We’re glad to be back today with the second part of our historical fiction Author to Author series in which I (Ariel) am on the hot seat. Again, many thanks to Doubleday for supplying the questions and the books for the giveaway (see the entry form below). Make sure you toss your name in the hat to win a copy of Kate Alcott’s new novel, A TOUCH OF STARDUST, and mine, THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS.
Q: Did you ever have to leave a wonderful piece of research “on the cutting room floor” because it just didn’t fit into the story? If so, what was it?
Ariel: This happens all the time. And it always feels like a minor amputation. In THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS, I cut entire characters and sections of New York City history. I’m still a little sad when I think about it but the novel is better as a result.
Q: What’s your process? Does research happen before writing? Or are they happening simultaneously?
Ariel: For me, a novel always begins by accidentally stumbling upon some historical mystery, usually unsolved. I’m drawn toward those moments that stick in the public consciousness for decades, even centuries. A missing judge. An epic disaster. That sort of thing. And I like creating my own version of what could have happened. Once I settle on the premise for a new novel I spend several months doing initial research before I begin writing. I need to know who the real people were, the central characters, and what they were like. I learn everything I can about them. After that I research as needed. Which usually means that I keep my research materials spread out on the table beside my desk for easy access.
Q: What’s the most interesting offline resource you’ve used in your work?
Ariel: I’d have to say that so far the most interesting resource I’ve found was Stella Crater’s memoir, THE EMPTY ROBE, about her missing husband. It’s not often that one of your characters has published their own account of the story you’re trying to tell. Reading that was like riding on a Mobius strip. Surreal and fascinating and a bit unsettling at times.
Q: Who is your first reader?
Ariel: Sometimes I let my sister read early chapters. She’s magically able to deliver criticism in a way that makes me laugh. And I have two writer-friends that I trust with my fledgling books—one tells me everything I’ve done right and the other tells me everything I’ve done wrong and together they are the perfect critique partner. But apart from that I keep my books close to the vest. My own agent and editor don’t even get to see my work until I’m confident that the story works and the writing is strong and that, for now, I can’t make it better.
Q: What inspired you to write historical fiction?
Ariel: My own over-active imagination, I suppose. And a profound love of history. Looking back this makes perfect sense. My best subjects were always Creative Writing and History. They were bound to collide sooner or later. As a reader I gravitate toward historical fiction. So I try to write the book I most want to read.
Q: Have you ever encountered a real-life “character” in the course of your research that you could devote a whole other novel to?
Ariel: Yes. Absolutely. It happens all the time. While writing THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS I spent weeks on a research tangent about notorious gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond. And then another few days obsessed with Mae West. Neither of them will ever get their own book (at least not written by me) but they should.
Q: What do you like to read while you’re writing?
Ariel: I cannot, under any circumstances, read historical fiction while I’m writing. It messes with my head. It makes me want to quit. I fall prey to that horrible thing where I compare my work-in-progress to someone else’s finished novel and I want to drink turpentine then swallow a lit match. So I read outside of my genre. I read a lot of contemporary. Mystery. Fantasy. YA. I read to my kids (we’re currently alternating between INKSPELL, WATERSHIP DOWN, and WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS).
Q: Do you listen to music while you’re writing or do you need quiet?
Ariel: It’s rare that I don’t listen to music while I write. Total silence would be ideal, of course, but I have four boys and they are young and loud and one of them has a voice with such a high pitch that I’m certain bats can hear him. My husband’s studio-grade isolation headphones can’t even block it out. If I leave the house to work I always listen to my Mumford and Sons Pandora channel. But if I’m working at home I listen to my workout playlist while I write—I’m doing an experiment with my current novel to see if this tricks my brain into thinking that it’s time to perform at a high level. Results to come.
Q: Historical Dinner Party: Who would be at the top of your guest list?
Ariel: You know, I don’t think I’ve ever thrown a dinner party. So if I’m going to do this, I’d better do it right. C.S. Lewis would be there of course because Narnia changed my life. As would L.M. Montgomery—I still want to be a redhead because of her—and this old Scottish writer named George MacDonald (you’ve probably never heard of him but he’s my favorite) if for no other reason than his accent and ability to speak Gaelic. I’m a sucker for Scotsmen and this one wrote some of the truest most beautiful sentences I’ve ever read. I’d invite Dick Francis because I loved all of his novels and he makes me want to own a horse and I wish he were still alive. Madeleine L’Engle because of her brain and to thank her for writing WALKING ON WATER, which I read at exactly the moment I needed it. Mark Twain because we need someone with swagger and wit and bravado. Ellen Raskin because I still adore THE WESTING GAME. And finally, my grandmother (she died when my dad was sixteen) because people say you could feel it when she walked into a room and I’d like to see all those formidable men struck dumb. I’m mean that way.
Q: You both are fortunate to work with one of the most dedicated editors in the business. Talk a bit about the editor’s role in your work and how your books have been enhanced through the editorial process.
Ariel: I feel like I hit the editor jackpot with Melissa. And I’m so thankful that she likes my novels and understands my guarded writing process. Under her care WIFE MAID MISTRESS went from a book that was “almost there” to something I’m very proud of. I’m currently in the middle of my second book with her and it’s proving to be even more enjoyable this time around. She helped me land on an idea and has provided critical feedback as I’ve written and I’m really looking forward to giving her the finished manuscript in a few weeks. I hope she shows me no mercy.
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“More meticulously choreographed than a chorus line. It all pays off.”–THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
They say behind every great man, there’s a woman. In this case, there are three. Stella Crater, the judge’s wife, is the picture of propriety draped in long pearls and the latest Chanel. Ritzi, a leggy showgirl with Broadway aspirations, thinks moonlighting in the judge’s bed is the quickest way off the chorus line. Maria Simon, the dutiful maid, has the judge to thank for her husband’s recent promotion to detective in the NYPD. Meanwhile, Crater is equally indebted to Tammany Hall leaders and the city’s most notorious gangster, Owney “The Killer” Madden.
On a sultry summer night, as rumors circulate about the judge’s involvement in wide-scale political corruption, the Honorable Joseph Crater steps into a cab and disappears without a trace. Or does he?
After 39 years of necessary duplicity, Stella Crater is finally ready to reveal what she knows. Sliding into a plush leather banquette at Club Abbey, the site of many absinthe-soaked affairs and the judge’s favorite watering hole back in the day, Stella orders two whiskeys on the rocks—one for her and one in honor of her missing husband. Stirring the ice cubes in the lowball glass, Stella begins to tell a tale—of greed, lust, and deceit. As the novel unfolds and the women slyly break out of their prescribed roles, it becomes clear that each knows more than she has initially let on.
With a layered intensity and prose as effervescent as the bubbly that flows every night, The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress is a wickedly entertaining historical mystery that will transport readers to a bygone era with tipsy spins through subterranean jazz clubs and backstage dressing rooms. But beneath the Art Deco skyline and amid the intoxicating smell of smoke and whiskey, the question of why Judge Crater disappeared lingers seductively until a twist in the very last pages.