One of the many delights of Bouchercon 2016 hosted by the City of New Orleans was getting an early read of Alison Gaylin’s remarkable standalone novel What Remains of Me. This tale of Hollywood’s dark shadow is being released shortly in the UK and Ireland [December 1st 2016], and Shots have copies available here.
Award-winning Alison Gaylin’s ninth novel is a remarkable slice of Americana and a change of pace with a narrative that is as hard to put down, as it is exciting.
A standalone thriller rather than one of her breathless Brenna Spector series novels, we see that over thirty years ago Kelly [Michelle] Lund shot and killed the renowned film director John McFadden. Kelly was a teenager at the time, and speculation as to her motive remains whispered in that Hollywood community, and outside the canyon.
Over three decades later, with Kelly released from incarceration, the controversy continues as another movie legend, Sterling Marshall is found dead at his home in Hollywood. Marshall was a friend of the late McFadden, and has a gunshot wound to the head, just like McFadden. Marshall was Kelly’s father-in-law, so the old suspicions return about Kelly Lund and her murderous past.
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Alison Gaylin’s work is often compared to the works of Linwood Barclay, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, Paula Hawkins and of course Gillian Flynn, with their introspective narratives where narrators may not be relied upon, and there are twists that can make you gasp and flinch.
Though relatively a new name in British Crime Fiction, she is an award-winning fixture of the American Crime Fiction scene. So while in New Orleans, we managed to track Alison Gaylin down to record an interview for Shots readers, as December sees the release of What Remains of Me in Europe.
AK So as a former journalist, like many writers did you intentionally turn to journalism as a way of becoming a novelist, or did the Journalism morph into writing novels?
AG I’d say it is closer to the former, though I feel that, for me at least, the actual writing process is completely different in journalism than it is in fiction. In journalism, you’re trying to relay information in as clear a fashion possible, and in whatever the style is of the magazine or newspaper you’re writing for. In fiction, you are trying to tell a story in as exciting and suspenseful a way as possible. And you are doing it, hopefully, in a style that is unique and true to yourself. I worked professionally as a journalist for years before ever getting any fiction published, but I was always writing fiction in my spare time, in workshops or on my own.
AK So when and where did the interest toward writing fiction stem from? And what about your childhood? Were books and reading encouraged in your family?
AG Yes, reading was always encouraged when I was growing up, and I was an only child with a big imagination and a lot of time on my hands, so I read and wrote a lot. Fiction has always been a release for me. I’ve always loved telling stories.
AK And so what were the earliest books you recall that made an impression on the young Ms Gaylin?
AG First book that made a really big impression on me was James and the Giant Peach. Our teacher read it to us in kindergarten and the story was so vivid I dreamed of it. As I got older, I read a lot of Judy Blume – pretty much everything she wrote. I also loved I loved SE Hinton’s The Outsiders. The first stories that genuinely scared me were Edgar Allan Poe’s. Also, since my parents didn’t monitor my reading very much, I read Helter Skelter when I was 10 years old (I had thought it was going to be about The Beatles…) That made a huge impression on me!
AK So after Columbia, with a Degree in Journalism, how did you end up covering the Arts and Entertainment beat?
AG Well Arts and Entertainment was always my main interest. I’d studied theatre in college at Northwestern, where I got my bachelor’s degree. I went to Columbia for graduate school – I have my Master’s degree in journalism. So the interest in the arts was there before the interest in journalism. It was always my focus.
AK I guess you are glad you no longer earn your living by Journalism, as that sector is under huge pressure; so do you still occasionally pen articles for the Press, be it online or in print? Or do you keep with your novels only?
AG: I actually do still work part time at Life & Style magazine as a writer/editor! I’ve freelanced for other publications as well, so what little journalism work there is out there, I’m still doing it and making a living at it, together with writing novels.
AK So tell me how you got your first book HIDE YOUR EYES into print in 2005, and what was it like to get your debut nominated for an MWA Edgar Award and selling ~ 250,000 copies?
AG I was so thrilled to finally have a novel published. I’d written a completely different version of HIDE YOUR EYES that hadn’t sold despite getting some very nice rejection letters, and so I’d read a lot of mystery books and started rewriting it from page one. That took me around five years. So even though it was the first book I ever wrote, its publication was a long time coming. It did have a big print run, which was nerve-wracking, and I was utterly shocked when it was nominated for an Edgar. It was a paperback original, and I was told it wasn’t the type of book that got nominated for best first novel. So when it did, it really came as a huge surprise.
AK So when you introduced Samantha Leiffer did you consider that she would have ‘legs’ and return in KILL ME AGAIN?
AG I hadn’t planned on her being a series character when I wrote HIDE YOUR EYES, but when it sold, series books were the way to go. The publisher asked me if I had ideas for other books in the series, and of course I said, “Sure, I have a million of them.” But to be honest, Samantha Leiffer is a pre-school teacher/off-Broadway box office worker and has a last name that can be pronounced three different ways. So, while YOU KILL ME was a logical extension of HIDE YOUR EYES, with the central crime springing from the fame Samantha achieves from solving the crime in the first book, I really don’t think she could have lasted as the main character in a long-running mystery series.
AK Your third Novel TRASHED has the Hollywood Babylon backdrop like your latest WHAT REMAINS OF ME; and I pondered if they were influenced by your experiences when you covered arts and entertainment as a journalist?
AG Yes, absolutely! It’s based on one of my first jobs out of college, which was working as a reporter for Star, which was then a celebrity tabloid whose main rival was the National Enquirer. Of course, the book is fiction and takes place during a different time, but the details of being a celebrity tabloid reporter were taken in part from my own experience.
