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Domestic suspense that tackles the consequences of "depriving a person of a true understanding of where they’ve come from"
An interview with Melissa Adelman on her debut: WHAT THE NEIGHBORS SAW
Today we’ve got an interview with Melissa Adelman, whose debut novel, WHAT THE NEIGHBORS SAW, dropped two days ago, on June 20.
I had the chance to read it early and I’ve already been enthusiastically recommending it to friends who love domestic suspense. Below is our interview, which starts with my quick description of the book.
Caitlin: Since WHAT THE NEIGHBORS SAW only came out two days ago, I’m going to assume people haven’t had the chance to read it yet. So here’s the brief description: a couple of young-professional parents overextend themselves to buy the worst house in a super wealthy neighborhood outside DC, only to have the neighborhood promptly go to shit when a neighbor is murdered on the trail behind their house. Main character Alexis, who’s on an extended maternity leave, finds herself watching her neighbors from the window above the sink where she scrubs bottles at all hours of the night. As she discovers neighbor after neighbor engaging in bad behavior, she grapples with her old expectations of feeling safer here than in her last home, or the one before that.
First question: do you absolutely loathe having to describe what your book is about? (It’s why I wrote a summary rather than asking you to say it! I hate that question!!!!)
Melissa: Yes and thank you!!! Since it’s publication week, I’ve been sweating over a witty way to pitch the book, but truly I am a horrible salesperson and deeply appreciate you not throwing me what should be such a softball question but absolutely is not.
Caitlin: Okay. Let’s get down to business. Just like you did, I’m gonna start with the house itself. I love how you opened the book with the description of a house for sale that ends with “Please note, property offered AS IS.” I thought that was such a clever way to hint at disaster ahead for whoever buys the house, right from the opening page.
Melissa: Opening with the listing description was a last-minute addition that my agent (and yours) came up with, and one of the most fun paragraphs to write. Too bad AI has already taken that job, otherwise I’d totally write real estate listings for a living.
[After-the-fact addition by Caitlin: that crafty Helen.]
Caitlin: For the buyers, Alexis and Sam, the old house was such a thorn in their sides, to increasingly dramatic proportions. I laughed out loud when I finished the book and looked you up online, only to see that you live in an old house. How many of the house headaches in this book are based on real life?
Melissa: So many! I live in a county where people joke all the time about renovation being the official local pastime, because a lot of the housing stock is well over 50 years old. When we first bought our house, I rewatched that 80s movie, The Money Pit with Shelley Long and Tom Hanks, in a futile effort to understand our own questionable choices. That’s where the spark for this book came from really, watching that movie and thinking “I’d love a story with all these outrageous home reno issues plus neighbor drama plus murder. Could I write that book?”
Caitlin: I also thought you might be a realtor or interior designer or something. The descriptions of the houses, inside and out, were so decadent! Now that I know you’re an economist, was it all just well-done research, or are homes your passion? And importantly: do you stalk the market as a hobby? (If yes, my husband will also want to know your favorite site. He’s a Coldwell Banker enthusiast.)
Melissa: I take that as a compliment, so thank you! I am very much an enthusiastic amateur, no professional background in real estate or home design. And yes, it’s like you already know me – when I’m in bed at night and should be sleeping, I browse home listings instead of social media. I think searching for a house years ago clicked on some obsessive switch in my brain that makes me always need to know what is out there, zooming in on cabinet hardware and contemplating other people’s layout choices like it’s my job. I’m pretty basic though in my app preferences – Redfin and Zillow and Houzz – so I’m going to be checking out Coldwell Banker…
Caitlin: I’d definitely call WHAT THE NEIGHBORS SAW “domestic suspense,” where a lot of the tension is drawn from the familial relationship, the conditions of everyday life, and the suburban urge to spy on our neighbors. Do you call it domestic suspense (or a domestic thriller), or something else? (Andromeda and I love discussing genres, like the good nerds we are.)
Melissa: Much to my husband’s consternation, I jump in to correct him with “domestic suspense” every time he tells someone I wrote a mystery. Genre designations are not clear to me, but in my mind, “thriller” promises a rollercoaster ride and often a palpable sense of danger, while “suspense” is all about the tension – all those things that are not quite right. And following all the threads that make up that tight knot of tension over the course of the book. But maybe I’m completely wrong, so please write more posts about this to enlighten us all!
