Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mystery Novelist Cammie McGovern Uncovers Deep Suburbia Secrets in Her Latest Novel, Neighborhood Watch

Cammie McGovern will be reading from her latest mystery novel Neighborhood Watch tonight at Elliott Bay Book Company at 7:00 p.m. This event is FREE.

In Cammie McGovern's third novel, Neighborhood Watch, we meet Betsy Treading, the "Librarian Murderess," who has been exonerated from prison with the help of DNA evidence after twelve long years. Betsy believed that she had murdered her neighbor Linda Sue during one of her sleepwalking episodes after finding a bloody nightgown in her laundry hamper; though she has no recollection of the night or of committing the murder.

After being released from prison, Betsy returns to her old suburban street in search of answers to twelve-year-old secrets and most of all, in search of Linda Sue's true killer. However, Betsy has no idea just exactly how many secrets are truly buried behind the beige walls of the seemingly innocent, white picket fenced homes of Juniper Lane.

How did you go about your research for Neighborhood Watch?

I started Neighborhood Watch after watching a particularly powerful documentary called After Innocence, about the over-200 convicted criminals who've served many years in prison (some on death row,) and been completely exonerated for their crimes after new testing DNA evidence revealed they weren't at the scene of the crime. In something like half the cases, these defendants were convicted in part because they'd confessed.

This is a far more common phenomenon than most people realize and I wanted to look at why and how a person might confess to a crime they haven't committed. Usually the explanation is a complicated one: they might have wanted to commit the crime, or considered it. Or they might be confused by police interrogation tactics and believe admitting some part in a crime will get them off. Or--in the case of Betsy, a chronic sleepwalker--they might have no memory of the incident and believe it could have happened. Most juries operate on the assumption that no one in their right mind would ever confess to a crime they didn't commit and the truth is far murkier, and more psychologically interesting, I think. In our most private moments, we are all guilty of dark impulses which most of us can be reasonably sure we'd never act on. But what if you were a sleepwalker, prone to acting out such impulses without any awareness of doing so?

As I worked, I found researching sleep disorders to be particularly compelling. There are a surprising number of real cases where sleepwalking has been used as a successful defense in murder cases. The most remarkable might be a Canadian man named Kenneth Parks who, in 1987, with no known history of violence, got in his car, drove fifteen miles, climbed in the window of his in-law's house and attacked them both with a lead pipe, ultimately killing the mother-in-law he'd by all reports always been very fond of. He argued that he was sleepwalking the entire time and had no memory of the events. Because he had a well-documented history and genetic predisposition to the condition, he was eventually acquitted.

Neighborhood Watch includes fairly complex themes such as somnambulism and physics; are these ideas that you were already familiar with before writing the novel?

I knew a little about somnambulism (a dear friend from college married a man who used to get up and eat large quantities of strange, uncooked things out of the refrigerator at night--a package of hot dogs, or a stick of butter. This is more common than you'd think and as a result it is possible to install refrigerator locks as they did...) I knew very little about physics but my dear brother is a mathematician (and professor at the University of Washington!) who read many drafts of this book and gently steered me in certain directions. Bless his heart, he's also a mystery reader with a good sense for story and how much information one needs to impart without getting too bogged down in passing along all the fascinating research you've done.

The novel takes place on a Desperate Housewives-esque suburban street, Juniper Lane. Though many typically think of suburbia as being dull or boring, Neighborhood Watch shows readers that it can be exactly the opposite. Can you tell us more about your choice for using Juniper Lane as the novel's setting?

I've always been especially fascinated by the housing developments that pop up on old farmland with no trees or natural landscaping and look like an oval Monopoly houses. Part of me can see the great appeal of these developments, where everyone would be equal with identical houses. Your lives might be a shared refelction of each other's almost like the old level-playing field of a college dorm. But of course it isn't really a level playing field and every house on the street might look the same but they all contain secrets. My interest was in looking at how those secrets--many of which might seem perfectly benign--become dangerous and even explosive when the neighbors begin turning a steely on one another with the formation of their new Neighborhood Watch group.

We really enjoyed Linda Sue's character--the neighborhood misfit with the overgrown lawn and the mysterious past--did you have any particular influences while constructing Linda Sue's character?

