Maximum Shelf author interview: Alex North

Following Wednesday’s review of The Whisper Man, here’s Alex North: The Heart of the Book Starts Beating.


Alex North was born in Leeds, where he now lives with his wife and son. He studied Philosophy at Leeds University, and prior to becoming a writer he worked there in their sociology department.

Chapter by chapter, your characters take turns holding center stage. Was it complicated to manage so many points of view? Is there a strategy for writing this way?

I think the structure is just what this story demanded. Although the characters do come together as the book progresses, they start off in different places, and they each have their own storyline to follow until they do. Tom is clearly the main character, and we follow the majority of the book from inside his head, but there is a surrounding cast whose stories gradually begin to dovetail with his, until all of them are inextricably linked by the end.

I don’t think it’s necessarily any more complicated to write than a more straightforward single narrative. You do have to keep track of things very carefully, though, and you certainly don’t want one strand of the story to overshadow another. In an ideal world, a reader will finish a chapter that focuses on one specific character completely desperate to find out what happens to them next–but equally eager to pick up on things from another character’s perspective in the meantime and see what happens there.

It’s a balancing act, but I do like stories that use this technique. For one thing, if it’s done well, it can drive you through the book. For another, it can sometimes become quite claustrophobic for me if I’m trapped in a single character’s head for the entire story. But most of all, I think it’s interesting when these characters eventually collide and interact with each other. Writing from different perspectives allows you to see things from different angles, because the characters will understand and interpret the same event in their own unique ways. We all do that in real life. And I think it helps to bring nuance and ambiguity to the story, with the truth being revealed through a combination of viewpoints.

Fathers’ impact on their sons forms a central theme of the book. Was that intended, or did it arise as the story unfolded?

It was intended to an extent. To begin with, all I knew was that I wanted to write about a father left alone to care for his son, and finding it difficult. But there was a moment, shortly after moving into our new house, when my own son briefly mentioned that he was playing with “the boy in the floor”–which obviously gave me a bit of a chill! Thankfully, that didn’t last, but at that point I knew the little boy in my story would have imaginary friends, and that some of them might turn out to be quite sinister and disturbing. The book unfolded from there.

But the background theme of fathers and sons definitely expanded the more I wrote. It was on my mind the whole time, and so I found different connections emerging as I went. It felt a lot like things appearing through the mist: the more you write, the more the events in the book begin to link to each other, suggesting other connections, and so on. I was writing about fathers and sons from the beginning, but it took a first draft of the book before I discovered all the different ways that theme fed into the story.

What are your favorite parts of writing a novel like this?

Writing a novel is a marathon rather than a sprint, and I think you have to accept that there will be good and bad days–and far more of the latter–but I’ve learned that you have to go through all those bad days to get to the good ones. As is so often the case, half the battle is showing up.

But while I’ve enjoyed the handful of days when the writing has flowed, there’s also immense pleasure to be had in the ones when you had to drag yourself to the keyboard… and something just clicks. It’s enough to keep you trying the next day and then the next. Which of course is what you have to do.

For The Whisper Man, the moments I most enjoyed were towards the end, when all the connections began to make sense to me and the book finally came together. It’s easy to say what my favorite scene to write was, but also a bit of a spoiler. Speaking carefully, it involves a conversation between a little boy and a little girl. While there was still a whole load of writing and rewriting to do afterwards, that was the moment where I felt like I’d found the heart of the book and felt it start beating.

Can you give us any hints about your next novel?

I’m really superstitious when it comes to talking about work in progress. For one thing, I think it robs you of the impetus to write the book itself but, more importantly, my books tend to change all the way up to the wire. I have to try to write the story to figure out what I should have written all along, which means my final draft can be very different from my first. I write slowly to begin with, and then frenetically in the last month or so. But one thing I can say is that the next one is another very dark psychological thriller with creepy undertones. If The Whisper Man made it difficult to fall asleep, my hope is that the next one will make you very scared indeed of what might happen when you do.


