I knew I’d find Jamie Mason sympathetic when I read in her bio that she hates the sound of ticking clocks. In the first few pages of MONDAY’S LIE, I knew I’d love her work too. It’s wonderful when you sit down with a new book and go “Ahhh, I’m in great hands here.”
The heartrending, crystalline opening (the central character, Dee Vess’s thirteen-year-old self laid bare)—mirrors my own philosophy: “later, and for years after, the thing that twisted me into a restless tangle in my sheets was the certainty that every normal night was on a hair trigger, leaning in at the ready to explode into something else entirely.”
Mason is a master of the psychological insight. Dee Vess defines herself by using her mother as a foil: “I’ve been adamant that her contradictions are not mine, that gentleness and warmth don’t come in the same package as danger and cunning.”
I’m in love with the character of the mother, Annette Vess, whose supreme self-possession and badass tradecraft coexist with deep maternal devotion. Annette, the undercover agent, cannot but help to train her two children: “In her games and in her axioms she’d been more candid with her soul than anyone else I’d ever known.”
Packages are delivered by moonlight, people are defined by what they hide. The atmosphere is dark, pulsing with apprehension, psychologically rich. Mason’s prose is elegant and strongly individual: “a cool grey tentacle of premonition strokes the back of my neck.” She talks of: “the burn of being prey.”
Over to Jamie for some fascinating and idiosyncratic insights into her life and work.
A major theme of MONDAY’S LIE (as the title would suggest!) is lies. As authors, I’ve always thought we are mythomanes, inventing legends for other people, not for ourselves. But those skills and that predisposition can easily spill over into our own lives. Are you partial to the occasional lie? If so, can you pull it off?
I don’t know if I’m any good at it, because beyond the occasional “little white lie” to grease the skids of everyday life, I try to avoid lying. This is not because I’m noble. It’s because I hate anxiety. I’m a cautious creature and I do what I can to arrange my life and my personality to keep my stress levels low. Lying about significant things would probably just do my head in.
Tell us a bit about yourself, some biographical details, but also what turned you into a writer and when. It seems that many writers are living out their childhood dreams and ambitions. What about you?
Ha! It all goes back to question one somehow. What’s funny is that when I was a kid, I would tell grownups that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up—but I was lying. I only said that, because it made adults go all impressed and say “Oh!”
I liked that.
As it turned out, though, I narrated in my head constantly, even way back then. It’s always been very noisy in my skull with specific narration, wordy with details. It progressed to passing the time by working out adventures for myself in elaborate daydreams, then on to building and resolving dramas and relationships for people I invented. I thought everybody did that. It never occurred to me that I was allowed to do it outside of my own head.
It was love of the words that moved me to try. When I was thirty-one years old, I had a strange little traffic incident and it instantly worked itself into a fiction in my head. I went home and wrote it down, for the first time ever. I couldn’t quit marvelling at the task of picking the right words to mould around something that never happened—to make it something that had happened, at least on a page.
And all of a sudden I had a dream to really be a writer when I grew up.
As for me, I was raised in the Washington, DC area. (Ever see Remember the Titans? That was my school.) Now I live in the mountains of North Carolina with my husband and two daughters.
What jobs did you do before becoming a writer? When I left my job as an investment banker to write Nest of Vipers, I worked for a while as a secretary to a gynaecologist, inspired to do so by my reading of Sylvia Plath’s Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (which was in turn inspired by Plath’s work in the office of a psychiatrist.) Have you done any weird jobs that turned out to be very useful?
Nothing in my employment history has yet been specifically useful to any of the stories I’ve written. I’ve only used little tidbits, impressions, interactions with unusual real-life characters. In fact, my resume will put you to sleep. Brace yourself:
- I’ve sold men’s suits
- I’ve worked in a gourmet food shop
- I’ve earned my living framing pictures
- I’ve worked in a deli, behind the counter and as a caterer
- I was a bank teller
- I worked in life insurance
- I’ve sold women’s clothing
- I’ve sold music and videos in the days when CDs were the brand new thing and VHS was the only way to watch a movie at home that wasn’t broadcast on television
- Back to banking, I ran the checking account department and ended up promoted to customer service manager, and ultimately branch manager
It sounds more awful than it was. It was mostly fine.
MONDAY’S LIE is a psychological thriller, with the emphasis I think on the psychological. What draws you to this?
I’m obsessed with “why?” Psychology is largely the mining of why. People crave to make sense of what they do and what happens around them, and it’s hard to make sense without “why?” Also, I love to map the line between reasons and excuses. Psychology can be good for that.
Solving a problem, knowing what to do about it (or what not to do, or in fact knowing to leave it alone) is barely more satisfying to me than understanding why it happened. Knowing the why of things might even be a little bit more vital to me. It’s just the way I’ve always been.
Stories that involve high personal stakes and dangerous drama are so rich with intersections of “why?” In writing, for me anyway, there’s not much more fun to be had than hitting the next plot point and getting to figure out why that just happened.
The mother, Annette, in MONDAY’S LIE is a hugely attractive figure with a charmingly idiosyncratic voice. Where did she spring from? Any real life inspirations?
So funny, Annette really did pop into my head as I was sliding off to sleep one night, ages ago. The line, “My mother said never to keep a man for more years than you could count on your fingers,” just drifted into my ear as I was sinking down into sleep.
