The protagonist of Harriet Lane’s debut novel Alys, Always (I reviewed it here last year) was remarkably good at putting me on my guard. She raised all sorts of fascinating questions about what motivates us when it comes to the narratives we tell ourselves and others about ourselves and others. So I was thrilled when Harriet agreed to chat a bit about the psychology of her characters and some of the experiences and observations behind the suspense. If you haven’t read it yet, I hope the conversation inspires you to pick up the novel, which releases by Scribner in paperback in the U.S. and Canada this week.
Harriet Lane, author of Alys, Always.
In one particular passage of Alys, Always, Frances observes how much pretending and role playing the people around her are engaged in (and this seems to bolster her justification of her own choices). Why do you think we all want to be something we’re not?
I guess pretty often other people’s lives appear more attractive than our own. Maybe they’re better at life than we are? The thing that Frances does, of glancing into strangers’ living rooms as the lights go on in the evening, thinking, ‘Oh, that looks nice’: well, I’ve done that. I think most of us have. I try not to take it much further — envy feels wretched, it doesn’t make me happy.
But Frances is driven by that impulse. She wants to escape the place — the street, the job, the class — she inhabits at the beginning of the book. Is she aware of this ambition at the opening of the novel, or does it dawn on her slowly? That’s up to the reader, I think.
Frances is ambitious, aware of where she comes from but aiming for another life — something many of us try to do. So what is it that makes her actions so creepy? What’s the difference between choosing your own destiny and what Frances does?
Good point. I’m not entirely sure. I suppose Frances is disconcerting because she often says and does things — often the ‘right’ things — for rather ambiguous reasons.
Ambiguous, yes. I found myself relating to Frances in a number of ways while simultaneously appalled at her machinations, in the like-me-but-very-unlike-me dualism that makes for the most compelling characters. How did you get into Frances’ head?
I found her voice almost immediately. There’s a moment quite early on when she’s reading over a police report, a transcript of her statement, and she’s irritated that the police officer who took it down didn’t catch her tone of voice and turn of phrase. When I wrote that, I remember thinking: Oh, OK, I know who you are.
She’s a very distinct sort of person: clever, spiky, funny, in a merciless sort of way. And yet on the surface, she’s quiet, unremarkable, easy to overlook.
There’s also an urgency to her, a desperation that pushes the narrative along; I think it helped that I wrote the first draft very quickly, in about 11 weeks. There’s a velocity that came out of that.
Frances was certainly very good company while I was writing. I knew her, I knew what she was up to, but she still took me by surprise. Every so often, she’d do something I hadn’t seen coming, just little details (dabbing something off Laurence’s sleeve, the bits of light kleptomania) and it was sort of delicious.
So which character do you most relate to, and why?
A reader tweeted me to say, ‘We’ve all been the depressed sub in the cupboard.’ I loved that. Certainly at times I’ve felt as Frances does, that life is passing me by, that it’s all going off in the next apartment and I can hear the party through the wall and no one thought to invite me. So on that level, I can’t help admiring her for grasping an opportunity, for making something happen.
My own life is very chaotic and unpredictable (since 2008 I’ve been struggling with an autoimmune disorder affecting my sight; I’ve lost all the vision in one eye, and now, alas, the other one is taking a hit) so I suspect there was some therapeutic value in writing about a person exerting such control over her own fate. But that’s as far as it goes.
In your mind, has Frances committed a crime? If so, what is it? Can there be a crime if the victims are unaware of being victims?
Every so often I encounter a reader who says they were expecting a violent payoff at the end, as if what Frances does isn’t sufficiently bad. For my part, I think it’s quite bad enough. I suppose I’m interested in commonplace horror, the sharp edge of everyday interactions, the little subtle wickednesses we inflict on each other. Frances doesn’t hurt anyone. Quite the contrary. If anything, she fixes stuff up. For me, that makes the ending quite dark enough — precisely because her motivations aren’t the conventional ones.
The Kyte family’s strong sense of entitlement seems to make them easier for Frances to control. Do they somehow deserve what happens? How complicit are they in the outcome?
I sometimes feel that people who are used to having things fall into place for them — lucky people, if you like — come to believe that they’ve earned that luck. It’s their due. And that drives me nuts. I guess I was interested in exploring that complacency. It was also important that Frances’s victims, if that’s what they are, didn’t unbalance the story. I wanted to see if I could keep a reader rooting for her at some level, despite knowing what she’s up to. That was the challenge.
You’ve stated elsewhere that the idea for the book came to you fully formed. Did you know it would be a psychological thriller? What were you aiming to write?
I don’t think I was thinking about genre. I suppose, indirectly, I was thinking about the books I love to read, which tend to be full of tension and texture and a sort of accumulating unease. Daphne du Maurier is right up there with Rebecca, of course. And I love Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson (although I’ve only discovered her recently) and Barbara Vine, atmospheric writers with a very strong sense of place, who create frequently disconcerting protagonists.
I also love novels where the writer leaves space for you to make up your own mind: where things dawn on you slowly or you’re obliged to revise your initial assumptions (Never Let Me Go, The Little Stranger, Notes on a Scandal, Legend of a Suicide). I love it when an author resists the temptation to spell things out; I find that sensation of the slow reveal incredibly pleasurable and involving.
And I’m always grateful to a novel that cracks along, making it hard for me to put it down.
That’s a great way to encapsulate Alys, Always: an un-put-down-able novel that forces you to revise your initial assumptions. Thanks again, Harriet, for the thoughtful conversation!