Elizabeth Evans, a professor emeritus in the UA’s Creative Writing department, has recently released her fourth novel, “As Good As Dead,” a suspense thriller about the price that secrets can extract even decades later.
Tell us a little bit about the book.
When it begins, we are in Tucson. It’s 2008 and the main character, Charlotte, goes to answer the door and there is a woman standing there who turns out to be a friend she hasn’t seen in 20 years. They were very good friends when they were in their early 20s, but they had some real envy and competition between them. Charlotte is not quite sure whether to be happy to see her friend, who knows some secrets about her, or whether to be afraid. And that’s kind of where things kick off.
What got you interested in exploring this theme about how secrets affect people’s lives?
I think that there are choices that people make that don’t always serve their own interests. They’re made on the basis of very strong emotions and then it seems that it becomes necessary to cover up those secrets. And then covering up the secrets causes other problems. So in this book, Charlotte is married. She wonders, if her husband finds out some of these secrets, will that destroy her marriage. So it seems like a big issue in a lot of people’s lives.
This was originally a short story that you were encouraged to expand it into a novel. What did that revision let you do with the story?
It was a very long short story. It was published at 60 pages and an editor who saw it said, “You know I think this is a novel,” and I said, “I think it probably is because I kept taking things out of it as I was writing it.” I just got to know more about the characters and I think that is one of the features of a novel that makes it different from a short story. You get to know characters over time. And you see more the consequences of their choices. So it was kind of like I got to really know the women in the novel and I got to know more about the men they’re involved with and more about their history back at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, where they had all know each other.
You talk about getting to know these characters better. Is that part of the process for you—actually meeting and getting to know these characters as they develop in your own head?
Absolutely. I’m very very interested in character-driven fiction but the plot is important because the plot brings up things that further advance who these characters are. I get to know them, I tunnel and tunnel into them and I try to be as true to who they are as I possibly can be, and not distort who they are in order to satisfy some idea how character should behave. So they do what they will.
Do they do things that surprise you?
They do, yes.
You set this book in Tucson. Your narrator is a creative writing professor at the UA, a job you have held as well. What made you set the story so close to home?
I like the idea of these two different places—one being Iowa and one being Arizona. I know both very well, so that made it easy for me to write about both of them. I’m really big on setting and I want to get setting nailed down because I really believe you have to have a place that’s solid in which your characters can move and breathe and live, so those two places seem perfect for me.
You’ve published three other novels and two collections of short stories. What do you find to be the differences between crafting a short story and a novel?
They’re not terribly different, but it’s often said that writing a short stories is like a love affair and a novel is like a marriage. Or a short story is like a song and a novel is like a symphony. You have to keep more balls in the air when you’re writing a novel. And there are different satisfactions, I think, for both of them. The big affect of a novel is great, but I think you get a lot of resonance from a short story as well. Did you always want to be a writer growing up? Did you read a lot?
I really started having aspirations right when I was a little kid. I love the feeling I got from reading and I love the idea of giving that experience to other people—that wonderful feeling I got from reading and the idea that you could create something that would give somebody else that experience.
You’ve worked with many young writers. What advice would you give somebody just starting out to be become a novelist?
Well, read. Reading is the big thing. I once was asked in an interview, “How do you know what the story is finished?” And I think that you know because you had this experience of reading really fine things. You have to read really good things and you have to write all the time. Every day, probably.
Do you still do that?
I do. Reading also is still very inspiring to me. And learning new things going on the world and observing. There are lots of things that feed my work. I write down ideas, conversations, and they go into a pile and a lot of them don’t end up being developed, but they keep the juices going.