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Interview: April 26, 2002

April 26, 2002

THE HOUSE ON SPRUCEWOOD LANE deals with the power of family relationships and their impact upon the generations that follow. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, author Caroline Slate remarks on the classic elements of her storyline and how her previous career experiences prepared her for becoming a writer.

BRC: THE HOUSE ON SPRUCEWOOD LANE deals with a mystery involving particularly heinous crimes, but it also succeeds on other levels. There is certainly a strong love story, as well as echoes of themes often present in historical fiction. Ultimately, there's a demonstration of how the sins of parent and child reverberate down through the generations. Was it your intent to blend these elements when you began writing or did the book take on a life of its own as you delved into the subject matter?

CS: Families intrigue me. There is not a human emotion, positive or negative, nor a conflict that is not intensified, magnified within a family setting. Historical fiction going back to the Greeks and the Old Testament demonstrate the power of familial love, hate and loyalty again and again --- Medea, Antigone, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac. A key plot line in this book involves a pair of sisters separated early in life, who meet again as adults and cause each other a great deal of grief. Finally, they have common cause: the safety of the elder sister's young son, yet even here they are in deep conflict.

The reverberation of the sins of the parents and grandparents is of course a staple of Greek tragedy, and of modern life. No story that deals with a family is satisfying to me without some notion of where these people came from, what made them into who they are when I meet them. In THE HOUSE ON SPRUCEWOOD LANE, the family legacy is handed down to both daughters and to a granddaughter, each of whom it shapes in vastly different ways. Yes, it was my intent to blend these elements when I began writing, but the best thing about writing --- the thing that keeps me and many other writers at their desks --- is that the book at some point always takes on a life of its own.

BRC: I was very much intrigued by certain characteristics of Lex Cavanaugh. One of them is that she is not really interested in who committed murder so much as she is in proving that her nephew did not. Do you think people will find Lex to be a likable character? Did you have any particular model from mystery fiction for Lex?

CS: Lex withdrew into herself very young in self-defense against a powerful, manipulative, punishing mother. At thirty, as a maker of quirky films, she specialized in being an outsider looking in. On a personal level, she is an isolate. The one human being she truly loves is her nephew, Jared, and only for him will she risk venturing outside herself. Her action line is to protect him at almost any cost. I think readers will find Lex prickly, complex and often funny --- she does have a quick tongue. I've heard from a number of people who find her quite likable, partly because she is imperfect and struggling to reach beyond herself. I like her a lot. Especially, I like her honesty and lack of self-pity. She does not have any model in mystery fiction, but as you ask the question, Smilla, in SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW, jumps to mind.

BRC: There was another aspect of THE HOUSE ON SPRUCEWOOD LANE that particularly impressed me. Your book deals with child molestation; your descriptions of what occurred, as related by your characters are graphic, yet not explicit: the act is offensive but the retelling does not offend. This would seem to be an extremely difficult line to walk for an author. How did you deal with this?

CS: The retelling is done by a child who has seen things that shock and hurt him --- do him long term damage --- but the molestation did not happen to him; he witnessed it. He tells it straight: there is nothing sensational or voyeuristic in his narrative. It's been my experience that in the main children dealing honestly with painful, difficult things are not drama queens. High drama is more commonly a tactic of children trying to deceive, not to mention adults trying to deceive. These were difficult scenes to write, but they were rooted in character, which kept them honest.

BRC: Calista is manipulative and self-obsessed, and the apple of her mom's eye. Jared is an extremely misunderstood child whom Melanie would prefer to dismiss. What do you think made it easier for Melanie to relate to Calista than to Jared?

CS: The thing is that Melanie doesn't relate to Calista. She relates to her idealization of Calista. In Melanie's fantasy Calista's future will stand in for her own. Calista will become the Olympic gymnast champ that her mother might have become and didn't. Calista, with her talent and charisma will be the all-round winner that Melanie isn't. In fact, Melanie understands very little about Calista, which leads to tragedy. Jared, a brilliant isolate, is no picture book kid and too much like Melanie's younger sister Lex for him to be an easy fit with his mother --- which is not to say she doesn't love him. She may be a "bad" parent, but bad parents can love their children too.

BRC: You have a varied professional background: acting to headhunting to public relations to education. What special insights and preparation did your career experience bring to your writing?

CS: Acting for me was a precursor to writing. Looking back, I was, I think, too cerebral an actress. Perhaps I always wanted to be a writer of fiction, rather than a performer, and recognized that relatively late. Until thirteen, fourteen years ago, the only fiction I had written was a short story for our high school literary magazine. The editors loved it but the faculty advisor pulled it because of an "immoral" ending: someone got away with murder. My years teaching inner city children with speech defects and other problems gave me a keen awareness that each child is a multifaceted individual, not an assortment of symptoms and conditions. That work helped equip me for the advocacy work I did later for various child and family centered organizations. In sum, my checkered career has been in fields with heavy, often intense person-to-person contact. What better prep can a novelist have?

BRC: You were previously published under your real name, Carol Brennan. Why did you choose to adopt a pen name for your new work?

CS: I became Caroline Slate because THE HOUSE ON SPRUCEWOOD LANE was quite different from the books I'd written before. They were basically mysteries with, I've been told, interesting, winning characters and clever solutions. With this one, though there is certainly a mystery, the main thing I aimed to do was create a fully developed set of characters --- imperfect, human, complex --- whose interaction would result in a building state of psychological suspense.

BRC: What authors have influenced your writing, if any? What authors do you admire?

CS: Assuming you mean fiction, I admire lots of authors. I love Dickens, Eliot, some Trollope, Flaubert, Charlotte Bronte, Thackeray for VANITY FAIR and Edith Wharton. Among modern writers, I'm eclectic: I admire Philip Roth, John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker, Lorrie Moore, Ruth Rendell, Martin Amis, Sue Miller, Minette Walters. I also really enjoy Dave Eggers, Matthew Klam and Junot Diaz for the inside warts-and-all view of young guys. For sheer page-turning escape, get me a Jeffrey Deaver. And I recently read a taut terrific first novel called HOLLOWPOINT by Rob Reuland.

As to who's influenced my writing, probably all of the above --- not in any sense of trying to write like this one or that one, but through the impact of their characters, voices and superb storytelling. Let's put it this way: saints are made for our inspiration not our emulation.

BRC: What would you choose as the most memorable moment from classic literature?

CS: God, there are so many! But I am in an upbeat mood at the moment and it's spring, so how about, "Reader, I married him."

BRC: Are you working on another novel at the moment? If so, can you tell our readers a little about it?

CS: I'm on the last fifty pages or so of a new novel, title still to be determined. It's about a resilient woman, a highly successful jewelry designer named Grace Leshansky. At thirty, her life is straight up. She has won everything she ever wanted. Yet two years later, her business is bankrupt, the father she adores is gone and she has shot her husband dead. The book begins seven years later when Grace is released from prison needing to find a way to live in the present, while coping with a past she does not fully comprehend. Her journey, which she narrates, is the story. The Grace book, as I call it for the time being, is scheduled to come out in July 2003, a month after THE HOUSE ON SPRUCEWOOD LANE is published in paperback.