Today’s SWW interview is with Elizabeth Brundage to discuss her new book, All Things Cease to Appear. I devoured this book and couldn’t wait to interview Elizabeth about it, especially after reading about her real-life ghost story that had inspired this storyline. I had chills up and down my spine when I read her experience and I think you will too. I’m so excited to share this interview with you today and honored that Elizabeth would be so open to sharing with our readers!
I love being part of a local book club and this past month we read, All Things Cease to Appear. I think it is important to set expectations with this one. Do you remember Everything I Never Told You (I interviewed the author too!)? Well, I felt like the setup of this book is similar. We are opening with someone being accused of murdering their wife and then working our way out from there. Some people get disappointed when things work in this direction (maybe thinking it takes away from the mystery of it all?), but I really loved that it opened this way and then the reader discovers more and more of the motive as the story unfolds.
The book opens with the murder of Catherine as the police began questioning the most obvious of suspects… her husband. The book builds out the story of this couple from the purchase of this farmhouse filled with secrets, the failing marriage, and George’s strange double life.
This book is a really deep character study into a sociopath. Brundage writes this book so well that things like the home, for example, become a character unto itself. This is slow, but worthy of the pacing with rich characters. I couldn’t put it down.
We included All Things Cease to Appear in our April Must-Reads list!
Oh, and I wish I could put you by a bonfire for this eerie tale and we could share it with a couple of flashlights! I guess coffee will suffice. Settle in!
Q&A With Elizabeth Brundage
I read a rather chilling story about the house that inspired the location for your book. Just like the book, the house had its own sad story. Can you share with us a little bit about the house you lived in that you were able to draw inspiration from and have you ever gone back to see it since you left?
The novel began with a real unsolved murder. I first heard about it many years ago. My husband was just finishing his residency in an upstate New York town and we were considering staying in the area for his fellowship. At the time, our daughter was three, and I was pregnant with our second. I went to look at a house that had come on the market in a nice, suburban neighborhood. I was standing in the living room looking out on the back yard and a sensation of darkness came over me – I know that may sound strange, but it did. I told the realtor and she said that it wasn’t the house we were standing in, but the one just across the yard, shrouded in big pine trees. She told me a woman had been murdered there with an ax while her young daughter, a three-year old, was home with her. This story shook me, and stayed with me for years.
We ended up moving to Connecticut for a few years and then, after my husband’s fellowship, we moved up to the Albany area. By then our daughters were 3 and 6. We ended up renting a house in a rural area of Columbia County, south of Albany. The house was a cape, built in the early nineteenth century. My husband had just joined a cardiology group and I was alone a lot of the time with the girls. Almost immediately strange things started happening in the house. One day I was walking on the street and this man, a neighbor, came up to me and told me the house was haunted; the owner had moved away and was stuck renting it out. He said the owner used to go out to dinner and come home to find the furniture rearranged. We never experienced that, but there were things that freaked me out. On Halloween, I turned on my computer and the printer started printing out a skeleton head made up of the word Boo. This was before the Internet – the only thing running through the computer was electricity. Then, around Thanksgiving, I came home with my hands full of groceries – I was holding a turkey as I recall – and tried to open the front door. The knob wouldn’t turn, and then I could hear the doorknob being unscrewed from the inside, as if there was somebody behind the door. The next thing I knew, the knob came off in my hand. I wrote that scene into the book. Once, I caught my youngest daughter, three, pointing at something across the room that I couldn’t see, giggling. At night we’d get into bed and the mattress would shake as if someone – an invisible child – was jumping up and down on the foot of it. Soon after my oldest daughter, who was six, informed me that three little girl-ghosts were living in the house. They had all died in a fire, she said, and their parents were up in heaven. It was creepy, sure, but it was also very sad. On the day we moved out of that house I happened to open a corner cupboard and discovered three pair of shoes, the sort little girls wore in the early 1800s, in age-appropriate sizes of the girl ghosts our daughter had described.
