“The unlovable had become worthwhile, the strange had become familiar, and Texas became home.”
LONE STAR LIT: Ms. Burt, your latest novel, Shadow Garden (Berkley), will be published this month. Please tell us what we need to know about your new book.
ALEXANDRA BURT: Shadow Garden began as a thought experiment; I wondered about all the complicated ways wealth messes with morals and how money impacts our sense of morality. On the surface, the prevalent question is, how far does a parent go to protect their child, but there are deeper questions: Did the Pryors risk more because they had more to lose? Not only did I explore the impact of wealth on the characters, but also the impact of their wealth on the reader: Do you feel empathy for them, or do you find yourself at a safe distance watching them implode?
That’s where the novel begins: Donna Pryor lives at Shadow Garden, a luxury estate at the end of a winding road, and she has everything but the truth of what happened to her perfect family. Her fall from grace is not something she can wrap her head around, but she’s determined to find out. The reader will go on that journey with her and get to the bottom of it all.
Your novel The Good Daughter (Berkley), published in 2017, and Shadow Garden both examine memory, the vagaries of truth, and how the brain works. How did you become interested in these topics?
Though memory is at the center of The Good Daughter and Shadow Garden, memory is not a catalyst in and of itself—memory is really all there is. The present is short lived, and we examine everything based on what we believe we remember, what we think the truth is, and what our brain allows us to ponder, really. Scientific studies have shed new light on how memories are made and the consensus will, I am sure, change again over time, but scientists concluded the recall of a memory changes the memory itself—it’s a copy of a copy if you will; our memories are not the accurate record of our history we believe them to be. I have forever examined my own childhood memories, and I’ve run across inconsistencies. I recall my great grandfather, very vividly in fact, but he passed before I could possibly remember him. What makes me recall a memory that clearly can’t be true? Memory is fundamentally malleable which is disturbing and opens the door to many fictional scenarios.
I’m intrigued by the William Butler Yeats quote that you chose for the beginning of Shadow Garden: “Why, what could she have done, being what she is?” What does that quote mean to you and why did you choose it?
The question who “she” is was the most fascinating for me. On the surface it applied to Penelope, the daughter of the Pryor family, but upon closer examination Donna’s fate too was inevitable, and the family as a whole had a destiny, too. But can we alter our fate? The individual family members arrived at so many pivotal moments, during which, upon later examination, they could have intervened, but who’s to say that was an option even? It’s a universal question: Are we able to alter destiny?
Another theme in Shadow Garden explores autonomy and the limits of our understanding of other people, even our children. Do you think we can ever really know another person? Why or why not?
We are terrible at understanding each other to begin with, in fact, much of perceiving others isn’t even rational. It’s biased, incomplete, and inflexible. We don’t really know another person, I don’t think. Being a crime connoisseur—especially the motivation and psychology behind criminal behavior—I am forever fascinated by people vouching for others—parents for their children, for one another. By default we can’t know one another, not even ourselves. I think we can strive to understand one another more than knowing someone. In all honesty, and I’ve thought about it often, I can’t even vouch for myself. If pushed to extremes, I might be capable of just about anything.
The house, Hawthorne Court, is practically a character in Shadow Garden. Did building your new house inspire you? If so, how?
I’ve been obsessed with houses for as long as I can remember. Not just living in them or designing them—I’ve built two from the ground up—but houses are paramount in domestic suspense. It’s where it all happens, behind those walls, where terror hits close to home—literally.
Looking to build the foundation of a novel, I go to familiar places and compare a novel in progress to a house. Remember Mia was a brownstone in New York City—sturdy, thickly bricked, but no one inside was safe. The Good Daughter was an old farmhouse that had been lying in wait, ready to let go of its secrets. Shadow Garden appears “through the thicket of trees,” with “faint amber lights,” and you almost miss it if you don’t pay close attention. Hawthorne Court is a beautiful Tudor that Donna Pryor forever manipulated and changed to make it just right; it is her legacy which is taken from her, and she won’t stand for it. So yes, all houses are characters, they breathe and judge and hold us hostage. We are at their whim in many ways.
Inspiration was plentiful leading up to the completion of the novel. For a duration of about six months, I lived in four different places. We sold the house we’d owned for fifteen years, but the completion of our new home was delayed by months, and we found ourselves with no place to live. We spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years in an unfurnished apartment with blow-up mattresses and lawn chairs. I borrowed a folding card table and a chair so I could write. During those months I felt a kinship with Donna Pryor and her attempt to create a safe haven for her family. Mostly I questioned what home means and how we all long to shelter our children and keep them safe. And how things can go really, really wrong even with our best intentions.
You were born and grew up in the town of Fulda, in the East Hesse Highlands of Germany. Please tell us about your childhood in Germany and how it contributes to your writing. How did you come to live in Texas?
