After attending my first Thrillerfest, the world of books is drawing me closer — despite all the gloomy predictions from within the publishing industry — and from conversations over the summer, the same pull is at work on readers and aspiring writers around the globe. Towards this end, I’m mixing up the standard book review and including an interview with the author for my next several posts so that we can appreciate both the finished work and have a sense of the toil that went into producing the oldest form of technology we have.
Juggling a cheating, absent husband, and two very active children, the protagonist Zoe, battles memories of forced termination of a third pregnancy due to it threatening her own life. Is Zoe a good, albeit besieged, mother? Or are her reluctant maternal instincts about to have drastic consequences? See the excerpt below for an example of how Ms. Long builds suspense and sets the dramatic arc for these characters.
1. How did you get started as a writer?
I’ve been a writer, in one form or another, my whole life. As a child, I entertained myself by making up stories and acting in my own improvisational plays. In high school, most of my hobbies and activities involved writing. One day, brazenly, I walked into the editor’s office at the town paper and asked for a job. For a while, I covered sports and general high school news. Eventually, the editor gave me my own column. I was sixteen. That column was my first paid writing job. I earned about a dollar a week – and I knew then that writing was the only job I’d ever want. I can’t imagine a life where I didn’t write.
2. What was the hardest part of writing your book?
For a lot of writers, it’s facing a blank screen, revising, dealing with rejection. I struggle with all of this, too, to varying degrees. For me, sustaining belief—not in the project, but in myself—is, by far, the biggest challenge. I wonder if I’m on the right track, constantly second-guess myself. I’ve taught writing for 15 years, and this is my first book. There were many nights – and days – when I wondered what I was doing, and I seriously considered giving up. Dory, the little blue surgeonfish in the film Finding Nemo, says, “just kept swimming.” That really is what I’ve done. Above all, hold onto your dreams. Don’t ever give up!
3. Was there any part of writing the book that surprised you? I wrote the first draft as my MFA thesis, so I was under the gun. The writing was dreadful, but it was a breathy process; when I finished, the novel had rounded characters and a general shape. I spent the next several years immersed in the book. I was with the characters, in this fictional place, all day; the Tyler family took over my dreams. I almost believed they were alive, that Cortland, the imaginary town, was a real place. It was an adventure, and I loved every minute.
4. What advice would you give you aspiring or first time novelists? It’s hard, but believe in yourself. Trust your instincts. I know wonderful writers whose first, second or third books – really good, strong books – were rejected. To deal with the rejection, boot your computer day after day when it seems as if no one cares, as if the stars are misaligned – to self-publish in a world that privileges the traditionally published – you’ve got to believe in yourself. Writing is a lonely profession. Most of the time, we’re alone with our work. The loneliness can wear on you, and cause you to question yourself. Cherish your friendships. Your supportive writer friends can encourage and sustain you.
5. Anything else you want to tell readers?
I’d love to see In Leah’s Wake turned into a major motion picture. What writer wouldn’t love to see his or her book on the big screen? Realistically, I hope to continue writing, building an audience. I hope readers enjoy my books and, in some small way, that my works gives people hope and helps them feel connected to the community around them.
6. After attending the Oscars, what’s next?
I’m currently at work on a contemporary psychological thriller with a historical twist: Nowhere to Run takes place in the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire. A year after the brutal murder of her six-year-old daughter, Abby Minot, formerly an award-winning writer, accepts her first assignment—a profile of the philanthropic Chase family
Excerpt from In Leah’s Wake
In the dream, Zoe is rowing a canoe, in the middle of the ocean. The canoe bobs in the waves. A swell washes over her, tipping the boat, and Zoe is treading water. She tries to swim, the current too strong. The tide carries her downstream, through a narrow passageway, to a saltwater river. A party boat passes, so close she can almost reach out and touch it. People in Twenties-style clothing—mustachioed men in crisp white suits, women in short frilly dresses—are crowded on the deck, several men leaning precariously over the rail. The women laugh, sipping martinis. A band, playing on the upper deck, launches into a song, people singing, dancing. Zoe cries out, but no one hears. Suddenly, she spots Leah, floating toward her. Zoe kicks her feet, harder, harder, propelling her body forward. Leah reaches, grabbing her neck. No, Leah. We’ll both drown. Take my hand, baby. My hand.
He’s dead, Momma. He’s dead. Leah tugs Zoe’s hand.
“What?” Zoe says, somewhere between waking and sleep. “Baby, what’s wrong?”
Leah shrieks, her face blotchy, contorted. Zoe pushes to her elbows, her tongue cotton, her ears full of liquid.
A haze has fallen over the house. She searches for the clock.
The room blurs. Zoe thinks she might vomit. Leah tugs harder, trying to pull Zoe—Where? Reaching backward, using the arm of the sofa for leverage, Zoe drags herself up. Rubs her eyes, her skull expanding, her mind numb.
“Mommy, listen,” Leah cries. “You’re not listening, Mommy.”
Zoe floats toward the stairs, Leah zooming ahead. Her joints ache, the soles of her feet burning as she presses, one foot then the other, to the hardwood floor, sheer will propelling her forward. She wishes she could go back to sleep. She could sleep forever, she thinks.
“Mommy,” Leah calls, from the top of the stairs. “Hurry.”
“I’m coming, Leah. I am.”
Zoe holds onto the banister, the stairs moaning under her weight. Leah has drawn stick figures with black magic marker on the walls inside the stairwell. Her temples throb, blood draining from her head to her chest. Mommy. Come, Momma. Hurry.
What has she done? My God, Zoe thinks. What have I done?
“I did it, Mommy,” Leah cries. “I killed him.”
For one horrific moment, the world goes still. Then Zoe is shaking her daughter— “Who, Leah? Who did you kill?”—terrified of the answer.
Suddenly, the baby wails. Zoe blinks, catching her breath.
“I wanted to make him pretty, Mommy. I hadda hold him,” she sobs. “I holded him nice. I did. I tied the ribbon and he stopped breaving.”
She sees the hamster now, in Leah’s open palm, a pale blue ribbon cinching its waist.