As a person who stands only 4’11, and that if the wind’s not blowing, I was greatly intrigued by your protagonist, Hester Thursby, who is “a quarter inch into little person territory.” Could you tell us more about her and how the idea for her came to you?
One of the benefits of writing a first novel is that you get to spend as much time as you want writing – because absolutely no one is waiting for it! And, honestly, when I first decided to try writing LITTLE COMFORT, I didn’t really know what the plan was or if I’d even finish. Hester evolved through the creative process of thinking (and sometimes bashing) my way through developing a crime novel, which I really didn’t know how to do when I started.
The first character who came to me was Sam Blaine, a sort of Tom Ripley-like antihero. I knew I wanted him to be someone who could charm his way into any situation. I drafted a number of chapters, and decided he needed a stronger foil than the one I had developed, and Hester was born. She changed over time, too. She was really just any 36-year-old woman living in the city when I started, then I gave her a home life and set her up in an interesting living situation. Hester started to take shape for me once I figured out that she has her own apartment in a house she shares with her long-time partner, and that she retreats there to watch ‘80s slasher movies. From there, I started to evolve her physical description.
A book I’ve always loved is Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. There is a character in that book called Tony, who is short, like Hester, and one of the things that stood out for me in reading that character was how much Tony had to fight for respect as well-meaning people accidentally dismissed her. I started to imagine what it would be like if Tony had to deal with those same subtleties while fighting crime. I also liked the idea of giving Hester a physical description that would make her really stand out in a crowd. Standing out makes undercover work really challenging!
2. Part of what makes Hester so appealing is her relationship with Kate, the 3-year-old child who has been abandoned into her care by her best friend, who is also her non-husband’s twin sister. Clearly family—biological and created—is a theme of this book. Could you address that a bit?
I put family front and center in everything I write, both the family we are born with and the ones we wind up creating. For Hester, who grew up mostly on her own in a very challenging situation, so much of her life has been about surviving that she struggles with the generosity needed to raise a three-year-old.
One of the themes of the novel is choice.Hester has to choose which path she’s going to take with Kate, and what kind of world she’ll create for Kate, and I didn’t want it to be an easy choice for her. Hester is a thirty-six year old woman who has consciously opted out of having children, and doesn’t necessarily want this one.
3. Your characters are so beautifully drawn, and it’s impossible not to like them, whether they are behaving virtuously or otherwise. Do you have tips for writers hoping to improve their characterization?
Oh, thank you. That is really kind of you to say. I guess I start by trying my best to like every character, as a human being. Every person on earth has something good at their core, and I try to remember that when I write, and to make that the focus of the character, rather than their actions. As a writer, when you focus in on that good, it makes the contrast of terrible actions and decisions all the more powerful.
4. You take us behind the scenes into the exclusive world of the Boston Brahmins. How did you research that?
My research around the Brahmins was mostly through reading – there is no more overrepresented group in literature that the rich and privileged! I really like Susan Minot’s books, especially Monkeysand Folly, for example. She does a terrific job of capturing the closeness and claustrophobia of a privileged life.
I also went on a garden tour on Beacon Hill to get a glimpse of the interiors of a few houses on Louisburg Square, at the heart of Beacon Hill. I wouldn’t say no to living there!
5. I’ve read that Agatha Christie influenced you. Which other authors do you enjoy?
Like most writers, I read all the time and am influenced by so many different people. Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton definitely defined my childhood reading (along with C.S. Lewis and a few others). I think Laura Lippman creates wonderfully complex stories and rich worlds. One novel that I read regularly (maybe because it’s short!) is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. She is such a craftsman, and is able to move through time so effortlessly in that novel. I like to read it to remind myself what’s possible.
6. I always enjoy “path to publication” stories. How long did it take you to write this and how did you go about getting it published?
My path is not a short one!
About twenty years ago, I wrote another novel that didn’t sell, and I wound up getting discouraged and giving up for a while. I also had to focus on some basics – you know, like earning a living! Then, in 2004 or 2005, I read Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, and was inspired by the way she mixed genres – mystery and literary – and was able to infuse so much humor into the Jackson Brodie series. She also really tore apart the structure of a “mystery” novel and made it something completely unique, and that left me wanting to go at it again. But I didn’t start right away! I wrote a single page that sat on my computer for about four years.
Finally, in 2010 I switched jobs and negotiated a month off. Free time like that doesn’t come around all that often, and I realized I could either travel somewhere or I could give writing another shot, so I spent the month writing, and then spent the next four years continuing to write and revise, and then about a year finding a new agent. My agent sent the novel all around New York, and it was resoundingly rejected everywhere. But I analyzed the rejection letters and was able to determine some trends – basically I had too much story – and revise the novel one more time.
And it finally sold.