Q&A: Simone St. James, Author of THE BROKEN GIRLS
Berkley; March 20, 2018
I recently read - and loved! - Simone St. James’ propulsive suspense novel THE BROKEN GIRLS—a mystery with a ghost story twist, set against the backdrop of an all-girls boarding school in rural Vermont. There’s a little something for everyone to love here: from interpersonal secrets to a richly atmospheric locale to a genuinely chilling (yet tastefully done) supernatural component. I found myself utterly glued to the pages of THE BROKEN GIRLS - if you missed my full review, you can find that here! THE BROKEN GIRLS releases today (March 20th, 2018) from Berkley - and I’m delighted to celebrate its publication by welcoming Simone St. James to CBTB to talk about her brand-new release!
Before we dive into the Q&A, a quick recap of what I loved about this book:
About THE BROKEN GIRLS:
Vermont, 1950. There's a place for the girls whom no one wants—the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It's called Idlewild Hall. And in the small town where it's located, there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming—until one of them mysteriously disappears...
Vermont, 2014. As much as she's tried, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her older sister's death. Twenty years ago, her body was found lying in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister's boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can't shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case.
When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past—and a voice that won't be silenced...
Author Q&A: Simone St. James
Crime by the Book: If you had to describe THE BROKEN GIRLS in three adjectives, which would you choose?
Simone St. James: Creepy, emotional, twisty.
CBTB: Can you share with us a bit about the moment when the idea for THE BROKEN GIRLS first popped into your head? Was it an idea that came to you all at once, or did different pieces of the story come to you over time?
SSJ: The first scene I imagined was the discovery of the body in the well. I saw that scene very clearly, and I wanted to know who the body was, and who was discovering it, and how those two things intersected. I’d always wanted to write a book set at a haunted girls’ boarding school, so once I put those two things together, I was off to the races. The rest came in layers over time as I wrote the book.
CBTB: THE BROKEN GIRLS features a cast of compelling women, from Fiona in the present day to the young women of Idlewild Hall in the past. Do you identify most with any of these characters? Were there any that you found particularly enjoyable (or challenging!) to write?
SSJ: I loved writing all of them. I wanted Fiona to be flawed at the beginning of the book instead of a heroine from page one, so that was a challenge because you don’t want to turn the reader off. You want them invested in her journey. Katie was the easiest to write—she has such a strong personality, I felt like I was taking dictation when I wrote her chapters. I’m nothing like her, but she made perfect sense to me from the first.
CBTB: One of my personal favorite elements of this story is its ghost - Mary Hand. You’ve created a bit of your own urban legend in this book through Mary! I’m fascinated by the way you developed her and used her as a mirror to show the book’s characters some of their own fears. Can you share a bit about how you conceived of Mary? Why incorporate a supernatural element into your suspense novel?
SSJ: This made me laugh, because I see it as incorporating suspense into my ghost story! The setting of Idlewild Hall, with Mary attached, came first, before any of the suspense elements. It’s the canvas the rest of it is painted on. As for how I conceived of Mary, I’d written five ghost stories previously, and I wanted a variation on the usual theme. I didn’t just want her hanging out at Idlewild. I wanted Mary to be active, a villain and kind of a tragic heroine at the same time. This was the best way I could think of to do that.
CBTB: I’ve heard from so many readers who are particularly excited about this book’s boarding school locale. What prompted you to center your book around a boarding school? Do you have any ideas about what makes this such a perennially-intriguing backdrop for fiction, mysteries in particular?
SSJ: The idea of a haunted girls’ boarding school had been simmering in the back of my mind for a while, so I was happy to finally flesh it out. Boarding schools are juicy settings because you have a group of strangers who are stuck in one place together—trapped, really. They can’t leave and there are no parents in sight. Anything can happen. Just use your imagination!
CBTB: Not to spoil anything… but THE BROKEN GIRLS also features some pretty shocking reveals and revelations as the story comes together at the end! Did you have these reveals in mind when you started writing the book? Did you always know how the story would conclude, even from the outset?
SSJ: I didn’t know everything when I started, but I had a vague idea. I’d read a research book for another project that gave me an idea for one of the mysteries—it was just a matter of figuring out how to fit that piece into the puzzle. With a story like this, even when you think you know what you’re doing when you start, you soon realize that you know almost nothing, and you have to split your ideas open and re-form them on the fly. You’re on a tightrope without a net. It was incredibly challenging and very satisfying at the same time.
CBTB: When you’re not writing crime fiction, do you enjoy reading crime fiction as well? If so, could you share some titles you’ve recently read and enjoyed?
SSJ: I read everything! Crime, thrillers, romance, horror, non-fiction, you name it. I devour everything Karin Slaughter writes as well as everything Michael Connelly writes. I love Tana French, Donna Tartt, and Gillian Flynn. I just read The Woman in the Window, which was twisty and delightful to read. I reread the Sherlock Holmes canon regularly, and I love those crazy, pulpy, classic gothics from the 1960s and 1970s. My to-be-read pile is never ending!
CBTB: What are you working on next?
SSJ: I’m working on my next book, which is about a young woman who takes a night shift job at the same motel her aunt vanished from in 1982—while also working the night shift. She travels to the same town where her aunt lived, takes the same apartment, and works the same job, digging up secrets. That’s all I can say right now! It is slated to be released in 2020.
Okay, how great does Simone’s next book sound? I’ll most definitely be keeping an eye out for it! Many thanks to Simone for taking the time to answer my questions, and to her publisher for facilitating this Q&A. THE BROKEN GIRLS is on sale today!
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Berkley (March 20, 2018)
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