Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Emily Arsenault.
The author of three critically acclaimed novels, Arsenault will appear at R.J. Julia this Thursday evening, August 30th. (See event details below.) Her debut, The Broken Teaglass, was named a New York Times Notable Crime Book of 2009 and the follow-up, In Search of the Rose Notes, was selected by the Wall Street Journal as one of their 10 Best Mysteries of 2011. She lives in Shelburne Falls, MA, with her husband and daughter.
Arsenault’s newest, Miss Me When I’m Gone (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99), was published last month. Publishers Weekly awarded the book a starred review and praised, “Arsenault…offers a thoughtful reflection on country music, secrets, and relationships with her outstanding third mystery…Arsenault’s lyrical, moving prose serves to make this more than just a compelling whodunit.” Further, Library Journal noted, “The characters come to life nicely, and subtle clues build to a surprising, satisfying conclusion.”
From the publisher:
Author Gretchen Waters made a name for herself with her bestseller Tammyland—a memoir about her divorce and her admiration for country music icons Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton that was praised as a “honky-tonk Eat, Pray, Love.” But her writing career is cut abruptly short when she dies from a fall down a set of stone library steps. It is a tragic accident and no one suspects foul play, certainly not Gretchen’s best friend from college, Jamie, who’s been named the late author’s literary executor.
But there’s an unfinished manuscript Gretchen left behind that is much darker than Tammyland: a book ostensibly about male country musicians yet centered on a murder in Gretchen’s family that haunted her childhood. In its pages, Gretchen seems to be speaking to Jamie from beyond the grave—suggesting her death was no accident . . . and that Jamie must piece together the story someone would kill to keep untold.
Now, Emily Arsenault takes readers between the lines of Miss Me When I’m Gone…
1) Tell us about the inspiration for MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE. How do you take the kernel of an idea and flesh it out into a serviceable plot?
When I start a book, I don’t generally know the whole plot. I usually start with a scene or two that is clear in my mind—then begin to shape a story around it. Usually about 2/3 of the way through the first draft, I change my mind about the ending and have to rewrite much of the book. For MISS ME, the book started with the piece from Tammyland in which Gretchen is sitting by herself at the fancy mall in Nashville, reflecting on Tammy Wynette’s bizarre kidnapping story.
2) You utilize a “story within a story” framework. What are the challenges of this structure? How do you see it as benefiting the story?
The main challenge for me, with this book, was making sure that the two voices in the story are distinct. With my first book, The Broken Teaglass, one voice was male and the other female, so it was relatively easy to find ways to make them sound different. With this book, I had two voices of women the same age, with similar backgrounds. So distinguishing them was more difficult. I tried to make one character’s voice (Gretchen’s) a bit more musing and lyrical. And I tried to keep Jamie more straightforward in her observations.
3) The narrative incorporates biographical information on female icons of country music (Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn & Dolly Parton) through excerpts from Gretchen’s memoir. What is it about these women and their experiences that enhance the story?
The main characters of book (Jamie and Gretchen) are both in uncomfortable places in their lives regarding relationships. Tammy, Loretta, and Dolly bring a certain honesty about relationships that speaks to Gretchen (and that could probably speak to Jamie if she listened a little more carefully). Gretchen’s Tammyland memoir also helps the reader get to know her even though she’s deceased. Her admiration for the women of country music provides a springboard for learning about her life and her personality.
4) Your protagonist, Jamie, is an expectant first time mother, as you were during the latter phases of completing the book. How did your own pregnancy inform Jamie’s character development/thought process?
What comes to mind first when you ask this is “belly crumbs.” During much of the draft stage I was in the earlier stages of pregnancy. But by the time I’d gotten revisions from my editor, I’d “caught up” with Jamie—I was about seven months pregnant, like her. So I added several little details about that stage of pregnancy—like how one’s belly catches and displays crumbs that would normally fall to the floor unnoticed. More significantly, I could relate to her uneasy feeling of needing to tie up certain elements of her life before the baby was born. (For Jamie, it was answering questions about her friend’s life and death. For me, it was finishing the book.) And like Jamie, I was a pretty grumpy pregnant woman—probably about ten times grumpier than her. In fact—my editor told me I needed to make Jamie be less mean to her husband or readers wouldn’t like her. That was interesting to hear, as Jamie wasn’t being nearly as mean to her husband as I was to mine.
5) Though touted as a mystery of sorts, the book encompasses a much broader spectrum. How do you see it as fitting into the literary landscape? What are the benefits versus risks of genre classification?
It is hard for me to classify my books. Sometimes I call them “sort-of mysteries,” or I explain that they are “books in which someone happens to die and by the end you happen to find out why.” I think that if you call your book a mystery, your audience is going to have certain expectations—there are certain rules you are expected to follow. For example, my first book, The Broken Teaglass, was marketed as a mystery. That was a little scary for me, because while the book had a dead body in it, I didn’t quite follow the rules and didn’t necessarily have the traditional mystery reader in mind when I wrote it. I worried a lot about it disappointing mystery readers and not finding the right readership. The difficulty of not categorizing your book, however, is that it could get lost in the sea of “general fiction.” It’s perhaps harder to find an audience that way.
6) Give us a little teaser as to what comes next…
I wish I could. But I’ve been a little slow to start my next book, caring for a newborn and all. I’ve had a few false starts. I’m now working on something I feel good about, but it’s too early to talk about it yet. Don’t want to jinx myself. But naturally, it’s another sort-of mystery.
With thanks to Emily Arsenault for her generosity of time and thought and to Joanne Minutillo, Associate Publicist at HarperCollins, for facilitating this interview.
Emily Arsenault will appear at R.J. Julia this Thursday evening, August 30th, at 7 p.m. The event is free but reservations are required and can be made online or by calling the store at 203-245-3959. R.J. Julia is located at 768 Boston Post Rd. in Madison.