Annie Harnett’s Rabbit Cake Deals With Death, Sleepwalking and a Child’s Ostracism
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Diane Slocum
In Annie Hartnett’s debut novel, Rabbit Cake, ten-year-old Elvis lost her mother in a sleep-swimming accident. Or was it an accident? Elvis sets out to find the true story behind her mother’s death and finds some surprising situations along the way. In the meantime, the precocious child has to ride herd on her sleepwalking older sister, hoping she won’t kill herself or someone else during night-time binges. Her father meanders around in his wife’s bathrobe and lipstick, while Elvis faces challenges of her own when she gets kicked out of her beloved volunteer job at the zoo and faces ostracism as the school weirdo.
|“I named her Elvis because I was obsessed with Elvis Presley as a kid.”|
AUTHORLINK: How did you decide to make your protagonist 10-years-old and name her Elvis? How did Elvis’ personality come to you? How did you build on your original idea?
HARTNETT: I love adult stories told by child narrators, like Swamplandia! by Karen Russell for example, and wanted to do something similar. I named her Elvis because I was obsessed with Elvis Presley as a kid – so it didn’t seem too far-fetched to have a girl named Elvis, when Elvis P. was so tied up in my own girlhood memories. Elvis’s personality started out as a combination of my childhood self, Harriet the Spy, and Ramona Quimby, but soon she became someone all her own.
AUTHORLINK: Where did you get the idea to make rabbit cakes an ongoing part of the story?
HARTNETT: My mother occasionally made rabbit cakes for Easter growing up, and I started writing the first draft of the book right before Easter, back in 2012. So rabbit cakes were on my mind, and then I thought: what if a family didn’t just make them for Easter, but for other special and even not-so-special occasions? And I ran with it.
AUTHORLINK: You live in Providence and work in Boston. Your story takes place in Alabama. Did you live in the south? Why Alabama?
HARTNETT: I was living in Alabama when I started writing the book – I went to the University of Alabama for my MFA. It just felt like the right place for this family. But really, it could be small town anywhere.
|“I really love animals, but I definitely had to do a lot of research. I didn’t know most of the facts . . .”|
AUTHORLINK: Elvis has a great interest in animals and tells us a lot about them. How did this develop? Is this something you’ve studied or did you research them for Elvis?
HARTNETT: I really love animals, but I definitely had to do a lot of research. I didn’t know most of the facts before writing the book, but it was a joy to research the animal world.
AUTHORLINK: You also provided a lot of information about sleepwalking. How did that become a major part of the story and how did you research that?
HARTNETT: From the very first day I started, it was a story about sleepwalkers. I wanted the mother to die while sleepwalking, and then for sleepwalking to become something that the rest of the family needs to fear. That’s the seed I began with. And I knew sleepwalking was genetic, but I still had to do a lot of research beyond that.
AUTHORLINK: Despite the sorrowful and worrisome aspects of your story, there is a lot of humor. Can you give any advice on how to add humor to serious stories?
HARTNETT: The humor comes from the absurd things we say. Pay attention in your life when someone says the wrong thing, or it’s interpreted the wrong way. Make sure your characters don’t always understand each other, because there’s humor in that moment and it also makes the story feel more true-to-life.
|“I definitely wrote my way into the plot the first time through, and then went back and got more organized.“|
AUTHORLINK: Did you plan how the story would go with all its twists and turns, or did it develop organically as you wrote? Were any parts especially difficult to work out?
HARTNETT: I definitely wrote my way into the plot the first time through, and then went back and got more organized. But I like to let writing surprise me, so I try not to plan too much in the first draft. The end was the most difficult – because grief goes on and on in some ways, it doesn’t have an end. I do like the ending of the book now, but it took me a lot of drafts to get there.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
HARTNETT: A new novel about a crime that happens in a small town… It’s also a dark comedy, so I hope readers of Rabbit Cake will like it.
|About the Author:|
Annie Hartnett received her MA from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. She has received awards from Bread Loaf, McSweeney’s and the Indiana Review and was the 2013-14 winner of the Writer in Residence Fellowship for the Associates of the Boston Public Library. She teaches at Grub Street, an independent writing center, and lives with her husband and border collie. Rabbit Cake is her first novel
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Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.
This post was written by Diane Slocum