An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Michele Campbell
She was the Quiet One (St. Martin’s Press, 31 July 2018)
Best-selling author, Michele Campbell, was a former federal prosecutor and deputy chief of narcotics in New York, before she and her family moved to a New England college town to teach law and write thrillers.
She was the Quiet One is about twin sisters, Bel and Rose who have been sent to Odell Academy boarding school after their mother passes away. Rose immediately excels academically while Bel becomes part of an older, trouble-making crowd. Both sisters are drawn to their faculty advisors, a married couple who are also their dorm parents. Almost straight away, the reader discovers that one of the sister’s is murdered. But which one? Each sister had a motive to kill.
She was the Quiet One is Michele Campbell’s second book and has been referred to as her break-out novel.
AUTHORLINK: Ms Campbell, thank you for talking to us here at Authorlink about She was the Quiet One. Some of its themes are very much on point in relation to the #MeToo movement. Was that your intention when the idea for She was the Quiet One first developed?
There’s plenty of wrongdoing in the book to keep readers guessing…
CAMPBELL: Yes and no. I began with the concept of writing about sisters who fell out with one another to the point of murder. I was searching for a setting for that story at a moment when the news was full of boarding-school sex abuse scandals. The fact that boarding-school abuse came to light at the same time as the MeToo movement is not a coincidence since the movement empowered victims to speak out in many different contexts. Having gone to a boarding school myself (though as a day student), I was fascinated with that environment – what’s wonderful about it, and also how its insularity might allow abuse to fester. As I worked on the book, it morphed from focusing exclusively on the Enright twins’ relationship to a greater focus on the abuse of a young girl by an older, charismatic male teacher. There’s plenty of wrongdoing in the book to keep readers guessing, but it also does delve into that very serious issue.
AUTHORLINK: Yes. You once observed the pressure on writers to make the heroines of their crime novel or thriller likable.
“They have to be Everywoman protagonists,” you said, “instead of fully-rounded individuals with the usual assortment of flaws, virtues, weaknesses, and strengths.” (Valley News, 1 June 2017) Would you kindly comment on this?
CAMPBELL: I imagine I said this in response to online reviews where the reader likes the book but protests that the characters are not “likable” enough. Readers want to relate to the heroine, or root for her, and I understand that. But in a story about murder and deception, the characters will naturally include some people who are not so nice. I prefer to write characters who are relatable but flawed, and whose flaws are well developed and explained by their pasts. I find this both more interesting to write (and read) and also more authentic and believable in a crime novel.
AUTHORLINK: Very true. She was the Quiet One was plotted in a clever way – in that you weren’t sure who the murder victim was until near the end of the book. Did you plan the novel before you started to write? Did you run it by your agent and editor first?
…ultimately character has to serve plot in the genre.
CAMPBELL: I both planned the novel and allowed it to morph and develop naturally. I wrote a summary first that I gave to my editor. But as I wrote, the book changed a lot. Earlier drafts of Quiet One included additional points of view that later were eliminated. For example, Heath Donovan, the charismatic English teacher whose ambitions and weaknesses drive critical elements of the plot, had his own chapters. So did Grandma Martha Enright. Ultimately, my editor and I felt earlier drafts were too complicated, in part because the additional viewpoint characters were weighing down the narrative. There is always a tension between character and plot in a thriller, and ultimately character has to serve plot in the genre. We streamlined the book by reducing the number of character viewpoints, which made the plot faster and more propulsive. But that additional work still shines through, I hope, in characters more textured and fully realized than one sometimes finds in plot-driven thrillers.
AUTHORLINK: That is so interesting, thank you. The story is told in alternating chapters, from the points of view of the twin sisters, Rose and Bel; their co-dorm head, Sarah Donovan, and police records of interviews after the fact. What steps did you take to write it this way? For instance, did you write each perspective separately as a whole and then splice them up? If so, how do you know how much to offer and when along the plot timeline?
