Emily Arsenault on Two Characters That Define Her Thriller

in Thrillers by

Emily Arsenault has a long career of writing some of the most engaging mystery, crime, and thriller books out there, and her latest book is no exception. The Last Thing I Told You (William Morrow)out in late July, introduces readers to two characters that will stay with you for a long time: one, a detective trying to avoid the word “hero” given to him by the town after stopping a shooter in a retirement facility; the other, a troubled woman who committed an act as a teenager that she, and the rest of the town, have never entirely moved past. Arsenault’s talent for bringing her audience into her stories so completely, no matter how complex they are, shines through, making The Last Thing I Told You her best novel yet, and a must-read for the summer.

Dr. Mark Fabian, a therapist in a small New England town, has been found dead in his office, murdered. While investigating the crime, Detective Henry Peacher finds out that the night he died, Fabian pulled two files, both of former patients: the first was Johnny Streeter, serving a life sentence for a mass shooting that shook the town five years ago – and one that Peacher himself stopped. The other file belongs to Nadine Raines, who committed an incredibly violent act when she was a teenager, one she’s never been able to quite move on from, or explain. For Peacher, the possible connection between the two brings up more questions than answers, and there’s still nothing to explain what Nadine was doing in Fabian’s office over a decade after she finished her last session with him as a patient – or why she’s now fled town. Spiraling closer into an inevitable confrontation, Arsenault reminds us that the truth of the matter is never so simple as we think it is, even in the file of a psychologist.

Arsenault talked with BookTrib about how she first started writing thrillers, layering plots, compelling characters, and that one question she’s never been asked.

 

BookTrib: This novel is so complex, and thoroughly stunning to read. How did the idea for this novel first come to you?

Emily Arsenault: I had the first glimmer of the premise when I was thinking about the role therapists often play in fiction and television and film. I had this vague idea about a character revisiting a therapist decades after her treatment, trying to justify her life and determine if she’d changed or been “cured” over the years. At first it felt like a quirkier, sort of amusing idea—until I started to develop Nadine and her particular issues. Then things got darker and more complex. I got pretty deep into Nadine’s psychology pretty fast.

BookTrib: This book layers different narratives, different time periods and different crimes all on top of each other, and you bring them together seamlessly. I have to ask: what is your writing process like? You tie all these strings back to each other flawlessly.

EA: I often work with shifting narratives—particularly the same character in different time periods. This allows me to write in a nonlinear way, which helps me stay productive. Usually I just begin with the voices or the scenes that are clearest to me, and then develop the scenes or characters that support or lead up to those. I allow myself to skip around just for the sake of getting the draft down. For example, I had written about a third of the first draft of Nadine’s scenes—particularly her therapy sessions, which I loved writing—before I really started to write Henry’s scenes in earnest.

BookTrib: Nadine is one of the most interesting characters I’ve read in a long time. She evolves so organically from when we see her as a teenager, to how she is in present moment. Where did the inspiration for her come from? Was she someone who was difficult to write?

EA: She was not difficult to write at all! I’m not sure what that says about me. But my strategy for creating her was to tap into all of the crazy I remember feeling at age sixteen and then turning the volume way up. I didn’t do anything violent at that age, but I remember it being a time when I and my friends often did impulsive things that we didn’t fully understand. So in that sense, it wasn’t difficult to try to understand her, even though her behavior is disturbing.

And I tried to really think about what a person in her circumstances might feel about men. It’s not much of a spoiler to say she has an unhealthy way of thinking about men. But I also don’t think it’s terribly unusual for a teenage girl to be confused about the psychological dynamics between young women and older men. Again, I just took that general theme and twisted and darkened it up a bit for Nadine’s character.

BookTrib: Nadine commits this violent act when she was a teenager, one which has followed her since then. Most authors would have left her as an unexplained, unreliable narrator, or even the antihero, but you bring so much compassion and understanding to her instead. Why was this something you thought was important to do?

EA: I wanted Nadine to be an uncomfortable narrator for people to read, but not necessarily unreliable. She does something really horrifying at the very beginning, and she has some very messed-up thinking. But she actually tries to be honest—with herself, with her therapist (usually), with readers—about both of these things. She doesn’t relish being abnormal. She hates it. She knows that she won’t be easily redeemed, but she wants to be. But it doesn’t happen easily. I wanted for readers go along with her on that struggle. I thought it would be an interesting challenge for both me and the reader.