Badass female characters are rarely portrayed as also naturally maternal. I wanted to have this character who was genuinely both. She was so much easier to write than I thought she would be. It was possibly the nicest surprise of all in writing MONDAY’S LIE, but she is entirely a work of fiction. I’ve never known anyone so calmly self-possessed as Annette Vess. I wish I had! What lessons to be learned there. It seemed to me that her self-possession was the key to having her be both successfully aggressive and effortlessly gentle and nurturing. To get that close to being all things to all people, you’d almost have to be completely grounded in your own confidence. And it would need to be an inborn disposition, not a learned behavior. That would take too long. Maybe Annette is an emotional evolutionary leap.
So, she’s not based on anyone or anything that I’m consciously aware of, but her sound and her ways and her little truisms flowed from what, at least to me, made perfect sense—like she could exist, somewhere.
In working out the book, it was always going to be Dee’s story, or at least an episode in Dee’s life, but her mother, Annette, was the hub for me from the very beginning. It might be the most fun I’ve ever had writing so far.
Where do your ideas come from? I know this can be an almost impossible question to answer. They just come, as if from nowhere! First of all there’s the big idea for the book itself and secondly there are the smaller ideas, the character reflections, the plot twists and turns. Do you do anything specific or does it all just come as you are sitting at your desk?
It’s always hard to follow the breadcrumbs back, especially when so much of the stuff does seem to manifest out of thin air. For MONDAY’S LIE, I remember listening to a lecture about fugitive apprehension. The special agent was explaining to us the neuroscience behind facial recognition. Because of the way our brains loads faces into memory, you can pull a little trick on your mind and stare at someone’s photograph upside down for a bit. Once you’ve loaded that face into your memory in that unusual way, it doesn’t matter what that person does to disguise the way they look—change their hair, wear a hat, grow or shave a beard, add sunglasses, or even age—you’ll be able to recognize them.
That little bit of trivia became instrumental to the inspiration for MONDAY’S LIE.
The only little writerly trick I’ve got is that if I’m being reluctant to think up the next step or I’m truly stuck, I’ll pour myself a strong drink and get into a very hot bath. Then my choices are to figure out what to write next or to drown. So far, it’s got a 100% success rate.
What comes first, character or plot?
Even weirder, sometimes it’s just a sentence. I’m brushing my teeth and then there’s this sentence, out of the blue, and then I have to figure out what the heck it’s attached to.
One of the themes you explore in MONDAY’S LIE is the appeal or otherwise of a “normal life,” and indeed the very attainability of such a thing when most normal lives are chimera, with all sorts of strangeness and dramas underneath. Do you think you have one?
I think I have a pretty normal life. I mean, I’m quite weird between the ears, but there’s no way to tell how far off I am from the next guy. I try not to let it worry me. My family does all the usual stuff and we’d be rated as standard issue.
Writing is a little bit out of the norm, I think. But for all intents and purposes, I pass for normal.
Who are your own favorite writers and inspirations?
This is always a tough question, because I don’t think much in lists beyond the most basic sorting. I don’t really do favorites. Except for Breaking Bad. I think that was a rare favorite thing.
I can easily tell you some writers going today who I really enjoy and always pre-order their latest release: Tana French, William Kent Kruger, Laura Lippman, Kazuo Ishiguro, Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, oh, on and on. But some of my favorite reading lately has been by newcomers or writers with only a couple of books on the shelves: Graeme Cameron, Josh Stallings, Lou Berney, James Dawes, and Karen Abbott.
Many writers have a guiding philosophy that inspires their novels. In my own case I have a belief that we are unwittingly, unknowingly, very often walking a tightrope in our lives, with safety and normality on one side and howling chaos on the other. Do you have a guiding philosophy that motivates or lurks behind your writing?
I think I like yours and might have to steal it.
Also, I’ve heard many variations on a point that’s invaluable to writing and storytelling: Everyone is the hero of their own version of the story. Everyone thinks they’re the main character, and every character could sit you down and explain why they did what they did and how it wasn’t really their fault that it all went to hell in the ol’ handbasket.
What’s your writing routine? Do you have any odd habits associated with it? How do you juggle it around with childcare?
Right now it’s become more challenging because my children are very busy. And we’re not even the heavily-scheduled type of family. It just seems like someone always needs a ride somewhere.
I have a tendency to write in manic bursts and that is ungood—both on the psyche and on serving dinner before 8 P.M. Once I get into the polishing phase of a project, I’m much more reliable. I love editing.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process? I know some writers love that terrifyingly blank screen that sits in front of them when they begin a new book. Others love holding the physical book in their hand. What’s yours?
Once I know that a story works in the main, that’s when I get excited. The blank page is intimidating as hell to me. My favorite pass is always the last one.
Holding the book is wonderful and odd. I know that I’ll likely never read it again and that’s kind of a significant letting go.
I’ve got a project that I’m working on, but it’s still in its embryonic stages, so there’s not much to tell at the moment. But suffice it to say that I’ll play in this sandbox for as long as they’ll let me.
Jamie Mason was born in Oklahoma City, but grew up in Washington, DC. She’s most often reading and writing, but in the life left over, she enjoys films, Formula 1 racing, football, traveling, and, conversely, staying at home. Jamie lives with her husband and two daughters in the mountains of North Carolina, where she’s written her novels, Monday’s Lie and Three Graves Full.
To learn more about Jamie, please visit her website.