This interview originally ran on April 17, 2019 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: The Whisper Man by Alex North

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on April 17, 2019.


Alex North’s The Whisper Man is an exemplary thriller, offering plenty of suspense, things that go bump in the night and complex psychological maneuverings that may–or may not–explain the good and the bad that is shared by fathers and sons.

As the novel opens, off-duty Detective Inspector Pete Willis wearily heads out to help search for a missing six-year-old boy. He doesn’t want to think about the similarities between this case and an old one that he still can’t forget. At the same time, Tom Kennedy, a successful novelist and deeply bereaved widower, is struggling to connect with his young son, Jake. A gifted but troubled child, Jake knows more about the world around him than seems natural. He tries to be good, quietly drawing by himself, but his pictures profoundly disturb Tom.

Detective Inspector Amanda Beck–a generation younger than Pete–wrestles with the case of the missing child, which does indeed turn out to be linked to the case that haunts the older detective. The serial killer, dubbed by the press “the Whisper Man,” appears to have returned, although he’s been in prison some 20 years; Pete was never able to pin down for certain whether there had been an accomplice. And now, there’s another child-snatcher whispering to his victims before he takes them. Kids repeat the rhyme on school playgrounds: “If you leave a door half open, soon you’ll hear the whispers spoken. If you play outside alone, soon you won’t be going home….”

Tom and Jake have just relocated to a new village to start over, after the loss of Jake’s mother. But it seems they’ve moved into a maelstrom of evil, like something out of one of Jake’s drawings. The tension and the action ratchet up as the distant past becomes very present again.

The Whisper Man is told from a number of different perspectives, chapter by chapter–Tom, Jake, Pete and the Whisper Man himself. They are occasionally joined by others, including up-and-coming DI Amanda Beck, who looks to Pete as a mentor; but the story centers on Jake, his father and their connection to the bad guy. Tom’s perspective is the only one written in first person, giving him a compelling narrator’s authority– appropriate, as he is the novelist of the bunch. These differing voices exhibit North’s adeptness with character, including the precocious child’s view of the world in Jake’s chapters. They also give the reader a chance to sleuth alongside the professionals. But North gives nothing away: even the most mystery-savvy reader will be gasping and page-turning to the very end.

North’s characters are multi-layered, deeply relatable while keenly entertaining as they reveal themselves. Pete struggles with alcoholism in a day-to-day battle that is both fraught and poignantly banal. A young man whose father didn’t love him focuses on the meaning of a meal prepared with or without care. One of Tom’s daily challenges involves taking Jake to school, where he waits for his son to look back over his shoulder or not, and where he worries about fitting in with the other parents (one of whom will become a significant side character). Each chapter in its turn, and each featured character, is so absorbing that the reader wishes to follow this lead and then that one–but the momentum of the plot is relentless. Characters that the reader has invested in are in danger, and the pages fly by. At nearly 400 pages, The Whisper Man is nonetheless a quick-reading, fast-paced novel.

The psychology is complex. There’s more than one bad guy, blurring into one another in the eyes of frustrated investigators Willis and Beck. And if The Whisper Man has a hero, or heroes, they are imperfect, each occasionally thinking themself the villain. Whether it surfaces as evil or good intentions, there is a strong theme throughout of the connections between fathers and sons: what is passed down, and what role free will has to play.

In the end, The Whisper Man has all the hallmarks of a great murder-mystery thriller: suspense, the battle between good and evil, surprise twists and turns, fresh takes on classic detective characters and sympathetic civilians. But more than that, North offers nuance and questions about human agency. For all the darkness in this novel about serial killers and trauma, there is a sweet strain of filial love and creativity, and even a note of redemption.


Rating: 8 circles.

Come back Friday for my interview with North.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Kief Hillsbery

Following Wednesday’s review of Empire Made, here’s Kief Hillsbery: Writer as Detective.


