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Author Talk: September 6, 2013

Bestselling author Cassandra King’s fifth novel, MOONRISE, draws on the rich tradition of Gothic tales --- along with the author’s own roots in the American South --- to tell a story of isolation and intrigue. When Helen Honeycutt marries a recent widower, she finds herself being treated as an unwanted replacement by her husband's friends and family. With a Victorian manor and the Blue Ridge Mountains towering over a cast of unexpected characters, MOONRISE both honors and challenges the definition of the southern gothic. In this interview, King discusses how she drew inspiration for her work from the classic novel REBECCA--- and how her own heritage provided a unique spin to place upon a traditional genre. She also discusses the importance of research for fiction writers, and shares both the challenges and joys of marriage to a fellow author.

Question: This year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel REBECCA. While your book’s not a retelling, it’s certainly homage to that novel. Do you remember when you first read REBECCA? Why do you think this novel has endured?

Cassandra King: REBECCA is a beloved classic for many reasons. First of all, there’s the mystery, the unanswered questions. Who was REBECCA, and why was she revered by everyone who knew her? Was she an angel, or a demon? And what about the narrator, who remains nameless throughout the book? Was she an easily frightened, overly-imaginative wimp, or a terribly shy person unaware of her own strengths? And what about REBECCA’s death? Was it an accident, or something more sinister? Then there’s the delicious suggestion of the supernatural. I remember devouring REBECCA as a teenager, then searching out everything else Daphne Du Maurier wrote. As a writer, I can now appreciate REBECCA for the author’s masterful control of the story, the way the suspense draws the reader in, and the unforgettable characters.

For me, the creation of each book is its own story. Only afterwards do I look back and realize that so many things had to happen for the inspiration and creation to come together at just the right time. In this case, during a summer spent in a wonderful old house in Highlands, North Carolina, I stumbled on the grave of the owner’s former wife in an overgrown garden. Although I was working on another book at the time, the book I was rereading during my down time was --- coincidentally --- REBECCA. From a serendipity of setting, place, and imagination came MOONRISE.

Q: It’s often said that the past is always with us. The South truly loves its historic homes. And in many cities such as Beaufort and Charleston, South Carolina, these gardens are treasures often hidden behind walls. Do you believe that carefully preserving and honoring the past reflects a particularly Southern way of looking at the world? Are Southerners perhaps more attracted to gothic themes in fiction than the rest of the country?

CK: Let me take on the latter question first because my take on it influences the first. Southern gothic is a sub-genre of fiction, and for good reason. The lush, haunted landscape of the South is every bit as romantic as the wild moors of England and lends itself beautifully to the mysterious, darkly foreboding creation of a gothic atmosphere. Hidden, ruined, or mysterious gardens add even more to such a landscape. As for our houses, the South is known for a particular kind of ancestry worship, which inevitably is tied into the “old home place.” So yes, I think the South is about as gothic as it gets.

Q: Family homes that pass from generation to generation carry the history of the all the lives that have been lived within their walls. Do you believe there are such things as haunted places and ghosts?

CK: I should hope so since my grandfather’s house, where I spent much of my childhood, was haunted. (And still is, as far as I know, although it’s no longer in the family. The present owners have reported strange happenings, however.) I’m a strong believer in the past as a vital part of the present, however one interprets that. For me, our passage from one realm of existence to the other is fluid, transient, outside of time, rather than something that occurs at one particular moment in our life. I believe we exist in a spiritual world.

Q: The stigma of divorce is, for many, a thing of the past. With the increase in the divorce rate, many more couples find themselves remarrying at midlife and having to adjust to blended families. In MOONRISE, Helen is not only rejected by her husband’s circle of friends but also by his daughter. Which do you think is harder to bear and why?

CK: It depends on how you define family. Most of us expand that notion well beyond bloodlines or genetic ties, and close friends become like family to us. Certainly in a second marriage, efforts are made all around to expand the boundaries of the family unit. Helen and Emmet each have a child who has left the nest and started his/her own life, which makes for a slightly different situation (though not an uncommon one). Since Emmet’s daughter has lost her mother, Helen wants to play a more significant role as stepmother than she might have otherwise done. However, the daughter’s resentment is an obstacle that has to be overcome. From my observations, I don’t think that’s an uncommon situation, either.

