In a year distinguished by outstanding debut novels, Carrie La Seur has written one that stakes its own claim to the distinctive territory known as the literary suspense novel. I was pulled in on the first page of The Home Place and the story had me riveted until the last page. I was equally impressed by the quality of the writing and the multi-layered plot. There is a great deal going on in The Home Place but it never feels overloaded or heavy-handed. The many characters and conflicts, the murder mystery, the love story, and the threat posed by coal mining to the ranchers’ way of life in southeastern Montana are all handled so expertly that one would never suspect that this is La Seur’s first novel. And she wrote it while working full time as an attorney and raising children. You can read my review here.
You have such an interesting and impressive background. Educated at Bryn Mawr and Yale Law School, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, public interest lawyer, and now author. Having grown up in Billings, what made you decide to head east to a small, private liberal arts school? Did you experience culture shock moving from Montana to Philadelphia, or had you been yearning for city life for so long that you adapted easily? Did you plan to become a lawyer while at Bryn Mawr or did that come later?
I got good scholarship support to go to Bryn Mawr, but it was a huge culture shock for me. I went there because I wanted to see the world. We could barely afford it. I typed all my papers in the computer center, worked in the dining halls, walked dogs, etc. By the time I graduated, I had an idea that I’d like to be a lawyer, because I wanted to have the tools to represent people I had grown up with who had never gotten a fair shake.
When did you start writing? Was it always a part of your life or is it a more recent development?
Writing has always been my primary form of self-expression. I kept journals for many years and still dip into one now and then. When I was a kid, I’d write plays and have my friends and little brother act them out. I’ve tried a few writing classes, but they always took the joy out of it. The moment writing ceases to be a joy, I get up and walk away. Without that, there’s no point.
Which writers have had the greatest influence on you, both as a writer and as a reader? (I always assume they’re not necessarily the same, as one can love some writers but not be inspired to write like them.)
This book began as a little project I gave myself to tell something like the homecoming story Anne Tyler told in her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, but for myself, with characters and problems that interested me. But I’ve never thought in terms of wanting to write like someone. Every word is derivative in some way, but you’ve got to mean it as your own or why write it?
I’m a terrible reader of novels. I’m hypercritical. I keep looking for that childhood experience of being so swept away in a book that I can’t bear for it to end and I want to read it over and over, like I did with C.S. Lewis or L.M. Montgomery or L’Engle or Tolkien. Something about Doris Lessing satisfies me lately, although I couldn’t say exactly what. It has to do with puzzling out big questions in a very engaging way. I love biography, history, and histories of ideas. Agrarians have been blowing my mind lately. I could read Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Michael Pollen, or farm memoirists like Kristin Kimball all day and night. It’s probably consistent that Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer made me very happy. I like to read about people having complex, long-term interactions with places, delving into seasons and soil. And then Neil Stephenson and William Gibson and Arthur C. Clarke because my husband said they were geniuses and made me read them, and he was right. Tomorrow I will change my mind about all of this.
Obviously, there are some similarities between Alma Terrebonne and you, in terms of where she was raised and educated and her career choice. How did you decide which autobiographical aspects to use in The Home Place? Did you start out writing a memoir and it turned into a novel because it gave you more freedom and allowed you to include more than your personal experiences? A few authors have told me this is how their novel began (e.g., Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave).
There are settings and characters that are very familiar to me, and of course themes that I wanted to explore, but the story really isn’t very autobiographical. It was certainly never a memoir. If anything, I used details from my own life to emphasize the fact that my fictional characters aren’t as improbable as they might seem.
The Home Place is a character study and the story of a family dealing with a tragedy amid a web of complex relationship dynamics. The writing is often lyrical and there is a palpable sense of place. These are all characteristics of literary fiction. Yet it is a murder mystery set against the rural drug culture and complicated by the environmental issues posed by Big Coal trying to expand mining in Montana. What were the challenges of writing a “literary thriller”? How did the plot evolve?
Alma needed a compelling reason to come home, and something to keep her in Montana long enough to deal with what she left behind. That required an urgent event right away. Once I decided what that event was, much of the rest fell into place – as much as you can say that about a novel that easily went through a dozen rewrites. Mostly I wanted to tell a good story, one that the people I’m writing about would appreciate.
Do you view The Home Place as a sort of “belated coming-of-age” story? I’ve read several novels in the last few years in which characters who have been away from home for a long time feel the pull of “home” (both family and place) and experience a transformation in acknowledging this connection.
There are definitely elements of the bildungsroman here, especially considering how long it took me to write it.
As you wrote The Home Place, did you picture certain actors playing each role? Or when it was finished and existed outside of you? It’s a very cinematic read, and I found myself doing that as I read. Are there any plans for a movie?
To tell you the truth, I didn’t think about that until you asked. I wasn’t picturing famous faces.
It’s probably not the greatest commercial choice, but if they left it up to me I’d go for Noomi Rapace – who played Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies – for Alma. She kicked ass, and Alma has more than a little fight in her to get where she is. The accent might be a challenge, so then Rooney Mara.
For Ray, I love Evan Adams, but he might be a little old for the role. For Vicky, Taryn Manning, “Pennsatucky” from Orange Is the New Black. Maddie: Betty White. Helen: Someone like Debbie Reynolds or even Sally Field. Pete: Channing Tatum, all the way. Walt is Woody Harrelson or Nick Nolte in hairy, crazy mode. Chance: Nobody too pretty. I never said he was handsome. Someone like a young Hugh Laurie.
No movie deal yet.
What is your writing routine? Do you write in a particular place? What five things do you need in order to write?
I write whenever I get a chance. Much of The Home Place was written on the couch after the kids went to bed. The only 5 things I need are 5 minutes of peace and quiet, and sometimes that’s all I get.
What has surprised you about the process of writing and publishing your first novel, both good and bad?
It’s all surprised me. I knew nothing. I was stunned to find an agent and ecstatic to sell my book. The whole thing is still hard to believe.
If I were a car, I would be… a bicycle. A really fast one.
If I were a city, I would be… Melbourne, Australia.
If I were a pet, I would be… a horse.
If I were a product from the Home Shopping Channel, I would be… ? (I don’t have cable.)
If I were a TV show, I would be… Firefly.
If I were sushi, I would be… unagi.
If I were a movie, I would be… The Thomas Crowne Affair.
If I were a fairy tale character, I would be… the witch.
If I were a Disney character, I would be… Quasimodo.
If I were an actor, I would be… broke.
If I were a sound, I would be… the song of the western meadowlark.
If I were a beverage, I would be… Laphroaig.
If I were a year, I would be… next year.
Dog or cat person? Dog.
Beatles or Stones? Stones.
Dylan or Springsteen? Springsteen.
Half-full or half-empty? Leaving glasses of water sitting around is just asking for trouble.