Kief Hillsbery is the author of two novels, War Boy and What We Do Is Secret. He is a former contributing editor and columnist for Outside magazine, and a former writer for Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City. His new book is Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, coming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on July 25, 2017.

photo: Tobin Yelland

In Empire Made, you recount your relative Nigel Halleck’s mid-19th-century experiences with the East India Company. How closely were you able to stick to recorded facts, and how did you navigate points of departure?

In the beginning, I envisioned Nigel’s story as part of an account of my own experiences living and traveling in Nepal, Afghanistan and the former British India. I hesitated to make him the focus because of the scarcity of recorded facts about his life there. Very little of his correspondence survived, and what did was fragmentary. I just didn’t think that I had enough material. My ace in the hole was my taste in popular fiction. When I read for pleasure, more often than not I turn to police procedurals: Harry Bosch, Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. And the hand dealt to all these detectives at the beginning of each book is the same one dealt to me at the beginning of mine: not enough material. It’s all about accumulating new material through research and analysis, and paying close attention to seemingly trivial details. Ultimately you have enough of it to feel confident in making assumptions that help advance the case, or the narrative. When I felt stuck trying to figure out what was up with Nigel all those misty years ago in India, I often got unstuck by channeling my inner detective.

For example, when Nigel transferred out west to the Punjab from Patna in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Sikh War, he was posted to a British headquarters at Jalandhar, about 75 miles east of Lahore. But he first went to Lahore, traveling 150 miles out of his way by horse at the height of the Indian “Hot Weather,” on a post road that was bordered every dozen miles with cemeteries for the interment of Europeans who succumbed to heatstroke. In other words, it wasn’t a detour undertaken lightly. I was stymied in trying to establish why he went to Lahore. It clearly had nothing to do with his new job. At the time, it wasn’t even British territory. All I could do was take my cue from Harry Bosch. When he reached a dead end he invariably went back to his “murder book” and reviewed every piece of evidence collected so far. So I re-read all of Nigel’s surviving letters. And there it was, in an aside written several years before about two friends of his who had been posted to the Punjab. He hoped one day to follow in their footsteps, so he might see for himself in Lahore the Shalimar Gardens of Shah Jahan, patron of the Taj Mahal. So even as I lack recorded facts to back me up, I feel confident in saying that I know why Nigel went to Lahore.

You switch chapters between Nigel’s travels and your own. Was that your strategy from the beginning, or did you have to work into it?

It seems entirely sensible with benefit of hindsight, but it took a lengthy false start to persuade me. I originally conceived of the structure as a mosaic of vignettes, along the lines of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. I’ve always admired what he did with that book. And it seemed like an organic approach for mine. Two mosaic tiles, one in Nepal and one in Afghanistan, ultimately provide the key to unlocking the central mystery of Nigel’s life. To my way of thinking there was also something gemlike about a series of highly polished, standalone vignettes, and precious jewels are part of the story, too. (The British publisher has chosen to title the book The Tiger and the Ruby.) The problem, I discovered, was that vignettes worked against creating narrative momentum. Chatwin didn’t have to worry about that because he wasn’t telling a linear story. I was, and I needed a structure that enabled readers to feel they were progressing towards its conclusion.

I still resisted the idea of alternating between Nigel’s travels and my own, because his were so much more extensive and occupied so much more time. The first complete draft of the book consisted of three parts, with the first telling most of his story and the second focused on my initial efforts to uncover it. A briefer third part braided the two threads together and revealed the outcome. Momentum was still a problem. What finally worked was to just accept that there would be more Nigel chapters and establish a rhythm of interspersing them with my own personal chapters. The trick was to get the two parallel narratives to Nepal in consecutive chapters. Once I managed that, everything seemed to fall into place.

Do you feel catharsis for having partly uncovered this family mystery?

My inquiries into Nigel’s life in India spanned a long period of time, and were pretty casual until I started work on the book. So the emotional connection is a little too attenuated to speak of catharsis. I definitely feel some satisfaction. It’s tempered, though, by nagging questions that will probably always remain unanswerable. The theory that Nigel was some sort of deep-cover British agent was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. But it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility. Then there’s the connection to the Koh-i-noor diamond, which played a central role in stories handed down concerning the years of Nigel’s exile. As unlikely as it seems that he was directly involved, part of me will always wonder if all the generations of smoke didn’t originate in a flicker of historical fire.

