It’s not often we read two novels back-to-back that grip us the way that The Roanoke Girls and Lola did. While completely different, each novel features strong women who overcome incredible odds and less-than-ideal family situations. Both novels reveal secrets to the reader that contribute to their fast pacing and thriller-like qualities.
Lola is Melissa Scrivner Love’s debut crime thriller that centers on an up-and-coming gang in Los Angeles, the Crenshaw Six, who have recently been drawn into an escalating war between rival drug cartels. At first glance, it appears that Garcia is their leader, but no one suspects that the real brain behind the operation is his girlfriend Lola. Outwardly submissive, she’s constantly underestimated, but she’s much smarter—and much, much more ruthless—than she lets on. As the gang gets pulled in over their heads, it’s Lola’s cunning wit and leadership that become their only hope for survival.
At the opening of Amy Engel’s novel The Roanoke Girls, fifteen-year-old Lane Roanoke, reeling from her mother’s suicide, moves to rural Kansas to live with her grandparents and fiery cousin Allegra on the sprawling family estate. Though she knew little of her mother’s life, she settles into her life as one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls, until she discovers the dark truth at the heart of her family and runs away. Eleven years later, she’s living in Los Angeles, when her grandfather calls and tells her that Allegra is missing. She’s reluctantly drawn back to Kansas to search for her missing cousin and must face the devastating secret at the root of her family tree once more.
Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright sat down with Amy Engel and Melissa Scrivner Love to discuss the twists and turns these novels take and what similarities lie between them.
Read it Forward: Let’s start our discussion by talking about your female protagonists because, in both of your books, we’re not sure we can trust them. In The Roanoke Girls, we meet Allegra and she’s wild, but also aloof. She seems like an injured bird at times, but then, at other times, she’s off the charts with energy. We also meet Lola, who, at the beginning of the novel seems like the meek, submissive girlfriend, and all of a sudden you find out that she’s actually the gang boss. What is so appealing to you both about writing these incredibly multifaceted women?
Amy Engel: In general, in my life, the women I meet are all multifaceted. I rarely meet someone who’s just the average likable girl. To make a full, fleshed out character, you’ve got to have all those different sides of their personality. Likable characters can be overrated, but when you write a character who’s unlikeable or who’s a little bit unreliable, it’s important that the reader feels some connection or sympathy when they’re reading the character. I don’t know that I went into it thinking, “I have to make this character unreliable or have all these different personality traits.” I just thought of her as a regular person. With male characters in fiction, I think that’s a given. With female characters, you get stuck questioning, “Is she likable? Is she one particular way?” The women that I know aren’t one-dimensional—I don’t think characters should be either.
Melissa Scrivner Love: I absolutely agree. For me, Lola is unreliable, and she does many questionable things. But that just shows that she’s human, and hopefully, we can all relate to someone who’s flawed and maybe not in the same ways that we are. What I found different about writing this female character was that she was telling herself, “I’m fine to be in the shadows. I have more control here,” but really there was an issue of ego. She also wanted credit for the work she was doing. That was a fun balance to play with that a lot of people can relate to.
RIF: It’s a universal thread when you think about women and all the things they do—and how little credit they get.
RIF: Where did the seeds of these wholly original novels come from? Is it something you’ve been noodling on for a while?
MSL: For me, Lola started out from three different characters’ points of view: from Andrea’s, from Sadie’s, and from Lola’s. I finished a draft when I was eight or nine months pregnant and gave it to my husband to read. He said, “You’re ignoring your main character. It’s Lola. I can tell you’re having the most fun writing these chapters. You need to focus on her.” So, I went off and had the baby, and then came back to the book and rewrote it all from her perspective, and it made all the difference. This was my first novel and it was a really fun process. I’m a television writer, and I have a very set process for that. It’s very deadline-oriented and if you don’t write something, they don’t have something to shoot. That helped me stay on track, knowing “I just have to get it done, just have to get it done.” It was also something I felt I had to write once it came to me.
