By Chih Wang
T. Greenwood’s new novel, The Golden Hour, is a beautiful, haunting mystery folded into the personal drama of a woman finding her artistic truth. When she was thirteen, Wyn took a shortcut through the woods on her way home. What happened there would send Robby Rousseau to jail and forever mark her as a cautionary tale to other girls. Twenty years later, living next door to her ex-husband, Wyn is unhappily painting generic landscapes to pay the bills when she learns that new DNA evidence might set Robby free.
What first appears as a straightforward crime becomes complicated when Wyn receives a mysterious threat to keep a promise she made long ago. In an attempt to escape, she moves with her daughter into an isolated, run-down home, where she finds another mystery: old, undeveloped film canisters left behind by the previous tenant. With each cryptic set of photographs that Wyn develops, a secondary tale forms, silently told through the lens of the photographer, that will help her understand who she is and what she needs to do. In tightly drawn suspense, we follow Wyn’s struggle with her past and future, and whether she will come forward and finally tell the truth about her shortcut through the woods.
The Golden Hour, published on February 28, is Greenwood’s eleventh published book. Her writing career spans nearly twenty years. Five of her novels were BookSense76/IndieBound picks, and her novel Bodies of Water was a 2014 Lambda Literary Awards Finalist. She has received grants from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Maryland State Arts Council.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of her weekly read-and-critique groups held by San Diego Writers, Ink, where she teaches classes in novel writing. She is also an instructor at Grossmont College and The Writer’s Center. We sat down after one of our read-and-critique meetings to discuss her latest book and her writing process.
The Coachella Review: You’ve said that your inspiration for your previous novel Where I Lost Her came from the news. In The Golden Hour, was the news, again, a source of inspiration?
T. Greenwood: No, it wasn’t. But when I was young and growing up in Vermont, there was a similar crime that happened to two little girls on the other side of the state. One was killed and the other one came out okay. The crime was committed by two teenage boys. One of them went to juvenile hall and got out when he was eighteen. The other one was either an adult or old enough to be tried as an adult. And now there are new laws because of that particular crime. But I remember this case because the girls were my age. They were the cautionary tale looming over my head as a young teenager. Growing up in a place that I felt was really safe and then hearing about this terrible thing that happened to someone who was exactly my age was really influential, so I thought about it for many years but wasn’t sure how—if at all—I would ever write about it.
TCR: In The Golden Hour, there are two mysteries that kept me turning the pages—what really happened in Wyn’s past and the photographs that she discovers in the old run-down house. Some of my favorite scenes are when Wyn develops the mystery photos and the reader gets to puzzle out what they mean along with her. What made you decide to have two mysteries running parallel to each other?
I had this overarching idea that I wanted to think about art and commerce, and what happens when art becomes commerce, what that means, what it means to sell out, what it means to try to make a living being an artist.
TG: I actually started this book with the idea of the film. Then I was like, okay, how can I fit this into this other story that I have the idea for? And I heard somebody interviewed that said writing a book is like opening up the junk drawer. You pull all this stuff out, and then you’re like, okay, how do I make these things work together? You pick all the shiny objects, and then your job as a writer is to make them coalesce. So, for me, it was like this book started with the two things. I had this overarching idea that I wanted to think about art and commerce, and what happens when art becomes commerce, what that means, what it means to sell out, what it means to try to make a living being an artist. And then I also had this lurking idea about these undeveloped film canisters and what that would mean, why would you make art if no one’s ever going to see it? And so I knew then that it was going to fit in somehow, but the mystery associated with what was on those pictures was one of those magical things that happens when you’re writing and you’re figuring things out. It was a mystery to me too. I had no idea.
TCR: Oh, so you didn’t know what the mystery was before you started it? At what point did you figure out what the mystery was going to be?
TG: Uh, a ways in… [laughs] a ways in… sort of along with Wyn.
TCR: Did you follow a structure or formula for your pacing of the suspense?
TG: No, this book was really difficult. It just was a hard book for me to write, and I did several major overhauls with it. I basically rewrote the last hundred pages in my third or fourth draft. And a lot of the stuff with the film and even with Wyn’s history all came together finally in the fourth or fifth draft that I did of the whole book.
TCR: What initiated that change? Was it your own review or was it editors?
TG: It was… editors. [laughs] And I knew it was problematic. When somebody finally says, yes, it’s problematic—you have to change it, you have to fix it. That was helpful.
TCR. You already kind of touched on this… so Wyn is a painter, and her struggle to do meaningful work that is true to herself echoes the theme of her also running away from the truth of her past. In addition to Wyn, her ex-husband Gus and best friend Pilar are artists in various states of success. How did you settle upon art as a focus of this novel? And at what point during the writing process did you discover your theme?
TG: I had the idea of these film canisters, and outsider art has always been something that’s really interested me. And the idea of art when no one sees it. I wanted to look at three people who are all artists; they all went to college together and now they’ve all done various things in order to survive. Gus continues to make his true art, but then he has his job that is total manual labor. And Wyn has sold out. Basically she’s painting these birches for clients to match their furniture which just kills her, it kills her inside. And then Pilar got a lucky break.