What was your favorite part of creating this book?

Since I was immersed in the staid and rather stuffy world of colonial Victorians, it was always delightful to discover the exceptions that proved the rule. There was the wife of the governor-general of India, a titled aristocrat who left him to live in a Bedouin harem. There was the chief magistrate of Calcutta, who took every opportunity to don female attire in public. There was the commander of the East India Company army, who took 13 native wives and led them on evening promenades around the walls of the Red Fort at Delhi, each on the back of her own elephant. Stories like these made me fantasize about stealing a page from Lytton Strachey and writing another book, Less Than Eminent Victorians.


This interview originally ran on June 22, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India by Kief Hillsbery

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 22, 2017.


Kief Hillsbery grew up with the legend of his great-grandfather’s great-uncle Nigel, who had “gone out to India” and never returned to his family’s home in Coventry, England. According to the many stories, he’d left the British East India Company abruptly and gone to live in Kathmandu; he’d been killed by a tiger; he’d been involved with shady dealings regarding a famous diamond. From childhood, Hillsbery always had “a clear sense that [the family] disapproved of Nigel and the vague notion that there was more to his story.”

In Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, Hillsbery describes his decades-long, on-and-off exploration into Nigel’s life and death. It is an absorbing story, told with an eye for suspense and the odd, engrossing detail. Nigel’s story does not lack for weird and glittery hints; it takes a deft hand to explore them with interest and not sensationalism, but Hillsbery is up to the task. His lovely descriptions bring to life a country that is worlds of difference from Nigel’s English home. Sagar Island offers “houses like palaces, rising in their shining stucco masses from flowerbeds filled with imported English blooms on the undulating riverbank, their verandas spacious, their pillars lofty, their profiles Athenian.” Hillsbery is astonished to find a rhododendron forest just where his family’s stories placed one. “India,” he writes, “is full of surprises.”

Nigel set out for Calcutta in 1841 as a 20-year-old clerk for the East India Company. In 1975, Hillsbery was himself 20, headed for a college year abroad in Nepal, when his mother gifted him a sheaf of papers: all that remained of Uncle Nigel’s letters home, most incomplete and in various stages of decay. She wanted her son to be the first in the family to track down Nigel’s grave and pay his respects. The young man figured he would visit a cemetery or two and do his duty. But in fact he would embark upon years of research and travel through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Alternating chapters detail the author’s own travels and Nigel’s, the latter re-created using personal correspondence and official records from the 1840s. Necessarily, Empire Made also delves into British and Indian politics, and the nuanced racial and class-based prejudices and pressures that characterized the British East India Company for centuries. The background history that contextualizes this story can be convoluted, but Hillsbery wrestles this “historical quicksand” gamely, and his digressions enrich the sense of strange wonderment that characterizes this historical investigation. Readers will come away with a general sense of British-Indian relations, while focusing on the mystery of Nigel’s fate.

Hillsbery’s narrative neatly braids the threads of the two protagonists’ parallel travels. Nigel Halleck’s family background and education links into the narrator’s interest in mountaineering, and in Nepalese culture and language. With a distant idea about the enigma of a lost great-uncle, the young Hillsbery takes one and then another detour from his own travels to investigate a cemetery, a shrine, a memorial. He listens to the tales told by locals “with Chaucerian relish” of past visitors, and he learns to check Nigel’s letters as he travels, searching for references to each stop along his own way so that he can follow leads as they arise. This research on the move begins to yield new information, if only in hints.

Over the years and miles, Hillsbery uncovers a theory that Nigel was a deep-cover British secret agent; that he was connected to an important family, the Saddozais, by his close friendship with the Afghan prince Sa’adat ul-Mulk; that he was involved in some under-the-table dealings with the famous Koh-i-noor diamond. But beyond these dramatic stories, Hillsbery finds quieter details that link his own life story more closely to Nigel’s than he could have ever expected.

