Please welcome Cornelia Read: talented author, reformed debutante, and a woman who's always willing to say what's on her mind!
1. Congratulations on your successful follow-up featuring Madeline Dare! Let’s start with telling readers a bit about who Madeline is and how she arrived at where she is now - the Berkshires.
Thank you so much!
Madeline is, like me, a woman whose “money is so old there’s none left.” I gave her most of my own backstory, but she’s a lot quicker with a one-liner, and a lot tougher for the bad guys to cow. She’s also a far better hand with an expensive shotgun than I am, though I don’t utterly suck with low-rent rifles or BB guns.
She left her husband’s hometown of Syracuse, New York, at the end of my debut novel. The Crazy School opens with her losing ground rapidly in a West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, classroom on the campus of the Santangelo Academy, a boarding school for disturbed kids.
2. Your bio reveals your reluctant admission to being a “reformed debutante,” while at the same time revealing the other side of your upbringing involving the more radical 60s. How much did these two very different worlds influence your creation of Madeline: her wariness of the world in general, and authority and conformity in particular?
Utterly. As much for me as for Madeline. We are both simultaneously snobs and mendicants, rootless in the world despite the supposed gravity of our storied ancestry.
I still claim to be the only member of the New York Junior Assemblies to arrive at the Plaza Hotel’s Grand Ballroom with a tin of Copenhagen in the recesses of her great-grandmother’s beaded evening bag.
WASP Noir, baby: Nouveau poor, and we don’t know whether we’re more annoyed by Kissinger or by whiny Baby-Boomers swanning around in Birkenstocks and expensively rumpled hemp garments. Depends on the day, I guess.
3. One has to admire Madeline’s unique view of the world, yet her cynicism does in fact present an obstacle in getting to know who’s really behind the tuff façade. Was it difficult to balance these seemingly opposing qualities of enigmatic and piercingly honest?
Yes, I would say so. My “people” don’t have a particularly useful vocabulary with which to express emotion. It’s sort of the opposite of the Inuit lexicon for snow—everything boils down to, “thank you, I would indeed greatly enjoy a refill on this absolutely cunning pitcher of gin.”
This is not to say that we don’t experience the full complement of passions, just that they are left to rattle around inside us building velocity—“unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown”—until we have strokes. Or start wars and stuff.
One of my college writing teachers commented that I was “using humor to mask true emotion.”
I looked at her and said, “well duh.”
4. It’s interesting that you’ve set your last two novels in the 80s, at least up to this point. Why did you choose this particular time period?
At the first-ever meeting of my mystery writing group, Mysterious Writ (held in a local Starbucks because our founder Charles King wanted to make sure none of us were serial killers, before revealing the address of his apartment), I volunteered to submit pages by email for review during our second session.
Driving back up the hill in the dark from that meeting, I began to wonder what the hell I was going to write about. I’d never tried my hand at mystery before, so I thought about whose worked I liked most: Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Willeford… all the deep dark noir folk.
I wanted to write something in that tradition, and decided immediately that the most noir place I’ve ever been in my life (outside February in Ireland) was Syracuse, New York. I lived there from June of 1986 to June of 1989, begging my husband to leave with me nearly every day of those three years.
Et voilà: ‘Cuse in 1988, starting with the time in mid-summer when a house on the next street burst into flames two nights in a row.
When we finally achieved escape velocity, I dragged Intrepid Spouse to the Berkshires with me. I’d been living there when I first met him, crashing on a friend’s dorm-room floor following the interminable college years during which my vacations were spent shivering in the unheated third-floor former servants’ quarters of my mother’s boyfriend’s place in Centre Island, New York.
5. Your latest novel, focusing on troubled youths, is compassionate and provocative, giving readers a chance to look a little deeper at teens that might otherwise be written off for their inability to conform. What might you like to say to those who choose to medicate them into submission, rather than listen?
Well, first off, I’m wholeheartedly not anti-medication, I’m just anti-SLOPPY- medication.
I think there’s a lot of confusion out there about the effects of the majority of psychotropic drugs. They’re not all used to tranquilize people into cud-chewing conformity, though God knows Thorazine and many of the heavy downers were used to that end for generations.