I've always secretly loved people like Linda Sue who aren't afraid of the social awkwardness of ruining a dinner party and don't pass up a chance to say what they really think. She speaks the truth, as she sees it, to people who've been dancing around it for years. In this case, her honesty destroys the pretense the whole neighborhood has carefully constructed for itself. Her honesty sets in motion the unraveling of everyone's façade and she pays the ultimate price for it. I suspect we all know people like this and we all probably admire and fear them in equal measure. I will say, though, that my truest and best friends in life seem to be people who have a bit of Linda Sue's impulse in them--to speak honestly and truthfully about their own lives and what they see around them. Sometimes, in ways we could never predict, what's most dangerous is maintaining the façade.

What are your thoughts on neighborhood watch groups in general? Do you think that they can sometimes end up doing more harm than good?

Certainly in this story they end up doing more harm than good. The neighborhood is untouched by crime until they put themselves on high alert for it and then the tensions simmering below the surface explode into a violent crime one of their own commits. For my part, I have mixed feelings about Neighborhood Watch groups. My sense is that any effort ot watch for "criminal activity" will, sooner or later, mean categorizing what "types" of people and behavior everyone is meant ot be on guard against. Obviously race would become one identifier, but also teenagers dressed in certain ways, or people driving certain kinds of cars. In my relatively small town in Massachusetts, two house burglaries in the same neighborhood spawned the creation of a Neighborhood Watch group which seemed to be almost entirely focused on the apartment residents across the way. In this case, it was slightly higher-income families turning a steely eye on slightly lower-income families. I certainly understand the reality of crime today and believe that self-empowering measures to protect oneself are important, but I also worry about the ways they can become divisive.

Thanks to DNA testing, Betsy is exonerated from prison after twelve years for a murder that she did not commit. What are your thoughts on DNA testing? Though it only helps a select group among the masses do you feel that the overall expenses are worth it?

Since 1992, new testing on old DNA evidence has freed 254 innocent men and women convicted of crimes they didn't commit. The innocence Project, started by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld as a clinical course in law school, has now expanded into similar programs in 59 law schools around the country with students getting hands-on experience doing the extraordinary legwork of filing petitions to revisit settled cases and apply for new DNA testing on old evidence. Anyone who's watched the documentary I mentioned before, After Innocence, would probably be persuaded that yes, new DNA testing is an essential new tool that is absolutely imperative for cases on death row. Our justice system is composed of human beings who are inherently flawed, and the victims are most likely to be indigent or low income defendants.

How did writing Neighborhood Watch differ from your experience with that of your last mystery novel Eye Contact?

In Eye Contact, I was much more focused on the depiction of the autistic boy who has witnessed a murder at the center of that novel. I was hoping to depict something both true and hopeful about autism and parenting a child with disabilities based on my own experiences raising a son who's now fourteen and has autism. For that, my research was basically our lives and especially the first six years of his. I was also new at writing a mystery which I discovered was much harder than I expected it to be. Since then I've read so much more throughout the mystery and literary suspense genres that I've picked up some tricks which make it no less of a challenge, but also a lot of fun. I feel like this book is plotted with a much surer hand and told with a more intriguing narrative voice.

What is your biggest challenge while constructing a mystery plot outline?

I confess that I probably have the hardest time picking my killers and usually I have no idea what the ending is going to be when I begin a story. It's such a delicate art because you want it to be a known character, but I've always had a problem with the Sunday school teacher introduced in the first third of the book who suddenly and sort of unaccountably turns out to be a psychopath. The violence needs to come from somewhere. In the best mysteries you hope to have flickered little suggestive lights at that place without shining some obvious strobe on it.

Do you primarily read mystery novels for enjoyment? Are there particular mystery writers that you feel have influenced your work?

I read an enormous amount from a pretty wide swath of contemporary fiction. I love the dark edges of Tom Perrotta's humor, along with writers like Jess Walter and Carolyn Parkhurst. For page-turning story ideas, I read Harlan Coben, Denise Mina, Laura Lippman, Tana French, and Dennis Lehane.

Are you currently working on a new novel? What can readers expect for the future?

My next book has gothic elements, so I've spent this last year reading and loving Sarah Waters, Kate Morten, and Diane Setterfield (books about books and readers! I love them!). Its got an aging house with lots of family secrets buried in its crumbling façade and a library full of books that tells the real story this family has never admitted to each other.

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