An Interview with Melanie Finn about The Underneath
With extreme excitement, I'm happy to share the news that next May 2018 we'll release a novel by Melanie Finn called The Underneath, which will be our first hardcover release. Similar to her "brilliant" literary thriller, The Gloaming, which was a New York Times 'Notable Book of 2016,' this new work traverses continents and characters with intelligence, grace, and empathy.
The book follows Kay Ward, a former Africa correspondent who travels with her two children and husband to rural Vermont for the summer in hopes of disconnecting from gadgets and obligations and re-connecting with one another. Soon after they arrive, Kay's husband is called away for work, and Kay discovers a mysterious crawlspace in their rental property with disturbing writing etched into the wall. Convinced that something awful has befallen the home's previous residents, Kay begins investigating the family and the dark recesses of the Northeast Kingdom.
Kay's sleuthing leads her to a debt-ridden local logger named Ben Comeau, whose troubled past is quickly catching up with him. After running into a former foster-sister and her young son, Jake, Ben tries to rescue the boy from his addict mother. Kay's own past reporting on child soldiers in Uganda and their sociopathic leader General Christmas play a role in the story as well, as we're left to consider questions of violence, and whether it may ever be justified.
Melanie Finn has proven herself to be a writer with incredible narrative instincts and her assured prose moves swiftly in this new literary mystery that I've been describing as a globe-trotting Winter's Bone.
Following is an interview with Melanie about the work, its inspiration, the process of writing it, and violence against women in the age of [name redacted].
Q: In The Gloaming, we talked about some of the real people or situations that inspired the book. There was the terrifying story of the airline crash of Russian school children, and the father who sought out the controller responsible for the accident, and a doctor you met during your time in Tanzania. This new book alternates from Africa—haunted by child soldiers controlled by a merciless General Christmas—to rural Vermont, beset by the opioid epidemic. Are there any real life circumstances that inspired The Underneath?
MF: I’m obsessed with local newspapers (like Kay, the main character); they reveal so much about local culture and issues. The Caledonia Record serves the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and part of northern New Hampshire, so as an outsider moving here four years ago, I was able to quickly gain a sense of place. The opioid epidemic is devastating families and communities here, and this is evidenced not only in dry statistics, but in the daily stories of child abuse and neglect, as well as the police blotter which is full of drug-related crimes and arrests. As for General Christmas, he is Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, thinly veiled. I had travelled to northern Uganda several times, in 1993 and 2000, to write about his devastating impact on communities. In 2000, I tried to do a story about what was happening to the child soldiers who, having escaped from Kony, were being returned by UNICEF to their villages. People were terrified of them, and the children were so traumatized. There was such a deep yearning for normality–the sort of every day peace we completely take for granted here. Of course, “underneath” the bucolic exterior of Vermont, a more metaphorical General Christmas ravages children and families–poverty, drugs.
Q: Opioids are a tremendous plague in contemporary American society. Your book addresses its effect on a young child, Jake, and his relationship with Ben, who is trying to adopt Jake from his addict mother. How much of this issue in the book was ripped from local headlines, or from what you see living in rural Vermont?
MF: There’s a heart-breaking story in the book about a child found wandering a backroad with sour milk in his bottle, his lips blue from cold. This is taken directly from The Caledonia Record–though I changed the names. The mother pleaded “not guilty” to child endangerment, and I felt this great rage at her. It’s one thing to be in the grip of addiction, but to not accept guilt for that level of neglect seemed so purposeful: she’d convinced herself she wasn’t responsible for her child living in filth and dog feces. There are stories like this every day – parents passing out in their car, the kids strapped into car seats in the back. And worse. There are stories I cannot bring myself to read. The “Sunday’s Child” excerpt is taken from one in the Boston Globe, of a similar child who’d been–and I quote–“deeply traumatized.” How are adults justifying themselves?
Q: The book addresses this central question of when is violence necessary, or when can violence be justified. It does seem in some ways relative to the question of revenge that played a part in The Gloaming. Was this intentional, or a question you felt warranted further investigation? Or was it just something that came about naturally as the story unwound?
