Meags Downing sent author Patti Lavell (and publisher Nina Alvarez) some great questions about Lavell's new book Island Chains .
What was the “a ha!” moment that was the seed for the book?
We were robbed in the night by “lobster people” from the mainland - or at least that’s who we blamed. Our fishing and SCUBA gear was stored in a tool room under the house (Keys houses are mostly on stilts, so this room was ground level.) One year, on the first night of mini season, I had to run people off our dock. They simply pulled their boat up and got out like they belonged there. When I ran them off, they shouted something about making me regret it. The next day, I found the tool room door ajar and all of our fishing and SCUBA gear gone. That anger, combined with the frustration of bottle-necked traffic, and the careless way visitors from the mainland leave their trash all over the place during lobster season set me on a path. I needed to vent. And then my ex-husband drove drunk. Hence chapter one and a dead husband. If only real life was that easy.
(Nina) What spoke to you about the book?
The first time I read it I was blown away by how real characters like Bart and Emma felt to me. It really comes down to the quality of Lavell’s dialogue, which is one of the hardest things to do right. Many of the characters in Island Chains come from a class of people and lifestyle most writers either romanticize or demonize. Lavell makes you feel like you’re just a fly on the wall, watching without judgment. Writing like that can be hard to get right when you aren’t down there in the dumps with them.
Is Pattycakes a foil for Stella in the narrative?
I realize that she can look like one, but they really aren’t all that different, Pattycakes and Stella. They’re both tired. They both struggle to make ends meet. They both have up close and personal knowledge of addiction. Pattycakes is admittedly more reckless, but Stella has maturity and motherhood to temper that tendency. Don’t fool yourself. In her youth, Stella was a lot like Pattycakes. I believe they are cut from the same cloth and in my book, it’s a quality fabric.
How hard was it to come up with the name Snatch Patch? (also laughed so hard when i saw what it was)
Not hard at all. That’s how I talk when I’m with those I trust the most.
(Nina) As someone who once lived in the land of alligators and cat sized mosquitoes, what in the novel reminded you of Florida the most?
I recognized Florida the most at The Lorelei. Beachside bars that feel both light-hearted and strangely unfriendly at the same time. A place that appears welcoming because of the sun and trees and weather, but where the people really don’t give a shit about you. Anonymous paradise.
What was the hardest part of the process of getting this novel done?
Dealing with the realization that I’ve not always been as kind-hearted and benevolent as I once believed. Recognizing the demons within without being ashamed of them was not easy. I’m not ruled by them, but I had to acknowledge that they are in fact, a part of me - a part of us all. You can’t have light without dark. Contrast is necessary and I’m grateful for the lesson.
Are any of your characters based on people you know in real life?
Only very loosely. Bart is based, in part, off a story I once heard about a guy and his girlfriend making a pact to overdose/commit suicide together and then after administering her dose, he changed his mind. That story gave birth to Bart. The others are fictional, although I see myself in all of them.
(Nina) What was your favorite part of publishing this book?
Working with Patti Lavell and Carolyn Birritella, who did a round or two of developmental edits with us, to restructure the entire storyline so all its pieces fit together. Part of that involved looking at the lifespan of a hurricane, what each day might be like, what would likely have killed Louis, and understanding more about the cause and effect that started this chain of events. Then really thinking through the ways the storm would limit character movement and become an actual force in the plot. It required a sort of planning and organizing and thinking through story logic that I’d never had to used at this level before. Literary fiction can have smudged edges. Crime and suspense needs to have answers that make sense. When you have a whodunnit, a tropical storm, about 10 characters running around, and police work to get right, it’s like working through the largest Soduku puzzle. Everything has to line up, add up vertically, horizontally, and in the square And if one area isn’t working, you can't win. So you move one number to another cell and see what that does to the rest of the board. And on, and on.
Can you tell us something that is normal in Florida that Northerners would find strange?
The Keys isn’t FL. It’s really another county. Everything about it is different from the rest of the state. Mainland FL doesn’t even consider the Keys as belonging. Where I lived was closer to Cuba than Miami, but to answer the question:
Going to lunch or dinner (or breakfast) by boat. Catching dinner in your backyard. Sweating while putting up outdoor Christmas lights. Stopping for a quick dip in the ocean on your way to work. Seeing your postal delivery person drunk in a bar at lunch time when you know good and well that your mail hasn’t been delivered yet. Going to a store and finding a “Gone Fishing” sign on the door and not knowing when they’ll reopen. Paying $150 for a six foot live Christmas tree.
What do you miss about the Sunshine state the most?
Having manatees and dolphins in my backyard. Swimming with them on a regular basis in the wild—don’t tell FWC. I miss Mother Ocean. She was my closest confidant for many years and I miss her soothing presence and healing touch. I hear her calling often. I miss the way my skin smelled from living in the sun.
Are we supposed to hate Bart Levine?
Not at all. He has so much potential to be a giving and loving human being. He’s simply lost his way. I certainly don’t hate him. Quite the opposite. He is probably my favorite character and that’s saying a lot because Hammond is a stand-up guy and Stella’s a swell chick.
Why did you decide to put a hurricane in the storyline?
