In The Attic

“Pretty is as pretty does”? Eva Holland interviews Maggie Mitchell about her novel Pretty Is

This month, we have not one, but two fantastic debut thrillers to keep you gripped to the edge of your seat! Both Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell and The Daughter’s Secret by Eva Holland centre around women who have to confront the effects sinister crimes from their past.  Find out what happened when Eva sat down with Maggie to ask her all about Pretty Is, a dark and disturbing psychological thriller about the abduction of two twelve year old girls.

I remember being told (or warned, perhaps) as a child that ‘pretty is as pretty does’. Did you have this saying in mind when you started writing the novel, or did that come later?

I had that expression in mind from the start—even before I was sure exactly how it was going to be relevant. I agree that there’s a kind of warning lurking in the saying—the implication that you are probably not good (especially if you’re pretty). It’s also a very gendered concept, obviously: boys aren’t told the same thing. In fact I often find myself informally polling audiences as to whether they are familiar with the expression. Women are far more likely to know it than men, and young girls are less likely to have heard it than older women. If it’s truly fading out, I think that’s probably a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with suggesting that our actions are more important than our appearance, of course, but to me there’s something insidiously admonitory about “pretty is as pretty does.” Like getting in trouble for something you haven’t even done yet . . .

The abduction of Lois and Carly May is unusual in many ways – the girls didn’t know each other before they were taken, they didn’t struggle or try to run away. Was there a real-life case that inspired Pretty Is?

I did draw some inspiration from a case in the 90s involving two girls who were strangers to each other who were kidnapped and thrown into captivity together. That’s where the similarity ends, though: Lois and Carly May’s complicity in their abduction was entirely my invention. People sometimes ask if the girls’ behavior can be explained by Stockholm Syndrome, and that’s not how I see their attachment to Zed at all. First, their willingness to be abducted actually precedes their attachment to their kidnapper; second, Stockholm Syndrome presumes an irrational attachment to someone who actually treats you badly, and that’s not at all the case here. The disturbing thing about the girls’ attachment to Zed is that it’s quite genuine, if laced with occasional trepidation.

We only meet Zed through the memories of Lois and Chloe and I was never sure quite how reliable those memories are. Did you have a clear idea of who Zed was and why he did what he did when you started writing, or did you too see him through the filter of the girls’ memories?

I had a fairly clear idea of Zed, though he did become even clearer to me as I wrote. But it was important to me that the reader—like the girls—only have access to him through Lois and Chloe’s memories, however imperfect or conflicting or incomplete. Anything else is speculation. I wanted to replicate that experience for the reader. (To the frustration, I might add, of some readers!)

I think both Pretty Is and The Daughter’s Secret are concerned with what becomes of people after they have lived through a ‘nightmare’ event. What made you want to pick up Lois and Carly May’s story nearly eighteen years after their abduction?

More than the trauma of abduction itself—which many writers have brilliantly explored; who can top Emma Donaghue’s Room?—I was interested in how what happens to us when we’re young shapes who we become. In this case, Lois and Chloe have to build their lives around something that doesn’t make sense, something that raises more questions than it answers; an event that led them to see themselves as somehow set apart from other people, both special and hopelessly alien. And since they since they haven’t seen each other since it happened, they haven’t even been able to talk to the one other person in the world who sort of understands.

I particularly enjoyed reading the extracts of Lois’s novel, Deep in the Woods. Admittedly I have an overactive imagination, but I did wonder whether you are in fact the Lois character writing under a pen name about your own experiences by writing a novel about a woman writing a novel about her own experiences under pen name. You’re not, are you?

That would be very diabolically clever of me! But no. I’m not. Like Lois, I teach college English and I used to compete in spelling bees, but that’s where the similarities end. Or so I like to think!

Make sure you check back tomorrow, to find out what Maggie asked Eva when they talked about The Daughter’s Secret!

Pretty Is and The Daughter’s Secret are both out now in paperback, ebook and audio

Maggie Mitchell

Maggie Mitchell has published short fiction in a number of literary magazines, including the New Ohio Review, American Literary Review,and Green Mountains Review. Her story ‘It Would Be Different If’ is included in the Bedford Introduction to Literature. She teaches English and creative writing at the University of West Georgia.