Fulda is a baroque town in central Germany located between the Rhön and Vogelsberg mountains. The East Hesse Highlands are visually stunning and seemingly plucked from Grimm’s fairytales, but there is a very dark history attached to it. The rolling hills, the farms dotting the landscape, the enchanting mountains, and the woods lay claim to a fateful scenario: two lowland corridors—referred to as Fulda Gap—were the obvious routes for a hypothetical Soviet tank attack on West Germany during the Cold War. My entire childhood, US and Soviet soldiers pointed hundreds of medium-range nuclear missiles at each other. Children don’t quite fathom that their life is different from someone else’s. It was all I knew—a constant threat and at the same time nothing extraordinary.
Thanks to a librarian who didn’t question my book choices, I took to crime early and wholeheartedly and I don’t recall my parents ever monitoring what I read. I was very fortunate that way. I was drawn to dark tales and read my way through mostly age-inappropriate books.
I believe our writing is influenced by our very first memories of stories we were told as children. I had a record player and an extensive collection of vinyl fairy-tale records which are not tame at all; evil stepsisters cutting off Cinderella’s toes and heels trying to make the slipper fit, a wicked queen dying after being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes. Those dark stories offered me many worlds beyond my own, and I love creating them in my novels.
Two weeks after my college graduation I left Germany. I married and started working as a freelance translator. My love for reading seemed like a perfect match for translating literary fiction, but eventually I decided to tell my own stories. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.
Please tell us more about your translation work.
Translating was my only marketable skill that allowed me to work from home after my daughter was born. I started off working for a translation agency and did mainly tourism websites because I had a firsthand knowledge of the places I was writing about. I translated everything from books about dog breeds, Kama Sutra, and nuclear power plant risk-management procedures. I loved researching unfamiliar subjects like luxury car paints, Irish cigars, and artisan baby cribs made from Austrian birch wood; every new project was a world in itself.
The difficult aspect of translating was surprising: I completely immersed myself in English, and something peculiar happened—my native language drifted off into the distance. I’d stare at a word, no longer sure of its meaning. Errors snuck into my translations—misplaced, split verbs, improperly ordered sentences, incorrect prepositions, and words I couldn’t assign to either English or German. My brain struggled to retrieve words, and I became hesitant in conversations. I paused and self-corrected and ended up sounding disfluent, like a foreigner speaking an unfamiliar language. It’s a thing and it has a name, language attrition, and though my mother tongue didn’t disappear, it went dormant. The comprehension of German hasn’t suffered, but my brain’s ability to quickly retrieve words in a conversation is a different animal all together. I’m working on it. I now diligently read German books and articles online to counter this trend.
Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means to a writer and their work. You were on a panel at Bouchercon, an international mystery convention, in Dallas last fall, where you said that you did not like Texas for years after you arrived but have since come to love it. What did you dislike about Texas and what changed your mind? How has the Lone Star State shaped your writing and career? Which Texas writers do you admire?
I found Texas a hard place to love for the better part of twenty years. I struggled with the essence of it, from arid to flood stricken, from cracked soil to batten down the hatchets to keep your belongings from being carried down the street as your yard turns into a lake. I was reluctant to invest any feelings in what was an arranged marriage at best; I was only in Texas because my husband was stationed there. Texas was not only hard to love but much harder to write about, and I chose other cities, regions, and places as settings in my novels. I was partially to blame—I had consciously set my stories in New York City and California to vicariously live someplace else. I consciously knew my antagonistic attitude was the origin of my feeling of “not-belonging.”
As the years passed, it seemed like a waste to live in Texas and not be touched by its rich history and beauty. My favorite hiking trail leads around a lake with rocky beaches and sandy bluffs, where roadrunners are abundant on the hillsides, where hummingbirds zip back and forth, where I can hike for miles and never encounter a living soul. How long can you roam such a beautiful place and not be touched by it? I wrote my second novel, and I chose a fictional town in rural Texas. I named it Aurora, which means “dawn” in Latin. Dawn is the beginning of the twilight before sunrise, a place I had been stuck in for so long. I couldn’t have written The Good Daughter [Click to read the Lone Star Lit review.] if it hadn’t been for the rolling hills demanding their stories be told and abandoned farms longing to speak of whatever life was left in them. The unlovable had become worthwhile, the strange had become familiar, and Texas became home.
Texas writers I admire are Cynthia Bond (Ruby) which is one of my favorite books. I also adore Pat Carr’s short story collection Night of the Luminarias. News of the World by Paulette Jiles is also amazing.
Can you tell us what’s next for you and your work?
The pandemic and being unsure how the world is going to unfold in the months to come is nerve racking. I’m working on a couple of projects, both novels, one of them might qualify as a horror novel, but I like to call it more of a “dark tale” than horror. We’ll see where it takes me.
What books are on your nightstand?
The Nature of Life and Death: Every Body Leaves a Trace by Patricia Wiltshire, an amalgam of science and true-crime that explores the junction of crime and nature, and Bruce Goldfarb’s mesmerizing story of the mother of forensic science, 18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics.
Alexandra Burt is a freelance translator and the internationally bestselling author of Remember Mia and The Good Daughter. After years of writing classes and gluttonous reading, her short fiction appeared in fiction journals and literary reviews.