Q and A with Maggie Mitchell, PRETTY IS
Tell us a little about your novel:
Pretty Is is the story of two girls who are abducted together the summer they are twelve. Carly May Smith is a twelve-year-old beauty pageant queen from a farm in Nebraska, and when a polite, handsome young man stops her on Main Street and offers her a ride, she hops in his car without hesitation. Two days later she helps him talk Lois Lonsdale, a shy spelling bee champion from Connecticut, into joining them. The man takes them to an old hunting lodge in the Adirondacks, where they spend six summer weeks—not quite guests and not quite prisoners. Reading mysteries by day and playing outside at night, they fall under the spell of their captor and their surroundings; they are shattered when this interlude comes to a shocking end. The novel picks up years later, when they are nearly thirty, each in her own way haunted by their shared history. Seduced from the start by the knowledge that they were chosen and must therefore be somehow extraordinary, as adults they are still trapped in their sense of who Zed thought they were, and who he wanted them to become.
In the present, Lois is an English professor and also the author of a successful pseudonymous thriller, Deep in the Woods, which is a loose fictionalization of the abduction. She has sold the movie rights. In a coincidence worthy of the eighteenth-century novels she teaches, Lois is deeply shaken when she learns that the actress cast to star in the film is Chloe Savage, formerly Carly May Smith.
The novel is really about the two women and their relationship—to each other, to their past, and to the mysterious man who has shaped their lives.
PRETTY IS is told from a few different points of view and all of them are so deftly executed. Did your early drafts also feature these different voices/POVs?
The idea of alternating between Lois’s voice and Chloe’s was central to the novel from the very start. Both voices existed pretty clearly in my mind before I even began to write. It felt natural to begin with analytical, academic Lois and move on to the brasher, more aggressive, slightly vulgar Chloe. Both characters evolved in unpredictable ways as I wrote, of course, but the basic structure remained intact.
I did make one significant change along the way, however: Part Two, which is an excerpt from Lois’s novel, was originally narrated by Hannah, who is the Lois stand-in. Eventually it became clear that her voice and Lois’s were too indistinguishable, and I decided to substitute instead a sort of loose third person narrator, with primary access to Hannah’s thoughts, considerable access to Callie’s, and an occasional flash of Zed’s consciousness. This allowed me to play with the illusion of objectivity—an illusion because the reader is aware that in fact Lois, as Lucy Ledger, is the one imagining (and dictating) all of these points of view. I didn’t want any one perspective to be blatantly unreliable, but I wanted it to become gradually clear that the truth lies somewhere in the space between the different voices.
There's such attention to language in this wonderful book - along with being a page-turner, it's truly a literary novel - who (and what) were some of your influences?
Thank you! I think the writers who have influenced me most reflect both ends of that spectrum—if indeed it is a spectrum; I firmly believe that literary novels can be page-turners, and page-turners can be literary. I don’t see any opposition there, though I have learned in the last couple of years that the world tends to want novels to announce themselves as one or the other.
I would name Daphne du Maurier as one of my most important influences. I fell under her spell as a teenager and I love her still. I think Rebecca is a wildly underrated novel; the unnamed, supposedly mousy narrator is one of the most compelling and complicated voices in British literature. But I also love My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat….Du Maurier has much to teach about plot, pace, and suspense; she was also a master of representing the disturbed psyche.
Virginia Woolf also looms large in my literary consciousness, though no one has ever suggested that she wrote page-turners. But her experiments with language as a lovely but imperfect medium—as well as with our doomed attempts to understand the minds of others—lie at the heart of my own literary obsessions. Among contemporary writers, Kate Atkinson and Jennifer Egan have been incredibly important for me. Again, they combine fiercely intelligent literary sensibilities with the ability to tell a compelling, socially relevant story. And then there’s Margaret Atwood, the queen of the literary page-turner. I love her recent speculative fiction, but it’s her earlier novels—Lady Oracle, Life Before Man, Cat’s Eye—that really sank their tentacles into my mind and took up residence there.
There are four distinct sections in PRETTY IS - was this the structure you imagined from the start?
I originally planned three sections, with the novel-within-a-novel occupying the middle. Conceptually, this plan had a pleasing symmetry, but it resulted in a lopsided book: the first section was by far the longest, Lois’s novel about the kidnapping was deferred for too long, and the final section seemed too slight. In the end I broke up what was once the very long first section, inserted the novel section, and presented the remainder in two parts. I think it works much better in terms of navigating the novel’s movements in both time and space, but it took me awhile to see it.
Zed (as he's called in part two), Carly May and Lois's kidnapper, is sympathetically drawn, on the whole. Did you always intend to make him a tragic figure, of a kind?
Yes, I meant Zed to be tragic, in a way: there’s a darkness in him that has been inflicted by the world, a pain that can’t be assuaged. He’s doomed from the start. But I also meant him to be enigmatic, even unknowable. I didn’t want to provide tidy answers about how he came to be this way, or what he wants, or why he commits this elaborate crime. There are no easy answers to such questions, I think: some human desires remain mysterious. Like Lois and Chloe, we can only speculate. No doubt this will frustrate some readers, but it was important to me to refuse to reduce Zed to a simple psychological equation.
What are you working on now (if you don't mind me asking)?
I am working on a novel that will involve insane asylums, the Prohibition era, and perhaps ghosts. So far I tend to feel as if I am peering through a mist, but it’s coming clearer all the time.
Maggie Mitchell has published short fiction in a number of literary magazines, including the New Ohio Review, American Literary Review, and Green Mountains Review. Originally from upstate New York, she now lives in Georgia with her husband and cats. Pretty Is is her first novel.