Elizabeth Benedict
 

 

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July's author of the month is Elizabeth Benedict, creator of the stunning new break-out thriller, The Practice of Deceit!

                           Practice of Deceit

 

Review and synopsis:

New York psychotherapist Eric Lavender is happy with having reached his mid-forties and having never married.  But when his father dies and he meets the stunning and wily Colleen who has a young daughter, his interest begins to veer towards the thoughts of finally having a family.  And so when Colleen announces she is pregnant, he dives right in and makes it a reality.  Things go smoothly, at first, with the birth of their daughter, and Eric's relocation to the suburbs of the upper middle class, with Eric being pleasantly surprised at how much he adores his new lifestyle. 

But everything is soon about to turn when Eric begins to question his wife's ethics involving a client that they have in common.  And the closer he looks the more he begins to see that all is not right with his wife, that she has secrets she's been hiding, and lies she's been telling.  And the closer he gets to the truth, the more vindictive Colleen becomes, placing Eric's newfound happiness into a nightmare of epic proportions.       

Writing in the first person, Benedict convincingly nails the perspective of a die-hard bachelor who surprises himself by falling in love with domesticity, family, the suburbs, and all the cozy accoutrements that any self respecting aging lothario would run screaming from.  A man who thinks his concessions and sacrifices, along with his grudging submission to contentment, has somehow rendered him immune to the pitfalls of those he treats, his surprise at having it all turned on him is made that much more convincing.  But even more interesting is how Benedict turns the tables in the gender game, devising a Machiavellian plot that if perpetuated by a man would be, if not understood, at least accepted.  And in the hands of her female villain, it somehow seems that much more treacherous for the rage that begets it.  Authentic motivations and characters that are both despicable and engaging make this a realistic excursion into the havoc a woman can wreak if holding the right amount of power.  Highly recommended, and sure to make any bachelor think twice about marriage, this is a suspenseful and provocative look at the intricacies and dangers of intimacy with the wrong person.

 

Interview:

1.   You are certainly not a novice to the arena of published author(s); however, you are new to the suspense genre, tell us a bit about your previous novels, and why the change?

Is there anything more gripping than tales from divorce court? They're complicated, horrific, full of extraordinary revelations, and stunning reversals: all the great promise of love, commitment, and happy families is shattered. All the secrets of every marriage are suddenly public; and the stage is set for a drama of two sharply conflicting versions of reality -- and justice. Divorce is the only activity in most of our lives when we have the chance -- often against our will -- to become court room characters, when our ordinary lives become the stuff of high stakes drama.
I'm a big believer in letting the material dictate the shape -- and style and voice -- of a book. Several years ago, I became obsessed with the notion of a ruthless woman divorce lawyer who turned the stereotype of Woman As Victim on its head. She was a composite of someone I had consulted for my own divorce (but didn't hire) and someone whose antics I heard about through a friend, whose gentle male cousin was being put through the mill in what he thought would be an uncontested divorce. Once I began writing, the character of Colleen took on her own life, completely separate from any of the sparks of inspiration that brought her into the world.
A character as dynamic as Colleen turned out to need a suspenseful stage on which to act. I didn't set out to "change genres" but I let myself be taken where the material led me.
I think I'd been moving in the direction of mystery/suspense for my last two novels, ALMOST (Houghton Mifflin 2001) and SAFE CONDUCT (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1993), which involve revelations about a husband's mysterious death (ALMOST) and about an American husband's affair with a woman in the USSR during the Cold War (SAFE CONDUCT). My other novels, SLOW DANCING and THE BEGINNER'S BOOK OF DREAMS, are quieter and more concerned with the mysteries of what it means to be human -- to love, to want to be loved, to be disappointed, to be driven by delusions and cockeyed ambitions.
Each of those novels came out of a deep emotional struggle of some sort, whether I was trying to figure out a powerful relationship or a relationship I would like to have had or some profoundly moving or difficult experience I had to endure. Each of the novels begins with a very autobiographical emotion or set of emotions but the challenge for me was always to build a story and a group of characters around that core emotion that I hope will be moving to people besides myself.
I know that my novels have a very personal, intimate feel and that because I have been open about where some of the stories come from, people often assume that I am writing much more autobiographically than I am. I've had the feelings -- most of them, anyway -- of the characters in my books, but not usually the experiences.
It's always a challenge to me to write about characters who have no self-awareness, who are really not interested in or capable of understanding their behavior or their motivations, because that's a huge part of my own experience of life. Colleen, the lawyer/wife/mother in PRACTICE OF DECEIT, is a such a person. Who she really is is the central mystery of the book.