Empire Made nears its end when Hillsbery visits a seeress. Stumped by Nigel’s unexplained movements and his inexplicable retreat to a Hindu palace in Kathmandu, he submits to a friend’s recommendation to supernatural assistance: “Her rates were reasonable, and I could always write about it.” This woman’s cryptic statements, and Hillsbery’s later realizations about two pieces of information he’d uncovered, eventually help him to reach certain conclusions about Nigel’s life. These conclusions are not supernatural, but worldly. In the end, this epic story of travel, research, family mystery and centuries-long colonial effort ends with uncertainty; but Hillsbery’s voice in closing does find satisfaction in what he’s learned.


Rating: 7 rhododendrons.

Come back Friday for my interview with Kief Hillsbery.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Danya Kukafka

Following Wednesday’s review of Girl in Snow, here’s Danya Kukafka: Choosing Favorites.


Danya Kukafka is a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She currently works as an assistant editor at Riverhead Books. Girl in Snow is her first novel.

You began writing novels when you were just 16. What is different about this, your first to be published?

photo: Elliot Ross

I was writing pretty straight YA before. I wrote my first full novel–it was very bad–for a 10th grade project, and I gave it to my mom for Mother’s Day. And she said, “Honey, this is about a dead girl!” And after that I dabbled in some Peter Pan fan fiction, and then I wrote a paranormal YA novel when I was in college that was rejected by about a billion agents. And then after that I decided to go a little bit older. When I first wrote this book, I thought it was a YA novel until someone told me that it was not. So, I think as I got older my writing sort of naturally got older, too.

I had read a lot of straight YA when I was in high school, and a lot of it deals in the paranormal. One of my favorite series is Meg Cabot’s Mediator series. It’s about a girl who can talk to a ghost. I loved those books, and I took a lot of what I thought paranormal books could do from that. But I’ve definitely moved away from that, probably for good. I’m happy that this is the one that caught. Looking back, I’m glad it wasn’t those earlier ones that published.

How did you choose this setting in (fictional) small-town Colorado?

I grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s actually not a small town, it’s a pretty large city; but surrounding it are all these really small suburban enclaves, and I think they’re really interesting. They’re so insular. And the landscape of that part of Colorado is also really interesting to me. It’s the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, so you have these huge mountains looming over you, and to the other side you have open plains. You’re just kind of tucked into the base right there.

Why three characters’ voices? Did they all come to you at once, or did one come later than the others?

Oh, this is a good one. No, they did not. The first character that I had was Cameron, and I thought the book was only Cameron’s book, when I started it. I wrote an entire draft of only Cameron, but I could not get to the end. None of the endings made sense, and I couldn’t figure out what to do. I was taking a writing class at NYU with Colson Whitehead, and there was a story that I had written, that had a very, very early version of Jade’s voice. It came out really naturally, and everyone in the class really liked it, and I sort of thought, well, what if there’s a way to fit her into the story? So I had this draft, a full draft of the novel, and I went back and I wrote all of Jade’s chapters into that draft in about six months. And I had what I thought was a YA novel in my hands. But then I signed with my agent, Dana Murphy at the Book Group, and she said, this is not a YA book. This is adult writing and about adult themes, so let’s write in an adult perspective. (It was also very short.) So that was where Russ came in. We sort of thought up Russ together. And it was amazing how much he opened up the book for me: it felt so much bigger and richer and more expansive. But… I wouldn’t do it that way again.

Why not?

Since I had basically fleshed out the whole plot from one perspective, it was actually pretty easy to go in and add these people in terms of structure, because I already had the opening and the middle and the end. I knew generally what needed to happen. So it was actually really fun to go in and find out the little ways I could put these characters into the world that I had built. It was definitely messy for a while, but at the same time I always knew that it was making this world bigger, which I really liked. But it was very accidental and–well, maybe I will end up doing it this way again! But I hope to go into it with a little more intention and a little more knowledge next time.