I think in all artistic endeavors, there are stories like this. For writers, it’s the same. There are people who toil and toil and nothing ever happens. Who never get published. And then there are people who publish, and they’re writing things that maybe they never ever thought they would write because they’re making money doing it. And then people who are able to just have phenomenal success. And so I think there are parallels in all different mediums, and that has fascinated me. Over the course of writing this story, the themes started emerging with what it means for Wyn to tell the truth of what happened in her past and the truth in her artwork. It was a nice thematic parallel that I didn’t really anticipate.
TCR: How much research did you put into this?
TG: The art, a lot, because I’m not an artist. I do photography so the photography element was something that I was able to do without research. But all of the lyrical passages and ruminations on art—I had to do a lot of homework and learn all these techniques and various terminology that I didn’t have any awareness of before, but that’s fun. It’s part of why I like writing books where I pick some subject matter that I’m not as familiar with and then do the homework.
TCR: How did you hear about the outsider artists for the first time?
TG: The film canister idea was partly inspired by a documentary that I saw about Vivian Maier. She was this woman who was a nanny and a photographer. She died and left behind all these undeveloped film canisters which were bought by these two guys at an auction or estate sale, and—there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these canisters—they had them developed. She was an incredible street photographer who took unbelievably beautiful pictures. There’s a guy named Tichý who would make cameras out of cardboard tubes and things and would surreptitiously take pictures of women. They’re really beautiful, but he was kind of creepy. My husband directed a play that was about the woman in South Africa who built her house out of junk and glass. So I’ve always just been really fascinated by artists who… simply how artists live. It’s not anything to do with how they make their money. It’s just that impulse, that artistic impulse that is there even if no one else ever knows that they do it—that was really the big push behind writing this book.
TCR: Do you have a favorite outsider artist?
TG: The street photography by Vivian Maier is unbelievable. I love photography so I was really drawn to her.
TCR: So The Golden Hour is your eleventh published book—congratulations—and you’re currently shopping a twelfth novel. How has your writing evolved over time?
TG: Thank you. Oh my god… [laughs]
TCR: That’s a lot of books.
TG: That’s a lot of time. I mean my first book came out in 1999; I was 30 years old. So, twenty years’ worth of work. I have a hard time going back and looking at my older work, especially the stuff when I was really young, because all I see are the flaws. I feel like I’ve gotten better at going beyond my own experience and being more willing to go into territories that I’m not as comfortable with. My first three books were all first person narrators, women who were about my age—they were different subject matters, but their voices were very similar to my own—not that they were autobiographical but just voice-wise. Wyn was both like me and not at all like me. She’s kind of an angry character, which was scary to do because you always want your reader to love your narrator, and I think she’s hard to love, at least early in the book. She’s going through a crisis and she’s not always lovable. She made some choices that I wouldn’t make. But I think it’s important to challenge yourself as a writer to write beyond your own experience and to write things that may be scary in terms of whether or not people would like to read it or not. And that was definitely a challenge with this book.
TCR: Before your first published book, did you write a lot of novels that never got published?
TG: I wrote one book in college that was a modern Dante’s Inferno. That was terrible. But it was complete. I proved that I could write a book. Then I wrote a book in graduate school that got me my first agent, but she could never sell it. So pretty much two complete books before I sold one. I’ve also written books in between too that haven’t sold. Or that I didn’t pursue in getting published, because I just wasn’t happy enough with them. I’ve also written many, many parts of books. [laughs]
TCR: Do you have any projects that you’re working on right now?
TG: Um, can’t say much yet, but I will have a book out in about a year. I’ve been working on it for almost two years. I’m ready to let it go now. I also have another one due. Got to get back to the drawing board.*
TCR: What is some advice you would give to other writers about the publishing world?
You have to have confidence that if you’ve written something that’s good, there’s somebody out there that’s going to love it. I think a lot of people give up, so being persistent is important.
TG: Patience is the first. Perseverance is the second. And also just being willing to take risks. That’s what I’m learning. You have to be sort of brave about it because it’s such a bizarre industry. It’s unpredictable. You have to have confidence that if you’ve written something that’s good, there’s somebody out there that’s going to love it. I think a lot of people give up, so being persistent is important. I also think that you can get really caught up in trying to sell whatever it is you’ve created and forget that you should be writing as well. You always have to return to the work because it’s very easy to watch six months, nine months, a year go by where you’re not doing anything except sitting around waiting for an agent or an editor to get back to you. My first book didn’t sell at all, and so while I was waiting, I just wrote another book, which went very quickly. You always have to just be focused on the work.
*After this interview took place, Publishers Marketplace announced a new two-book deal between Greenwood and St. Martin’s Press. The first book will be Rust and Stardust, the story of an eleven-year-old kidnapped in 1948 and the effect of the kidnapping on the girl, her family, and her community, to be published in spring 2018.