On the Hunt for a Killer
“I know my brother is dead. I’m not dumb like Hazel Merkowicz from up the street says. Sometimes Mama just gets confused, is all.”
A bit more than confused, though. When we first meet Aoife Scott, age six, in ALL THAT’S BRIGHT AND GONE, she’s waiting to see a child therapist, because her mother’s just had a public breakdown, and now they’re keeping Mama someplace and won’t let her come home. Aoife doesn’t know why Mama was yelling at Theo, because Theo’s been dead for three years, even though her nice uncle tries to explain in that tired voice of his: “Your Mama is just … sad about Theo sometimes, and it makes … it makes it hard for her to—to concentrate, okay?”
Aoife has a plan, though, one hatched with her eight-year-old neighbor Hannah and helped along by her friend Teddy, who isn’t imaginary, no matter what anybody says. Hannah says she saw Theo’s ghost, and he told her that it wasn’t an accident, that they had to solve his murder because that is what ghosts do. Hannah knows how to do it, too: “You investigate. You write down all the facts, and then you make a list of suspects, and then you interview the witnesses, and then you solve the case.”
And Aoife knows, deep down in her bones, that if she manages to do that — they’ll send Mama home again.
It’s a hard task for a six-year-old, though, even with help from Hannah and Teddy, and the inspiration of her favorite saint, Joan of Arc. To do it, she must navigate the bewildering world of adults, not only that children’s therapist, who isn’t so bad actually (at least she has Play-Doh), but those three women from child protection services and her creepy neighbor and her weary uncle and Mama’s old boyfriend (who says he’s Aoife’s father?), not to mention the older, nastier girls and how her friend Hannah changes when they’re around.
Sometimes it’s just so overwhelming, even with Teddy urging her on: “Don’t you want to be brave? Don’t you want to be like Joan of Arc?”
But Joan only became a saint after she died. Battling through the stories everyone is telling her—“Grownups really do lie all the time”—wrestling with the strange thoughts whirling in her head, Aoife presses on, finding her clues, listing her suspects, until finally she arrives at the truth, a truth no one else knows, not her mother, not her uncle, not Hannah or any of those others, a truth about ghosts and saints … and the people she thought she knew.
Gripping, funny, enormously affecting, ALL THAT’S BRIGHT AND GONE is a book about the deepest mysteries of all, and it will knock your socks off.
BEFORE THERE WAS A NOVEL, THERE WAS A SHORT STORY
Author Eliza Nellums says, “Watching my niece and now my nephew grow up, what I really wanted to write about was the way children process the things that they just don’t have the capacity to understand—which is often secrets that we adults are keeping from them. All kinds of secrets. We think by not talking about things we are protecting them, but we forget that children will still draw their own conclusions, within the limits of their ability. And that’s true for adults, too.
“I had previously written a short story in the first-person point of view of an even younger child, and it made me wonder if I could stretch the concept over a whole novel. I honestly wasn’t sure it was possible while simultaneously going about the business of solving a mystery, so it became kind of a personal challenge. I did end up having to age-up the protagonist from four years old to six, but ALL THAT’S BRIGHT AND GONE was the result.
“I was deliberately trying to avoid the ‘child genius’ trope. My protagonist is a little behind grade-level. She’s not getting a lot of attention at home. I don’t think she ever develops a true theory of mind; she never can guess why anybody behaves the way they do.
“I was fortunate because my niece was very young as I was working on the book, so it was easy to check myself. I could call my sister and ask, ‘Would she think to do this, would she be able to do that?’ The answer was mostly no, which added to the challenge. But children love very fiercely. And they know what they want. That made Aoife a good protagonist.
“Capturing her perspective was not especially hard, which makes me wonder about my own maturity. I think every writer is different—voice comes easily to me and it’s plot structure that makes me tear my hair out. Perhaps not ideal for a mystery novelist.”
AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR
Speaking of voices, Aoife does seem to hear them, or is there something else going on?
“In terms of my unreliable narrator, I wanted to present three equally plausible possibilities: that Aoife is merely very imaginative and struggling to remember something that happened a long time ago, or that she’s experiencing early symptoms of mental illness and really does see what she reports, or—my personal favorite—that her visions are literally real. The question of what is real in the literary sense as opposed to literally real is a theme of the book. It was important to me that all three possibilities be supportable. My writer’s group jokes that ‘ambiguity’ is my personal brand.”
Asked if her unsettling exploration of the mental illness in Aoife’s family had roots in anyone close to the author, Nellums replies, “I’m glad to say that came more from my research than from personal experience. My family was nothing like Aoife’s, which I have to keep reiterating now because they’re quite concerned. They understand that the book is about troubled parents and my mother has been calling me a lot more often lately. So that’s been nice.
“I suppose the emotional root just comes from the way we writers tend to have a dodgy relationship with reality. I personally always struggled to take the real world sufficiently seriously. At least according to some.”
A FEW WEEKS TO WRITE, MANY YEARS TO EDIT
“I wrote the first draft of this novel extremely quickly. I had an outline that I worked on for months, but I probably finished the complete first draft in about two weeks. I think it helps with the voice, both the consistency and also how deeply embedded we can get in the perspective. Of course, someone at home is thinking, ‘I suspect this writer was participating in NaNoWriMo [the online challenge every November to write 50,000 words toward a complete novel in just one month].’ Yes, yes, I was! Then there were six years of editing to get to where we are today—I think I’m still editing, to be honest. They don’t tell you that part on the website.”
Her literary inspiration, not surprisingly, was Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. “That was the first story I had encountered where the limited point of view really drove the whole enterprise. I hadn’t read Room at the time I wrote my first draft, but when I did get to it, I realized Emma Donoghue had already accomplished the thing I had originally attempted, which was a complete novel with an even younger narrator. So, kudos to her!
“Otherwise, I grew up in Lancashire, England, which has quite a vivid history with witchcraft, and we attended an Anglican church called Saint George’s, which uses the emblem of the saint slaying a dragon. So I think I always experienced the lines as a little blurred, right from the start. Later we moved to Michigan and became Presbyterians and didn’t truck with that mystical stuff anymore.
“I didn’t finish a novel until I was 30, and that wasn’t this novel. I was very outside of the industry. I didn’t know anybody who was an agent or an editor. Nobody in my family had ever published a book, none of my friends had. I didn’t even really use social media. I was writing for myself from Three Oaks, Michigan. When I moved to Washington, D.C., for a job, I joined a writer’s group that was lovely, so I felt supported and encouraged and didn’t mind that I might never catch my big break. It was just fun. That was the spirit I wrote this book in. But once I finished it, I became very determined to put it out there. I did have to fight for it.
“Luckily someone else in the group had published a romance by then, so I finally had some sense of the process. People kept asking if I wanted to age up the character and try for YA, where the market was supposed to be hotter. I kept saying no. I sent out a lot of cold queries, but I met my agent at ThrillerFest, which I saved up for over a year to attend. I connected with him at PitchFest and he understood what I was going for right away. I remember I got the call while I was driving for work through the heart of Shenandoah, and it was such a beautiful day, and I thought the car was going to lift right off the road. Which would have been a great surprise to my coworker seated in the passenger seat.
“Selling it was difficult again because it is a bit of a hybrid. But Crooked Lane ended up being the perfect place to land. They’re patient with me since I’m such a newbie who had to Google what Instagram was. Through revisions the book has gotten lighter in tone—it was originally darker—and every scene tightened up. Now I’m just hoping people will connect with the story the way I did when I wrote it. I laughed; I cried; I freaked myself out. Hopefully, that’s a good sign.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR NELLUMS?
In the works is “another character-driven mystery, this one set in D.C., and the narrator is a mid-life loser with terrible self-esteem. I have to see how my first published book lands before I know if anybody is going to be interested in another one. But whatever happens, I’m feeling just incredibly blessed.”
I don’t think Nellums has to worry about that second book. Given the way ALL THAT’S BRIGHT AND GONE has already been received—Alan Bradley, the author of the bestselling Flavia de Luce novels, called it “a luminous debut,” and Publishers Marketplace made it a Fall/Winter Buzz Book—I think there’ll be more than enough interest!
About Eliza Nellums
Eliza Nellums is the author of two novels, Three Card Monty and ALL THAT’S BRIGHT AND GONE. Her short story “Changelings” was published in the anthology Magical. Raised in the Detroit suburbs, Eliza now lives with her cat in Washington, D.C. She is a member of Bethesda Writer’s Center as well as the Metro Wriders, a weekly critique group that meets in Dupont Circle.
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the executive VP, associate publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet: