About Cammie McGovern
An Interview with Cammie McGovern
More About Cammie McGovern
Cammie McGovern was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and received the Nelson Algren Award in short fiction. Her work has been published in Redbook, Seventeen, Glimmer Train, TriQuarterly, and other publications. This is her second novel.
The Accidental Detective
Cammie McGovern on the inspiration behind her new crime novel, Eye Contact
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Crime defines an “accidental detective” as one who is compelled by circumstance into a crime-solving role, sometimes by proximity but frequently by a loved one’s relation to the crime, “as in a mother who feels her determination will serve to avenge or prevent a crime against her child where police efforts appear to be failing.” Interesting that an “accidental detective” would so often be a mother because what does mothering feel like from the very first sleep-deprived day when you are handed a red-faced, squalling infant, and told “you’ll figure it out,” but an unsolicited detective job? The first time this happened, I wanted to say to the well-meaning baby nurse, “No I won’t. I really won’t figure it out.” As anyone who’s ever spent time with one knows, babies are a loud and demanding mystery. They sit happily for hours in a dirty diaper and then cry uncontrollably when the cat walks by. A mother’s first song of succor most often sounds like a sing-songy version of a bad interrogation with a reticent witness. (“What is it, baby? Are you hungry? Are you tired?”) All mothers become the kind of detective who learns to feel her answers and intuit solutions. When peace arrives alongside a desperations bottle and fuzzy white blanket, you breathe a sigh of relief. There you have it; mini-mystery solved.
When you’re the mother of an autistic child, that mystery of unarticulated needs and wailing distress cuts deeper and goes on longer, past the time typical children are pointing pudgy fingers and putting a few words together to make their needs known. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, and the medical complications that lead to it are as varied as the children themselves, every mother of an autistic child becomes a detective, sooner or later, logging in hours on the internet, researching the infinite number of therapies, knowing all of them will help some children, trying to determine, which ones will help yours.
I started writing Eye Contact having read many mysteries, but never thinking I’d write one myself. For fifteen years, I’d been writing literary short stories and novels: quiet, character-driven stories where feelings were usually the most vulnerable things at stake. Then, in the midst of raising a young child with autism—of assuming the role of nightly detective—I got an idea that needed a real crime: What if a child with autism was the only witness to a particularly brutal murder? What if the crime galvanized a community to circle around and press closer to this reticent child who had only his mother to translate the clues he was able to offer up?
Great idea, it seemed to me, in the first rush of writing. Cara, the mother, has parented Adam long enough to be a confident detective of his moods. She can know what he would do and what he’s not doing now and read meaning in his small choices and in his silence. Great idea, I kept thinking, until halfway through when I stalled out completely. The problem, I realized, was the case itself and her “accidental” status in relationship to it. A mother of uniquely vulnerable child in such a situation (in fact, the mother of any child, I’d wager) cares first and foremost about her child. She might grieve for the victim and poor parents, but her priority will be on helping her child recover from the crime, and move past it, not on solving it. She might come close to getting certain answers, by reading her son’s subtle signs, studying the contents of his backpack, the clothes he chooses and refuses to wear; she might intuit correctly that all these things mean something, but if she is what I wanted most to portray—a real mother of a real autistic child—she is, above all else, focused on a single thing: her child and his future.
In retrospect, I see what stopped me mid-book. An accidental detective, though not always a mother, works the way a mother does—on feeling and intuition. She’s not trained in crime-solving nor is she particularly interested in being so. She doesn’t press hard for answers, unless she’s pushing back to protect a loved one. Her motivation is her child; solving the crime is, by bad luck, a task that’s been handed to her. What the story needed, I realized, was a foil for her heart-and-feeling investigation. It needed someone who cared very little about the people involved and fixated exclusively on the puzzle of the case. Someone who walks into a room and focuses not on the sad oddity of a boy rocking and humming, but on the word he is misspelling with his Boggle cube letters. In short, it needed someone who walks around seeing only clues, not people.
Ironically, perhaps, the idea came to me when I was observing a social skills group of thirteen and fourteen year old boys with a laundry list of diagnosis, all probably somewhere on the spectrum. I was meant to be observing; they were meant to be discussing their own problems and infinite variety of mistakes they all made negotiating their way through days filled with people acting in ways none of them grasped easily. Though I was there to check out the group for my son’s sake, they got word I was a writer, working on a mystery that had autism in it, and they all shifted gears completely and focused not on me, but on my story: what was the crime? What were the clues so far? Answering their questions, I suddenly realized what my story needed: a high-functioning autistic boy as amateur detective.
An amateur detective is, of course, anyone who does not have crime-solving in their job description but does it anyway, and some of literature’s finest sleuths are, technically speaking, amateur status, straight back to Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mysteries defines amateur detective as someone who is moved to investigate a crime purely “by the intellectual challenge of it,” but there is—perhaps not officially—the subcategory of amateur detective sidekick. This is the person who pushes the envelope, presses witnesses past the point of decency, and goes beyond the bend for the sole purpose of collecting information. As Frederick Arnold states, the amateur sleuth sidekick “has the uncanny ability to do all the legwork and have all the pertinent information, and still not be able to see the solution.”
