Discussing The Roanoke Girls with Amy Engels

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Hi Amy, welcome to Teen Librarian, now at the moment you are best-known for the YA Book of Ivy series but (strangely for a Teen Library blog) we are not going to be discussing those today, rather we are going to focus on your first novel for adults: The Roanoke Girls.

The proof of which I must say was the darkest and one of the most twistedly brilliant books that I read last year.
 
But before we get into the book would you like to introduce yourself to the audience?

Well, as you said, I’m the author of The Book of Ivy YA series and The Roanoke Girls is my first novel for adults. I am a former criminal defense attorney and now work as a full-time writer. I live in Missouri with my husband and two teenage children.

Please correct me if I am wrong, but to my mind at its heart The Roanoke Girls is about being a woman and what women face now and throughout history – objectification, having to pander to the needs and desires of others, hatred, abandonment, being replaced and murder!

Yes to all of that! I’ve always been interested in the ways in which women are viewed by society and also by the sometimes fraught relationships women have with one another. I’m fascinated by how women often turn on one another, rather than on the person who has wronged them. And on the flip side of that, the ways in which women are valued, or devalued, by society is of tremendous interest to me as a writer. Women are so often viewed as a commodity, valued for their beauty and their ability to act a certain way. The blaming of female victims, both blatantly and subtly, for their own abuse is also something I wanted to tackle.

The Roanoke Girls made me think of two quintessential American art-works American Gothic by Grant Wood and Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth in my mind I identified Allegra quite strongly with both the women portrayed in the paintings. Similarly Roanoke reminded me of Manderley from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and the themes made me recall the discovery of Flowers in the Attic in the Library by a group of students when I was in school – it caused a rush of students reading together and discussing it in hushed tones in the corridor which stopped whenever someone walked past. What were your inspirations for writing The Roanoke Girls?

You are spot on with the Rebecca reference. The first line of The Roanoke Girls is actually my own homage to Rebecca. Growing up, I was fascinated by gothic novels and so those have a huge influence on the book. I also took inspiration from Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. That book evoked such a strong sense of place and I knew I wanted to try and do the same with The Roanoke Girls. My hope was to transport the readers to the world of Roanoke as they were reading. I was also somewhat inspired by my own work as a criminal defense attorney. I think people have a tendency to judge victims by the characteristics of the perpetrator of the crime. So if you have someone who looks like a monster and acts like a monster, then the victim is more likely to be believed. But what about someone who seduces rather than forces? Who charms rather than assaults? Then people are much more likely to blame or disbelieve the victim, I’ve found. And I definitely wanted to explore those feelings and ideas in the book.
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The interactions between Lane and Allegra seemed very real to me do you have any close cousins or siblings that you based their relationship on?

Interestingly enough, I have no siblings and my cousins are much younger than I am and live far away. But because of that void, I always had very strong female friendships growing up. My best friends and I were inseparable and they took the place of siblings for me. I think female friendships, especially as teenagers, can sometimes take on slightly obsessive undertones, so I drew on that for the relationship between Lane and Allegra.

At times The Roanoke Girls made uncomfortable reading – which I suppose is the point, without giving away too many spoilers were there any parts of the story that you found difficult to write?

The interludes from the points of view of the past Roanoke girls were probably the most difficult to write from a purely emotional standpoint.

You tell the story of Lane, Allegra and the other inhabitants of Roanoke and Osage Flats through Lane unpicking the contemporary mystery of Allegra’s disappearance and flashbacks to the summer that Lane lived at Roanoke – how much planning went into the writing as it all flows so seamlessly?

First of all, thank you. You never really know if a past/present narrative is going to work until people begin reading it, so I’m gratified to know it’s being well-received. In answer to your question, not much planning at all. I don’t outline when I write, not even with a dual timeline narrative such as this one. And I didn’t write all of the present day portion and then go back and insert the past. I wrote the book as it’s meant to be read: a “then” section and then a “now” section, etc. I did go back and add in the interludes from the other Roanoke girls after the first draft was finished. For some reason, it wasn’t difficult for me to keep it all straight in my head as I was unspooling it. More proof, I think, that sometimes writing is a kind of magic.

The online response to The Roanoke Girls has been phenomenal – did you expect this when you first started writing it?

Ummm…no? I mean, at the time I was writing it, the first Ivy book had been published, but I knew I’d need a new publisher for this book because it was adult. So I didn’t even know if it would ever see the light of day. I hoped, of course, that it would be published and people would like it, but I knew it was dark and would be too disturbing for some readers. So the reaction thus far has been amazing and I’m so, so grateful.

If you had to describe the novel in six words or less to entice a potential reader what would you say?

Oh, I’m such crap at this sort of thing, but I’ll give it at try! How about:

Dark, disturbing, character-driven psychological suspense.

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions!

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