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Unreliably Yours: Elizabeth Little on 'Dear Daughter' (Q&A w/ event details)

HBE will moderate Elizabeth Little and Wendy Corsi Staub at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison on Wednesday, August 6th, at 7 PM.
HBE will moderate Elizabeth Little and Wendy Corsi Staub at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison on Wednesday, August 6th, at 7 PM.

Hartford Books Examiner will be moderating authors Elizabeth Little (Dear Daughter) and Wendy Corsi Staub (The Perfect Stranger) in conversation at R.J. Julia Booksellers on Wednesday, August 6th, at 7 PM. This event is free and open to the public. Reservations can be made online or by calling the store at 203-245-3959. R.J. Julia is located at 768 Boston Post Road in Madison, CT.


Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Elizabeth Little.

Ms. Little is the author of Dear Daughter (Viking Adult, $26.95). Prior to making her fiction debut, she wrote the non-fiction titles Biting the Wax Tadpole and Trip of the Tongue. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. Ms. Little is a graduate of Harvard University. She makes her home in Los Angeles.

Dear Daughter was released last week, and has been met with enthusiastic acclaim. Publishers Weekly called the book “an assured fiction debut” while Kirkus praised, “Agatha Christie meets Kim Kardashian in this sharp-edged, tart-tongued, escapist thriller.” Further, internationally bestselling author Tana French noted, “Dear Daughter has three of my favorite things in a book: a smart, damaged, unstoppable narrator with a slicing sense of humor; needle-sharp writing that brings characters and atmosphere leaping off the page; and a vivid, original plot full of satisfying twists. This is an all-nighter, and the best debut mystery I've read in a long time.”

From the publisher:

A sensational debut thriller featuring an unforgettable heroine who just might have murdered her mother

Former “It Girl” Janie Jenkins is sly, stunning, and fresh out of prison. Ten years ago, at the height of her fame, she was incarcerated for the murder of her mother, a high-society beauty known for her good works and rich husbands. Now, released on a technicality, Janie makes herself over and goes undercover, determined to chase down the one lead she has on her mother’s killer. The only problem? Janie doesn’t know if she’s the killer she’s looking for.

Janie makes her way to an isolated South Dakota town whose mysteries rival her own. Enlisting the help of some new friends (and the town’s wary police chief), Janie follows a series of clues—an old photograph, an abandoned house, a forgotten diary—and begins to piece together her mother’s seemingly improbable connection to the town. When new evidence from Janie’s own past surfaces, she’s forced to consider the possibility that she and her mother were more alike than either of them would ever have imagined.

As she digs tantalizingly deeper, and as suspicious locals begin to see through her increasingly fragile facade, Janie discovers that even the sleepiest towns hide sinister secrets—and will stop at nothing to guard them. On the run from the press, the police, and maybe even a murderer, Janie must choose between the anonymity she craves and the truth she so desperately needs.

A gripping, electrifying debut novel with an ingenious and like-it-or-not sexy protagonist, Dear Daughter follows every twist and turn as Janie unravels the mystery of what happened the night her mother died—whatever the cost.

Now, Elizabeth Little unravels a few mysteries for readers …

1) What inspired you to write DEAR DAUGHTER – and how do you feel that your book is unique (or fresh) to its genre?

Dear Daughter flared to life when I received the CNN breaking news alert reporting that Amanda Knox’s conviction had been overturned. I’d been kicking around a completely different novel idea, but I hadn’t been able to get much traction on it (because, as I now realize, it was a terrible idea). As soon as I saw the CNN alert, though, I knew what I wanted to write next: a mystery starring a young, beautiful girl ... who also happened to be a notorious convicted murderer.

I certainly don’t consider Dear Daughter to be pushing the boundaries of the mystery genre. On the contrary, it is in many ways something of a love letter to two of my favorite mystery subgenres: noir and old-school Poirot-style whodunits—and I think fans of those kinds of books will find much to enjoy here. What sets the book apart, on the other hand, is without question its narrator. Janie Jenkins has a voice that is absolutely all her own. And because even Janie herself isn’t sure if she’s the villain in this story, Dear Daughter is quite literally a journey of self-discovery, which gave me the opportunity to place a great deal of focus on her singular psychology. She herself is as much a mystery as her mother’s murder is.

2) Your narrator, Janie Jenkins, is unreliable in the sense that she can’t recall the circumstances of her mother’s death. How does this device enhance the overall narrative – and what of the mother/daughter relationship dynamics lend themselves particularly well to a murder mystery?

I think Janie is unreliable full stop! This isn’t a stream-of-consciousness story—Janie’s very much telling her side of the story, and she knows it. Plus, she’s totally damaged goods, so there are defense mechanisms and coping strategies at work every step of the way. Some people mask their pain with jokes and exclamation points; Jane masks hers with insults and swears and evasions.

