If we’ve got dark circles under our eyes, it’s because we’d been staying up all night to read Emma Flint’s compulsive debut novel, Little Deaths. It’s a story of love, morality and obsession set against the backdrop of 1960s New York. We spoke to Emma to discover more about the book and her experience of being a debut author, as well as gleaning some advice for aspiring novelists.
Could you tell us a little about the plot of Little Deaths and why you wanted to tell this story?
It’s set in suburban Queens, New York and is based on the true story of a woman who was accused of killing her children in the summer of 1965.
My narrators are Ruth Malone, recently separated from her husband and juggling single motherhood with shifts as a cocktail waitress, and Pete Wonicke, a rookie reporter from Iowa who’s desperate for a big story to make his name in New York.
One hot July morning, Ruth wakes up to discover a bedroom window wide open and her two children missing. After a desperate search, the police find the body of her four-year-old daughter the same afternoon, and then the body of her five-year-old son weeks later.
The police take one look at Ruth’s perfectly made-up face and provocative clothing, the empty bottles and love letters that litter her apartment – and leap to the obvious conclusions, fuelled by neighbourhood gossip. Covering the story as his first big break, Pete Wonicke at first does the same thing – but the longer he spends watching Ruth, the more he learns about the darker workings of the police and press, and the more he begins to doubt everything he thought he knew: about Ruth and about himself.
It’s a book about love, morality and obsession: I wanted to explore the capacity for good and evil in everyone, and how most people have a sense of morality that isn’t clearly black and white.
What drew me to the story was the sense of injustice that pervaded it, and my impression that the real-life Ruth was condemned for who she was, rather than what she’d done. I’m not sure that society, particularly certain areas of the media, has moved on a great deal in that respect over the past fifty years: I wanted to highlight how women are often still judged on their appearance and their sexuality more than anything else.
With the true story in mind, how much did you feel you had to stick to ‘the facts’, and how much did you allow yourself artistic freedom?
I stuck to the true story as much as I could, and the basic facts of the case are the same as in Little Deaths but I’ve condensed the events between the murders and Ruth’s arrest into four months. In reality, the case stalled for over two years as two grand juries failed to indict her for murder. Then in November 1966, one of Ruth’s neighbours sent an anonymous note to the prosecutor’s office, saying she had witnessed relevant events on the night of the children’s disappearance. When interviewed by the police, she gave essentially the same story recounted on the witness stand in Little Deaths.
Most of the key characters – including Ruth Malone and the children – are based on real people, but I’ve changed their names and embellished them with fictional details. The police officer, Charlie Devlin is a composite of several officers involved in the initial investigation. Pete Wonicke and a few others are my own inventions.
I think writing about a real crime is similar to any other historical fiction: it’s my job as a novelist to take the basic facts and breathe life into them so that the reader can experience them in a new way. The key is to make the characters real, and the past immediate and familiar, by writing about situations and experiences that the reader can relate to. We all know what it is to experience sadness or loneliness or fear: as a writer, you need to make what your characters are going through vivid enough that readers feel it too.
Of course, I had to select which facts to include and which ones to leave out, and I found it interesting that there were some things that happened in the real investigation that my editors felt weren’t believable enough, which I then had to leave out and work around!
The book finishes (without giving too much away) without the satisfaction of justice done. Why did you want to end on a note of ambiguity?
Partly because that’s how I felt about the real case on which the book was based. Although there was a conviction, there were three trials before a final verdict was reached, which indicates in itself that the evidence wasn’t cut and dried.
And also, that’s how real life is: it’s rare that all the ends are tied up neatly, and it’s rare that the bad guys get their just desserts and the good guys live happily ever after. Whatever the legal outcome in a murder case, the family of the victim are still left dealing with their grief and with the absence of their loved one: I imagine that any feeling of justice is always tempered by that sorrow.
You capture the claustrophobic atmosphere of a New York summer in the 1960s perfectly. Can you tell us about the research you did to get the period right?
Thank you very much. I read two excellent books about the original case, as well as dozens of relevant newspaper articles, but most of my research was done online. I used Google Maps and Streetview to ‘walk’ down the streets in Queens where the story is set, to look up at the buildings, and try to get a sense of the neighbourhood where Ruth lives. I listened to Queens accents on YouTube, and I looked at thousands of photos of suburban America in the mid-60s.
I also kept thinking about my own childhood: I grew up in a quiet and sometimes claustrophobic suburb on the outskirts of a city. I think anyone who grew up in an environment like that will understand the closeness of that kind of neighbourhood, and how anyone different stands out.
The public hear about the murders – and by default Ruth – via newspapers and gossip. How would you think the judgement on her would play out today, with rolling news and the internet?
