Two sisters — identical twins. Secrets. Shocking passion. Those are the circumstances for Elissa Wald’s latest release, The Secret Lives of Married Women. This dark and erotic tale dives into the power dominance and submission have in our everyday lives — and the people who crave such dynamics. Today, Elissa discusses the inspiration for the new book, the darker elements of her work and how she’s grown as a writer.
Where did the idea for The Secret Lives of Married Women originate?
My husband and I bought a house several years ago, and there really was an overbearing worker next door whose attention made me very uncomfortable. Though I wasn’t alarmed by him at first, my husband was, and I’d kind of laughed this off. Then by the time I no longer thought it was funny, I was hesitant to tell my husband how I felt because I didn’t want to create this instant enmity between him and a person who was essentially — at least for the time being — our neighbor.
I think most writers have the experience of simultaneously being a participant and an observer in their own lives. On a personal level, this experience was wildly uncomfortable, and yet the writer in me was fascinated by the way the situation was creating an emotional wedge between my husband and me.
Though I spun the story into something much more drawn out and dramatic than anything that actually happened, the seed of it was there in real life.
The story has a bit of a thriller aspect to it. What is your favorite part about writing stories with a darker edge?
While I absolutely love people and think we’re capable of astonishing goodness and generosity, I also believe the human heart is very dark. Our everyday, workday lives are where we present our acceptable and civilized selves, so I think it’s the job of artists to explore what we don’t readily discuss: our darkness, strangeness, self-interest — our savagery and unseemly lusts. I always hope to help people feel less alone and less ashamed by shining some light into the darkness.
What can fans of Meeting the Master and Holding Fire expect to see in the new book?
I think that people who are familiar with my writing know that dominance and submission are a lifelong preoccupation of mine and that these themes will surface in nearly everything I write. The good news is that the range and complexity of those dynamics — in the bedroom and in life — are nearly infinite and there are always new facets of them left to contemplate.
Between Leda and Lillian, which sister was the most fun to write and why?
Leda came more easily to me, because I share a lot of territory with her. But Lillian was a joy to write as well, because she allowed me to explore aspects of my own character that aren’t as obvious.
Did you plot each sister’s story separately, or was it a sort of give and take kind of process?
I wrote “The Man Under The House” first, with no idea that it would ever be the first half of a Hard Case Crime Book. The publisher of HCC, Charles Ardai, has been a good friend of mine since college. For the last 25 years, I’ve showed him everything I’ve written, because he’s a great reader and editor. But I never thought of Hard Case Crime as a possible publisher for myself, because I’d never written in the crime genre.
So last year, I sent him “The Man Under The House” in the same spirit I’ve sent all my other writing to him. I was aware that I was trying my hand at a psychological thriller but it honestly never occurred to me that it was also a crime story — I just hadn’t thought of it in that way — and I was astonished when he said, “I want this for Hard Case.” I said, “What do you mean? It’s not a book, it’s just a novella.” And he said, “Well, it’s true that you’d have to expand it in some way.”
He didn’t want me to pad a 96-page piece with unnecessary material, so we talked about the idea of writing a separate but complementary story, one that felt naturally linked to the first.
The book focuses on the sisters’ submissive tendencies. Why do you think readers love stories that feature submissive characters?
I think the answer to that touches on something I mentioned earlier: the idea that we turn to art and literature to explore the impulses we’re not necessarily comfortable talking about. As a culture, we celebrate dominance: leading, winning, calling the shots, being on top. Submission offers a break from the demands of adulthood, the relentless necessity of maintaining control, and allows us the pleasures of surrender, service and worship. Insofar as readers turn to fiction to momentarily escape into fantasy, I believe the fantasy of submission is very potent for these reasons.
What do you hope readers take away from the new book?
I think mainstream society is accustomed to thinking of dominance and submission as something that happens over there, in that freaky leather bar. But I believe these impulses are in everyone and that they pervade every aspect of our lives. If I could use a made-up (and maybe irritating) word here, I always hope to “de-otherize” the dynamics underlying BDSM. I want to move beyond the image of whips and chains into territory with more nuance and depth and universality, and that’s what I hope my books offer to people.
Looking back on your career so far, how have you grown as a writer?
I think my greatest weakness as a young writer was a certain tendency toward self-indulgence and the overwrought. Something I often say to myself even now is: “Look, no one cares about your poetry and your deep, deep thoughts. Tell a story. Keep it lean. When you’re revising, ask yourself if you’ve said everything as simply as you can. Never use a 12-letter word when a 5-letter word will do just as well.” Which isn’t to say I don’t try to turn a nice phrase, or that I don’t try to work insights and epiphanies into my fiction! I do aspire to those things, but I believe they should happen within the context of what is first and foremost a page-turning, entertaining story. They shouldn’t be something I’m attempting to showcase, or something I’m force-feeding the reader. I’d like to think I’m more disciplined in these ways than I’ve ever been.
If you want to delve deeper into Elissa’s world, The Secret Lives of Married Women is on sale in stores and online now. And for more mysterious tales, be sure to visit our Everything Mystery page!