2. What's the biggest difference you may have found between writing general fiction and suspense?

As I was writing, I didn't feel that I was in another genre. I was trying to write the best book I could write about the characters and the extraordinary situations they found themselves in. At the same time, I was aware of trying to create more of a plot than in previous books. But I never wanted the plot to move the characters (although it does for those characters who are "acted upon," as when the narrator is arrested or certain other characters disappear). I wanted the characters to move the plot; wanted the characters to be acting thoroughly out of their own deepest motivations, strengths and flaws, so that we care when Eric gets arrested. We care when he meets his lawyers and feel for him during his arraignment. I didn't want the plot to be just a series of clever twists, an elaborate performance, a tap dance, which of course is great fun to watch and involves serious skill but doesn't dig very deep.
My own experience reading mysteries (and I know the mystery genre is separate from suspense) is that I'm engaged at the beginning, when X finds the dead body or is asked to investigate the murder or the disappearance, but because I don't especially care about the characters themselves -- because they seem flat and stereotypic -- I don't keep reading. I'm far more compelled by the more complicated mysteries of what it means to be alive -- and how difficult and wondrous it is to get through our lives, with all of the disappointments, hardships, and broken connections that we have to endure and negotiate.
All of that grim stuff aside, the other thing I'm hugely drawn to is the deep humor in life. I try to inject as much realistic high spirit into my books as I can, as much comic surface, as much irony, as much of the dark comedy of real life. Making people laugh is addictive -- I know this from teaching and giving readings and lectures -- and humor is one way of getting through life's hardships, as we know from all the stand-up comics in the world, whose work is often fueled by being outsiders, by being angry and marginalized. There are so many jokes about marriage, about married sex, and about getting old because there's so much real power, energy, and hidden emotion in these subjects. Making jokes about them is a way of dealing with our shared experience without exposing how scared and sad we really are. That's the kind of humor I try to incorporate into my books--because that's so much a part of my consciousness.
 


3. Your new title is quite devious, where did you get the idea from?

Speaking of humor! The title was about the 50th one I came up with, the one that the publisher and I finally agreed on! The process took months of emails, revisions, and negotiations. I remember being in Internet cafes in Venice, on vacation with my family, writing and receiving endless emails with lists of possible titles that I loved and they didn't, and then vice versa. I wish I could say that I came up with THE PRACTICE OF DECEIT roaming the hidden corners of Venice, but I didn't.
When I sold the book to Houghton Mifflin my title was DIVORCE ME NOT. No one liked that; they thought it sounded like a comedy. The working title of the book for several years before that was LETTER FROM THE SCARSDALE JAIL. When I finally called the Scarsdale town government office, to see if I could get a tour of the jail, to make sure I had my details right, they told me there was no jail! There went that title. There was only a police holding cell, which I did eventually get a tour of. It has three cells. A police officer showed me around, let me into one of the cells (they were all empty), and I sat down on the wooden bench and took notes. I was very clear with him. I said, "Whatever you do, PLEASE don't lock the door on me! I don't want to have any real life experience of that!" I realized how completely terrified and powerless I would feel with that cell door locked-- even though I had walked into the cell voluntarily.
The publisher had shifting ideas of what sort of title they wanted, once they made it clear they didn't want DIVORCE ME NOT. Because the book does move more into genre fiction than my earlier work, as the revisions evolved (I did a major revision once it was sold), it was rather more of a group decision than any I'd been involved in with my previous books. Once the final revision was done, the word was that the book was about betrayal -- rather than divorce or the perils of marriage -- and they wanted a title that reflected that. The final choice came down to THE PRACTICE OF DECEIT and my first choice, which was related but a bit more literary. I polled a lot of friends to get their views, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for what became the title. I'm quite happy with it, and I appreciate all the collaboration that went into choosing it. It was quite an elaborate process.
 


