It does not at this point seem possible that Cornelia Read’s debut novel was published just two years ago. Field of Darkness from 2006 was enthusiastically reviewed, widely praised and would come to be nominated for just about everything for which it was eligible, including the Edgar Award, the RT Book Club Critics Choice, the Gumshoe, the Audie, the Macavity and the Barry awards for best debut novel.
Read’s latest book, The Crazy School (Grand Central) was published in January. It returns us to the late 1980s world of Madeline Dare who this time out has signed on as a teacher at a boarding school for disturbed teenagers. Reviews have been just as wonderful as they were for Read’s debut. “Madeline’s deadpan voice, acid wit and psychological depth are the perfect counterpoint to the novel’s positively Gothic plot,” raved Kirkus. “In her shadowed complexity and stubborn — but fragile — integrity, Madeline resembles many of the genre’s most enduring protagonists. She’s a great character, and her creator is a great storyteller. Caustic, gripping and distinctive — intelligent entertainment.”
The ex-debutante-turned-author has the quadruple-barreled name of Cornelia Ludlam Fabyan Read. “Seriously,” jokes the author when asked. She was born in New York City but now makes her home in Berkeley, California where she lives with her husband and twin daughters and I think it’s entirely possible that she did not shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
A snapshot of Cornelia Read…
Born: New York, NY
Resides: Berkeley, California
Birthday: March 8th, 1963
Web site: corneliaread.com
January Magazine: Please tell us about The Crazy School.
Cornelia Read: It’s a dark and twisty tale about a teacher at a boarding school for disturbed kids, based on a real school at which I was a teacher in the fall of 1989. In a recent San Francisco Chronicle review, Eddie Muller called it “Up the Down Staircase as Grand Guignol.” Best summary ever, in my opinion.
What’s on your nightstand?
Jess Walter’s The Zero; The Hell of a Woman short story anthology edited by Megan Abbott; Martin Limon’s The Wandering Ghost; Brent Ghelfi’s Volk’s Game; Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone; Marvin Lachman’s The Heirs of Anthony Boucher: A History of Mystery Fandom; Lee Child’s Without Fail; Jane Austen’s Emma; William Manchester’s The Last Lion: William Spencer Churchill (volume I, 1874-1932); Carolyn Keene’s Mystery of the Glowing Eye (Nancy Drew); Jack Finney’s Time and Again; Christopher Hitchens’ Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man; William Gibson’s Spook Country; David Simon’s Homicide, and a Library of America collection of American noir novels of the 1930s and ‘40s in one volume (The Postman Always Rings Twice, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They; Thieves Like Us; The Big Clock; Nightmare Alley; I Married a Dead Man). Also an advance copy of Robert Fate’s genius third novel — Baby Shark’s High Plains Redemption — which knocked my socks off.
This isn’t exactly a [to be read] pile — I read all of them over the last month (some for the second or even third time), I’m just really lazy about clearing off my nightstand. Especially when I love the books so much. I like to just eye the piles and gloat about having such literary bounty close at hand.
What inspires you?
What are you working on now?
My third Madeline Dare novel, working title: Invisible Boy. It’s set in Manhattan and Jamaica, Queens, in the fall of 1990. Based on a true story told to me by my cousin Cate Ludlam years ago — she got involved in preservation work on the first cemetery in Jamaica, and was leading a group of high-school-kid volunteers clearing brush one day in the late 1980s and discovered the skeleton of a three-year-old boy.
Tell us about your process. (Pen or computer? Morning or nighttime? Every plot point detailed or entirely free-form? Or, really, whatever comes up for you when you think about “process.”)
Computer, definitely. I bought a laptop just before Christmas this year, and get most of my writing done now when I leave the house to write with friends. I purposefully didn’t set up Internet access on the thing, so I can’t cruise blogs and stuff.
I wish I could outline, but I just jump into the story wherever it seems good to start and then I flail around for a year or so in the vain hope that a plot will occur to me somewhere along the way. Most days this feels like I’m stuck performing a Saturday Night Live parody of some hideous Maoist Chinese ballet/opera about tractors.
Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
A tiny living room with lots of cotton batting strewn everywhere, as my daughter Lila has been hacking an old wing chair into bits all week (last week she broke the back legs off). Also, a fireplace with a television in it, a decrepit brown leather sofa we bought off craigslist, a rickety dining room table piled with clean laundry I have yet to fold, a large framed print of my uncle Hunt Smith’s watercolor of the first America’s Cup race (“A Close Thing,”) plus a pair of early 19th-century French mirrors, four botanical prints circa same, a painted Bavarian linen press, and an old beat-up cherry kitchen table — all inherited from “WAREF,” my paternal grandparents’ house in Purchase, New York. Up in the rafters is the sled my sister found in a dump in Medford, Massachusetts, painted “Rosebud” on, and gave me for my 20th birthday.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Actually, I wanted to go into advertising.
I even told that to my junior-year English teacher in boarding school, Mr. Corcoran. He said, “Nicky (as I was called then), you should be a writer.” I said, “Dude, no way. I’m sick to the teeth of being this broke all the time. I want to make some damn money.”
Oh well. On the bright side, I’ve had a tremendous amount of practice at being poor.
If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
Mushrooms in Bali.
To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
Having Lee Child look across a table at me in a dusty back storage room during my manuscript consultation with him at the Book Passage Mystery Conference and say, “You had me from the second sentence.”
For you, what is the easiest thing about being a writer?
Public speaking. I am honored and chuffed that I get to stand up in front of people just to natter on about whatever comes to mind and try to make them laugh. That’s the most wonderful feeling in the world, to me. I’m blessed that I get to indulge in it.
What’s the most difficult?
Getting my ass in the chair to actually write.
What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
From fellow writers: “Can I borrow your family?”
What’s the question you’d most like to be asked?
“May I buy you a great deal of sushi?”
What question would you like never to be asked again?
“Don’t you think all this swearing in your books is proof you have a poor vocabulary?”
(Answer I’d like to give: “Fuck no, you egregiously pusillanimous butthead.”)
Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.