BookTrib Spotlight: Alexis Schaitkin

Multiple Voices Tell a Story
of Darkness and Obsession

By Neil Nyren

We see so little of people. We forget how much submerged darkness there is around us at every moment. We forget until we are forced to remember.”

In Alexis Schaitkin’s debut SAINT X, Claire Thomas is only seven, vacationing with her family on the Caribbean island of Saint X, when on the last day before they are to return home, the unthinkable happens: her 18-year-old sister Alison disappears. No one believes it at first—Alison is always independent-minded, so she’s probably just trying to squeeze in one more thing, or sleeping off a hangover in someone else’s room. But one day passes, then another, and then her body is discovered in a remote spot on a nearby cay.

Two hotel employees are arrested, then released, and after more days of fruitless police investigation, Claire and her parents have no choice but to return to the States, a broken family—so much so, in fact, that they can no longer live with the memories in their house. They move across the country and put on the face of a normal family: “We lived on the surface, skated figure eights over a frozen sea.”

That sea is still there, though, deep and dark and strong, and Claire is about to fall into it. She is 25 now, working in New York City, going by her middle name, Emily, when she runs into one of the hotel workers who’d been arrested, then released, in Alison’s death. Clive Richardson is a taxi driver now in Flatbush, and she begins observing him, following him, finding excuses to talk to him, sure that in some way this will bring her closer to the truth about what happened on that island. She digs into his past, and into her sister’s as well, listening obsessively to cassette diary tapes Alison made, reading the books and articles about what had become a famous true crime mystery, watching the TV docudramas that seemed to be about someone she had never known.

“Looking back, I can see…that I was falling under the grip of something I could not control. But I did not allow myself to see this then. Maybe if I had, it all could have ended differently.”

What that ending is is something no reader will guess. In the meantime, we are witness to an extraordinary story, told brilliantly through multiple points of view: not only Emily/Claire’s, but those of Alison, Clive, Clive’s family and friend Edwin, the Saint X police, the guests at the hotel, the girl who found the body, students and teachers and ex-boyfriends who knew Alison, the actress who played Alison in a TV reenactment. Every voice rings true, every scene adds another layer—so many versions of Alison’s death. But the truth is like none of them.

It is a tour-de-force of storytelling, the prose swooping and dancing, adding, subtracting, misdirecting—even the tiniest of details reveal themselves to be essential. SAINT X is a debut that leaves an indelible impression.

“The initial spark for the novel was the setting of a Caribbean resort. I’m endlessly interested in how people from different social and economic classes interact when they find themselves sharing the same space. A luxury resort is such fertile ground for exploring those dynamics. You have foreign guests and local employees sharing a confined space and interacting in ways that are often quite intimate; there are complicated dynamics and tensions just beneath the beautiful, serene surface.

Alexis Schaitkin

“I knew I wanted to tell a story that followed both tourists and island locals in the aftermath of a single dramatic event—to show how a brief encounter rippled out and altered all of their lives forever. The classic way of framing this is to say that these characters are from ‘different worlds’, but they’re not, they’re from the same world, and that’s so much of what I wanted to explore in the book. The way these lives, which on the surface might seem to have nothing to do with each other, are inextricably bound up in each other.

“Alison was also there from the very beginning: an affluent, precocious teenager grappling with her own privilege, desperate not to be ‘just another tourist’ and to get out beyond the narrow confines of her life.

“One of the challenges in writing this book was that of the two primary settings, Flatbush and Saint X, one is real while the other is an imagined, anonymous island. Yet they needed to feel equally realized. A big puzzle for me was: How do I make Saint X specific and authentic—down to its roads and the names of its schools and out to its history and economy—without borrowing too directly from the real stories of Caribbean islands in the region? It has to be its own unique place, but it also has to be accurate. It was a balancing act, for sure. I did a lot of research, of course. I drew maps of the island. I named streets and restaurants and beaches that never made it into the novel.

“But I also think a lot of what makes a world feel fully imagined are the really small details: You remember the black and white dog that was always hanging around, or the sort of litter that you’d see on the side of the road on the walk to school. I tried to focus on those things, the intimate images of a place that lodge in your mind and stay with you, even decades later.

“The research was a constant process alongside the writing throughout the years I worked on the book. I did several months of research before I started the first draft. I read a mix of scholarly texts about the Caribbean and the Caribbean community in New York, guidebooks, cookbooks, dictionaries of Caribbean usage, and a lot about the taxi industry in New York City. I would read a lot, and then I would write a lot, and the new writing would show me what I needed to learn more about; or sometimes I’d discover something in my research that pointed to a hole in what I was writing, and then I would go back to reading, writing, reading, writing.

