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Alice Sebold's debut novel, 2002's The Lovely Bones, was a tremendous sensation and an international bestseller. The story of a 14-year-old girl raped, murdered, dismembered, and watching from heaven as her friends and family deal with her death is surprisingly poetic, given the subject matter. It's a strange, delicate sort of mystery novel, in which the reader knows who the killer is from the beginning, but the characters (apart from his victim, Susie Salmon) don't; the question is whether he'll be caught, and whether Susie will come to terms with her death either way.
Sebold paused while writing Lovely Bones to write another book, Lucky, an unflinching, mesmerizing memoir about her own violent rape, and the subsequent capture and trial of her rapist. Violence and torment surface yet again in her third book, the new novel The Almost Moon, which begins with a 49-year-old woman instinctively murdering her senile, mentally ill mother, then alternately deals with the preceding decades and the following 24 hours, shaping a picture of why it happened and following what Helen does next. While on tour supporting Almost Moon, Sebold spoke with The A.V. Club about finding her voice, avoiding her reviews, and the Lovely Bones film adaptation that Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson is helming.
The A.V. Club: You've said you didn't start writing The Almost Moon with that much-discussed first line, "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." What was the first thing you wrote?
Alice Sebold: I have no idea. [Laughs.] I mean, if I went into my closet, I could find a previous draft and try to figure that out, but it takes a long time for me to find the voice to tell a story in. I was working from other points of view for a couple years there.
AVC: How do you find the voice you want? Do you outline and plan, or just sit down and write and see where it takes you?
AS: Yeah, I don't outline and plan, I just work with what I unattractively call "the subconscious stew."
AVC: Do you have any sense of how many drafts or how many directions you went through for this book?
AS: I know that I wrote pretty far into three different points of view before I found Helen's voice.
AVC: What do you do with the discarded versions? Do you keep them around to mine, or for posterity, or are you the slash-and-burn kind?
AS: I'm not a slash-and-burn kind, and I'm also not a posterity kind. They just kind of exist on my hard drive. It's like walking down the street—what you leave behind is still there, even if you never go back and revisit it.
AVC: What's your actual writing process like?
AS: I wake up very early in the morning. I like to start in the dark, and I never work at night, because my brain is evaporated by 4 p.m.
AVC: Do you work with a goal? A set number of hours, or a set number of words or pages?
AS: Depending on where I am in the process, sometimes I have a page count and sometimes I don't. Sometimes I have an hour count; sometimes I'm just happy to string a few words together. I do keep pretty rigorous hours, because otherwise you never get anything done.
AVC: How did you know with Almost Moon when you'd found the voice you wanted to stick with?
AS: I guess it's like the same way a musician feels when they hit the right note. It was the marriage of the obsessions and the voice, and it just sounded right to me. To my ear, it was right.
AVC: The book has a very different voice from The Lovely Bones—less poetic, more blunt and practical. Was that a conscious choice?
AS: Well, they're two different people with two different experiences and lives, so they have voices that are different from one another. I think I'm not interested in repeating myself, so to me it would be a happy thing that Helen's voice is different than Susie's.
AVC: When you wrote Lucky, did you find that non-fiction required a similar process of having to write and rewrite to find your direction?
AS: Well, it's my voice, so it's more accessible that way, and there are also all sorts of things like plot and timelines that are already known entities, so for me, it's very different from writing fiction.
AVC: When you write to see where the story goes, do the characters wind up surprising you?
AS: Sure. In some sense, I would say just about everything does. It's not true and it is true, in that Helen, once I had the voice, she really directed the specifics of the book in some ways. In other words, she tells me as much as I tell her, so it's a coupling in that way.
AVC: Are there points along the way where you have to take control back? Do you ever have concerns about where the characters are taking the book?
AS: It's hard, because when you talk about process or your characters ruling your narrative, it sounds like you have no control, but obviously you're ultimately the author, so you do have control.
AVC: Do you find yourself judging their behavior? Do you have a moral judgment about the things Helen does?
AS: No, I just leave that up to people who read it. [Laughs.] Moral judgment's not a big thing for me.
AVC: It seems like her backstory is designed to draw sympathy and to make people understand why she does what she does, but she sees herself fairly unsympathetically.
AS: Right. Well, she judges herself, partially, which I think is a pretty common phenomenon.
AVC: Does that give you more freedom to not judge her one way or the other, because she does that for you?
AS: I hadn't really thought about that. I just write the character. I don't know if I've got an answer to that one. [Laughs.]
AVC: Sometimes it's hard in the book to tell why she's doing what she's doing; she herself periodically says, "I don't know why I did that. I don't know where that came from." Do you yourself feel like you know?
AS: I think it's an interesting thing to me, because we have this desire for everything to be explained to us. But if you go through your daily actions, very little ends up having a written-down explanation for why things happen, or why people do specific things. So it made sense to me to reflect the human condition that not every action has an explanation. We act, and then later maybe come to an understanding about it, or maybe not.
AVC: An awful lot of what's been written about you seems like attempts to explain your books. People want The Lovely Bones to come out of your own experience with rape, and The Almost Moon to come out of your own relationship with your mother. Do you think those comparisons are valid?
AS: I think I understand the instinct, but I think it's a lazy way to read a book.
