New Mystery Reader: Congratulations on your fiction novel debut! Tell us a bit about where your story came from.
Holly Goddard Jones: Thank you! I started thinking about the book in late 2007. I’d read a story about a child going into the woods and getting frightened by an old man, and it got me to thinking about my own childhood excursions into an undeveloped, sort of wooded area near my family’s working class subdivision. And that got me to thinking about a crime that happened in my hometown when I was a little girl—a woman was murdered, and her body was found abandoned in a shack about a half-mile from my house. When I’d go into these wooded areas near home to play and explore, for the longest time I had that murder in the back of my mind. It seemed possible to me that I could find a body, which was a scary prospect but also sort of an exciting one. That’s what got me rolling on this: the image of those “woods” between subdivisions, a body lying in wait, and the group of characters connected to that body—its disappearance and discovery.
NMR: Compared to your previous writing experiences, what was the biggest challenge in tackling your first novel?
HGJ: Well, the only way to learn to write a novel is by writing a novel, and that was the hardest, scariest part. For years I felt lost; I had to believe that I could fake being a novelist until at some point I wasn’t faking anymore. And that’s actually what ended up happening. But living in that not knowing for so long—feeling like a liar each time I said I was working on a novel, because a part of me doubted I’d ever have the skill to finish it—was distressing. You invest a long time into a project, not knowing if anything will ever come of it, and that’s one of the ways in which working on a novel is quite different from working on a series of short stories.
NMR: Your characters share the same small town, with a similar sense of loneliness and isolation, as well as the discontent of forever being labeled as they started out, all aspects that are not likely to change in your story. What inspired you to include these aspects as the impetus for the events that followed?
HGJ: When crimes occur, I think we tend to immediately clamor to recognize types of people, to try to organize the tragedy into some set of familiar categories. It’s a way to exercise some control over the distressingly random nature of a horror like murder. So what I wanted to do with this book is tell the story of a missing woman—and of course there are so many cultural assumptions about that narrative—in a way that undermines the familiar narrative. The Natalee Holloway case is an example of the kind of archetypal “missing girl” story. The victim was a good girl, young, pretty, her whole life ahead of her. The perpetrator was handsome but unsettling—probably sociopathic. The news media has created this pattern for us, a comforting us and them. I wanted those distinctions to be a little blurrier in this book, so that you can feel both empathy and frustration with all of the characters involved.
NMR: Your novel is very character-focused and includes such a variety of characters: from a young girl to a bored school teacher to an aging factory worker to a wild party girl. What inspired your decision to include such different viewpoints as opposed to focusing on the more typical one heroine/ one villain approach?
HGJ: I’ve always loved big books with lots of distinct characters. I like reading them—which means I’m a sucker for books like The Passage—and I like writing them, because it’s so fun to imagine the lives of so many different types of people. I think it’s one of the chief delights of being a fiction writer.
NMR: What did you find to be the biggest challenge in changing viewpoints during the writing process?
HGJ: The challenge is keeping the reader’s interest. There’s the risk that you get your reader invested in one storyline only to switch off to another, and that can make for a disorienting read. You have to build in enough urgency from thread to thread to implicitly make the promise that all of the stories will be woven together in a satisfying way, a way that is (ideally) greater than the sum of the individual parts. I think it’s a matter of voice—of bringing some recognizable sensibility to the prose that’s there whether you’re in the school teacher’s head or the factory worker’s.
NMR: Some authors say that their characters come to them almost fully formed, and others say they evolve from the story. In your novel, which came first – the story or the characters?
HGJ: Aspects of both plot and character tend to come to me in such close proximity that it’s hard sometimes to tell where one leaves off and the other begins—but I do think my characters have precedence, that it’s through knowing them that I’m able to determine what will happen next. And sometimes my characters surprise me, reveal new dimensions of themselves, which means that the plot goes in a direction I might not have initially anticipated. In other words, plot bends to motive for me, and not the other way around.
NMR: Which character did you enjoy creating the most, and which was the most difficult?
HGJ: I could answer this question a couple-dozen different ways, depending on which part of the book I was writing and how I define for myself enjoyment and difficulty. In some ways Susanna was the most difficult character, because she carries so much responsibility for the book’s coherence, which means that her scenes were often bridge scenes rather than climactic scenes—and those are not as fun to write. You don’t get to see Susanna doing something exciting like slapping a man or chasing after a bloodhound who has caught a scent. But Susanna was clearer as a person to me than a character like Emily, who seems to have some kind of an undiagnosed psychological issue, or Tony, who was scary and challenging to write because he’s black, and I wondered if I had the skill to depict him with nuance and authenticity. But I did enjoy writing Tony; I think I learned some things making the attempt to live in his head, see the town through his eyes. And I had great fun writing about his history with baseball.
NMR: The suspense/mystery genre tends towards a series of novels featuring reoccurring characters as opposed to stand-alones. What led your decision towards the stand-alone versus a novel and characters that could be carried forward?
HGJ: You know, the interesting thing about this book and how it’s being marketed and received is that I didn’t set out to write a mystery or crime novel or suspense thriller. I have a pretty conventionally literary background, and my first book was a collection of short stories. Now, I should say here that I do think I’ve always cared about story and plot, and I wanted my first novel to be a moving picture and not just a beautiful, static illustration, but genre wasn’t really in my head as I started out. So that’s why this is a stand-alone novel—it never occurred to me that it could be anything else. Also, my experience with the mystery genre and series books is that the reoccurring character is generally the investigator, and much of the pleasure of the book is derived from watching this investigator’s mind at work. Tony could certainly be a fun character to revisit, but I don’t know if his job as a detective is always going to be the most interesting them about him, at least in the sense of his being an investigator of a major crime. Roma doesn’t have many of those!
NMR: Which character will you miss the most and perhaps wish you could bring back?
HGJ: I loved Helen, the nurse—I’d enjoy having her as a friend in real life—but I don’t particularly long to write her into another project. Tony is probably the surviving character with the most narrative potential, because he ends the book thinking he might eventually run for sheriff, and that would be interesting to see in a small Kentucky town in the 90s.
NMR: And finally, with the critics and a solid fan base behind you, what can we look forward to next?
HGJ: I’m afraid to talk about what I’m working on now—it’s so different, so strange. I had to write a bit about the project for a report on my recent research leave from work, and my department head, who read the narrative, said to me that it seemed like I was going to have a literary career like a Kubrick or a Scorsese, always trying out new genres with each project. And I like the sound of that, though it’s a risk. I think the industry wants you to pick a type of thing and stick to it, build a brand. But I don’t want to be a brand. It’s like the character thing—I just want to keep trying on new hats.:
NMR: Which character did you enjoy creating the most, and which was the most difficult?
HGJ: I could answer this question a couple-dozen different ways, depending on which part of the book I was writing and how I define for myself enjoyment and difficulty. In some ways Susanna was the most difficult character, because she carries so much responsibility for the book’s coherence, which means that her scenes were often bridge scenes rather than climactic scenes—and those are not as fun to write. You don’t get to see Susanna doing something exciting like slapping a man or chasing after a bloodhound who has caught a scent. But Susanna was clearer as a person to me than a character like Emily, who seems to have some kind of an undiagnosed psychological issue, or Tony, who was scary and challenging to write because
Holly Goddard Jones is the author of The Next Time You See Me, a novel, and Girl Trouble, a collection of short stories. Her work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, New Stories from the South, Tin House, Epoch, and elsewhere. She lives in Greenboro, NC, and teaches creative writing at UNCG.
For more information, visit Holly's website at www.hollygoddardjones.com.