HALLIE EPHRON: I remember in 2009 reading Emily Arsenault's The Broken Tea Glass and thinking, who is this writer?! I'd ever seen anything like her book. It's set in the editorial offices of a dictionary publisher where clues to a murder are found in the files by a young lexicographer. The book has a bizarre sense of humor and it's a literary page turner. I've been a fan ever since.
Turns out Emily worked for Merriam-Webster from 1998-2002, and since then she's since then had daughter I wasn't surprised to discover that motherhood figures prominently in her new novel, The Evening Spider.
I asked her to join us on Jungle Red and talk about motherhood as grist for a murder mystery.
EMILY ARSENAULT: When I agreed to do a post on how early motherhood affected my writing, I realized that there are two different answers for me.-->
There’s the subject of how motherhood affected my writing generally. And then there’s the subject of how it influenced my most recent book, The Evening Spider. And that’s a little more spooky of a story.
My daughter was born just a few months before my third book (Miss Me When I'm Gone) came out. It took me a while to start my fourth novel—not just because I was caring for a newborn, but because I wasn’t thrilled with the direction my books were taking. My first book had been a light and funny book, and each subsequent book had become darker and heavier in tone.
As a new mother I didn’t want to dwell in tragedy or violence. It surprised me that I felt this way, but in any case, I started my fourth book, What Strange Creatures, determined to write a funny book. And while some wouldn’t call that a “light” book (there is an untimely death, as in all of my previous books), the heart of the novel is a funny brother-sister relationship.
I was thrilled to get a contract when my daughter was about six months old, and started working on the book in earnest. Writing felt different than it had before—more like a “break” from baby duty than work—a luxury, even. Most days I didn’t have more than two hours to write at a stretch—so I became much more disciplined about producing pages each time I sat down in front of my computer. I didn’t just grow more disciplined, but more grateful to be writing a book. How lucky was I to get to be a mother and a paid writer at the same time? It felt like a nice balance—although I never had much time for housework in this “balance,” and still don’t.
And so all was relatively well, at least on the surface. But while I was busy writing that fourth book—when my daughter was six-to-twelve months old—something strange was happening in my house. One night, I awoke to the sound of my daughter crying, followed by the sound of someone saying Shhhhh over the baby monitor. I felt relieved that my husband had awoken before me, and was tending the baby. Then I turned over and saw that my husband was still lying next to me. So who was with the baby?
I ran down the hall, found my daughter alone in her crib, and picked her up. The next day I forgot about it, but a few weeks later it happened again. And then a few weeks later, again. Shhhhhh. Often I would spend the following day trying to come up with logical explanations from what I’d heard. Then I’d forget about it—until it would happen again. On a week when it happened a few nights in a row, I held my sleeping daughter well into the night, and couldn’t sleep after I put her down. And then, when I was just about to become entirely unhinged, it stopped altogether. (The picture is Emily's haunted baby monitor.)
It wasn’t until at least a year later that I considered putting this experience in a book. (And I still don’t have an explanation.) But eventually, I wrote it up as one of my opening scenes of The Evening Spider. And so begins a novel that was a departure for me. The book is part psychological suspense, part ghost story, part true crime, and on some level, an exploration of the potentially bizarre psychological effects of new motherhood.
Writing about this experience made me feel better about it—and made it feel more like a “story” than an “experience.” It was fodder for one of my books and therefore somehow less real. And I was in control of it—what it meant and where it led. The result is The Evening Spider.
My daughter no longer has a monitor in her room and I no longer hear phantom shushing at night. Recently, my daughter got up in the middle of the night to report that there was a “visitor” in her room. Yes, that is the word my three-year-old used—“visitor.” And yes, I know how creepy that sounds, and no, I absolutely have not told her of my experiences with her the room or encouraged her to speak this way. Perhaps she’s just inherited my ominous imagination. Or maybe there is a gentle presence in her room, after all. And whoever or whatever it is, maybe I haven’t written it away, after all.
HALLIE: Is that spooky or what? I love the book's title because when I saw it I immediately thought about Miss Muffet and the spider who sat down beside her. Gives me chills thinking about a spider in my baby's crib. Nooooo!
Has anyone else out there experienced anything akin to a haunted baby monitor? It would make a great X-Files episode, dontcha think?