BookTrib Spotlight: Sara Sligar

Art, Illness, Power – and Maybe Murder

By Neil Nyren

Photography is violent. When we capture a subject in a photo, we steal that person out of time and flatten them. We reduce them so we can preserve them forever. You have to acknowledge that violence. Rejoice in it. I think that’s why I do so many self-portraits. All my life, the person I felt most comfortable harming was myself.”

The woman speaking in Sara Sligar’s debut TAKE ME APART is Miranda Brand, a world-famous photographer found dead by her own hand. Blunt, profane, scathing, hilarious, complicated, she dominated everyone around her, including her artist husband Jake and her young son Theo, right up to the moment she pointed a pistol at her head.

Twenty-four years later, that moment still resonates, as Kate Aitken discovers when she’s hired to undertake the daunting task of archiving Brand’s estate—the massive amounts of papers, boxes, documents, notebooks, and photos spilling all over Brand’s house in California, now occupied by her adult son Theo and his two young children. For Kate, the job is a godsend. Fleeing a traumatic personal and professional catastrophe in New York, she is fragile, easily rattled, “a spun quarter wobbling to a stop, on the brink of falling over,” and throws herself into learning more about this enigmatic woman.

The more she reads, though, as she combs through notes, letters, clippings, transcripts, and Miranda’s own diary—the more she learns about Miranda’s troubled marriage, her brooding, intense son, and the powerful undercurrents of violence and madness that surged through the house and may surge there still—the more she becomes convinced that Miranda’s death was not suicide, but murder.

There are so many secrets in this house—Miranda’s, Jake’s, Theo’s, and increasingly, Kate’s own. Where it all leads forms a tale of extraordinary psychological suspense, as well as a brilliant exploration of art, illness, gender, and power.

“You hear so many stories about these crazy artists,” Sligar says. “Their depressions, their alcoholism, the wives they killed. And the masterpieces they made in the meantime. Suffering for their art. You know who I mean. But those are men. Men are always better at being crazy….The blood on their hands can be real, not imagined….”

And here, the blood is real.

Sara Sligar

“The original core idea was wanting to tell a mystery through documents,” Sligar says. “When I started writing the book, I had a fair amount of experience doing research in archives, and I wanted to recreate that feeling of sifting through papers to try to find proof. Of course, a lot of archival work is pretty boring and unsatisfying, and you often don’t find what you’re looking for, so the trick was trying to give the impression of realism while also making the thriller actually, well, thrilling. The book evolved a lot as I worked through that balance.

“My master’s dissertation was about a wave of suffragette art vandalism in 1910s London. These were women who stabbed paintings or tried to throw acid on them, as a way of creating fear in public spaces and thus putting pressure on the British government to give women the vote. The politics of that vandalism was very complicated and specific to that historical moment, so it certainly wasn’t a direct line in my mind to TAKE ME APART. But I spent a lot of time in archives for that project, thinking about how these pretty large concepts—violence, fear, fame, sexism—were recorded in documents, and I think that gradually trickled down into the idea for the book.

“The gendered treatment of mental illness has been in my mind and in our culture for a long time. Famous women’s mental illness is usually either exaggerated to the point where the woman is no longer seen as human, or it’s prettified and romanticized to make it consumable. Sometimes both. For example, as I am writing this, there’s a furor on Twitter over the Google Doodle of Sylvia Plath for her birthday. The image is very pretty and fairy-like. Plath’s writing was extraordinarily dark, full of violence; her depression was fatal. Why do we need to gloss over that when we commemorate her? Why is it so hard to remember the rougher realities of female artists’ pain? But also—can we understand their illness as a real part of their life, without allowing it to overwhelm their legacy? The fact that Plath died by suicide is probably one of the best-known facts about her, and that troubles me, too, because her work deserves to be understood separately from her manner of death.

“Telling the story through the two timelines, past and present, allowed me to think about the ongoing resonance of these issues, and to reflect on what has and hasn’t changed since the 1980s.

“From the beginning, I wanted to set the book in Northern California, and I knew I wanted the story to be about women’s experiences of illness and creativity and ambition. Miranda’s voice was also pretty clear to me early on. So although the plot and structure of the book changed a lot through revision, there were some consistent elements that kept me tied into the book.

