Author Q&A: Alex Dahl
THE HEART KEEPER | Available now from Berkley
Some books stick with you long after you’ve turned their final page. For me, Alex Dahl’s newest suspense novel THE HEART KEEPER was such a book—and I’m absolutely thrilled to welcome Alex to CBTB today to discuss her intense, emotionally-resonant new release with us! If you’re not yet familiar with Alex Dahl’s work, consider this the perfect opportunity to dip into her world. Dahl is a Norwegian author whose books bridge the gap between Scandinavian sensibility and modern, razor-sharp psychological suspense. Dahl’s writing is easy to devour, but it’s got very sharp teeth; her books put womanhood under the microscope, wrapping resonant social commentary up in binge-worthy suspense plots. Dahl’s debut novel THE BOY AT THE DOOR released in the U.S. last year, and this week, she’s back. In THE HEART KEEPER, Dahl explores the powerful force of a mother’s love in the face of tragedy—and considers what happens when that tragedy drives an ordinary person to do unthinkable things. THE HEART KEEPER is in many ways a quiet novel - it’s not a story of rip-roaring action or shocking violence - but its underlying intensity and emotional charge make it utterly unputdownable. I loved Dahl’s newest novel, and was thrilled to have the opportunity to ask her a few of my most pressing questions about it!
I’m delighted to share my Q&A with Alex Dahl on CBTB today! In this post, you can learn more about THE HEART KEEPER, its inspiration, its sympathetic-yet-unhinged protagonist, and a whole lot more. Many thanks to Alex Dahl for answering my questions, and to Dahl’s U.S. publisher for facilitating this Q&A!
THE HEART KEEPER by Alex Dahl
Critically acclaimed author Alex Dahl explores how love can turn darkly sinister when a desperate mother looks to reconnect with her lost daughter in this riveting Norwegian set psychological suspense novel.
Two mothers. Two daughters. One heart.
When Alison's beloved daughter Amalie drowns, her world turns impenetrably dark. Alison tries to hold it together throughout the bleak Fall, but in the darkest days of the Norwegian Winter she completely falls apart.
In another family, Amalie's passing is a new beginning. After years of severe health problems, young Kaia receives a new heart on the morning after Amalie drowns. Her mother Iselin has struggled to raise Kaia on her own and now things are finally looking up. She's even made an affluent new friend who's taken a special interest in her and her daughter.
Alison knows she shouldn't interfere, but really, she's just trying to help Iselin and Kaia. She can give them the life they never had, and by staying close to them, she can still be with her daughter. Kaia is just like her, and surely, something of Amalie must live on in her. As her grief transforms into a terrifying obsession, Alison won't let anything stop her from getting back what she has lost.
Author Q&A: Alex Dahl
THE HEART KEEPER
Crime by the Book: First things first, thank you so much for stopping by Crime by the Book to discuss your newest release, The Heart Keeper! I’m such a fan, and am thrilled to have you joining us today. In your own words, what is The Heart Keeper about?
Alex Dahl: Thank you for having me! Very excited about the release of The Heart Keeper. The novel tells the parallel stories of two mothers and a young child in the aftermath of a tragic accident. Alison has lost her beloved daughter, Amalie, and Amalie's heart has been donated to Iselin's daughter, Kaia, who has been sick since infancy. Alison's world has turned impenetrably dark, whereas Iselin and Kaia's is gradually growing lighter. Meanwhile, Alison's sensitive teenage stepson, Oliver, mentions the notion of cell memory to Alison and a glimmer of hope is lit. Could it be that something of Amalie remains in whomever received her donated organs? Then, the identity of the recipient is coincidentally revealed to Alison, and she can't resist but strike up contact with Iselin and Kaia...
CBTB: The Heart Keeper is a story brimming with raw emotion. What was your inspiration for this novel?
AD: The idea for the book came to me like a bolt of lightning. I had actually planned to write something very different, but I knew I just had to write The Heart Keeper. It was Alison's raw grief and eventual descent into madness that resonated with me- I wanted to write a character who was actually a resourceful, conscientious, functioning human being whose circumstances drive her to madness.
CBTB: The Heart Keeper follows two women, Alison and Iselin, whose paths cross under tragic circumstances. How would you describe these women to someone meeting them for the first time?
AD: Alison is quite worldly and sophisticated. She has traveled extensively, established a successful career as a features journalist and took her time to choose a life partner. Her life is comfortable and stable when disaster strikes. Iselin, on the other hand, is very young, and hasn't had it easy. She came from a depressing place and a dysfunctional family, only to get into a top art school in Paris. In her second semester, she finds herself pregnant with a casual fling who doesn't want to know, and ends up returning to Norway where Kaia is born gravely ill. In the present, she is wary and downtrodden after years of financial and emotional strain, but things are looking up for her- she is reconnecting with her art ambitions, and Kaia has received a donor heart, drastically improving her health.
