Elizabeth Little’s brand new book, DEAR DAUGHTER, just came out yesterday, and she stopped by to answer a few of my questions about it, and much more! Please give her a warm welcome!
Congrats on the new book! Will you tell us a bit about DEAR DAUGHTER, and what inspired you to write it?
Thank you so much! I’m delighted to be here.
Dear Daughter is the story of Jane Jenkins—who is, as I like to say, a little bit Paris Hilton, a little bit Dorothy Parker, and a little bit Hannibal Lecter. Ten years ago she was a glamorous and well-loathed celebutante at the height of her fame … and then she was convicted of murdering her mother. Now, released on a technicality into a world wholly convinced of her guilt, Jane adopts a new identity in order to travel to a small town in South Dakota, where she hopes she will find the truth about what really happened the night of her mother’s murder—even if that means discovering that the murderer was in fact herself.
Because even Jane doesn’t know whether or not she was guilty. And sometimes she suspects the very worst.
I came up with the idea for Dear Daughter when I received the CNN breaking news alert reporting that Amanda Knox’s conviction had been overturned. As soon as I read the email, I started to obsess about what Amanda Knox would do next. Would she want to lead a public life? Would she try to go back to her old life? Or would she build a new life altogether? And so I began to fixate on the steps an accused murderess would have to take if she wanted to shed her notoriety and clear her name. Eventually I sat down at my computer to see if there was a story in it, and before I knew it I’d written 5,000 words. That convinced me I was on to something!
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
Although my life has always been ordered around books (to the point that my first conscious memory is of learning to read), I didn’t always want to be a writer, in large part because becoming a writer honestly never seemed like a realistic possibility. I wasn’t exactly born into literary circles—my parents are economists, so I’m pretty sure the only writers I ever met as a child were the authors of college textbooks—and I basically always assumed I’d follow my parents into academia. First I thought I’d be a chemist, then a geologist, volcanologist, paleontologist, archaeologist—any kind of -ologist, basically.
I didn’t tell anyone about this for years and years, of course, because I knew it to be a total pipe dream. So off I went to college (to study subjects unrelated to writing) and then, briefly, to graduate school (to study more complicated subjects unrelated to writing) until eventually I worked up the guts to give my actual ambitions a go. That’s when I moved to New York. I found an incredibly low-paying job in publishing and began to learn the business and to write in my spare time. After a few years working as an agency assistant, I began to get my non-fiction published, and eventually I was lucky enough to be able to begin writing full time.
But I was never quite comfortable writing non-fiction. It frequently made me feel stupid (and, just as frequently, sad), so after I finished my last non-fiction book, I thought—screw it, why not give fiction a shot? I went and signed up for a workshop that was led by Megan Crane, an incredibly talented author of women’s fiction and Harlequin romance who has since become a mentor and a close friend. She was the first person who ever read a word of fiction that I’d written, and she was also the first person who made me believe that I might be able to actually write a novel of my own. It’s no surprise to me that it was while I was in her class that I came up with the idea for Dear Daughter.
What is one of the first things you can remember writing?
Oh man, I can’t believe I’m going to make this public, but: in fifth grade I had to make my own hardcover book for a class project. I had to do it all—the story, the illustrations, the binding, the cover—and I remember being aware even then that the hardest part of writing a book was coming up with a decent plot. I hope I’ve done a better job with Dear Daughter, because my fifth-grade book is … not good. It’s about a Siberian Husky named Apollo. Who saved children. From the Nazis. In the Himalayas.
(I chose to set the story in the Himalayas because mountains were easy for me to draw, but—why not the Alps??? What was I thinking?! I still wonder about this.)
I am rather proud of my “About the Author” blurb, though, as it was focused entirely on my love for Jumpin’ Jack Cheese Doritos, which I still maintain are absolutely the greatest Doritos of all time.
Janie Jenkins, your protagonist, has a very troubled past, but why do you think readers will connect with her?
Jane likes to pretend she’s a tough cookie, that’s for sure, and I’m certainly prepared for the possibility that some readers might not connect with her because of this. She’s the kind of character a teacher would tell to get an “attitude adjustment.” But Jane’s attitude—as attitudes almost always are—is all show, and I think that’s where her true relatability lies. Or at least I hope it is, because unless I can somehow get a copy of the book to Kim Kardashian, no reader is going to deeply connect with her meticulously and bitchily crafted facade. What readers can relate to, however, is the compulsive human need to craft defense mechanisms and coping strategies. Some people make their pain with jokes and exclamation points; Jane masks hers with insults and swears. She can absolutely be exasperating at times, but that’s on purpose. That’s her game. She’s trying to distract you from the truth, and not just about what might have happened to her mother. But ultimately she’s just another human being trying to come to terms with a cruel, capricious world.
What do you enjoy most about writing, and reading, suspense?
