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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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