[Addition by Caitlin: I completely agree with your distinctions between thriller and suspense and that “mystery” is not the umbrella term that many think it is!]
Caitlin: And now an unfair question, one I am not willing to definitively answer myself: do you aim to write something in a similar vein for your second novel? Is this going to be your bread and butter? Are we fools if we try to plan anything when it comes to writing?
Melissa: Much to my agent and editor’s consternation, over the past few months I ended up writing something that was going in the direction of…a suspenseful romance? (That’s probably not a thing, and they think it just doesn’t work). So a few weeks ago I put that draft aside and started again from scratch, trying to focus squarely on an idea that fits the domestic suspense mold a little better.
To be honest, I feel torn on this - the artistic naive side of me thinks that genre blending makes for more interesting stories and who wants to be stuck in a box, but another side thinks that I have no real clue how the author-audience relationship works and maybe unpredictably wandering from genre to genre is a recipe for driving away readers?
But for now, I’m trying to push that all out of my mind and just focus on the new new idea. I’m more excited about it every day because it delves into identity/origin/family drama which, as you point out below, I’m really into.
[Late addition by Caitlin because I can’t stop talking to you Melissa - romantic suspense is so a thing!! And yet I completely understand what you’re saying and grappling with. Such similar thoughts running through my head at all hours. I’m happy for you that you have a new project that’s got you excited. Thematicallly, I’m ALL IN ON IT!]
Caitlin: I think a hallmark of domestic suspense is marital tension and conflict, which you wrote really effectively. There’s a page where I made a note that I was having a running fight with Alexis’s husband Sam in my head. This is when she’s reflecting back on having their first child, and she changes jobs because work has become miserable and she wants to spend more time with their son. He wants her to “focus on figuring out how to do that well again,” and, when she says her own mother was never around, he says she “shouldn’t let [her] own past weigh so much on the present.” I was ready to slap him! How does your husband feel about you writing domestic suspense (once or maybe again), where romantic partners are inevitably antagonistic forces of drama and discord? And do you ever write a fight scene and leave your computer all wound up at your real-life husband, who has nothing to do with what you’re writing?
Melissa: I love imagining fights, because in real life I’m conflict averse to a fault. The scenario you describe, of getting all worked up at my real husband after writing an entirely fictional husband’s awful attitude has definitely happened to me. Sometimes when I’m writing and feeling so excited and engrossed by the story, it’s like there’s a tiny tear in the fabric of the universe and I’m living in different realities...These different people I could be, these other, terrible relationships I could have…It’s such a neat feeling but also disorienting, and I have to do things like remind myself that my real husband is a great, normal guy…As far as I know!
Caitlin: Something that isn’t always (or even often?) present in domestic suspense is open discussion of characters’ experiences based on their race and/or ethnicity. I loved how this was part of the fabric of the book, because it was part of Alexis’s identity and life experience as the daughter of a Black Honduran woman and a white man. So much domestic suspense takes place in wealthy white neighborhoods, with lots of discussion of the wealth but little of the whiteness. But in your book, I felt like you didn’t shy away from that. Neighbors repeatedly assume Alexis isn’t the homeowner and make racist comments about her appearance. Other neighbors witness many of these instances but say nothing. With whatever degree of detail or intimacy you feel like sharing, what was your experience like writing this aspect of the book?
Melissa: Making race - and not just class - an integral part of the tension was really important to me, because it is central to the American suburban experience (and my own life experience). I gave Alexis a racial background similar to my own, with a Black mother and a White father, because I felt like that would be an interesting perspective (and contribute to the story). Side note – questions about who can write what are very interesting, I hope you wade into that thorny issue and do a post on it some day! 
The book is not about race per se, but I tried to weave in what feel to me like compelling facets of family life and rich sources of tension for domestic suspense – from the stress of navigating a block or even a whole community where almost no one else looks like you, to the slippery questions of identity that many mixed-race people grapple with, to the loss of cultural connection many first and second generation Americans feel. These are all things to me that are just as relevant as questions of class (and of course the two are often wrapped up with each other), and I hope that readers will find them just as resonant, even if they haven’t read as much about them before in this genre.