CBTB: I was fascinated to find that, even though Alison is clearly a woman making terrible choices, I felt sympathetic towards her, too. Was this intentional on your part? Did you feel any sympathy for Alison while you were writing her character?
AD: Absolutely. I really wanted Alison to be someone who was relatable, even when her choices become increasingly questionable. I felt so much empathy for Alison. I really understood her need to connect with Kaia in the belief that something of her lost child could linger within her still-beating heart.
CBTB: You are Norwegian, and your psychological suspense novels are set in Norway – but interestingly, the character of Alison is an American who has settled in Oslo! Why did you want to make Alison a bit of an “outsider”?
AD: I am half American and half Norwegian, and so have always had the 'outsider' perspective, both in Norway and in the US. I also wanted to bring in the subtle challenges sometimes found in cross-cultural relationships. And as the plot gathers pace, I wanted Alison to be quite untethered and able to pursue her obsession without too many family members or other ties likely to stop her. I deliberately made certain aspects of Alison quite like myself- I found that I needed to, in order to go all the way into her profoundly dark mind with her while still understanding her choices.
CBTB: Something that really interested me both in this book and in your 2018 release, The Boy at the Door, is how your novels speak to the experience of womanhood in the modern day. In The Heart Keeper, the experience of motherhood is put under the microscope. What do you hope to communicate to readers about motherhood through this story?
AD: I found myself reflecting on my own experiences of motherhood while writing this book, and really identified with both Iselin and Alison. I have, at various times in my life, experienced substantial common ground with both of them. My son, who is now almost 13, almost died of meningitis and sepsis at 6 days old. He spent several weeks on life support in the intensive care unit and wasn't, at one point, expected to make it. His health was very poorly for several years after, but is now entirely, miraculously unscathed. While I was writing The Heart Keeper, memories of that very traumatic time really came back for me. Writing this book was, on many levels, very therapeutic and personal for me. I was conscious of wanting to handle the fears associated with parenthood in a sensitive way, and drew on my own experiences. I have also experienced life as a single mother, and wanted to show Iselin as resourceful and ambitious, and ultimately able to change her circumstances.
“Writing this book was, on many levels, very therapeutic and personal for me. I was conscious of wanting to handle the fears associated with parenthood in a sensitive way, and drew on my own experiences.” —Alex Dahl
CBTB: This isn’t an overtly violent crime novel, but it’s a story absolutely brimming with tension and sinister suspense. What ingredients do you feel make for effective suspense in a crime novel?
AD: I believe in characters that make you believe in them, whether or not they are 'good'. I like building tension gently, interspersed with occasional more explosive plot developments. I like to build my work so that the reader can construct many possible outcomes in their minds, and hopefully, a mounting sense of dread...
CBTB: The Heart Keeper alternates between chapters narrated by Alison and chapters narrated by Iselin – a technique I absolutely loved. I’m so curious, how did you go about writing these chapters? For example, did you write all of Alison’s chapters first, and then go back and add in Iselin?
AD: I did write them alternately. At one point, this became difficult as I needed full focus on each character separately to really know them and their trajectory, so I then used a separate document to put all their sections consecutively together, making sure it was cohesive and filling in the blanks, before splitting them back up again, and layering them in the right order. I did the same with Cecilia, Annika and Tobias in The Boy at the Door, and most recently, my next novel, Playdate (2020).
CBTB: When you’re not writing crime fiction, do you also enjoy reading crime fiction? If so, could you share with us a few crime novels you’ve recently read and loved? (And if not, what kinds of novels do you typically gravitate towards?)
AD: While I do enjoy thrillers and crime fiction, I tend to read fairly different books to the ones I write. I like my fiction sad and beautiful, with interesting locations and myriad historical references! My favorite reads of the last year were All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Great House by Nicole Krauss, Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, The Cut Out Girl by Bart Van Es, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Next up are London Lies Beneath by Stella Duffy, Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay and a re-read of Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky. I also want to get serious about reading some more classics! Dostoyevsky is an old favorite from my student years that I'd quite like to revisit.
CBTB: What are you working on next?
AD: I am currently editing my next book, Playdate. I wanted to do a slightly different take on a 'child gone missing book', and challenge the perceptions of who is good and bad, right and wrong. It explores main themes such as vengeance, karma, justice, and again- motherhood and loss. It is told through four points of view and is set in Norway and the French Pyrenees. I am really excited about it! I am also in the very early stages of feeling out the contours of the book after that.
Many thanks to Alex Dahl for answering my questions, and to Berkley for arranging this Q&A! THE HEART KEEPER is now available at your favorite bookstore or library.
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Berkley (July 16, 2019)
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