Literary Wives: Interview with Ariel Lawhon

I'm so delighted to be the December host of the first ever Literary Wives author interview! (Hopefully, the first of many more!)

For December, we read Ariel Lawhon's The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, and you can see what everyone thought by checking out their blogs: Ariel of One Little Library, Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J., Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses, Cecilia at Only You, Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors, and Kay of whatmeread!

We all sent questions along, and Ms. Lawhon generously answered all of them.  Read on to learn more about this twisty, atmospheric tale of marriage, betrayal, and one big disappearance!

Lynn: I can understand the motivation to write provided by this “Hoffa”-like event, but what was the initial thought that piqued your interest enough to begin writing this novel?

AL: I’d never heard of Joseph Crater until I read an article about him in The New York Post nine years ago. I didn’t know that his disappearance was the biggest missing person’s case of the twentieth century or that he was a household name for almost fifty years. It was so fascinating. But in all of that, what intrigued me most was his wife Stella, and her strange yearly ritual. Starting on the first anniversary of her husband’s disappearance, she would go to a bar in Greenwich Village and order two drinks. She’d raise one in salute, “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are!” Then she’d drink it and walk out of the bar, leaving the other untouched on the table. She did this every year for thirty-nine years. After reading that article Stella Crater took up permanent residence in my mind. I’d close my eyes and she’d be there, in that corner booth, a glass of whiskey in her hand, practically daring me to tell her story. So I did.

Kay: The story of Judge Crater’s disappearance is certainly an interesting one. What kinds of decisions did you find yourself making about how to present the story?

AL: Well, the first (and biggest) decision was whether to write the story at all. It seemed too overwhelming and too foreign to everything I’m familiar with. I grew up in a hippie ski town so 1930’s New York City seemed impossible. But Stella was insistent and after I finally committed to the story the issues of structure and narrator had to be settled. I knew I wanted the story to alternate between Stella’s last visit to Club Abbey and the events as they happened in 1930. However, it took me a long time, and several false starts, to realize that Jude was not the narrator. Once he moved into the background, Stella, Ritzi, and Maria became the clear choices.

Cecilia: Your details of 1930s New York and Maine are so vivid, from the nightlife to the tailor shop to the bank. How did you go about researching for the book?

AL: I was so scared of getting it wrong! That’s part of why it took me so long commit to writing the book. And I don’t think I would have tried if The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress was a contemporary story. I’d avoided the story for several months when it occurred to me that anyone who’d lived in NY at that time was dead. The chances of being contradicted were pretty slim. So, there it was, literary freedom! After that I bought a copy of Stella Crater’s account of her husband’s disappearance, The Empty Robe, and a biography called Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater and the New York He Left Behind by Richard Tofel. Between the two I was able to piece together the major events and the specific period details. Stella’s memoir in particular was helpful with that. She recounted conversations and events in great detail. Places they went. Clothes she wore. Her time in Maine. Arguments. Emotions. So much of this story was inspired by Stella herself.

Lynn: For me, this novel read much like “noir,” which typically is not my favorite genre, but I found it enthralling. Is that the genre you meant to capture/depict? Or am I totally off base with this classification?

AL: I don’t think I really had a genre in mind at all. I was just trying not to let the story kill me. Weaving three distinct narrators and the Club Abbey scenes together felt like juggling chainsaws most days. The fact that the novel turned out kind of dark and twisty had more to do with the real people and events than any intention on my part. But I’m really proud of how it turned out. Like it was meant to be.

Audra: As you were writing The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

AL: I will never forget one afternoon when I’d just started the book, and I was typing away. There was Maria, working in the Crater apartment, and those two men break in. She hides in the closet, and I didn’t know until they walk into the bedroom that she was married to Jude. I just sat there, gobsmacked for a while, muttering, “Of course! Of course they’re married! They have to be!”

Audra: Was The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress your original title?
Lynn: I am fascinated by the interplay of all three women, but curious that the title doesn't reflect any connection to the infamous judicial disappearance.

AL: Oh, titles! My very first title, of the very first draft when Jude was the narrator (Can you imagine that? It feels so wrong now), was The Missingest Man In New York. I loved that title since it was the actual nickname Crater was given after he disappeared. But clearly it’s a grammatically offensive mouthful. And Jude’s role as narrator didn’t last long so that title had to go. (But it is the title of a short story from his point of view that I’m working on.) Later, when I realized that the novel was actually about the three women Crater left behind, I changed the title to The Rule of Three. That’s the title it had when it sold, and I was crazy about it. But a book with a similar title sold roughly a zillion copies several years ago. So we had to go back to the drawing board. In the end, Bill Thomas, publisher of Doubleday, came up with The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress. And it’s perfect.