“I have a pretty imagistic way of thinking; sometimes it just feels like watching a film in my head and then describing it as specifically as I can. I think that crafting convincing images usually involves an attention to detail, but also some sense of toggling back and forth between the details and the bigger picture. And my tones and rhythms, I think a lot of that feels like instinct now, was developed over many years of practice and reading.

Neil Nyren

“On a logistical level, I pour coffee. I write words. I delete words. I write more, I delete more. I’m ruthless with deleting. I would be surprised if any more than 10 percent of the words in TAKE ME APART carried through from the first draft to the final draft. Working on my second book, I’m really trying to develop a more efficient writing process. But writing can never be truly efficient, or it would lose all its depth!”

As for that research: “I love it! My academic work has given me a lot of the necessary research skills, but researching for fiction gives you much more latitude and lets you incorporate more kinds of sources more easily.

“My sources for research differ depending on the topic. For the photography information, I got a lot of mileage out of amateur photographer discussion boards—like web forums from 2006. For the research into the art world, I used exhibition catalogs and other art books, as well as some online resources. I really liked reading about the 1970s and 1980s art scene, which was so energetic and immersive. I hadn’t known that art was exhibited in nightclubs, or that the New York club scene and the art scene were so intertwined. Miranda and Jake are fictional, but they’re meant to be part of that ’70s/’80s New York art community—which would also include artists like Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Nan Goldin, Ana Mendieta, Jeff Koons, Robert Mapplethorpe.

“When you’re researching something like mental illness and psychiatric treatment, you have to be more careful, because there’s an ethical burden. Medical texts are sometimes useful, but they are also often problematic and reflect a lot of historical biases. My research process for anything related to illness was much more complex. It involved a lot more interviews, personal experience, reading memoirs, conversations with friends, conversations with experts…a wide spectrum of sources.”

And the sources for the novel were even more wide-ranging than that: “I think one great thing about doing a Ph.D. in literature, for me, was that I had to read a lot of different kinds of books. Just experiencing all those different ways of telling stories, from Jacobean plays to Victorian novels to contemporary fiction, helped me think a lot more capaciously about what writing can do, and different ways to create and maintain tension. I still read very widely across genres within contemporary fiction. I think that for writers, it’s really important to read outside your genre and comfort zone.

“A lot of my research is on film and television from the mid-20th century, and some people have said my writing style has a kind of cinematic feel. I do think a lot about the setting, about sound, about how to create a visual tone, about how characters are placed ‘within the frame,’ so to speak. It’s kind of a chicken-or-egg situation—I don’t know if studying film made me write more cinematically, or whether my mind already had a cinematic way of thinking and therefore analyzing film felt natural to me. But 1940s film noir has definitely been influential, as have more recent crime television shows. I also love a lot of 1950s and 1960s fiction.

“In terms of more recent influences in crime fiction in particular, I am always in awe of suspense authors who have great plots but are also very character- and style-driven. Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Donna Tartt…many more!”

Those writers all had deeply varied paths to publication. Sligar adds one more: “I wrote two YA novels and a historical romance novel before I wrote TAKE ME APART. The historical romance is what brought me to my agent, but when I signed with her, we agreed that I should work on something new. I was really game for that because I wanted to challenge myself; I had never really thought about what kind of writing career I would want, and I’m really grateful that my agent helped me consider that before we sold my debut. Anyway, then I wrote TAKE ME APART. There were a lot of rounds of revising before we went on submission, and a lot of rounds of revising after it was acquired. My editor, Daphne Durham at MCD, has been the most wonderful reader and diligent editor. Her input totally transformed the book. We probably spent a year or more on edits after acquisition? Which I think is unusual, but very much paid off.

“Between all the great moments, there were plenty of rejections and delays and failures. And they all felt like bumps in the road at the time. But I feel almost fondly toward them in recollection, because I’m proud of the book that came out of the process. I’m glad that my first book wasn’t published, and I’m glad that the first draft of TAKE ME APART wasn’t published. I am also grateful for how things turned out because I am beyond happy with my publishing team. I can’t say enough good things about MCD and FSG. It’s an amazing team over there.

“I’m working on another thriller for them now. There are no archives and no split past-present narratives in this one…yet. I’m really enjoying working with just one timeline!

“And as a researcher, I am working on an academic book about the development of the legal procedural genre and the criminal rights movement. Maybe not exactly what your readers are craving, but I think it’s interesting!”

Actually, that does sound pretty interesting. Sara Sligar might be surprised—after finishing TAKE ME APART, her readers may want to dig into whatever she writes.

*****

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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