I wanted to read more books like THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, so I dweebishly Googled, “Books like GIRL ON THE TRAIN,” which lead me to THE GOOD GIRL, Mary Kubica’s 2014 debut novel about a young woman’s abduction. Kubica’s characters were nicer, and more sympathetically-drawn, than Hawkins’s. Much of the novel’s action occurred in the Minnesota woodlands, which Kubica rendered expertly, and I was fascinated by the Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship that gradually developed between the kidnapped woman and her captor. Again though, it was the story itself—rather than secondary psychological musings or the lyrical passages about the brutal cold of an unheated cabin in Minnesota’s winters—that had me hooked.
I’ve since run many dweebish Google searches, and read a boatload of books I wouldn’t have picked up had I not first read THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and THE GOOD GIRL. Among the best were Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL and S.J. Watson’s BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP. A common misperception among lit fiction aficionados is that “commercial” fiction usually isn’t very well written. I’ve not found this to be true. Although Google led me to a few clunkers, Gillian Flynn and Lisa Jewell (whose new novel, THE GIRLS IN THE GARDEN, I read last week) are among the best pure writers I’ve read in recent years.
Last weekend, during the lightning storms that discombobulated our holiday weekend plans, I read Mary Kubica’s new novel, DON’T YOU CRY. Although it’s a quieter novel than THE GOOD GIRL, it builds to the most riveting conclusion of all the novels I’ve recently read. I reached out to Mary Kubica, who kindly consented to answer a few questions via email.
Question: DON’T YOU CRY is told through two alternating present-tense first-person narratives. Quinn is a recent college graduate working a dead-end job at Chicago law firm who awakes one morning to discover her roommate (Esther) has mysteriously vanished. Alex is a recent high school grad living off-season in a summer resort town who becomes curious about an odd young woman (“Pearl”) who drifts into the diner where he works.
The way you juggle these two narrators is really interesting. Although readers sense a connection exists between Esther and Pearl, the paths of Alex and Quinn never directly cross. So many novels nowadays are told with fractured or conflicting narrations. Here though, I don’t sense two different viewpoints but, rather, two different investigations that gradually zero in on the novel’s central mystery. In some ways, Quinn and Alex represent the “before” and “after” narrations—Quinn largely uncovers the mysteries and events that lead up to Esther’s disappearance, while what Alex finds out about Pearl helps readers understand what happened after Esther disappeared.
How did you arrive at this narrative strategy, and what difficulties did it pose to you as a writer? Although it all made sense to this reader, were there times when you wanted to introduce different characters’ perspectives? Was there ever a moment, for instance, when you started drafting, say, an Esther-narrated chapter?
When I came up with the premise of Don't You Cry, it was more of a concept to me than a storyline. I was intrigued by the idea of exploring the simultaneous disappearance and appearance - of one woman, two women, I didn't know at the time, but I was eager to find out. I prefer to write from multiple perspectives because it gives readers a more comprehensive view of the novel and allows them access to the inner thoughts of multiple characters. In that regard, this novel was no different than my previous two. Quinn and Alex were the ideal candidates to narrate the story because they're detached enough from the mystery, and yet intricately connected to it; for numerous reasons, any of the other characters wouldn't have been possible narrators. As an author, writing from multiple perspectives or time frames can prove problematic and so, in order to make sure I keep the characters' voices fresh and unique, I write one character in his or her entirety, and then go back to the beginning of the novel and switch gears. In the case of Don't You Cry, I wrote Quinn's entire storyline from beginning to end, and then went back and began Alex's narrative, merging them together when I was through.
Question: The least interesting character in Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY is, inarguably, Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator. You’ve done something similar in DON’T YOU CRY. Quinn and Alex aren’t glamorous or especially mysterious. Every other character, even the agoraphobic middle-aged woman whom Alex befriends, is portrayed as leading a more-interesting life. Esther bustles with energy and compassion. Pearl vibrates with a spooky weirdness.
Was this a conscious choice? Quinn and Alex have remarkably low egos. Did that help you in some way clear canvas space so that your novel’s other characters could shine better?
To me, Quinn and Alex are human. Like all of us, they are flawed in some way. Due to circumstance, they're drifting aimlessly, trying to find themselves and coming to terms with what defines their lives. Quinn is twenty-three years old, newly graduated from college and making her way into the 'real world', which she seems quite unprepared for. Like many recent college grads, she is living on her own for the first time in her life, and struggling to realize what means to be an adult - financial obligations, independence, working for forty hours a week. She is stuck in a job she doesn't enjoy but isn't sure how to amend the situation. Alex, on the other hand, is eighteen and brilliant, forced to remain in a small town, caring for his alcoholic father because he's terrified of what will happen to his father if he leaves. He's lonely and wants something else for his life, but doesn't have the means or ability to find that something else. Quinn and Alex are quite similar and grow by leaps and bounds throughout the pages of the novel. They both left an indelible mark on my heart and I hope they do with readers, too.
Question: Every writing manual will tell would-be novelists that readers need to know what their protagonists want. Quinn and Alex succeeded as characters because, although their professional and personal lives are in shambles, we know what they want—Quinn wants to find out what happened to Esther, and Alex wants to find out more about the strange woman who drifts into his diner. What else though helped make Quinn and Alex successful characters?
Quinn and Alex are human. They're relatable to readers. They're not simply characters or caricatures, but hopefully come to life throughout the book. As an author, this is one of my most important tasks.
