Interview with JoAnn Chaney
Interview with JoAnn Chaney
Heather Scott Partington
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Pub date: 1/15/19
List price: $27.99
JoAnn Chaney is the master of the marital novel. Her 2017 debut, What You Don’t Know, gets into the mind of a serial killer’s wife. Her latest is a crackling twist on the husband-and-wife thriller (don’t call it a Gone Girl copycat--Chaney’s work is too self-aware for that). As Long As We Both Shall Live (Flatiron Books) begins with a husband rushing down the mountain to announce that his wife fell off a cliff. It becomes clear that he pushed her, and that his first wife died in similarly suspicious circumstances, but there’s more to the story. Chaney writes both suspect and victim with a suspicious eye; it’s a pleasure to have her subvert our assumptions.
The author recently answered questions over email about thrillers, the reader’s expectations, and her works in progress.
Heather Scott Partington: The two wives’ personas in As Long As We Both Shall Live serve as a reflection of one another, sometimes literally, as when you have them face off in single page chapters. How important was the creation of each persona in structuring this book? Did you have anything in mind as you revealed their stories?
JoAnn Chaney: Answering some of these questions is a little tough because there are several twists I don’t want to give away!
Well, I can say as I wrote this book I kept in mind the phrase history repeats itself, and I wanted to write the two wives as being different but the same, stuck in this toxic cycle with this terrible man. Starting the book, I made Matt the focus of the story—there was a point at which it was told completely from his point-of-view, but then I realized it served the story better if it was told by the wives.
Without giving any spoilers, I’ll have to say I spent a lot of time rewriting the first part of the book. I wanted the reader to get to the end and slap themselves on the forehead and go back and reread parts that hinted at the twists. And each of the personas lends itself to that end. Each of the women is different, but also the same, and I think that comes through in that reflective structure.
HSP: This is a book of many surprises. You also allude, at one point, to Lady Macbeth and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” Which books have surprised you?
JC: Thank you for noticing those hints at other works—I love when I discover those little bits when I read a book. It’s like being part of inside joke, like the author is digging their elbow into your side and winking, hoping you’ve picked up on it. I love those kinds of surprises in fiction because it makes me feel the author is almost a…friend, reaching through the words to me.
The book that most recently surprised me was Mildred Pierce by James Cain. I first read it several years ago, and recently reread it. It’s not a book about murder or intrigue or full of explosions, but the story of a simple housewife’s life. But it never fails to surprise me how well Cain tells the story, how he can keep me turning the pages to read about friend chicken and mother/daughter relationships.
HSP: What do you think the writer of thrillers has to understand? What makes a thriller work?
JC: That’s a tough one. I think it’s important for any fiction writer to attempt to explore and understand human nature, or at least try to tell a story with rich, detailed characters. I personally don’t enjoy reading stories that are nothing but guns and ninja fights and raucous sexual encounters—I need to care about the characters to keep myself reading.
And for thrillers specifically—pace is important. Short chapters full of action, with characters we care about. Get to the point. Keep the reader plowing through the words. And have fun. Dear god, if you have some fun while you write and it comes through on the pages. Like that saying—you can hear a smile in your voice. The same works with writing. So keep that demented grin on your face as you type and have some fun.
HSP: Female killers are still an anomaly, though less so, recently. In the book, you call them “awful women.” You ask a question: “[Is] it any more awful because they [aren’t] men? Maybe--but why should it be?” (260) I’m curious what you think about that. What is the difference between how society treats women who have committed crimes? Is there a difference, also, in the messages that we collectively send to women about things like responsibility and guilt?
JC: This is something I’ve considered a lot. Even in this day and age, with everything that has changed over the years, there’s still this idea that women should be soft and delicate and pretty, and if they’re not…well, then they’re some sort of freak. When a man goes and murders his wife and children, we shake our heads and say it’s because he was stressed, or just plain crazy. Family life had driven him out of his noodle. But if a woman does the same—like when Andrea Yates murdered her five kids—we are completely stunned. How could a woman do that to her own children? we ask. It’s a strange thing. It’s like we still hold onto this belief that women should be maternal and caring and not be violent, and when it happens, well, it shouldn’t happen, that’s what people think. It’s a strangely 1950s way of thinking, for some reason still alive and well in 2019. An archaic way of thinking, but it lends itself well to story-telling.
HSP: Was there any real-life inspiration for this story? I feel like I remember a news story about a woman who went off a cliff during a honeymoon. At one point, Matt says, "They're treating it as an accidental fall. That’s what he’d hoped for, isn’t it? It’s the best possible outcome, going just to plan, but he’s still worrying. Because you can’t control anything, even if you plan for everything…” (52) Can you talk about the extent to which news or current events factored into the creation of As Long As We Both Shall Live?
JC: I was inspired by a real life crime, committed in Colorado several years back. A husband pushed his wife off a cliff during a hike, and police then discovered his first wife had also died under mysterious circumstances. This man and his terrible crimes planted the first seed of ALAWBSL, but the best part—for me, anyway—is to create an entire world based upon real life. Take a real event and fill in the empty spaces between. Let my imagination run wild.
I’m always inspired by crimes that actually happen—I turn on the news first thing in the morning to see what’s going on out there, and I try to keep an eye on current events. Real life is often stranger than fiction, and the best stories often start with a nugget of truth deep at their core.
HSP: You’re a specialist in the marital thriller. I’m reminded of what you wrote in our 2017 interview for Electric Literature: “I’ve always believed that the people closest to you can cause the most damage. They know you, what makes you tick, your deepest darkest secrets and fears — and anytime you get close to anyone else you run the risk of them hurting you.” Has writing two books about the nature of marriage and its secrets given you some unique perspective on the world? Do you think there are narratives about marriage that people want to be true? How do you use those assumptions against us, as readers?
JC: Of course we all have certain narratives about marriage we hope are spot on. True love, meeting your soul mate, living happily ever after—these are the ideas that propel every romance novel and movie out there.
I recently had a conversation with someone about the movie Titanic and the scene everyone always argues about—you know the one, when Rose is floating on the wood and there was definitely room on it for Jack, so he really didn’t have to die. I told my friend that it served the romantic story better that Jack did die, because if they’d ended up together, off the ship, living in America and married with kids, Rose might’ve turned into a sour, bitter old woman who resents the man she married—and where’s the romance in that? And nobody ever likes that idea, because it goes against the ideals we hold close. It makes for a terrible romance story for a man and woman to start to hate each other over years of marriage and take pleasure in the each other’s misery and wish for the other’s death—but it makes for one hell of a marital thriller, and that’s where I come in.
HSP: What’s next for you?
JC: I’m actually working on two novels at once, both with the crimes centered around cell phone apps. Look, I’m old school. I grew up with a landline phone, no internet, and a real fear that Skynet was going to take over and kill all humans. I find the idea that you can find out almost anything about a person with a quick internet search both terrifying and fascinating. I can’t say much more about either, but I hope to have at least one of them done very soon.
Heather Scott Partington, the winner of an emerging critic fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle, has written for Electric Literature, The Los Angeles Times and other publications.