Miranda Beverly-Whittemore is a writer of smart, literary work and even though her third novel “Bittersweet” is a suspense-filled page-turner, it’s every bit as a smart and literary as her previous novels.
It’s evocative, with its lush descriptions of setting, its ominous tone, and its willingness to examine wealth and class up close. “Bittersweet” is one of those rare books you’ll be compelled to read in one sitting.
Katrina: “Bittersweet” is your third novel. How did the writing of this novel differ from the others? How did the process of writing the previous novels inform the writing of this one? Was it easier?
Miranda: I came to this novel from a much different place than I’d ever written a book before; my second book had sold quite poorly, and then I’d tried to sell two novels, to no avail. So when I started thinking about Bittersweet, I was also thinking seriously about my career. Did I still want to be a writer? Was that still tenable? What did that look like? For me, writing the next book entailed choosing a story that quickened my pulse but that also had some legs in terms of sales potential. Given that very businesslike decision, I was surprised to discover that writing Bittersweet was so much fun! It was a real liberation to write a book that would be a gift of pleasure to my readers.
Katrina: Its plot is quite complex. There are many twists and turns. How did you keep it all straight in your head? How did you organize the material and keep the events organic to the storyline?
Miranda: I had multiple outlines for Bittersweet—one giant color-coded one on my wall, one on Ancestry.com (where I kept track of the whole family), one involving notecards (one color for each main character, each card held a “beat”), and a calendar that listed exactly what was happening on every given day in the book. But I also like to break the rules of my outlines, so I didn’t feel afraid of re-ordering moments or re-envisioning plot-points when the book needed it. A lot of that neatening up also came about in revision.
Katrina: How did the premise of “Bittersweet” first present itself?
Miranda: I had long wanted to write about my family’s house up on Lake Champlain, but I didn’t know what that story would be until I got a taste of the Winslows. They kind of just started gossiping in my head one day—about a cousin who had killed himself—and I realized that the fractured marriage of those (pretty atrocious) people and that (phenomenally beautiful) place would make for an interesting book. But it took a couple years to realize that that the book would only work if it were told through the eyes of the outsider Mabel.
Katrina: You describe so beautifully the setting of Vermont, a place I’m intimately familiar with. Why did you choose Vermont?
Miranda: My family has a place up on Lake Champlain; it’s the only home owned by anyone in my family that’s remained consistent throughout my life. I have a deep connection to the rhythms of that area—what the birdsong sounds like on a spring morning, the smell of the water, the thirst one feels after a sailboat ride on a hot day. I worked hard to make the place a strong character in the book, as realized as any of the people in it. It’s funny, because I love that place so much, but in the book it takes on a deeply forboding air, like the forest out of Grimm’s fairytales.
Katrina: I’m always interested in how a writer works, and more specifically, the revision process. Please tell us about how you revise.
Miranda: I tend to start with a pretty in-depth outline, which translates to a polished first draft. Once I have that, I enlist a few trusted readers and ask them for notes. In the time it takes them to read and draft comments, I take a break from the book (usually to catch up with my life- my house is usually a disaster by this point, I haven’t answered emails for weeks, and my kid is desperate for me). Then once I’ve got notes back, I put them together, read the book again, and try to apply most of what I’ve heard onto the draft. Rinse and repeat, usually twice. Somewhere in there, my editor gets ahold of it and offers wisdom, encouragement and doubt, and we work the book together. I love revision, even as I want to pull my hair out. The chance to polish one’s project is such a gift.
Katrina: Without giving anything away, can you talk about how you came to such a surprising end? Was the end what you originally had in mind, or did you work it in?
Miranda: Before acquiring my book, my editor wrote me a note (via my agent) saying that she couldn’t stand the ending, so I changed it, and really, her suggestion about changing it was what made me realize she needed to be my editor. She was advocating for a shift in the book that I didn’t even know it needed until she suggested it. I don’t want to give anything away either, but let’s just say that in the original ending, the person who deserves his/her comeuppance didn’t get it. Once she insisted s/he should get what s/he deserved, I realized that there was another character lurking in the background of the book who I hadn’t used to his/her full potential. This character then presented his/herself as a means to getting the justice the reader wants, and it was so exciting to find that truth!
Katrina: Your book explores barriers between socio-economic classes, real and imagined, and is timely considering the state of our country, and the world, really. Mabel has this palpable longing to belong to this mysterious other world her roommate inhabits, so much so that she nearly shoe-horns herself into Geneva’s summer. What compelled you to underscore this longing?
Miranda: Well, I think it’s universal really, the desire to belong to the perceived “inner circle.” I didn’t know I had such a drive in me until I realized that nearly every book I love to read has this theme somewhere at its core. Even if we disdain someone else’s perceived wealth/ good fortune/ luck, more often than not, we still want a piece of it. That’s probably why we disdain it in the first place—I find that envy is almost always at the heart of such insecurities.
Katrina: Who are some of the writers who’ve influenced you and your work?
Miranda: I love this question and it’s always excruciating to answer! In the case of Bittersweet, the books that influenced it directly were Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
Katrina: Which part of the writing of a novel do you consider the most fun?
Miranda: Oh, it’s that dreamy imagine-y moment when you’ve barely written a word but your mind and body is full of the promise of the book to come. You don’t yet know all the things that will go wrong, all the parts of it that won’t work according to plan, all the bits that are uncooperative. You’re still just purely in love.
Katrina: How do you juggle writing and family?
Miranda: I have an amazing partner who shares nearly all of the domestic duties, from childcare to dishes. I have only one kid who is five and incredibly independent and patient, the kind of kid you can say “I just need five more minutes” to and who will acquiesce. I have a sister and brother-in-law who live a ten minute walk away and are enthusiastic and available for last minute kid-duty. We’ve found incredible childcare providers who’ve nurtured the kiddo when we’re unable to. And I’ve resigned myself to being okay with a messy house most of the time.
Katrina: Any words of wisdom for other writers?
Miranda: Be stubborn. I think bull-headedness is one of the most important traits a writer can have. No one wants to buy your book? Write another one. That’s what being a writer entails. It’s not always rewarding, but when things work out better than you dreamed, you’ll be glad you kept on keeping on.
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