“It is all too human to mean well and yet to inflict harm.” A conversation withMaggie Mitchell
They were glad to have us back, of course. But nothing was the same. It was as if we had returned from the dead, as if we were tainted somehow. Our unlikely survival made us guilty. We must have sold our souls, I could see them thinking—or worse. Undoubtedly, it had not been our fault (not altogether, anyway), but still. We were not the same.
And it was true, though not in the way they thought. What mattered to us was that we had been chosen. Singled out. We had always suspected we were different; at last it had been confirmed. There was no point in pretending otherwise; in fact, to our relief, pretense was no longer expected of us. The world acknowledged that we were extraordinary—and kept its distance, as if we might be rigged like bombs, might someday explode without warning.
–Excerpt from Pretty Is (Henry Holt and Company)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: The narration of Pretty Is is fairly evenly split between Lois and Carly-May/Chloe, and they have very distinctive voices and takes on the story: though they are telling us about the same event, their memories and interpretations differ significantly. I’m a sucker for unreliable narrators, so this novel—where the reader is sorting through multiple and conflicting truths—really engaged me. I’m curious if you wrote the Lois and Chloe sections simultaneously (shifting back and forth as you wrote) or whether you wrote them separately and braided them together later. Was there a particular voice that came more easily to you or was a greater challenge for you to inhabit at first, and why?
MAGGIE MITCHELL: I wrote the two voices simultaneously, constantly alternating between Lois and Chloe. It was challenging, in the sense that there was a great deal that I had to keep straight, but it was also really, really fun. In the beginning I felt more comfortable with the Lois sections, probably because there are obvious parallels between us—like Lois, I teach English at a state university and used to compete in spelling bees. But there was something incredibly appealing about inhabiting Chloe: those sections were liberating after adopting Lois’s restraint and guardedness. There was an energy to Chloe’s voice that made it increasingly easy to slip into. Later I had to go back and police the sections carefully; I would occasionally find that Chloe had borrowed Lois’s vocabulary or fallen briefly into her more complex cadences, though seldom the other way around. When I sat down to write, I always had an interesting choice to make: will I be Chloe today, or Lois?
AR: I found Carly May/Chloe’s relationship to the child pageant world intriguing because she’s not participating for the reasons one might assume. She understands the power of being pretty; she knows she’s both entrapped and empowered by her looks. Even after the abduction ordeal is over she chooses to leverage her power by returning to the competitive circuit. Girls and women get constant and conflicting messages about how pretty or smart we should be, how much is too much (or too little) of either, and which qualities are worthy of attention. And the girls’ age (12) at the time of the abduction is an age at which this messaging feels particularly acute. Did you find any parallels between your own childhood experience of academic competition and Carly May’s pageants? Are these seemingly opposing pursuits as far apart as we might think?
MM: Some readers have been tempted to see Lois’s spelling bees as somehow more admirable or meaningful than Carly May’s pageants, but in certain ways, I don’t think that’s true at all. They’re both seeking the spotlight, and they are seizing the avenues that happen to present themselves. Lois’s talent for spelling isn’t even especially based on a love of language itself, and this is what Zed calls her on later: he sees the hollowness of her success. Thinking back on my own spelling days, I confess that I can relate to Lois’s desire to excel, to shine, to win admiration. Is that a terrible thing, necessarily? Of course not. But it’s not nearly as far removed from Chloe’s beauty pageant victories as you might think. Competition fulfills a very similar need for both girls, and it’s a need I remember well.
AR: Although Pretty Is isn’t based on a specific real-life case, numerous child abduction cases sharing similar details have made the news over the past few decades. As terrible as it sounds we have a sort of cultural collective memory of these stories that we bring to the book as readers. How did you approach research when you were writing the book and deciding on the “facts” of Carly May and Lois’s case? Were there details that felt necessary to pin down with research (previous cases or news stories) or did you prefer to leave those precedents in the background in favor of letting your (and your reader’s) imagination take over the story?
MM: I thought a lot about this, and in the end I decided to avoid research as much as possible. I originally included a couple of references to real-life abductions but later removed them. I was always worried about the danger that I would be perceived as trivializing the very real experiences of children who have been abducted, many of whose stories are far more tragic than those of my characters, and it was very important to me to avoid that. So I did some very basic research—I looked at timelines of child abductions in the 80s and 90s, for instance—but for the most part I avoided thinking too much about actual cases. The kidnapper, Zed, is entirely a product of my imagination, as are the strangely idyllic weeks the girls spend in the Adirondack hunting lodge.
AR: In your recent Q&A with Caroline Leavitt you mentioned that the idea for this novel had been in your head for some time before you sat down to write it. What were some of the challenges you encountered bringing this story to the page and to an audience?
MM: The main challenge was to find a perfect structure for my rather formless idea about a bond forged between two young girls during a period of captivity. I knew it would be complicated, even tangled, but I wanted to see the shape fairly clearly before I began to write. Also challenging was envisioning the kidnapper himself, and then deciding how much to reveal about him: I knew from the start that I wanted him to remain a cipher, to some degree, but I also didn’t want people to feel cheated.
AR: The kidnapper, “Zed” doesn’t pick these girls randomly—he’s researched both of them thoroughly before he approaches them. Both are already in the “public eye,” in the ways society has sanctioned for children to be on display: Lois’s spelling bees, Carly May’s pageants. Zed amasses files on them before he kidnaps them (as, later, Lois’s student-turned-stalker does, and as Lois herself does in following adult Chloe’s acting career). There are many layers of “watching” in play here, which got me thinking about how internet and the 24 hour news cycle have changed media coverage in a way that makes us all stalkers by proxy. Back in the 80s and 90s these types of abductions got a fair amount of media coverage—victims and perpetrators became household names—but today’s clickbait headlines encourage viewers to get even more actively involved. It’s easy for us to click directly from a news story to a victim’s (or perpetrator’s) Facebook page or Instagram account, to comb these sites for clues and speculate in comment forums without really having to question or account for our own voyeurism. I found it darkly funny that Chloe’s most popular roles as an actress are those in which she dies—as it turns out, according to her agent, the public loves watching her die. As inexcusable as Zed’s transgressions are, they made me reflect on our own culpability: our hunger to be shocked by tragedy or people behaving badly—the ultimate reality entertainment. What were your thoughts as you made your way through this tangle of voyeurism?
MM: It’s certainly true that the internet has legitimated and naturalized certain forms of voyeurism. Lois calmly amasses a wealth of information about Chloe Savage without ever considering that what she’s doing might be a form of stalking. I was deeply interested in the extent to which we feed on other people’s stories—and other people’s unhappiness or misfortunes, in particular. Chloe’s onscreen deaths are a perfect example—and there’s also Gail’s book, which exploits her stepdaughter’s abduction, Sean, who devours Lois’s stories and wants to spin them into his own, Billy Pearson’s attempts as an actor to delve into Zed’s mind in order to present it to the public, the reporters who haunt Lois and Carly May after their rescue and brazenly contact Lois’s parents years later when her novel appears. Those are just a few of the layers.
I think it’s interesting to consider where that hunger comes from: surely it’s only exploited by the media, not created. Is it culturally specific, or simply human? And if it arises from some darkness in all of us, what is the price of succumbing to it? I think the different threads of the story might propose a variety of possible answers to that last question, with Sean representing the worst case scenario: his appetite for stories of suffering is profoundly corrupt and ultimately criminal.
AR: Sean’s take on this does seem to be an extreme (but very real) manifestation of this, particularly the feeling that he is somehow entitled to this private information. The fact that he’s one of Lois’s students makes the situation even more fraught—to mishandle this difficult student could threaten her livelihood and security. Zed, the original perpetrator comes off almost as an idealist in comparison to Sean, who seems bent on doing as much psychological damage as he can. Because we only know Zed through flashbacks we can imagine a more altruistic motivation on his part—no matter how wrong or misguided. I wondered if I would have felt differently about Zed without the character of Sean providing that stark contrast of intent to harm. How do you strike that balance between allowing sympathy for a character while showing the real and lasting harm that results from his behavior?
MM: I think it is all too human to mean well and yet to inflict harm. Zed is simply an extreme example of the inevitable dangers of navigating one’s own desires within a web of the sometimes conflicting desires of others—complicated by the capacity for empathy. Zed isn’t cruel; he understands a great deal about the girls, and it actually gives him real pleasure to make them happy. But he does so within the framework of this impossible situation he has created, one that can only cause harm in the end. I wanted to show that Zed was profoundly human, capable of acts that are almost beautiful, and at the same time hopelessly damaged, driven by his own dark desires.
AR: Maybe it’s my own lit-geekiness showing, but I enjoyed Lois’s novel within the novel, Deep in the Woods, and I loved how her dissertation topic, “Abduction in the British novel” and the texts she teaches, like Pamela, are further variations on that theme. Lois tells her students that there are “no what-ifs in fiction, no alternate universes in which the characters might have done something other than what is on the page,” but she’s clearly playing the “what-if” game in reverse through her own research and writing. In fact, most of the information we receive about those weeks that the girls are in the cabin come from Lois’s fictional account, so we have to guess at what is “real.” Literature abounds with abduction plots, from mythology to fairy tales to more modern fare. How fun was it for you, as an English professor, to draw from this tradition as you plotted your own variation on the theme?
MM: It was tremendously fun, and in fact I had to rein myself in frequently. Had I let myself go, the novel would have been bursting with references to literary abductions on every page. I couldn’t help suspecting that a little of that would go a long way, though, so aside from a few quick name-droppings (Oliver Twist, Evelina), I decided to stick primarily with Pamela, and to play a bit with Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover,” as well. I actually began to envy Lois’s dissertation topic, and to imagine how one might organize the chapters of such a dissertation…so yes, I got quite involved, and derived considerable geeky pleasure from the novel’s various forms of intertextuality. I am secretly hoping that one person—just one!—seeks out Pamela after reading my novel. That would give me an inordinate amount of satisfaction.
AR: Has the book elicited any surprising responses from readers and reviewers so far?
MM: I guess I haven’t been particularly surprised by readers’ responses so far. A range of reactions has emerged, but that’s to be expected: everyone will read it a little differently; everyone will make it their own in interesting ways; not everyone will find every element perfectly satisfying. I was talking to my massage therapist a couple of days ago and she was about eighty pages in and musing over which character she liked better, Lois or Chloe. I found myself genuinely curious about what she would ultimately decide, and I hope she’ll tell me.
Purchase a copy of Pretty Is here: http://latenightlibrary.org/pretty-is
Maggie Mitchell has published short fiction in a number of literary magazines, including the New Ohio Review, American Literary Review, and Green Mountains Review. Originally from upstate New York, she now lives in Georgia. Pretty Is is her first novel. (Author photo by Jill Sutton.)