Amy Engel: Secrets & Small Towns

credit: Trish Brown Photography

Amy Engel is a native of Kansas, though she lived in Iran and Taiwan as a child. She previously worked as a criminal defense attorney. The Roanoke Girls, a darkly psychological suspense story (reviewed above), is her first novel for adults. She now lives in Kansas City, Mo., with her husband and children.

Roanoke Girls is a complex and multilayered novel. What would you say drives this story?

Generally, this is dark, psychological suspense. I always think of it as more character-driven psychological suspense. For me, character is king. That's the thing I always start with and that is most important to me. Because it is a mystery, it has mystery plot elements, but it's ultimately a character-driven book.

Did you set out to write a darker novel, or was that something that evolved as you sat down to write?

I had a very bare-bones idea for this book a long time ago. I knew I wanted to set a book in a small town in Kansas, and I knew I wanted to write a mystery. But I never quite settled on how it would fit together. I tried it earlier, and found I was writing a much more generic mystery novel, so I set it aside. When I came back to it, I had the idea of this house, and I decided I wanted a story that would reflect the claustrophobic feeling of this town and this house. Then the overall idea finally came to me, and from there I wrote it very quickly.

I don't outline, so I had in my head how the story was going to start and roughly where it would end, but it probably went into some darker places as I was writing than I'd initially thought. Because I'd created all of the characters myself, I guess I knew it was dark, but it didn't feel all that dark. Though I know for some people it's reading darker than I might have even thought as I was writing.

The Roanoke Girls move back and forth through time, through Lane's past and present, with interludes about past Roanoke girls woven throughout. Without an outline, how did you keep all of the timelines straight?

I have no idea, really. I just did it. I didn't write all of the "then" and all of the "now." I pretty much wrote it in the order in which it appears in the final book. My first draft, though, didn't include those interludes from the other Roanoke girls. I added those later.

When I'm really into my project and it's flowing well, the story plays almost like a movie in my head as I'm writing. So it was really easy for me to see it all and go backward and forward along the way.

A lot of The Roanoke Girls is tied up in family secrets, which are alluded to early in the novel and revealed slowly as Lane's story unfolds. 

Originally, the "reveal" of the big family secret came later. But then a couple of early readers said they figured it out about halfway through, and then it felt almost like cheating. So I decided to reveal one of the secrets right at the beginning; it worked better to have that out early, because it makes Lane's return to Roanoke all the more tense. The reader knows what she's coming back to when she returns to Roanoke, and it heightens that sense of suspense in seeing what's going to happen to her and what she's going to do.

How do you think secrets both push and pull on relationships?

I've always been really interested in family and its power over us as individuals, both for good and for bad, and the ways in which people try to create their own separate identity from the people they came from.

I think families are by their nature rather insular. That can be a good thing; families have their own stories and histories and ways of interacting, and that really binds together those traditions. That's taken to the nth degree, of course, in The Roanoke Girls. In the case of the Roanokes, that insularity goes in the other direction.

Lane is a strong woman, but one who is deeply flawed as well--and not always particularly "likable." What do you make of unlikable protagonists?

Some people really, really dislike Lane, which surprises me, because I love her. She's not perfect, but I feel like everything she does has a basis in her past.

And for me, likable characters are not that important. When I read, I don't think, "Do I like them?" I think, "Are they interesting? Do they make sense? Do I want to know more about them? Do I wonder why they're doing what they're doing? Do I want to know what's going to happen to them?" Those are the things that keep me reading--and keep me writing. Not the likability factor.

How many people in real life are always likable? Or always react the way that they should? Life is hard, and people have lived through some difficult stuff, and they do the best they can. That's really all Lane is doing: the best she can.

The Roanoke Girls is very tied to small-town life; the physical setting is a key player in the story.

The setting is very loosely based on the tiny town in Kansas where my mom grew up. My great-grandparents lived there until I was in college, and I spent a lot of time there. It was a sweet little place. I loved making homemade ice cream, and the Fourth of July parades, and so much about it. But as a kid, I was sort of unsettled by it. I always felt claustrophobic there, like everyone could see me and people were always watching, even if it wasn't necessarily true.

When I write about that place, I can see it, I can smell it, I can feel it. I really wanted to set something in that place, and then pull out some of the more negative feelings that I have about it, even if they were probably all in my head. I think those feelings contribute, though, to the overall feeling of the Roanoke house--the family and the house and the town and how it's all interconnected. Everyone knows everyone's business, but nobody interferes. I don't know that this story could have been set in a city. It had to be set in this small rural town where everything's a little claustrophobic and a little closed in.

I also think that claustrophobic nature is what the Roanokes' secret relies on. These girls feel like there is no other alternative; Roanoke is their whole world. There is nothing outside of it. I think that's part of the reason why Lane, more than any of them, is able to leave. Because she'd seen something beyond Roanoke, and had an idea that there was somewhere else, something else, for her. –Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

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