Q: The beautiful and lush Blue Ridge Mountains and the Highlands area of summer homes in particular play a large role in shaping the story. How important is place in your writing? When did you first discover the Highlands and what drew you to describe that place when you sat down to tell this story?

CK: Place is always important in my writing, almost a central character in some stories. In this particular book, I needed the mountain setting in order to create a particular mood. The story called for not only the majesty and beauty of the mountains, but also for their remote loneliness, the way that mountains can feel so unattainable, forever out of one’s reach. In the case of this novel, the setting came first, and the characters evolved from there. Highlands is a place of such incredible beauty that I’ve always been attracted to the area, drawn to the peacefulness of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Only in the past decade have we started spending a lot of time in the Highlands area, and I’ve been itching to incorporate the setting into a book.

Q: Because you use multiple narrators, you’re able to explore the arrival of the wealthier summer crowd from Atlanta and elsewhere from the point of view of Willa, a local mountain woman and housekeeper. Which of the multiple voices you used in telling the story was easiest to write? Which voice was most demanding?

CK: The use of multiple narrators seemed almost a necessity in this book. The plot centers on Helen’s struggles with acceptance, rejection, and self-actualization, so her point of view is essential, but I felt the best way to broaden the conflict between Helen and the group she’s struggling to be accepted into was also to allow the reader into their mindsets. And then we have Willa, who offers her unique perspective on both groups. Willa was actually the easiest because she has a brogue, a folksy, simple way of speaking, heavy on idioms, that sets her apart from the other narrators.

Q: In MOONRISE, you’ve written about a circle of friends that includes not just women but also men. The relationships within each couple are quite unique. While friendship has been a regular theme in your previous novels, the women in MOONRISE seem more capable of betrayal than in previous novels. Would you like to comment on this? And with the exception of your first novel, MAKING WAVES, you’ve most often focused on friendships between women. Do you find it harder to write about men?

CK: Relationships are always complex, even the closest and most loving --- or perhaps, especially the closest and most loving. In this book, I wanted to explore that complexity in ways I haven’t in previous novels. Yes, friendship is a beautiful thing, but how do we deal with rejection? We all experience rejection at some point in our lives, and it always hurts. And what about betrayal? I wanted to look at the darker part of friendships, what’s often hidden beneath the amiable surface. How do friendships survive jealousy, lies, loss of trust, and if they do, what’s left? All of that intrigued me, especially as it applied to the relationship between men and women, both friends and lovers. I find it easier to write about men than women for some reason. I toyed with having a male point of view in this book in addition to Helen and Willa’s, using Noel or Linc as one of the narrators. But Tansy would not stand for it.

Q.  Did you find that you had to do more research on this novel than in past works?

A.I believe research always goes into a good novel, often more than in nonfiction, and here’s why: in nonfiction, usually you’re laying out the facts, reporting, presenting your research as it is. In fiction, your characters actually “use” whatever it is you’ve researched; for example, the butterflies --- or more succinctly here, the moon garden. If I were writing an article about a nocturnal garden, I’d describe it, present certain facts about it, etc. In this book, my characters work in it, walk in it, smell it, feel it --- it has to be more real than whatever facts my research uncovered. Even so, I love the research that goes into a novel, and how you then figure out ways to work it into the story. It’s one of the fun things about writing fiction.

Q: What’s the best and what’s the most challenging aspect of living with another novelist, your husband Pat Conroy?

CK: At this stage in our life together, we’ve ironed out most of the challenges of a two-writer household. At first, I was so fiercely determined to keep our identities separate that I bristled if anyone wrote about us in the same sentence. But the joys of living with another writer overcame my trepidations, and I now believe that writers should only marry each other. No one else should be expected to put up with us, the way we go off into our own little worlds while we’re working on a book, and the way we can’t wait to get back there. Pat and I are recluses at heart, and I suspect most writers are.  Marry each other.

Q: What are you working on next?

CK: I’m passionate about the preservation of the family farm, so I’m constantly scribbling ideas in my head for a book about a woman who was raised on a farm, yet couldn’t wait to leave it all behind. After life knocks her around a bit and breaks her heart, she returns to live off the land. Not quite autobiographical, but close.