Do you have a favorite among the three protagonists?

Cameron has to be my favorite. He’s the little dude of my heart, my little brain child. I love Jade for many other reasons–I loved writing Jade because she’s so angsty and such a teenager, and that was really fun to write. And as Russ came along I got to be more of a grown-up, which I also really enjoyed. But yeah, my favorite’s Cameron and I won’t hesitate to say it. Sorry, guys.

How has your day job (as an assistant editor at Riverhead Books) affected your writing?

I think I’ve become much harder on myself, which is a good thing. Also, I’m reading all the time, which is really good for my muscles, I guess. Just being able to read other people’s work as it’s coming in, and see how even really successful and amazing authors need revision–that’s been really inspiring for me, because I realize that everyone goes through this kind of horrible process of writing a book. But I’ve also had a really great experience learning to discern what stories I find necessary and interesting. Working for an editor and as an editor has helped me become pickier as a reader and a writer. Of course, I also find it a little bit scary sometimes, just seeing the volume of amazing work that is out there and knowing that you’re going to have to fit into it somewhere.

And what’s next?

I’m working on a new novel. I can’t say much about it yet but I will say it’s going to be set in upstate New York, about a family. I’m working on a draft, it’s messy right now, but it’s been really freeing to start something new and be out of the story I’ve been with for so long. I can play around now. I can do something totally different.


This interview originally ran on April 26, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on April 26, 2017.


The town of Broomsville, Colo., is rocked by the early-morning discovery of Lucinda Hayes’s body, slung against the carousel in the elementary school playground. Lucinda was a freshman in high school, and the town’s golden girl: beautiful, kind, smart, popular. In the days that follow, though, her secrets and those of her friends and neighbors will be expertly teased to light, old wounds reopened and a number of lives permanently changed.

Girl in Snow is Danya Kukafka’s first novel, and its riveting narrative dives immediately into the impact of Lucinda’s death through the perspective of her classmate Cameron, an unpopular, troubled teenager whose waking thoughts, dreams and artwork all fixate on her. “Cameron hated the word ‘stalk.’ He had other words for his relationship with Lucinda, but they were words no one else would understand. Words like vibrant, frantic, twinkling, aching….” He is an obvious early suspect. But there are others: the night janitor who found the body, Lucinda’s ex-boyfriend, a homeless man, even her parents.

Then the perspective shifts, as it will throughout this stark and striking novel, from Cameron’s to that of Jade, a junior at the high school, who finds it pointless to even pretend to mourn Lucinda’s death. The third point in this triangulated mystery is Russ, a police officer of 17 years who shares an old trauma with one suspect, and is related to another by marriage. The reader’s lens on the story rotates among these three characters as each struggles with the way his or her life has changed, and sooner or later feels compelled to investigate.

Objectively, Cameron is a stalker; he is certainly troubled. Jade is sullen and generally hostile. Russ, like the two teens, is haunted by his past. They are absorbing characters, with layers of secrets that overlap among them. Although Jade’s chapters are told in first-person, and Cameron’s and Russ’s in the third, their distresses are all written with raw immediacy, and each character is complex, aching and ashamed, for different reasons. Kukafka drags these hidden injuries and infamies out of her characters slowly and by degrees. This measured pacing and withholding of information gives her novel an atmosphere of nearly painful suspense. This is not a traditional murder mystery, although the killer’s identity does remain unknown for most of its length. Rather, it is a quietly taut thriller concerned with the secrets we keep from our closest loved ones–and even from ourselves.

Kukafka’s meticulous details–like Jade’s musical tastes and Russ’s wife’s background–enrich her characters and add to the sense of realism. Cameron is a skilled visual artist with a precise understanding of plant and animal anatomy. Jade is a loner, “eyes ringed in black; raven, greasy hair swooped over one eye,” “two inches of pale stomach rolled over her waistband even though it was winter and she was probably cold,” and even though her mother disapproves. Jade’s little sister is their mother’s Barbie doll, “a mannequin for Ma’s regret about her worry lines and all those cigarettes she smokes.”

