In search of Emily Arsenault (South Africa 2004–06): Upcoming author appearance at R.J. Julia

By John Valeri, Hartford Books Examiner

Arsenault is the author of two novels, and will be appearing at R.J. Julia on Thursday evening.   Her literary debut, The Broken Teaglass, was selected by the New York Times as a Notable Crime Book of 2009.  In addition to her forays into fiction, she has worked as a lexicographer, an English teacher, and a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa.  Though Arsenault now lives in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, she grew up in Connecticut.

in-search-rose-notesHer newest, In Search of the Rose Notes (William Morrow, $14.99), was released last month.  Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review and noted it to be “an emotionally complex and deeply satisfying read.”  Meanwhile, fellow author Alafair Burke praised, “Feels like a beautifully written secret, whispered into the reader’s ear…This is a smart, creative, and utterly charming novel.”

Eleven-year-olds Nora and Charlotte were best friends. When their teenage babysitter, Rose, disappeared under mysterious circumstances, the girls decided to “investigate.” But their search-aided by paranormal theories and techniques gleaned from old Time-Life books-went nowhere.

Years later, Nora, now in her late twenties, is drawn back to her old neighborhood-and to her estranged friend-when Rose’s remains are finally discovered. Upset over their earlier failure to solve the possible murder, Charlotte is adamant that they join forces and try again. But Nora was the last known person to see Rose alive, and she’s not ready to revisit her troubled adolescence and the events surrounding the disappearance-or face the disturbing secrets that are already beginning to reemerge.

Now, Ms. Arsenault takes us inside her writer’s mind…

1) IN SEARCH OF THE ROSE NOTES is your second published novel.  How did you find the writing process to compare to that of your first book?  Also, were there any particular lessons you learned with THE BROKEN TEAGLASS that you deliberately employed here?

Writing THE BROKEN TEAGLASS was a very different experience because at the time I was in rural South Africa, in the Peace Corps with my husband. I was just writing to kill time in the village-mostly just entertaining myself. I had serious doubts that the book would ever be published. And I wasn’t very disciplined about focusing on the story. Later I had to cut over a hundred pages of dialogue and side-stories. With IN SEARCH OF THE ROSE NOTES, I was in a very different situation. I was back in the U.S., I’d gotten a contract to publish TEAGLASS, and was trying to get a contract for this second book almost the entire time I was writing it. (I finally got a contract for it when it was about ¾ finished.) This time around, I tried to be much more disciplined about keeping characters away from meaningless side plots and conversations that I would have to cut later.

2) You grew up in Connecticut.  Can you tell us how your childhood experiences influenced your depiction of small town life in the book?

I grew up in Cheshire, but I don’t think the fictional Waverly very closely resembles Cheshire except for a couple of superficial things. The town itself is not so much the focus as the neighborhood (“Fox Hill Road”) in which Nora and Charlotte grew up. When I was growing up in the 80s, kids Nora and Charlotte’s age were still often left to play on their own, and had their own little society within a neighborhood. In that context, the kids looked up to the older kids perhaps more than the parents, who were often seen as only periphery figures who’d call you in for dinner or yell at you for tromping on the flower garden. I think growing up in that kind of neighborhood-which could be in almost town or state-was more influential to me than anything distinctively Connecticut.

3) The narrative alternates between past and present events.  How do you believe this enhances the story?  Also, how did you approach plotting, given the intricate nature of your tale?

Yes, I think it enhances the story to get to see the characters at different ages-to see how they’ve changed, and how they’ve remained the same. It also gives the characters-and the reader-a chance to see the question of Rose’s disappearance from different perspectives. In 1990, they get to be witnesses to the actual events. In 2006, they get to consider what happened from a more adult perspective.

I’m not generally very organized or scientific about plotting. I usually write nearly a full draft, exploring the characters and the situation, before deciding exactly what happened and how it will all be resolved. Then I usually have to go back and rewrite the whole thing, now that I know exactly where it’s going. For this book, the past scenes were clearer to me much earlier on than the present-day ones. I wrote what was clear to me, then built the rest of the plot around those scenes.

4) Supernatural elements are interwoven into the narrative.  What inspired you to incorporate such ideas and what do you find to be the key to doing so believably?

Thank you for asking about this-not many readers have asked about this aspect of the book. I think the key to including paranormal elements was presenting it always through the eyes of the eleven-year-olds. Many readers probably aren’t inclined to consider the possibility of actual supernatural occurrences happening in the book beyond Nora and Charlotte’s belief in it. But those elements are there. They are fairly subtle, however, and mostly have to do with Nora’s childhood intuitiveness-which you can interpret simply as emotional sensitivity or something more. So readers who don’t wish to consider that aspect of the story can dismiss it pretty easily. You don’t have to believe in anything supernatural to get something out of the story.

5) More than a just a mystery, the book is an exploration of how time and circumstances can affect relationships.  How important was it for you to be able to present this dynamic?  Also, was it a challenge to balance the two storylines?

That aspect of the book was very important to me-as important as the mystery itself. I’m really not a mystery writer, to be honest. For me, the “mystery” is usually an opportunity to explore a particular emotional situation or possibility that intrigues me. With IN SEARCH OF THE ROSE NOTES, it was very much about forcing Nora to revisit her adolescent identity, and her adolescent relationships-and reconsider her memories and her perspective.

To be honest, it wasn’t particularly difficult to balance the two storylines. For one, I wasn’t really switching narrators. Nora at eleven and Nora at twenty-seven is, of course, the same person. It was fun to explore her voice at the two different ages. And I tend to like to write stories with narratives that alternate in one way or another. (In my first book, there is the main narrator, Billy, and then the narrator of the book-within-the-book that he finds in the dictionary files.) It helps keep the material fresh for me. When I get stuck on one narrative, I switch to the other. Often, I find solutions to the problem within the other narrative. That doesn’t always happen. But having two different outlets keeps me writing and experimenting even when I hit a difficult spot in the story.

The author will be appearing at R.J. Julia on Thursday, August 25, at 7 PM to discuss/sign In Search of the Rose Notes.  This event is free, though reservations are required and can be made online or by calling the store at 203-245-3959.  R.J. Julia is located at 768 Boston Post Rd. in Madison.

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