Skip to main content

Interview: March 4, 2005

March 4, 2005's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) interviewed Pam Lewis, author of SPEAK SOFTLY, SHE CAN HEAR. Lewis reveals which elements of her debut novel are based in truth and explains why she decided to write a book set in the 1960s and 1970s. She also discusses the authors who have influenced her writing and the challenges of producing novels as opposed to short fiction. SPEAK SOFTLY, SHE CAN HEAR has the feel of a true crime account, told from the inside. Did you base any of this book on a true story?

Pam Lewis: The locations are real and some of the circumstances as well. Mostly it's the remembered feel of a true event that I was after. For example, I did go to Stowe to ski with friends of mine during our spring week off from school, and I still remember the feel of it --- the sudden sense of having no limits. We could have been out all night and no one would have noticed. One night several of us went to a nearby motel to see if we'd rather stay there than in the dorm we'd booked. We were shown to one of the cabins and I remember there was a girl our age, passed out on the bed with a bottle of Scotch on the night table. I've never forgotten that image. It frightened us and we decided to stay where we were. But seeing that cabin and the drunken, unrousable girl played a part in setting the cabin scene.

Also, someone I knew lost her virginity on purpose the way Carole and Naomi do, and that was a very unusual thing to do back then. She was indiscriminate, picking out a man at random on a cruise. It seemed so dangerous. So some of the elements were real but the crime itself was not.

BRC: What made you decide to write a novel set in the 1960s and 1970s?

PL: I was about that age during that era. I understood the mores. Girls in the early 1960s would swear up and down they were virgins when they weren't. Five years later they'd swear up and down they weren't when they were. I was working at Planned Parenthood about that time; the doctors would come out of the examination room shaking their heads. Also, I believe that a crime such as Carole's would be solved very quickly today, given all the communications and forensics we have now. I didn't want this to become a book about police work.

BRC: The view of the counterculture movement in SPEAK SOFTLY, SHE CAN HEAR is a bit more honest and objective than readers usually encounter. Where were you living during these decades? If you were not living in New York City and Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s and Vermont in the 1970s, how did you research these locales?

PL: I lived in those places at those times, but I still needed to do research. Haight-Ashbury fell apart so fast in the late '60s that getting the month-to-month sequence right took some effort. I used a wonderful book called WHEN WE WERE YOUNG: A Baby Boomer Yearbook by Rita Lang Kleinfelder. It's a sort of cultural almanac that goes year by year from 1947 through 1975. I also pulled photos from the web to keep my memory of 1968-69 fresh. That period is often sanitized today. I tacked a wonderful photo to my wall. It showed a small child of about four, with scraggly blond hair. He or she is reaching out to touch a fawn in a meadow on a commune somewhere. It had all the elements --- adorable child, nature, love and freedom. But look closely and you realize it's a California winter and the child is barefoot, filthy, and has a runny nose. So many children weren't well cared for in the '60s, just so their parents could make a point. And in Vermont in the 1970s there really were people we called the voluntary poor --- twentysomethings who lived in ramshackle communes and sometimes used food stamps, but who had trust funds in case they changed their minds. So it was a very conflicted time.

BRC: We've read comparisons between SPEAK SOFTLY, SHE CAN HEAR and Patricia Highsmith's Ripley books. There were also passages that reminded us of John Barth's work and of Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? with respect to the secrets swirling in and out around acquaintances, secrets best left secret. What authors have influenced you, particularly with respect to SPEAK SOFTLY, SHE CAN HEAR?

PL: I always read with great interest stories in which secrets or misunderstandings are central. Two books that come to mind are ATONEMENT by Ian McEwan and THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN by Christina Stead, in which a girl is complicit in her mother's death. The stories of Tobias Wolf affect me because of the way they reveal untidy secret inner lives. And DROP CITY by T.C. Boyle was just the best romp I've ever had through hippie times. But I learned about secrets firsthand; I come from a secretive family and I know how the layers of silence build around a secret so that at some point it becomes immune from discovery. In the meantime, everyone in the family makes up their own reality, just as Carole's family does.

BRC: You did an excellent job building and sustaining the eerie and chilling atmosphere of SPEAK SOFTLY, SHE CAN HEAR, from the eye-opening first chapter right through the book's end. Were you able to achieve this with the first draft, or did you have to go back and work on ramping up the pacing?