Audra: In some ways, the wife, the mistress, and the maid can be seen as modern archetypes. How did cultural assumptions and associations with those three types of women help or hinder you as you wrote this novel?

AL: There is such a fine line between an archetype and stereotype. One is the blueprint and the other is cliché. And I think when you choose to write about people trapped within a social structure the trick is to make them surprising as individuals. Take the privileged trophy wife and ensure that she’s aware but helpless in the face of her husband’s corruption and infidelity. Take thebrazen mistress and make her deeply sympathetic, likeable even. Take the quiet, devout maid and make her sensual and deceitful. None of them had the option of being guileless or passive. They had to be present and engaged despite the fact that they lived within a culture where women were second-class citizens.

Ariel: The book is called The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, but really, all three women are wives. As a wife yourself, who did you relate to the most?

AL: I loved Ritzi most. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that in public since it brings my moral compass into question but she was my favorite. I love everything about her character. That said, I can relate to all of them in certain ways. I’ve never been a wealthy socialite but I understand Stella’s need to control the world around her, to force her circumstances into submission. And while I’d sooner give birth every Tuesday for the rest of my life than stand on a stage and sing, Ritzi’s desire to find her place in the world is very real to me. Maria is faithful and devout and if, when I die, those are the only things people remember about me, I’ll be happy.

Carolyn: Maria seems to be the most sympathetic character in the novel, and the one that you created mostly on your own. What inspired her characterization?

AL: There are only two references to the Crater’s maid in the historical account: one in Stella’s memoir and one in a newspaper article. Amedia Christian is the name recorded. And Maria’s character actually sprang from that name. Amedia means “beloved.” That’s what she was to Jude. Beloved and precious and essential. And of course Christian plays directly into Maria’s faith. So even though I didn’t use the actual name from history, it shaped who Maria became in the book.

Lynn: You mentioned to me that you love all these characters, particularly Ritzi. What is it you appreciate the most about her? Personally, I love the fact that she's a survivor, yet realistic. However, I admit I was surprised at her feeding information to a reporter. It seems she and Vivian were both playing with fire in this regard, though Vivian had much more information and was going for the big time takedown, all to get her daughter back. Although "witness protection" evidently was uncommon, perhaps it could have saved her life... Do you believe the corruption was all-inclusive of the police at that time? Did your research PROVE any such connection in this case?

AL: I loved Ritzi because she was trapped in this terrible world of her own making. She made choices and betrayed people to get a shot at the big time, only to realize that behind the limelight are some pretty dark shadows. So for her the question was how, once you’ve completely mangled your life, do you make it right? And can you even accomplish that? Ritzi tried in the best way she knew how: manipulation. The reporter and Vivian and the NYPD, although real, were composites of the corrupt society in which Ritzi lived.

Cecilia: You are such a great storyteller. The pacing of book always felt natural and I easily connected to the characters, especially Ritzi and even Stella. Can you talk a bit about your writing life (when did you first start writing, did anyone influence you, when did you first know you wanted to write a novel)?

AL: Ah, thanks! That natural pacing took several drafts, many months of fine-tuning, and not a few late-night coffee and wine binge sessions (they cancel one another out, you know). But to answer your question, I was an early and avid fan of Agatha Christie. I will never forget being twelve years old and reading Murder On the Orient Express for the first time. I sat there, stunned, at the end when I realized that she had given me everything I needed to solve the mystery. But I didn’t. And I’ve always loved her for that. That feeling of total shock and respect was probably what first made me want to write.

I wanted to create something that did that. And not too long afterward I started playing with my own stories. I’ve never stopped.

Lynn: I admit that seeing a recommendation on the front cover from Melanie Benjamin was a huge plus for me. Do you ever discuss writing with her? Know her personally? Or was this just a spontaneous occurrence?

AL: Melanie is brilliant and generous but I’ve never actually met her. This was one of those truly serendipitous things. My friend, Marybeth Whalen, was at a large book conference shortly after my novel sold. While there she met Melanie Benjamin and during the course of the conversation raved about my book (as good friends are apt to do). Melanie said that she’d always been fascinated by the Crater case and would love to read the book when advance release copies were available. The rest is history and I’m very grateful for it.

Cecilia: Which authors have inspired you the most? What books do you count among your favorites?