4. It's very interesting that you decided to approach this from a first person narrative, with the voice being a man, no less! Why did you decide to tell this tale from a male's perspective?

Since I've explained the background energy that fueled the book -- the mystery of Colleen -- it may seem a bit surprising to hear how I began writing the book itself. It speaks to the mysteries and wonders of art and creativity. One night I was innocently sitting and reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” A few minutes later, I found myself writing a story in a man’s voice, from a jail cell, explaining how he got there. He was there because of a charge his wife made against him. That was all I knew then, except that I felt I was beginning something large. I'd been listening to various searing divorce stories for about a month, and something completely unexpected clicked after I read King's letter. The last thing I'd been doing that night was intending to start a new novel!
I don’t think most writers sit down and say, “Now it’s time to write a new book. Where do I start?” It’s something that creeps up on you or takes a swipe at you from out of nowhere. It was quite surprising and delicious to find this man’s voice trickling out of my pen.
Once the novel was underway and I talked to people about it, I became a magnet for horrific divorce stories -- one dramatic tale of injustice and loss after another. The pattern was that the women lost financial security and the men lost their connections to their children. Not all of those stories, but all of that emotion, that terrain of upheaval and anguish, found its way into the novel.



5. Some might feel that it's usually the woman who gets the short end of the stick in such cases. And as such, one has to wonder if you've received any type of commentary from this group? And if so, what might your response be?

The responses I've gotten from a lot of readers so far suggest that people like reading about a woman who's a villain--I suppose because it's the exception rather than the rule. But absolutely -- women and children ARE usually the victims in these cases, because of inequities in the workplace and the realities of child rearing. That truth, that harsh reality, is also represented in the novel. It would have been safe to write about a woman who is shortchanged in her divorce, but I didn’t want to do the predictable thing. Our first instinct is to assume the man is the villain -- that he gets what he deserves in a bruising settlement -- but that isn’t always the case. I wanted to ask: What happens when the man is victimized? Kramer vs. Kramer is as gripping as it is because the father, not the mother, is forced to be the child’s caretaker. People being forced to assume an identity that's against the stereotype is always notable, whether it leads to comedy or drama.
These are incendiary subjects, and everyone comes to them with a suitcase full of intense feelings and unique personal history, whether divorce has happened to you, your kids, or your siblings.
There's a moment in the book, when Eric meets Colleen; he remembers a lawyer joke. "It's ninety percent of the lawyers who give the other ten percent a bad name." Sad to say, it's a "X number" of irresponsible men and deadbeat dads who give the rest of them a bad name. Colleen's legal tactics find an audience in the courtroom, because judges ARE willing to believe the worst about men's behavior. There's a reason for that; the good guys are victimized by their bad news brothers. But there are also women who learn how to take advantage of that (and don't we cheer when the underdog comes up from behind and wins?). It's a hugely complicated social issue --that of course cuts to the heart of family life -- and because men are never going to have the babies, I don't see it being resolved anytime soon. I suppose in the meantime, there are lots of good stories to be told.



6. What was the most difficult aspect of writing in a male's voice? The least difficult?

I knew early on that the narrator had to be a psychotherapist. It was the only male voice I felt confident I could sustain through a whole novel -- a man whose business is people’s emotional lives. It took a while longer to decide that his wife should be a tough, unsentimental lawyer who specializes in divorce. That gave the story a lot of potential for conflict and exploring places -- public and private -- where law and psychology collide. The sensitive shrink husband and the ruthless lawyer wife are a disaster-waiting-to-happen.
It took a long time to find Eric’s voice. Early on, I knew I was in trouble when I showed the first two chapters to an editor who has published my work before and he politely declined them. I realized the voice was too placid. I did what I often do when I come to an impasse, pick up all sorts of books, looking for something that shakes me up. I remember being in a bookstore and reaching for Nick Hornby’s HIGH FIDELITY, which I had tried to read before but hadn’t appealed to me. That day it did. It somehow opened up this energetic, angry, funny male voice that gave me the new, improved Eric.



