Acclaimed author Elisabeth De Mariaffi thrills with the followup to The Devil You Know, Hysteria. We talk Newfoundland love and the art of tension in our Q&A
You’re married and living with notable local poet George Murray, although you’re originally from Ontario. How long have you lived in Newfoundland?
I’ve been here now for almost six years. It will be six years this July. I moved here, mainly because I wanted to marry somebody that was there. We moved largely for love, but I moved with my two kids when they were 11 and my daughter had just turned 14. They were just so positive about it. It felt like such a lucky thing that we got to do. For myself I was in my mid 30s, late 30. How many people have the chance to pick up and go live by the ocean? It felt like a really lucky turn of events that this is where I happened to fall in love with somebody.
What’s your take on the local arts community here? It’s something that is so often spotlighted.
The art community here has been, for one thing tremendously welcoming, but it is so cohesive. People work in cross-genres, and they work not only on their own artistic practice, but on building their own art community, on building something for everyone to enjoy. The culture of music and writing and performance that is available here … it’s been a great place to live as an artist.
You recently released Hysteria, a thrilling mystery which is receiving rave reviews. Take me through your mindset during the writing of Hysteria and how it may or may not contrast with your previous work.
Hysteria is quite different from either of the books I’ve written in the past. I was really interested in doing much more with it and it sort of goes in a lot of different avenues. It still is a kind of a thriller, but it’s almost Hitchcockian in the way that it’s structured. It’s set in the 50s, in New York. We have a protagonist who I always picture as a Hitchcock blonde in my head. It deals with a lot of memory, fairytale and all those things that were happening at that time with the beginning of the psychotropic drug industry, the Twilight Zone. I sort of kept adding things and it sort of braided together in a way that was so exciting.
For so many writers, there is a vulnerability to putting your work out there. How is that for you as an author? How do you overcome those fears?
The first draft of the book or any kind of story really relies on that expansive imagination. The only way to do that is sort of shut down that vulnerability and really be in the room by yourself with your characters. It’s really easy to fall in that trap where you start thinking about how people are going to react to the work. What is essential to the work, in the moment, is allowing yourself that expansive imaginative piece and to dive into it. For me the final read through where they send you the proof, that’s probably the most stressful read through that I ever do, because you can’t re-write the book. You’re so close to it. It’s easy to only see the flaws.
As a fiction writer, how do you go about developing tension and that thick dread and atmosphere? How important is that for you, particularly in this book?
I’m drawn to stories that have a suspense, a mystery or thriller aspect to them. So much is writing the book that you would like to read. I always enjoy books that have a mystery piece to them. With Hysteria, the atmospheric part came naturally and first … We all intuitively have an idea of how stories go. We’ve told the same kind of stories as humans for thousands of years, so there’s an intuitive piece for sure. It’s subsequent drafts that you really do the fine carpentry, and especially on things like pacing. For me, when you’re talking about tension, that has to be really closely monitored and closely guarded and re-written in subsequent drafts to make sure that you’re not giving too much away, but giving enough away that the reader will feel that sense of I must read just one more page.
What’s the most notable comment you’ve ever received concerning your work? Good, bad or indifferent.
Devil You Know was set in the 90s in Toronto. Although it’s a fictional story about a young newspaper reporter investigating a cold case, the backdrop, and the entire book is set over the week before and after Paul Bernardo was arrested. The Paul Bernardo era of Ontario, which I did grow up in, was so fearful for women of many generations. As I was writing that I was really quite concerned with how to treat that. I wanted to document that. It was important to me that was the backdrop, because the book really is about women in fear. It was something of great concern to me, because there are real families involved
Before the book came out I was getting emails from women who had heard the pre-press and often were strangers who came in through my website. They all said a variation of ‘I am so glad you’re writing this. Can we finally talk about this now?’ I thought this was so interesting, because so much of what was made and said of Bernardo, because of the publication ban and everything afterwards, was sensational, and nobody wants that. Nobody wants to talk about it in a sensational way and sensationalize the brutal violence perpetrated against these young women. That comment has always stood out to me, because the fear part, that’s something we have to talk about. It affected more than one generation of women.
Hysteria is available now at harpercollins.ca and wherever local books are sold. For more visit elisabethdemariaffi.com