Two unsolved murders, a killer or killers still at large, and David Rizzo was still missing. And though the murders were grotesque and baffling, local interest peaked and then fell away with the first melt of spring… By the time the cherry blossoms blossomed and fell, and the Wallkill River surged into the flood plain, David Rizzo's disappearance and the two unsolved murders had vanished from the local papers and from casual conversation. Any fear of a killer residing nearby dissipated in the balmy, scented air…
In this expanded edition of SAY NOTHING, rookie Private Investigator Alison Jenkins, recently returned from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan to her home in Ulster County, NY, teams up with her mentor, PI Margaret Singer, to solve the disappearance of a decorated veteran. Not far into the investigation, the detectives realize that the young man's disappearance is only one of several related crimes committed in their jurisdiction and that the FBI has taken a controlling interest in the case and invoked the Patriot Act. When David's girlfriend and a young Iranian girl are found murdered, the case becomes even more complex. At each turn in the investigation, the sense of danger intensifies. A political thriller, a murder mystery, and a meditation on the futility of war, SAY NOTHING will twist its way into your psyche and not let go.
A CONVERSATION WITH CAROL BERGMAN
How did you get started writing?
I was living in England with my husband and teaching in London secondary schools. A reform movement was in progress, but the first school I worked in was Dickensian and I witnessed some awful brutality. My heart was broken every day when the boys and girls, some of them recently arrived from the Caribbean and barely literate, were caned and verbally abused by the teachers. I became devoted to the children, got to know their parents, and began to speak out by writing short, passionate editorials for the Times Educational Supplement. I bought small, orange notebooks from WH Smith and took copious notes about everything: overheard dialogue, discussions with the Headmaster, conferences, visits to my students' homes. As my articles were published, I became persona non grata in London schools and took a job with a peripatetic remedial service which kept me moving around. I couldn't hide my identity--I was a Yank--and in a way my presence became a deterrent, but eventually I began to teach part-time at the University of London. Then my husband got me a job as a book reviewer for the Times and I reviewed everything that came in about the United States. Book reviewing is a very good discipline for a writer. I'd moved from op-eds to book reviews. What next? Feature articles. My beat was still education and the intersection of race and education. I worked for a couple of producers at BBC radio as an interviewer, which was also good discipline and training.
I didn't start writing fiction until I returned to the United States. After ten years abroad, it was a difficult transition. I'd grown up in New York but always felt more European. Moving from one country to another, from one continent to another, two stories spilled out of me which were heartfelt but unpublishable. It took a few more years for me to get serious about fiction. I'd started writing for the women's magazines and an editor of mine confided that she was bored with her job and wanted to do some writing for herself. So we formed a writers' group with three poets and three prose writers and set to work. The poets loosened me considerably--all those images and quirky sentence fragments--and I began to take more risks. It was good fun freeing myself from journalistic linear writing. I didn't have to corroborate facts, write to a word count, or a deadline.
"Say Nothing" is your first murder mystery. Why did you decide to try genre fiction after writing a lot of literary fiction and narrative nonfiction?
I had never read many murder mysteries though my mother was devoted to them. I would get bored easily. But then my brother-in-law, a noir journalist, if that is possible, suggested I try Sue Grafton. She was a master, or should I say mistress? I once heard her talking about her process. She kept a second file on the computer as she was working on a book with all her research and ideas. She began every morning talking to herself about the progress she'd made and what she hoped to accomplish that day. The first line of the entry was always, "Just checking in for a little chat." I thought that was charming as well as useful.
A novelist has to stay with a story for at least a year. I find that challenging. Even when I was writing the first draft of "Say Nothing" in 2012, I was working on other things, though most of it was laid out in the summer when I wasn't teaching. Now, so many years later, I live in upstate New York, where the book is set, and though I've been coming up here for ten years to visit my daughter and son-in-law, I have learned a great deal more about the culture, the local towns, and the history. I joined the library as soon as I arrived and got immersed in the legacy of slavery in the Hudson Valley, in particular, and the repercussions we are still feeling today. My fascination with the history got folded into the expanded and much revised "Say Nothing."
Is it usual for an author to revise a book that has already been published?
