Beth McMullen’s first novel, Original Sin, about Sally Sin, a San Francisco mom who makes witty comments about being a mom in the twenty-first century. Trouble is, her past as a spy keeps intruding on her life. Now Hyperion, McMullen’s publisher, has combined Original Sin, with the follow-up novel, Spy Mom, in a single volume. This is summer reading at its best!
Since I had previously interviewed McMullen when Original Sin came out, I was eager to talk to her again about Spy Mom.
Let’s start with your heroine, who has had various names in her lifetime. Let’s call her by her spy name, Sally Sin. How would you sum up Sally’s life for the readers of the The Morton Report who haven’t yet had the pleasure of making her acquaintance?
Sally is the third phase of what will be many phases of her life. She started off with a childhood that is still vague, and she moved on to the spy phase, and then the mom phase in the present book. Her mom’s existence is heavily influenced by her life as a spy, which we’re started to see happen because of what happened in her childhood. She’s figuring things out as she goes along. She’s trying very hard to live the life she’s expected to live. Her past will never let her go. She’s be carrying that baggage forever. It’s not as though she doesn’t like it. There’s still a part of her that longs for that adrenalin, even though she knows that it’s not something that she can do any more.
When did you start working on Spy Mom?
The second book I started more or less after I signed on with Hyperion for the first one. The books are backed up more or less a year before they hit the stores. They had it 8 months after the first one. It was a much more compressed schedule for me. I was really focused on it. You don’t have a lot of time to torture yourself about things that you might not be totally satisfied with. The disadvantage is that it’s hard to get it to the point where you’re satisfied with it. Still, I was very pleased with how it came out. I remember the details about the first one better than about the second one because I wasn’t with it for as long.
Did you find it easier or harder to write than the first book?
I think I found it harder. The first book was a closed novel, and then it was over. Then Hyperion said that they’d like to have a second one. So I had to redo the last quarter of the first book. At first I had no plot in mind for the second book. I did have to go back recently and make it that I wasn’t saying something that made no sense in light of the first book. You have to mind your details, because sometimes you have a great idea and then you realize, “I can’t do that.” I said X Y and Z back in the middle of the first book, so that’s impossible.
I used a lot of index cards with plot points on them. Also when you’re working in a compressed time frame, you zoom through the rough spots.
There’s an odd thing in what you’re saying. On one hand the second book was harder to write than the first, but it took you less time to write it.
Once you accept the parameters of what you wrote, it concentrates you. You move your focus a little bit, you’re not quite so revealing. You have a box that you’re in, so to speak, and you really do have to get it done while you’re in that box.
Without giving away details of the plot, I can say that Sally experiences more violence in this book than in the first. She is tortured, and bad guys break into her house. How did you decide to develop the plot in this way?
I reread a lot of books that I had read in the past. I read authors who had written series, and looked at the second book that they had written, such as Janet Evanovich and Stephanie Plum. Some hard-core mysteries. Some male writers and their solitary cops, like Lee Child. What I noticed in all of them, as well as the sequels to movies, was that everything gets amped up. You have a baseline and then you have to take it up a notch to keep it interesting. I felt like I had to make it more tangible as opposed to me alluding to it in some way.
The break-in in the house was the moment when everything crashed together. She had had incidents of violence before but this time it was more personal because it was her house. It wasn’t just the bad guys but also the good guys too. I felt like that put her into an isolated situation. She’s really alone.
And Theo is there, too.
That’s the thing that makes you feel the risk more. When you read about a situation in which a child is endangered, you feel like if you’re a parent you’re putting yourself in that spot. What are your steps? Having him there makes it more tangible.
I’m always torn about this—putting a child in danger. At the same time, I think that’s the only situation when he’s in a situation like that.
Is it fair to say that “Spy Mom” is a darker book than “Original Sin”?
Yes. I felt like it was much darker. A few of my previous readers told me they thought it was darker. I had to go back and tone down some of the early drafts. I felt like it was too dark in the first versions, so I revised it to make it a little lighter that so that you could really feel like you were stepping from the first book to the second book, so that there wouldn’t be a huge gap in expectations there.
By the way, Sally’s husband Will hardly ever does anything significant. He’s gone a lot, and works on weekends. Will he have a more active role in the next book?