7. Your main character is quite realistic. What type of research did you have to do to make him so believable?

Once I had the foundation for his voice, I looked for books that would help me know how Eric might think and experience the world. I read Robert Bly’s book, IRON JOHN, about how men struggle with their feminine and masculine sides, and this became something that Eric referred to as he grappled with his situation. I thought about having him consider standard psychology texts, which he would be familiar with, but I didn’t want to turn the novel into a lecture or study of competing theories, so I resisted that. I also looked at several books by therapists about the differences between male and female psychology and speech, including a serious book with a funny title: IF MEN COULD TALK.
There were moments when Eric had to describe how people or rooms looked, and I was very aware of how differently men and women notice the physical world. When he first sees the infant who will become his stepdaughter, I knew he wouldn’t notice her features the way a woman might, so I have him say something like, “I’m a bachelor, what do I know about babies? She looked like a baby, soft and drooly.”
In any earlier draft, he noticed Colleen’s breasts excessively. The woman editor who read it kept writing in the margins, “Too much with the breasts already!” but I’m not convinced I had that wrong.
I also gave copies of the manuscript to a number of men, including several lawyers, psychiatrists, and a male friend who is a wicked smart reader of my work and who has been married for twenty years. I made sure that they believed Eric's voice, Eric's perceptions, Eric's responses to the circumstances of his life. Where they didn't buy something, I rewrote.



8. The truth now, did you have a whole lot of fun in writing this one?

Why are writers so resistant to admitting that we like what we do? My first reaction to your question is: fun? How can you have fun when you're working so damn hard? My arms hurt, my shoulders hurt, my tendonitis flared up for months at a time. I had to buy new chairs and computer desks to keep all the aches and pains to a minimum, never mind the acupuncture and physical therapy. But now that I've established the extent of my suffering, okay, I'll admit there were times it was fun. When I realized I was writing about a character who tries to pass herself off as someone else -- and the ambivalence Eric feels about finding out who his wife really is -- I had a wonderful time watching two favorite chilling movies: ALL ABOUT EVE and BODY HEAT, and trying to see what I could learn about creating women characters who aren't the people they seem to be.
And since you asked, I rather liked feeling I could write a book with a strong plot. My emphasis in other novels has always been more on character, setting, intimate drama. THE PRACTICE OF DECEIT required me to learn a few other moves that I didn't know I could handle.



9. Tell us a bit about what you might go through from inception of an idea to the final manuscript, for instance, which is the easiest part and which is the most difficult?

Every book of mine has been different at the early stages. My first novel, SLOW DANCING, evolved from a short story I wrote when I was 24 or 25. I showed it to someone I'd always shown my work to and he said, "This really needs to be a novel. This character needs the room of novel in which to be explored." That was a life-changing response. I had always wanted to write a novel but had no idea how to begin or what would inspire me. I began keeping a notebook and took notes whenever I felt moved to, thinking of characters and situations and settings that I might include. I wrote the book when I was 27 to 29 and it was published when I was 30.
During the later stages of writing it, I had a note above my desk that said "my father's ambition." He was a hugely ambitious man whose dream was to be rich in a Gatsby-like way. Life didn't turn out that way for him; quite the contrary. There was a woman we knew when I was a kid, who lived in our apartment building in Manhattan and whom I adored. I wanted her to be my mother because she was everything my mother wasn't: tall, beautiful, glamorous, oozing self-confidence and sophistication. She was also a terrible alcoholic with a tragic personal life, which it took me many years to see. One day I said, "What if she had had a daughter?" That became THE BEGINNER'S BOOK OF DREAMS, my second novel, about a girl growing up as her imagined daughter (she had a son in real life). That book was also about my father's failed ambitions. It's my favorite of my books, the one I have the tenderest feelings for, not so much because of the subject but because of the writing itself and that magical period in New York City, the early and mid-1960s.
So each book begins with a group of inspirations of all sorts, but as I work on them, I work in roughly the same way: chapter by chapter. I work on a computer, write a few pages a day. Print out what I've written at the end of the day and then edit on paper that night. In the morning, enter the edits on the screen and keep editing and add a few pages. It takes a few weeks or more to write a chapter. I usually don't begin a new chapter until I've polished the one I'm working on. I keep notes for ideas that I have for later on in the book. If I have space on the walls, I use giant Post-It notes that I can sometimes find in office supply stores. They're easel size pieces of paper and I love standing up and writing on them with a marking pen; it's very freeing, very liberating, a bit, I imagine, like Jackson Pollock flinging paint (though I know the reality of his painting is different from the myth).
So everything is rewritten dozens of times. I print out every day and I keep all the printed out pages in a pile. At the end of a novel, the piles are more than a foot high, sometimes two feet high.
Once the chapters are in a substantial pile, I will pause and read everything I have -- 5 or 8 or 10 chapters -- often because I don't know what should happen next. And then I begin rewriting again, because I see things that I couldn't see when I first wrote them. Once I see the arc of the thing, I often know what comes next.
Once I begin showing things to my agent, which is only when I have half a book, sometimes the whole thing, another round of rewrites sometimes begins. Or after I sell a book. Editors always want changes. And I'm always open to taking in the reactions of good readers.
No wonder my fingers hurt!
 


