Beth McMullen is the author of Original Sin, a delightful novel about a stay-at-home mom with a past—as a spy. She lives in San Francisco and takes care of her three-year-old son Theo. But memories of her wild adventures in places like Cambodia keep coming back to her—sometimes when she least expects them. And ultimately she learns that she can’t keep her past completely separate from her present.
Let’s start with the heroine of Original Sin, who is named Sally Sin. At least that’s one of her names. It’s certainly not the name she was born with. What can you tell us about Sally?
In my mind, Sally started just as a spy. The mystery was just the agency and the messes that it got into. But suddenly I had these kids, and my perspective on the world changed. Who you are is completely different when you have kids that you go back to. A number of years passed, and I thought it might be interesting to layer the motherhood on the spy story. There are lots of kickass women as spies, but there are very few moms in that role. The mother is always the one who is at home and weeping as the kids leave home.
But I don’t like that image. A woman who has children can still be as effective in this male-dominated universe. It came out of that, and once I started, it was so much fun. I loved being able to bounce back and forth between those roles. Raising kids is not the most exciting thing that you can do, but when I looked at it from the perspective of this woman who had been in these very high adrenaline, dangerous situations, she looked at these child-related adventures in the same way.
I also enjoyed being able to make a little fun of the seriousness with which we take parenting today, and also have this character who is so adept at some many things.
Sally Sin sounds like the name of a porn star. Was that deliberate?
That was done purposefully. I wanted to make it something that would be so goofy. When she was a college student, and when they were doing these psychological tests that she thought were just for grad work, but that turned out to be a screening for the agency, I wanted it to be something that she would regret. I wanted it to be a moment when she thought, “Why did I do that?” But of course she had no idea that it would stick. It might be the sort of snarky, funny thing that a college student might come up with for something that she thought was just a test. It plays off the idea of the mothers you see in literature that are just passive, and would never have such a name.
Sally often sounds like a standup comedian. Did you think of her in that way?
A lot of that came very naturally once I had the character in my head. Whether it’s parenting or chasing bad guys in Cambodia, she doesn’t take it that seriously. She takes it with a grain of salt. She is a little bit amused by it all, with the exception of the safety of her child. The tone changes a little in the scenes where she is around Theo.
Then, too, writing something that’s a little bit funny is a lot easier for me. I have a hard time with serious matters.
How many languages does Sally speak?
In my head she speaks probably about fifteen. When I was growing up, my uncle spoke about ten. He had a knack for going into a country and, with very limited exposure, picking up a language.
It was fun to write somebody who had that gift, although I don’t have it. I’ve taken French and Italian, but still can hardly order off a menu. It was a little bit of wishful thinking, because I wish I could do that.
How much of the book did you think through before you began to write?
I would say none. When my agent put it out to publishers, it was put out as a mystery. I didn’t intend to write a mystery. I had these characters, and I needed a frame to hang them on. I mean, if she’s a spy, you’d better have a mystery for her to work on.
I don’t outline. I wish I could outline. I try, but a few pages later it’s completely gone.
I think in terms of scenes. I write a scene, and then I have to figure out how to bridge to that scene, because I want to have it in the book. I do that a lot. It feels very fluid. I’m on my third or fourth book now, and it feels like that just might be my style.
It can be very difficult. When you’ve got 350 pages laid out in front of you, and you make a little tweak here and there, you realize the domino effect of that change. You really have to know all those pages intimately to make sure that you don’t make a huge error.
Like your other readers, I’m looking forward to the next Sally Sin book. What can you tell us about that? Do you have a title for it?
The second one is called See Sally Spy. I can’t take credit for the title. It will be out May 29. It picks up about two years after the first one. It reveals a little more about her family, and about her background. There is lots of danger and lots of action. That’s fun for me.
It’s the same tone, and a lot of the familiar figures will be back. It’s not a huge change from the first one.
The book alternates between flashbacks about Sally’s adventures as a spy, and her adventures as the mother of three-year-old Theo. Will Sally experience different challenges with Theo as he grows up?
The books have kind of kept pace with my oldest child, who is now in the first grade. Things change as the child grows up, as the child’s understanding of his parents changes, and that puts additional pressures on Sally. It’s fun to mine that stuff. Theo is not a static character. In the second book he’s a more grown-up character. You have to explain things to him. Also—he’s involved with things. He has friends, and the main character is suddenly involved with others. How do they look at her? What do they think of her? How does she deal with this social life that is growing and changing?
Will she/might she have another child?
Well you’ll see. That’s a little bit of a surprise. As we know, babies change everything. I could see the potential in that. I can’t say anything else.
The revelations about her parents toward the end of Original Sin whet our appetites for the next novel. Can you tell us if Sally will learn more about her parents?
Yes. I find the idea of parents so fascinating. So much of your life is determined by what your parents did even before you existed. You will find out much more about one of the parents in particular, and that will have a huge effect on her and how she views herself. That’s the major arc in the second book. She gets that knowledge and then tries to figure out what she’s supposed to do with it.
Lots of writers are also avid readers. Was there a moment when you were reading something, and thought “I can write like that”?
I’ve been a voracious reader all my life. I grew up in a house without television. So if you were going to entertain yourself, you were either going to listen to the radio, or you were going to read. I read across all genres.
I think the first time I said I wanted to write, I think I was in the ninth grade, and I read all of Stephen King’s early works. I just loved the way he terrified me on the page. It was me alone with the book, and I was looking over my shoulder wondering when the bad guy was going to come in to the room. That was so powerful, and I loved that.
I also remember a Stephen Isaacs book, Shining Trail. It was this ordinary woman who’s a secretary in WWII. She ends up stepping into this role and becoming a spy in WWII. I remember thinking, “That’s really cool, because that’s a girl.” That’s fun—you can create these strong, powerful women on the page.
Beth, congratulations on writing a really charming, enjoyable book. I predict that you and Sally are going to be together for a long time.