Interesting how the world of autism and its many permutations lends itself to mysteries. How many of our favorite amateur sleuths have had a touch of the spectrum in them: overly fixated on the details of a case, obsessive pursuers of more information, fabulous clue-finders who can present volumes of facts and still scratch their heads in search of a solution. Dilys Winn, in Murder Ink, calls amateur detectives “those most endearing bumblers whose every act obscures rather than uncovers.” By investigating the crime, they obfuscate the truth, throw out red herrings and point everyone else in all the wrong directions. They are, as I discovered while writing Eye Contact, what keep the story going, because they care, above all else, about the story. They stay awake at night mulling over inconsistencies, leaping to false conclusions, leading everyone in the wrong direction by the sheer force of their own determined certainty.
In my case, my amateur sidekick mirrored the boys who gave me the idea: a fourteen year old with no social skills and nothing else on his calendar except befriending the Mom and her son, and trying to solve a crime the community can not. Nor can he, as it turns out. Because facts are only one facet to a character-driven mystery. The people involved also matter, as does having a character willing to look long and hard at someone she loves and be surprised by what she sees.
Writing Eye Contact taught me a great deal about the conventions of mystery-writing and why the form has lasted so long and been so powerful: because solving the crimeless mysteries of our daily lives—including having children and raising them—requires using the same techniques the masters have given us, balancing of information and intuition, the recognition that, most of the time, we can’t do it alone.
Cammie McGovern talks about writing Eye Contact...
Eye Contact is a brilliant balancing act between the story of a relationship between a mother and her son and a gripping thriller. How did you go about creating this balancing act? Did the plot come before the characters or did the characters lead you to this nail-biting plot?
I started writing this as a story primarily focussed on the boy with autism and his mother and everything she had done to help him recover. Originally, I wanted the central question to be: What if an autistic child who had come a long way through therapy and different interventions witnessed a murder and, in one terrible day, lost all the skills he'd gained and regressed horribly? To a certain extent, that's every parent of a child on the autistic spectrum's worst nightmare because these victories are so hard won. Then my husband took an early draft of the first 100 pages, read them all and said, "Well, I like this one scene with the detective..." Reading between the lines of his subtle prodding, I figured out that a memoir disguised as a murder mystery was perhaps not the best idea, and then it occurred to me--why not embrace the murder mystery part of it and have that drive the story along?
What did you find most inspiring when thinking about and writing Eye Contact? Did you find inspiration more in your daily life than in reading? Or were there particular books that inspired you?
About halfway through writing Eye Contact, Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time came out and, of course, my heart initially sank at the idea that someone had beaten me to the finish line on writing a mystery with autism in it. Then I so thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and it occurred to me that a big part of that enjoyment was the novelty of reading a story with an autistic character at the centre of it--who is funny, charming, sad, poignant, all of that - but the central question of the book is not whether that child is going to get cured. It's an interesting phenomenon, when your child is first diagnosed, you start obsessively reading all these recovered-child memoirs that are all wonderful and inspiring and fill you with hope and then there seems to come some point in the long battle where you can't bear to look at another one of those because it no longer reflects the reality you live with: your child is a whole lot better than he once was, but he's not recovered and he's not perfectly fine. He's something else - he's out there in the world, being different, acting strange, a mystery to many people, including his parents, sometimes. Then it occurred to me: reading about an older autistic character is strangely empowering, even a relief. Here is someone I recognize operating in the world, participating in stories that have nothing to do with whether he's 'cured' or not. He's got a life that has many aspects to it. Realizing that, I thought, heavens, the world could use a lot more books with autism in it, probably, and the more stories that are out there, the less mysterious this disorder will be.
Did you always want to be a writer? Can you remember who or what first inspired you to write fiction?
I was always a journal-keeper as a child, pages and pages devoted to the most embarrassing minutia of the ups and downs of my childhood social life, or more specifically, the lack thereof. When I was twelve years old, I won a community-wide short story contest that in retrospect I don't think was a very big deal at all (I suspect there weren't very many entrants) but at the time, when the announcement was made, I remember my teacher made the whole class stand up and clap for me. For a shy little girl, it was an unforgettable moment.
What are you reading at the moment?
Find Books by Cammie McGovern
The British queens of mystery! Minette Walters, Ruth Rendall, Denise Mina are some current favorites.
Do you tend to read contemporary writers or the classics? Have you made any exciting discoveries recently, either old or new writers?
I tend to read more contemporary writers, for better or for worse. Some writers like to read books that are very different than what they're working on, but I'm always looking for similar books - I want to find a book that is just like my current, only better, and finished, with all of the problems solved! My recent favourite discoveries are: Dave King, The Ha-Ha; Jess Walters, The Land of the Blind; Paul Jaskunas, Hidden; John Searle, Strange but True. All of these books are literary mysteries with wonderful writing and really unforgettable characters at the centre.
Which writers would you recommend to readers who liked Eye Contact?
I love all of the above and Dennis Lehane, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, Josephine Tey.
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