Interview: Elizabeth Evans, author of As Good As Dead

Farhana Gani

A friendship that has lain dormant for 20 years comes to life again, in Elizabeth Evans’­ psychological thriller, As Good As Dead.

As Good as Dead
 

Shy, watchful Charlotte and flirty, sophisticated Esmé are inseparable friends until dormant insecurities and resentments rise to the surface. Charlotte commits an act that will shame and haunt her long after the two friends drift apart.

20 years later Esmé reappears, a deeply changed woman intent on exposing Charlotte’s deepest fears and darkest secrets.

Elizabeth Evans’s heart-stopping story will keep you rooted until you’ve turned the last page. It’s a slim, elegantly written novel with clever and sharply developed characters, and you’ll read it in the time it will take to watch a movie. It’s as gripping and suspenseful as some of the best psychological dramas out there.

Elizabeth Evans discusses her novel with us and shares some of her literary influences:

 

Reader’s Digest: Your novel can be described as a story of two women, marriage, betrayal and a friendship that turns sour? How would you define it?

Elizabeth Evans: The book has been described in so many ways. That in itself fascinates me. Certainly, every good story must contain an element of suspense, but my real devotion is to finding the exact words and scenes that will allow readers the richest possible experience of the novel’s world and characters and dilemmas.

My greatest delight comes from those readers who see As Good As Dead’s menace, humour, and sorrow. The novel is, above all, the story of a woman of 40 whose past shows up on her doorstep, and teaches her how cruelly she has allowed her life to be twisted by secrets from a friendship that died 20 years ago.

 

RD: Tell us about Charlotte and Esmé. How do these two very different women become close friends?

EA: Both are talented young writers, and, in important ways, kindred spirits. They sit up late, talking about their work. They sing together—it’s the end of the eighties, so Sinéad O’Connor is high on their lists—and they never could sing with their boyfriends.

Charlotte comes from a chilly blue-collar family in a tiny town and has seen nothing of the world. She’s excruciatingly shy, and—though just turned 21—she’s already been involved in an accident that’s forced her to swear off alcohol and drugs (supposedly for good).

In contrast, Esmé is a beloved daughter from a world of sophistication, travel, and money. She’s so charming that she feels entitled to use people. Charlotte doesn’t understand the latter when they first meet—she’s simply captivated by Esmé.

 

Elizabeth Evans
Image via University of Arizona

 

RD: They attend the celebrated Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which you attended yourself. How autobiographical is your novel?

EA: I know the Workshop well since I lived in or near Iowa City for many years. The Workshop is a wonderful hive of literary production, filled with talented students and brilliant faculty members, but as the hive analogy suggests, the place produces not just honey but stings, too.

Students are forever hoping that the famous faculty and visiting writers, editors, and agents will give a boost to their careers—and that breeds a competitiveness that can be nasty. Like Charlotte, I was painfully shy and a small-town “hick.” I too sometimes felt frustrated—and envious—because I had no idea how to promote myself. Also, like Charlotte, I’m half-deaf, and that odd “half-handicap” has certainly played a part in my life.

So many people have asked if the book is autobiographical that I feel I have to admit that, as I wrote it, I became so caught up in the story that it seemed “my” story to an uncanny degree. There were times when I, felt riddled with Charlotte’s guilt and anxiety! But the story is fiction.

 

RD: Is the friendship Charlotte and Esmé have particularly unique, or do you see many close friendships having elements of rivalry, competition and jealousy?

EA: I absolutely believe that each friendship is unique, but, yes—particularly among young people—the genuine affection and even love we have for our friends can be undermined by resentments and feelings of rivalry.

This is a particular problem for females, I suppose in part because every aspect of our behaviour and appearance is scrutinized so fiercely. The underdogs of the world may unite but they also may climb on each other’s backs in an effort to get to the top of the heap!

 

Elizabeth Evans
Image: Elizabeth Evans. Via Bonnie Zobell

 

RD: Why are books (and films) about female friendship so compelling?

EA: Their joys and heartbreaks are ubiquitous and form such a substantial part of the bedrock of women’s lives.

Male readers seem as interested in this book as female readers—probably since we’re all aware of lives that have gone down because of the wrong friendships, sunk like ships hitting icebergs.

 

RD: In your opinion which novels are good dissections of female friendship?

EA: The ruling queen of dissecting female friendships remains Alice Munro. With a mind so fine it surely resides in the empyrean, but a heart thoroughly planted in this Dear Life (not surprisingly, the title of her last book), Munro has spent 40 years creating—often with great humour—absolutely devastating stories that teach us just what it means to be human.

Female friendships have had starring roles in many of those stories. The title story of Friend of My Youth is a wonder, but perhaps Munro’s greatest story of female friendship is that same collection’s “Differently,” in which an incident of casual lust destroys a friendship so fine one would have thought it unshakeable.

Both Margaret Atwood and Fay Weldon have written brilliantly about circles of close friends (Weldon’s Female Friends is a comic gem), but I am drawn too, to books that examine unusual female friendships.

In Anita Brookner’s The Misalliance, a gentle, quiet woman—at loose ends after abandonment by her husband—finds herself drawn into the wild orbit of a beautiful, thoughtless woman.

In A Friend from England, Brookner’s first-person narrator proves profoundly ignorant regarding her friendship with a woman she considers her inferior.

 

RD: In your opinion which literary unsung hero deserves a second chance?

EA: I cannot recommend too highly Daniel Mueller’s story collections How Animals Mate and Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey. Taken individually, each of Mueller’s sentences is a work of art, yet there is nothing precious here.

The spot-on details resonate gloriously with the stories’ thematic elements Horrible events happen in some of Mueller’s stories, but Mueller never sensationalizes. His gaze is wide and illuminated by a big-heart that knows much about both the suffering and the comic in the human condition.

 

RD: If you could bring a deceased writer back to life who would it be and why?

EA: That’s a tough one! Maybe George Elliot (Mary Ann Evans). Middlemarch may be the greatest novel of all time. I reread it—and Great Expectations, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina—every few years. Such a gorgeous, heart-breaking, witty, and wise book!

Elliot was a strong woman, and quite radical, you know, living with the married Lewes at a time when this made her an outcast in many circles. A brilliant artist, a great critic as well as fiction writer—it would be wonderful to see what she would make of our era.

 

RD: If you weren’t writing, you’d be…

EA: If I could have, let’s say, a second life—I certainly wouldn’t want to give up the life I made with writing and two lovely daughters and a wonderful husband—I would study the sciences. I was bright enough as a young kid that I didn’t have to study. Then, when the tougher, upper-level classes came along that required study, I had no study skills. This was in a free-wheeling time when you could dream-up any old schedule you liked, so I focussed on literature and theatre and the visual arts. Later, I became a lover of the sciences, but I’m terribly ignorant, and play catch-up as I can.

 

As Good as Dead is published by Bloomsbury Books, RRP £14.99, buy it for £13.99