Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Q&A with Elisabeth de Mariaffi

Elisabeth de Mariaffi, photo by Ayelet Tsabari
Elisabeth de Mariaffi is the author of the new novel The Devil You Know. She also has written a short story collection, How to Get Along with Women. She lives in St. John's, Canada.

Q: You incorporate real events into your novel. Why did you choose to do that, and what did you see as the right blend of the real and the fictional?

A: The germ of the novel, way back, was the image of a young woman in her bachelor apartment and the stalker outside on the fire escape, looking at each other through the glass, and the continued relationship between them. This was back before I knew it would be a novel; I thought it might be a short story.

I had another idea for a short story, too, and this came from a real news item I'd heard. In 2007, a little girl was abducted in Quebec, and the day after her abduction a few other girls came forward with the same story, that they'd all been approached, individually, by a man asking them to help find his lost dog.

None of those girls got in this man's car, but it is supposed that the missing girl was approached by this same man, and she did get in the car. That girl, Cedrika Provencher, has never been found. I often found myself thinking of those other girls, the ones who were a near-miss, and their families.

Part of the reason that this story stayed with me is that when I was nine years old, my own best friend went missing. She was found a few weeks later, but her murderer has never been caught. So I understand how those other girls might be really haunted, in a particular way, by what happened. 

In thinking about how to write a novel, I suddenly figured out that these two stories -- the fictional stalker story, and the real-life story of the missing girl -- were really part of one large story. So that was where the novel came from.

I grew up in Toronto during the late '80s and '90s, and I was a teenager during the crisis of the Scarborough Rapist years, so I remember that time very keenly. My whole generation of girls grew up very afraid. This was not a generalized fear. It was fear of one particular villain, later identified as Paul Bernardo.

He'd been operating as the Scarborough Rapist since the mid-'80s, but it wasn't until two very high-profile abductions of teenage girls in the Niagara area that he was finally arrested for murder in 1993.

In the novel, Evie is haunted by the unsolved murder of a childhood friend, but I wanted to set the story at the very moment of Bernardo's arrest, because it was such a shock to the whole country to learn that all of these crimes were committed by one person, and Evie would have felt that so much more because of her back story. 

Q: Can you say more about how you came up with your main character, Evie?

A: There are bits and pieces of Evie's story that are similar to my own story, but for the most part I have few really strong or detailed memories of the time when my friend was missing.

I wanted to make Evie a fighter. It's such an interesting time in a young woman's life -- a difficult time. Evie is 21, so it's the very moment where she's being encouraged to go out and make a life for herself. First real job, first apartment.

It's time to blaze some trails -- only, at the same time, young women are constantly told to fear on the basic level of personal safety. So, go out and be independent and powerful, but also be very, very afraid. I wanted to expose that. 

Could I have made Evie a rookie cop instead of a rookie reporter? I don't think so. I don’t think catching the bad guy is really what motivates Evie. I think the central question for her is actually “What happened?” She wants the story. So being a reporter really fits with that. 

Q: Fear is a constant element in the story. How did you sustain this, and did you know how the story would end before you started writing, or did you make changes along the way?

A: To be honest, when I first started thinking about this novel, the idea of the girl and the stalker, I didn't even know it would be a thriller. But it's a book about fear, and I think that to understand fear, you have to be made to feel afraid. I learned that while writing.

I don't think I knew exactly how the book would end until I was more than half way through. I wrote the bulk of the novel in a very intense period, so every day I'd come home and say, NOW I know how it ends! It felt very exciting, those constant discoveries. 

Q: You've also written short stories. Is your writing process similar?

A: I was basically terrified of the idea of writing a novel, so I had to keep fooling myself. A short story is so perfect. You can hold an entire short story in your hand, and you can see how pulling a little string over here, in the first few pages, will make the marionette kick her leg over there, closer to the end of the story.

A novel is I guess also like that, only your hand is now the size of a blue whale and if you want to see where and how the marionette kicks her leg, you have to drop the little string you just pulled and run a half-marathon really quickly.

I kept a list of scenes I knew had to happen in the novel, and if I was stuck writing chronologically, I would just write one of those scenes instead. An easy scene, with lots of dialogue, so the page fills up fast.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've just started work on a new novel. I've had an idea for some time of a book I'd like to write, and I thought it would be next, but I just couldn't seem to settle down to start writing it. I kept putting it off. 

This new idea came up very suddenly, and it's just taken off. I'm probably sounding vague: I don't want to jinx it! I can tell you there is definitely an element of fear and mystery to the new book, as well. I can't imagine writing without it. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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