Caitlin: I loved how much of the book came back to family origin. One of my favorite details was her relationship with her Honduran nanny, Elena, who took her on as a “cultural education project” when she learned Alexis’s mother had been Honduran as well. But there was plenty of family drama as well! The secrets the last generation of mothers kept; the family mysteries that were only a mystery because something went unspoken. What intrigues you about family secrets and where we come from? And why do you think so many of us love stories of family drama?
Melissa: I always guiltily bypass global economic news and go straight to the “dear therapist” advice column in whatever newspaper app I open. Also my all-time favorite books are epic family sagas, everything from The Poisonwood Bible to Middlesex to Pachinko to The House of the Spirits. There’s just something about family drama that I can’t get enough of, maybe because I grew up in a family where crazy drama was hastily swept under a very lumpy rug, so I need to vicariously work through it? My first guess would be along those lines. That we all love family drama, big and small, because we all have it. It’s just such a common aspect of the human experience.
As you said, much of the family drama in this book revolves specifically around family origin secrets, which I find fascinatingly destructive. Keeping that type of secret can be understandable. Maybe the truth is so intimate and ugly that you can’t even look yourself in the mirror and say it. But the secret isn’t much of a reprieve – instead it’s like an invisible mass, distorting everything within its reach beyond recognition – self-perceptions, life choices, entire relationships for generations. I just find that phenomenon so interesting. The idea that depriving a person of a true understanding of where they’ve come from can have awful consequences.
Caitlin: I loved when Alexis found herself feeling comfortable at one of the glitzy neighborhood bashes, to her surprise. She reflects on “upscale parties” of the past and how she felt an unspoken but clear message that she “should be grateful for the opportunity” to view others’ wealth and privilege. Now, she feels an unexpected sense of belonging. In another, earlier scene, Alexis is looking at a cobweb and thinks, “Our cleaning ladies are getting lazy.” And I thought…she fits right in! Do we all have some elitist-jerk energy lurking in us? Do you think anyone could be at home with the uber wealthy, or do you think this was specific to Alexis’s character?
Melissa: I think, in certain respects, Alexis is a shell of a person. She’s inherited that loss, that emptiness from her mother, and spent her life keeping busy with what she’s good at – being smart, working hard – and that led her into this upper-class world. So even though she doesn’t feel fully at home there, she’s absorbed a lot of its attitudes and values, because she didn’t have anything else. Yet, I do think any of us, given enough time around the residents of River Forest, could slip into that same mode – isn’t there an old adage along the lines of “you are the company you keep”?
Caitlin: This question is going to be annoyingly nonspecific because I don’t want to spoil anything for readers. I loved one of the big surprises at the end of the book. It was there from the beginning but I hadn’t understood what I’d seen. And throughout, you had great foreshadowing about this surprise and others, and some red herrings. What was your writing process like when it came to these elements of the story? Did you have any of the book’s big questions answered before you started putting it to paper, or did you discover things as you went?
Melissa: I had the sort of pulsing vein of the main plot line from the beginning, and the work for me was in fleshing it out to do it justice. Like how to foreshadow without giving it away, how to weave in side plots that are interesting and relevant enough to carry the story forward, how to make it all play out plausibly. I’m a very heavy self-editor, in the sense that only a small percentage of the words that run through my head actually make it onto my laptop screen. So for me the writing process is like…sand art? As in, layer by layer, where I’ll write the core of the story through to the end, then go back and add, over and over again, until it’s complete.
Caitlin: And my last question: any books you’re excited about right now? (Suspense or not.)
I just finished reading Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson, which is a historical fiction novel that was sparked by the author’s visit to the site of a slave jail in Richmond, VA where she learned that the white jail owner’s wife was a former slave herself. It’s a great book, and honestly I still find it thrilling every time I read a richly told story about Black women and the mixed race experience in America. It was only 10 years ago, in 2013, when the Cheerios commercial with a mixed-race (Black-White) family caused a huge uproar! Hard to wrap my mind around that, because things have changed so much for the better since. And I think the more we see and understand each other through good stories, the more positive change there will be.
I hope you enjoyed reading Melissa’s answers as much as I did (I had to text her mid-way through reading to tell her she had me grinning and LOLing at my computer in public).
For our die-hards who read this far, any of Melissa’s answers resonate or surprise you?
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Note from Caitlin: Like Melissa said, the two of us have the same literary agent. That’s how I learned of Melissa and her debut in the first place!