Jade knows that “When people die, they become angel caricatures of themselves,” and Lucinda was perhaps not so perfect as the news reports would have it. The reader has only the perspectives of Cameron, Jade and Russ to go on, and their opinions of her vary, but even in these glimpses the dead girl receives some nuance of characterization.

Secondary characters come just as fully formed. Lucinda’s ex-boyfriend Zap, whose parents are French, loves astronomy. Cameron’s art teacher has a history and loves of his own, besides his obvious passion for his work. Broomsville may be an “overgrown cul-de-sac,” “like a cardboard town filled with paper people,” but its inhabitants are as variously disturbed and troubled as any group of imperfect humans. One of them is a murderer, but it seems they are all guilty of something.

Kukafka’s prose often leans toward short sentences and quick turns, but also pauses for beauty or metaphor. There is a poignancy to Cameron’s observations of the physical world, as he kneads his eraser, noting “snowflakes kissing a windowsill, fingernails dug into the skin of a tangerine.” He thirsts for beauty, and thinks there’s “nothing worse than loving someone and mixing up their earlobes with someone else’s.” But one of the points of Girl in Snow is that appearances are often terribly misleading.

“It’s all about perception. What I see is automatically my truth, simply because I’ve seen it.” The impossible objectivity of sight and memory, and the slender boundary between devotion and obsession, between appearance and truth: these are the central questions of a novel with a murder at its heart, but with broader concerns. Girl in Snow is about the effects of Lucinda’s death on an entire town, and Kukafka’s memorable characters allow those effects to keep hold of the reader long after the final denouement.


Rating: 7 Crucibles songs.

Come back Friday for my interview with Danya Kukafka.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Jennifer Ryan

Following last week’s review of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, here’s Jennifer Ryan: Original and Authentic.


Jennifer Ryan lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband and two children. She is originally from Kent and then London, and has worked as a nonfiction book editor. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir (Crown) is her first novel.

photo credit: Nina Subin

photo credit: Nina Subin


How did you choose to use the epistolary form?

The letter form is one of my favorites. I really enjoy the way the voice exposes the inner feelings and personality of the character. The way she interacts with the off-stage recipient adds an extra tension–is some kind of pretense going on? It leaves some lovely space for an unreliable character to come through–someone who isn’t telling the recipient (or the reader) the truth, and will inevitably be uncovered by the end.

Is there one of these women you especially identify with?

Mrs. Tilling, the middle-aged widow whose only son goes to war. She was the first one I wanted to write about. Writing gives you the opportunity to dig into a situation or subject, put yourself in the middle of it as a character and experience what it must have been like. As a mother, I wanted to know how it felt to have your only child go to war, especially with the gruesomeness of the First World War fresh in your mind, all the young men mown down by bullets in the Somme. You’ve spent 18 years bringing up your son, caring for him, cooking for him, loving him, and this day–when he walks down the road with his kit bag over his shoulder–may be the last time you ever see him.

The differences in their voices is subtle, but distinct.

This was a wonderful part of writing Chilbury. Kitty steps away from traditional narrative style in her journal, jumping around from subject to subject by use of headings, and using her wonderful lists to cover subjects such as “People’s Colors,” and “What Happens to People When They Die.” Miss Paltry uses a lot of metaphors, and I had a hysterical time creating ones such as, “the day was as cold as a slap round the face with a fresh-caught cod.” She was a delight to create, and I always looked forward to writing her entries. Mrs. Tilling always longed to be writer and has a more literary style, which allowed me to be more expressive and use more sophisticated language and grammar. They are also defined by their accents. Mrs. Tilling has more of a middle-class vernacular, whereas Venetia and Kitty are more upper class, and Miss Paltry is more lower class.

Why this time period?