AVC: Is it any easier with non-fiction, where people are less likely to want to decode what you're saying?
AS: Well, while [The Lovely Bones'] Susie Salmon was the character that people were talking about, I had to repeatedly comment that I was not dead. With The Almost Moon, I must repeatedly comment that my mother is alive.
AVC: But when people ask about your relationship with your mother, they're obviously not asking, "Have you killed your mother lately?" They're asking whether you want to. Is that a difficult question to hear?
AS: I think a lot of people ask questions that they don't want to answer themselves, and if we're honest about the intimacy that we have with our parents, you wish them the best and you wish them the worst more than anybody else in the world. I think everyone has had a moment in their life where they wished a parent ill, and I think it's perhaps a very romantic idea that that doesn't happen.
AVC: All your books start with very arresting first lines, and it seems like a lot of the coverage of The Almost Moon in particular has focused so much on that first line that it almost overshadows the rest of the book.
AS: Things are reductive in society, so I think that that happens. Books and novels in particular that grapple with quite a few things are difficult to explain, so I think that first line can come in a substitute for trying to form a longer sense of what the book is about.
AVC: With The Lovely Bones, you said that you "kept your head down" and didn't realize what a huge phenomenon it had become until six months after the publication. Are you doing the same thing with The Almost Moon? Are you aware of how it's doing?
AS: I'm not reading my reviews this time out, which was a choice I made a couple weeks ago. I think at a certain point, when you're touring, at least the way I am right now, you have to just keep your head down, because it's really only about going from city to city and making sure you answer the phone when someone such as yourself rings it.
AVC: Do you think it's possible for the book to get a fair reading after The Lovely Bones was such a huge success?
AS: I think a long time from now, yes. Right now, probably not. I think some people can, and will. The nice thing about books is, they can just hang out as a physical object for a very long time.
AVC: When you're writing, do you think about that—how your work might be taken in 20 years, as opposed to how it's going to be read when it's published?
AS: No, I don't think about either one of those things. [Laughs.]
AVC: What do you think about? Do you have an ideal reader in mind, or an ideal future for the book?
AS: No, I really just focus on the process of the work. For me, that really is what it's all about.
AVC: Has that process changed any over time? Did having a mega-bestseller change how you work?
AS: Ultimately, in the end, it did not, but it took me a little while just to get back to the fact that I was going to be the same weird person that wrote my first book.
AVC: Did you feel any pressure, from the audience from the first book waiting for a follow-up?
AS: I think in some ironic sense, it was good that I had a two-book deal when I sold The Lovely Bones, so I didn't earn some huge, whopping advance for the second book, so I didn't feel like I had to deliver some book that was guaranteed to make back my publishers all this money they had fronted based on the success of The Lovely Bones. I had a deadline, which meant I had to fulfill an authority figure, which has great weight with me, but at the same time, I had made them enough money that even if they had exerted pressure—which they didn't—I wouldn't have felt it. I kind of felt guiltless in that way. That was the upside of not having the book to sell.
AVC: With the two-book contract fulfilled, what's next?
AS: I've started something, which I don't talk about, and I don't think about deals or publishing or anything at all right now.
AVC: Do you think that's not going to come until you've actually completed it?
AS: I have no idea. I'm not going to get into that discussion. [Laughs.]
AVC: Has your lifestyle changed? You spend a lot of time on the road, and you do public speaking, yes?
AS: I don't do much public speaking. I did a lot of stuff for Bones, and then ended up having said yes to a lot of things that kept me on the road for a while for that, but then I pretty much stopped. I'm touring for this book, but when the tour is done, that'll be the end of it.
AVC: Do you get a lot of calls for people wanting you to come speak about Lucky and your experiences?
AS: I've gotten a lot of those in the past, but since I haven't said yes to most things in the last few years, they've dwindled.
AVC: Why refuse public speaking?
AS: I get sick to my stomach and I throw up. Is that a good reason? [Laughs.]
AVC: So you're just not comfortable with it?
AS: No. It's something that I know how to do because I taught for a very long time, so I can do it, and I feel a responsibility to do it—for instance, in this situation, where I'm touring specifically for this period of time. But most writers are not public people. There are a few writers out there who really enjoy it and are good at it, and can both work and do that at the same time, but I'm not one of those people.
AVC: Are you involved with the film adaptation of The Lovely Bones?
AS: I'm just a friendly bystander who they occasionally ask questions of. That's my level of involvement.
AVC: Are you comfortable with that? Do you want any more or less?
AS: I'm fine with whatever comes my way, and whatever doesn't come my way I'm fine with too. I have a very laissez-faire attitude with the whole thing.
AVC: It seems like a very unusual film for director Peter Jackson, considering his last four films. Has he talked to you at all about what he saw in the book that he particularly wants to bring on to the screen?
AS: I don't want to get into the specifics of any of that kind of stuff. I'll let him answer any questions about his vision.
AVC: Is it a concern to you that he get the book "right"?
AS: It's his film. I think that if you're somebody who's a control freak, the process would make you crazy, but I'm kind of a process freak, so I'm excited to see what he does with it. I know it's not going to be my book, so just starting with that knowledge frees me from having to get all freaked out about it.