PL: I definitely had to go back and work on ramping up the pacing. When I first thought the book was finished, I sent it to my then-agent who really hated it. I sent it to a second agent who said she'd accept it if I worked with a freelance editor, and that's what I did. I worked with Gene Young, who was amazing at helping me understand how everything in the novel must count toward advancing the story. I wasn't so good at that. I love to create scenes and characters, but they didn't always contribute to the plot. So the plot was pretty loose and that was where I needed --- and took --- her advice. After the book was sold, I still needed to work on the middle section, which was still not tight enough. My editor, Rob Weisbach, said, hmm you've got six pages of great atmosphere here but nothing happens. That was important information. It's helping a lot in the novel I'm writing now.

BRC: Without wanting to spoil anything for the readers, we are noting that Eddie is one of the most despicable characters we've encountered in fiction. You did a great job making him vile. Was he a tough character to write? Is it harder to write tough than soft? Do you ever have trouble "shutting out" characters like Eddie when you are finished with your work for the day?

PL: In the first draft Eddie made his appearance in the first chapter and then disappeared. With each subsequent rewrite he made another appearance. I let the demon in little by little. The first detail I knew was that he'd been kicked out of a lot of schools. So I began to wonder, well who was paying for all those schools? Who were his parents? What did they think? That's when he began to come together for me, when I could see him in the context of his own family. He's one of those people --- and I've known some of them --- who have enough contacts to remain afloat and even affluent, but only for a while because he has no real resources, either inner or financial, of his own. He ultimately has no choice but to become a predator. But it took a long time to understand all this about him.

BRC: Many thrillers just cover a short timeframe, often even just days or months, while SPEAK SOFTLY, SHE CAN HEAR spans decades. Did you map out what would happen each year through the decades as you were planning/researching the novel, or did you decide as you were writing?

PL: A little of both. The opening in 1965 and the whole second half of the novel, in 1975, were pretty straightforward. Where it grew complicated was the period of 1967 to 1970 in New York and San Francisco. I remember mapping it out and then mapping it out again and again and researching what happened when, especially in San Francisco. Even then, the copy editor found errors such as Eddie saying to Carole "what are you, one of those little bomb builders in the Village?" when in fact it would be months before that happened in reality. So the macro-mapping was easy. It was the micro-mapping that was difficult.

BRC: SPEAK SOFTLY, SHE CAN HEAR does not fit neatly into any particular genre. There are elements of suspense, romance and mystery here. Did you set out to write within any particular genre when you started the book?

PL: I don't think in terms of genre much. I started out writing a novel about a woman whose terrible secret forces her to create a new life. Years later, the only person who knows that secret seeks her out and threatens exposure. But as I wrote it became clear that I needed to be more explicit about the secret --- what it was, who was involved, etc. And then, of course, three people knew what had happened, which meant developing Eddie's story. About halfway through writing the book, I understood it was a coming-of-age story with a strong mystery component. It's others who have labeled it a literary thriller, which I like much better.

BRC: Is there any particular literary genre that you especially enjoy reading?

PL: Literary fiction and survival stories are my two current favorites. I just finished Laurence Gonzales's DEEP SURVIVAL: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why, and now I'm reading Jennifer Jordan's SAVAGE SUMMIT about the five women who climbed K2. I've been a fan of Tobias Wolf ever since I read IN THE GARDEN OF THE NORTH AMERICAN MARTYRS. I like Dennis Lehane who has an amazing ability to combine mystery and right-on character development. I think T.C. Boyle is a genius. And for short stories it's William Trevor, Alice Munro, James Alan MacPherson and Richard Yates. Oh, there are so many writers I like.

BRC: You're known for your short fiction. What made you decide to write a novel? What were the similarities and differences between writing a short story and writing a novel?

PL: Writing a novel is a little like training with weights. And writing short stories is the sprint you get to have without them. You need to know so much more about everything in a novel. In short stories you focus on the central, somewhat small action, and don't need to explain everything. Wally Lamb speaks of getting into the biosphere of a novel, by which he means the moment when finally the world of the novel is complete --- the characters, the time, the location --- and you're inside it ready to tell the story of what takes place there. That took such a long time for me. My biosphere kept getting bigger and bigger. But once I was there, it was so much fun writing. So much bigger than a short story. At first it seemed unmanageable, but in time I felt the same control over it all that I feel over short stories.

BRC: What are you currently working on? When can readers expect to see it?

PL: Another novel. This one opens with the drowning of a young woman under ambiguous circumstances at one of those elegant, old-money summer communities in Vermont. Her brother, in trying to understand what happened to this sister (the most adored of four), unearths truths about the family and about himself. To the outside world it will seem that the family completely falls apart. But really, it's the family's salvation. I hope readers can expect to see this book in about three years. Fingers crossed on that one.