Tuesday, December 31, 2013

an interview with averil dean

photo by ellen von unwerth
Besides being the last day of 2013, today is calendar-worthy for another reason. Averil Dean's novel, ALICE CLOSE YOUR EYES is officially out, and the author is throwing a big on line party (as befits a spectacular debut born on New Year's Eve). The reviews are coming in fast and furiously:

      "Dean pens a haunting, intense novel that is at once psychologically compelling and emotionally unsettling. Taut pacing and skilled storytelling support a breathtaking plot and characters that are heartbreaking and horrifying yet somehow still accessible and sympathetic. With troubling psychological and sexual violence, this book is not for the faint of heart. It's scorching, disturbing, and tragic but well-crafted and impressively written." – Kirkus

      “ALICE CLOSE YOUR EYES is intense. No, it’s INTENSE. It’s also chilling, riveting, intriguing, surprising and compelling and I can’t think of a debut that kept me turning pages faster or more breathlessly.” – International Bestseller M.J. Rose

      Not only is Dean a critically-acclaimed writer, she's a wonderful, insightful, funny artist, and I'm thrilled that she agreed to an interview here on Let's Talk About Writing. Here's what she has to say about her book and characters, while giving us a "behind the scenes" look at writing and publishing a sexy thriller that is also "well-crafted and impressively written."

       So, Harlequin Mira is a romance imprint, no? ALICE, being a psychological thriller, doesn’t exactly conjure heaving bodices and “closed door” sex. Tell us about your first conversations with your publisher, and how you and your agent decided Mira would be a good fit for your novel.

I’ll admit I had the same reaction to the name Harlequin. I thought they only did romance. And it’s true that romance is still the biggest part of the house, but the MIRA imprint is a bit more diverse. Their list includes relationship novels like The In-Between Hour by Barbara Claypole White, literary stuff like Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel and The Returned by Jason Mott, as well as sexy thrillers by Heather Graham and erotica by Megan Hart. 

The thing that mattered most to me in finding a publisher was that we attract the sort of editor who understood what I was trying to do with Alice Close Your Eyes. My agent, Jeff Kleinman, and I felt strongly that the book was not erotica, so we hoped to find an editor who agreed and would present the book in-house as a psychological thriller. Michelle Meade turned out to be the perfect person for the job. She pushed for the title change and the graphic cover, which have made a huge difference in the way it’s being perceived by readers. And she never told me to lighten up. Another big deal when you’ve got your arms around a dark little book like Alice

         As long as we’re talking genre, give us the scoop on today’s erotic and/or psychological thriller landscape, and the crossover attraction for ALICE to the literary mainstream audience.

You know, I’ve never understood the divide between literary fiction and everything else. So much of what I’ve read recently is cross-genre, with a compelling story and characters but also beautiful, evocative language. I’m thinking of books like Gone Girl and The Fault in Our Stars, The Age of Miracles, Little Bee, The Silent Wife, etc. Those are the books that resonate with me, because they each contain elements that used to be confined to a particular genre. 

Readers want that sort of thing. At least, this one does. Lately I’ve found myself dissatisfied with books that focus too much on one element over the others; I don’t get immersed in those stories the way I used to. I appreciate writers who use all their tools and really get in there and write with an original voice and point of view. To me, that’s the future of fiction. 

Whether there’s a crossover readership for Alice remains to be seen. I will only say that I took my best whack at it and I didn’t leave any tools in the box. (Puns delightfully coincidental. They rise up everywhere when you write about sex.)

      ALICE is one of the sexiest books I’ve read. Not just the sex in it per se, but the unflinching look at the dark side of sexual obsession. Where did that come from?

Damned if I know. Part of it, I suppose, was residual momentum from writing about sex in the first place. It took a lot of nerve to get to a place where I could accept my own desire to explore this sort of thing, but once there I found I’d given myself permission to write almost anything: violence, abuse, mental instability, suicide. Writing about sex broke my cherry for every manner of writerly inhibition, and from that point on I found it all much easier. 

I also felt safe in writing Alice’s story because it’s coming from her first-person point of view, in present tense. That made it much easier to present the story as she experienced it. It wasn’t about me, it was about Alice and what she saw and felt. Whenever I wondered whether I’d pushed too far, I could stop and ask myself whether what I was writing was true for Alice. Would she say this or that, would Jack say it? If the answer was yes, I forged ahead. 

You set your book in the Pacific Northwest, on Vashon Island, and at the time, you were living in Las Vegas. Ironically, you now live in the Pacific Northwest. Did you write your way up here? Do tell!

