Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Q&A with Joanna Pearson




Joanna Pearson is the author of the new novel Bright and Tender Dark. Her other books include the story collection Now You Know It All. Also a psychiatrist, she lives near Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


Q: What inspired you to write Bright and Tender Dark, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: When I first got to college, one of my friends told me she’d heard this advice: if you were ever being assaulted, you should fling yourself to the ground and throw a full-on Linda-Blair-from-The Exorcist-style fit. Your would-be assailant would be so startled and unnerved that he’d flee. 


This always stuck with me—partly because I wondered if it would actually work, and partly because it seemed so strange. 


There we were at a flagship public university, a hopeful place full of people bound together in the idealistic enterprise of higher education, and yet young women were walking around trading morbid strategies to keep themselves safe. 


This tidbit churned in my mind for years. Later, it started to blend with thoughts about late-‘90s evangelicalism, the power of storytelling and our desire for belief, the allure of true crime and the Internet as a place of connection and knowledge-brokering, how real human people get turned into the stuff of legend…and out of this mélange grew Bright and Tender Dark.


My cast of characters emerged from a question: who all might be impacted by a single death? And what if it were the sudden and tragic death of a bright, ambitious college student? How might the loss impact even those she only knew glancingly?


Instead of writing a traditional murder mystery, I wanted to perform a kind of psychological autopsy to look at the long aftermath of such a murder on a community.


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


A: My original title was taken from the seed story out of which this book grew: “Grand Mal,” which I liked, but didn't suit the larger project. My brilliant agent, Marya Spence, was the one who suggested “Bright and Tender Dark.” 


I love the paradox of this title, how it’s both gentle and forbidding, threatening but also hopeful—bright, yet dark. This novel is one haunted by absence and unknowing, and yet it’s out of that very darkness that something tender and (possibly?) beautiful emerges.


Q: The author Rachel Monroe said of the book, “There are many mysteries in this book - most obviously, there's the decades-ago murder of a charismatic college student-but Pearson is also interested in the things we do, and don't, know about the people closest to us, and how we are sometimes strangers to ourselves.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love it! Talk about paradoxes. I think Rachel’s right—the mysteries of who we are, how we understand those close to us, how we understand ourselves really interest me both as a fiction writer and also as a psychiatrist (my day job).


I think it’s out of this desire to understand that much of our storytelling emerges—whether in the form of gossip or Reddit threads or urban legend or organized religion or a clinical narrative.


As a side note, let me please also recommend Rachel’s incredible nonfiction book, Savage Appetites, which interrogates our fascination with true crime, the ways in which people look to it to try and understand something of themselves. Her book is so readable, so thoughtful and smart—I can’t recommend it highly enough!


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: The main thing I knew was that the killer would not be pure evil; beyond that, I had to write my way into figuring it out. 


While I can thoroughly enjoy a story with a classic villain, I’m even more interested in how otherwise reasonable people can do unreasonable things, the way almost all of us have the capacity for both tremendous kindness and tremendous cruelty, depending on our circumstances. 


Real-world violence is rarely the work of a criminal mastermind. Real-world violence is far more likely to be mundane—a mishap, an impulse, a terrible error in judgment. How does that happen, and how do we reckon with it? It’s so much messier and terrifying and gutting to contemplate.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Oh, jeez. I’m working on keeping my head above water!  I work full-time as an outpatient psychiatrist, and that, along with simply trying to get my kids the bus stop on time, etc., has felt really consuming lately. Daily life! It’s hard to find writing time! 


I’m closing in on another short story manuscript in teensy bursts here and there, and I’m longing to find traction in another longer project….soon, fingers crossed!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I think there will be an excellent narrator for the audiobook version of Bright and Tender Dark! I don’t think I can say who it is officially yet…but I listened to the audition sample, and the narrator we all loved and chose is perfect!


I say this as someone who has a lot of nerdish enthusiasm when audiobooks are done especially well—so get excited for this one! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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