Monday, June 19, 2017

Hallie Ephron: How the idea for You'll Never Know, Dear crept up on her

HALLIE EPHRON is the New York Times best-selling author of suspense novels including You’ll Never Know, Dear. She is a four-time finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and her Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel was nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards. She lives near Boston and was the Boston Globe crime fiction book reviewer for over a decade.

How the Idea for You’ll Never Know, Dear crept up on her

Usually my book ideas grow out of my own experience. Giving birth to my first child and going to yard sales inspired Never Tell a Lie. Watching my neighbor get carried out of her house in the dead of winter, and firefighters going in and finding a hoarder’s den inspired There Was an Old Woman. Growing up around the corner from an infamous Hollywood murder (Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato…) inspired Night Night, Sleep Tight. I’ve always set my books in places I know well: New England, New York City, Beverly Hills.

My new novel, You’ll Never Know, Dear, is my first book inspired by someone else’s experience and set in a place I’ve barely visited.

The idea came from my friend Mary Alice who told me about helping her mother, Blanche, move out of their family home in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Blanche had always been a talented crafts person. An artist, really. She made porcelain dolls, so her house had been full of supplies for doll making—modeling clay, molds, glazes and paints, a kiln, and of course a battalion of finished dolls with their little shoes and embroidered dresses and panties.

My friend told me that her kids refused to sleep in the bedroom where Blanche kept dolls. They said, “You’d wake up and they’d all be looking at you.” Blanche proclaimed those grandchildren of hers “little sissies.”

No sissy herself, Blanche slept with a pistol tucked into an eyeglass case (the kind you squeeze the top to open) under her pillow. Detail upon detail, I could feel Blanche turning into a character into my head.

As my friend was helping Blanche empty her house, under every bed she found boxes and boxes of doll parts. Arms. Legs. Bodies. Heads. Eyeballs.

 “Creepy,” I said when she told me that.

 “Put it in your next book,” she shot back.

And I did. Blanche is the inspiration for my Miss Sorrel, a 70-something doll maker who suffers no fools in You’ll Never Know, Dear. And those doll parts? They’re a key element in the plot.

The book opens with Miss Sorrel and her grown daughter, Lis, having sweet tea and egg salad sandwiches on the porch of their home. We meet Miss Sorrel for the first time.

Miss Sorrel rocked gently in the glider and sipped sweet tea from a glass dripping condensation. With her powdered face, spots of rouge on each cheek, and lipstick carefully painted on, Miss Sorrel was starting to look like one of the porcelain dolls she so prized. That, despite the un-doll-like creases that ran from the corners of her lips down either side of her chin, the crinkles that radiated from the corners of her eyes, and the skin that had started to lose its grip on her fine-boned skull. 

Forty years ago, Miss Sorrel’s younger daughter, 4-year-old Janey, was taken from their front yard. The special porcelain doll Miss Sorrel had made for her disappeared with her. I knew Miss Sorrel and Lis, the older sister who was supposed to be watching Janey, would carry a burden of grief and guilt over the loss.

In the book’s opening scene, Janey’s doll comes back. A woman who delivers it refuses to tell Miss Sorrel where she got it, interested only in the reward Miss Sorrel is offering. The doll is old and battered, creepy the way old dolls can be. Miss Sorrel is sure it’s the doll that was Janey’s. Lis isn’t convinced.

I wanted to set the book in Beaufort, South Carolina. I’d visited there twice, briefly, but a fresh visit convinced me that I’d have to fictionalize it. My prose could never match native son Pat Conroy’s. Plus, one of my characters had to be the sheriff, and Beaufort had a larger-than-life sheriff who served for decades, called himself a white witch doctor, and was so beloved that they named a bridge after him. Anyone who lives within a hundred miles of Beaufort would balk at my fictional sheriff.

So I invented “Bonsecours.” I hope, a ringer for Beaufort. Gracious homes, live oaks, camellias and wisteria; Spanish moss hanging indiscriminately from tree branches, phone wires, and fences. It’s got a charming downtown with a riverfront park, and shrimp boats (Forrest Gump was filmed there). The riverbanks are thick with sticky mud and the river has treacherous, nine-foot tides.

Writing Southern characters was another challenge. I had to slow down and kept telling myself: We’re not in Boston anymore. The narrative needed to be a bit more leisurely and my characters, bless their hearts, had to have southern accents and have mastered the art of the gracious insult.

After I wrote the opening scenes, I had no idea what happened to Janey. But I knew that doll parts would be the key to unlocking the mystery, and that the river would play a part as well. Somehow. It wasn’t until I finished writing the book that I figured out how

PHOTO: Hallie with one of Blanche’s porcelain dolls

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