I wrote it out of wishful thinking! I could say that the setting came about because of the kind of book I was writing, that I needed a dark setting and an island to satisfy a metaphor, all of which is true, but mainly I set it on Vashon Island to please myself. I was depressed as hell in Vegas and could not wait to move. I figured if I was going to spend all this time in my head, I might as well imagine myself into a more interesting setting. 

My family and I went to Vashon, by the way, after the book had gone to print. Some of the locations were as I imagined them, but others were far wide of the mark. You can’t see Seattle from the ferry, for instance—a point of land obscures the view. And the town is much prettier than I wrote it, more upscale. But I nailed the coffee house, so my portrayal wasn’t a total loss. 

 Alice’s backstory is heartbreaking. Did you begin writing this novel with an inkling of her history or did that develop as you worked through the arc of the story?

I always knew she had a fucked-up childhood, but it wasn’t until my editor started asking questions that the backstory came to light. I wanted to be careful to build a history for Alice that felt authentic and didn’t excuse her behavior so much as explain it. I created the characters of Verity and Michael and Molly to bring some of her past into sharp relief and let the reader form her own opinions about how Alice’s childhood may have influenced her present. 

         Tell us what you can (non-spoiler stuff) about Molly. Such an intriguing character!    Molly seems much more of a character than a foil. Will she ever get her own book?
what do you mean "writerly" is not a word?
Oh, Molly, the little albino. Alice describes her childhood friend as “fantastically ugly…with long white hair that trailed over her shoulders in two lumpy braids, and boiled blue eyes that flashed a rabbity pink when the light shone in from the side.” Molly is a thief, a changeling—a product, like Alice, of the Seattle foster care system. I had serious qualms while writing Molly, but I felt she was the character who could most poignantly carry the themes of the book. Every character has trouble seeing every other, though never with such literal consequences as there are for Molly. (Always with the ham-handed metaphors. Subtlety is not my strong point.)

Molly won’t get a starring role in her own book, though I’m toying with the idea of bringing her into my next story, again as a friend of the protagonist. She’s pretty hard to resist. 

In the thriller genre, the way the author handles misdirection and reveal is critical to that “oh my god!” moment. I just finished reading Abbott’s DARE ME, and she, like you, paces her reveals so well! You make it look easy, Averil. I’ve heard it said that when a “shocker” ending works, the reader must feel both “I didn’t see it coming,” and “I knew it all along.” Was your ending an aha! moment, or something you knew going in that you tip-toed toward as you wrote?

A little of both. I knew I was writing toward some big confrontations, but I wasn’t sure how they would all come about. I would say there were several aha! moments along the way, in which I thought, Oh, of course. This is why the story needs to go there. I felt that each character was on his own trajectory, so the task for me was in getting their paths to converge. I’m a little fuzzy on how that happened, to be honest, but I remember feeling intensely relieved when it did.
             You signed a two-book contract, you clever girl! What’s the next book about and when can we devour it?
The working title is Blackbird. It’s a triple murder told in reverse, beginning with the implosion of an intense love triangle and working back through the characters’ tangled relationships to discover where it all went wrong. Structurally it’s more mystery than thriller, so I’m riding a learning curve with that. If I can wrangle the manuscript into shape, we’ll see it on bookshelves in January 2015.

         Okay folks, are you teased to no return yet? Here's a link to purchase, or hop on down to your favorite bookseller for your very own Alice.

         Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

holidays on ice

We're about two-thirds through the holidays. Another week or so of business as not-usual.

The cheer! The stress! The dashed expectations and temper tantrums along with the smell of baking cinnamon and (insert your favorite yuletime treat). What a mixture of naughty and nice, right? Silver bells and hangovers. Sudden diarrhea and mistletoe. You just never know what's around the next bend during the holidays. Sometimes it's a breathtaking view of the mountains, a puppy experiencing snow for the first time, your usually text-obsessed teenager offering rosy cheeks and conversation because you're out of cell zone - and then, BOOM, your sister-in-law breaks her wrist when she falls on the ice. A mouse (or something) skitters up your arm during the middle of the night in the rustic cabin that seemed so idyllic just a few hours earlier.

It reminds me of one of my favorite holiday tunes:

So, what do you do with all that whiplash and rubber-banding? How do you unchap your wrapping paper-cut fingers? The tense shoulders and sciatica. I was hoping the electric neck pillow my mother sent for Christmas would vibrate away the crick, but, sadly, the crick is still there, like the dot on an exclamation point right next to the top of my aching spine.

Kirk dashed off to hot yoga as soon as we arrived home and unpacked from our cabin adventure. I needed to catch up on the Sunday paper (just so I could add two or three more popular culture top ten lists to my headcheese). I figured, while I was supposed to be extending my triangle pose, I'd be thinking about what I needed to get for dinner on the way home. Virtually clicking out the list on my iPhone "notes" section as opposed to taking deep cleansing breaths. So I declined. Again.