MF: You’re referring to Ben’s killing of Shevaune? I need to tread lightly here, differentiating between myself and my character because I don’t believe we should justify killing addicts or letting them die, no matter what they’ve done. But from Ben’s perspective–a survivor of childhood abuse and his own mother’s addiction–he’s fundamentally unable to see Shevaune as redeemable. She threatens to take Jake away from him, she’s utterly selfish, she cares nothing for her son other than the idea of him. She is like the woman in the story I mention above, she exculpates herself from all blame. Shevaune can’t even motivate herself to make her son’s lunch. And Ben fears, rightly, what she’s ultimately capable of. His killing of her was intentional–a key piece of the story, not only this act as “justified” protection of the child (though he had alternatives, to go to Lacey, the social worker, for instance); but as matricide, his killing of the ghost of his own mother. Yes, how do people justify what they do? Should we absolve Ben? Can he absolve himself by being a good father to Jake?
Q: There is also a thread dealing with the power controlled over women, which is expressed quite literally at times through violence while at others deals more with common social expectations. I’m thinking of the way that Ben lords over Jake’s addict mother, who rather than help he sees as a lost cause, and then the general presumption that Kay’s husband can continue to self-importantly jaunt across Africa making documentaries while Kay must concede her career. This is solely because she is a woman, because she must grow the child and bring it into the world.
MF: Interesting that you see this. I was writing feverishly during the whole presidential campaign and horrified by the misogyny that was being expressed–and still is. Seeing 12 white men shaping a healthcare policy that would strip women of many necessary gynecological services, that made pregnancy a “pre-existing condition” I felt real fury; but I also wasn’t surprised. There’s a veneer of equality in this country that any woman can tell you is paper thin. We’ve all been groped by some gross old man like Trump or had men “accidentally” brush against our breasts at the water cooler; a large number of us have been molested as children, raped as adults, or simply been coerced into sex we didn’t want because it’s easier to give in: our bodies are vessels. We’ve been passed over for promotion because we don’t play golf with the guys. How can it be that in 2017, there are men in power who really believe a woman has no right not just to abortion but to contraception? And that they want to deny women access to contraception not just here but in countries where women are desperate for it, women having children at 14, victims of rape and of violent, economic insecurity. We really have men in power who say that those women should just keep on having children, regardless of circumstance. Make no mistake: those men (and bizarrely, some women like Representative Marsha Blackburn, a career woman, who may or may not have used contraception) want women back in the kitchen, towing the line. Contraception is the ultimate tool of free will, and there are many who want to take it away. The quandary “career” women like Kay (and myself) face is still part of this–the struggle for identity and independence, for meaning, while our biology dictates this huge aspect of our destiny.
Q: One of your many talents is capturing a sense of place, as well as mood. With The Gloaming, you took us to remote Tanzania and a quaint Swiss village. With The Underneath it’s summer in rural Vermont, and South Sudan and Kenya. I’m assuming having traveled to picaresque places helps, but it’s also a way of viewing things as an outsider might. What do you believe contributes to that?
MF: My work as a journalist was fundamental to having an objective perspective of a place and what’s happening there. You have to able to summarise, astutely, the feeling of a place, as well as a sensorial description. On a personal level, I think being an only child for many years, turned me into an eavesdropper. Bored and lonely, I was often observing the adult world, which was both fascinating and harrowing.
Q: You published your first novel in 2004, and then The Gloaming came out in 2015 in the UK, 2016 in the US, and now The Underneath will drop in spring 2018. I know you have young daughters. Do you feel as though you’re entering a period of renewed productivity as they grow older?
MF: It’s definitely easier in some respects, but there’s still a lot to organize–play dates, school events, after school activities, and on and on. This summer, I was getting up at 4:30 to write until 8, when they’d get up, and the house became theirs. We are also adding on to our house, so I will (as of September) have my own office. I’ve been writing in the corner of the living room until now. Also: during those non-novel years, I was making a film for Disney, The Crimson Wing, and working with my husband developing various wildlife films, including one on John James Audubon, which is slowly becoming a reality. I think it’s incredibly important as a writer to live widely and wildly; I’d go mad if all I did was sit in the corner of the living room and pound out novels! (I did go a bit mad this last winter.)