stick to the intimate realms of family drama and women’s relationships. They certainly aren’t quite so creepy.

“I wanted to write a book that appeared to be very domestic but actually was talking about the whole world,” Alam explains during a call to his home in Brooklyn. The novel’s inspiration came from a summer vacation taken by Alam with his husband, the photographer David A. Land, and their 8- and 11-year-old boys. George and Ruth’s luxurious second house is based on one the author rented via Airbnb.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Leave the World Behind.


Leave the World Behind unfolds over just a few days, and the momentum of the increasing dread is masterful. “I hoped that the book would have the sense of a ticking clock,” Alam says, “that once you’re in the world of the book, time is mirroring your experience of reading it.” He describes that kind of page-turning, stay-up-all-night reading experience as “sticky.”

In this, Alam undoubtedly succeeds. However, the book isn’t trying to be a mystery for the reader to decipher. “There’s a lot the book does not answer, in part because I don’t know the answers to those things,” Alam says. “The book raises 30 questions, and I think it answers, like, 12 of them.” Throughout the novel, snippets of explanations provoke more questions—scarier questions—a few pages later. And amid the mounting horror, the book’s messages about privilege, safety and comfort—as well as gender and race—slowly but deliberately sharpen into focus.

Unsurprisingly, Alam was influenced by Jordan Peele’s 2017 film, Get Out, another tale in which a seemingly benign excursion careens into pure terror. Alam also sought to conjure the “psychological menace” of the film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, based on the 1962 Edward Albee play. Other influences include Stephen King’s 1983 horror novel Pet Sematary and Paul Beatty’s 2015 novel, The Sellout.

Leave the World BehindMuch of the dread, confusion and fear in Leave the World Behind comes down to technology: The internet is down, and the radio and TV aren’t working. Alam knew that readers would relate to the experience of having a bad Wi-Fi connection or their cellphone being out of range. But we also trust these devices to eventually reconnect. What if they didn’t? For the characters in Leave the World Behind, frustration at the lack of concrete information soon turns to panic. Speculation replaces fact. The terror lies in the unknown.

These fears will resonate with readers, Alam thinks, due to not only the pandemic but also political malaise. “It’s clear to me that the book is born of a feeling of dread [that] has been in politics, or in the culture, for a couple of years now,” he says.

Like many authors, Alam mined his own fears for his novel, and his concerns come down to a feeling of powerlessness. Writing, he jokes, would be essentially useless toward keeping his children alive during a disaster. “I have nothing to offer my children in the event of a calamity,” he says.

After all, there’s almost nothing scarier in a book than what you fear will happen to your children. “That parental fear is really a primal fear,” Alam says, and Leave the World Behind holds nothing back in exploring how far that fear can go.

 

Author photo by David A. Land

Failing technology and an unknown disaster loom over the events in Rumaan Alam’s smart and terrifying novel.

Paul Vlitos and Collette Lyons explore the anxiety-inducing allure of Instagram in their debut thriller, People Like Her, written under the pen name Ellery Lloyd.

Congratulations on your first Ellery Lloyd novel! How did you decide on your collective pseudonym? Did you also come up with the idea for the book together?
Collette: We should probably have a better answer for this, but after toying around with various combinations of our own names, we decided to just go with something we liked the sound of. Long first names and short second names sound good we think, and we wanted something unisex that wasn’t just initials—so then it was just googling and playing around with it. We only remembered after settling on Ellery Lloyd that Ellery Queen was the pseudonym for a pair of crime fiction writers in the 1930s!

Your novel takes us into the minds of Emmy, a famous “mumfluencer,” her conflicted husband, Dan, and an unnamed person who wants to destroy Emmy. Did you each take a character? Did you do anything to inhabit those points of view?
Paul: We did start off writing separate characters, but actually by the time it came to the second draft, we both wrote and rewrote all of it—and we can’t now tell who did what.

Collette: There are parts Paul is especially proud of that I am pretty sure I wrote, and vice versa! In terms of research and inhabiting the parts, well, we had a young child, and I personally—and not with the novel in mind, just as a new mum whiling away hours stuck on the sofa under a baby who fed constantly and wouldn’t sleep—fell down an Instagram scroll hole. So I felt quite immersed in that world!

"We wanted to show both sides of the coin, the good and the bad, in People Like Her."

People Like Her certainly captures the joy, pain and occasional grossness of parenthood. Did you look back on your lives together for inspiration?
Collette: The grossness, definitely. There were a lot of exploding nappies in the Ellery Lloyd household! Something a friend said before our daughter was even born really lit a spark in my mind for the novel: If you find it all easy, if you’ve had a good birth and your baby is a dream, doesn’t cry, feeds well, sleeps through—don’t tell other parents, because they will either think you’re lying or hate you. We didn’t have that baby (she didn’t sleep pretty much ever), but I thought that was so interesting, and we definitely riffed on that with Emmy and Dan.

