Inspiration in real events: Q&A with Kirsten Alexander
Melbourne author Kirsten Alexander spoke to Robyn Walton, Sisters in Crime’s Vice-President, about her debut novel Half Moon Lake (Bantam, 2019), set in America’s Deep South, pre-World War I.
Hello Kirsten. First up, how are you finding the experience of being a published author?
Humbling. I wasn’t sure if this book would ever be published. So to have people take the time to read it, say kind things and ask questions is wonderful. I don’t take a single minute of it for granted. It’s a privilege to have people’s attention and feedback – I know that sounds sugary but I mean it.
What kinds of responses have you been getting from readers, audiences, reviewers? And are these having any influence as you continue writing fiction?
I’ve had positive responses all round. If there are people who hate it or think I’ve done a terrible job they’ve been mercifully quiet! Having said that, I don’t think everyone will like this book – or any book. I don’t enjoy every book I read. I think I’ve been lucky to connect with people who like the types of stories I do. It’s had a pretty dream run.
But now I need to forget any and all feedback I’ve had so I can work on the next book! When I sit at my desk I try to think only about the story – why would a character do this or that, does this choice make sense, am I using the right words to explore this? Also, every five seconds I ask myself ‘what makes you think you can pull this off?’ Which is fun…
You tell readers in an Author’s Note at the start of Half Moon Lake that your story was inspired by a true case. What was it about the case that held your attention?
Half Moon Lake was inspired by the Bobby Dunbar case, which I first heard about on NPR’s This American Life podcast ‘The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar’. (That first aired in March 2008 but I didn’t hear it until it was rebroadcast many years later.) In the real-life case, which took place in 1912, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar wandered off from his family’s vacation spot into the Louisiana woods. When he was found, after a long and extensive search across America’s South, he was claimed by two women.
That much I took from history. But the characters and the outcomes of their actions were of my imagining. The things that most interested me in the case were the unanswered questions. Which, I guess, is always the case with mysteries and crimes – why did people do certain things, why did they NOT do things I thought were bleedingly obvious (!), why did the media and law take sides, and how did the people who did wrong get away with it? In this case I also found parallels with modern times that I thought were fascinating – the unequal treatment given to haves and have nots, the media bias, the way people in power made the system work for them, questions of personal identity. So I spiralled off and invented things that never happened to satisfy my own curiosity!
But if anyone is interested in learning about the real case, I’d recommend the book A Case for Solomon, which is written by the NPR reporter Tal McThenia with a descendant of the boy, Margaret Dunbar Cutright.
And how did that interest transmute into the activity of researching and writing a book?
Well, I’m a reader before anything else. I’ve read thousands of books and published only one. So I read books published in the early to mid-1900s (Edith Wharton, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, D.H. Lawrence, the original Tarzan stories, Pollyanna, nonfiction by John Muir and more), looked at magazines and newspapers. I also watched old Charlie Chaplin and Perils of Pauline films (thank you Youtube). I listened to music of the time (thank you Spotify) and read articles about what people wore, ate and the work they did. And while loads of it proved irrelevant in the end, I found that reading, watching and listening widely helped the era settle around me. If that makes sense…
On the philosophical level you float the notion that each person has their own truth and there is no fixed truth. Was this your view from the outset?
Oh, I think there’s truth! I don’t want to give too much away but there was definitely a version based in solid fact. The slippery parts, the ‘alternative’ facts, the personal truths, come when people interpret things to fit their own agenda or desires or existing beliefs. I think we all do that to some extent – see the world through our filters – but in this case, the Davenports did, I think, know the truth. But it didn’t meet their needs.
Your Grace character: could you tell us a little about her and her circumstances when you introduce her?
Grace is a young unwed mother of one, pregnant with her second child when we meet her. She’s alone in the world, with no extended family in her life and no partner. She’s working as housekeeper to a curmudgeonly couple who own a small farm in Mississippi. But while she hasn’t been dealt a great hand in life Grace is a loving mother and is determined and resourceful.
And Mary, her rival?
Mary grew up as an only child in a large plantation house in Louisiana, with staff and private tutors. Her mother died when she was young, and her father is emotionally closed, so she didn’t have much by way of a joyous childhood. There are hints that she’s smothering memories of trauma suffered in her youth. But in her husband John Henry, one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Opelousas, she found a devoted partner and comfortable life. When that life is disrupted and then challenged, she is shaken to her core.
Community and household members have concerns about the identity of the boy taken in by the rich family. Could you tell us about some of these secondary characters?
Esmeralda, the housekeeper for the Davenport family, is one of the heroes of the story. Like Grace, she lacks status and power, but she’s smart, compassionate and has sharp instincts. She chooses to act on her ethics, putting herself at great risk. She reminds us of the importance of always trying to do the right thing.
The Pennys are farmers who offer Grace a port in the storm. Like Esmeralda, they have nothing to gain by helping a stranger but they do it anyway, with generosity and open hearts. They’re savvy enough to recognise that Grace is being lied to and that the fight will not be fair.
Investigations and determinations are largely left to the forces of law and order. It’s fair to say you show up some dodgy dealings?
I should say at this point that I grew up in Queensland and lived there until I finished uni. That’s relevant because I was surrounded by adults who despaired at the blatant corruption of the police force, legal system and government under Joh Bjelke-Petersen. I think it seeped into my brain that people involved in law and order (and politics) didn’t always behave as they should. My background plus the actual facts of the Dunbar case suggest that, sadly, dodgy dealings are common. And they almost always benefit the rich and powerful. In the novel, Judge Roy, Gideon Wolf’s lawyer and the Davenport’s lawyer have decided who they want to win the case – and truth be damned. The Sheriff, however, is a good person, I think. He just didn’t see what was really going on until it was too late.
I found the court-room tactics and shenanigans fascinating. Did you like plotting and writing this part of the novel?
No I didn’t! I felt incredibly out of my depth. I’m not a lawyer and I didn’t ask any lawyers for advice (because I wasn’t sure if this would ever be published and had huge imposter syndrome). So I called on my many hours of watching The Good Wife, The Good Fight, and a hundred other legal shows in the hope I could call up a convincing chain of courtroom events. Then I read around to see what elements were different in an American courtroom of the 1910s – learning, for example, that courtrooms were segregated, that women couldn’t sit on a jury and that corruption and rule-bending were rife.
The press covers the affair, with a reporter named Tom getting himself into a compromised position. What did you think of the actual news coverage of the Dunbar case, and did you borrow from it at all?
Newspapers back then were very partisan (again, not so different from now). They were funded, initially, only by advertising dollars and worked to lock in certain advertisers and, then, their preferred/perceived clientele. So a paper that wanted, say, high-end clothing or furniture makers to advertise with them would focus on stories that would appeal to those companies’ customers. A paper that advertised farm equipment would take a different tack. The Crisis news magazine, as an example, was funded by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and ran different stories again.
When it came to the Dunbar case – in which the two women claiming the boy came from different social classes: one wealthy and one poor – the papers chose sides without any pretence at objectivity. It seems to me, admittedly an outsider writing many years later, that they wrote what they thought their readers wanted to hear. A lot of the articles were shouty and histrionic and used language modern reporters would baulk at. Which is not to cast aspersions on all the reporters at the time – there was a lot of important journalism done by muckrakers that exposed government and big business corruption. For Half Moon Lake I only reproduced a couple of real headlines. Doing the research showed me how I could credibly imitate though.
All of this plays out against the backdrop of the Orphan Trains movement. Children, especially those born into poverty, were at risk of homelessness, illness, forced labour, displacement, etc.?
Children have really had a rough time of it throughout history… The Orphan Trains brought boys and girls who’d been scooped up off the streets of New York down to the South (and also to Canada) where, without any version of the checks we have now, they were placed with new families. I’m sure that didn’t always work out as well as it did for Pollyanna… I suspect the idea came from a good place – to find homes for homeless children with people who wanted them. But these children were left alone with strangers on isolated farms, making them so vulnerable. And this wasn’t a short experiment: Orphan Trains ran from 1854 to 1929, rehousing about 250,000 kids during that seventy-five years. There’s a story in that if someone wants to write it!
Last question. You don’t tell your story in a rigidly old-world style, and there are a few modern usages of language. I understand you initially tried to braid the 1913 storyline with a contemporary one?
I did try a braided then-and-now story and it was a disaster. I just couldn’t get it to work. When I pulled apart the strands of that one manuscript into two separate documents, each story was about 40,000 words long. I still have the modern version of the story, but it’s grown into an entirely different 80,000-word beast of its own! I have no idea if that one will ever see the light of day. (It’s not the book I’m working on now.)
As far as the language, I wanted the book to be approachable, for the story to be understood and the characters recognisable. I’m not an historian or an academic and am absolutely incapable of creating a pitch-perfect object of the time. I looked to Jennifer Egan and Ian McEwan and other luminaries for guidance about writing the past with a current-day brain. I wanted mostly to capture ‘the vibe of the thing’ as the lawyer in The Castle says, to get as close as I could to knowing and respecting the mid-1910s.
Thanks very much, Kirsten, for these insights into your writing practice.