Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Q&A with Rachel Howzell Hall


Photo by Andre Ellis



Rachel Howzell Hall is the author of the new novel What Never Happened. Her other books include the novel We Lie Here. She lives in Los Angeles.


Q: What inspired you to write What Never Happened, and how did you create your character Coco?


A: I wanted to write another locked-room mystery but on an island that Southern Californians know well. As kids, we’ve had field trips there. As young people, we’ve gone on long romantic dates over there. It’s all charm and sun, good times and saltwater taffy, bison and learning that “casino” isn’t always referring to a gambling hall.


Catalina Island also has a not-so sparkly history—fulltime residents were nearly 100 percent white. Buying a home over there is virtually impossible now. There are reasons behind that.


I wanted to take this notion of paradise and break its back. Coco, the survivor of a murder, will do that. She’s running back to a place that hurt her to claim her space. This house in paradise belongs to her, no matter the circumstances.


In a way, she represents a larger conversation about Black folks in America—how we think of leaving this place, this place that hurt us but we built with our blood. Why should we not claim our space here?


So, on one level, What Never Happened is a good ol’ murder mystery-crime story. On the other level… I’m addressing much more.


Q: As you mentioned, the novel takes place on Catalina Island--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Setting is always important in my stories. Catalina Island is nearly 36 miles from the mainland—but it’s still a part of Los Angeles County. So far, and yet…


And when the pandemic struck, even though it was isolated, the island was still subject to COVID-19 sweeping over the community. Visitors could no longer come over, and there were restrictions on the ferries bringing people there.


So I wanted a place that’s already physically away from Coco’s L.A… to become truly a locked-room. She couldn’t escape from this paradise that still harbors a murderer from her past.


Q: The writer Naomi Hirahara said of the book, “Add Coco to Rachel Howzell Hall’s growing list of Black female protagonists who take their destinies into their own powerful hands with both sass and clear-eyed honesty.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love Naomi and my heart filled when she provided that blurb. It means so much to me that she sees what I’m trying to do here.


I’m writing stories about Black women going into a space where sometimes, they’re the only one, or one of a few, who can’t blend in. Immediately, people have thoughts about you, good or bad. And we always, always, level our shoulders, straighten our spines and pray for the best.


Sometimes, life works out in those encounters. Too many times, we leave a space nicked and bruised—and I want to share that experience and what we really think about the world in those instances and even in our quiet, alone time.


Black women are fascinating because we deal with both sexism and racism all at the same time, every day. We truly have a unique perspective, often using humor and frankness to heal, to teach, to survive. I’m proud that Coco is now a part of my pantheon of Black female protagonists.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: You can’t heal without confronting those things that have hurt you—and apologizing for your part in that awful thing is ultimately restorative. Also, quiet and perfect places are often quiet and dangerous places. Perception is just that.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Currently, I’m working on another mystery, Let Me Go, which takes place in Topanga Canyon, here in LA County. The main character is looking for someone… during brushfire season.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My first fantasy epic, The Last One, will be out February 2024! It’s part of a duology. It’s available for pre-order right now!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Rachel Howzell Hall.

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