Collette, you’re a journalist and editor, and Paul, you’re a novelist and professor. How did your backgrounds inform your writing? Did either of you get veto power over any aspects?
Paul: We’ve both spent our careers giving people feedback or editing others’ work. It would be a bit churlish to complain about someone else editing our own—especially someone you’ve been married to for a decade. Practically, we work in a Google Doc and so can see when one is tinkering with the other’s sections, and honestly it’s never caused an issue, but we do need a watertight chapter plan from the outset, or it ends up like a game of Consequences!

What is your relationship with social media?
Paul: I don’t use it really, apart from Twitter occasionally.

Collette: I used it far, far too much when our daughter was little, and perhaps that was why I wanted to place it at the heart of our first novel, so that at least I could chalk all those hours up as research! I didn’t use it in an especially healthy way if I’m honest—I never interacted, only scrolled, because I was shy, I think—but I was also conscious that some people do find real community and connection there. We wanted to show both sides of the coin, the good and the bad, in People Like Her.

Your approach to Emmy is so clever: an Instagram influencer who draws a million-plus followers by making her life seem worse, not better, than it is. Do you think people will reevaluate those they follow on social media, and why they follow them, after reading your book?
Collette: None of us presents an exact replica of our true selves on social media, and anyone who uses Instagram hopefully knows that. So no, I’d be surprised if it made anyone reevaluate who they follow or why. I hope it might make people question why women especially have to belittle their own achievements to seem relatable, and therefore likable, though.

The business acumen of Emmy and her agent, Irene, is impressive, whether dealing with endorsements or reacting to a crisis. Was it important to show the savvy and strategy behind the selfies—and to explore the conflict between what gets followers vs. what’s morally sound?
Collette: They are both smart, ambitious and intelligent, two young women who have thrown themselves into the influencer industry and are really, really good at it. Yes, sometimes they make bad—terrible, even—decisions, but those decisions are based on what they know works. They’d both probably argue that it’s the audience’s fault they’re driven to those lengths to keep their business going. Whether or not you’d agree with them is another matter, of course.

What sorts of patterns did you see as you researched influencers?
Collette: The biggest pattern I saw is that only the people who take it seriously actually succeed and make money. You don’t become an influencer by accident. What I think will be interesting, and we explored this with Emmy, is how this very new career path pans out in the long term. Because the one constant with this sort of technology is that it will change, and that is something even the biggest influencers can’t influence.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of People Like Her.


How have you been celebrating the release thus far? What’s next for you?
Paul: Well, given the pandemic, we have mainly been celebrating by sitting at home and writing our second book, which is set in the world of celebrity private members’ clubs. We are hugely excited by all the positive reviews of People Like Her, and we can’t wait for it to reach a wider audience. It would, of course, be amazing to see Emmy and Dan on screen. We have offered our services to play them but weirdly haven’t heard anything back. . .

 

Author photo by Annick Wolfers.

Paul Vlitos and Collette Lyons explore the anxiety-inducing allure of Instagram in their debut thriller, People Like Her, written under the pen name Ellery Lloyd.

With many references to Jane EyreLittle Threats is a hybrid of a thriller and a literary novel. Ultimately, its thriller components—the story’s beginning, when a murder victim is discovered, and the end—are most compelling. In between is a coming-of-age tale set in the 1990s.

Emily Schultz (The Blondes) sets the scene well. When the novel opens, Kennedy Wynn has just been released from prison after 15 years. She and her twin, Carter (named for the American presidents), grew up in an affluent suburb in Virginia where they brought Haley, a girl from a poorer family, into their orbit and helped her strive to be one of the cool kids at school. But then after a night of teenage rebellion, Kennedy found Haley’s dead body and eventually went to prison for killing her. Even after all these years, she has no memory of the crime, which occurred while she was tripping on LSD. And no murder weapon was ever found.

Gerry Wynn, the father of the twins, brings Kennedy home from prison. He was among those who urged Kennedy to go to trial rather than reach a plea deal, a plan that turned out disastrously for her. Upon Kennedy’s release, she and her sister are estranged, partially because Carter has become romantically involved with Haley’s brother. Complications set in when a team from a true crime TV show show up, determined to uncover new evidence.

The plot chugs along on typical suspense tropes, including a hidden book about sex, a folded-up note stashed in one of the girl’s duvets, a jackknife and a letter opener. But Schultz’s attempts to tie these haphazard clues together are as unsuccessful as the TV producer’s efforts to rewrite the history of the crime, and Little Threats fails to meet the standards of suspense set by books like Gone Girl. Readers may feel that they are viewing the Wynns through a scrim. And as the ghost of Haley wanders through the pages, it somehow feels as though the dead girl is more alive than anyone else in the book.

With many references to Jane EyreLittle Threats is a hybrid of a thriller and a literary novel. Ultimately, its thriller components—the story’s beginning, when a murder victim is discovered, and the end—are most compelling. In between is a coming-of-age tale set in the 1990s.

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