On October 17, I had the great privilege of sitting down with S.M. Freedman to talk about THE DAY SHE DIED her latest novel. The Day She Died is centred on Eve, who, on her 27th birthday crashes her car into a window. The novel follows her, brain-injured and lost, as she navigates her life through half-remembered truths and the outright lies she’s told her self. A story about intergenerational trauma and deciding whether life is worth living.
Here is a follow-up to our discussion. Thanks very much to Shoshona and to our audience members for adding to the discussion with their own questions.
Talking about a mystery novel is very challenging. The potential for spoilers talking about any novel is scary, but THE DAY SHE DIED feels different. There is a chronological present-day narrative and chapters in the past, with revelations timed so perfectly the suspense, the uncertainty, the anxiety is intensified throughout and it’s all plot. Your decision to move back and forth from past to present, makes sense when you think of Eve’s brain injury and her trying to remember, or forget. Did you outline or map out scenes/timelines before you sat down to write, or did the plot come as a natural exploration of story?
You’re right, talking about a mystery novel is so challenging! I’m constantly checking myself to make sure I’m not giving something away. Regarding whether I plotted out the story or just let it flow, I did a bit of both. In general, I tend to jump from character to character or timeline to timeline in my writing, a method I find valuable for building suspense. My brain just doesn’t work in a linear fashion. With each book I write, I become more disciplined about plotting my stories ahead of time. I usually have a detailed outline for the first third of the book, and I know approximately where the story will end. This gives me a guidepost to work toward when I get to the messy middle.
When you plot a novel, do you start at the beginning or the end? Most mystery novels begin with a death, and THE DAY SHE DIED is no different. Did the plotting change where you, as a writer, started the writing?
I start with an overall idea of the story arc, and where I want the story to end. Then I get into the nitty gritty of filling in the details. I’ll work out as much as I can ahead of time, but I always discover plot points or details along the way, and they sometimes take me in unexpected directions.
Eve struggles throughout the book with remembering/forgetting/revising her memories. As a reader you’re never quite sure what is a secret being remembered or rewritten so that it can be forgotten. It’s a psychological journey and a study in the effects of trauma. Can you speak about the research that went into understanding this on a deeper level?
Eve spends her life in survival mode, essentially wiping her canvas clean and repainting prettier pictures to cover up her trauma and guilt. An enormous amount of research was needed to map out Eve’s psychology, including what kinds of medication and treatment she would have been given. I also had to learn about traumatic head injuries, and I spent a long time researching near-death experiences to understand what Eve might have gone through during the car accident.
I tend to jump from character to character or timeline to timeline in my writing, a method I find valuable for building suspense.S.M. Freedman
The legacy of trauma is another important theme in THE DAY SHE DIED: There are three generations of women at the heart of the story, Eve, her mother Donna and Button. About half way through the novel, Button, Eve’s grandmother talks about her faith and learning at the knees of her own grandfather, a rabbi. She says Eve grew from “those roots of belief”. Although she’s speaking of faith, as a reader, I can’t help but think it is the unspeakable experiences of Button and perhaps her own grandfather that may have nourished the soil. Can you talk about how you placed trauma in the novel and its effects on each of the characters?
That’s it exactly. Intergenerational trauma is a huge factor in this story. Button was born in the Warsaw Ghetto, and though her life experiences aren’t explicitly written on the page, they informed her parenting of Donna. Donna also has a legacy of trauma, and those experiences fuel her work as a lawyer. Her focus on protecting abused children doesn’t extend to her own daughter, and her disconnect sets up Eve to be a victim, continuing the cycle.
Quicksilver is used throughout the novel as both metaphor and a physical space in the novel. Was this an idea that came to you as you sat down to write or did you know ahead it was a perfect metaphor for the mind and memory?
You know how some ideas come to you, and afterward you can never figure out why or how? It didn’t start out as a deliberate metaphor. I wanted to create an atmosphere that was dripping and foggy and secretive, where even the air was weighted with sin and guilt. I kept imagining these tangled dripping quicksilver plants along the riverfront. Then I discovered Dutch artist M.C. Escher’s reflective spheres. I became fascinated with the concept that silver could be painted as a reflection rather than a colour. So, the silver became both a metaphor for hidden secrets, and a mirror reflecting Eve’s guilt back at her.
Eve spends her life in survival mode, essentially wiping her canvas clean and repainting prettier pictures to cover up her trauma and guilt.S.M. Freedman
You were a private investigator in Vancouver for years, also an actor and graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Can you talk about how your experience as a P.I. and as an actor influences the development story/character and what part it’s played in your writing in general?
My training as both an actor and a private investigator has influenced my desire to dive deep into research. I’m always digging for another layer, especially in terms of character development. I love weaving the tapestry of a character, blending good with evil, kindness with cruelty, humour with grief. I blend and mix and add layers until the character becomes a real person.
From her website: “S.M. Freedman studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and spent years as a private investigator on the not-so-mean streets of Vancouver, before returning to her first love: writing.
Her debut novel, The Faithful, is published by Thomas & Mercer. It’san International Amazon Bestseller, reached the Quarter Finals in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and was selected by Suspense Magazine as a “Best Debut of 2015.” The sequel, Impact Winter, was published in 2016, and she is currently working on the third and final instalment in the series. The Day She Died was published by Dundurn Press in April 2021 (audiobook by Tantor Media) . Her next novel, Blood Atonement, will be available from Dundurn Press in Fall 2022. It tells the story of a woman who, when other Fundamentalist Mormon Church escapees are killed, must determine if her alter personality is the murderer, or if she’s the next victim.
She lives in Vancouver with her husband and two children. She’s a proud member of Sisters in Crime, Crime Writers of Canada, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America.“
THE DAY SHE DIED was published by Dundurn Press.