What I did instead (after confirming in the Book Review that, yet again, male authors dominate the Young Adult bestseller list, what is up with THAT?) was to give my refrigerator a deep cleansing breath. You know, pull out the toxins (in the form of fizzy salsa and calcified yogurt) and scrub off the gelatinous rings of who-the-fuck-knows-what from the various glass shelves. It was quite a workout. And extremely relaxing. All that was missing was the restorative savasana part at the end. In substitution, I popped out to our local grocer for next month's fridge purge because God abhors a clean refrigerator.

Ah, the holidays. Only a few more days left of overeating and drinking.

What do you do to destress during this festive season?

Monday, December 23, 2013

waitress nightmares

I had one last night. One of those jaggedy dreams where you're the hub around which discontent circles. You know what I'm talking about, right? Your subconscious leaking details like a lace doily whilst your shadow figure whispers fail, fail, fail, into your ear.

My waitress days were confined to my early twenties, and I worked at such grand establishments as Howard Johnson's and Pizza Hut along with several local watering holes.

For a summer, working the counter at Hojo's, I was tortured by a whore named Maxine. Maxine's tips partly depended on my ability to produce flawless chocolate ice-cream sodas which featured a conical scoop of the world's most frozen and unscoopable confection sitting perfectly, like a witch's hat, on the rim of the glass. Maxine was an older gal with a cigarette voice, who wore her HoJo tunic hemmed up to her ass cheeks, and who had several truckdriver boyfriends she juggled with some sort of agreement to use the adjoining hotel after her shifts.

On Thursdays, when Mr. Morris, the skin-diseased manager, posted the upcoming schedules, I made the sign of the cross (this was when I was still a sort of practicing Catholic) that I wasn't working when Maxine was working. I was her bitch. Actually, everyone was her bitch. And I was an ambitionless 19-year-old home from my freshman year at Syracuse, where I had settled into willy-nilly major declaration and would, unbeknownst to me then, find myself paying student loans into my forties.

If Maxine's demands proved Sisyphean that summer, the customers and their collective quirks and abuse afforded myriad opportunities for the development of eye-tics and hives.

Hojo's in Middletown, New York was the typical easy-on-easy-off stopover on the way to the Catskills and vacationers were usually in a hurry. Wednesdays and Fridays were the worst because that was all-you-can-eat fish or clam fry day for like practically-nothing-95. Maxine never worked those days (bad tippers on ayce days), but we had some regular customers who tortured me almost as badly. For instance, a very large cross-dresser who preferred clams to fish, and bellied up to the counter in ill-fitting pumps and cheap wig, demanding that I only serve him the "whole" pieces, rather than the fryer detritus that often found its way onto the little boat-shaped plates.

In between making sure the wafers didn't touch the ice cream for the kosher folks, and preparing all the desserts for the floor staff -- and serving my own randy customer base, in particular a dude named Frank Guarini, a fair-skinned Italian fellow whose goal in life was to acquire the deepest tan possible and hit on me relentlessly until I agreed to take a ride with him in his baby blue El Camino -- I would leave work at ten or eleven, my head swimming with the orders I'd failed to deliver correctly. Once, I rolled a mustard-covered hotdog onto a customer's lap. Another time, a Band-aid from the assorted finger lacerations I acquired in scooping accidents found its way to the bottom of an ice cream sundae glass.

I was a shitty waitress.

So when things pile up, as they so often do around the holidays, I have these rust-colored tunic nightmares.The ghosts of restaurants past. The time I almost crushed my arm in the Pizza Hut dough mixer. The time a knife fight broke out at the pool table next to the bar I tended. Mouse droppings on a maraschino cherry I served at another fine tavern. The horrible divorce-inducing argument I witnessed between an older man and wife during "happy hour" at a retirement village cocktail lounge. The spirit of the service industry has nestled into my gray matter, and plays merrily after lights out, mixing the past with the present (Did I forget to lock the back door? What happened to those two Netflix discs I thought I'd mailed back but apparently didn't?). Though I draw from my imperfect past for material all the time, I can't seem to reach the bottom of the bin. You'd think that eventually waitress dreams would render themselves benign - floating into "fun dream" territory, rather than lingering beyond the midnight hour, into the next day, where the taste is like so much unchanged fryer grease in my mouth.

What's your worst service-industry job story? Should we do an anthology?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

december fog

I'm approaching the holidays differently this year. Instead of the blazing fire in the hearth, I'm slow-flickering embers. Seeping. Hissing. Planning. Scheming.

Think of The Little Match Girl at the onset of visions. The Grinch after his night on the town, his enlarged heart slowing to a steady hum. 

I blame the puppy, who requires me to arrange my waking hours around walks and potty training, and whose cuteness pretty much eclipses work, cooking, and certainly mundane activities like the laundry. Sometimes, all I can muster is putting her in the car and driving off to some trail somewhere where we wander through the frigid underbrush and then forget where we parked.

Also, I've been fighting a nasty cold for over a week. The sort that manufactures snot on some sort of assembly line akin to Santa's workshop, and has me walking around like a drunkard in a congestive daze. And then there's the novel which (along with Brady, Sabine, Connor, Martha and Nick) is about to hit the streets. That little debutante is screaming in my ear, demanding a designer gown with shoes dyed to match. Holidays, schmolidays, cries the novel! Get me an Irish coffee, Wench!

And speaking of Brady (that mischief-maker), I'm about to pull the trigger on a little something special for the holidays. A pre-moment to The Moment Before. Something free and good and full of holiday cheer for the twelve days of Christmas past which will be downloadable. Sorry I can't say more than that - I'm being cryptic, I know. But the holidays are filled with mysteries, yes?

Are you writing any secret something for Christmas?

Saturday, December 07, 2013

forest avenue press

Portland is amazing for so many reasons, and this lovely woman and her indie press, is at the top of the list. Confounded by a publishing world that largely shuns what is deemed as the "quiet" novel, Laura Stanfill saw a hole she dearly longed to fill.

This wonderful interview recently posted in Late Night Library exemplifies Laura's mission as a small, independent publisher. I encourage you all to read it, but I had to highlight a particular line that just took my breath away. Her definition of what, exactly, a quiet novel is:

"Quiet books are character-driven and rich with language and story. The hero’s journey is an interior one, where the protagonist is changed by the world, rather than charging out to change the world. Quiet novels explore the fractures in society and the gulfs between people that keep growing wider—and less reparable—in this digital age."
If you had your own publishing company, what would your mission be?

Sunday, December 01, 2013


Typically, I get a little sad as a year closes out. It's a bit like when I see an empty space that, just last month, was a thriving store. It's the writer in me, the projecting drama queen, that invents scenarios of failure. Scandal. Disease. Divorce. December with its dark cloak and thin air. Its whistle-blast of chill. The Matchstick Girl. The Grim Reaper. How can you hoist a glass all rosy-cheeked in the face of all this overness?

Do you ever see some random person on the street you think you know, then, horrified, edit the false recognition because the person you thought it was, you suddenly realize, is dead? I hate when that happens. That's what December feels like. A sort of deja vu yet-to-come. Like the A Christmas Carol and that foreboding ghost of the future. Or It's a Wonderful Life and the scary propositions of what could have been. Chains and whatnot. Evil Mr. Potter types casting glances of spite and rancor: spiritual concussion. Residue of dread.

My daughter the social worker was over tonight and poring over her laptop writing notes on intakes in preparation for several court dates where she'll be advocating in behalf of her caseload of abused children. Abuse is way up in December. As is suicide and pneumonia and fatal accidents and heart attacks.

And yet, here in my tiny writing nook with my puppy snoring beside me, on this very first day of December, I feel oddly bolstered by hope and gratitude. I spent the long weekend with various members of my loving family and long-time friends. I ate (and mostly didn't over eat) delicious, satisfying food. I read the entire Sunday paper (two of them!) and supported local merchants while eschewing big box deals. All my children were here tonight for dinner (except for the stepdaughter in California, but we had a stand-in young adult from Columbia in her stead, so it felt like a full house) and we had miso soup and sushi and salmon and potstickers (because, we're all a little sick of turkey at this point). For dessert, we nibbled on Alma ginger-almond toffee. Bliss, bliss, so much bliss.

So. My goal for the month is to smite that December downer matchstick girl ennui. I want to be energized and loving and kind to strangers and family alike. Toss the drunk dude at the highway a ramp a fiver. Offer my premium parking space to the shithead in the Escalade. Laugh at the folly of life when I accidentally track in a sodden clump of dog crap and don't notice it until I've tattooed it on every carpeted stair tread.

Tomorrow is Monday. My favorite day of the week, (it's the opposite of the end, you see). I feel a crazy joie de vivre creeping into my Grinchly tiny December heart. All those curmudgeons of fable who go from bastard-to-benevolent with Christmas spirit? That. That! Why not that?! Sing with me, won't you! Fahoo Fores Dahoo Dores...

So, friends, what's your favorite Christmas Carol?