I have to start by saying happy publication day to Erica! I’m thrilled to share a Q & A with her today, she is the author of A River At Night, which I totally loved. You can find my review here, but you definitely don’t want to miss this one, especially if you like thrillers.
Q & A
1) What intrigued you about writing about female friendship?
Everything intrigues me about female friendship. Its very intensity can turn things inside out very quickly.
I especially love stories of female friendship gone wrong, such as in the 1992 film, Single White Female.
The stakes in female friendship are just as high or higher than in romantic ones. We trust our women friends with so much intimate knowledge – why is that? Our hairdressers know for sure….isn’t that the truth. Why do I still share things with my women friends that I don’t with my husband of twenty-two years?
The stakes are even higher for long term friendships. It’s such a delicate balance to keep these relationships alive, as well as intensely difficult to determine when or whether it may be time to end them, or to come to grips with the fact that – since everything changes – these cherished friendships must change as well.
2) The ending of this book leaves readers feeling unsettled. How did you come up with the ending? Did it change as you went through the writing process?
I’m glad to hear it makes readers feel unsettled!
I had maybe three different endings over time. I didn’t want to sew it up too neatly, but there had to be some ominous things lurking, as well as some light at the end of the tunnel. Even though it’s a pretty wild tale, it’s plausible as well, which is one reason I think it’s so scary.
In terms of how I came up with the ending – without giving it away – I wanted to play with aspects of bringing the “wild” world back into so-called civilization.
One hard part about writing novels – and there are lots of hard parts! – is knowing when you’re done. Where does a story really end? Why there and not someplace else? What is enough for the reader, leaving them satisfied but perhaps wondering a bit, keeping them in the spell of your story – but not in a frustrating way – and what is just too much sewing up or sweeping up for them? It can be a fine line, a really delicate balance.
3) What part was the most fun for you to write?
Let me say it this way: writing is like childbirth: in the end you fall so in l
love with your baby you forget all the pain that came before…
But honestly, I had a blast with the whole thing, from first word to last.
I especially loved writing about white water rafting. For me, it’s this combination of exhilarating and terrifying, like a roller coaster only worse because it’s nature, and (most of us) know better than to mess with that. For me, the moment-to-moment experience of white water rafting can tip from ecstatic joy to oh-my-God I’m going to die.
I loved doing the research, both online and especially in person, interviewing rafting guides and all the off-the-gridders I was fortunate enough to interview.
4) Do you have a favorite character, or one that you identify with the most?
There is the old (writing) saw that every character we create comes from some aspect of ourselves, and I think there’s a lot to that.
I think I am one part Pia – because I’m quite physical and love adventure and used to be very idealistic and clueless like her – now I’m just clueless – and one part Wini, because I’m full of terror and shame. But then I like to think I have a tough Rachel side as well as a sweet Sandra side. Basically I’m nuts.
5) Any tips for people interested in white water rafting?
No, seriously, I would say just make sure the company is legit, the guides actually have some training and experience, and – this depends on your level of risk tolerance for sure – aim for nothing higher than Class 3 rapids, especially if it’s your first time out. Talk to someone who has gone out with the company you’re thinking of using, learn about the river you intend to raft.
As part of my research I had a look at all the accidents resulting in death since records were kept. Man, that will curl your hair. Who died, when, on what river. One out 250,000 rafters, on average, die each year. In 2006, ten died on commercial rafting trips, but the number skews higher if you include people who go it alone.
6) What other research went into writing this book?
I needed to actually visit the place I intended to write about. The farthest north in Maine I had ever been was Portland, so it was time to plan a trip up into the hinterlands – the storied Allagash Wilderness, over 5,000 square miles of rivers, lakes, and forest.
My goal – one of them – was to interview people who live off the grid.
But I didn’t know a soul up there.
I called the chambers of commerce in towns from Orono to Fort Kent, as far north and west you can go until the road ends and the forest begins, which is just past a little town called Dickey.
Everyone I spoke to on the phone said: well, these folks don’t want to be contacted. That’s why they live off the grid…but I do know someone who knows someone…soon I was able to line up half a dozen interviews with people who had decided to disappear.
I left my house with a backpack filled with power bars, warm clothes and mace, with plans to interview five individuals and one family who had decided to cut themselves off from civilization.
