Nairne Holtz & Neil Smith
THE SKIN BENEATH: AN INTERVIEW AND BOOKCLUB QUESTIONS
Neil Smith: I really admire how The Skin Beneath mixes genres. The book is part mystery, part thriller, part love story and part family drama. Talk about how you managed to blend these parts so seamlessly.
Nairne Holtz: Quite by accident, although my personal reading and viewing habits probably have something to do with it. I alternate between literary fiction and mysteries, and I greatly admire Joss Whedon, creator of the television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” for his ability to mix genres and make popular culture that is smart. I did know I wanted to write a book that my friends who aren’t big readers would enjoy. While I do work with metaphor and get a bit philosophical, my use of similes is judicious, and there’s plenty of plot and dialogue, as well as sex and dry humour.
NS: Conspiracy theories about such events as Kennedy’s assassination and the September 11 atrocities abound in American culture. What intrigues you about these often preposterous theories and why did you build a novel around conspiracy?
NH: I love paradoxes, so I’m intrigued by the fact that the CIA brainwashing experiments conducted at McGill University in the 1960s, which really happened, sounds just as insane and dysfunctional as the vast majority of preposterous conspiracy theories. I’m also interested in prejudice and human psychology, so I wanted to explore the culture of conspiracy freaks and try to identify the point when a healthy questioning of authority becomes xenophobia and narcissistic fantasy.
NS: At the start of the book, Sam receives a postcard claiming her sister was murdered. When you started writing the novel, did you know who sent that postcard? Or did you hope to unravel the mystery yourself as you progressed with the writing? In other words, how much plotting does a mystery novel require?
NH: I knew the answer to the central mystery, but I didn’t know who sent the postcard. I know that writers often debate the merits of a loose organic approach versus plans and outlines, but for me it is a question of personal preference. I’m a bit of a control freak, so I like to work with outlines, but if I find myself being tugged in another direction or I realize I’ve made a mistake, I’m happy to change my plans.
NS: The flashbacks to Sam and Chloe’s childhood beautifully capture the relationship between siblings, which can be simultaneously loving and adversarial. What were you hoping to achieve with the flashbacks? How did you decide where to place these scenes in the book?
NH: Each flashback reveals details of Chloe’s history and personality that foreshadow the ending. The flashbacks are a little more literary, less action-oriented, so I placed more of them at the beginning so that the reader would not be distracted by them as the plot developed and characters and events became more complicated. This allowed me to keep the pace brisk throughout and also to establish character, so the readers would care about Sam and Chloe.
NS: I love the colourful cast of secondary characters: Romey, the smart and sexy stripper; Omar, the mama’s boy and pimp; Francis, the conspiracy freak with a weakness for Orange Julep; Amanda, the conniving vegan. Did these characters evolve gradually or spring fully formed from your head? Which ones changed most over the course of the writing?
NH: The first character in my head was Omar and he was fully formed; the others were mostly formed, except Amanda. She was supposed to be a minor character, but she just took up more and more space. Sam is snarky and a little bit shallow and full of herself, so I had to go back and layer her and show more of her personal history. I wanted readers to see her vulnerabilities and how some of her attitudes developed in response to the discrimination she experiences because of her sexual orientation and gender non-conformity.
NS: The story contains frequent references to skin: tattooed skin, the shredding of skin and, in one horrific scene, burned skin. Why the skin metaphor? To you, what does the skin beneath represent?
NH: One’s identity or self, or the lack of it, lurking beneath image, sexuality, and violation.
1) Does this novel, which is set in two American cities and two Canadian cities, have more of a Canadian or an American sensibility?
2) The protagonist, Sam, is a masculine woman. Would making the protagonist a man significantly alter this novel? If so, which aspects of the novel—plot, characters, atmosphere—would be most affected?
3) Sam, the protagonist, is a lesbian, and in key parts of the story, politics within the queer community are discussed. Is The Skin Beneath a lesbian novel? What is a lesbian novel?
4) Can you discuss the relationship that Sam sees between her tattoos and power? How do tattoos play into the skin theme that runs throughout the story?
5) Not every question pertaining to the conspiracy is answered. Why do you think the author chose to leave elements of the narrative ambiguous? What does this ambiguity suggest about the nature of conspiracy and about our responses to it?