Fresh Blood

Name: Elizbeth Little

Title of Book: Dear Daughter

' of those books that entice you to read on...'

‘As soon as they processed my release Noah and I hit the ground running. A change of clothes, a wig and an inconspicuous sedan. We doubled back once, twice, and then drove south when we were really headed east. In San Francisco we had a girl who looked like me board a plane to Hawaii. Oh, I thought I was so clever. But you probably already know that I'm not.'

LA IT girl, Janie Jenkins has it all: looks, brains, the connections…. the criminal record. Ten years ago, in a trial that transfixed America, Janie was convicted of murdering her mother. Now she's been released on a technicality Janie is determined to unravel the mystery of her mother's last words, words that send her to a tiny town in the very back of beyond. But with the whole of America's media on her tail, convinced she's literally got away with murder, Janie has to do everything she can to throw her pursuers off the scent. She knows she really didn't like her mother, but could she have killed her?

From the first page of ‘Dear Daughter’ I was engrossed.

Travelling across the country and trying to avoid being recognised as there is a reward for anyone who finds her, Jane finds herself in the town her mother grew up, and goes undercover as an historian to peel back the layers of mystery following her mother's disappearance from the town nearly thirty years before.

The book is peppered with Janie’s thoughts, most of which, whilst often amusing, are generally cutting. At first she appears to be a hard, unsympathetic woman but after learning more about her childhood, her acerbic personality comes as no surprise. Unwanted and seemingly unloved by her mother, she possess’ no social niceties and struggles to be pleasant. The plot follows her amateur attempts to infiltrate the town, wondering if one of the residents is either her father, or her mother's murderer.

‘Dear Daughter’ is one of those books that entice you to read on as you simply have to know what happens. I am sure like me, this book will leave you thinking about it long after the last page has been read.

Extremely well-written for a first novel, this is a brilliant debut. It has a great mix of intrigue, humour and emotion. I don’t know if Little's second book can be as good as this, but I look forward to finding out if that’s the case. Outstanding.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) Can you tell us what caused the initial spark that started the idea for ‘Dear Daughter’?
I came up with the broad idea for ‘Dear Daughter’ when I received the CNN breaking news alert reporting that Amanda Knox’s conviction had been overturned. As soon as I read the email, I thought, slightly stunned, ‘Well, what in the world is she going to do next?’ Would she want to lead a public life, I wondered? Would she try to go back to her old life? Or would she build a new life altogether? My imagination snagged on that last option, and I soon began to fixate on the steps an accused murderess would have to take if she wanted to shed her notoriety or clear her name.

Then I sat down at my computer, and before I knew it I’d written 5,000 words. Those pages would eventually become the second chapter of ‘Dear Daughter’.
2) Jane is a socialite and at first she appears very shallow and superficial. Is this your perception of those who are famous simply for being famous? What are your thoughts on todays ‘celebrity culture’?
I think the key word there is ‘appears’. Jane is definitely a reflection of my perception of ‘celebutante’ movers and shakers in the sense that I don’t believe for a second that their public personae remotely resemble their inner selves. Take this famous Paris Hilton quote: “What’s Wal-Mart? Do they, like, sell wall stuff?” No way was this uncalculated. This is a woman who would go on to have a net worth that is reportedly near $100 million. She might be a jerk, but she’s no dummy. Being famous for being famous doesn’t just happen - you have to make it happen. It requires knowledge and skill and entrepreneurship and what I have to imagine is at times painfully wilful shamelessness. The balancing act that fame requires is a nearly impossible one, and success only makes the high wire wobble more.

It all brings out my maternal side, to be perfectly honest. Maybe it’s because I live in Los Angeles, so I’ve had a few opportunities to witness the production of ‘celebrity culture’ first-hand, and it’s just so impossible and loveless and utterly unglamorous, particularly if you’re a woman. Sometimes I just want to go around and give all the aspiring actresses hot chocolate and warm hugs.
3) Whilst reading your book, the locations were very strong to me. Do the places really exist or are they based on a number of places melded together for the book? Do you feel that location is as important as plot and characterisation?
When I’m writing I really want location and plot and characterization to all be equally strong reflections of each other, especially given that I’m using first-person narration here which is to say that Jane’s descriptions of and responses to her surroundings need to be influenced by her past experiences and her current emotional state. In the same way, her past experiences and her current emotional state also need to be affected by her surroundings. Or at least that’s what I tried to do!

One of the ways I made this easier on myself was just to straight-up make up as much as possible. Take Ardelle, the South Dakota town that serves as the primary setting for the story. There are certainly features of the town that are fact-driven (the real-life town of Custer, South Dakota, for instance, served as some inspiration on this front) and the sensory feel of it is based on my memories of time spent in the Black Hills, but otherwise it’s all a product of my own demented brain.
4) Jane had a very tough exterior, presumably from her childhood. The communication from her mother was quite harsh. What made you go for the hard line as it seems Jane doesn’t get a break?
The letter Jane receives from her mother was probably the hardest part of the book for me to write. In fact, I’d say that ‘quite harsh’ is something of an understatement! And channelling that kind of anger wasn’t pleasant, let me tell you. But I think that it’s a tone very much in keeping with the histrionic intensity of many mother/daughter relationships. Mothers and daughters say the absolute worst things to each other but they don’t necessarily mean them. There is something so uniquely primal about that relationship that can, in moments of high emotion, strip away reason like nothing else. So while the things her mother says to her are deeply hurtful, I don’t think they’re untrue to the characters or to their relationship. To me, what’s most tragic about Jane’s relationship with her mother isn’t that it’s so combative, but rather that her mother dies before they can have a chance to calm down (or, more to the point, grow up).
5) The book is left on a slight cliff hanger. Will Jane be back?
I always knew where Jane would end up on those last pages, not just because it made sense to me thematically but also because it is, I think, true to the world I’ve created/depicted. So I didn’t necessarily plan for it to be a cliff-hanger... but I certainly don’t mind that it is.

I think that if the right story ever came to me, I would absolutely bring Jane back. However, it’s tricky because the mystery in ‘Dear Daughter’ is not just the mystery of Jane’s mother’s murder, but also of Jane herself. And it would be impossible to replicate that. Nothing else could ever have the same emotional resonance. But even if I decide not to continue Jane’s story, I like that the ending is open enough that the reader can, if she so chooses, continue it herself in her imagination.
6) This is your debut novel. Did you have to write around your ‘day job’? What sort of writing regime do you try to stick to?
Before I started writing ‘Dear Daughter’ I was lucky enough to be able to write non-fiction full time without juggling a day job, so I’ve had a few years to (try to) get my writing routine in order. It wasn’t easy: When I was first starting out, I found it hard to make the transition from an office to a home environment. So many hours! So little supervision! So much TV!

But now I have a four-year-old son, and parenting imposes a heck of a lot of structure (and time pressure) onto your day. Now, after I drop my son off at school and go for a run, I’ll take an hour or so to deal with email before opening up my current manuscript and all the apps I use to help me organize my scattered brain. Then I plug in my headphones, pick a playlist, and get to it. I try not to stress out too much about word counts, particularly in the early stages of a project when I’m still working out the basics of plot and characterization. Instead I just work until I have to pick up my son. I’m not always as productive as I’d like to be (thanks a lot, Internet), but I try not to beat myself up about it. Worrying about having wasted time just wastes more time. And anyway, sometimes I come up with my best ideas when I’m thinking about something else entirely!

(Or so I tell myself.)
7) As a new published writer what one piece of advice would you give to someone starting out on their own writing journey?
The best writing advice I can give is deeply unsexy: While you’re working on a project, you have to write every single day. Even if it’s just for twenty minutes—even if it’s just for five minutes. If you can’t get to your computer, jot a few sentences down on a piece of paper or key them into your phone while you’re in line at the grocery store. Whatever you can. This isn’t because I think it’s necessary to boost a word count (although it’s worth remembering that if you write a page a day you’ll have a draft of a book in about a year), but rather because I think that if you stoke a particular creative fire on a regular basis, then your brain will respond by continuously generating ideas and solving problems, even if it does so subconsciously. And then, when you are next able to sit down at your computer for a solid chunk of time you’ll find that you have so much more (good!) material to work with. Think of your idea as the Olympic flame. Never let that sucker go out.
8) Are you writing your next novel and is it in the same vein as ‘Dear Daughter’? If so, what is it about the crime fiction genre that you find so attractive?
Right now I’m in the early stages of my next book (although if my editor asks please tell her I’m in the intermediate stages), and it too is crime fiction—my heroine is a psychiatrist whose patients seem to keep killing themselves, and it’s up to her to figure out what’s really going on.

It’s hard to say if my love of crime fiction is nature or nurture. I’ve always been fixated on mystery and murder, ever since I was a child… but then again my father is an avid reader of crime fiction, and he introduced me to many of his favourites at what I recognize now was probably an inadvisably young age.

Ultimately, though, I think what attracts me most to crime fiction is that it is so participatory. In other genres - many of which I love deeply! - the reader is often meant to be swept along with the characters and with the story, taking everything in with a gasp and a sigh. But in a mystery there’s always this wonderful implicit conversation between the author and the reader. You’re not just being told a story, you’re being invited to play along. Although of course gasps and sighs are welcome in mysteries, too.
9) What do you look for when you pick up a book to read?
My #1 requirement in absolutely any genre - mystery, romance, sci-fi, history, poetry, cooking - is a sense of humour. I don’t mean to say that I expect a book to open with a joke (although that’s never unwelcome), but by the time I turn from the first page to the second, I want to already feel that first fizz of wit, as if the author has just dropped a Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke ... except the bottle of Diet Coke is my brain. I’ll read absolutely anything if the author can make that happen.
10) What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
My first pick is easy, if obvious: ‘Gaudy Night’ by Dorothy L. Sayers. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why I’ve picked one, but for anyone who hasn’t had the great pleasure of reading it, ‘Gaudy Night’ features a cracking mystery; an engrossing and atmospheric setting; the kind of love story that makes your chest go tight; and a smart, spirited, and strong-willed heroine for the ages.

Another book that has really stuck with me over the years is ‘The Scold’s Bridle’ by Minette Walters. This is one of the first books I read that was really turned the quaint English village mystery on its head (or maybe I should say its mouth?). There is nothing quaint about this book. It is dark and bold and unapologetic, not to mention deeply unsettling. I still shiver to think of it.

I don’t know what to pick for my third! ‘Fingersmith’? ‘Murder on the Orient Express’? ‘The Daughter of Time’? ‘The Silver Pigs’? ‘Get Shorty’? ‘The Silence of the Lambs’? The first Kay Scarpetta novel? Anything at all by Ed McBain??? But ... let’s say ‘Gorky Park’ for now (though I reserve the right to change my mind in the future). I’m generationally inclined to be fascinated by anything set in the Soviet Union, but anyone of any age couldn’t help but marvel at the visceral sense of place that Martin Cruz Smith manages to evoke. Plus, who can resist Arkady Renko, one of the great, dark and twisted (but noble!) detectives in crime fiction?