It isn't usual, mostly because of the economics of re-issuing a book. Louise Erdrich revised her first novel, "Love Medicine," and it was re-published probably because, by then, her reputation was solid and the publisher knew they could recover their investment. Erdrich was fortunate to be able to return to her first novel as a more evolved writer. We get better, we see what we could have done better. I don't usually return to early work, but in this case, I was determined to make the book richer and more interesting. I have the luxury of being the co-owner of a publishing company—Mediacs—with my husband, Jim. We're a small, family-owned and run business; our daughter, Chloe Annetts, a well established graphic designer, who also has her own business, is our designer. We also have a publicist among others in our consortium. Bloomsbury in the mountains, I call us now. We publish a variety of books, as well as my books, especially if my agent says to me, "It will take at least two years and even then I don't know if I'll be able to sell it." That's a common refrain these days, unfortunately. The publishing business has changed in the digital age. It's smaller and more competitive. Publishing houses go for the big bucks, agents only work on commission, and not every writer is a super star. Most writers, in fact, are what the industry calls "B" writers, meaning that they are good writers, very good writers, but may not be marketable writers in this historical moment. Like the news cycle, the historical moment shifts rapidly. What was fashionable one season has fallen out of favor the next.
"Say Nothing" is sometimes very dark. One reader complained that he felt "abandoned" by the story. Do you ever worry about alienating your reader? Do you write to please an audience? Or to please yourself?
I never intend to disturb, abandon, or alienate my readers; the reader is not in my mind. Nor do I write to please an audience. My goal is to write as best I can and to feel, in the end, that I have done the best I can. Except for my years as a journalist working for newspapers and magazines, I have never considered marketability when I write. That is one of the joys of writing fiction as opposed to nonfiction. So when a reader says he feels abandoned, I find that statement provocative, but I also cannot do anything about it because it is such a personal response. I studied "reader-response" theory in graduate school and I find it helpful to think about it when readers respond to my work in unexpected ways. It hypothesizes that a work of art does not exist until we experience it. If I have created a sensory and psychic sensation of abandonment, that's an accomplishment. But the work stands on its own and I have to let it go into the reader's mind and heart.
Do you enjoy the editing process of a manuscript?
In my experience, every writer enjoys the project they are working on at the moment and assumes it's a masterpiece during the early drafting stage. This is a delusion, of course, but it keeps us writing. Once I'm in the line-edit or copy-edit phase of the project, I begin to doubt whether the writing is any good at all; editors are tough. They try to be kind, but all emotion I may have had about the story I've written dissipates when I receive the marked-up manuscript. It's hard work entering all the changes and considering an editor's suggestions. I'm always relieved when it is done and the book is published and read. By then, I've already moved on. New projects surface as old ones fade away.
Can you describe your reading habits and name your literary influences?
I remember reading about President Clinton's reading habits when he came into office. He was a "voracious" reader. So am I and so are most writers I know. To pinpoint particular influences is difficult. I suppose I'd have to say that I am influenced by everything I read and that I admire precision in language, strong character development, and a committed narrative voice in both fiction and nonfiction.
I do have some favorite writers I return to often. Graham Greene is one of them. Each sentence is a gem. And he writes from a very deep place. I found it interesting that in a country—England – that does not value psychotherapy, he had been sent to an analyst at a very young age. He had been playing Russian Roulette with his father's gun and his parents thought he might need some help. That's an understatement; I am sure they were alarmed. To send him to an analyst rather than the local National Health clinic was inspired. Have you ever noticed how many dreams appear in a Graham Greene novel?
I also return to the classics often: Wharton, Trollope, Bronte, Austen, Shakespeare and am often impressed and inspired by contemporary fiction. I think Ann Patchett's "Bel Canto" will become a classic. So, too, Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things." I love all of Raymond Carver and Carson McCullers. My fiction list is a long one and it keeps refreshing. I try to read far beyond the boundaries of North America and pay attention to books in translation and the larger English-speaking world—Asia, Africa, Australia, Canada.
I also read a lot of history—I minored in American history at university—and find many historians compelling story tellers. I'm particularly smitten with the history of exploration and colonial history, which will be obvious for readers of "Say Nothing." I read a lot of biographies of writers and artists. This year I read Hayden Herrera's biography of Arshile Gorky, Patti Smith's autobiography of her relationship with Mapplethorpe and a new biography of Ernest Hemingway, the first one by a woman: Mary V. Dearborn. It's a page turner.
Even my students' work influences me. I learn so much about writing through them and with them. They recommend books and we often begin a workshop with a "book share." Reading and writing are interactive; there is no way to do one without the other.