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Author Interviews

Author Interview: Cornelia Read

Cornelia Read's series character, Madeleine Dare, is so original - she's a former debutante from money "so old there's none left"- and so well drawn, as are all the characters in Read's books, that she won't leave your head. Coupled with Read's beautiful prose and narrative talent, this is a new writer to be reckoned with.

Q: I've read both your books and enjoyed them both. I thought the writing in Field of Darkness was incredibly beautiful, but the second book feels more focused to me. Did it feel that way when you were writing it? In a way it's a much more straightforward story.
A: Thank you very much, Robin, and I'm so glad you enjoyed both books.

I wanted Field to cover Madeleine's complicated personal history: hippie / preppie bi-coastal childhood, ancestral fortunes made and squandered, and soul-searching about whether or not it's ethical to enjoy the privileges her family background still affords her - not to mention the shattered-nuclear-family chaos that so many kids born into the Sixties had to navigate.

I hoped readers would have a sense of Madeleine's anthropological baggage. You need to understand her reaction to the context of Syracuse. This is a chick who's survived so much cultural upheaval that the steady pulse of the heartland makes her feel like an extra-terrestrial.

At the end of all that, Madeleine comes to terms with her heritage. The Crazy School is about who she is in the present. In some ways, it's about redemption. She's trying to figure out how you get over damage and become a decent grownup, how you transmute sadness into compassion.

Q: At the end of Field you talk about how much of the book was autobiographical. Did the second book also include elements of your life? Did you ever work in a school like the one you write about? If you didn't, how did you research it?
A: I often joke that I have no imagination, I just take really good notes. Both books are ninety-something percent autobiography

I worked at a boarding school for disturbed kids in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts during the fall of 1989. I replicated the jargon, the "therapeutic" regimen, and even the geography of the real place, which was called the DeSisto School.

There were no murders when I taught there. Other than that the gothic bits are verbatim. I still have nightmares about it.

I'm starting to hear from a lot of ex-students. So far, they think I've done a good job portraying it accurately. I did a reading at a local bookstore this past Sunday, and there was a woman in the audience who'd spent a year at DeSisto. She spoke about her experience as a student during the Q & A, and it was heart-rending. Oddly enough, she's now a book publicist. Very cool woman, and I hope to hang out with her again.

Q:There are a couple of things I find really interesting - one is your decision to set the stories in the 1980's, which I hope you will talk about, and the other was the use of a recurring character. The first book felt like a standalone; when I started the second and saw that the main character had the same name, I was almost surprised! Is this something you were urged to do by your publisher? I know how popular series fiction is - I love it myself - and I also know publishers urge writers to create a series.
A: Well, I wanted to come to terms with my own history, I guess, which is pretty indistinguishable from Madeleine's. She's gutsier than I am, though. Also more of a bitch. At least I like to think so.

I tell the stories in the period they happened to me. I'm not sure why I started with Syracuse. I guess because it's steeped in such a real-life noir sensibility. It felt like a Jim Thompson novel from the moment I stepped out of my car.

I find Upstate New York to be a haunted, and haunting, place. Every time you turn a corner, you catch this post-industrial ghost-shimmer of what American used to be. What it used to believe about itself. There's a tremendous poignancy in that.

Q: Since it IS a series, how do you see Madeleine's story arc progressing? I think it's interesting that in both books you have scooted the husband off canvas for much of the story, a choice I liked, because while Madeleine has a safe haven, away from home she's a strong woman who figures things out for herself. In a way it's almost a new formula as classic female kick ass heroines - V.I. Warshawski, Kinsey Milhone, Tess Monaghan, Sharon McCone, etc. - have mostly operated on their own. It's almost a part of their characters, even if they have occasional boyfriends.
A: It's very important to me that Madeleine is in charge of her own rescue. She's not exactly a damsel, but if she gets herself into a jam she grabs the nearest shotgun and doesn't whine about it. I'm about to turn forty-five, but I remain deeply in touch with my inner tomboy.

Madeleine couldn't exist without V.I. and Kinsey and Sharon, but she's trying to figure out how to emulate their courage without going it quite so alone. Tess is more like an older cousin - the extremely cool older one who lets you have a sip of her beer when the grownups aren't looking.

Q: Who are your influences? (You're not allowed to answer Jane Austen, by the way, even if you worship her.) I see some similarities to Laura Lippman's wonderful standalones, but I also see lots of similarities to writers like Minette Walters and Ruth Rendell in her Barbara Vine persona.
A: I would give my eyeteeth to be able to write as well as those three. I love what each of them can do with character, voice and place...just stunning, all around.