Question: I’m especially impressed by DON’T YOU CRY’s well-constructed plot. How do you go about plotting your novels? Do you outline them, or do the plots naturally emerge once you begin writing? Are there certain questions you ask yourself, or ask of your characters, along the way?
I don't outline, but prefer to dive right in to the writing. I often begin with a problem; in the case of Don't You Cry, it's a missing woman. From there, I develop my characters and set the stage, and once I have that out of the way can really tackle the plot. To me, with mysteries, there often seems a logical progression of events and so I let these guide me through the writing process. I enjoy getting to know my characters and letting them take control of the reins, and am often surprise myself by the twists and turns a novel will take. By not outlining in advance, the novels seem to have a more organic feel to me than a premeditated one.
Question: Along with the plotting, I’m also struck by the narrative momentum of your novels. Partly that’s a product of the tension you create between your characters, and the do-or-die stakes your characters eventually find themselves in. But how else is that achieved?
Ending every chapter on a cliffhanger is something I try to do or, if not a cliffhanger, some other situation that will urge the reader to turn the page and continue on. There are also multiple mysteries in the novel, not merely one. Though I may save the big bombshell for my ending, any number of questions or problems arise throughout the text, propelling readers forward. This keeps the reader invested throughout the novel and not merely wanting to skip to the last few pages to see how it all resolves.
Question: Especially with DON’T YOU CRY, I’m also struck by the economy of details, scenes, and circumstances. Characters don’t ramble off on long tangents, nor are scenes invented just for beauty’s sake alone. Every little detail seems necessary to the plot. After you write your first draft, do you often find yourself cutting scenes/lines/paragraphs simply because they don’t contribute directly towards the novel’s resolution?
Yes, of course. I'm longwinded when I draft, and have to cut lines or scenes to make sure the story is concise (and I stick to my word count). I'm also prone to inserting too much backstory, which is later irrelevant to the plot. But because I don't outline in advance, I don't always know this at the time, and though some of that text may not make it to the final novel, it's a wonderful way for me to better understand my characters and what makes them tick.
Question: Violence. While the body counts rarely are as high as found in, say, crime novels or international espionage thrillers, inevitably domestic suspense and psychological thrillers contain some level of violence. How do you handle violent scenes? Do you like writing them? Do you have ideas about how much violence is enough, and on how vividly it should be portrayed?
It varies by novel, but for me personally, I prefer the psychology behind my characters' actions to creating that violence on the page. This is where I place my greatest efforts: my characters' mindset. There are violent moments, of course, because of the genre, and often my characters' thoughts and actions lead to some sort of boiling point where someone gets hurt. I have no qualms in writing dark or violent scenes but do shy away from the overly graphic because I don't think it's always necessary. As they say, sometimes less is more.
Question: As I touched on above, “commercial fiction” is naturally more concerned about story and plot than “literary fiction,” but what other concerns are the rightful domain of commercial fiction? In other words, beyond providing a gripping and electrifying read (which you do so very well), what else do you wish your readers walk away with when they finish one of your novels?
I want my readers to be moved. I want them to be touched by my characters' struggles, but I want them to be shocked as well. I hope to create endings in my books that my readers want to walk away from and tell a friend about. To me, good writing, a strong plot and substantial characterization are all important aspects of any novel.
Question: You’ve now published three wildly successful novels. What are the most important lessons you’ve learned about writing during your career? Craft-wise, what was the hardest aspect about writing for you when you began?
I have no formal training in creative writing and like to think of myself as self-taught. I had to write plenty of mediocre manuscripts to find my voice, and discover what worked for me as an author. Every author is unique, and I chose not to prescribe to rules one may find in a textbook or writing manual, but rather to find myself on the pages of my own works. I've grown immensely as a writer in the last few years, and I credit my editor for that, for pointing out my strengths and weakness as an author so I know where to place my greatest efforts. It's a skill that grows with time, and I hope to get better with each novel I write.
Question: Which writers (or books) have been most influential towards your own writing?
Every book I read in some way influences my own writing. Reading is not only wonderfully therapeutic, but through it, I'm able to examine other writing styles, voice, how an author navigates a certain situation, etc. I'm an avid reader of all genres, and though I'm not sure it had a direct influence on my writing, like to credit The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien as one of my favorite books of all time.
Addendum: Writers of literary fiction are constantly asked to explain aspects of their craft. The Paris Review, through their “Art of Fiction” interview series, has interviewed literary fiction writers for over sixty years. If you go through their archives, you’ll find interviews with everyone from E.M. Forster and Ernest Hemingway to Louise Erdrich and Jonathan Franzen. But you will not find Paris Review interviews with writers of commercial fiction, and while commercial fiction authors are often interviewed elsewhere, rarely are they asked the nut-and-bolts under-the-hood craft questions that are often asked of lit fiction writers. This is unfortunate. Craft is an important aspect in all fiction, including commercial fiction; because we don’t often see commercial fiction writers address issues of craft, one might mistakenly assume commercial fiction writers don’t care about their craft. Or, by extension, one might assume that commercial fiction isn’t written well enough to warrant questions about craft. I hardly think this is the case. The best commercial fiction is rarely as formulaic as its detractors often insist it to be. Over the next few months, I hope to interview other domestic suspense and psychological thriller writers. Writers of all stripes can benefit from learning how commercial fiction writers tackle the subject of writing.