Writer Erin Flanagan’s debut novel Deer Season is a literary mystery that offers a deep look at small town life with humor, insight and a keen eye for the human condition. Set in 1985 on the opening weekend of deer season, Peggy Ahern comes up missing and the key suspect is Hal Bullard, a developmentally disabled man. The story is told through multiple points, but most touchingly through Peggy’s younger brother Milo, and Alma Costagan, a bus driver who looks out for Hal. Flanagan talks to Authorlink about her influences, the importance of place, her journey to writing a mystery, and what’s next.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor(s) who offered advice that has stayed with you that you can share with us?
FLANAGAN: I’ve loved writing stories as long as I can remember, but I’d say the first real mentorship I received was in an undergraduate writing class from Marly Swick. She was the first one who took me aside and told me I was good at this and she helped me make my stories better. I was a sub-par student in a lot of ways and lacked self-confidence, so to hear that from a writer I so admired changed everything. I continued to get that kind of guidance in graduate school at UNL from Judy Slater, Gerry Shapiro, and Jonis Agee, and it made all the difference. They were not only why I decided to keep writing, but why I went into teaching.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where do stories come from for you—image, first line, character?
“Usually, stories for me start with a situation and a generous helping of questions.”
FLANAGAN: Usually, stories for me start with a situation and a generous helping of questions. For instance, I wrote a story in my first collection, The Usual Mistakes, about a homeless man who gets word his ex-wife is coming to visit, and he has two days to find a place to crash so he can convince her he’s got his life together. From there I just started asking questions: how did he end up homeless? What happened to the marriage? I think I know what he wants out of this visit, but what about her?
AUTHORLINK: Where did the idea for Deer Season come from?
“…I wondered what would happen if that safe town turned out to not be so safe…”
FLANAGAN: A lot of the questions that started Deer Season were of the what-if variety. I grew up in a small town similar to Gunthrum and my parents, similar to Alma and Clyle, had moved us there from Chicago. Luckily, it ended up being a great decision for our family, but I always wondered what would have happened if it wasn’t. What if they hated living in a small town? Or what if only one of them did? The plot stemmed from how I felt living in that town—I felt safe, but also claustrophobic because everyone knew everyone—so I wondered what would happen if that safe town turned out to not be so safe after all. From there, it just kept snowballing.
AUTHORLINK: Like all really good books this one seems to have an obvious focus, the possible murder of a missing girl, but also sustains multiple complications in the subplots that feed off of and into the main plot. How did you achieve that level of complexity and keep the plates spinning?
FLANAGAN: If you had told me a few years ago I’d end up writing a mystery I would have laughed, but here we are. In the beginning, the mystery of what happened to Peggy Ahern—while certainly a focal point—wasn’t as interesting to me as the fallout. I wanted to know the people of Gunthrum and how they interacted, and from there, figure out how this would affect everyone. After I’d written almost a full draft I took a mystery-writing class with Jess Montgomery and she said something like: the only thing you really need to know before you start is who did it and how. I remember thinking, that would have been helpful advice 280 pages ago! I didn’t know until the end of the first draft what had actually happened. I was feeling my way and trying to figure it out, and the only way to arrive at the answer was to know these people very deeply. And luckily once I did know them and what had happened, I could revise toward that knowing. Through that discovery and all the revisions, I grew to really love Peggy and I hope readers get a full sense of her as well. I didn’t want her to just be a “missing girl” in the plot, but someone whose personal absence ricochets through the town because she as a person matters.
AUTHORLINK: On the surface, the character of Alma the bus driver is not very likable, yet I come to love her as the book goes on. Talk about character building and how you developed Alma.
FLANAGAN: Oh wow, I’m so glad to hear you say that! I love Alma, too. The key to writing Alma was really figuring out her vulnerabilities. In the first pass or two, she was just a crotchety lady, and it wasn’t until well into revision I understood what made her tick: that she did want to be accepted by Gunthrum, that as vocal as she was there were things that made her feel too raw to share even with her husband, that she’d put up so many walls she’d come to believe they were permanent. Her arc was another surprise to me in the writing. I didn’t know if she’d be able to open up or whether she and Clyle would stay together until I was at the end.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the importance of place in the novel. Why is it important for this story to be set in Gunthrum and how does the setting apply pressure to the story.
