Twelve years ago, when I was just starting out as an agent, a manuscript came my way that was haunting, deeply sad, and at its center was a mother daughter drama played out against the world of clairvoyance and the occult. There was also a murder any one of us could have committed. Amazing book I was very proud to have worked on. Afterlife has just been reissued as part of the wonderful librarian Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust Rediscoveries. Tonight, the author Rhian Ellis has graciously agreed to answer some questions. Also for your viewing pleasure is a promotional video for the book. Thank you, Rhian! And congrats.
1) What kinds of writing do you outside writing fiction?
Emails, shopping lists, letters to the editor, doctor’s notes, and anonymous blog comments. I would like to write ruminative essays, but I can never get the tone right. I constantly turn ranty.
2) How much do you plan in advance and how much develops as you write.
I like to see the end when I start, or at least an end. Seeing the end is a kind of rudimentary structure — you can veer off-track, but at least there is a track. I’ve found that if I don’t have a good sense of where I’m going, I follow my whims into the swamp. But on the other hand, if I outline too much I get bored. It has to be a careful balance between surprising myself and keeping myself focused. To be honest, I find it a really difficult thing.
3) What is the secret to writing characters?
I try to pay attention to how I perceive real people and make characters who inhabit the world in a similar way. What makes people distinctive? I think physical description is really important — not “six feet tall, blue eyes,” but maybe “awkwardly tall, crazy eyebrows.” Once I can see them, the personality follows. I used to steal stuff from people I know, but that’s a really bad idea. No matter how hard you try to disguise them, people recognize themselves.
4) Your novel asks the questions: what is real? What is faked? How does that apply to fiction?
The book is really about writing, which I’d forgotten. Writing and mediumship both depend on the ambiguity of truth. Fiction has to feel true, even though you know it’s made up. It has to say true things. I came to decide that’s how mediumship works, too. A lot of the things Naomi says about being a medium is actually channeling me, talking about writing.
5) Did you research clairvoyance; how did you create the world?
There is a real town like Train Line in Western New York state — Lily Dale, NY. I grew up nearby and spent a couple of summers working there. So the world was pre-created, which was handy. I also read a lot of books. For years I’d been finding stuff in the paranormal section of the library — I love that stuff.
6) Can you talk about the mother/daughter relationship and how you created the tension between them?
The mother in the book is nothing like my own mother, in that mine is not hectoring and overbearing, but I did draw on our own intensely close relationship. It nearly killed me to break away and go to college, back in those days when it was too expensive to call more than once a week. I gave Naomi the same kind of relationship with a different mother, and then gave her reasons to never break away.
7) What are you working on next?
You know I have been working on something “next” since late last century. I am a mess: I start too many things and finish too few. But it is my life’s goal to send you something before you retire from agenting and become a full-time screenwriter. So I’m taking suggestions!
P.S. Of all the wonderful gifts clients have given me over the years, this one from Rhian holds a special place in my heart.
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