Along the way, adjustments are made, and plot points and timing are fine-tuned.
CAMPBELL: Great question. Writing multiple viewpoint, plot-driven suspense is complicated, and I’m sure different authors approach it differently. Personally, I write the novel as a progression rather than writing each character’s chapters separately and then splicing. In terms of how much to reveal, which character to reveal it through, and when – those decisions come with delving deep into the story and getting comfortable with the granular details. I write, then I rewrite — over and over again. Along the way, adjustments are made, and plot points and timing are fine-tuned. Then I give the draft to my editor and get her brilliant and detailed feedback. Then I rewrite some more. Even then, during the copyedit process, the copy editor may still find inconsistencies or plot holes that need to be addressed. So, it’s a long and complex process and lots of work. But I love it.
AUTHORLINK: Which was your favorite sister? It seems unfair that Rose was always managing the deluge from Bel’s bad behavior. Yet, Rose was annoying in her sanctimonious ways too.
CAMPBELL: I created them, and I love them both. I probably relate more to Rose, because I’m Type A, as she is. I’ve felt envious at times of people who seem to breeze through life on the strength of looks and charm. On the other hand, Bel is a tragic figure, and my heart goes out to her more because of how much she suffers.
AUTHORLINK: You reveal Heath Donovan’s flaws so skillfully against Sarah’s strengths that the reader can be forgiven for feeling no respect for him whatsoever. Was this difficult to portray?
CAMPBELL: I mentioned above that, in the first draft, Heath had his own chapters. All that material ended up informing his character, even though he’s now encountered solely through other characters’ viewpoints. Because I wrote him from his own viewpoint initially, I understand him deeply. Heath envisioned a very different life for himself than the one he ended up with as an English teacher at a boarding school in the wilds of rural New Hampshire. He was supposed to be a famous novelist leading a life of glamor and success. In his own mind, the disappointment he suffered justifies everything he does, no matter how much he hurts others. He’s a complete narcissist yet very charming and manipulative—in short, great fun to write.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, we can imagine. You write characterization expertly through dialogue. How did you learn this? Had you ever done a writing course?
… I learned to write fiction the way Stephen King advises – by reading. And then by writing and rewriting.
CAMPBELL: Thank you so much. I work very hard on my dialogue and it means a lot to me that you see results of that work on the page. I like to use dialogue to move the plot and develop the characters because it’s fast-paced and engaging for the reader. Dialogue is also a perfect way to “show, not tell.” As for how I learned – I learned to write fiction the way Stephen King advises – by reading. And then by writing and rewriting. And always, by considering and accepting criticism of my work.
AUTHORLINK: The epilogue was rather unsettling. Was it meant to mitigate some of the murderer’s guilt? What made you decide to include it and when did you know you were going to end the story this way? Is there a sequel in the future?
CAMPBELL: The epilogue was meant to explain a plot point and to give the reader an added twist at the end. Without spoiling anything, the epilogue brings back a character who left the main story part way through and shows that character was responsible for a piece of mischief that triggered the killer. The killer’s actions were still his or her own, and I never intended to mitigate guilt. Your question makes me wonder whether I unintentionally did so. I see that the epilogue serves to emphasize the unhealthy environment at the school that allowed abuse to fester and ultimately take its terrible toll. But that shouldn’t excuse the abuse, should it?
There is no sequel planned. All of my psychological suspense novels are standalones.
AUTHORLINK: Tell us about your writing day. How many hours do you work and how many words do you want to accomplish? How long does it take you to write a polished first draft? You once said, “Once I have a solid first draft, my editor reads it and gives me notes. Then the rewrite process begins. For every page that makes it into the finished book, I probably wrote three to four pages that got edited, changed and rewritten beyond all recognition.” (Book Q &As with Deborah Kalb, 6 January 2018)
CAMPBELL: Every book is different. Some come harder than others and take longer to write. I don’t have a specific number of hours or words per day that I’m trying to achieve. Having said that, in order to maintain my publishing schedule, I need to write one book a year. I think having a deadline is healthy. As an author, it’s tempting to keep tinkering, and easy to feel that the book is never quite perfect. I like knowing that it has to end. I do put in full writing days. To me, that means six to eight hours at the computer. If I’m facing an imminent deadline, I may work longer hours than that. There are also weeks when I don’t write at all, though I never have a full week where I don’t work at all. As a regularly published author, I’m always doing something, because I have to promote my books as well as write them.