RIF: Did you see a story about gangs on the news and say to yourself, “what if a woman was leading one of these?”
MSL: I’ve always wanted to tell a version of this story. I’ve written for crime procedurals on television for so long, and you’re always doing gang research, or you’re figuring out how to show the audience what money laundering i or all of these things that you have to think about on a daily basis that you probably shouldn’t have to think about. [Laughter]
RIF: And what about you, Amy?
AE: The Roanoke Girls actually started with the setting. My mom grew up in a very small town in Kansas that I spent a lot of time in as a child, and while it was a lovely place, I was also always creeped out by it—how small and claustrophobic it was, and how everyone knew everyone’s business, but at the same time never interfered with each other’s business. So, I knew the setting, and I had the main character, but it took me a while to come up with the rest. I wanted a story that reflected that claustrophobic feeling of the town. Once it came to me, it was a pretty quick process to write it, but it took a while to sort through different ideas and come up with something.
RIF: Both of your central characters, Lane and Lola, are deeply affected by their mothers. They feel a sense of betrayal by these women who birthed them. Lane is left motherless after her mother’s suicide and then she is dropped into a family situation where suddenly she understands all that her mother never bothered to tell her. Lola’s mother is a junkie who, as an adult, still can’t quite take care of herself, and did these unspeakable things to her daughter when she was young. As women, our mothers still shape us, even as we grow older. Why is that mother-daughter relationship so fraught and so fun to explore in your work?
AE: I’m not exactly sure. I mean, my mom and I are pretty close, but we still have a constant push-pull even as adults. I still find myself sometimes talking to her the way I did as a teenager. You get set in a pattern with your mother. And for Lane’s mom, it was that feeling that she hated Lane probably more than she loved her because she represented so many things. Sometimes the mother-daughter tension comes from the mother wanting things for her daughter that she didn’t achieve for herself, so there’s added pressure on daughters from their mothers. But it is an interesting relationship. I have a young adult book that I wrote before The Roanoke Girls, and there is a mother-daughter component in that as well, so obviously, it’s something that I’m fascinated with. But yeah, it’s one of those fundamental relationships that influence you throughout your life for sure.
MSL: Absolutely, and I just want to say for the record, my mother is nothing like Lola’s mother.
AE: Yeah, and my mom’s not like Lane’s either! [Laughter]
MSL: My mother’s wonderful. We’re very close, and we’ve always been very close. In my own experience, there’s something different about having a quote/unquote “bad mother” than having a quote/unquote “bad father.” It seems to be more fraught and unfair, and I’m not exactly sure why that is, but that does seem to be the case in many instances. And I think when you see a character like Lola’s mother, it tips the scales so unfairly.
AE: Rightly or wrongly, people expect more from mothers. I think mothers are held to a higher standard.
RIF: Both of these daughters are also putting on the brakes; like, “I don’t want to turn into this woman.” That’s a huge motivator for them.
MSL: Right, and there’s always that fear. It’s the, “What would happen if I were to have a child?” or, “What would if I were to become a mother? And is that cycle broken?”
RIF: Especially in The Roanoke Girls, where all of these daughters are born into this dark family situation.
AE: [Laughter] Yeah, it’s really hard to break the cycle in that family.
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RIF: Conversely, both of these women—Lane and certainly Lola—are incredibly strong. They have this resilience that you read and say, “I don’t know how you could live through this and have such strength of character.” What are you hoping that readers take away about the strength of women? Certainly, that there’s this extra pressure, but there’s also a little extra chutzpah that women have.
MSL: The world is a pretty dangerous place for women, and there is something to that—you come through these things and you’re stronger for it. Lola is damaged, but she’s never broken, and I don’t think she ever really sees her past as a disadvantage. I think she always tries to find the advantage in her own circumstances.
