In her first novel, Cover of Snow, Jenny Milchman set out to discover what happens when a husband does the worst thing possible to his wife. In Ruin Falls, set in the same upstate New York town, she turns to the worst thing that can befall a mother. Milchman excels at depicting a completely normal milieu, then showing the cracks and dysfunctions in that normalcy.
Ruin Falls opens with that most classic American activity, the family vacation. But something isn’t quite right here. An act of road rage by another driver pushes Liz, the mom, nearly into a panic, while Paul, her husband, maintains a too-icy calm. At a Starbucks stop, we learn that their eight-year-old son, Reid, likes to lift people’s wallets just for fun. And at the hotel, Liz’s paranoia returns, directed at the bell-hop. Yet the next morning, it turns out that her paranoia is well founded: Reid and his sister, six-year-old Ally, are missing from their suite of rooms. Panic and bedlam ensue.
Sadly, this too seems quite normal for America. It’s such a familiar story, you might think you know how it will go. Trust me, you don’t. Milchman keeps twisting the tale, adding layer after layer to the mystery of what happened to Liz’s kids, while making her fear for them palpable. By the middle of the book, I had no clue (or perhaps too many) whom to suspect. Toward the end, when the mystery begins to resolve itself, Milchman cranks up the story’s threat-level, driving it toward a riveting conclusion.
Along the way, the novel explores themes of middle-class response to the looming environmental apocalypse and the fracturing of families under the pressure of (usually) patriarchal domination. These themes marry brilliantly as Liz, an organic gardener thrilled by the lushness and variety of growing things, is repelled by the straight lines of corn stretching to the horizon on her domineering father-in-law’s farm. Equally brilliantly, Milchman ensures that readers will enjoy Ruin Falls whether or not they believe in the impending environmental collapse. And readers of Cover of Snow will enjoy the return or mention of characters from that novel, notably Tim Lurcquer, now police chief.
Milchman hit on the idea for Ruin Falls while on tour around the U.S. for Cover of Snow. She’s on tour again, and I caught up with her before she arrived in Michigan for several bookstore stops.
Q: You said Cover of Snow took you eight drafts. Ruin Falls must have gone much faster. How was that process for you?
A: Oh no, I have to clarify. (Full disclosure: you may feel a bit sorry for me once I do.) Cover of Snow, my debut novel, was the eighth book I had written. It actually went through twenty-two drafts by the time it was published. But you’re right that Ruin Falls went faster…about nine drafts. It came out a year after I finally got published. But it was the tenth novel I wrote—a ninth came in between and was not taken by my publisher. (This is a crazy wonderful business.) In terms of the process, there is nothing like writing a first draft for me. I love it in a giddy, blissful way. But revising delivers my comeuppance. It’s like boxing my way out of a concrete cell. I revised Ruin Falls while on tour for Cover of Snow, and I won’t lie. There were tears.
Q: One strand in Ruin Falls has to do with how much parents can do to shield their kids from unwanted influences, especially dietary ones that can have a large impact on the planet. In your own parenting, where do you fall on a scale ranging from “All Tofu All the Time” to “Let Them Eat Cake!”?
A: Well, as Paul, the dad in Ruin Falls, would say…Tofu isn’t health food! (It’s maybe even worse for us than a McDonald’s burger). And cake can be—well, maybe not quite healthy, but perfectly fine in moderation, especially if it’s made with nice organic butter! But I take your point—am I healthy or junky? Probably both. I try to eat as many whole foods as I can, and feed them to my kids. But if I want a fast food milkshake every now and then, I’m not going to worry about it.
Q: It seems that nearly everyone in your fictional town of Wedeskyull has a dark secret. How do your own neighbors in upstate New York react to you now? And do you wear one of those T-shirts that says, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.”?
A: Ha, I love those shirts. But it actually isn’t that true for me. Remember all those unpublished novels? One of the things I had to learn was to make a fictive leap, away from my life and people I knew, into the world of the story. Once I did that…well, I didn’t get published right away, but I came a lot closer. I do love living in upstate New York, though. I know scary things happen in Wedeskyull. But it’s actually one of the places I most love. And it isn’t even real.
Q: Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in Redondo Beach just closed. After visiting so many bookstores across the country, what’s your take on the state of the indie bookseller?
A: Mysterious Galaxy Redondo closed—although it will still host events and intersect with the community in interesting ways—but Mysterious Galaxy San Diego is expanding. And a beloved mystery bookstore in LA is reopening. I know the messages we get from the media about how we’re all turning into turtles who shop and read and live on devices inside our shells, but to counter those, I would paraphrase Mark Twain. The death of bookstores has been greatly exaggerated. In fact, independent bookstore openings have been up over the last three years. They are part of a resurgence of Main Street, and an interest in locavorism. The best bookstores have made themselves hubs of the community in different ways, and these include events. I was on the road for 35,000 miles last year, and it will be 20,000 miles this year, and I can honestly say that there is a thriving world out there amongst books. It just requires getting out of our shells.
Q: Do you have any ideas for your next project, and what can you tell us about it?
A: My third Wedeskyull novel, As Night Falls, is about a woman who opens her front door to find two convicts on her porch. It will be out summer 2015. And when I return from tour this September, I get to begin my next novel. But that one’s still a secret!
Q: Favorite books you’ve read lately?
A: Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta. Hands down.
Jenny Milchman had a thirteen-year road to publication before her award-winning debut, Cover of Snow, appeared. Then Jenny took to the literal road with her family on what Shelf Awareness called the world’s longest book tour. Jenny is the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day and Vice President of Author Programs for International Thriller Writers. Her second novel, Ruin Falls, recently came out to starred reviews. Follow Jenny’s adventures at JennyMilchman.com or see her in person at the following Michigan independent booksellers, beginning next week:Monday, July 21, 7:00 pm Book Discussion and Signing With suspense writer Elizabeth Heiter Books a Million 31150 Southfield Rd. Beverly Hills, MI Map
Tuesday, July 22, 7:00 pm Book Discussion and Signing With suspense writer Brian Freeman Aunt Agatha’s 213 S 4th Ave # 1A
Ann Arbor, MI Map
Wednesday, July 23, 7:00 pm The Path to Publishing With Michigan authors Rick Murcer and Robin Devereaux-Nelson Schuler Books & Music 1982 W Grand River Avenue
Okemos, MI Map
Thursday, July 24, 2:00 pm Book Discussion and Signing McLean and Eakin 307 E Lake Street
Petoskey, MI Map
Saturday, July 26, 11:30 am Book Discussion and Signing Saturn Books 133 W Main Street
Gaylord, MI Map
Saturday, July 26, 7:00 pm Book Discussion and Signing Between the Covers 152 E Main Street
Harbor Springs, MI Map