AUTHORLINK: It all sounds very demanding but thrilling at the same time. You had a prior writing career before writing your current books (i.e. It’s Always the Husband, She was the Quiet One and A Stranger on the Beach) under a different name and you published four books in a procedural series about a federal prosecutor in New York. Apparently, they were lifted by your personal experiences as a Federal Prosecutor, but unfortunately, they didn’t really take off. With the benefit of hindsight, what kind of reasons would you say those were? How do you feel you’ve evolved as a writer since your very first book?
I’m not sure anybody knows what makes a book take off.
CAMPBELL: I’m not sure anybody knows what makes a book take off. Those books were procedurals, meaning that they featured a law enforcement protagonist who solved crimes for a living, specifically, a federal prosecutor. They were a bit more formulaic, as procedurals tend to be – start with a dead body, end with the killer in handcuffs. That sort of book has fallen out of fashion and perhaps was on its way out at the time. The series also featured a Latina main character. (Which was drawn from life, since I am half Puerto Rican). These days, readers are embracing diverse characters, but the first book in that series came out in 2005. I think those books were good, and I’m proud of them. But I do feel that what I’m writing now is deeper, more textured, and more character-driven. Is that why I’m seeing greater success now? Are the books better? I honestly don’t know. Maybe.
AUTHORLINK: Your next book, ‘A Stranger on the Beach’ is scheduled to be released on 23 July 2019 by St. Martin’s Press. When did you start writing this book? Can you tell us a bit about it? Have you given any thought to your next book? Can you tell us a bit about that too?
CAMPBELL: I started writing Stanger about a year ago, had a polished draft by September and rewrote extensively through the fall. Here’s a brief description:
Caroline appears to have it all. But her marriage and her lavish lifestyle are collapsing around her. When she looks out the window of her opulent oceanfront mansion and glimpses Aidan, a handsome stranger, she can’t imagine the destruction that awaits. Their brief affair means nothing to her and everything to him. As Aidan’s obsession with Caroline turns toxic, her family is threatened. But who is playing whom in this deadly game of obsession and control?
I am starting work on my fourth book, but not ready to share details about it yet.
AUTHORLINK: No worries. And just for some last minute and light-hearted questions that you must answer in a few words or less, can you tell us:-
- What is your idea of perfect happiness? Family and meaningful work.
- What is the trait you most deplore in others? I try not to deplore. There’s too much of that going around these days.
- Which living person do you most admire? I admire people who commit themselves to working for the common good.
- What is your greatest extravagance? Shoes!
- What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
AUTHORLINK: Great answers! Ms. Campbell, thank you for your time today. We wish your continued success with your writing and a safe and happy holiday season!
…with persistence, all good things are possible!
CAMPBELL: Anna, thank you so much for featuring me and for asking such thoughtful and insightful questions. A final word of encouragement for those writers who struggle every day in the hopes of becoming published authors – with persistence, all good things are possible! Happy holidays to you and your readers.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you, it’s our pleasure.
About the Author: Michele Campbell is a graduate of Harvard College and Stanford Law School and a former federal prosecutor in New York City who specialized in international narcotics and gang cases. A while back, she said goodbye to her big-city legal career and moved with her husband and two children to an idyllic New England college town a lot like Belle River in IT’S ALWAYS THE HUSBAND. Since then, she has spent her time teaching criminal and constitutional law and writing novels. She has had many close female friends, a few frenemies, and only one husband, who – to the best of her knowledge – has never tried to kill her.