Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Q&A with Abby Geni

Abby Geni is the author most recently of the novel The Lightkeepers. She also has written the story collection The Last Animal, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Triquarterly and Flaunt magazine.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Lightkeepers, and for your main character, Miranda?

A: The whole thing began with my love of mysteries. A few years ago, I read everything by Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer and Dorothy Sayers, and I became enamored with the perfect architecture of a mystery plot, in which everything that happens has to happen. Even the red herrings and tangents of the story must be there to enhance the tension and keep up the suspense. 

I knew that I wanted to write my favorite kind of mystery, which takes place in an enclosed setting with a limited array of suspects. That idea simmered on a back burner of my brain for a long while before I began writing The Lightkeepers.

As far as my discovery of Miranda, I came to know her through her letters. The novel is epistolary - written in the form of letters Miranda is penning to her dead mother - which gave me a unique window into her mind. I loved getting to know her through what she chose to write to her mother and how she chose to describe her daily life.

It's not the easiest way to create a book, and I don't know that I'd tackle an epistolary novel again, but I really enjoyed this particular incarnation of that narrative style. 

Q: The book is set on the Farallon Islands off the coast of California. Why did you choose that setting, and how important a role do you see setting playing in your books?

A: I read The Devil's Teeth, a memoir by Susan Casey about her time on the Farallon Islands, and I fell head-over-heels in love with the place. It was a perfect setting for The Lightkeepers in so many ways - wild, filled with marine life, dangerous, strange. 

I wanted to write about the relationship between the human sphere and the natural world, and I wanted to write about nature itself, which is so vividly present on the islands. 

The archipelago is also an enclosed realm in which I could locate my locked-room mystery. Only the biologists who study the birds, whales, sharks and seals are allowed to live there. It's not a place where people can come and go easily.  

Setting plays a huge role in everything I write. Until I have a vivid sense of place, the story is still half-formed. I have to be able to step onto the landscape and fill my senses with every detail. Then I can start making the plot and discovering the characters.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: Oh, I made changes. So many changes! I don't want to give away the end, but I will say that for a long time I had a completely different villain in mind. 

I knew the beats of the plot from the beginning - even before I began writing the book - but it took me a good while to figure out the emotional arc of each of the characters. This is typical of my writing process; I often know the sequence of events (the what) a long time before I know the meaning behind it (the why). 

Throughout the process of revision, I needed a lot of patience and time and soul-searching and, of course, intensive work with my wonderful editor, Dan Smetanka.

Q: How was the book’s title selected, and what does it signify for you?

A: The lightkeepers were the inhabitants of the Farallon Islands many years ago. They worked the lighthouse and lived in deprivation and extreme circumstances, surrounded by nature. 

I like to think of them keeping the light itself - not just protecting the ships at sea and the islands themselves, but also living in harmony with the animals around them, never taking too much, only what they needed to survive. 

To my mind, they represent humanity's best self - the best version of who we can be in our relationship to the natural world.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A new novel. Wish me luck!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Lightkeepers will be out in paperback this winter, and I highly encourage everyone to buy at least 10 copies.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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