I like to pretend I'm the secret love-child of Nancy Mitford and James M. Cain, with slight hints of junior-varsity Nabokov and Hunter S. Thompson around the edges. At least that's how I plan to describe myself in chat rooms.

Q: What do you start with - character, narrative or setting? All three seem very important to you but I wonder if one takes precedence over the other.
A: I usually start with a visual, some remembered detail of a specific moment.

With Field it was a late night housefire one street away from our old apartment in Syracuse. I try to put myself back in that exact instant, call up all the sensory stuff that made it lodge in my mental files to begin with: Summertime. How muggy it was. How the sparks looked in the billowing smoke. The way it smelled before and after the flames were put out. The sirens in the distance.

With Crazy it was the absolutely repellent color of the classroom I taught in: baby-crap mustard slapped thick on cinderblock walls. It offended me. I couldn't believe someone had the gall to shove kids in a room that ugly. I mean, seriously, if someone picked out the paint chip in a hardware store it would have "carbuncle" or "pestilence" printed on the back to describe the shade, you know? It seemed like a punishment.

When I picture that color, everything about DeSisto comes rushing back. But with those two things as starting points...well, then I have to write a couple of paragraphs about them, and then it turns into pages, and then eventually I have to cut out nearly all of it because I got so damn carried away with myself.

At the moment I have four pages about the way the platform looks at the Long Island Railroad station in Jamaica, Queens. I know I'll only be able to use two sentences, at the end of the day, but I have to wallow around in it first and get hopelessly Byzantine and Proust-licious.

I once spent six hours trying to describe the oarlocks on an Adirondack guide boat. In the final draft all it said was "they went fishing for trout".

It reminds me of the story about Dustin Hoffman staying up for three days straight or something to get into character for Marathon Man, and when he showed up on the set all scraggly and crazy-eyed, Lawrence Olivier took one look at him ans said, "My dear boy, why don't you try acting?"

Q: Do you plan to have Madeleine take time to deal with some of the traumas she's experienced in the first two books? I was listening to two writers speak recently and one of them said that modern mystery fiction is all about aftermath, something I agree with and find very interesting. What are your thoughts on that?
A: I think the aftermath is the interesting stuff, but it's tough to handle in an amateur-sleuth series. It's not just "Cabot Cove Syndrome", where you start to wonder if Jessica Fletcher is (unbeknownst to the writers) in fact history's most successful serial killer - it's how much trauma you can heap on one person AND in each succeeding plot line.

I mention the events of the first book in my second - one of the reasons Madeleine stays at the crazy school is that she's distraught about having shot and killed someone. She discusses it with her school-appointed therapist.

But sometimes I wonder what will happen if I do that every time. Like, fifty books in, she'll be sitting in a bar somewhere, saying, "well, and then there was the guy I threw into the pit with that pack of rabid mastiffs...no, wait, that came AFTER I was forced to decapitate Great-Aunt Bunny with my sister's chainsaw..." Could get a wee bit unwieldy, you know?

Q:How'd you get your start? I can't believe you came up with a sophisticated, polished, beautiful novel like Field of Darkness out of the blue. There have to be some first tries in a drawer somewhere!
A: You are most kind. I'd like to say it all came to me in a sudden and complete vision, like The Book of Mormon or something, but I must confess I have this incredibly overwrought memoir that I worked on sporadically for twenty years. I started it in First Novels class, senior year of college. It's now locked in a file cabinet put in our garage. I hope I never find the key.

Basically I took the good bits and threw them in a blender with a serial killer - for five years. Et voila!

Q:What's up next for you? I know The Crazy School just came out but I loved it and am already looking forward to another book.
A: The working title of book three is Invisible Boy. Almost twenty years ago, a distant cousin of mine named Cate Ludlam was working with a volunteer group of local high school students to clear brush from an abandoned cemetery in Jamaica, Queens. One of the kids hacked into a twelve-foot-high tangle of vines and uncovered the skeleton of a three year old boy (true story).

Cate helped bring his killer to justice, and has stayed committed to Prospect Cemetery ever since. It's now a gem of a place.

When she gave me a tour last November she said, "I had to make sure that happened to that little boy could never, ever happen to a child here agin." I have her permission to let Madeleine co-opt that story.

Cate has also put together a magnificent website about the history of Prospect at ProspectCemetaryAssociation.org.

Robin, thank you so much for these wonderful questions!

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