Even though I made hotel reservations for nine nights, I only needed them for the first and last, because everyone I met offered me a place to stay.
I crashed in two cabins, a teepee, a yurt, a rehabbed bus, and a boat (in a field, not on water.)
Sometimes a good mile from anything resembling a road.
7) What inspired you to write this book?
I think there were two major inspirations: a book, and an ill-fated hiking trip I took in the summer of 2012.
I read and fell in love with James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance. Most people have seen the movie – cue the banjos! – but I’m not sure the book has gotten the love it deserves.
Dickey was a poet, but he also wrote this fabulous, propulsive, first person novel about four male friends who go white-water rafting in the Georgia wilderness. The story was utterly terrifying to me; I was struck by this series of bad decisions that led to disaster.
The summer before I started the book I was hiking in the White Mountains with a few friends and we got lost. We had all depended Lucy to map out the day; she was the one who had the most experience, the one we were convinced knew what she was doing. Turned out, Lucy had done some did pretty shabby planning.
The idea was to get to the hut – maybe it was Carter Notch or Zealand – by around five to get cleaned up and grab a bunk before they serve dinner at 5:30. But we were still hiking at 7:30; thank God it was summer so it was still light, but we had some older people with us, specifically a very tall, teetery gentleman in his seventies lugging this ginormous pack, and I thought we are going to have to carry this guy…we ran out of water and food, and one of the women had such bad cramps in her calves and hamstrings we had to stop and massage her muscles just so she could unbend her legs. The wind had picked up and the temperature dropped like a stone, and we were up past the tree line scrambling over huge boulders, completely exhausted and scared…anyway we made it to the hut barely able to see our hands in front of us to discover that they had been organizing a search party there. They were all suited up. I’ll never forget the looks on their faces when we stumbled in the door…talk about food tasting good, talk about a cot feeling like the Four Seasons…we had been so close to spending the night on the mountain, alone.
8) According to you, what are the key factors in writing a compelling thriller?
You need a great story, first of all, with complex characters who actually want something, and – cliché I know – but they must undergo some change at the end of the book.
I think dread is super important. You need to create a sense of unease that doesn’t let up. Leave enough questions unanswered to keep the suspense going, but not so many that the reader gets annoyed or confused.
For me, most important is that I need to be emotionally involved with SOMEBODY in the story, usually the protagonist, in order for me to care enough to keep reading. I enjoy being intellectually engaged, but I don’t care about solving some sort of puzzle – that’s where I think some thrillers really are mysteries in disguise.
I like short chapters – both reading and writing them. Cliffhangers at the ends of chapters are a great idea, they don’t have to be something crazy each time like will she fall off the cliff or not, they can be much more subtle, but still impel the reader to say to herself: okay, I’ll read just one more chapter before I go to sleep…
That’s what you want: a reader who wants to read your next sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, and ultimately your next book.
9) Who is your literary inspiration?
There are literally hundreds of authors who inspire me. Most recently, though, I’d have to say Peter Matthiessen, who wrote, among other things, the mind-blowing At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Lily King’s Euphoria, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, James Dickey’s Deliverance (0f course) and Stoner, by John Williams.
10) Which books have you enjoyed reading recently?
The North Water, by Ian McGuire: absolutely riveting and brilliant
In the Cut, by Susanna Moore: terrifying, sexy, an underappreciated gem
A Carnivore’s Inquiry, by Sabina Murray: talk about dread! Another under-loved treasure
Contrary Motion, by Andy Mozina: heartbreaking, funny, unputdownable
The Financial Life of Poets, by Jess Waller: hilarious: a very rare and difficult thing to accomplish on the page.
11) What are you working on next?
My next novel is a survival thriller set in the Peruvian Amazon about a young American woman who falls for a local man and goes to live in his jungle village. There she experiences the joys of family for the first time, only to be threatened by a mysterious illness as well as the warring tribe that holds the cure.
This means I am planning a trip to the Peruvian Amazon this May to do research. I’m terrified and excited at the same time.
About the Author:
Erica Ferencik is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Boston University. Her work has appeared in Salon and The Boston Globe, as well as on National Public Radio. Find out more on her website EricaFerencik.com and follow her on Twitter @EricaFerencik.
Thanks to Erica for joining me today!