My guest for Behind the Pen today is Kirsten Alexander, author of Half Moon Lake, the chillingly atmospheric historical crime novel reviewed here on the blog last week. Welcome Kirsten!
Half Moon Lake is inspired by a real case from history, but what first drew your attention to this case? How did this initial spark of interest lead to you writing Half Moon Lake?
The novel was inspired by a real-life story I encountered as a podcast. ‘The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar’ first aired as an episode of NPR’s This American Life in March 2008. I didn’t hear it then, but the episode was popular enough that they rebroadcast it in 2012. That was my introduction to the story of the four-year-old, lost-then-found Louisiana boy who was claimed by two women. The podcast is terrific, but it raised so many questions: how could a woman not recognise her own son, why didn’t the boy tell them who he was, why would anyone take a child she knew wasn’t hers? I mulled over the story, read the factual telling of it written by the NPR podcast creators Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright (a descendant), and then at some point decided it could be an interesting novel. I had no intention of sticking to the facts – I was interested in letting my mind roam around the mysteries in the story… The landscape of Louisiana, the enormous cultural and social shifts that were taking place, the looming World War and my own personal connection to the United States all called to me…
What did you do when you finished the final edits for this novel?
From memory, I mailed the manuscript, went to the fruit and vegetable store, then cooked dinner. I think I felt a bit rattled by the finality of it. But then, life went on.
How would you describe Half Moon Lake if you could only use 5 words?
The past is always present.
Otherwise: Family is a slippery term.
How much research did you do? How did you balance the facts from the historical case with the vision and direction of your own story?
I did more research than I needed to because there was so much about the era that fascinated me. I read fiction and nonfiction from the mid-1910s (books, magazines, newspapers), nonfiction about that time, watched old black and white films, listened to music of the day, followed all sorts of internet rabbit holes to learn about the clothes people wore, the food they ate, the laws. It didn’t all make it into the novel but none of it felt like a waste. If anything it sparked ideas for more books than I can ever write.
Once I started writing Half Moon Lake I never looked at the facts of the real case again. I kept the spine of truth – the place and time, a missing child, two women claiming him – then allowed myself to imagine new characters, new scenarios, a radically different trajectory and ending.
What attributes do you think you need to remain sane as a writer? Are there any particular things you routinely do for yourself to maintain your own headspace?
I have no idea what attributes are required! Probably the same ones that allow people to stay sane in any endeavour – the ability to break down a large task into small achievable parts, to be patient with yourself and your project, to keep faith in what you’re doing, to know better than to ask for feedback or approval when you’re only partway through. I’m not sure persistence helps you stay sane but it’s probably the most important attribute for getting to the finish line.
I work from home, which means sometimes I’m not alone, and the needs of the house and its occupants surround me at all times. To block that out I face my desk towards a wall and write with headphones in. I listen to rain or oceans sounds or some version of white noise. I turn my back on my world and write in a bubble of my own making – until a person or pet needs me!
Where do you draw your inspiration from? How do you fill up that creativity well?
I’m working on a new manuscript now and because it’s so different from Half Moon Lake (it’s set in the present) the inspiration is coming from looking at art, listening to music, and eavesdropping on strangers. But most often, inspiration and renewed creativity come from reading. Sometimes reading a perfectly written sentence or being surprised by a choice of words or narrative turn can remind you why you write in the first place. Reading a great book, essay or article can offer the best kind of jolt. If reading fails, I walk.
Is there any one particular season of the year that you find more creatively inspirational than the others?
No. It would be great if cold wet weather triggered creativity but I can just as easily stumble on an idea or find a solution to a stuck situation at noon on a sunny day. Which means I’ve spent a lot of summer days sitting at a desk rather than at a beach…
Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people would know?
I am shamefully proud of my ability to reverse park. I’m driving a car now that tries to help me with this and I won’t let it.
If you could sit down for an afternoon with an iconic person from history, who would you choose to spend that time with?
Iris Murdoch, before her mind turned on her, because her writing sustained me through years of my life. I admire her writing, her thinking and the person she was.
What authors and types of books do you love the most? Are you more of a print, e-book, or audio book fan?
I read – and love – every type of book. I have favourite science fiction, thriller, literary, essay and mystery books. I’ve loved reading plays, poetry, comics, memoir, illustrated books, short stories. I love Iris Murdoch, Carol Shields, Ian McEwan, Lorrie Moore, Jennifer Egan, Zadie Smith, Andrew McGahan, Mary Beard and Geraldine Brooks equally. And that list would expand like an accordion at the slightest nudge. I’ve just finished listening to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. I also enjoyed Chloe Hooper’s nonfiction book The Arsonist. The form is not an issue for me. I read print and online, listen to loads of audio books and am about to launch a short story website called Storymart. Every version of reading is a treat.
Half Moon Lake
‘They said he was their boy. And so he was . . .’
In 1913, on a summer’s day at Half Moon Lake, Louisiana, four-year-old Sonny Davenport walks into the woods and never returns.
The boy’s mysterious disappearance from the family’s lake house makes front-page news in their home town of Opelousas. John Henry and Mary Davenport are wealthy and influential, and will do anything to find their son. For two years, the Davenports search across the South, offer increasingly large rewards and struggle not to give in to despair.
Then, at the moment when all hope seems lost, the boy is found in the company of a tramp.
But is he truly Sonny Davenport? The circumstances of his discovery raise more questions than answers. And when Grace Mill, an unwed farm worker, travels from Alabama to lay claim to the child, newspapers, townsfolk, even the Davenports’ own friends, take sides.
As the tramp’s kidnapping trial begins, and two desperate mothers fight for ownership of the boy, the people of Opelousas discover that truth is more complicated than they’d ever dreamed . . .
Half Moon Lake is Kirsten Alexander’s compelling debut novel, about the parent-child bond, identity, and what it means to be part of a family.
Published by Penguin Random House Australia
Released on 2nd January 2019