Suzette Mayr is the author of the new novel Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall. Her other books include Monoceros and Venous Hum. She teaches creative writing at the University of Calgary, and she lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new novel, and for your main character, Edith?
A: I’d been reading a lot of haunted house novels, and I really really wanted to write one. I’ve always been especially drawn to Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House.
But it turns out that – surprise surprise – writing horror is a lot harder than it looks, and it was difficult writing a haunted house book without incorporating all of the clichés I’d absorbed while reading haunted house novels and stories.
It was also difficult trying to create horror on the page. I’ve really come to appreciate Jackson’s and Stephen King’s ability to scare readers. What an amazing skill they – and other horror writers – have.
Around the same time, I was noticing a lot of unease among colleagues of mine at different universities across Canada but also in Europe and Australia because of the increasing corporatization of universities and its effect on day-to-day teaching and scholarly research.
This was crystallized for me in a series of articles in The Guardian titled “Mental Health: A University Crisis” about the prevalence of mental health issues among university students, and to a lesser extent, university professors and instructors.
Although a university or college campus building is not a house per se, a campus can resemble a home or home away from home.
Elaine Showalter in her book Faculty Towers posits that “[most] of our universities act in loco parentis for students, creating a complete society on the campus, with housing, meals, medical care and social life all provided communally and institutionally.”
My novel Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall is my attempt at a haunted house novel, but set on a university campus and the “family” who lives in the house is a “university family.”
Edith is a composite character modeled on about four or five people who have had terrible experiences as professors or instructors in universities. I took all of their worst stories and moulded them into one character.
Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I always find endings challenging. I think it’s because for most of the writing process for a given novel I have a lot of false starts that I think will be the first page or paragraph of the book (but they never are), then I work for years on the middle of the book, then the actual beginning emerges partway through the process, and by the time I have to think of an ending – a good ending – I’ve been working on the novel for so long that I can’t see the story anymore.
The best ending I’ve ever read is the one in Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, which I read for the first time a couple of years ago. It’s perfect. The novel follows the main character’s trajectory to its natural, organic end.
This ending takes everything that’s happened in the book and sums it up exactly in one scene, ties up all the threads without being artificial, and although I know there are different kinds of endings, a Mrs. Bridge ending is the kind of ending I’ve decided I’m always going to try to aim for.
So with Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, for a long time I had a drippy, saggy ending that was a total copout and didn’t fit the rest of the book tonally or thematically or in terms of character. It was more like an abandonment than an ending.
Then for a while I had a better ending, but it was also inconclusive and wishy-washy. This was the version that was part of the manuscript I submitted to the publisher initially.
The editor at the press, Alana Wilcox, asked me to rewrite the ending. She wanted something spectacular that would equal the ending of my novel Monoceros, which has an ending that is completely predictable but still surprising.
So I worked away at the ending of Dr. Edith Vane, and thought a lot about Connell’s technique in Mrs. Bridge, and realized that I had left a number of threads just hanging, and that I’d set up the reader for all kinds of expectations that I never followed through on.
Coming up with the ending for Dr. Edith Vane was a tough chew, but I’m really happy with the ending now.
Q: Your publisher describes the novel as “an unholy collision of Stoner, The Haunting of Hill House, Charlie Brown, and Alice in Wonderland.” What do you think of that, and were there other influences on the book?
A: Very early in the publication process the publisher asked me to name a title or titles of a publication or two that my manuscript resembled, and I gave them the campus novel Stoner, Jackson’s Hill House, the character Charlie Brown (from the comic strip Peanuts) and Alice in Wonderland.
It was difficult for me to come up with just one or two titles because Dr. Edith Vane is such a mashup in some ways. It’s a campus satire, but it’s also a haunted house story, but the main character is a kind-hearted failure, and Alice and her rabbit kept popping up all over the manuscript when I was writing it even though I never intended that initially.
I was really pleased that the publisher decided to use this long list of texts as part of the promotional material for the book.
I suppose one other influence that maneuvered its way in without me thinking about it until very late in the process was the television show Downton Abbey and its archaic, anachronistic, British weirdness.
My partner was watching that show a lot, and I would watch it over her shoulder, but often I’d have to leave the room because it’s such a terrible show in some ways.
Don Juan in the Village by Jane DeLynn might also be a bit of an influence because even though Edith Vane is a bit of a failure in her work, she still manages to have a raging sex life with her female neighbour.
But my book is only a little bit of Don Juan in the Village. Because Edith Vane is no female Don Juan. Edith’s neighbour is more of a late-in-life, embryonic Don Juan.
Q: You’ve written novels, stories, and poems. Do you have a preference?
A: I’ve definitely gravitated to novels. I find stories and poems awkward to write because you need to be so precise in a short space. I’m pretty sloppy, and creatively I guess I need a lot of room.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: It’s bad luck to talk about it! I am working on a novel about a man. (I’ve already said too much.)
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I can’t think of anything. I just hope readers like the book!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb