THE WINTER SISTER opens sixteen years ago, when Sylvie’s sister Persephone didn’t come home. Out too late with the boyfriend she was forbidden from seeing, Persephone was missing for three days before her body was found—and all these years later, her murder remains unsolved. Now, in the present day, Sylvie reluctantly returns home to care for her estranged, alcoholic mother undergoing cancer treatment, and finally begins to uncover the truth behind what happened to Persephone.
An Interview with Megan Collins
Megan Collins debut suspense novel, THE WINTER SISTER, will be published on February 5th 2019 by Atria.
Question - Please describe what the book is about.
Megan Collins - THE WINTER SISTER is an exploration of grief and guilt—how the two can compound each other and how forgiving ourselves can be even more difficult than forgiving others. Though the book begins with the murder of eighteen-year-old Persephone, its story really belongs to the people who loved her: the mother, Annie, who drowned her grief with alcohol until she had nothing left; the sister, Sylvie, who tried to escape her past by lying to her friends and herself along the way; and the boyfriend, Ben, who’s long been suspected of being the one who killed Persephone, even though he swears he’s innocent. Sixteen years after the devastating murder, the lives of these three characters intersect once again, and it’s only then that the truth about what happened to Persephone finally comes out.
Q - Share a teaser from your book.
MC - Here’s the first paragraph: “When they found my sister’s body, the flyers we’d hung around town were still crisp against the telephone poles. The search party still had land to scour; the batteries in their flashlights still held a charge. Persephone had been missing for less than seventy-two hours when a jogger caught a glimpse of her red coat through the snow, but by then, my mother had already become a stranger to me.”
Q - Where did you get the idea?
MC - THE WINTER SISTER is inspired by the Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter, which has always been my favorite myth because of the many ways in which it can be read—as a story of motherhood, a story of what happens when we refuse to let go of grief, or a story about the effects of trauma. The idea for this book came to me when I wondered what would have happened if Demeter had had another daughter, if Persephone had had a sister, who was left to navigate her childhood in the wake of her mother’s neglect and rage and unending grief over Persephone’s disappearance. Sylvie, the narrator of THE WINTER SISTER, is my answer to that question.
Q - What’s the story behind the title?
MC - The book was originally titled PERSEPHONE’S SISTER as a way to anchor the reader in its mythological context and to cement the fact that, though Persephone plays a huge role, this is actually Sylvie’s story. My publisher very rightfully felt that this title might make people think the book takes place in ancient Greece, so I suggested THE WINTER SISTER, which still nods to the myth but doesn’t alienate any potential readers who aren’t familiar with it.
Q - No spoiler, but tell us something we won’t find out just by reading the book jacket.
MC - Art plays a big role in this book. After her sister is murdered, Sylvie spends all of her free time painting, almost to the point of obsession, and by the time we meet her as an adult, she’s working as a tattoo artist. But art is not therapeutic to her; instead, it’s tied to a pivotal experience from her past, one that continues to cripple her with guilt and shame.
Q - Tell us about your favorite character.
MC - For me, Sylvie’s mother Annie is the most compelling. In a lot of ways, she’s a terrible mother, having basically abandoned that role altogether after Persephone was murdered. But deep in her core is a lot of love and guilt that have essentially left her paralyzed, unable to move on. And though I would never want to be like her, I sympathize with the trauma she’s endured. I understand how easy it can be to lose yourself to that pain.
Q - If you could spend a day with one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do?
MC - I would take Sylvie out on a self-care day because she’s gone through so much and definitely needs it. We’d eat giant cinnamon buns for breakfast, go see a funny movie, get massages, order some delicious takeout, and then binge-watch a riveting TV series for the rest of the day, pausing only to cuddle with my golden retriever Maisy (who clearly has to come, too).
Q - Are your character based on real people, or do they come from your imaginations?
MC - While none of my characters are based directly on anyone real, I’m certain that each one has qualities borrowed from people I’ve known. It’s impossible to write in a vacuum, so real life always slips in, whether it’s through a character’s background, a gesture, or a particular way of speaking.
Q - How long did you take to write this book? (You can share about the timeline from drafting to publication)
MC - It was about two years from the initial outlining of this book to the final revision I made with my agent before it was sent out on submission. But during that time, I took nearly a year-long break, as I got stuck for a while and chose to focus on revising another project instead.
Q - What kind of research did you do for this book?
MC - In a way, I feel like I’ve been researching this book for half my life, ever since I first heard the myth of Persephone, and in all the years since, whenever I’ve re-read it, taught it, or devoured any reimagining or adaptation of it I could find.
Q - What did you remove from this book during the editing process?
MC - When I worked with my agent on this book, our goal was for me to get it down from 135,000 words to under 100,000 in order to tighten the story and improve the pacing. At first, that seemed like such an impossible task because it meant cutting a quarter of the novel, but once I got into a groove, I was trimming down sentences ruthlessly until I was left with prose that was much more muscular and could therefore pack a bigger punch than its previous, more padded version.
Q - Are you a plotter or a pantser?
MC - I’m definitely a plotter. In my non-writing life, I like to plan things out and know as much about what’s coming as possible, so it makes sense that when it comes time for me to draft a novel, I want detailed outlines to help me find my way.
Q - What is your favorite part of your writing process, and why?
MC - My favorite part of the writing process is the physical feeling I get in my body when the lines and sentences are flowing particularly well. It’s something I feel in my arms, in my legs—a sensation in my veins, as if my blood is sparkling. It sounds a little crazy when I say it like that, but I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of other writers who know exactly what I mean.
Q - What is the most challenging part of your writing process, and why?
MC - The most challenging part of the process is when you know there’s a problem in what you’ve written—a consistency issue, a lack of clarity, a need for a better transition, etc.—but the solution eludes you. It can be incredibly frustrating to keep staring at the section that’s giving you trouble, believing that you’ll never write your way out of it. On a positive note, though, once you do find the answer to the problem, it’s incredibly rewarding and you get to feel like a superhero for a second.
Q - Can you share your writing routine?
MC - I have a home office that I write in, and given my teaching schedule, I tend to do most of my writing in the mornings. This works best for me because my mind is fresh, and it means I can spend time at night just decompressing from the day by reading or watching TV.
Q - Have you ever gotten writer’s block? If yes, how do you overcome it?
MC - I have a rule for myself that I’m not always great at following: when you’re going through writer’s block, be kind to yourself. Writer’s block happens, and it’s not because you’re a bad writer; it’s because your brain needs to recharge. Take writer’s block as an opportunity to read voraciously, so that when you do come back to the blank page, your mind is stimulated and, hopefully, churning with fresh ideas.
Q - If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
MC - “You WILL write a novel. You WILL get published. Stop worrying so much about what might NOT happen for you before you even get the words on the page. Write that story. Write those poems. And just enjoy the process.”
Q - How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
MC - I have two unpublished books, both of which are more firmly rooted in the women’s fiction genre rather than suspense.
Q - Do you have any writing quirks?
MC - I’m a huge over-user of em-dashes—and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. In addition to being elegant, they offer a sense of pause that’s far superior, in my mind, to the comma, semi-colon, and ellipsis.
Q - Tell us about yourself.
MC - I have the immense privilege of teaching creative writing to high school students at an arts magnet school in Hartford, Connecticut. I’m also the managing editor of the literary journal 3Elements Review. When I’m not writing, reading, or teaching, I’m hanging out with my husband Marc and our golden retriever Maisy.
Q - How did you get into writing?
MC - I caught the writing bug when I was six years old and wrote my very first story, “The Bad Cats.” From that day on, I knew there was no other path my life could take; I was going to be an author.
Q - What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
MC - When I’m not writing, I love reading, of course—but I also love cuddling with my dog, binge-watching TV shows, and thinking about the next dessert I’ll eat.
Q - Apart from novel writing, do you do any other kind(s) of writing?
MC - Over the past ten years, I’ve divided my time between writing novels and writing poetry. In fact, my MFA is in poetry, and I’ve published a number of poems in literary journals since graduating from Boston University’s creative writing program in 2008. I love fiction and poetry equally, and I don’t think I would be the writer I am today without the training I received in each.
Q - Share something about you most people probably don’t know.
MC - I’m obsessed with tiny things. I have a collection of miniature items, including a mini typewriter, mini bookshelf, and mini books! Some other favorites from my collection are my tiny cash register, shopping cart, and banker’s lamp.
Q - Which book influenced you the most?
MC - The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. Before I first read Sylvia Plath in my early teens, I was writing pretty terrible poems filled with a lot of abstracts and clichés, but as soon as I saw how Plath crafted images and made universal emotions or experiences feel completely new, I was changed forever. I didn’t have the opportunity to take any creative writing classes until I was in college, so as a teenager, Sylvia Plath was my teacher.
Q - What are you working on right now?
MC - I’m working on a new novel. Like THE WINTER SISTER, it’s about a woman haunted by her past who has to navigate some dysfunctional familial dynamics in search of a long-buried truth—but the similarities end there.
Q - What’s your favorite writing advice?
MC - Unsurprisingly (given my answer to a previous question), my favorite writing advice comes from Sylvia Plath: “The greatest enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” I’ve found that this little sentence has empowered me so much throughout the years; it’s helped me to turn off the voice in my head that would have me throw in the towel rather than keep fighting for the words I need to say.
Q - The book you’re currently reading
MC - The Witch Elm by Tana French. Nobody does crime fiction like Tana French, and while I love her Dublin Murder Squad series, I’m excited to be diving into a book of hers that’s meant as a stand-alone novel.
Q - Name five books you could read over and over and never grow sick of.
· BELOVED by Toni Morrison
· STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
· NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl
· THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS by Arundhati Roy
· EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE by Jonathan Safran Foer
Megan Collins Biography
Megan Collins holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University. She has taught creative writing at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and Central Connecticut State University, and she is the managing editor of 3Elements Review. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, her work has appeared in many print and online journals, including Off the Coast, Spillway, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Rattle. She lives in Connecticut.
Links to Megan Collins