Alexandra Burt is the author of the novels Remember Mia and The Good Daughter. She was born in Fulda, Germany, a baroque town in the East Hesse Highlands. Days after her college graduation she boarded a flight to the U.S. She ended up in Texas, married, and explored a career in the student loan industry. After the birth of her daughter she became a freelance translator, determined to acknowledge the voice in the back of her head prompting her to break into literary translations. The union never panned out and she decided to tell her own stories. She currently lives in Central Texas with her husband, her daughter, and two Chocolate Labrador Retrievers. One day she wants to live on a farm and offer old arthritic dogs a comfy couch to live out their lives. She wouldn’t mind a few rescue goats, chickens, and cats. The more the merrier. She is a member of Sisters In Crime, a nationwide network of women crime writers.
In this interview, Burt discusses prologues, shifting between time periods in a novel, and the lure and importance of setting.
I really admire the prologue of The Good Daughter, which does the work that so many prologues do: setting up situation, creating suspense. But it also spends time in Dahlia’s head, building her as a character, which can be difficult to do when you’re focused on hooking readers with story. How did you approach this prologue? Was it written early or late in the process?
Prologues shouldn’t be too elusive, after all we don’t care about the characters, haven’t even met them yet. You can reveal character and move the plot along at the same time, like an opening scene in a movie. In The Good Daughter I wanted to create suspense and arouse curiosity regarding plot as well as characters.
The prologue was written early on as a vignette, it was the moment two characters meet; Dahlia as a child doing what she spent the better part of her life doing, going from place to place without really belonging, wondering what’s in store in the next state, the next city. It is a crossroads of sorts for the main character, a metaphor for her life and the beginning of putting down roots in Aurora, Texas. She has an encyclopedia in her lap and if she can’t figure where she’s going, she can at least look up the meanings of words she encounters along her journey. So in a way she does what she’s going to do for the entire novel: figuring out the meaning of her memories, her mother’s stories. The prologue is also chockfull of symbols: the first few pages of the encyclopedia are missing, the number seven (the seeker of truth), Red Vines turning her lips crimson. I play with symbolism a lot, sometimes on purpose, sometimes it’s just the way my scrabble ends up on the page. It is also very concrete in being a scene at a diner, a suspicious meeting by the side of the road. A prologue can do many things, like the opening scene of a movie.
The novel moves back and forth between Dahlia’s present and past. Moves like this can be a risk in that readers become so engaged in one story line and moment that the shift in time feels like an interruption. That isn’t the case here. Did you move back and forth as you wrote, or did you focus on one and then the other before breaking them into pieces?
The Good Daughter tells the story of a woman uncovering secrets from her childhood that some people don’t want her to answer.
I immensely enjoy novels that move back and forth between present and past—The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve comes to mind—but moving back and forth can be a tricky structure, I agree. Advantages of a dual timeline are a deeper plot and theme and greater character development. Disadvantages are that readers lose interest or get confused and frustrated. One can lose a reader at the drop of a dime unless both storylines are equally captivating.
The characters in The Good Daughter fed off each other and I jumped back and forth as I wrote. I had a plot in mind but I allowed the present and past to feed off each other. There was a tangible connection that I explored as I went along—the past had never died, its symbol the farmhouse that stood untouched for decades. I had to pay close attention to the transitions and really connect the two plots toward the end of the story. In general, there should be a strong relationship between the two plots, geographically, symbolically, or otherwise, and both stories must be strong in their own right.
The novel is a mystery, but it’s also in many ways a quiet novel about a particular place. I’m curious which of these elements—the mystery or the sense of place—first drew you to these characters and story?
It began as a mystery in a Texas setting: a body in the woods, an olfactory disorder, and a possible serial killer. The original title was Scent of a Crime. At some point I realized that I wanted to add another layer to the novel; I may have constructed a plot-driven mystery but something was amiss. I wanted the setting to be a character in itself and in many ways the story required a kind of Texas that was deeper than tacos and football and rodeos—forgive me for stereotyping—a Texas that could seep into the reader’s pores. I imagined a small town forgotten by time but also a place where secrets don’t die, where buildings sit untouched for decades, where the ghosts of the past remain. Once Aurora came alive, the story changed from plot-driven to a more character-driven novel. There is history wherever you go all over this country, some well-known and documented, but there need not be a historical marker or tourist attraction in order to tell a story about the place and the people. Aurora, though fictional, was such a place; once I imagined it, there was no going back and it took on a life of its own.
You’re a member of Sisters in Crime, the national network of women crime writers–and I know there’s an active group here in Austin. A lot of writers are familiar with MFA programs and don’t necessarily know about groups like Sisters in Crime. What role has the group played in your development as a writer?
I live about an hour north of Austin and I can’t participate in meetings as much as I want to, unfortunately. As a writer—and writing is a solitary profession—we need to belong and network and support each other. There still is a gender bias when it comes to women writing crime, even though women seem to dominate the headlines ever since Gone Girl hit he shelves. But the numbers speak to a deeper truth: only one third of published authors across all genres are women and therefore, by default, books written by men will be disproportionately reviewed more in the media and consequently men win more awards than women. It is important for women to support each other.
There are local chapters all over the country, even a special chapter, The GUPPIES, with beginning writers who share publishing information and offer critique groups. The organization has been around since 1986 and has been thriving ever since. We are here to stay.
“You write alone, but you are not alone with Sisters,” as they say.
Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.