“The things that go wrong”: Author Jennifer duBois discusses her literary thriller CARTWHEEL

Posted by October 24th, 2013

jennifer Dubois author photo

Book Country chats with CARTWHEEL author Jennifer Dubois about staying organized while writing in multiple POVs, alternating points of telling, & what’s different about publishing for the second time.

As Halloween approaches, we’ve been talking a lot about how to write the things that scare us, whether that be in horror, memoir, or any of the genres we love. Ripe for a literary exploration is the fear of what could go wrong. Jennifer duBois’s pageturning new novel, CARTWHEEL, follows the story of the Hayes family when daughter Lily is accused of murdering her roommate, Katy, while studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I wanted to chat with Jennifer about CARTWHEEL for a lot of reasons, not least because I found her book addictive, horrifying, and chilling, just as a thriller should be. The characters were shockingly well-drawn, flawed, often foolish, in a lot of trouble, and never anything but entirely human. CARTWHEEL is also a narratively complex novel; it is told from the close third person POVs of several different characters, including Anna, Lily’s younger sister, and Eduardo, the state prosecutor assigned with bringing Lily to trial in Argentina. We also peer into the head of Lily’s dad and her boyfriend, who see Lily in completely different, but entirely credible, ways. It’s easy to see why just two days after we did this Q&A, it was announced that Jennifer had won a Whiting Writers’ Award. To have that much happening in a novel–and to be able to keep the story moving with the pace of an old-fashioned chase thriller–shows truly remarkable writing prowess.

LS: On the cover of the CARTWHEEL ARC was the tagline: The things that go wrong are rarely the things you’ve thought to worry about. Tell us about the theme of “fear” in this novel—how did you use it to keep the story moving forward?

JD: That line comes from the perspective of Andrew, Lily’s father, and it relates to his strange way of thinking when it comes to questions of loss and luck. On some level, Andrew feels that the loss of his first daughter, Janie, should inure him from the subsequent bad luck of Lily’s arrest. And all of the main characters’ fears tend to be calibrated with this unconscious sense that there’s a redistributive impulse in the universe. This notion connects to everything from Lily’s assumption that Katy can’t be simultaneously beautiful and interesting, to the way that both Eduardo and Anna gauge Lily through the prism of her life’s good luck; though Eduardo and Anna differ in their assessments of Lily’s guilt, they both agree that Lily’s expectation of the world’s kindness toward her is a fundamental element of why she winds up where she does—that her good luck in life has somehow brought about this bad luck. And at the heart of all of this is a basic resistance to viewing individuals or situations as singular, as opposed to archetypal or representative, which is one of the major moral questions I wanted to explore in the book.

CARTWHEEL by Jennifer duBois coverLS: Tell me how you see your book—as literary fiction? As thriller? As a hybrid? As a writer, do those genre distinctions mean anything to you?

JD: I think genre categories are only useful inasmuch as they tell readers what to expect from a book, and I don’t think CARTWHEEL has any of the qualities readers might reasonably expect from a thriller. I hope it’s engaging, but I don’t think it’s particularly suspenseful. [Editor’s note: I found the book HIGHLY suspenseful!] I hope its events are compelling, but they are really just the jumping off point for a broader philosophical and psychological investigation. It has plenty of mysteries, but the mysteries are primarily epistemological. The only thing I think CARTWHEEL has in common with a thriller is that it takes a murder and criminal trial (both off-stage) as its subject. And murders and criminal trials aren’t things that only happen in genre fiction; they happen in real life, too, so I think they’re fair game for literary exploration.

LS: Tell me about how you researched Buenos Aires: the city itself, the legal system, and the culture of the people who live there. Was there anything you found out about Buenos Aires that you weren’t expecting?

JD: CARTWHEEL wasn’t trying to assert anything about Argentina specifically rather than trying to explore something about human nature generally. There were a couple of parameters that led me to select Buenos Aires as a setting: I wanted a place where an American student might study abroad, where she might expect to know the legal system better than she does, where she might be more confident in her language skills than she should be. I also liked the idea of a country that was Catholic, as well as country with which the U.S. has such a troubled history—both of those elements seemed like they might intersect with Lily’s gender, sexuality, and nationality in really interesting ways. But ultimately Buenos Aires—like Lily herself—is really a template for each character’s thinking and psychology. Lily is completely enraptured by Buenos Aires, even as she sometimes acts on her enthusiasm in inept ways. Andrew dislikes it, but really has no idea whether he dislikes it for its own sake or for the reason why he’s there—he’s always forgetting that people travel there on purpose, for vacation. I’ve always felt that the setting was somewhat secondary for Cartwheel, because the events could have happened anywhere—not just the crime itself, but all the misapprehension, cultural and otherwise, that goes on afterward.

LS: CARTWHEEL moves around between narrative POVs, and the point of telling moves around in time as well. Was it hard to stay organized as you did this? Can you give us some tips for experimenting with this kind of narrative-jumping in a way that won’t make our heads spin?

JD: It was very hard to stay organized. I wrote everything completely out of order, and then by the end had four separate 100 page chunks of point of view and had to figure out how to weave it all together. My first attempt was a disaster, but my second attempt organized itself around two timelines—before and after the crime. Once I did that, each timeline could unfold chronologically, eventually joining each other in the final quarter of the book. That seemed to maintain the multidimensionality of the perspectives while being (I hope!) basically comprehensible.

LS: What’s the biggest difference between publishing your second book as compared to your first?

The biggest difference is that I’m less invested in the external life of the book—my emotional energy has stayed more focused on actual writing. Partly this is because the experience of publishing my first book taught me that it’s a mistake to ever try to sum up your book’s life in the world, because you never have any idea (or much control over) what’s about to happen next. And even more than that, writing CARTWHEEL has made me feel confident that writing will always be in my life. Knowing that makes me feel protected from the publishing process, in a way, because I know that the most important thing is also the one thing that definitely isn’t going anywhere—I couldn’t stop writing if I tried.

CARTWHEEL was published by Random House and was edited by David Ebershoff, whom we featured on the blog earlier this month. Visit Jennifer’s website, find her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter. You can also watch Random House’s trailer for CARTWHEEL here.

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More from the Book Country blogYou also might like: Kelley Armstrong on Crossing Genres.

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