Neil Nyren

“I also did a research trip to Anguilla. While I was there, I did a lot of wandering and recording notes on my phone. A lot of sitting at Crocus Bay beach and just observing people hanging out and swimming with their families. I also conducted interviews, some quite casual, some more formal, hour-long recorded interviews. Mostly I just asked people to share their own stories: What did they do for fun with their friends growing up? How has the island changed?

“The most surprising thing I learned came out of that trip. In earlier drafts of the novel, Saint X was a fairly static place. Edwin and Clive grew up surrounded by these fancy hotels, which were part of the fabric of their experience from the beginning. But in interviews with people who are roughly Clive and Edwin’s age on Anguilla, I learned that the first resorts there didn’t open until they were adolescents. As children, their houses didn’t have electricity. The island transformed completely in the span of two or three decades. I decided to bring that arc to Saint X. It’s a natural complement to the Brooklyn story in the novel: I see these as twin settings, both places that have undergone these incredibly rapid, intense transformations which have brought people of different classes, nationalities, and races into intimate proximity with each other.”

Schaitkin was also helped by the teaching jobs she’s held. The first came immediately after graduation when she went to Thailand: “I received the job through a placement organization, so I didn’t actually choose Thailand, I was just incredibly fortunate to be placed there. I taught at a university in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand. Half of the courses I taught were actually in the college’s hospitality school. I was teaching English to students to help prepare them for careers in hotels, restaurants, as tour guides. I taught students who ended up working at the kind of luxury resorts I write about in the novel. We spent a lot of time in the class talking about the expectations and cultural norms of Western tourists. That experience definitely contributed to my interest in writing about tourism and the cross-cultural interactions that grow out of it.”

Other teaching jobs have been in prestigious American universities, and they’ve been even more helpful: “When I was fresh out of graduate school, I was writing very traditionally in terms of structure, realism, etc. My students often ‘went big’ with structural innovations or high-concept plots, and I think they pushed me to think more openly about the ways you can tell a story. You can see that in SAINT X for sure—there are fictional newspaper articles, brief sections where you hear directly from minor characters; it’s more playful than what I used to write, and I hope it’s stronger for that.

“I’ve heard it said that while a writer might write about lots of different subjects across their body of work, there’s one core theme or preoccupation that’s present in everything they write. This is probably mine. ‘The self’ carries such weight in both life and writing. We’re told from a young age to figure out who we are and to be true to ourselves. And the first thing anybody who takes a creative writing class learns is that story should grow out of character. All of that suggests that it’s possible to pin down identity, to know with any certainty what someone’s about. I’m really interested in how slippery identity and self really are. You think you know someone, you think you know yourself, but do you really? Do you know all the versions of yourself you have the capacity to become? Where are the limits of who you could be and what you could do?”

The author found out about some of those limits herself while writing the book.

“I was fortunate to find my agent through my graduate program—I attended the MFA program at the University of Virginia. After graduate school, I spent three years writing a novel that never came together, and my agent told me very honestly that he did not think it would sell. Around the time of that conversation, I’d had the initial idea for SAINT X, I was tempted to keep tinkering with and overhauling the old book out of a desperate hope that I might somehow get it to work, but my agent very wisely encouraged me to put it aside and dive into the new idea.

“SAINT X took three years to write; one year for the first draft, and then one big revision that I thought solved all the problems but actually solved very few of them, and finally the big revision that actually made the book work. That trajectory was complicated by the fact that I gave birth to my son two weeks after my agent told me he didn’t think that first big revision had resolved the book’s issues. I had spent my pregnancy working feverishly to finish the book before our son was born, and it was pretty devastating to realize I hadn’t done it. About a week before our son was born, the ‘solution’ to all the issues that were still dogging this manuscript finally occurred to me. It was a whole new structure, a truly massive rewrite, and obviously I couldn’t do it then.

“For the first months of my son’s life, I didn’t—couldn’t—do any drafting or revising. What I did do was slow down, think, jot down ideas, images, notions of how a scene might be reworked. By the time our son was six or seven months old, I had a manuscript with instructions throughout guiding me through a revision: Do x, y, z, here. Move this section after that section. When our son started daycare, I basically revised for eight hours straight each day to get it done. Once that draft was completed, my agent sent it out on submission, and that part went really quickly. I was so, so fortunate to land at Celadon, a new division of Macmillan. It still feels pretty surreal.”

In its brief publishing life, Celadon has already had notable bestselling successes with Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient and Alex North’s The Whisper Man. They’re working hard to do the same for SAINT X.

What’s next for Schaitkin? “I’m in the early stages of writing my next novel. It’s very different from SAINT X on the surface: it’s set in an isolated mountain town where a series of seemingly supernatural events occur. But it does share a certain darkness and mystery with SAINT X and of course the preoccupation with how hard it is to truly know oneself, how slippery and changeable people can be.”

*****

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:

 

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