FLANAGAN: The time and place always went hand in hand when I thought about this book. I wanted it set in the rural Midwest and back in the 80s. Like I said, I grew up in a town very similar to Gunthrum and felt incredibly safe there, but looking back I recognize that wasn’t probably the case for everyone. There were outsiders, and people who were picked on. Where I grew up, we were demographically very similar in race and class, but people still found a way to “other” people, through abilities or religion. Part of what I wanted to explore in the novel was how people treat someone who is one of them but also someone they consider “different.” Hal, the mentally challenged farmhand, is that person in the book, and a tragic figure in many ways. If you look at now versus the 80s, I think how people treat someone different from themselves has gotten both better and worse. I want to believe the movements for basic human rights for all have made a huge difference, but I think a lot of bigotry has also gone underground and is working its way into society in coded (and sometimes not so coded) ways. In a town like Gunthrum, where outsiders might think everyone is the same, I wanted to see how that would play out and bring about tensions in the story.
AUTHORLINK: We see things through the perspective of Milo Ahern, the younger brother of the victim. Though he is young his perspective was deep and interesting. What function did Milo serve for you in telling the story?
“When I’m writing characters, I do my best to make them as smart as I can and to never write down to them.”
FLANAGAN:I’m so glad you read Milo that way! I think he’s a neat kid. When I’m writing characters, I do my best to make them as smart as I can and to never write down to them. They might be limited by something such as age or intellectual ability, but there’s still an inherent intelligence in everyone that can come through, a particular way of seeing the world. I try too to start them from a place where there’s something they don’t yet know about themselves. Ideally, it’s something I don’t know yet either, so when they’re growing as the novel progresses, I’m really learning with them. With Milo, two of those things were how he viewed his parents and his relationship with God.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing Deer Season and how did you overcome them?I gave up on this novel for about a year and really doubted I could fix it. I’d been writing short stories so long I was having a hard time holding it all in my head and I just didn’t think I was going to be able to make it work. But back to the importance of having writer friends and mentors, I had coffee with Jess Montgomery and she told me how she outlines chapters in excel and what works for her, and so I tried a similar system that I adapted for the novel where I felt like I could see it all at once. It was incredibly helpful, and I’ve used something similar for every project since. Granted, that just means other problems keep cropping up instead, but each time I feel a little more confident I might be able to handle them.
AUTHORLINK: Did you surprise yourself in the writing of the novel?
FLANAGAN: Every day is a surprise for me. I wish it wasn’t the case, but I have a hard time working from a plot or outline, so I just feel my way through. Like I said, for this one, I didn’t even know what had happened until I was close to writing the ending, which seems like an incredibly inefficient way to write, but it’s the only way I can seem to do it. What’s most helpful for me is a reverse outline, meaning I write the chapter and then do a quick sketch to see what I’ve got. From there I keep a column in excel called “bread crumbs” where I keep track of details or clues or threads I can use down the road. I’m usually sketching about one chapter ahead, but that’s about it so every chapter does feel like a surprise. Seriously, what a dumb way to write a book.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?
“I personally love revision. For me, that first draft is such a blind grope in the dark…”
FLANAGAN: I personally love revision. For me, that first draft is such a blind grope in the dark that when I can turn on the light and see what I’m dealing with, I just feel much more in control. Two big issues I had with this novel were character depth and pacing, and I think these two are related to my short-story background. I had a hard time pulling those suspenseful threads through in earlier drafts. Reading a ton of mystery and suspense books really helped with this and I studied how they sustained tension across the long haul. The other big issue was character depth. In short stories, it’s like you’re looking through the window into a house and watching the action, but in a novel, you’re letting the reader and yourself inside. I had to really work to be much more explicit in the characters’ interior lives. For far too long, I was looking through the window at these characters.
As for revision, I cannot recommend the book Intuitive Editing by Tiffany Yates Martin highly enough. It’s so helpful because she has sections on how to spot problem and then how to fix them, so it feels really hands on. She’s got great advice about how to start with the big revisions and move down the list, and her Xray exercise is a game-changer.
AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice writers?
“Never give up on yourself. If this is something you want to do then do it…”
FLANAGAN: Never give up on yourself. If this is something you want to do then do it, and do it as much as you can. I have four novels at home that will never see the light of day, but they taught me a lot about writing and I had to go through them to get to Deer Season. I just kept thinking, I refuse to accept that I can’t do this. And as ridiculous as it seems, I knew if Deer Season hadn’t found a home I would have written a sixth. You just have to keep going because you have stories to tell and writing is a way to process the world, regardless of what happens to those stories.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
FLANAGAN: I’m over the moon to say my next book Blackout is coming out in fall 2022 with Thomas & Mercer. It’s a thriller about a recovering alcoholic who starts having mysterious blackouts and comes to find out it’s happening to other women in her town as well. I’m working on the edits for that right now and can’t wait for this book to find its readers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erin Flanagan is the author of the novel Deer Season (University of Nebraska Press, 2021) as well as two story collections. Her next book, Blackout, will be released with Thomas & MABOercer in fall 20222. She is an English professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. To learn more about her and her writing, follow her on Twitter at @erinlflanagan or visit her website at www.erinflanagan.net.