RIF: Right, it shapes her, but it doesn’t define her. Tell me about the art of the twist, because in both of these books, there are little “twistlets” along the way. I mean, there’s no sudden appearance of aliens out of nowhere, but there are moments of suspense throughout the book. How do you artfully write that? Do you know where the plot is headed when you start or does it come to you as you’re going?
AE: I don’t think of The Roanoke Girls as having a twist, but in the first draft, I did not have the primary relationship of the family revealed until closer to the end. When I went back and read it, it felt like midway through most readers would be able to pick up on it, so then it felt like I was cheating a little bit, and I was withholding. I thought, “If I was reading this, I would be irritated.” So I went back and put it very early, which was a little risky I guess, but it didn’t feel risky at the time. The book is not so much about a twist or about keeping things from the reader. For me, it made it more unsettling to read when you know what Lane is coming back to early on and then keep reading with that knowledge.
MSL: I love the fact that it’s revealed early on.
AE: Oh, okay good.
MSL: It works so well. I loved it. I think you’re still along for the ride, and you’re still so invested in meeting your characters.
RIF: What about you, Melissa, in terms of the reveal of Lola actually being the boss of the gang? That also comes early in the story.
MSL: I tried to hide the ball with that for as long as I could. I come from a world [in television] where you have these twists that push the story forward or end on a question so that you can have a commercial break. [Laughter] So I tend to work with notecards because I’m so used to that process. But then halfway through, I throw them out. Twists will happen or something will happen that I didn’t expect and I try to roll with it, which is something that you don’t always get to do in television.
RIF: There’s a thread for both women that the family you’re born into isn’t the family that you have to keep. But there is some magnetic pull to these people that we come from. Lola keeps her own family. She pushes out the people that she doesn’t want, although they’re tethered in some way like her mother. But then she does pull Lucy into her care. Lane leaves her family and then is drawn back. Why do families have this gravitational pull over us, even as we try to push them away?
MSL: It’s interesting. When my husband read the chapter where Lola first goes to her mother’s house and is scrubbing the floor and baking casseroles, he said, “I don’t buy this.” And I said, “Well you’re not a woman.” [Laughter] “This is what you do.” I’m from the South, and your family is supposed to come first. A lot of times it does fall on daughters. Lola can build her own family all she wants, but she can’t escape Maria.
RIF: There’s that obligation that we can’t shake.
MSL: Right. And if she did cut ties with her mother, what hole would that leave in her life, and how would she react to that? I don’t know.
AE: When Lane runs away the first time, she has the naïve belief that she can forget about it and become a new person, and it doesn’t work that way. I think that’s part of how we’re tethered to our families; they know our history. They’re part of our history. And it’s really hard to sever those ties, so when she goes back, she finally comes to the realization that these things happen, and they’re a part of me, and these people are a part of me. You can still move forward while acknowledging that fact. It took her a while to come to that.
RIF: Both of these books deal with subjects that I doubt either of you have any real-life experience in—thank goodness. As writers, why is it fascinating to live out a whole new world in your writing that you know nothing about, and what’s the research process like to inform you about the worlds that you’re creating, whether it’s gang life or abuse? Is it daunting or fascinating to live vicariously in these icky places?
MSL: I think it’s both. It all comes back to empathy and trying to step outside of yourself and put yourself in someone else’s shoes and do the best you can to create authenticity there. With Lola, since I write for crime procedurals, I have done a lot of research. I have written for shows that take place in L.A. and I lived there for 12 years. But there are many different facets to the city. There’s Hollywood and then there’s everything else. That’s interesting to me because the first time I came to L.A. was not to be a writer. I was actually doing community service, so I got to see that side of it first. And it was life changing for me, and it made me want to move there.
AE: I didn’t do a ton of research, but even if you’re writing about something that you don’t know a lot about, the common thread is human emotion—like you said, Melissa, empathy. Everyone knows what it’s like to feel certain emotions, and maybe not to the heightened degree that Lane does, but if you can tap into those emotions, then it’s pretty easy to get into that space when you’re writing, even if it’s something that’s obviously never happened to you.