Because a hurricane is in charge. Of everything. Even the ultra rich can’t pay off a hurricane the way they might pay off a government official, housing inspector, judge, etc. Hurricanes level the playing field—at least for awhile. That’s one reason, but also because they bring great change and that’s really where my head was when this story was birthed. I was in the midst of great change. I liked the power of the storm over everything—even the things/people not in its direct path are affected. A hurricane’s reach is far and lasts long after the wind has died down. Hurricanes, like relationships/addictions leave scars and empty landscapes.
What did you name the hurricane?
Patty: I think that really was a Nina decision.
Nina: I did a little research and realized that "Patty" was one of the allotted storm names set aside for use in the North Atlantic in 2018. Just too perfect.
Why did you name the novel Island Chains?
Because this novel is about chains. Not simply a chain of islands, although that is also true, but it’s about the chains of addiction, bad relationships, drugs, poverty. Those chains are binding and anyone who has lived on a chain of islands for any length of time knows that the chains of simply dwelling there are binding as well. The longer you stay, the less likely you are to leave. That goes for both chains made of coral rock and those of addiction.
Was there any research you had to do for the novel?
Yes. Police investigation/procedural, hurricane evacuation, human trafficking were among them. If you’re going to do a suspense well, the facts have to be right or, at least as close to right as your characters will allow. It’s frustrating to read a book or watch a TV show and realize that what the author/producers are feeding you as truth is simply not true. Nothing makes me give up on a book or TV show faster than being fed bullshit. I try not to do that to my readers.
Are manatees as adorable in real life as they are in pictures?
More. They are the most gentle and peaceful creatures I’ve ever had the pleasure to share space with. Despite how terrible humans treat them (a manatee was found with someone’s NAME CARVED into its flesh), they are docile and trusting. I’ve been in the water with more than a dozen of them at once, some of them weighing several hundred pounds each, and never was I nervous or had any reason to fear for my safety. Swimming with manatees is like lounging among napping grannies—and they’re just as gassy!
(Nina) How did you and Patti meet?
Patti first came to me as a client through Dream Your Book, my author services company. I edited her book and enjoyed talking to her about it. She later pitched it to Cosmographia for publication and at first I said no thanks because I was intent on only publishing what I considered “spiritual” books. But I realized in early 2017 that two books I wanted to publish—Blissful and Other Stories by Steve Huff and Lavell’s book—were not overtly spiritual, but there was something soulful in the way they approached their characters and subject matter. And I liked their storytelling, plain and simple. So I opened up the doors to include work that maybe stretches the boundaries a little but still pleases my aesthetic.
When you finish a novel, what do you feel? Relief, exasperation etc?
Anticipation. That’s when the hard work really begins, after all, because then you have to convince the world that what you’ve spent so much energy and love creating is worth their hard-earned money and limited free time. That’s no easy feat. I’m not the most patient person in the world and I find myself within hours of publication wondering why I haven’t yet sold a million copies. In between those moments, I’m thinking about the next book.
If the novel had a soundtrack, what would the theme song be?
I’d love to return to this question because it deserves more thought than I can give. This one isn’t an off-the-cuff, I already know the answer sort of thing. Wow. I’d like to think about this.
Does an alligator eat Bart Levine?
No. Never. He doesn’t deserve that sort of thing. Bart just needs love. He’s really a lot like you and me.
What made you decide to work with Cosmographia Books?
I first met Nina through Dream Your Book, when she took me on as a client and edited my book. I was very quick to trust her (a bit unusual for me) and I immediately felt drawn to her style. She made me feel like she “got” my characters, which is really important to me because I develop rather strong maternal instincts toward all of them - even the undesirables. Nina’s intuition impressed me from the beginning and I appreciated the way she “saw” my book. I almost reluctantly went into the editing process, but came out the other side a true believer. Nina’s grasp of the craft of writing, her keen sense of pacing and character development, and her honesty sold me. Hook, line, and sinker. (See what I did there?) When I pitched the idea of Cosmographia publishing the book, she declined. I was really disappointed but understood that I didn’t really fit into her niche. Fortunately for me (and I’d like to think for my readers), Cosmographia has morphed and its boundaries reflect that. I’m honored to be among their publications.
What drink do you recommend to go with Island Chains?
A cold beer or a margarita with salt and rocks. A shot of patron also works.
Without too many spoilers, what is one of your favorite moments in the novel?
Patti: That brief moment when Emma is reunited with Bart in Mariner’s Hospital.
Who would you cast as the characters in a movie?
Nina: So, as a laugh, I made a who-would-I-cast moral alignment chart for Island Chains. Here it is in all its glory.
Is there any advice you have for writers who want to write suspense?
I don’t feel qualified to give advice, except to just do it. Write.
Any unusual rituals you do before or after finishing writing a novel?
They aren’t unusual to me! I light a special candle and pour a bit of something to the gods as soon as I decide I’m done. I thank those/that which gave inspiration and I send loving energy to those, who like Bart, really need to find the light.
What do you want your readers to come away with when they finish the novel?
First and foremost; a smile. Then I’d like them to walk away with a bit more awareness of human trafficking. Not to the point where it consumes them, but just enough of an awareness so that if it stared them in the face, they’d recognize it and do something about it. Then, once we’ve righted all of the wrongs on this planet, I’d like readers to be hungry for my next novel. I hope that’s not too much to ask.