Want to listen in on a lively conversation between two longtime writer friends discussing one of their brand new books? Then go to the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts at 7 p.m. Saturday, February 27 when New York Times bestselling author, Abigail Thomas, will interview USA Today bestselling author, Alison Gaylin, about Gaylin’s ninth book, What Remains of Me (William Morrow/Harper Collins).
Twenty years ago in New York City, Gaylin took a writing workshop from Thomas. Since becoming Woodstock neighbors many years ago, the two women get together often. “Abby’s great, such an inspiring and positive person. I always show my first drafts to my husband before I send them to my editor, but between finishing a book and the final copy edit, I have to look at it so closely. I was in a huge crisis with this last book, so I asked Abby to read it. She read it in one day, and was very encouraging. Whenever I’m with her, we both feel inspired and leave wanting to write.”
While writing her new psychological suspense thriller, Gaylin fed into the two dominant streams of her own obsessions. “I’ve always been fascinated by pop culture and crime. My mom was very interested in pop culture, and was a huge reader, followed all the stars and celebrities in Hollywood Reporter, Variety, People,” says Gaylin of growing up in Los Angeles. And, while no one in her family was in the movie business, its allure took hold of her, too. “When I was seven years old, I was reading Army Archerd’s column. My parents weren’t policing my reading so, at 10 years old, I read Helter Skelter. I thought it was about The Beatles, but it was so fascinating to look under that rock. I’ve been a big fan of true crime ever since then.”
Gaylin fused her dual loves — Hollywood celebrity culture and true crime — for the first time in What Remains of Me. Then, she topped off her glamorously thrilling plotline by setting the lynchpin events 30 years apart. All of this upped the ante in terms of being on the lookout for ‘the detail police.’
“I am really intrigued by the idea of ‘done with the past, but the past won’t be done with you.’ In my other books about private investigator, Brenna Spector, the past is her constant companion because she can’t forget anything (due to a condition called hyperthymestic syndrome). She’s a sad character in a way,” says Gaylin. “In What Remains of Me, the main character is 17 years old when she is convicted in 1980 of a murder. It defines her for her entire life.” Kelly Michelle Lund served a 25-year sentence and was released from prison: five years later, at age 47 in 2010, she is the prime suspect in a second brutal celebrity murder. The two time periods — 1980 and 2010 — feed into each other and Lund must still answer to the past while dealing with her present day reality. Gaylin intersperses ‘fake press’ into the telling of the story, adding a documentary feel to her gripping novel.
As a theater major at Northwestern, Gaylin wrote plays, and some even won competitions, but she chose to pursue a more journalistic career path because she deemed it more practical. No stranger to the workings of the human mind, while enrolled at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she sank deeply into her dual passions for true crime and celebrity and wrote her master’s thesis on murderously obsessed fans. “I did a lot of research and interviews — with a psychiatrist and even with a deranged fan, that was weird — and I had always read a lot about (the topic). My interest is what brought me to psychological suspense.”
Her emphasis on research and details definitely comes from being a journalist. Like many writers, Gaylin says her first drafts are usually pretty terrible. “I want to get things right, plus mystery readers are very discerning. They write to you if the details are wrong — ‘that kind of gun doesn’t have a safety’ and things like that. I spoke to a couple of LA detectives, and visited a police station — watching CSI doesn’t give you enough information and it’s not fair to the readers — so I try to get it right and do lots and lots of rewriting.”
Then, she laughs and adds, “That said, I’m just detail-oriented in my writing. I’m the kind of person who loses her keys and leaves her purse at rest stops.”
After her 14-year old daughter goes to Onteora High School in the morning, Gaylin writes, does errands and then writes some more. “Late at night is my best time to do first drafts of scenes. In the morning, I mostly re-write. I’m much clearer then. My schedule varies day to day because I go into New Jersey to work a few days a week at Life & Style magazine,” she says.
Choosing to be a writer comes with a special set of working conditions, not the least of which is polishing your work until it really shines. Gaylin says, “Everyone says, ‘persevere, keep at it’ when asked to give advice to other writers. I say you have to re-write — and the great thing is that you can re-write. Get constructive criticism from editors and agents. Don’t assume it’s perfect. Do the hard work yourself. I have never felt like a conduit, like the universe is speaking directly through me, that my writing is perfect out of the gate, and I envy people who do think that,” she continues. “My big strength is my ability to edit and re-write. If you’re a brain surgeon, you don’t have another chance to do it right. If you’re an actor performing live on-stage, you have one chance: you blow it, you blow it. But writing, you can really perfect. And when I’m stuck, I go take a hike and get away from it all. If the weather is nice, I love to do a four or five mile run/walk up Byrdcliffe and back. It clears my head.”
Gaylin embarks upon a somewhat protracted book tour between now and April, with a first stop on Wednesday at The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City before arriving in Woodstock this weekend. Then, it’s on to Vermont, California, New Orleans and Denver with some back and forth to home, too. “It’s really great connecting with readers, because you write in a vacuum. It makes it all more of a reality, more tangible. Book tours can be tiring, but that’s a good problem to have,” she says.
“The Golden Notebook is my favorite bookstore. They host wonderful events and James (Conrad) and Jackie (Kellachan) are both so well read. They’re real readers, not corporate types, and they really pay attention to the details when they plan events. They attract good crowds, lots of my friends will be there, and Woodstock’s my favorite place to read. There are so many readers in Woodstock, and The Golden Notebook is always packed every time I go into the store. Forget about those headlines about the death of the reader…”
Alison Gaylin in Conversation with Abigail Thomas, will take place at 7 p.m. Saturday, February 27, at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, 36 Tinker Street, Woodstock. For more information, call 679-8000 or see www.goldennotebook.com.