It’s always difficult to see someone defined or judged by his or her worst moment—especially if that moment happens in their youth. This is something I’ve thought a lot about. It’s a theme I occasionally come back to in my books, but wanted to work with it more directly this time.

BookTrib: Detective Henry Peacher, who is investigating the murder of therapist Mark Fabian, has this backstory that you bring in, where he’s considered a hero for taking down a shooter at a retirement facility. Why did you want to bring this element in as his history? Was this something you had planned from the beginning, or something you added in later?

EA: No, I wasn’t planning it from the beginning. I knew early on that I wanted for several of the characters’ lives—including the therapist’s—to have been affected by something that happened in the town setting. I decided somewhat randomly that the incident would occur at a retirement home, which would employ several different characters in different capacities.

As for Henry—I was trying to create a character who had been thrown into the middle of a dark and tragic situation and then was expected, because of the circumstances of his life, to switch very quickly back to being a jolly and optimistic new dad. His situation is extreme, but I think for many parents, being at your hopeful best with your children requires you to keep trying to shut off the darker side of your brain. It becomes harder as the kids grow into an awareness that you are not being entirely authentic with them.

BookTrib: Was there anything you wanted to add to the book that didn’t make it to the final draft?

EA: Not really. In the first draft, Henry found Nadine in the woods. And that felt very fitting to me in some ways. To improve certain plot elements—and to make Nadine a bit more active in her own resolution—I had to scrap that idea. I think the book works better generally in the direction it takes now, but I do miss a few parts of that scene.

BookTrib: What made you first want to write thrillers?

EA: I kind of stumbled into it. My first book I wrote in response to a kind of challenge to my husband when we were in the Peace Corps in rural South Africa together. (“We won’t have TV for two years,” he basically said. “I’m going to write a sci-fi novel. How about you write a mystery or a romance or something?”) I’d been writing for years before that—but that challenge was the first time allowed myself to write something outside of my comfort zone. I had always been a fan of suspense novels and films, but it didn’t occur to me to try it myself until then. Telling myself it was just for fun, just to pass the time (and maybe, admittedly, to write a book faster than my husband) allowed me to push through all of the difficult spots—and to ignore the voice in my head that would normally have told me I wasn’t smart enough to write a mystery.

BookTrib: You’ve previously written in the YA genre as well. What are some of the differences you’ve found in writing for both genres? Is there one that you prefer?

EA: I don’t find it all that different. Many of the characters in my “adult” books have tended to be in various states of arrested adolescence anyway, so writing about an actual teenager’s thoughts and dialogue isn’t much of stretch for me. I do take more risks with the YA books I’ve written. (So far I have one published, and another I just completed writing a few days ago—I don’t know if it will have a publishing home yet.) The premises of both of these books are a little more odd and outlandish than my adult books. I don’t know why this is. Maybe I just feel younger people are more open minded.

BookTrib: What’s the questions you’ve never been asked but have always wanted to answer?

EA: This is going to sound really ridiculous, but I keep wondering when someone is going to ask me why all of my books have scenes with doughnuts in them. Maybe it’s because I’m addicted to sugary baked goods myself, or maybe it’s because my books all take place in New England, but inevitably one of my characters always ends up going to Dunkin Donuts—sometimes without my permission. Critical emotional scenes often occur over a plate of donuts, often lovingly described. In The Last Thing I Told You, Detective Henry Peacher is in a Dunkin Donuts drive-thru when he has a sort of breakthrough moment in which he puts two clues together in his head and drives away without a coffee or a doughnut to go pursue it. The fact that I did not, this time, actually let my character get the doughnut feels significant to me. Maybe I’m becoming more disciplined as a writer. Or at least as a sugar addict.

The Last Thing I Told You will be available for purchase on July 24th. 

ABOUT EMILY ARSENAULT

Photo by Ross Gram

Emily Arsenault is also the author of The Broken Teaglass, In Search of the Rose Notes, Miss Me When I’m Gone, and What Strange Creatures. She lives in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, with her husband and daughter. Visit her website at emilyarsenault.com

Rachel Fogle De Souza was born and raised in Connecticut, and traveled extensively throughout Europe, parts of Asia, and the United States, before attending college at the University of California, Davis, where she received a B.A. in Comparative Literature, with a double minor in Women, Gender and Sexualities studies, and Middle Eastern/South Asian studies. When she's not writing, she's reading, boxing, or thinking about traveling.