Luke Rolfes: Fiction writer Carol LaHines is out with a new novel from Regal House Publishing—a dark and twisted psychological journey called The Vixen Amber Halloway. The story follows a college professor whose husband cheats on her with a younger woman, and the ensuing months where the professor recursively spirals deeper and deeper into obsession. Can you tell us about the genesis of The Vixen Amber Halloway? Where did you get the idea for this novel, and how long has it been in creation?
Carol LaHines: I had been wanting to write a jailhouse confessional for as long as I remember—the structure really appealed to me, as it inherently involves a past storyline and an after-the-fact storyline—with the narrator selectively recasting and reimagining the relevant facts. A jailhouse confessional almost by definition involves an unreliable narrator, and I am frequently interested in exploring the friction between who we conceive ourselves to be and how we are perceived by others. We are all self-delusional in some sense; my protagonist to an exaggerated degree. Lolita is the quintessential jailhouse confessional, and one of the books that has had perhaps undue influence on me as a developing writer—I just so admire the novel’s sinuous prose, the arch language, the undercuts (the midges, and Lolita crying in the night) that break through the wall of obfuscatory language. And of course, the afterword where the author explains “the nerves, the secret points . . . the subliminal coordinates by which the book is plotted.”
LR: Your narrator/protagonist is named Ophelia, sharing a name with one of literature’s most tragic characters—one driven mad by the actions of men. As well, the Ophelia in your novel is all-too-fittingly obsessed with Dante and his imaginings of Hell. Can you talk about this character and how she connects to the literary allusions surrounding her?
CL: I did begin with the idea that Ophelia would be a college professor, and more specifically, a Dante professor. I studied Dante intensively as part of my undergraduate education, and have always wanted to explore more at length the ideas of crime, retribution, contrapasso—the idea that the punishment fits the crime; for example, in the Inferno, the adulterous are consigned to the second circle of Hell, for their crimes are ones of incontinence, whereas more malevolent types find themselves in the Malebolge, and Judas, the betrayer, is of course yoked to Satan in the icy heart of Hell. Ophelia thinks of the world in these terms; her intellectualizing mind believes that Andy, like a scheming Florentine politico, deserves to be punished accordingly. Shortly after beginning the novel, I decided upon the name Ophelia for the narrator, for the reasons you mention.
LR: A follow up to that: Did the character of Ophelia evolve much from what you originally imagined, or has she stayed mostly the same throughout your drafting of this novel?
CL: I did intend, from the beginning, that she would progressively unravel, undergoing a descent into her own personal Hell, consistent with the Dante overlay. I did want to explore the idea of intergenerational trauma, of grooves too deep, as Ophelia would say; and I did want to portray someone who expresses herself obliquely and in an atypical way. As is usual with me, the plot specifics (her friendship with Madge; her brief interlude dating Victor, the accounting professor) developed as I wrote.
LR: At the beginning of the novel, you let the readers know that Amber Halloway doesn’t survive this narrative and that Ophelia is in jail. This choice, in essence, charges the readers with reverse-engineering how the characters got to this point. Why did you choose to give up these details early on? Can you give us a sense of your process as a writer on plot, and your thoughts on “release of information”?
CL: I began this way because, in essence, I was mimicking the opening of Lolita, where we learn in the opening pages that “you can count on a murderer for a fancy prose style”; I didn’t give it much thought beyond that initially. However, I did confront that question more directly in successive drafts. That choice limited me, in a certain sense; on the other hand, it creates an inherent suspense as the reader is wanting to learn exactly how events unfolded. The reader becomes, in essence, the jury or trier of fact, assessing motive, events, in light of this foreknowledge. There was an excellent article in the New Yorker recently which attempted to distill the mechanics of suspense. In the event of a good outcome, we call it anticipation; in the event of a negative one, we call it dread. But suspense is something engrained in the human psyche, and something we unconsciously search for and respond to in narrative.
LR: Ophelia refers to Amber Halloway as “the vixen Amber Halloway.” Almost all Amber Halloway’s details given to readers by Ophelia focus on her sexuality. Her breasts, her lingerie, etc. In some ways, it might be easier for Ophelia to dehumanize Halloway by thinking of her as a sexual object.  And, in turn, most of the memories that Ophelia shares about Andy (her husband) have something to do with sex. I’m curious about Ophelia’s perception. Can you talk about how sexuality warps or sharpens Ophelia’s view of the world around her?