He very well may. I’ve been on the fence about him as a character since the very day he came into existence. He was a necessary evil. He had to be there, but he no role to play. At first he was really vague. In this book I came back to the same problem, where he had to be there, but he doesn’t contribute a lot. I’ve had several people tell me that they love him. I think that’s because he’s so benign. Is he going to stay bland or will he contribute? I haven’t come down on any side yet. I’m waiting for my epiphany. I’m not sure how it’s going to go. I feel bad for him that I’ve stuck him in this dreadful role, but he has to be there.
His concern about ecology gives Sally such wonderful one-liners. My favorite line in the novel is when Sally says that Will eats “free-range celery sticks.” I think that’s a really funny line.
I live in Davis, California, and I say these things to myself once in a while when I encounter people who are the extreme of green, and they stick in my head. It’s been fun to set Will up as someone at whom Sally can throw funny things at. I also like his version of the state of things in the world and her version of the state of things in the world. They’re really different, but their goals are sort of the same.
Spy Mom alternates between episodes set in San Francisco in the present, and episodes set in the past that tell us about Sally’s adventures as a spy. Some of those adventures take place in exotic locales, such as in Nepal. I’m wondering where you got the background for the scenes in Nepal.
I’ve been to Nepal. I spent a few weeks there in the tail end of 2003. It’s a crazy, crazy place. It’s getting crazier now again, but then it was crazy. There were lots of drug-related murders and conflict between factions. The State Department told us not to go but I was on sort of a year-long trip I had read “Into Thin Air.” about the disaster on Mt. Everest. It’s so captivating that you can’t put it down. I lived in New York at the time, and I sat on the train for about an hour after it pulled into Grand Central after everyone left because I had to finish the book. So on this year-long trip I knew I had to see it. It ended up being fine. It was a fascinating trip, especially even you haven’t done a lot of third-world travel. The people are so lovely and generous and the landscape was so dramatic. I knew I wanted to put it in at some point because it’s so rich with possibilities. It’s a fascinating place.
Incidentally, this episodic structure gives you a lot of freedom. I realized when I was reading Spy Mom that I just didn’t know what would happen next.
I stumbled onto the structure because I had originally the character as a spy, and she wasn’t a mom. And then when I came back to it a few years later, I felt like my point was to illustrate the very different lives of this person. I really had to show that. I couldn’t just say that she used to be a spy—that didn’t have any texture. I was never sure if it was going to work. For me it was such fun because I could indulge my inner travel writer and I could also write about a character that I liked. It gave me a lot of leeway to write two books in one. You can have the past, which has all sorts of crazy things, and then you can have the mom stuff, which is funny in its way. It’s liberating.
As a reader I like stuff that goes all over the place. Time is very compressed. I have a hard time writing things that stretch out.
I would love to write a book in the third person. It gives you a lot of freedom. You can talk about things in ten different perspectives. But I keep trying and it keeps on not working out.
Spy Mom has three very big revelations, and I want to mention just one of them. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that, to her astonishment Sally realizes that her son Theo speaks Spanish. May we anticipate that Theo will become more of a sidekick in her adventures?
Yes, that’s the way I envisioned him. She’s trying so hard to be normal, and she’s doing all the things she should be doing. Still, things keep happening to her.
Incidentally, I got the idea about languages from my grandfather, who had the ability to pick up languages. My uncle, my mother’s half-brother has the exact same talent. It’s like it’s in the DNA. There’s no way around the fact that he’s going to be a lot like her. She doesn’t really like not being in control of things, but she isn’t. And then you have the reaction of the other parents on the playground. The other moms are a little jealous. I see him developing some of her personality traits, although she’s not pleased about that.
And are we ever going to find out anything about Sally’s mother?
Yes, you will--in the next book. She will be interesting. She’s got a pretty good back story. It will add to our understanding of Sally and why she is the way she is.
I’m sure that by now you’ve started on the third book, and I’m wondering if in closing you can give your readers some sense of what they can look forward to in it.
The third book will pick up a couple of years after this one. There will be other things at play that I can’t talk about because it would wreck the end of the book. She will have more responsibilities. The primary premise is that the agency will ask her again in her official capacity to help with some things let’s see what’s the best way to say this some things that are going in China that are not great for the US. It will keep evolving in that direction.