What I love best about mystery and suspense is the way they prioritize the reader’s involvement. The mystery author opens with a question and follows with an implicit dare: “Try to figure out the answer before I tell you.” As a reader it’s a treat, as a writer it’s a challenge, and either way it’s a heck of a lot less lonely than any other genre I’ve tried my hand at. When it came to plotting Dear Daughter, I felt like I was playing a marathon game of correspondence chess, except I had to post all my anticipated moves in the very first envelope. And even if I don’t necessarily need to win, I want more than anything to be a worthy (and entertaining) opponent.
What are a few of your favorite authors or books?
I’m not sure if I have any sort of consistent metric by which I determine my favorite books and authors (in fact, I’m certain I don’t), so this might seem an odd bunch … but here we go: Shirley Jackson, Elmore Leonard, Tana French, Iris Murdoch (particularly A Severed Head), Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell books, Ed McBain, Laura Lippman, Stephen King’s Carrie and The Stand, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books, Sarah Waters, Georgette Heyer, Daniel Woodrell, and—what I would probably consider the two greatest mystery novels ever—Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night.
What are you currently reading?
I’m just finishing a historical romance trilogy by Juliana Gray (How to Tame Your Duke, How to Master Your Marquis, and How to School Your Scoundrel) that I’ve enjoyed immensely. Her turns of phrase are so delightful and precise, and the romance is, indeed, very romantic. Then I’m just starting The Secret Place, the forthcoming book by Tana French, which is characteristically superb. (She’s my favorite working crime writer, and I’m lucky enough to share a publisher with her, so I nagged my way into an advance copy.) And when I’m not reading those, I’m twiddling my thumbs in anticipation of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, which I’ve been looking forward to so much that I accidentally pre-ordered it twice.
Along with DEAR DAUGHTER, you’ve published non-fiction and your work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, among others. What piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
This is the most boring, most obvious advice ever, but unfortunately it’s also the most helpful: You have to put in the time. And, over the course of a single draft, you have to put in that time every single day.
Now this doesn’t necessarily all have to be time spent sitting at a desk: “Writing” can mean any number of things, provided it helps move a project forward. I like to mull over tricky plot points in the shower. Lots of people go for brainstorming walks. My husband drafts dialogue while playing Scrabble on his iPhone. But, ultimately, you do eventually have to put some actual words down on the page, and if you do it every day, a higher and higher percentage of those words will be usable material, because at that pace your subconscious will keep working on the project even when you aren’t.
Most every working writer I know has either a word count or a writing schedule they stick to—they write five hundred words a day, for instance, or without interruption from nine to noon. I think this is a great habit for any aspiring (or working) writer to get into, even if you can only write twenty words or for twenty minutes at first. And remember: those words don’t have to be perfect! In fact, if you try to make them perfect you’ll slow yourself down at best and stall yourself out at worst.
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
Most of my non-writing time is happily spent with my son (who just turned four) and my husband (who is often effectively four). But when I’m left to my own devices, I usually like to spend time outside or exercise or spend time outside exercising. Which my chain-smoking, eye-rolling twenty-year-old self can’t believe I just wrote, but whatever: I’m 33 and a mom and I’m not afraid to say that, yes, I voluntarily buy cauliflower and wake up early and really like to run. Age! You can’t escape it.
What’s next for you?
Next up is my second book with Viking, unless something goes horribly wrong. It’s another thriller (the working title is Do As I Say), and this time the heroine is a psychiatrist whose patients seem to keep killing themselves—and it’s up to her to figure out what’s really happening. I’m very excited about this one. Dear Daughter is such a product of its protagonist, so I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when I’m working with a new lead. Already I can tell that there are going to be some softer elements to it—and there will be more of a romance, definitely—but I think that ultimately the story will be even more gripping and unpredictable as a result.
Although I suppose it’s easy to say that now, when I still have three quarters of the way to go. But let’s just pretend for the moment that it’s true!
About DEAR DAUGHTER:
Former “It Girl” Janie Jenkins is sly, stunning, and fresh out of prison. Ten years ago, at the height of her fame, she was incarcerated for the murder of her mother, a high-society beauty known for her good works and rich husbands. Now, released on a technicality, Janie makes herself over and goes undercover, determined to chase down the one lead she has on her mother’s killer. The only problem? Janie doesn’t know if she’s the killer she’s looking for.
Janie makes her way to an isolated South Dakota town whose mysteries rival her own. Enlisting the help of some new friends (and the town’s wary police chief), Janie follows a series of clues—an old photograph, an abandoned house, a forgotten diary—and begins to piece together her mother’s seemingly improbable connection to the town. When new evidence from Janie’s own past surfaces, she’s forced to consider the possibility that she and her mother were more alike than either of them would ever have imagined.
As she digs tantalizingly deeper, and as suspicious locals begin to see through her increasingly fragile facade, Janie discovers that even the sleepiest towns hide sinister secrets—and will stop at nothing to guard them. On the run from the press, the police, and maybe even a murderer, Janie must choose between the anonymity she craves and the truth she so desperately needs.