Emily Arsenault is the author of the new novel The Last Thing I Told You. Her other novels include The Evening Spider and The Leaf Reader. She lives in Massachusetts.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Last Thing I Told You, and for your characters Nadine and Henry?
A: I really wanted to write about a teenage girl who does something shockingly, unexpectedly violent—and then revisit her as an adult.
Nadine’s personality and inner conflicts were clear to me very early on in the writing process. It was important to me to give readers an intimate look into her psyche, so that’s why there’s such a focus on her therapy sessions and even her therapist’s files.
I wanted to give readers glimpses of Nadine from different angles. I didn’t want it to be easy to decide if she was likeable or forgivable. And I hoped this would become a question readers would be asking themselves throughout the story—alongside the more factual investigative questions of the murder mystery.
But I felt I needed a counterpoint to Nadine’s psychological turmoil—as well as someone to perform the investigation. That’s when I started developing the detective character, Henry.
Although he’s more relatable than Nadine, I found him more difficult to flesh out. He is as complex as Nadine, but his inner conflicts are more subtle. It took me a while to get them right.
Q: You alternate between Nadine's and Henry's points of view. Did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character before turning to the other?
A: I didn’t write the book in order. I wrote about half of Nadine’s portion while I was still struggling with Henry’s opening scenes. With Henry, I had to do a lot more research—on police procedure, primarily.
Also, his voice was not as clear to me in the beginning. I had to do a lot of thinking and revising to make his story feel genuine to both me and my editor. Male narrators always take me longer to develop. I’m constantly second guessing myself about what a guy—and in this case a cop—would say or do in the situations I’ve set up.
Q: The novel takes place in a small town in Connecticut. How important is setting to you in your writing?
A: It depends on the novel. I think that Connecticut itself isn’t so important to this story as the idea of a small, suburban town—the kind that’s supposed to be ideal for raising kids.
Both Nadine and Henry grew up there, and feel defined by their impression of how the town perceives them. I think this is a common experience, and wanted to explore how people can get caught up in that kind of thinking—even in adulthood.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I knew what the biggest reveals were going to be from the beginning. This isn’t always the case for me—sometimes I change my mind half or three-quarters of the way through and have to rewrite large portions of the book. I got lucky this time.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a novel about a group of parents in an isolated Vermont town. It’s about tensions between families whose kids are classmates. There’s a lot of seething resentment, and then there’s an untimely death. That’s about all I should say.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: This book is pretty different from my previous ones. It’s maybe a little less quirky, a little darker psychologically. I hope readers enjoy the departure!
Thanks for the opportunity to discuss my book!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb