Alexandra Andrews’s psychological thriller, Who is Maud Dixon?, tests the limits of fiction. Literally. The novel begins in media res: Florence Darrow wakes up in a hospital in Morocco and is told she has miraculously survived her car veering off the side of a cliff. Still more perplexing, the nurses and doctors call her Helen Wilcox, the author for whom she works as an assistant. Inspired by The Talented Mr. Ripley and written during the craze surrounding the identity of bestselling author Elena Ferrante, Andrews’s novel melds a page-turning narrative and compelling female protagonists with a thoughtful consideration of the erasure and creation of identity.
Florence is an outsider. Like many of us, she wants things that are out of her reach, worries about what people think of her, and doesn’t like to talk on the phone because she can’t refine what she’s going to say. So, when an opportunity arises for her to work for the pseudonymous author behind the bestselling Mississippi Foxtrot, she jumps at the chance to be party to the secret that has the literary world abuzz. Soon, her blinding desire for greatness (manifested in a career as a successful writer) takes Florence on a journey from the apparently pastoral land of New York’s Catskill Mountains to the kaleidoscopic and enigmatic streets of Morocco.
Who is Maud Dixon? examines power dynamics at every level – from the relationship between boss and employee to the one between author and story. As we follow a plot that, according to James Patterson, “had enough twists and turns to make you dizzy for a week (dizzy with joy!)”, we feel Florence’s desire to not be overlooked crash into her personal ambition to lead a “great” life. The characters of Who is Maud Dixon? engage in an all-out battle for control of the narrative.
As readers, we wonder if each misstep or deception in Who is Maud Dixon? is the result of everyday desires, desperations, and illusions being pushed just over the edge. The fragile balance between reality and fiction served as the jumping off point for my Zoom call with Andrews.
SR: When writing Who is Maud Dixon?, how did you find the right balance between characters bending the rules of reality and having them act in unbelievable ways?
Alexandra Andrews: I wanted the book to be a little over the top – it was even a little campy in earlier versions. My rule of thumb was always take it one step further. I wanted it to be fun rather than grim or dark. I can’t read thrillers that are really disturbing. Patricia Highsmith actually wrote a book on how to craft suspense fiction, and I remember two things from it: 1) open your book with — bam! — something’s happening; 2) she loves coincidences. Which I think is so great because when the reader is reading, they’re agreeing to suspend disbelief for you a little bit. They’re not coming to [a novel] for real life. They’re coming for a little something extra.
When you sit down to write a story, what are your first considerations?
For this book, I started with the plot but then I would say character became the most important thing. I started to really enjoy writing Florence and Helen, especially Helen. I had so much fun writing their dialogue that I wanted to spend more time on them so other things fell by the wayside and that ended up changing the whole plot.
How do you know when a story is done?
When I stopped being embarrassed by any part of it. I went through so many drafts. Twenty-four – I think. I knew I was done when the thought of an agent reading it didn’t make me cringe. Writing can be a slog, and you’re not getting any feedback most of the time. You really have to motivate yourself. You have those moments when something does work or a little bit of dialogue that you really like, and that pushes you on a little bit. You’re eager for more of those.
Is there a particular scene of Who is Maud Dixon? that you found most difficult to write?
The action sequence at the end with Helen and Florence. I wrote that so many times. I got some feedback that it was moving too fast – her arm was where? What are they doing? – so I kept having to slow it down. It almost felt like writing a script. It was actually a little boring to just be describing the motions.
Your novel has so many thrilling twists and turns – I can’t remember the last time I couldn’t put a book down – what was your process in crafting the plot structure?
I started with an outline and then, basically, it got thrown out. I think it was somewhat instinctual. I tried to only write what was fun to write. A lot of times, when I had a preordained plot in mind, and I was trying to get from point A to point B to point C, it just felt a little bit like a slog. Whereas it worked better for me when I let the writing take me wherever it wanted to go. I had the most fun writing the dialogue between Helen and Florence. Helen actually didn’t originally play such a big role in the first draft.
Joan Didion puts forward in her essay, “On Self Respect”, that people who lack self-respect run away to find themselves only to discover that there’s no one home. In the novel, you mention that Florence’s Bible is Slouching Towards Bethlehem but that she is more intrigued by Didion’s image than her words. How much of her motive throughout Who is Maud Dixon? is to be someone else and how much of it is about becoming a writer?
I think there’s a part of Florence that genuinely does love writing and certainly reading, too. But, as we were talking about before, so much of writing is a slog – it can be boring at times, repetitive, demoralizing, and then you get one flight of excitement. I think Florence lives for those moments, but she’s not willing to put in the other work. Probably as the novel goes on, her love for writing is becoming less and less pure. And I think she has a sense that she has to prove something. She’s grabbed onto becoming a famous novelist as her way of achieving greatness, and she’s unwilling to let it go.
