Q: What inspired you to write The Garden of Dead Dreams?
A: I’ve always loved atmospheric mysteries where the detective solves a puzzle through historical and literary documents. I inhaled Possession by A.S. Byatt, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Carol Goodman’s mysteries, Lady of the Snakes by Rachel Pastan and similar works. Meanwhile my husband attended a small, intimate master’s program when he got his teaching degree, and I had many friends who were attending a small great books school in town. So I was fascinated by the dynamics of small academic settings. For years, I was obsessed with learning to write fiction, and I took classes and read every book and website I could find about it. Needless to say, I became very familiar with the language of teaching writing. So a small creative writing academy seemed like the perfect setting. As far as the plot line, it was in part inspired by Donald V. Coerrs arguments in John Steinbeck Goes to War: The Moon is Down as Propoganda. The rest came together as I wrote.
Q: Many of the characters in the book are trying to create new lives for themselves. What interested you about that theme?
A: I studied history in college, and I’m interested in how people relate to their individual and cultural past. Do our pasts make us who we are? Can we escape our pasts, as societies often try to do when they lose a war? Moreover, my mom and aunt studied our genealogy, and like many people, they uncovered something unexpected. One of our ancestors made a conscious decision to remake herself. But eventually the secret came out. It made me reflect on whether it’s really possible to escape the past.
Q: The book takes place at a writer’s academy. Have you attended one?
A: No, the Buchanan Academy is purely fictional and mostly based on anecdotes from friends about various writing programs and isolated communities, accounts I’ve read, and a healthy dose of imagination. Recently I had the pleasure of sitting next to a talkative young woman who’s attending a prominent writing academy. I was struck by how much it sounded like the Buchanan Academy, but I’m sure it’s quite different too.
Q: You’ve worked as a freelance magazine writer. How is that different from writing a novel?
A: I started writing a novel the day after I graduated from college, and have been writing novels on and off for the thirteen years since. (It takes a lot of practice, apparently!) I started writing magazine articles about five years ago, after I had my first son. I love writing both, and they complement each other well. Knowing how to set a scene, draw vivid characters, and use dialogue makes an article come to life. And good research and interview skills make for more realistic fiction. Freelance writing has also helped me hone my business and marketing skills — a definite necessity for novelists these days.
Q: Petra Atwell is a memorable character. Where did you draw your inspiration for her?
A: I was surprised by how many early readers fell in love with Petra Atwell. A few said that Petra is their hero. She is the book’s truth teller, and she says things as they are regardless of others’ feelings. Apparently that’s a trait many people respect. Writing fiction is as close to magic as anything I know, and amazingly Petra sort of introduced herself to me fully-formed. Thus I can’t really say what inspired her, except that I imagine most of us have some Petra Atwell in us. Perhaps too often, though, we censor that side of ourselves.
Q: You’ve called the book a literary mystery. What does that mean?
A: My goal was to write an entertaining page-turner with a rich plot, a beach read if you will, so I hesitate to call it literary, since that term holds the opposite connotation for a lot of people. I only use it to let readers know that this is a puzzle solved through literature — poems, stories, books, and historical documents. These are my favorite kinds of mysteries to read. I love real-life historical and literary research. I worked at library reference desks for many years and delighted in the academic puzzles people brought for me to help them solve. And yes, I love the show History Detectives.
Q: What are your favorite books, and who are your favorite authors?
When I worked at a large bookstore and libraries, I helped connect countless readers with novels to suit their tastes, so I know well that not all books appeal to all people. If you enjoy the same books as I do, you will probably enjoy The Garden of Dead Dreams. I tend to love books that lurk somewhere between genre and literary. I loved Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and The Goldfinch, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Carol Goodman’s mysteries, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, Tobias Wolff’s Old School, Rachel Pastan’s Lady of the Snakes, Emma Donaghue’s Room, books by Chris Bohjalian, Liane Moriarty, and so, so many more. (Other readers have compared The Garden of Dead Dreams to books by Kate Morton and Susanna Kearsley.) Like most readers, I’m discovering more indie writers these days, like Carmen Amado and Toby Neal. I talk about books on Goodreads, and I’d love to connect with readers there.
Q: What can readers expect to see from you next?
I’m working on a new mystery series featuring Lennon Emberley, a San Francisco investigative journalist who is solving mysteries while grappling with the massive changes happening in journalism right now. The first book should be out this fall. You can subscribe to my newsletter for occasional updates.
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