Cornelia Read was born and raised in the US by divorced hippie-renegade parents. Her childhood mentors included Sufis, surfers, single moms, Black Panthers, Ansel Adams, draft dodgers, striking farmworkers, and Henry Miller's toughest ping-pong rival. She lives in California and is married to a lovely sane man who is gainfully employed. They have twin daughters.
Q. How did you come to write this story?
A. My husband’s father told me about an unsolved double murder years ago, over lunch one day at their family farm… Decades earlier, the bodies of two girls were found in a neighbor’s field. They’d last been seen alive with a pair of soldiers, walking along the New York State Fair’s midway. My father-in-law told me that he’d been leasing that same field for several years, and had churned up a set of dogtags there one spring. Since I was working for a local paper at the time, he thought I might be interested in writing about it. I did fluffy feature things, mostly — how to make sushi, book reviews, Valentine’s Day profiles of couples who’d found love through the personal ads. I had no idea how to tackle a crime story. I didn’t have the confidence to pursue it. I’ve been haunted by that decision ever since.Q. Are the murders in your novel based on those killings?
A. Only very loosely — shortly after the novel opens, in 1988, my character Madeline Dare is told a very similar story. When her father-in-law asks if she’d like to see the dogtags he found at the scene, she says yes. When Madeline looks at them, she recognizes the name of her favorite cousin; a guy who’s charming, from a branch of her family that held onto its Robber Baron money. She’s horrified to see his name, because he’s one of the few relatives who have been unfailingly kind to her. Madeline gets involved because she’s determined to prove him innocent.Q. Why make your character’s cousin the prime suspect?
A. Almost all the family history in the book is true. I’m descended from a slough of Dead White Bad Guys. My people had a serious genius for atrocity, bad blood from the Mayflower on down. Another killer in the mix wouldn’t surprise me at all. There are cool people, too, people I’m proud to be related to, but it’s the creepy ones I’m obsessed with. I feel guilty about all of it.Q. You feel guilty for things you didn’t do?
A. For the things that stuff has made possible in my life. Madeline jokes that her ‘money is so old, there’s none left,’ which is what I’ve been telling people for years, but I’ve still been the recipient of tremendous bounty from that old-WASP goodie bag. Scholarships and being a debutante at the Plaza and even some highly impractical furniture, not to mention many pairs of really great second-hand loafers, over the years.
Plus, pretty much whenever life requires a little dominant paradigm razzle-dazzle, I can hum a few bars and fake it, which is a valuable skill. Despite having been raised by renegade pinko wolves outside Big Sur, I got shipped east every summer for double-secret-etiquette-boot-camp indoctrination… pre-dawn drills in Fork Selection and Receiving Line Comportment. Advanced Finger Bowl Appreciation. Graduate seminars like ‘Spot the Arriviste: by his suspiciously undamaged deck shoes shall ye know him.’
You can deploy me into the frostiest cocktail party on the planet, blindfolded and gagged with duct tape, and I’ll manage to escape detection for hours.
I feel guilty about that, too. That’s pretty much what the book’s about: my attraction-repulsion thing with family history. Autobiography – except, perhaps, for the serial killer part.