Saturday, June 10, 2023

Q&A with Polly Stewart

Photo by Laura Dillon Rogers



Polly Stewart is the author of the new novel The Good Ones. She also has written the novel Wild Girls, under the name Mary Stewart Atwell. She teaches at Virginia Military Institute, and she lives in Lexington, Virginia.



Q: What inspired you to write The Good Ones, and how did you create your characters Nicola and Lauren?


A: The most direct inspiration for The Good Ones was the case of the Springfield Three, three women (a mother, a daughter, and the daughter’s friend) who disappeared from Springfield, Missouri, in the early ‘90s.


I first heard about the case through a short story called “Missing Women” by a writer named June Spence, which was published in Best American Short Stories in the mid-‘90s. I was in high school then, but I read BASS religiously, and the story haunted me for years even before I realized it was inspired by true events.


Much later, I ended up living in Springfield when my husband was teaching at Missouri State University, and I used to visit the memorial to the women in one of the local parks.


Like most of the people I know, I’ve consumed a bunch of true crime since Serial, but I think it’s significant that this case got under my skin before I was even aware of true crime as a genre.


I’m glad you asked about Nicola and Lauren—I’m really fond of them, and I weirdly kind of miss them since I finished the book—but I’m not sure if I can pinpoint where they come from.


Like Nicola, I’m an English professor who moved back to small-town Virginia after years away, but our backgrounds and personalities are pretty different.


I think what I was most interested in with Nicola and Lauren was the symbiosis between them—the way their lives are reciprocally shaped by the way the other sees and perceives them. I had a few friendships like that when I was younger, and I’m endlessly fascinated by that dynamic.


Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I was just telling a friend about the book last week, and she said, “The book must be one page long, right? Since there aren’t any good ones?” I thought it was funny that no one had made that joke before, since that’s definitely the reference I was going for with the title.


I was recently divorced when I started writing The Good Ones, and I was thinking about how difficult dating can be in your 30s, when there’s a perception that all the “good ones” are already taken.

In the novel, there are a couple of guys who appear to be “good ones,” although appearances may be deceiving. At times, both Nicola and Lauren identify as “good ones” too, since they each experience various degrees of privilege for different reasons.


 Ultimately I’m hoping readers will question the phrase, since it’s not a very useful or accurate way of categorizing people.


Q: The writer S.A. Cosby called the book “A classic Southern Gothic tale told through the prism of modern-day sensibilities.” What do you think of that description, and how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: It’s interesting to me how often Southern Gothic has come up as a descriptor, because although I am from the South, I’m not especially well-read in Southern literature.


I teach British literature and creative writing at the college level, and I was thinking a lot about that kind of Gothic—Jane Eyre, and Coleridge’s “Christabel,” and some of the weird stuff no one reads these days by people like Horace Walpole and Anne Radcliffe.   


Setting is hugely important in my work. I grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I ended up moving back here as an adult when I happened to get a teaching job an hour away from where I grew up.


That’s pretty unusual for academics and definitely not something I was expecting, but it ended up in being incredibly fortunate, because the landscape and the aesthetics of the Appalachians is very generative for me. Something about being here puts me in the right headspace to write, and I have a feeling that I’d be a lot less productive if I lived somewhere else.


Q: Without giving anything away, did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I had no idea where I was going when I started. I’m a compulsive outliner in most cases, but for whatever reason, that approach didn’t work very well with The Good Ones.


I had Nicola’s voice right away and I knew the relationships of the main characters, but that was about it, and I spent a good three years writing and revising before everything fit together the way I wanted it.


I think maybe it was because I really wasn’t thinking about writing a novel that would be published. That was the dream, of course, but it wasn’t something I was counting on—I just wanted to write something that I’d find completely absorbing.


It was a frustrating process in some ways, but I also look back at it as kind of a great time because I had all this freedom to follow the story where it wanted to go. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My novel in progress is called The Felons’ Ball, and it’s about a woman named Natalie who owns a yoga studio in a small town in Virginia with her older sister. Her father and uncle are local bigwigs, but they also have a criminal past, and she ends up looking into some old family secrets that eventually get her into trouble.


I love writing about culture clashes in the small-town South, and I’m having so much fun working on it.    


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you for the great questions!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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