Both of these experiences came together to help me write this book. I was interested in writing a ghost story that was not the usual terrifying horror story. Instead, I wanted to show that the real terror in this world simmers among the living. I have never been back to that house since, but I took the shoes with me I suppose to remind myself of that time, proof, perhaps, that there’s much we don’t know about this wondrous universe, and that every individual on this planet has a story worth telling.
You open your story right away with the murder of George Clare’s wife. Why did you decide to shape your book in this direction rather than building the story out and then ending with the murder?
I thought a lot about starting the novel with Cole Hale’s story of leaving the farm, but I ended up changing my mind. The murder is still an open case, and it’s the reason I wanted to write the novel. It presents a fascinating question to the reader, an invitation to investigate. I was less interested in the murder as any sort of police procedural and more compelled to explore the people whose lives were irrevocably changed by it, including the murderer himself.
(george inness painting/wikipedia)
Since George Clare teaches art history, did you have to do a lot of research to prepare for his role as a professor or have you always been interested in art yourself? Who is your favorite artist?
I’ve always been interested in art and have studied art history for years. I did do research on the Hudson River School painters, George Inness in particular, which led me to exploring the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth century philosopher who had a very particular insight into life and death and the notion of an afterlife. Teaching for many years at various colleges supplied me with plenty of source material to create the Art History Department at Saginaw, the fictional college in the book, and one of the main characters, George Clare, who is an art historian. Halfway through the book George and his friend Bram have a conversation about the value of art. I think art is extremely important. I love many painters; I don’t think I could choose a favorite.
(elizabeth has a gorgeous IG feed- follow her!!)
Did any real-life cases inspire this story and did you have anyone in your life that helped you craft the character of George?
The murder is based on a real cold case murder that remains unsolved. Several aspects of the case intrigued me, primarily that the young daughter was left alone all day with her dead mother. I think that is just heartbreaking. No, George Clare is not based on anyone I know, thank God.
Do you think that George’s wife, Catherine, was as much to blame as he was in the crimes he committed? Do you think if she had done things differently she could have escaped?
I think Catherine Clare was somewhat repressed by the times. It was the late 70s, the women’s movement was just getting under way. Her husband, George, terrified her. They were intent on keeping on the appearance of an ideal marriage, which, I think, many of us do to some degree. For reasons that I try to explore in the book, she doesn’t have the where-with-all to leave him. When she finally musters the courage, it’s too late.
Did you do a lot of research on sociopaths to create George? Did you have any scenes in your book that were difficult to write with George?
Once you get into the head of a character, they are pretty much calling the shots, so it wasn’t difficult for me to write George. I found him to be a very troubled and fascinating character. To him, everything he does makes perfect sense and is absolutely necessary for his own survival and reputation. Some of the scenes when he’s with Willis were hard to write because I knew that he was the last person on earth she should be sleeping with.
Do you feel like you have a better understanding of sociopaths after writing this book? I don’t want to share any spoilers, but do you think that George got what he deserved in the end?
George doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to. He even chooses his own fate in the end. That falls in line with being a true psychopath, I think. He has a spectacular ego. Yes, I did some research on these sorts of disorders, but I believe that the best way to achieve a certain level of authenticity as a writer is to become a patient, thoughtful, and empathetic observer of life.
This book has a large cast of characters and it is almost like the town itself is a character. Did you have a favorite character you enjoyed writing?
My favorite character is Cole Hale. Throughout the book, we watch him grow up and become the good man that he is. I have a real soft spot for him. I also loved writing his brothers Eddy and Wade. Eddy has an edge to him, but a deep respect for life. He never doubts himself because he knows who he is; I was a little in love with him.
There have been so many books that I have loved that have influenced me. Having to pick one is impossible, but I will offer Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, because it’s a great coming of age story full of fascinating, surprising, various, and brilliantly vivid characters my favorite of which is Miss Havisham, one of the all time greatest creations in literature.
You can connect with Elizabeth Brundage on her website ! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads, through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!
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