'Saint X': Williamstown author Alexis Schaitkin pens 'one of the most anticipated books of 2020'
WILLIAMSTOWN — Alexis Schaitkin does her best writing surrounded by other people.
The Williamstown author says there's just something about completing a solitary task while surrounded by others that makes it easier to put pen to paper.
"I work mostly at cafes," she said in a recent phone interview. "I've tried so many times to work at home ... I'm often at Tunnel City, Brewhaha or Five Corners."
Like most writers, she has a writing regimen. Writing in cafes, where she drinks ice tea, not coffee, is just one of them.
"I don't have a set number of words [to write each day], but I do have my main things," Schaitkin said. "I write my first draft by hand; my brain works a lot better when I physically write it out."
Her debut novel, "Saint X," released mid-February, was named one of the most anticipated books of 2020 by Entertainment Weekly, Good Morning America, Vogue, PopSugar, and Paste Magazine.
Schaitkin, who received her MFA in fiction from the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow, moved to Williamstown in 2014, with her husband, a professor at Williams College. They have a 3-year-old son.
"I finished my MFA in 2013. For the last six or seven years, I've been working on this book. And I was freelancing, tutoring, ghostwriting and working a hodgepodge of jobs while writing it," she said. "I feel like my path to this [publishing her first novel] was pretty unimaginative. I wanted to be a writer when I was 5 and never wanted to be anything else ... I'm glad I didn't stop."
When she needs a little inspiration, she turns to music and reading or heads outdoors for a walk or to run.
"I don't usually listen to music while I'm writing, but I usually have, for a project, a few songs that are the right atmosphere for what I'm writing that I will listen to in the morning," Schaitkin said. "I find it helpful to read a lot while I'm writing. I feel if I'm not reading, I forget to how to write.
"I love Kazuo Ishiguro. I feel like I'm slowly reading through all his works that I hadn't read. Other writers I keep returning to are Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison and Phillip Ross. For this novel, 'Netherland' by Joseph O'Neil, was sort of a touchstone book. In the process of writing this book and in general, I've been reading fiction by Caribbean authors. I love everything by Edwidge Ganticat. Another author I read a lot was Tiphanie Yannique."
Her novel, "Saint X," begins with a story you've heard before: A beautiful, blonde 18-year-old disappears one night during her family's Caribbean vacation. Search parties are sent out. The girl's body is found. Her death is a mystery. Local authorities seek her killers. Arrests are made, but the suspects are released. No other suspects are identified; the case, now cold, is closed. Years pass and her death remains unsolved, the subject of made-for-TV movies, books and online cold case forums.
But, it's also a story you haven't found heard before. In "Saint X," the death of Alison Thomas isn't the story, but the catalyst for what's to come. Schaitkin turns our focus to Claire Thomas, Alison's younger sister, who was 7 years old at the time of her death. Claire, now 25 and going by Emily, is living/working in New York City. And it is there, by chance, that she takes a cab driven by Clive, one of the two island resort workers accused of Alison's murder. The chance meeting reignites Claire's smoldering obsession with her sister's death, leading her to seek answers that only Clive, one of the last people to see Alison alive, may be able to answer.
Schaitkin recently took the time to answer a few of our questions about "Saint X." Her answers have been lightly edited for length.
Q. Where did the inspiration for "Saint X" come from?
A. I'm always really place-based in my inspiration. I really started with the setting of a luxury resort in the Caribbean. I wanted a setting in which it's really a bubble, but with a lot going on under surface. It's a place where you have these wealthy white American families and the Caribbean hotel workers all sharing this space for a week, all projecting onto each other all the time, then going off into their separate spheres. I was really interested in the aftermath of a single week. I didn't start writing with a mysterious death in mind, I was really interested in how the aftermath of one big dramatic event, during that single week, would impact their lives. I wanted to pursue how that played out, throughout their lives, after they went back to New York [or remained on Saint X], a decade later.
Q. Throughout your book, you provide us with alternate versions of Alison, how she's seen by others: her college roommate, her high school English teacher; her first boyfriend, a man at the resort. There's an overall question of authenticity when it comes to who Alison was. Why was this important to you?
A. At a certain point, I had a working title for the book or a chapter called "Myths of Alison." I was really interested in the way the dead are this vessel, for the living, that we fill with what we need. Alison is the main character but we really don't understand her, who she is. We don't get to know her.
For these characters, identity and all of these different versions of who you could have been [if this hadn't happened], is a big topic. Claire senses, in some way, her life has turned out better socially and personally since her sister's death.
With Claire, who was so young when she died, there's this interesting tension between reality and the Alison she imagined/remembered, who is this perfect, wonderful person. She created that version to fill this void. But, is that version helping Claire develop ... or impeding her in her own life? In a sense, we never know who Allison is because she died so young. But then again, we totally never know who people really are.
Q. A number of the chapters in the book start with a minor character's narration. How did that come about?
A. I've always been really interested in books that take a minor character, who seems to be of no importance, and later in the book say, "pay attention to this character."
[The minor character narrations] were one of the last things I did. I added one to three pages at the start of a few chapters, allowing a minor character to take center stage and share what they knew about Alison and how it shaped their lives since then. These were not in earlier drafts of the book. I had written little scraps about how her death had impacted their lives. Then I began thinking that they were maybe an irregular feature of the book, popping in for a few pages. I didn't know if it would work. Now, they are the lynchpin that brings the book together, weaving together the whole theme of how one death has so many ripples and casts such a wide aftermath. They were added late in the game and now, I can't imagine the book without them.
Q. As a true-crime junkie, I can say I enjoyed the fictional media coverage surrounding this story: newspaper articles, a made-for-TV movie, true-crime books, true-crime fan theory threads on Reddit, to name a few. What motivated you to include this aspect?
A. I'm not a true-crime junkie. I never listened to [the podcast] "Serial," which is kind of unusual at a time when true crime is so popular.
My experience [with true crime], comes from all the media coverage of Jon Benet Ramsey's death. I had to be about 11 years old when it happened. I remember being completely mesmerized. As I grew up, I was really interested in the public's fascination/obsession with the [tragic] deaths of young women. And, I was always interested in, what it would be like to be that person's sister or someone else really close to them; what that experience would be like — to have a very personal loss be this media sensation.
For Claire, her grief and the processing her sister's death have a second layer, a very public component. The moment people discover who [Claire's] sister is, that she's part of this famous story, everything is about her and her sister. It makes you think, what does normal grief look like? How do people, who are part of a famous story, grieve? Claire is very self conscious about her grief.
Q. Who was the most difficult character to write?
A. There are different kinds of hard. A lot of the novel is about Clive's life — he lived on the island, worked at the resort and was briefly as suspect. A lot of research went into what his life on the island would have been like and what his time as a taxi driver, in New York City, would be like. However, his perspective and his personality were rather easy for me to write. There was research, but getting into his mind didn't seem challenging. In that sense, the hardest was Alison.
She's extremely bold and daring and gutsy. It's these parts of her personality that set the ball rolling, that get her out of that bubble. She's not scared to go into a bar with two older guys. Her impulsiveness is not familiar to me. She was interesting and fun; a puzzle to write about. It was hard to get into her head. It was easier, if I first thought about those moments when she did not feel so brave; when she would feel more vulnerable."
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