HALLIE EPHRON: It’s pretty exciting when your first novel is published by Viking Penguin and declared a New York Times Noteworthy Book. That’s what happened to Eric Rickstad with Reap. Critics call it “an American classic that draws readers into the dangerous and claustrophobic backwoods of Northern Vermont to witness a drugged out Gothic thriller of maimed and desperate characters.” “A masterwork.”
Now Eric is out with another chiller, The Silent Girls. It’s dark and literary, and the main character is a PI.
Got to ask: crime fiction, horror, Gothic, literary novel? Does it matter how we categorize your newest book, and what inspired it?
ERIC RICKSTAD: It defies categorization, doesn’t it!? I think most of those descriptions are accurate, with the possible exception of horror. The Silent Girls has been called a dark psychological thriller, and that may wrap it up the best. But most of all it's a novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat, compelled to find out what happens next, even if part of you doesn’t want to know. It is full of nasty twists and turns.
My agent told me that he’d never been so shocked by an ending; even upon reading it a second and third time he said he was left shaken. Best of all, most readers have felt that way, and expressed that the novel earns the ending, and does not cheat to arrive at it. Mystery and crime readers are not easily misdirected or surprised, so I am pleased this seems to be the case.
The Silent Girls is also literary in the sense that it has a clear voice, an awareness of language, hopefully fully-fleshed characters, and a singular setting that makes the novel stand out.
HALLIE: Setting seems so essential to your story: Vermont backwoods. Do you live there, and how do you and your wife get up the courage to walk your dog? (See Eric's noble watch dog himself below.)
ERIC: Ha! Yes, I do live in Vermont. I grew up in Vermont. I love Vermont. I have lived elsewhere. But I love it here. And so does my wife. This is where we chose to raise our family.
I'm inspired byVermont’s beauty and the way it contrasts with the rare violent crimes that take place that shatter not just the communities in which they happen, but the entire state. Such acts feel like a betrayal. It can create paranoia and suspicion, and trigger deep emotions. I like exploring that.
From my novels, you’d think I’d have to go out armed with my Winchester .30-.30 deer rifle (not that anyone would notice or care). I want the setting always to influence the characters, so that description of setting is not just a backdrop, but impact the characters one way or another, and thus the reader. I think it makes the reader more engaged.
I also love the backwoods of Vermont, the Gothic landscape and the severe changes in weather that can suddenly turn a fishing trip or a hike into something perilous. But, really, the everyday Vermont is quite safe and its pastoral beauty reflects pretty accurately an idyll. I tend to write about the dramatic storms.
HALLIE: Your detective, Frank Rath. Police detective turned PI. What defines him for you, and where did you find him?
ERIC: What defines him most for me is that he is a single father who would do anything for his only daughter. He is devoted, and he is also afraid at every turn, as all parents are, for her safety. But his fear is even greater than most parents, because he came to being a single father through very dramatic and traumatic events that he wishes had never happened.
He knows that being a single father has made him a much better man than he’d otherwise be. He became a single father as a result of horrific violence, and the experience made him grow up overnight and dispense with his frivolous and empty playboy ways. The irony for Rath is that the most awful event of his life in a way saved him.
ERIC: It does have advantages and disadvantages. I never intended to earn an MFA. Frankly, I did not even know they existed. A David Huddle, a wonderful mentor suggested I apply. I did not know what to make of the idea. Writers I liked never needed an MFA, and the prospect of earning one seemed too formal for me. Too academic.
But David put it in perspective by saying, “Look, it will give you two years to write, where all that is expected of you is to write, and the people around you will respect that and understand it and encourage it.”
In the “real” world, when you say you’re a writer, you get one of two responses from people: either they romanticize it as a dreamy life where there is no hard work involved and it’s all just fun and glamor, or they denigrate it: “A writer? Cute. But what do you really do?”
So what is great about an MFA is you are surrounded by writers and readers who respect what you are doing appreciate the work and perseverance it takes, and can support you in it. And you are exposed to other great writers and mentors. If you are able to find a program that suits your style and temperament, it can be a great experience—one where you can be taken seriously as a writer, where you have an excuse to do nothing but write, and where you can make lifelong friends in the process.
HALLIE: What were your favorite books/authors growing up, and how did that shape you into the writer that you are?
ERIC: Roald Dahl was a huge influence when I was in 3-6th grade. DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD especially, and Dahl’s macabre short stories. Poe’s stories. THE GREAT BRAIN and ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN series. There was a book called ALGONQUIN about a boy and his dog I loved and found again through the miracle of the internet. Then later, Stephen King, especially his short story collections NIGHT SHIFT and SKELETON CREW. And Faulkner, Shirley Jackson, Ruth Rendell, Joyce Carol Oates. So many!
HALLIE: We writers are all shaped by the books we loved, and your affection for King, Oates, and Dahl -- that says it all. Both the high standard and the sensibility.
So asking our readers, how often are you truly surprised by an ending, and do you love a setting that freaks you out?