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Q&A with Laurel Saville

December 13, 2015

Q&A with Laurel Saville, Author of North of Here. On-sale March 1, 2016

Q. Tell us about your new novel, North of Here. What’s it about?

A. This is always such a challenging question – how to encapsulate a complete novel. I suppose it’s about the allure and mystique, as well as the romance and reality, of a particular landscape; the emotional perils of trying to help someone bent on self-destruction; misunderstandings between class and culture; the different ways people try to find or make meaning in their life; the unforeseen impacts of a random meeting with a seductively charming person. And in the end, like so many things, it’s about the power and limitations of love.

Q. What prompted you to write a novel set in the Adirondack Park and environs?

A. I lived in upstate NY for ten years and I not only fell in love with the ‘Daks, as we call them, but was also deeply intrigued with the many unique qualities of the Park – it is like no other. There’s the size, more than 6 million acres, larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon and the Great Smokies National Parks combined, the fact that about 50% of the area is privately owned, so it’s dotted with communities, small towns and homes, and that its use is heavily regulated by the Adirondack Park Authority, which tries to balance radically competing needs for jobs, property rights, conservation, recreation, and more. Then there’s the culture clash and competitive yet co-dependent dynamics between the locals, transplants and the summer residents. Throw in the rugged, raw and stunning beauty made of 10,000 lakes, 30,000 miles of rivers, huge tracts of dark forests, countless wetlands, mysterious wildlife, struggling farms, dramatic weather and 46 mountains over 4000 feet – it’s quite fertile territory for the imagination.

Q. Rather than a single protagonist, there are four equally vital characters at the heart of North of Here. Who are they, and how are their lives intertwined?

A. Miranda is a callow, indulged young woman from a wealthy Connecticut family with a showy summer home in the mountains. Still meandering a year out of college, her comfortable if brittle world is turned upside down by the close and sudden, tragic deaths of her golden-boy brother and gruff, Wall-Streeter father. She soon discovers that her father and their financial circumstances were not what they seemed.

Dix is a competent, capable, self-reliant local handy-man, whose laconic, modest exterior hides a sensitive soul in a well-educated, financially savvy man. In his attempts to help Miranda, he gets drawn into a variety of problems that none of his well-honed skills can fix, but he also finds capacities for love he didn’t realize he had.

Darius is a charming, handsome, narcissistic, preppy college dropout who is trying to find a calling worthy of his inflated sense of self. When ski bumming and modeling don’t work out, he stumbles on a cache of self-help and back-to-nature books that send him in the direction of becoming a self-styled guru. Miranda gets ensnared in his web and thereby creates the central drama of the book.

Sally is a no-nonsense social worker from a blue collar background, trying to help area youth. While all the others are not quite what they seem, she is truly a what-you-see-is-what-you get person. Through the discovery of a kidnapped baby, she ultimately becomes the catalyst for whatever redemption and reconciliation is possible in the mess the others have made.

Q. These characters are very different from one another—are they based on real individuals? Do any of them share any of your own traits?

A. Well, Dix’s rescue dog is modeled after my own! On the other hand, all of the human characters contain aspects or qualities of people I have met or known, but they are truly creations of my imagination. I suppose, as their creator, it’s inevitable that they all also contain at least some small reflections of me; however, Dix and Sally each have stronger hints of my personality in them. While I don’t split wood like Dix, nor do I smoke or eat packaged foods from a corner market like Sally, I would love to live in Dix’s house, I have been known to bake bread and make hearty soups, I am an inveterate walker-in-the-woods, I am a huge fan of Stewart’s shops, and I do swear as much as Sally. Maybe more.

Q. You are writing here from the point of view of both female and male characters. Was that hard to do?

A. My first novel, Henry and Rachel, was more challenging in this regard. It’s written as eight, intertwined first person narrations, the setting is the Caribbean, the era is early 1900s, and the characters run the gamut from an old man near death, to an island cook, an elderly plantation owner, and a mulatto maid speaking from beyond the grave. So I had to find distinctive thoughts and voices for characters whose lives were totally unlike mine. While it’s always an interesting emotional and intellectual challenge to inhabit and then render any character, no matter what gender, all the characters in North of Here are a lot closer to my own experience. Writing in the third person also made things a bit easier, but the work is both imaginatively demanding in trying to develop full, well-rounded, authentic people, and also a craft exercise in trying to be consistent with point of view and actions that ring true. Having a great editor, which I did in David Downing, helps a lot!

Q. Darius starts a cult, which grows into a dangerous way of life. How did you research the mindset that can lead to this kind of lifestyle?

A. I grew up in Hollywood in the 60s and 70s among a community of artists and hippies, so I have my own familiarity – and biases – with that groovy commune culture. I also know someone who spent part of her childhood in an eventually discredited commune/cult and I was struck by a comment she once made: she said she loved it because there were lots of interesting adults around and it was out in the country where she was surrounded by nature and animals. So I wanted to make sure my “cult” wasn’t all bad. After all, there are good and noble ideals at the core of communal living, even when individuals screw up the practical application.

I also read articles and a large compilation of scholarly studies about various cult groups, the similarities and trends among their leaders and followers, the typical trajectory of a cult, and how sometimes, an overreaction by more conventional society can lead to tragedy. When it comes to these sorts of groups, I’ve also been very intrigued by a phenomenon first described to me in my freshman year of college during a course on political revolutions. My instructor pointed out that revolutions come from the middle class because the poor don’t have the resources to revolt. Or as my father used to say about the 60s, “You have to be very secure to have the luxury of being a radical.”

Q. North of Here is your second novel; unlike some writers who stick with familiar territory, each novel is dramatically different in setting. Is there a thread that unites your work?

A. I would say that all of my books and stories start with some moment that seems resonant to me, some image, experience or scene that keeps coming back to me. The writing is a process of figuring out how that moment came to be. That’s the imaginative aspect of the work of writing. With Henry and Rachel it was wondering why Rachel would leave her husband and oldest son in Jamaica when she fled with her other children for New York. In “How Much Living Can You Buy,” it began with the image of a stolen jewelry box in an anecdote from a friend. With North of Here, I had a mental picture of a young girl on the back of a snowmobile, in the woods at night, wondering about the blue light coming from the windows of the houses she passed. That scene was eventually cut from the book, but it is where it began. I wanted to know who she was and how she got there.

In all my books, I’d say I’m interested in exploring the sometimes unconventional, sometimes desperate things bright, compelling, interesting people do in their efforts to make sense and meaning in their lives, and then the usually unintended, but no less devastating or challenging effects those choices and actions have on the people who love them.

The location where these dramas play out becomes a kind of character as well and helps create a sense of inevitability to the choices the living, breathing characters make. My mother, in Unraveling Anne, might have been a very different person had she been raised in, say, a small town in the Midwest. Had Darius not stumbled into the dark allure of the Adirondacks, his life probably would have taken a different course. I want the reader to feel the impact of the environment, in its many forms, on the choices people make and to have the feeling, when reading, that there was nowhere else this particular story could have taken place.

Q. Are you at work on a new novel? Will you give us an early peek?

A. I am! This one is turning out to have yet another dramatically different setting: sometime in the sci fi future on a distant planet. But, that opening scene I cut from North of Here? It shows up in this new novel. In this case, the snowmobile ride and the blue light in the windows starts my young protagonist on a journey that goes farther than I ever imagined I could take one of my characters.