Please welcome Laura Benedict to the blog! Her new book, the creepy BLISS HOUSE, just came out and she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about it, and more!
Will you tell us a little about your new book, BLISS HOUSE, and what inspired you to write it?
Thank you so much for having me here, Kristin! I used to have an obnoxious writer friend who was so impressed with her own work, she would say, “Enough about me, let’s talk about my book!” But since you asked, I will go right ahead, happily, and not feel the least bit shy about it.
I open BLISS HOUSE with a chapter about a young woman who is held prisoner in a terrifying, windowless room. Her story begins a generation ago, decades before Rainey Bliss Adams and her daughter, Ariel, move into Bliss House, which sits just outside Old Gate, Virginia. Rainey is a widow. Her husband, Will, died in the same explosion that burned and disfigured 14 year-old Ariel. Ariel, who is too often cold to Rainey, quickly forms a strong attachment to the house, and even believes the ghost of her father has appeared to her there. But in the dark hours after the grand housewarming party, a woman dies mysteriously, and Ariel is the sole witness. Someone in Old Gate is a murderer. The town is full of secrets and ghosts, just like Bliss House, itself. And don’t forget that story of the girl in the secret room, because it’s part of the mystery.
I have wanted to write a haunted house story every since I first read Shirley Jackson’s perfectly perfect novel, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. But my passion for the gothic started long before with JANE EYRE, REBECCA, and, of course, NANCY DREW Mysteries. And then there’s the strange 1945 Dorothy McGuire/Robert Young film, “The Enchanted Cottage,” that really got me thinking about mysterious houses that have a habit of changing the personalities and even appearances of their inhabitants. Finally, there is my obsession with architecture—I couldn’t resist the idea of creating a massive, fascinating house on paper. It was practically a storm of inspiration that brought all these elements together.
Why do you think readers will connect with Rainey and Ariel?
As a mom, I do my best every single day to try to make my children’s lives better than they were the day before. No one wants to see their child unhappy, but sometimes there are things we can’t heal—we just have to watch and wait. But looking at my life as a former teenager (one who gave her parents fits of every sort), I remember many times when I wanted my parents to rescue me. But they made the harder choice to let me learn what I needed to learn. Rainey and Ariel are in that struggle. Their circumstances may be more or less dire than mine (more, lots more than mine, thank goodness!), but it’s a struggle that doesn’t change.
You wrote a little about your road to publication on your website, but have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a little more about yourself?
The first few years of my life, my mother and I lived with her parents while my father, a Marine, was stationed in Japan. My mom worked during the day, so I spent lots of time with my grandparents, who were huge readers. Some of my earliest memories involve the great stacks of books that they would bring back from the library every week or two. I associate the wonderful smell of old books with their house and the time I spent with them. But even though I spent most of my free time as a kid reading, I never imagined I might be a writer until well after I left college. For years I was certain I would be a librarian just so I could be around books. Consequently, I have a huge affection for libraries and librarians.
I fell in love with the idea of writing fiction while I was working in sales promotion for that ginormous beer company in St. Louis. (Not that copywriting is like writing fiction. Well, maybe just a little.) After taking my first night fiction class I was totally hooked. I adored writing short stories, and eventually talked my way into a (terrifying!) graduate fiction workshop. The professor made fun of my love of plot and told me I’d never publish because of it. But I refused to believe him. About three years later I published my first short story and was delighted to have proved him wrong.
What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?
Not long before I took my first fiction class, I was reading a lot of Tennessee Williams. At the time, I lived on the 6th floor of a strange, gothic apartment building in University City in St. Louis, and had romantic notions about the fact that Williams—like T.S. Eliot—had lived nearby. I was afraid to write, worried that committing anything to paper was a huge step (obviously I was no stranger to drama). But one night after work, I wrote a small, probably nonsensical scene with a Blanche DuBois-type character that I imagined was very southern and very colorful. By the time I finished it, I was shaking with excitement. I kept that bit of paper around for years, though I never turned it into a story. Williams had done it so much better. But it was a start for me.
Why suspense? What do you enjoy most about reading, and writing, in the genre?
As a writer, one of my primary goals—and biggest pleasure—is to keep the reader turning those pages. I want the reader to have a compelling reason to stay up way past her or his bedtime, and maybe even be a little late for work because they can’t bear to close the book. (Just kidding about the being late—I only want company because I’m always late for everything)
The books I love to read have burning questions at their hearts. Technically, they needn’t be novels of suspense, but just surprising and thought-provoking. But they have to make me want to turn that page. As for what I write, it helps that I’m drawn to darkness—the parts of ourselves that we often try to hide. You never know what the human sitting next to you is thinking or is capable of. I see questions and suspense all around us.
You have an extensive list of your fave writers on your site, but if you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
I would love to read DuMaurier’s REBECCA again for the first time. The mystery is revealed with delicate, agonizing slowness, and I very much like how she turns all the reader’s assumptions right on their heads.
You’re a pro at writing the creepies, but what’s something that truly terrifies you?
This is a hard question to answer because I’m such a scaredy cat. I used to be afraid of spiders and snakes, but if you live near the woods long enough you find yourself dealing with them—usually with sprays, sticks, and sometimes even a handy hammer. The thing that I find hardest to deal with is the idea of random violence. It’s a dangerous, unpredictable world out there, full of desperation and soullessness. There’s goodness, too, of course. But few people die or are traumatized by random acts of goodness.
What are you currently reading? Are there any books you’re particularly looking forward to this year?
Right now I’m reading Erich Maria Remarque’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and am finishing up BOOTY BONES, by my friend, Carolyn Haines. I wait all year for Louise Penny’s August release. This year its her 10th Inspector Gamache book, THE LONG WAY HOME.
What’s next for you?
I have a short story coming out in an anthology edited by Scott Phillips (RAKE). But I’m spending most of my time working on my next BLISS HOUSE novel. (I have several planned.) This one takes place in the 1950s. Bliss House is full of stories, and I want to tell them all.
About BLISS HOUSE:
Death never did come quietly for Bliss House . . . and now a mother and daughter have become entwined in the secrets hidden within its walls.
Amidst the lush farmland and orchards in Old Gate, Virginia, stands the magnificent Bliss House. Built in 1878 as a country retreat, Bliss House is impressive, historic, and inexplicably mysterious. Decades of strange occurrences, disappearances and deaths have plagued the house, yet it remains vibrant. And very much alive.
Rainey Bliss Adams desperately needed a new start when she and her daughter Ariel relocated from St. Louis to Old Gate and settled into the house where the Bliss family had lived for over a century. Rainey’s husband had been killed in a freak explosion that left her 14 year-old daughter Ariel scarred and disfigured.
At the grand housewarming party, Bliss House begins to reveal itself again. Ariel sees haunting visions: the ghost of her father, and the ghost of a woman being pushed to her death off of an upper floor balcony, beneath an exquisite dome of painted stars. And then there is a death the night of the party. Who is the murderer in the midst of this small town? And who killed the woman in Ariel’s visions? But Bliss House is loath to reveal its secrets, as are the good folks of Old Gate.