Half the time the response of the press to Ritalin, for instance, seems to indicate that it’s thought of as a heinous new form of über-Seconal, something Marilyn Monroe would have gulped down with bourbon in hope of a decent night’s sleep, or that the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers might have attempted to OD a turkey on so there’d be no actual bloodshed on Thanksgiving.
This, of course, is total crap. It’s speed, and speed helps some people concentrate, if they’ve got a particular kink in their brain chemistry.
I have more of a problem with those who think that talk therapy—no matter the quality and training of its practitioners—is the be-all and end-all when it comes to mental health. The Crazy School takes place in the fall of 1989, which was coincidentally the last gasp of talk therapy’s hegemony, just prior to Prozac and the other SSRIs getting real momentum.
This doesn’t mean I think people shouldn’t listen to teenagers, just that I don’t think they need to be force-fed Freud and Jung and then told they’re “in denial” when it hurts going down.
I mean, Freud was a coke addict whose first theory on how to cure female psychosis was to have sinus surgery performed on each and every woman assigned to him as a client. One of the earliest victims of this nearly died of infection when the surgeon left a sponge inside her face before sewing everything back up again.
Not to mention the complete inanity entailed in much of his writings…. This is a guy who claimed that women originally thought up weaving and textiles generally because they braided their pubic hair in a sorry attempt to form mock penises. Gee, what a brain wave—sign me up for the Full Woody Allen, you know?
And don’t get me started on that meshugeneh Bruno Bettelheim. We’d be here all week. As the mother of an autistic child, I’d like to dig up his grave and hit him over the head with the shovel. Repeatedly.
The most wonderful thing for me about having this book published has been the number of former students of the real school whom I’ve met while on tour. So many of the kids weren’t believed when they tried to describe the abuses that took place on the DeSisto School’s campus, and with this book they finally have validation from a former staff member. I’ve found their response tremendously moving.
6. Speaking of youth, conformity, and those with a conflicting role in growing up, was becoming a successful novelist on your radar when you were young?
I was always compelled to write. My very first try at using the vertical kind of lined paper in second grade resulted in an impassioned essay in defense of Angela Davis, and I wrote sixty-page short stories in both fourth and fifth grades (both involving friendless orphans who miraculously acquired ponies by the final page, if memory serves).
In sixth grade, I wrote the diary of a child spy “Call Me Stringbean,” which was taken by my language arts teacher to a gifted-child symposium at the UN. Supposedly, the Soviet contingent was very upset about the level of brain-washing this indicated as being rampant in the U.S. educational system.
Despite all this, I used to pray for a career in advertising. I was hip enough even as a kid to know that most novelists qualify for food stamps, if they give up the day job.
7. Quickly, on your dinner list, if both were living and able, Jimmy Choo or Hunter S. Thompson? And why?
Oh, dude, totally Hunter S. Thompson, in a drug-ravaged heartbeat.
I wrote my first term paper about him in boarding school. It started out with the quote, “Hunter S. Thompson is Mr. Toad cruising stoned down the Pacific Coast Highway in a rented white Cadillac convertible…”
My English teacher thought I’d made him up.
And as for Jimmy Choo, if I want to buy expensive shoes, I go for Gucci loafers and Belgian slippers, with the occasional pair of Top-Sider sneakers for leavening.
I know that many women pine to acquire untold pairs of “fuck-me” shoes. I vastly prefer the nuanced authority of “fuck-you” shoes.
8. And, well, of course, for those who have read the wonderful novels that have come before, and look forward to the next, can you give us a hint as to when and what?
My working title for the third Madeline novel is Invisible Boy. It’s set in Manhattan and Jamaica, Queens, in the fall of 1990, and based on the story of a distant cousin of mine, Cate Ludlam, who got involved in preservation of the oldest cemetery in Jamaica some twenty years ago. She was leading a team of high-school volunteers clearing brush there one late summer afternoon, when they discovered the skeleton of a murdered three-year-old boy.
Thank you so much for these wonderful questions!
Cornelia Read grew up in New York, California, and Hawaii. She is a reformed debutante who currently lives in Berkeley with her husband and twin daughters. To learn more about the author, you can visit her Web site at: www.corneliaread.com.
And her group blog with authors Jim Born, Paul Levine, Patty Smiley, and Jacqueline Winspear, at: