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.
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.