I imagine it would be similar, but more intense. News changes more quickly now – we can see photos within minutes of them being taken, or hear news as it happens. I think you only have to look at how Kate McCann or Amanda Knox have been judged on social media to see what would have happened if this particular story had played out fifty years later.
Little Deaths is your debut novel. How did you fit writing it around ‘regular’ life? What does it feel like to have it out in the world?
It took a long time and a lot of sacrifices. I started writing in 2010 and I gave up my permanent job in 2013. I was lucky that I worked in an industry with a lot of contract opportunities, so I could work for 5 to 6 months, then take time off to write. I didn’t have a holiday for six years, and I had to pass on a lot of evenings out and weekends away. It was hard. Writing can be very isolating – you’re the only one living in your fictional world for a very long time.
Seeing Little Deaths out in the real world is incredible – and quite surreal. I never believed it would be published, but I was determined to finish it. I knew if I gave up I’d regret it. And now it’s out there, existing independently, and being read and thought about by people I’ve never met. It’s the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me, and I can’t imagine ever getting used this feeling.
On your blog, you write about the experience of being able to declare yourself ‘a writer’, and the associated insecurities in doing so. What gave you the confidence to believe that about yourself?
Recognition and acknowledgement from other people whose judgement I respected: other writers, my agent, and then my editors.
What advice would you give to any aspiring authors?
Read, read, read. Read as much as you can, as often as you can. Find writers you love and work out why you love them. Find writers you don’t like, and work out why. Read other books in the genre you’re working in, and read outside your area of interest. Read poetry to find new ways of using language. Read drama to understand dialogue. Read non-fiction to give your fiction credibility and authenticity.
Find a writing group. It’s impossible to write a first novel in isolation: you need support and you need feedback from readers you trust. I also needed the accountability of writing a certain number of words for my writing groups by a certain date. Most people write a first novel about something they’re passionate about, and you need the objective judgement of others to tell you whether that passion translates to the page.
Find a routine that works for you – whether that’s writing 1,000 words a day, or 5,000 words a week, or spending ten hours a week with your novel. Work out when you’re most productive. Set aside lunchtimes or two evenings a week or find childcare for half a day each weekend – but carve out the time and then use it.
And don’t give up. Writing is a long slow process – it took me three years to write a full first draft, and there were eleven more drafts before it was finished. To make time for that amount of work, you have to believe in what you’re doing and that you feel you have a story to tell that only you can tell. That belief will get you through the rejections and the lack of free time and the slog and the utter exhaustion. Belief in what you’re doing will also help you decide whether the criticism you’ll get is fair or not: only you can know if changes that others suggest are right for your book.
There’s a long tradition of women writers being the masters of the crime/thriller genre – Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and through to today – do you have any thoughts on why that might be? Why are you drawn to it as a genre?
Recently we’ve seen a rise in domestic psychological thrillers, which are mostly written by women, and I think this is down to two things: firstly domestic settings and events are now seen as ‘valid’ subjects for novels, and secondly, I think women are becoming more open about the fears and threats they experience. We now have spaces where we can talk about how it feels to walk down the street and be catcalled, or how it feels to be stalked, or how it feels to be afraid to end a relationship. We’re all more aware of the existence of domestic abuse, and most people know that two women are murdered every week by a current or former partner (ironically, awareness is increasing at the same time that refuges are closing down and domestic violence charities are losing funding). Of course men are abused and killed by women as well – but specifically in relation to female crime writers: more than 80% of crime novels are bought by women, so it makes complete sense that a lot of crime novels focus on the deepest fears of women – being hurt or killed by someone close to them.
I think most of us like to experience extreme emotions ‘safely’: whether that’s terror when we watch a horror film, or falling in love / lust when we watch a rom-com, or a creeping sense of unease when we read a psychological thriller. It’s the same for writers: a lot of us choose to explore extreme emotions, or emotion in extreme situations, and I happen to like writing about the darker stuff! I’m interested in the point where love becomes obsession, or fantasy takes over real life, or when someone chooses to act on one of those moments of fury we’ve all had. I guess I’m interested in how someone gets to that point of no-return – and what happens afterwards.
Who are some of your favourite writers?
My favourite writers are ones who write about crime and about history: those are the subjects that interest me most, which is why I read about them and why I write about them.
I love Megan Abbott and Tana French, who write novels about crime, but who I don’t think are crime writers in the traditional sense. And I’m a huge admirer of Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel who both excel at recreating history and making it immediate and real.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m working on my second novel, which is set in England in the 1920s, so I’m reading lots of fiction written in that period and non-fiction about that period. I’m trying to immerse myself in the social conventions and language of a very different time, and understand a society that was still reeling from the aftermath of the First World War.
Looking forward to reading it! Thanks Emma.
Little Deaths by Emma Flint is published by Picador.