Amy MacKinnon’s debut novel, Tethered–now out in paperback–is a stunning story loaded with voice and a rarely seen attention to detail. It’s also a dark tale of mystery and suspense–about a female undertaker and her relationship with the dead and a past that has snaked its way into her present with crushing force. Here are what some reviewers have had to say:
“[An] hypnotic debut… There’s a quiet, almost stealthy quality to the writing…Clara is an astonishing character, and with language as blunt as the death she sees every day, she expresses herself with devastating simplicity.”
—New York Times Review of Books
“This is a brilliant debut from a gifted author, who has created an unforgettable central character…Amy MacKinnon is definitely a writer to watch.”
—Globe and Mail
I’m thrilled she agreed to an interview with me for WU, to talk about her journey to publication, her process, first lines, voice, a moment of true storytelling magic, and more.
Interview with Amy MacKinnon: Part 1
Q: What do you answer when people ask, “What’s your novel about?”
AM: The literal response is it’s about an undertaker who doesn’t believe in God and a little girl who plays at the funeral parlor because it’s a better alternative to her home life. The truth is that it’s a novel about finding faith in one’s self, in another, and possibly in a higher power.
Q: Would you consider Tethered a literary thriller? How did your publicist and others describe and/or market the novel?
AM: When I queried agents, I described it as literary suspense. My publisher, however, has it classified as a mystery. To me it’s not a true mystery because it’s pretty clear whodunit from the beginning. What I’d love best is if readers described it as a good book.
Q: “I plunge my thumb between the folds of the incision, then hook my forefinger deep into her neck. Unlike most of the bloodlines, which offer perfunctory resistance, the carotid artery doesn’t surrender itself willingly.” First lines are so important, and yours snags and holds fast -what’s happening? Was the opening-the first line, first scene, first chapter-always clear to you?
AM: Neither the first nor the last lines ever changed — it’s what came between those words that baffled me. That first chapter took six months to write because it’s there that I had to discover the voice, the character, the conflict, and the heart of my story. That’s a lot we writers have to conquer, and, yes, first lines can be important, but more often than not it’s the voice that captures a reader. Writers need to pay more attention to voice.
Q: Do you have any tips for writers who might want to work on voice? Do you think it’s something that can be worked on, or is it one of those things that you either have or you don’t?
AM: People often wonder if a writer’s ability is innate or learned. While it’s crucial for every writer to devote time to learning craft — grammar, structure, pacing — voice is something that can’t be taught. It’s definition is elusive, but to me it’s rhythm and cadence and emotion and quite literally that voice I hear in my head while reading. It’s more than that even. I just picked up Jennifer Haigh’s THE CONDITION and voice is evident from the very first page. Hers is mesmerizing.
Q: “Death has its own aura,” you wrote, and so much of this novel involves death-not only because the story involves the mystery of an old murder and a new crime, but because your protagonist, Clara, is an undertaker. Tethered also involves abuses old and new, and references a compulsive hair-pulling disorder called trichotillomania. Did the novel’s dark nature ever make it difficult for you to write? From where did you draw inspiration?
AM: Tethered is a very dark book because it’s a reflection of our world. The story of my Precious Doe was inspired by the real Precious Doe whose body was discovered in Kansas City, MO in 2001. She was found in much the same condition as I described, abandoned and alone, and, almost worst of all, unknown. She wasn’t identified until 2005 because no one stepped forward to claim her. Once I heard about her on NPR, I knew I had to weave her into my novel because there I could give her a happier ending than her real life, something that comforted me.
Q: I recently read an interview with you about finding a sign that your story was on the right track while at an antiques shop. Will you share the story?
AM: The first chapter of Tethered didn’t come easily. My protagonist, Clara, is such a damaged person, she was able to tell me her story only in bits and pieces, like therapy sessions. For the longest time I didn’t know her name. It wasn’t until one day my husband and I stopped at a nearby antique shop (that I’d never noticed before and haven’t seen since) that it burst into my head. In the parking lot I turned to my husband and said, “Her name’s Clara! Clara Marsh!”
“Okay, okay,” he said. It must be hard to live with the mania of a writer. We were in the shop fewer than two minutes when I looked down and there, on a pedestal table, leaning against a candelabra, was an antique envelope with a one-cent stamp addressed to Clara Marsh. It had to be a sign. I promised myself that if my book were ever published, I’d frame that envelope and hang it above my desk, and that’s where it is today.
Q: How long had you been writing before Tethered sold? What was your journey to publication?
AM: One late night after my third child was born, I was nursing her and feeling a little panicky that my professional life had been sidelined. So I started writing my obituary. It’s a clarifying exercise I recommend to everyone. The next day I started writing essays, my first was printed and the Boston Globe, and then I started freelancing for various newspapers simply by reading them intently and studying the structure. When I pitched editors, I did so with a lot of bravado and an almost nonexistent clip file. Then one day I heard Jonathan Franzen say on Fresh Air that writing THE CORRECTIONS was the most fun he’d ever had. Fun? I thought writing a novel was torture, but clearly I was wrong. That day, I started writing a book about the drama of suburbia. It was indeed fun.
Two years later, I finished it and queried 73 agents. Fifty requested it and all rejected it — thank goodness, it was awful! But it taught me I could finish something of that magnitude. Months later, after visiting my uncle’s funeral parlor (the extended version of this story is on my web site), the character of Clara started coming to me, whispering her story. It took eighteen months to write and nine looong, soul-crushing, and absolutely necessary months of revising with my agent. Three of those months were spent staring out the window. When she was finally ready to submit it to editors, it sold in ten days at auction. Foreign rights sold within days of that. It was an unexpected whirlwind which left me stunned and grateful.
Q: The novel seems like it must’ve been research intensive-requiring knowledge of police procedures, the work of an undertaker, abuses and more. What was your research process? Did any discovery you made along the way dictate the course of the novel?
AM: The research was ridiculously easy. My uncle, a funeral director, is a natural-born storyteller. Any time I needed to know anything about the funeral business, I’d sit at his knee and listen. He showed me his work room and tools, he told me of clients who broke his heart and others who strengthened his faith. I admire him a great deal. As for the police work, my brother’s a cop, so I’d walk across the street and ask him a question whenever the need arose. A lot of the particulars were provided by a colleague of his, a real live hero, who added a lot of color and concrete details. The Brockton Police Department, where my story is set, were amazingly helpful too. I couldn’t have asked for a better setting than their headquarters. Pretty much everything they told me guided the story. Nothing I encountered over those 2 1/2 years didn’t influence it.
Q: What is your process otherwise? Plotter or pantser? Day writer or night? Regular writer or spurt writer?
AM: Definitely a panster. I much prefer to write in the early morning. I have three kids, a part-time job, so often while writing I’d wake at four and write before handing over my day to all of life’s other demands. I’m a regular writer in that I spend a lot of time mulling my story — pretty much constantly — and then I’ll sit at the computer and type. I might wonder about it for several days and then write for many more. I don’t recommend this method to anyone.
Q: What percentage of writing is rewriting for you?
AM: I revise as I go. I can’t move on until the words and the pace and the motivation is there. When I’ve finished, then it’s time to revise again and again. Ten, twelve, twenty more times. Again, I don’t recommend this method. Strike that, I do.
Come back next week for more of my interview with author Amy MacKinnon, when we’ll discuss her gift for description (character and place), her revision process, and more.