AL: A few novels that have rocked my world in recent years are The Time Traveler’s Wife (I wept my way through the last fifty pages), The Book Thief (never have I seen a more beautifully written man than Hans Hubermann), Water For Elephants (the best ending of any book in the history of ever), The Thirteenth Tale (a case study in character development and withholding information), Peace Like A River (every sentence was perfect and beautiful and captivating), the Outlander series (she takes a pound of flesh with every novel and I love her for it), Game of Thrones (holy intrigue, Batman!), The Help (of course, but still, VOICE!)

I will read anything by Diana Gabaldon, Liane Moriarty, George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Tolkein (my favorite piece of his is actually a short story called Leaf By Niggle), Dick Francis (I grew up reading his horse racing mysteries and they are still my comfort food).

Carolyn: As a successful blogger, how did you balance blogging and writing your novel? Was one kind of writing helpful for the other?

Author Ariel Lawhon
AL: I don’t know how well I balanced the two, and I didn’t get much sleep, but I have learned to change hats quickly. I read so much for She Reads that I’ve actually become something of a book snob. I know quickly, within a page or two, whether I’m going to love a novel. There’s just something about the tone of a book that you can sense from the beginning. And this has transferred to my writing. I’m very mindful of tone and pacing when I write. So I’d say that blogging about books has definitely made me a better writer. And it’s given me a very clear idea of what people are actually reading. A helpful thing indeed.

Cecilia: I read on your blog that you also have 4 children. Can you talk about your writing process? When do you write and how do you balance the needs of your family with your writing time?

AL: I do love my little Wild Rumpus. All boys. All noise. All the time. And I’d like to say that I have a system in place but I don’t. I do, however, have a very supportive husband who is really good about sending me off to write.

I’ve learned to throw myself into work when white space appears on the calendar. And I’ve learned to shut my laptop when a little boy asks me to scratch his back or read him a story. Three of my kids are in school these days and one hasn’t started. So I’m still very much in twenty-four-seven parenting mode. The thing I try to remember when the balancing acts starts to feel overwhelming is that there will never be a convenient time to do this.

Life will always get in the way. So I have to practice the habit of working every day.

Cecilia: I love that you have co-founded a blog/site that promotes newly published novels written by women and that supports the literacy of women. What are your goals or hopes for the site in the coming year or near future?

AL: We’ve got a complete website re-design coming in January. We’ll be launching a Young Adult branch to the site. We’ve got some amazing projects and special partnerships lined up. We’ll continue supporting The Homecoming Queens, a literacy and support group for homeless women in Colorado. We’re doing a soft launch into the realm of live events early next year. So, you know, total world domination.

Cecilia: Are you planning on writing another book in the near future? Could you tell us a bit about it?

AL: I am knee deep in my next novel and hope to have it finished early next year. It is tentatively called The Faint of Heart and is based on the true story of a midwife in 18th century New England who became the key witness in a rape trial that unhinged a small community. It’s dark and gritty and hopeful and I spend most of my time amazed that this story I’m unraveling actually happened.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Lawhon for her time and thoughtful responses. You can learn more about her and her book at her website, or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

Comments

  1. That turned into a nice interview. Thanks for posting it, Audra!

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    1. Right? Love the 'insider' tidbits we got, too, about the writing of the story -- made it much richer for me!

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  2. The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress is one on my list to read, as well as Mrs. Poe, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, and a few more. Good idea for a challenge.

    Harvee at http://bookdilettante.blogspot.com

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    Replies
    1. Harvee -- it's a fun idea, isn't it?

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  3. Yes, great interview! Thanks, Audra, and thanks to Ariel Lawhon for the very thoughtful responses. I'm intrigued already by her next novel :-)

    Cecilia

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    1. Her next book sounds great -- so glad you asked about it!

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  4. I love all of Ariel's answers! And her next book sounds like a good one as well. Does "midwife" count as a wife title??

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    1. I know -- I'm so keen to read her next book!!

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  5. Thanks for coordinating and posting this. So much fun! I love that she moved away from Jude as the narrator and focused on the women instead. I think it makes for a stronger narrative and that fun and devilish surprise at the end.

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  6. Wow...thanks so much Audra and Ariel for coordinating the interview, but especially to Arial Lawhon for her generosity in answering our questions. And what a wonderfully comprehensive bunch of questions!! I agree with you, Audra, this really adds to my enjoyment and appreciation of the novel, especially it's organization and characterization. Definitely food for thought. Yes, she's moving to my "absolutely favorite authors" list in Goodreads!! :)

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