CL: In many ways, Ophelia’s judgments of Amber are shaped by and reflective of the patriarchal culture. So even though Ophelia should presumably find some camaraderie in Amber, or at least be more sympathetic toward her, Ophelia instead is trapped in this paradigm of the male gaze, and she judges Amber more harshly than is merited. This flows, in part, from the inevitable comparisons she makes between her older, less desirable self, and the younger Amber—again, mediated by the male gaze.
LR: Have I mentioned that I love the character of Ophelia? She is incredibly intelligent and self-aware. She talks in a heightened diction without caring if people have good enough vocabularies to keep up, and she is able to see subtext in almost any situation. When dealing with such an intelligent character, was it difficult to “hide” her descent into obsession from herself? How were you able to pull that off? 
CL: Of course, even very highly intelligent and evolved people can suffer from self-delusions—perhaps even moreso, as their mental apparatus tends to be ruminative and tortuous, and they are accustomed to seeing themselves as intelligent and therefore “right” vis-à-vis those they perceive as more ordinary. I think we are all familiar with people who can be quite capable in one context—say, professional—and yet spectacular messes in their own personal lives, perhaps (or not) paradoxically. This is the challenge, but also the great fun, of writing an unreliable character—pitching the voice so that it is conveying the character’s obsession, yet simultaneously cluing the reader in. Going back to Lolita, there are many asides to dead children, and even a transcribed letter from Charlotte Haze, speaking of the loss of Lolita’s baby brother, that touch on the overarching tragedy—a counterpoint to Humbert Humbert’s grandiose prose.
LR: A theme in this book is how past trauma can trickle down to the next generation. Ophelia, we learn, comes from a very troubled family.  Her mom left her father, suddenly and out of the blue. Her father eventually took his own life.  Can you discuss the role of trauma in this book?
CL: It was my intention, from the beginning, to explore the effects of compounded and intergenerational trauma. Ophelia’s references to “grooves too embedded” are intended to convey the effects of trauma on the psyche. I think that for each person, there are a handful of moments that can be assessed, in retrospect, as determinative of their life’s trajectory. In Ophelia’s case, the original trauma of being abandoned by her mother at the age of eight. The fact that the mother went on to have three more children, while never inquiring after Ophelia; or that she appeared to have been a warm and loving mother prior to her leave-taking, underscore the senselessness of her act and why Ophelia has such trouble reconciling herself with it. In chapter 16, Ophelia revisits a family vacation, observing, toward the end, that the mother must have then known that she was leaving, yet nothing in her manner betrayed that intention. That is the source of Ophelia’s angst, insecurity, etc. The father’s death, in comparison, is alluded to far less often (in keeping with a certain level of denial); it occurred after the initial trauma and is in some sense the inevitable culmination of the events set in motion by the mother’s leave-taking (in the psychiatrist’s office, playing with the desk toy, Ophelia states, “set a ball in motion and certain immutable laws come into play, laws of gravity and momentum, laws of fate and inevitable circumstance"). 
LR: Some of the more fascinating sections of the novel are when Ophelia talks with a prison psychiatrist. What sort of research did you have to do to write these parts?
CL: One of my majors undergraduate was psychology, and I quite seriously considered getting a doctorate in clinical psychology. I studied Freud, of course, and various therapeutic modalities like gestalt role-playing, in which Ophelia and the psychiatrist engage. Processes of transference and counter-transference inherent in the relation of analyst and analysand are also another fascinating dimension. By definition, analysis involves reconstruction and reconstitution of memory—which, as we’ve learned, is a far more dynamic and biased process than once believed. That obsession with people’s mental constructs, defense mechanisms, delusions, etc., has left its everlasting imprint on my fiction, for sure.
LR: Ophelia devolves as the novel progresses, wrapping herself deeper and deeper into obsession. I’m curious about the process of writing such a spiraling character. Was it difficult to get yourself into that specific mind space?   
CL: When I write first person, I tend to embed deeply in the narrator’s mindset, since the voice must convincingly reflect the character’s psychology. I actually prefer to write from the point of view of flawed or obsessive characters—they have more material to mine, more contradictions to explore, more fascinating backstories.
LR: What’s next for you and your work? Any new projects? 
CL: I have a couple of completed manuscripts that my agent is pitching now, including a tragicomic farce about personal injury litigation. The manuscript I’m writing now is loosely based on the Gilgo Beach serial killings and uses a multi-voiced, polyphonic kind of structure to explore the subject from a number of angles, some more directly, some more obliquely, similar to the approach in 2666, by Roberto Bolano.
LR: Thanks so much for your time, Carol. We wish you the best with this wonderful and unique novel! 
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