1. I know that you went to Vassar College, but was your school similar to Heart Lake?
Certainly my high school wasn’t at all like Heart Lake. I went to a public school in a suburban community and spent my last two years in an alternative program—The Village School—which had no grades or attendance requirements. When I went to Vassar I met a lot of people who had gone to private school. I was fascinated by their clothes, their nonchalance at dorm living, and their academic preparedness. While I had to struggle that first year, they seemed to have it all down.
When I was writing Lake I drew on the feeling of being at a private college (which had once been a women’s college) as well as what I remembered about those private school kids. I also asked friends who had gone to private schools to tell me about their experiences and I ordered a copy of The Preppy Handbook (having lost mine) to remind me just exactly what those kids wore.
2. Did you make any strong friendships at school and are you still in contact with any of your school friends?
I made several wonderful friends at Vassar with whom I stay in close contact. It’s what I value most about the experience of going there. Of course I’ve made other friends over the years, but there was something about living in such close quarters for four years that made those relationships especially intense.
3. How much did your MFA in creative writing help your work?
I was already dedicated to writing when I did the MFA (I’ve been writing since I was nine!), but the experience did strengthen my confidence and taught me valuable critical skills. Talking with other writers helped me to define and clarify my attitudes about writing—sometimes I think the most valuable lessons came from disagreeing with criticisms.
4. How much of your inspiration was taken from your own life or from the lives of pupils you used to teach?
I take plenty from my own life. In Lake I started out with a character facing a situation I found myself in—young divorced mother without means of support—and then let her develop into her own character. I think I always start with a germ of personal experience, but then the character is often most defined by how she differs from myself. In Jane Hudson’s case it was her aloneness—the lack of family and friends—that was the genesis of the story.
While the experience of teaching has influenced my writing, I don’t think I’ve ever based a character on a former student.
5. Do you like the covers designed for your books, I was impressed by the similar themes carried from The Lake of Dead Languages to The Seduction of Water, do you have any influence over the covers of your books?
I’ve mostly been very happy with the American and British covers of both books—which is lucky because, honestly, I have very little input in their creation. My biggest fear was that there’d be a bloody hand rising out of a frozen lake! The Ophelia-like image on the British cover of Lake was very evocative of the themes of stunted girlhood I was working with. Obviously both covers emphasize the watery images I use which I think is fine. I know I’m very drawn to images of water so I assume other people are too.
6. Was there anything you had to do before you started the actual writing process? Did you do a lot of research before starting to write this novel?
I did a fair amount of research for Lake, but not as much as I did for The Seduction of Water or the one I’m working on now. Since I’d been a Latin teacher and I lived in the Adirondacks for a year I didn’t have to invent all that. However, I did have to keep my Wheelock’s Latin Grammar and Latin dictionary close by my side. I also read books on how lakes freeze and ice harvesting and spent a lot of time walking around the neighborhood observing ice. I went to Mohonk Mountain House whenever I could and the naturalist there told me wonderful things about how lakes sound when they’re frozen (Mohonk Lake did not freeze that year so I didn’t get to experience it first hand).
I love learning odd little facts and using arcane information—so much so that sometimes I get carried away with research when I need to go back to writing. For the book I’m writing now I’ve been reading up on stained glass (I even took a class in making stained glass—which I found I have absolutely no talent for), Pre-Raphaelite painters, kayaking, glassmaking, factory architecture. I still have my Latin dictionary close by and my edition of Ovid.
7. What’s your next book about? Is it a similar story to The Lake of Dead Languages?
The Seduction of Water is about a woman, Iris Greenfeder, whose mother was a fantasy writer and died in a hotel fire when Iris was a child. Iris goes back to the hotel where she grew up—Hotel Equinox—to look for the manuscript of her mother’s last book. I indulged my love of fairy tales and fantasy literature in this book and had fun creating a hotel, which I based on The Catskill Mountain House but embellished with everything I would like to find in a summer resort.
It’s similar to Lake in that it’s about the impact of the past on the present and it’s set in the Hudson Valley. Otherwise, it had a very different feel to me—less brooding than Lake.
8. Which part of the book did you find most difficult to write?
The scenes where young girls get hurt. As a mother I’m very conscious of not manipulating my readers by playing on their fears for their children. For that reason, I sent Jane’s daughter, Olivia, out of the picture, but then I was still stuck with horrible things happening to teenaged girls. I felt those events were necessary for the plot—and I tried not to dwell on them—but they were painful to write.
9. Do you have a routine when you’re writing?
Yes. I walk my daughter to school and then continue on a two-mile walk with my dog. Then I come home (about 10:00), make my second cup of tea, and sit at my desk, which is on a converted front porch under a window. Often I sit for a while just staring at the birds in the Rose of Sharon bush outside the window, but I get down to work pretty soon because I’ve only got to 3:00 when my daughter comes home. It usually takes me (when a book is in full swing) two days to write a chapter longhand and then one or two days to type it on the computer. If I’ve really got my act together, I end the week with the chapter written, but untyped, so that on Monday I start with typing a chapter which seems so much less intimidating. I never try to write when my daughter’s home (although I might do something like answering these questions while she’s doing her homework) and I follow that routine 3 or 4 days a week. On the fifth day I do all my errands and go to yoga class or have lunch with a friend. On the sixth day, I the chapter to my husband to read and he makes corrections and tells me (gently) where I’ve gone astray.
10. Did you always want to be a writer?
Pretty much. When I was nine my fourth grade teacher introduced creative writing as a subject and I wrote a ninety page (handwritten, crayon illustrated) epic called The Adventures of the Magical Herd. I’ve still got it—there’s a character named Carol in it who lives on the range with the wild horses and doesn’t seem to have a human family or attend school. I wrote anguished poetry throughout my adolescence and was awarded Young Poet of Long Island when I was seventeen. There have been several periods when I gave up writing for a while—during college, and when I went to graduate school—but I always came back to it.
11. I’ve read a review of this book where you were likened to Donna Tartt, how do you feel about his comparison?
Well, I admire Donna Tartt very much so if I’ve got to be compared to someone it might as well be her. Of course, the problem with those comparisons is that it’s easy then to criticize the book as not living up to the comparison. Aside from the classical references and the fact that both books take place at schools, The Secret History and Lake are very different.
12. It must be an amazing achievement to have had two books published, as a writer, what is your greatest ambition?
Thank you. I certainly wrote for many years without getting the money or validation of publication and I sometimes thought that it just might not happen for me (as it often doesn’t happen for many talented, deserving writers). It’s certainly been a wonderful experience—mostly because having a contract enables me to spend more time writing. I guess my only ambition is to keep writing. I hope enough people enjoy the books that I get to do that. I also hope that I’m able to sit down each day and write honestly—that I continue to find material that’s challenging, that I don’t get lazy and take short cuts, and that it always feels as fresh and exciting as when I wrote The Adventures of the Magical Herd.
13. Has the book been published in any countries aside from the UK? If so how well was it received abroad?
Aside from the US, Canada and the UK, Lake’s been published in Italy, Japan, Germany, Norway, and The Netherlands. Honestly, I don’t get a tremendous amount of feedback about how it’s doing. I recently gave the Japanese edition to a Japanese friend and she translated for me a lovely note from the translator at the back of the book. It’s just thrilling for me to think of people I couldn’t speak to reading the book and enjoying it.
Full author listing
Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain, Sebastian Faulks, Karin Slaughter and many more share their personal writing experience with you in our Q&As. Take a look!