March 17, 2015

Susan Crawford: Secrets of a bipolar suburbanite

We emailed the Atlanta-based author to ask a few questions about her debut, the unreliablity of her characters and more.
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In Susan Crawford's debut psychological thriller, a woman with bipolar disorder spirals in a manic episode as she struggles to determine whether or not she murdered her neighbor.

In a quiet New Jersey suburb, Dana Catrell is a “Pocket Wife,” whose condescending husband has a tendency to brush her aside, such as by slipping his phone into his pocket when she calls to tell him about the murder of her neighbor, Celia Steinhauser. The problem is, Dana can only remember bits and pieces of the events leading up to Celia's death, and as this mystery unfolds, readers discover that she has a history of struggling with mental illness. Naturally this makes things all the more difficult when she decides to solve Celia's murder. Her investigation crosses with that of Detective Jack Moss, a troubled cop with some serious family problems of his own.

The Pocket Wife is perfect for readers who prefer crafty characterization over cheap thrills. The more Dana loses her sense of reality, the more fascinating (and witty) she becomes. Secondary characters range from unlikable to seemingly omniscient, but all will have readers begging for their secrets.

As the book opens, the concept of the “Pocket Wife” makes us pity the wife. But as the story goes on, it’s not exactly clear whether or not she qualifies as a victim. In your opinion, what exactly is a “Pocket Wife” as it applies to her?
Dana is a pocket wife on a couple of levels. Granted, her husband is the sort who sticks his cell phone in his pocket when she calls to tell him horrifying news about their neighbor, so in the literal sense this label suits her. And here Dana is not alone. Wives often feel trivialized or overlooked. Extra. On a far deeper level, though, Dana is marginalized by society. Because she is bipolar she sometimes lives outside the lines, is too blunt, sees the world through a unique lens, and her odd and unpredictable behavior marginalizes her further. Still, she does what she can to vindicate herself, to connect with people who accept her, to ferret out the truth. If Dana is a victim, she is a victim of circumstance.

What is the appeal of the unreliable narrator, for you as the writer? For the reader?
Writing from the point of view of a woman on the edge appealed to me because there were fewer boundaries. As a character losing control, Dana at times has brilliant clarity, but at other times her instability derails her thinking, so what we see through Dana’s eyes might or might not be true. Because there was less restriction on Dana, there was less restriction on me as I wrote about her, but really, I think nearly all characters are unreliable narrators. Their truths are limited by their own experiences or filters, unique or not. The difference is that Dana is very clearly not reliable, so readers will have to decide what threads are valid, which I hope will appeal to them.

Almost every single character in this book is suspicious—or at least unstable. Which is your favorite character, and why?
Dana is my favorite character, of course, because even though her life is falling apart, her mind is splintering and her freedom is dubious, she perseveres. She is brave, humorous, and she struggles to get her life on track because of the son she adores. I’m also very fond of Jack. I don’t think he’s unstable, really—just attractively flawed. And honest.

“Mental illness is so often demonized, I wanted to try to write about it from the inside out—Dana’s changing view of herself and everything around her—instead of from the outside in.”

What research did you do into bipolar disorder for this book?
I have always had an interest in psychology. I studied it extensively in college, and I try to keep up with current theories. More importantly, I have had close friends throughout my life who had bipolar disorder. I’ve seen the seductive nature of this illness—its boundless energy and highs—and I have seen its dark side, the destruction it can leave in its wake. Mental illness is so often demonized, I wanted to try to write about it from the inside out—Dana’s changing view of herself and everything around her—instead of from the outside in.

Would you make a good detective?
I think so, because detective work has a lot to do with understanding human behavior and with reading what’s below the surface, finding the truth beneath the words. Raising three daughters has also helped hone my skills in this area! I’m not especially organized, though. I’d probably need a very structured partner.

What are you working on next?
My next book takes place in Boston. A fatal late-night car crash sets lives on a collision course when the circumstances of the accident are called into question by a zealous insurance investigator. Was the crash an accident, a suicide or a murder? Told in first person by the dead man’s widow and his girlfriend, the story exposes lies, deceit and misdirection as the two women struggle with lives upended by the death of a man who loved them both.

Get the Book

The Pocket Wife

The Pocket Wife

By Susan Crawford
Morrow
ISBN 9780062362858

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