10. Share with us some of your favorite authors, and perhaps some of your biggest inspirations?

When I was in college, at Barnard from 1972 to 1976, and began wanting to write fiction, the world was a very different place. There were three women writers whose work and whose lives were huge to me: Joan Didion, who had only published a book of essays and a novel or two; Virginia Woolf, whose life and work were being rediscovered and lionized, particularly because of her nephew's major biography; and Doris Lessing, particularly her novel, THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK, to which many women I knew were sort of addicted. These were the embryonic stages of the modern women's movement. In 1973, a Barnard graduate published a novel that shook the world: FEAR OF FLYING by Erica Jong. It was a very exciting, fertile to begin to think of oneself as a writer, and as a "woman writer," as the phrase used to be, but there was not the panoply of role models and the shelves of women's books that there are today. There were endless debates about whether one should be or should want to be a "writer" or "a woman writer," and given how much the world has changed since then, these memories seem very quaint. I didn't come from a literary family and it never occurred to me to want to be a writer -- much less that I COULD be a writer -- until I went to college and was exposed to these works and these lives.
I read widely now and like all sorts of writers and efforts--fiction, memoirs, poetry. I tend to gravitate to Americans and English writers, or certainly English-speakers. Philip Roth has meant a great deal to me, because of his tenacity, his unflinching commitment to his material, the sheer power of his sentences. In no particular order, I love the work of Russell Banks, Grace Paley, James Salter, Jamaica Kincaid, Peter Carey, Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Hardwick. And lots more.



11. And finally, what can we expect next? Any ideas already fermenting in your mind for your next sure to be exciting novel?

I think there might be a dead body in the next novel. There might be a conflict about how it got that way. There might be people who have different investments in believing one version versus another. (I suppose that's sounds like a mystery, doesn't it?) That's all I'm willing to say for right now, but thanks for asking.

 

Brief bio:

Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five critically acclaimed novels -- most recently THE PRACTICE OF DECEIT and ALMOST -- and a classic book on writing, THE JOY OF WRITING SEX: A GUIDE FOR FICTION WRITERS, which is used in creative programs as well as more informally, by writers of memoir and genre fiction. She has written book reviews, essays, and an assortment of articles for many publications, including THE NEW YORK TIMES, the WASHINGTON POST, THE BOSTON GLOBE, ESQUIRE, HARPER'S BAZAAR, THE AMERICAN PROSPECT, TIN HOUSE, and SALMAGUNDI. Benedict has taught fiction and non-fiction writing at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, Princeton University, Harvard Extension School, and the New School, among other colleges and universities. She lives in New York City and in the Boston area.
 

To learn more about Elizabeth Benedict and all her novels, please drop into her website at  www.elizabethbenedict.com