Is there a point in your life when you started calling yourself a writer?
When I sold the book.
From Simon, the editor at the publishing house where Florence works, to Greta, Helen’s agent, Florence is often told by people in positions of power in the literary world that she lacks the life experience she needs to be an engaging writer. Are there experiences in your life that factored into your writing of Who is Maud Dixon?
I had some of the insecurities that Florence had at the beginning of my career. I mean, I really took her to an extreme, because it’s better for the narrative and it’s more fun to write. I didn’t have the same insecurities about my background, but I was worried I wasn’t smart enough or intellectual enough. I was just nervous all the time. It’s really a terrible feeling. I thought it would last forever. Thankfully, you hit your 30s or whenever and you settle into yourself. And of course, I was familiar with that frustration of wanting to be a writer and not actually writing and beating yourself up over it. In my 20s, I wanted to be Joan Didion and write personal essays. It took me a long time to figure out that I’m just not interesting enough. Not only had I not had enough personal experience in my 20s, but the experiences I had had just weren’t interesting.
Since we learn Helen’s motivation for writing Mississippi Foxtrot is born of real experience and her novel becomes one of the biggest to hit the market in recent history, is the lesson from Who is Maud Dixon? that there is no fiction that does not have some truth in it?
All good fiction must have truth in it. Not necessarily lived truth, but emotional truth. It must feel in some sense real to the reader.
Somehow, even though readers may be dubious of Florence and Helen’s motives in any given scene, we can’t help but be enthralled by them. I found it refreshing to see your women protagonists acting on their urges and desires, albeit in extreme circumstances. Could you talk me through the process of developing each of their dynamic personalities?
They’re archetypes of women I’ve known throughout my career and personally: very sharp, ambitious women who know exactly what they want and go after what they want. I think women often do it in a different way than men do, and they express things like emotion, aggression, and envy in different ways. Florence is the archetype of the outsider but taken to extremes. She doesn’t really have the option to walk through a door that someone’s opened for her, so she’s got to kick it down or go around. Helen is someone who is ambitious and goes after whatever she wants. She’s utterly unapologetic and has no self-doubt whatsoever. That prospect can sound pretty appealing to most people… even if it makes her a psychopath.
I really enjoyed the way you tackle voyeurism in your novel. Florence is always looking in on others’ lives – whether it be Simon with his perfect family or Helen with her bestseller and seemingly idyllic life in the New York countryside. Florence’s behaviour is reminiscent to me of how people now admire influencers and may change their ways to become more like those they follow on social media. At some level, does what can seem like obsessive and socially unacceptable behaviour on Florence’s part make her more relatable to audiences?
I wanted to straddle this line where in the first half of the book, you think she’s a slightly troubled women, but you’re rooting for her. Then, slowly, she goes down a slippery slope and you’re like – woah. I’ve been told by a few people that when they’re reading the book the very moment of them turning on Florence is the first time that she clicks the picture of Simon’s kids. But as you mention, with social media these days, lots of us have probably snapped pictures of people we don’t know. For instance, it’s my dream to be on the subway with somebody reading my book and if I saw that, I would take a picture of that stranger, and I’d probably post it to social media. I guess because you’re inside Florence’s head, you know the impulse is a little different. But I think the sense of looking at someone’s life and feeling envy has certainly gotten worse in the Instagram era.
You write such striking and rich imagery when describing Morocco. Is there something about the setting that you thought particularly suited the story you wanted to tell?
I wrote most of this book in Paris and then my husband and I went to Morocco basically so I could research the book. Again, I was looking at Patricia Highsmith as my model, and I love all of her rich settings and far off places. I knew I wanted to do that. Also, when you’re writing for long hours, you want to go somewhere nice in your head. It sounds sort of ridiculous, but I don’t want to spend it in a grim room in Schenectady. I want to spend in Morocco or Tangier.
You mentioned Patricia Highsmith. Who are the writers who inspire your work?
Certainly, Patricia Highsmith. I love all those midcentury suspense novelists – Graham Greene I love. Eric Ambler, Muriel Spark I love – her dark, caustic tone. I don’t read a ton of thrillers – I think Gillian Flynn is pretty phenomenal at what she does. She has a great balance between crisp, good sentences and phenomenal plots.
Are there authors who you think are doing exciting things that audiences should pay attention to going forward?
I’m probably reading the same contemporary fiction that everyone else is. I love Sally Rooney. Rachel Cusk I adore. In terms of more thriller-y writers, Jane Harper, and Dervla McTiernan, who writes Irish detective novels.
I read that Universal Pictures has already obtained the film rights for your phenomenal novel. Do you have any particular vision for how the story would be different played out in a visual medium?
I am so not a film person, but I think the adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley is pretty close to perfect. [The story] is in very good hands. Liz Hannah is a wonderful writer, and I’m so glad it’s with an all-female team.
Image credit: Flickr