About 15 years ago I read about the London children being evacuated to the English countryside, and a new obsession was born. Since then, I’ve read personal accounts, memoirs, biographies, reference books and novels about the Second World War. When I was considering writing a novel, I’d been editing a book on the war in Afghanistan, and through that I recognized how cultural values change in a time of warfare. The population shifts and for a time things become more fluid, rules less rigid. Authority is challenged and the suppressed–in this case the women–have a chance to widen their horizons.

On a more personal note, when I was growing up, we had two grandmothers: one was Shakespeare Granny, who ruthlessly analyzed all the tragedies, and the other was Party Granny, who was full of hilarious and often scandalous stories about the war. I always had a burning ambition to write about her stories, especially the ones about her choir, which she swears got her through the war. Unlike the Chilbury ladies, though, Party Granny’s choir was reportedly dreadful, and there were plenty of stories about how they lost competitions and sang so out-of-tune that when they visited a choir member in hospital, the nurses took them to perform for every ward to “give everyone a good laugh.” They hammed it up, of course, “to jolly everyone along.”

How did your experience as an editor of nonfiction inform this work?

Narrative nonfiction works similarly to fiction. I created a structure whereby the main story arc of the choir contained and ran alongside the five story arcs of the main characters. Structure is the cornerstone of any good, well-functioning nonfiction, and I think the same is true of fiction.

The work of sentences is also crucial, and although they tend to move to a different end in nonfiction, a good understanding of sentence potential and variability is key to producing a fluid work. But because the characters themselves were writing the entries, I had to step back from writing complex sentences and grammar for all but Mrs. Tilling, who professes to yearning to be a writer.

Editing nonfiction has also given me the opportunity to dive in deep with other topics. A few years before I began writing Chilbury, I edited a book by a renowned cellist on how music affects our emotions, and some of the core ideas were used in the book. Having also sung in choirs, I wanted to bring that feeling of togetherness that they create, the magic of allegiance in song. It’s not an easy task to describe music in words, but I wanted to make sure it felt real to the readers, as if it was being performed in front of them.

How big a role did research play? How closely does this story mirror fact?

Research played a massive role. The day-to-day life of women during these times was incredibly hard. There were few labour-saving devices such as laundry machines and dryers, let alone central heating. All meals had to be made from scratch. The rationing and shortages made cooking even more time consuming. My grandmother had a dozen or so wartime recipes, like Lord Woolton Pie (a vegetable form of shepherd’s pie made specially for Lord Woolton by the head chef of the Savoy Hotel), mock banana (which was made from mashed parsnip mixed with sugar) and Pink Gin (my grandmother’s favorite cocktail, which was a lethal mix of straight gin with a splash of Angostura bitters.)

One of my favorite research tasks for Chilbury was interviewing people alive during the era. In an eye-opening way, most of the elderly women I interviewed remembered the war as one of the best times of their lives, recalling the new freedom and the work and responsibility, the feeling that you had to live for the day. One lady in her 90s decided that she simply had to demonstrate how to do that dance, “Knees Up, Mother Brown,” and I begged her not to as she struggled to her feet, clasped my arm, and began kicking her legs up one by one. Gripping hold of her as best I could, I had to laugh along with her. She couldn’t have been more delighted to relive the memories.

I was careful to make sure that everything that happens in the novel could actually have happened. Some of the plot threads came directly from my grandmother’s stories of the war, and one of the characters, Venetia, is based on her friend Letty, who was very beautiful and always playing the boys off each other.

The story of Silvie, the 10-year-old Jewish refugee from Prague, came from research about Sir Nicholas Winton, who set up a program to transport Jewish children from Prague to the U.K. in the wake of the war. In total he rescued 669 children, most of whom lost their parents in the Holocaust. They were taken in by British families, many of them remaining with those new families after the war. There are many horrific and sad accounts of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and I tried to keep Silvie’s experiences true to the brutal reality of the situation.

It was important to me that the book was both an original work and authentic to the era. It certainly was an incredible time to live and write about, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to plunge into this fascinating era and try my best to re-create some of the most exciting and frightening years of the war in Kent.


This interview originally ran on January 10, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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