Friday, June 23, 2023

Q&A with Rebecca McKanna


Photo by Josh Saltsman



Rebecca McKanna is the author of the new novel Dont Forget the Girl. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Colorado Review. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Indianapolis.


Q: What inspired you to write Dont Forget the Girl, and how did you create your characters Bree, Chelsea, and Abby?


A: About 10 years ago, Abby first appeared in one of my short stories. Here was a girl who had been murdered, and her friends and family were forever changed by this act of violence. 


I had been reading and writing about crime for a while. I had listened to a lot of true crime podcasts and read a lot of true crime books. However, something was shifting within me.


For an essay I was writing, I tried to find more about one of Ted Bundy’s victims, Caryn Campbell. I even requested microfilm from the library to see if there was more about her in old newspaper articles. All I found was the little I already knew–she was a 23-year-old nurse. She had friends and family who loved her.


Meanwhile, Ted Bundy was everywhere–his face leering from every true crime display in bookstores. Caryn Campbell was nowhere–just a name in a list of other dead girls. The injustice gnawed at me, and I started to think about a book centering a murdered girl and her loved ones. 


Originally, I wrote the book as a linked short story collection, and writing and revising various stories about Bree, Chelsea, and Abby allowed me to get to know them, even if very little of that writing appears in the published novel.


Bree and Chelsea stayed relatively consistent throughout those drafts, but I heavily revised Abby. At a writer’s conference, a woman told me I was making her too saint-like, and I realized she was right. I was doing the same thing Bree chides Chelsea for in the novel—when someone is dead, we erase all their sharp edges.


Because I knew what was in store for her character, I was protecting Abby, purposely making her beyond reproach. When I revised the linked collection into a novel, I had to let Abby become more human—messier and more complicated.


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


A: I love the title, so I wish I could take credit for it! However, the amazing folks at Sourcebooks Landmark came up with it. I had a working title for the book while I was drafting. Then my agent and I brainstormed a new title when it went on submission, but it never felt quite right.


When my editor, Shana Drehs, emailed about their idea of calling it Don’t Forget the Girl, I got legitimately choked up, because I felt like the folks there truly understood the book. I think the tagline says it all: “We never remember the dead girls. We never forget the killers.”


This book tells the story of just one of those girls, and the title is a reminder of the humanity of every victim and what their loved ones lost with them.


Q: The story takes place in Iowa--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Although I’ve lived in Indiana for seven years now, I still set most of my work in Iowa, where I was born and raised. I think there’s something haunting about the places we grew up.


Also, I teach a Midwest crime literature course at my college, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the region and what makes it interesting as a setting for crime stories. The Midwest, and specifically Iowa, is a ripe setting. People always talk about “Iowa Nice”—this polite veneer everyone has. It’s satisfying to explore what lies underneath that.


Q: The writer Natalie Lund said of the book, “Beyond the mystery, Dont Forget the Girl is an exploration of grief, asking what we become in the wake of tragedy, what we need from those who leave, and how we move on.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think that’s such a generous and lovely reading of the book. I didn’t set out to write a mystery or a thriller. I just wanted to tell the story of these characters, and their emotional journeys. My favorite mysteries are those that have an emotional impact that stays with you as a reader, even after the mystery is solved. I hope Don’t Forget the Girl is able to do that for readers.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on my second novel, which also has a mystery/thriller bent. It’s about mothers and daughters and secrets and generational trauma. It’s strange to write new characters after spending so many years with Abby, Bree, and Chelsea, but I’m enjoying getting to know them.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you for letting me talk about the book. Writing can be such a long and solitary process, so it’s been really wonderful to talk with people and hear from readers. I’m on Instagram & Twitter as @rebeccamckanna


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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