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Most Read Interviews

All TopShelf Interviews


This is your debut novel—congratulations! What was the journey to getting your first novel published like? What was the most challenging part of the process? The most rewarding?

It’s surely a cliché, but my journey has been one long, emotional, exhilarating roller coaster, with more highs and lows than I ever expected. The Winter Sister is my first published novel, but it’s actually the third that I’ve written. While I did not receive a book deal on either of my two other novels, I learned so much from each one about pacing, character development, voice, etc. It was extremely difficult having to move on from those projects and accept that it wasn’t the right time for either of them, but now that I do have a debut novel, it’s been incredible to start hearing from people who connect with my characters and the story I created. Something that was once just words on a computer screen is now a tangible story that readers can hold in their hands and see play out in their minds—and that is an incredible gift for which I’m grateful every day.

You’ve written short stories, reviews, and poems before; in fact, one of your poems, “Ars Poetica” (published in the New Verse News in 2016), was nominated for a Pushcart Prize! How is writing poetry different from writing a novel? When you started writing The Winter Sister, did you have to change your creative process?

While poetry requires an attention to rhythm and form in a way that fiction usually doesn’t, I think the two processes are more linked than a lot of people realize. No matter what your poem is about, your job as the poet is to tell a story, and that demands an understanding of voice and pacing. Similarly, a book could have the most compelling premise in the world, but if the sentences don’t sing, if the phrasing doesn’t feel well-chosen and precise, then a reader might not be entranced enough to continue. To me, poetry and fiction are both about casting spells with language in order to tell a powerful and memorable story. In writing The Winter Sister, I paid attention to how the cadence of my sentences could highlight and heighten the characters’ emotions—and my inclination to do so came entirely from my training in poetry.

The Winter Sister starts with a terrible crime—the murder of a teenage girl. Did any real-life cases inspire your work? If so, what kind of research did you do in order to bring Persephone’s story to life on the page? And if not, what first gave you the idea for The Winter Sister?

Persephone’s story isn’t inspired by a particular case in real life, but I am fairly obsessed with true crime (shout-out to the My Favorite Murder podcast!). Where Persephone’s story really originated for me was in thinking about the Greek myth of Persephone, in which Demeter, Persephone’s mother, becomes so consumed by grief when Persephone goes missing that she neglects her job of making crops grow on earth. I wondered what would have happened if Persephone had had a sister, left to navigate the rest of her childhood in the wake of her mother’s neglect, as well as her own grief over her sister’s absence.

Your debut novel tackles many themes, but one of the main topics is the complicated nature of relationships between women: mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces, sisters and friends. What drew you to this theme? Are any of the relationships in the novel inspired by some of your own? 

The bonds between mothers and daughters, as well as those between sisters, are so inherently rich and nuanced that it leaves a lot to explore. What I’m most interested in is relationships at crossroads, like Sylvie and Annie’s. They’ve spent years being estranged, and now they have the opportunity to begin to understand each other—as long as they can break old patterns. It’s the breaking of patterns, though, that’s so difficult to do, especially when there are years of hurt and tension involved. I wanted to explore how hurt and love can be intermingled, sometimes even inseparable, and how that often keeps us from letting go of a painful relationship for one that is healthier.

Annie named Persephone after a goddess she learned about in a Classics course when she got pregnant—but of course, Persephone is a name loaded with significance within the context of the novel. Could you tell us why you chose to give her the name you did? Do any of the other characters’ names have meaningful—but perhaps less obvious—significance? 

I named Persephone to anchor The Winter Sister within its mythological context. If you know the myth, it’s difficult to read about a character named Persephone without automatically thinking of all the themes of that ancient story—grief, loss of innocence, maternal and filial bonds, etc. As for the other characters, they seemed to decide for themselves what they wanted to be called! I don’t remember selecting anyone else’s name. Sylvie was always Sylvie, Annie was always Annie, Ben was always Ben. I often find, when writing fiction, that my characters tell me what their names are, rather than the other way around. 

Wuthering Heights is another famous story that makes its way into The Winter Sister. As an author, how do you draw parallels between your own work and those of other writers? Do you draw these connections on purpose, or are they more organic, popping up during the writing process and their meaning revealed after the fact?

In the case of Wuthering Heights, the connection there was serendipitous. It wasn’t until I’d written the first scene in which that book appears that I realized it wasn’t just a random choice; there were several parallels between that story and the one I was writing. It’s amazing to me what our brains can do on a subconscious level—especially when we think we’re only focused on writing smooth and engaging sentences! The Winter Sister’s connections to the Persephone myth were much more purposeful, of course. One way in which I tried to build those parallels was by using a lot of plant imagery when describing Annie, in order to cement her correlation to Demeter. There’s also a scene in which Persephone pricks her finger on the thorn of a white rose and rubs her blood across the petals. In the myth of Persephone, she’s often depicted as picking flowers at the moment Hades abducts her, so I wanted to have a similar image in my book that spoke to innocence versus experience, delicacy versus violence. 

Although the reader doesn’t know what Sylvie’s next career path is, she eventually realizes that being a tattoo artist isn’t her true calling. Did you always want to be a writer? Did you test out other careers before you found your own calling?

I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was six years old, when I wrote my first story called “The Bad Cats.” (As indicated by the title, it was about some bad cats!) I still remember the exhilaration I felt holding the story in my hands, knowing that it only existed because I’d thought of it and written it down. As I grew older, I never wavered in my certainty that writing was my calling; I knew there was nothing else that could make me feel as alive, even in the many moments of frustration that inevitably come with the territory. Both my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in creative writing, and I’ve been teaching it for the past eleven years—because when I’m not writing myself, I want to be talking about it, reading about it, and helping other people do it!

Did any significant portions of the plot change from when you first started writing the novel to when you finished it? If so, could you explain how they evolved?

When I first conceived of this story, I had planned to have Persephone die from an accidental overdose while doing drugs with Ben. However, I quickly found that there weren’t very many places for that story to go. Sure, Sylvie would still have to cope with the loss of her sister, as well as the debilitating weight of hating and blaming Persephone’s boyfriend for so many years of her life, but there wasn’t much room for mystery or suspense. When I thought about Persephone being murdered instead, everything changed, and all the pieces of the plot started falling into place. 

What’s a piece of advice you’d like to give aspiring writers? Is there anything you wish you knew about writing when you first started out?

Never give up. It sounds so simple, but it’s one of the hardest things to do. All writers—all artists, even—face painful rejections, and it’s easy to let those disappointments derail you. But there is someone out there who needs your story, your poem, your essay, your play, and if you keep on honing your craft, keep on pushing toward your goal, no matter how many agents or editors or literary journals say no—chances are, you will eventually get to that beautiful, dreamed-about yes.

When you’re not writing, you’re teaching creative writing. How has being a creative writing teacher helped you with your own writing? What’s been one of the most surprising or valuable lessons you’ve learned?

One of the things I love most about teaching is that I get to continue to be a student. Whether we’re workshopping someone’s poem or discussing a published story, the atmosphere is usually one of artists collaborating together, rather than the traditional teacher-student hierarchy. This means that I get to learn from my students’ ideas as much as they learn from mine. For more than a decade, I’ve had the incredible honor of teaching some very talented young writers, and watching them take risks and push themselves has continually inspired me to do the same. I’ve also learned that there’s no predicting when a breakthrough will come; you just have to approach the blank page with a willingness to struggle for what you want to say—and keep fighting for it until the moment you finally find the words. 

What’s next in the cards for you? Are you working on any new projects right now? If so, could you tell us a little bit about them? 

I’m currently at work on another novel, which, like The Winter Sister, is about a woman with a haunting past and complicated familial relationships. The protagonist of that story, however, has a journey that’s completely different from Sylvie’s—but that’s all I’ll say about it for now!