AK I feel you really hit your stride with AND SHE WAS in 2012, when we were first introduced to Brenna Spector. I recall being at the PWA Shamus Awards in Albany [during Bouchercon 2013] when you were awarded a Shamus for Best Paperback Original PI Novel; so tell us about the origins of Brenna Spector, and did you envision her becoming a series character?
AG Yes, unlike Samantha Leiffer, I’d envisioned Brenna Spector as a series character from the start. She’s a private investigator blessed and cursed with Superior Autobiographical Memory, or hyperthymesia. I first read about the condition in a magazine article and I was fascinated by it. I thought I would love to write about a detective with that condition, because, while it might be an asset in her job, it would be a real liability in her personal life. Imagine not ever being able to forget anything. She’s the ultimate haunted detective – someone for whom the past is a constant nagging companion. I got a three-book deal for the series based on a pitch. I really loved writing those books and hope to come back to her in the future.
AK After Brenna Spector #2 INTO THE DARK, you wrote what appears as a departure in stylistic terms REALITY ENDS HERE, so can you tell us how this book came about?
AG REALITY ENDS HERE is a YA book about an unwilling reality star. I wrote it for my daughter, who was 11 years old at the time and she read it as I was writing it. It came from my fascination with the kids on that show Jon and Kate Plus Eight – all of them reality stars before they could even talk, the cameras a constant presence in their lives. The main character in REALITY ENDS HERE, Estella, is the older sister of sextuplets. She’s been on a show produced by her mother and stepfather, called Seven is Heaven, since her younger siblings were born. The mystery involves her father, who died when she was very young under suspicious circumstances.
AK Then we have the remarkable third Brenna Spector PI thriller STAY WITH ME, which mines the theme of memory [and recollection], as well as family; which also thematically is present in your latest, the remarkable WHAT REMAINS OF ME; so tell us what fascinates you about Memory, and Family, for exploration in fiction?
AG I have always loved the concept of memory and how it can play tricks on us – how two people can remember the same incident in completely different ways, or the loneliness of being the only person to remember something. I think that idea, plus the concept of family – and not knowing those you love as well as you might think – is such a compelling theme to write about. I like writing about things that scare me, and while that used to be “outside” things like serial killers, what scares me more now is more internal.
AK You are often compared to writers such as Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott and Paula Hawkins. Firstly how do you view these comparisons from the marketing departments of publishers as well as reviewers, and secondly, do you read the writers you are compared to?
AG I have read and loved all of those writers (with the one exception being Hawkins’ GIRL ON THE TRAIN, which is in my TBR pile!) so any comparison with them is a huge compliment to me. I think it’s fine for marketing departments to find good comparisons in order to pitch books, but it’s a big mistake as a writer to take those comparisons too much to heart. What you want to do is be as true to yourself and to the story you want to tell as possible. It’s why we write, after all. Nobody should strive to imitate someone else. If I want to read a Gillian Flynn book, for instance, I’ll read a Gillian Flynn book – not somebody who is trying to sound exactly like her.
AK So with WHAT REMAINS OF ME coming to PB in the UK in December, can you tell us the genesis of this standalone thriller, with the Hollywood backdrop?
AG I’ve always loved Hollywood crime stories and am obsessed with true crime books. I wanted to write a novel that felt like a true crime book, about a Hollywood crime. What inspired me was an actual crime that occurred back in the late 70s/early 80s. I was reading about it – one character involved in particular – and I thought, what would I do if that were me? I can’t really say which crime it was or what I would have done because that would be a spoiler. But I will say that the book has a lot to do with the power dynamic in Hollywood in the 80s, and what it was like to be in that world and be young, female and a “nobody.”
AK And it was released earlier in the US, where I picked up a copy during Bouchercon in New Orleans and enjoyed; so can you tell us a little about the reception in America?
AG I’m so happy you liked it, Ali! I’ve been very happy with the reception it’s gotten in America. It’s gotten some very good reviews, and I’ve heard from a lot of readers who have told me they “binge-read” it, which is exactly what I would hope for.
AK As Ray Bradbury once said “you need to read a million words before you can write one good one”, so can you tell us a little about what books you’ve enjoyed recently, and why?
AG I’ve read quite a few that I’ve loved. YOU WILL KNOW ME by Megan Abbott was a terrific look at the competitive world of gymnastics, but it also was an amazing suspense story that really resonated with me as the mother of a teenage girl. Laura Lippman’s WILDE LAKE was wonderful and heart-breaking – a story of family secrets and lies that literally had me sobbing at the end. Alex Marwood’s THE DARKEST SECRET has the most riveting and fabulously dark cast of characters, some of whom I loved, others whom I loved to hate, each one beautifully drawn and real. Lisa Lutz’ THE PASSENGER was fantastic as well – so very compelling and badass and funny and sad and great. Also, when you finish the book, you realize it has the most brilliant title ever. I also loved David Mitchell’s SLADE HOUSE – a haunted house story with great characters, and possibly the scariest book I’ve read since THE SHINING and I just started reading THE LOST GIRL by Tania Carver, whose books I always love. I could go on….
AK So what’s next for Alison Gaylin? And what’s with the A.L. Gaylin name I see in the UK?
AG I’m currently working on another standalone called IF I DIE TONIGHT. It will be out in the UK next summer, and it’s about a carjacking/hit and run that takes place in a peaceful Hudson Valley town and becomes national news, destroying many lives in the process. I’m A. L. in the UK for my standalones. My new publisher thought it was a good way to differentiate those books from my series, so people don’t think WHAT REMAINS OF ME is the fourth Brenna book. My middle name is Lori, so it really is me!
AK Thank you for your time
AG And thanks for the enthusiasm at Shots
More information about the work of Alison Gaylin is available from www.alisongaylin.com an d copies of What Remains of Me are available from the Shots Magazine Bookstore Here