In the 1970s, a beautiful mansion in Orvieto, Italy, was the site of a brutal killing. Rock megastar Noel Gordon invited musician Pierce Sheldon, plus Pierce’s girlfriend, Mari, and her stepsister, Lara, for a summer of creativity, love and fun. But Pierce ended up dead, earning the villa a sinister reputation and the vacationers a complicated legacy. In the present, longtime yet somewhat estranged friends Emily and Chess go to the very same villa to catch up and hopefully kick off some new projects. While there, the villa’s tragic past piques Emily’s interest. Will she learn something new about the decades-old crime? Or will her sudden obsession distract her from the danger still lurking?
In the summer of 1816, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley participated in an impromptu, multiday creative jam session near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, that ended up inspiring seminal works of gothic horror, including Mary’s groundbreaking Frankenstein. Will you share with us how that weekend in turn inspired you as you wrote The Villa?
I think it’s one of those things that is just naturally appealing to writers: a bunch of artists holed up in this gorgeous house, bizarre weather outside (1816 being the famous “Year Without a Summer”), all these completely wild interpersonal things happening among five very young people—Byron was the oldest of all of them, and he was only 28!—and at the end of it, one of the most famous books ever written is created by an 18-year-old girl.
Everything about that is so narratively rich and fun, and there are so many ways you can explore it. That was the seed for me, this idea of how art and life intersect, how great art can get made in the middle of chaos and the way artists inspire and also possibly derail one another.
You pay homage to the participants in that weekend through your characters’ names, e.g., Mary and Mari, Percy and Pierce. Who was the easiest for you to inhabit? The most difficult? The most fun?
Mari’s voice always came through the strongest for me, even when the book was just a few stray notes on my laptop. Her sections sometimes felt more like dictating than writing, and that had never happened to me before, so I like to think that maybe I’d read enough about Mary Shelley that she was inhabiting me just a little bit.
For the most fun, that is easily Noel, our Byron stand-in. Byron was such an interesting guy, and when you read his letters, you really get that he was fun and charming and super witty, but the dark side of all that wit was this really stinging cruelty, and I liked finding moments when you could see both of those elements in Noel.
Pierce was probably the trickiest to write just because Percy Shelley himself was a tricky guy! He had all these noble ideals and was a gorgeous writer, but he also wrecked a lot of lives along the way. Finding a way to make Pierce appealing enough that we understand why both Mari and Lara loved him while also showing just how destructive and oblivious he could be was a tough needle to thread.
In addition to balancing dual timelines, you created a book within a book (Mari’s Lilith Rising) and an album, too (Lara’s Aestas). How did you manage all of these elements?
I honestly just love challenging myself in new ways, and there was something really fun about conjuring up my own ’70s horror novel and coming up with song lyrics (a first for me!). That said, you realize pretty quickly when you’re writing a book about a famous book and a famous album that you are going to cringe a lot as you write characters going, “This is the best book/song ever!!” when you’re the one writing the excerpts and the lyrics!
Mari’s novel is called Lilith Rising. Why did you choose that title?
Like most girls who wore Doc Martens and graduated from high school in 1998, Lilith Fair still looms large in my mind. So when I knew Mari would be writing a novel that would be seen as an important piece of feminist horror, it made total sense to me to involve Lilith. She’s scary (a demon!) but also a feminist icon (the discarded first wife!), and she just felt like the perfect figure to lend her name to Mari’s title.
At one point Mari thinks, “It was hard for two people to be artists when the rugs needed hoovering, and food needed to be purchased, dishes washed. And somehow, those things kept falling on her.” Will you share a bit more about what you wanted to convey with these lines and the ways in which the division of labor in heterosexual partnerships (or lack thereof) plays out in The Villa?
This is another one of those things I come back to again and again in my books. I’m always interested in talking about women stepping into their power and the ways society can hold them back from doing that. And one of those ways is this very thing: we’ve come really far, and yet so much domestic stuff still falls on women.
I don’t need anything special in order to write. I don’t need an office that’s just so, or this one kind of pen/word processing program/notebook/tea, whatever, but I do need time and space and—tall order here!—a certain level of calm. Obviously, I’m not going to get those all of the time because Life Happens, but I’ve worked hard to prioritize those things and am lucky to have a family who gets it. But I still hear from women asking things like, “How do I get my partner to take my writing seriously?” or, “How do you balance being a mom and a writer?” So questions of Who Gets To Art, basically, are very much on my mind.
Since The Villa is a book about women and art, it felt natural to explore that idea on a couple of levels. Mari and Emily are both characters who shouldn’t necessarily find themselves in that situation—Mari because she’s living this bohemian lifestyle, Emily because we’re supposed to be past all that in 2023—and yet, they are both hemmed in by the men in their lives in these frustrating but unfortunately familiar ways.
