The Intel: Elisabeth de Mariaffi
Cast your mind back to earlier in the week, my friends, and you will recall our review of Canadian author Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s novel The Devil You Know, which is available now, published by Titan Books. It’s a novel of paranoia and obsession as a young woman explores the murder of her childhood friend in Toronto in the early 1990s.
If your face has been turned to the sunshine all week and you inexplicably missed it, you can scroll down or click here.
Elisabeth may be a debut novelist, but she’s a respected author. Her collection of short stories, How to Get Along with Women, was long-listed for the prestigious Giller Prize for Canadian fiction, and she is also one of the creators of the Toronto Poetry Vendors Press. Originally from Transylvania, she speaks four languages and lives in St Johns, Canada with her husband, the poet George Murray.
Elisabeth has kindly agreed to give us the intel on The Devil You Know. She’s a generous and thoughtful interviewee, who talks about how her own childhood experiences inspired the novel, why she threaded notorious real-life crimes into her story, and about how a novel is like a blue whale…
What was the inspiration for The Devil You Know…
The original idea for The Devil You Know came to me years ago, and it was the image of the girl inside her bachelor apartment and the stranger outside on the fire escape, looking in. What intrigued me was the idea that the girl isn’t sure he’s really there. Is there really a stalker out on my fire escape, or have I been so trained in anxiety that I’m making this up?
There was another story I’d been carrying with me, too, a news item from 2007 about a little girl that had gone missing in Quebec. After she went missing, other girls came forward and reported that they’d been approached by a man who asked them to help him find a lost dog. (The missing girl, Cedrika Provencher, has never been found.) I thought about those other girls a lot, and their parents, the girls who didn’t get in the car, who didn’t go with him. That near-miss. That feels close to home for me, because when I was nine, my own friend Sharin’ Keenan was abducted and killed, and her murderer has never been caught.
Why did you set it in the early 1990s?
All these pieces were coming together in my mind, and when I started to write I set the story in Toronto, in 1993, at the moment of Paul Bernardo’s arrest. The late 80s and early 90s in Ontario were so marked by fear: first the Scarborough Rapist, then later these abductions of teenage girls down in Niagara. There’s a wide generation of women who came of age in this climate of fear, and I think we haven’t talked about that enough.
In the book, Evie Jones brings these three threads together: when she was 11, her best friend was abducted and killed, and then Evie grows up to become a reporter who’s new on the job just as Bernardo’s arrest happens. While I didn’t sit down to write a thriller at the outset, it developed that way for two reasons: one, Evie’s motivation is getting the story, and that creates that kind of page-turner tension. But more than that, it’s basically a book about fear, and I think to understand fear you have to be made to feel afraid. So the thriller template allows for that. The Devil You Know uses that thriller template to talk about what makes women afraid.
The Devil You Know is a novel of suspense, but also very much about the everyday fear that women live with – were there certain themes you wanted to explore in this book?
I think the age that Evie is at in the novel is really interesting. She’s 21, just out of journalism school, first real job, first real apartment by herself. This is a moment of big independence, it’s a leap. Everything about coming of age requires power and fearlessness. So, we’re going to encourage young women to do all this, engage in this very powerful, independent life—and at the same time, we’re going to say, Now, while you’re doing that, you’re going to need to fear for your personal safety at every moment. That’s not just counterintuitive, it’s sabotage. This is what young women have to negotiate every day.
I was basically terrified of the idea of writing a novel, so I had to keep fooling myself. A short story is so perfect. You can hold an entire short story in your hand, and you can see how pulling a little string over here, in the first few pages, will make the marionette kick her leg over there, closer to the end of the story. A novel is I guess also like that, only your hand is now the size of a blue whale and if you want to see where and how the marionette kicks her leg, you have to drop the little string you just pulled and run a half-marathon really quickly.
Did you enjoy writing in the crime genre?
I really did! I love a good mystery. It was challenging in the best possible way to keep all those balls in the air at the same time, and to keep the pacing really tight.
The narrative incorporates real life crimes – did you feel a responsibility to the victims you mention in the story?
Yes, absolutely. There are a number of real cases that made it into the book, not just the Bernardo stories. It was important to me that the book also do the work of elegy. Media focus switches very quickly from the victims to the villain, and I wanted to make sure that the girls’ stories were being told.
Part of that concern comes from my own experience—when I was nine, my friend Sharin’ Keenan was abducted and killed. The story is made more awful because the killer was identified but never caught: for all we know, he’s still alive out there. So I lived that very closely as a child, and it stays with you, obviously.
There are parts of the novel that are very much based on my own memories: early on, in a flashback scene, Evie’s family gets a phone call from the police at 2 a.m. Her friend Lianne has gone missing and the police are calling everyone in her class. That happened in my own childhood. I have a memory of it. But the thing about childhood memory is that it’s a pastiche, it’s a mix of true events, and photographs you’ve seen, and stories the adults in your life have told you. I was surprised at how few actual details of the case I had right.
I’m actually very careful with myself. The book contains very few details about the crimes, and that’s on purpose. I’m not in this to traumatize anyone, not even me.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
That’s it’s not going to be perfect right away! I’m still learning that. And that part of the work of writing is sometimes walking away from the desk, going for a walk or cleaning the kitchen or staring out the window or reading. And while you’re doing those things, your brain is actually working in the background, and suddenly you have the answer. That’s a good moment.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
That’s a big question. I love Alice Munro. Alice Munro gets more done in a 30 page story than most writers accomplish in a novel. So that’s precision, I’d say. I read a lot of short stories, even when I’m writing novels: Aimee Bender, James Salter, Stephen O’Connor, Mavis Gallant. Munro, obviously. Ann Patchett—I loved Bel Canto. Sarah Waters! The pacing and tension in The Little Stranger are really admirable.
Most recently I really liked Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, both of which are very different from anything I’ve written to this point.
Give me some advice about writing…
There’s not much I can tell you except to keep at it—but in a focused way. If you want to write, you have to write every day, you have to make time for writing the way you would make time for anything else. If you wait till the moment is perfect, you’ll never get any writing done.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just started work on a new novel—but it’s too new to talk about in a detailed way. I don’t want to jinx the writing!