That a mother/daughter relationship is at the heart of the story adds another level of unreliability, and one that readers can easily identify (and identify with). I mean, is the truth of any relationship more subjectively questionable than the one between mothers and daughters—particularly during the daughter’s adolescence? Even though at the time of the book Janie is in her mid-twenties, her perspective is—at first, anyway—still very much that of a teenager. “Parents just don’t understand! And also they are uniformly one-dimensionally awful!” A reader, however, has the emotional distance to recognize that maaaaaybe there’s more going on here.

There is perhaps an argument to be made that the unreliable narrator is an overused trope—or a cheap one—but in this case, I think it is a psychologically honest portrayal that results in an emotionally compelling and high-stakes investigation. Janie may be unreliable, but she harbors genuine doubts about her role in her mother’s death. She’s not a Roger Ackroyd—her narration isn’t a trick. She truly doesn’t remember what happened. As a result, she has the strongest possible motivation to uncover the truth about her mother’s murder: She’s trying to discover who she really is.

From an authorial perspective this kind of narration really allowed me to foreground the suspense and sense of urgency, which I find is generally more difficult with past- than with present-tense storytelling. Hopefully, as readers make their way through the story, they will be infected with a similar sense of urgency—one that keeps them flying through the pages.

3) Your incorporate various communication techniques (diary entries, email, text, etc.). What is the benefit of doing so – and how does this challenge a writer stylistically?

I didn’t consciously set out to use such a wide range of texts, but because my inspiration came in the form of a CNN breaking news alert, it seemed natural that I write my own alert to start Jane’s story. Once that door had been opened, I realized I could use these reports and blog entries and screenplays for all sorts of useful things: as timestamps or as exposition, for instance. I also found them incredibly effective for pacing purposes. Sometimes these interstitials give the reader a chance to catch her breath; sometimes they force the reader to hold her breath.

But for me their most essential service is to provide a third-party perspective to help contextualize and expose the falsehoods or misconceptions in Janie’s narration. It’s sort of a matter of relativity, I suppose: The interstitials help you figure out if you’re moving forward or the earth is moving backward. I didn’t want the reader to be too adrift in Janie’s relentless subjectivity.

Certain sections were definitely more stylistically tricky than others, although I think that’s a matter of personal inclination—the melodrama of a TMZ post, for example, was much easier for me to capture than the journalistic concision of a CNN alert. (I’m not sure I want to know what that says about me.) And because this novel required that I immerse myself so deeply in Janie’s particular voice, I often had trouble shaking that loose enough to write from someone else’s perspective. But these challenges were absolutely offset by just how fun these sections were. I mean, I got to write a cheesy Coldplay-style pop ballad. What a treat!

4) Please tell us about the influence of pop culture and society’s obsession with celebrity scandals on the plot. Also, how do you endeavor to make social commentary that is both entertaining and thought-provoking?

I always said that we’d be much better off learning economic theory from a comic book, and that’s definitely a philosophy at work in Dear Daughter. The book is absolutely meant to pick at the ways in which celebrity culture affects female identity, self-worth, and sexuality—Jane’s worldview is a product of her environment, after all, and everything she says and does, both consciously and unconsciously, is a reflection of that. I’m not sure I’d say that this institutionalized objectification of women drives the plot, but it absolutely drives the characters: None of the women in Dear Daughter is immune from its influence. And anyone can pretty easily read between the lines and figure out that I’m not exactly pleased about this on a personal level.

That said, if there are parables to be found in Dear Daughter I’ve bundled them up with so much suspense and romance and comedy—so many jokes!—that you can easily glance right past them, because first and foremost I want to entertain and engage. But if some readers come away from Dear Daughter and are a little bit more angry about the influence of celebrity culture than they were when they started, I certainly won’t be complaining.

5) How did you find the process of writing fiction to compare to that of non-fiction – and do you feel that the disciplines influence one another?

For me, it’s an absolute joy to write fiction. The freedom is just exhilarating. I’m no less interested in mining the mysteries of human behavior than I was when writing nonfiction, but now I’m not hamstrung by the limits of scholarly research. It’s like I don’t have to work in a lab anymore—now I can just look up at the clouds and go wherever my thoughts take me. Additionally, I no longer have to worry about my depth or breadth or lack of expertise in any given subject, because no one is more of an expert on my stories than I am. This has allowed me to engage so much more deeply on a personal level with the questions that interest me than nonfiction ever did.

But my nonfiction experience certainly came in handy while I was writing Dear Daughter—and I expect that if I were to turn to nonfiction in the future I would find my work much changed by what I have learned from writing fiction. Certainly both disciplines require that the author think carefully about pace and structure and logic, whether intellectual or emotional. Readers need to trust the author enough to allow themselves to be convinced of something, be it a scientific conclusion or that a character would respond in a certain way under certain circumstances. No matter what the genre, every author is ultimately making an argument: that they’re worth reading.

6) Leave us with a little teaser: What comes next?

Next up is my second mystery with another (hopefully) memorable heroine. The working title is Do As I Say, and my narrator is a former shrink-to-the-stars whose patients keep killing themselves—and it’s up to her to figure out what’s really going on....


With thanks to Elizabeth Little for her generosity of time and thought and to Angie Messina of Viking/Penguin Publicity for facilitating this interview.

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