What were the challenges of writing about a murder both as it happens and as a true crime story decades later?
I’m fascinated by true crime, both as a genre and as a sort of cultural zeitgeist thing, but as the genre has gotten bigger, I’ve also tried to be a little more thoughtful about how much of it—and what kinds of it—I consume. At the end of the day, it’s a little weird that the worst thing that ever happened to someone is my road trip entertainment or the thing I turn on while I fold laundry, you know? So while this is obviously a fictional murder of a fictional character, I did want to show that Emily’s take on the crime might not line up with who these people really were, or what really happened, and that this thing that’s just part of the backstory of her vacation house was a truly devastating event that changed everyone involved.
If presented with a possible murder mystery while staying in a fancy villa, are you the sort of person who would hunt for clues like Emily did?
Oh, I would be leaving. Very strict No Murder House policy in all my vacation plans!
Emily and Chess have known each other since childhood but aren’t as close as they once were and are quite often at odds. Mari and Lara have a shared history and a fraught relationship, too. Why do you think those sorts of unhealthy friendships are so common and can be so difficult to navigate?
I’ve joked that this book is apparently my way of exploring my personal nightmares because I have so many wonderful and supportive women in my life, so of course I wrote a book where those kinds of relationships are toxic and awful! But the idea of the “frenemy” is so strong, and I think it’s because it exposes the flip side of that saying about how “friends are the family you choose.” They are, but that also makes it more complicated to untangle yourself from a friendship that goes bad—because you did choose that person, and there were a million reasons, big and little, why you did. I feel like society prioritizes family and romantic relationships over friendships, even though friendship is, in a lot of ways, a really complicated mix of those two things—shared history and the magic of finding a stranger who feels like a part of you—so of course when that sours, it can be profoundly hurtful and really tricky to untangle.
Chess has amassed huge wealth and fame in the self-help realm, and Emily is a mix of impressed, envious and skeptical. Are you a bit of a self-help skeptic yourself?
There are great self-help books and writers out there who genuinely help people, and I’ve been helped myself by some of them. So not a full skeptic, no! But in the past few years, the sort of Girlbossification of mental health has definitely raised my eyebrows a bit, and Chess is a reflection of that. For Chess, it’s not so much about helping people—even though she does buy into her own hype at times—but presenting this kind of aspirational lifestyle in which mental health is just another thing on the checklist next to “BMW” and “Nancy Meyers Movie Kitchen.” That kind of career path requires a certain kind of ruthlessness but also a lot of intelligence and an innate understanding of people. Emily sees all of that in Chess, but she’s also the kind of woman who’s a part of Chess’s ideal audience, which is why her feelings about Chess’ whole thing are a really complicated mix.
In both storylines in The Villa, there are famous and wealthy characters who are often casually cruel to friends who have less money and security. What is it about that sort of relationship that appeals to you as a writer?
The haves vs. the have-nots is such a powerful trope, and I think it’s particularly interesting to explore given how often we’re told that we live in a classless society despite all evidence to the contrary. So it’s one of those things that lets you really get in the weeds when it comes to character work, and it helps you build sympathy for your have-not characters. (Sidenote: It’s always so funny to me how even the people who are definitely the haves never really see themselves that way!) It’s also part of a rich tradition of storytelling; issues of money and class are always right at home in a gothic novel!
Is the gothic tone one you always intended to explore? Are there gothic authors or books you return to again and again?
I have always been a huge fan of all things gothic and was very into Anne Rice as a teenager. I have a collection of old Victoria Holt novels that I treasure, and I also have a lot of newer books—Mexican Gothic, The Hacienda, The Death of Jane Lawrence—so I am not surprised to finally have a big ol’ creepy house book under my belt. The gothic was definitely an element of my earlier thrillers, but this is the one where I leaned in the hardest, and it was just the most fun. So fun that my next thriller is equally, if not more, gothic. So yes, definitely a tone I love exploring!
“Houses remember” is an important line in your book, written and pondered by various characters, evoking a range of emotions and more than a few shudders. What does that phrase mean to you?
To be completely honest, at first I just thought it was a really cool—and yes, spooky—way to open a book! But the more I wrote, the more that line kept popping up until it was basically a theme. It means various things to the characters, but for me, it’s about the way a place can sometimes seem to hold not just the memories but the energy of the people who once stayed there.
What do you most hope readers take away from The Villa?
I have a huge amount of fun writing my books (yes, even when they get pretty dark!), and that’s always the main thing I want for my readers, too. I want The Villa to make a long flight go by quickly, or distract them in waiting rooms, or make an afternoon on the couch with a cup of tea just that much more enjoyable. I love playing around with big ideas and themes and all the things I got an English degree to explore, but at the end of the day, I’m in this to entertain, and I hope The Villa does that!
Photo of Rachel Hawkins by John Hawkins.