—by Laura Oles
Reading a novel by Alexandra Burt means you must be prepared to ignore everything else because her stories will keep you captive until you reach the last page. Skilled in short stories, true crime and crime fiction, Burt delivers two fantastic reads this year. I asked Alexandra to share her thoughts on world building , true life haunts, and how she approaches the craft of writing suspense.
It looks like 2020 is a big year for you. You have a new novel and a true crime story coming out this year. Let’s start with your contribution to The Best New True Crime Stories. What can you share about your story?
My contribution to The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns is a cold case that happened in my hometown in 1983. It was the height of the Cold War and at its core it is about the threats I faced, literally and figuratively. My hometown, Fulda, is a baroque town in central Germany located between the Rhön and Vogelsberg mountains. Seemingly plucked from Grimm’s fairytales, but Fulda has a dark history. Nothing about the rolling hills and farms dotting the landscape hints at Fulda as the place where Armageddon was supposed to happen. Fulda Gap, two lowland corridors, two obvious routes for a hypothetical Soviet tank attack on West Germany from Eastern Europe were the likely invasion route of Russia, the spot where U.S. and Soviet soldiers pointed hundreds of medium-range nuclear missiles at each other. The threats were ever-present. When I hiked in the marshes by the border, East German look-out towers with guards and spotlights stared back at me in the distance.
In 1983, I happened to be close to the scene of a crime, a quarter of a mile, the way the crow flies. A child died and the killer remains at large, the case was never solved, the killer never apprehended. There’s the story of a life cut short, and then there’s my story. Thirty-seven years have passed and the Cold War summer of 1983 still clings to me like a second skin. I have raised a daughter and I write crime fiction but I have never forgotten the girl that lost her life before her life even began. I have made a life for myself in the Hill Country of Central Texas, in the southeast part of the Edwards Plateau that is not unlike the Hesse highlands of my childhood. But I never learned to trust the world with my daughter’s life. I’ve learned that a watchful eye is not enough, that a simple moment of inattention, a minute of carelessness, can turn into something that cannot be undone. And little girls don’t always make it home alive. And every day I don’t know what to do with the evils of the world, and so I write about them.
Shadow Garden is your latest crime novel. Tell us a bit about what inspired this story?
My previous book The Good Daughter was released days after the election in 2016 and during that time I felt as if the majority of the country fell into a dark hole. Including myself. I had the urge to examine if the same was as stake for all of us, if people of wealth, power, and affluence deploy a different set of principles when confronted with crime. It started out as a moral thought experiment, wondering about all the complicated ways money messes with morals. We know wealth impacts our sense of morality, our relationships with others, and our mental health. Is it true that the more you have to lose, the harder you fight to keep it, whatever ‘it’ may be? Money, a reputation, a standing in the community? Is being rich inherently immoral and if so, but what are the consequences? I imagined Donna Pryor, a woman of humble beginnings, who has everything but the truth of what happened to her family. From there I allowed the story to unfold organically and I sat by and watched them get to the truth of who The Pryors really are. Shadow Garden’s initial title was “The Many Incarnations of Donna Pryor” and I mention it because the book had quite a few incarnations itself. It started out as detective novel, purely comprised of interviews, then it turned into a family saga spanning decades before and after a crime occurred, just to arrive at Shadow Garden, an estate at the end of a rural road and a life of privilege that begins to crumble and somewhere in the ruins is the truth.
Many who read your work comment on your ability to combine heightened suspense with fully drawn characters in a compelling setting. Is there a certain aspect of word building that comes more easily to you? Is there a part that’s more challenging?
First of all, that’s a huge compliment. Thank you. The beginning of a novel is a very long period of imagining the setting and the people and I don’t take notes nor do I examine plot but I create the characters’ world. There is nothing else for a while, the characters really live at my house and eat at my table and not until the first draft is complete are they allowed to huddle and regroup. I don’t struggle with world building since it is ground zero at the beginning of a new project and anything is possible. There’s huge freedom in the vast scope of a new project. I am always very sure of the setting but the plot changes endlessly and often and the characters usually end up needing work. It’s a matter of having a great editor, which I have, and revising draft after draft, after draft.
When I was younger I wanted to be a painter and I went to art school but then abandoned that path. There is still a lot of visual artist left in me. It’s the first thing I imagine in any project, novel or short story—what is the essence of it; a still-life in oil or a landscape in watercolor—and the setting becomes a place and then it becomes a world and a clock ticks in the background to give it pace and there is structure and meaning which turns into a theme. Long story short: once I commit, I’m all in for however long it takes to make that world come alive the best way I know how.
Readers are often curious about their favorite authors’ habits. What is your daily or weekly schedule like? Do you ever get stuck? If so, how do you find your way out?
Unfortunately I’m still struggling to keep a schedule and all writers are powerless to real life happening as they work. I take it day by day, keep my fingers crossed, and hope for the best. It’s a best-laid plans kind of thing; most days writing doesn’t turn out as well as one hopes. One should not expect for things to always turn out to plan. My daily schedule looks something like this: after a workout (more often than not a workout competes with falling into a two-hour social media hole), I sit at my desk and pick up where I left off the previous day. Sometimes there’s an abundance of oxygen for that task and I just kind of go with it, other days it’s just not flowing. Be that as it may, there are deadlines and word goals and I swear by something I have discovered a few months ago: focus music. It promises laser productivity and a boost in focus. Simply put, it is music void of both ultra-low and overly loud bass and high pitch sounds that tend to become annoying over time. There are no ruptures, no pauses, no breaks or major volume deviations. The type and number of instruments remains constant through hours of play and the music follows a particular pattern mimicking the brain waves present in a focused state and eventually the brain waves mimic the music. It’s my secret weapon. I will write and look up and realize three hours have passed. It may not be a way ‘out’ but it’s a way to remain ‘in’, if that makes sense?
I do get stuck at times and I wish I knew of a magic potion but I kind of obsess about it and just keep my fingers crossed and hope to spot the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes all you can do is chip away at a problem and hope for the best and so far it’s served me well. Still wouldn’t mind some sort of a potion though.
— Alexandra Burt was born in a baroque German town in the East Hesse Highlands. She moved to Texas and worked as a freelance translator. Determined to acknowledge the voice in the back of her head prompting her to break into literary translations, she decided to tell her own stories. She currently resides in Central Texas. Remember Mia (2015) is her first novel. The Good Daughter was published in February 2017. Her third novel, Shadow Garden, is forthcoming in July, 2020. She is working on her fourth novel. She has contributed to Lone Star Lawless: 14 Texas Tales of Crime, and The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns. Her short stories have appeared in publications and literary reviews.