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Q&A with Polly Stewart - The Good Ones


The Good Ones

By Leah Wingenroth


We are excited to welcome Polly Stewart to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release The Good Ones out on the 6th of June 2023.


The last time Nicola Bennett saw Lauren Ballard she was scraping a key along the side of a new cherry-red Chevy Silverado. That was the night before her friend mysteriously vanished from her home, leaving a bloodstained washcloth and signs of a struggle—as well as her grieving husband and young daughter—behind.


Now, nearly twenty years later, Nicola, newly unemployed and still haunted by the disappearance of her childhood friend, is returning to her Appalachian hometown. For Nicola, Tyndall County has remained frozen in time. Everywhere she turns she’s reminded of Lauren. Yet shockingly, her former friends and neighbors have all moved on. Drawn to stories of missing girls, Nicola obsessively searches the internet, hoping to discover a clue to Lauren’s ultimate fate.


Driven by a desperate need to know what happened to her friend, Nicola takes a job in her hometown, determined to uncover any bit of information, any small clue, that can help. Deep down she knows the answers are tucked in the hollows and valleys of this small Blue Ridge county. As secrets come to light and the truth begins to unravel, will Nicola finally find release and break free of the past—or lose herself completely to unanswered questions from her adolescence?


The Good Ones

I’m a born and raised rural North Carolina girl myself (from Nags Head, if you can believe it) and lived several years out in the Appalachian Mountains. The way you build out the setting of Tyndall County, Virginia is so painstakingly familiar and real. I know Tyndall County doesn’t exist per se, but in so many ways, it does. How did your own hometown and upbringing influence how you shaped the locations in The Good Ones?


I'm so glad you felt that way, especially as someone who has lived in this part of the country! Tyndall County is absolutely a real place for me, even though it isn’t. I was born and grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and my dad's family goes back generations in the southwest corner of the state. However, like a lot of kids, all I wanted when I was growing up was to get out of my hometown. I was nerdy and introverted and always had my nose in a book, and I imagined all these other places I could live where I thought I’d be surrounded by people like me. I did finally get out and I was gone for about fifteen years, but then I got a job offer very close to the town where I grew up. My husband and I were living in California at the time, and our son had just been diagnosed with special needs, so we really wanted to live closer to our families. Also I missed the Blue Ridge—I’d always loved the landscape here, and I wrote about it obsessively when I was gone. That homecoming in 2015 was the starting point for The Good Ones. Even though my move was more voluntary than Nicola’s, I understand her ambivalence about it. There’s a sense in which coming back to the place where you grew up will always feel a bit retrogressive.


No spoilers here, but I audibly gasped and shrieked as I raced through the last few chapters! When writing The Good Ones, did you know where you wanted the story to end from the outset, or did it find its own ending along the way?


Thank you so much for saying that, and I wish I could take credit for having a master plan, but I honestly had no such thing. The ending came to me pretty suddenly, and I just followed where the story seemed to be leading. I’m so happy when people tell me they were surprised by it, and I think it’s because I was surprised too!


I have to ask, how did you come up with all the usernames for the true crime Redditors?


That is a question I’ve never heard before! I’ve actually never spent much time on Reddit—I did dip my toes in while I was researching that section and tried to get a flavor for the sorts of names you’d see on there, but I was also thinking of the names that my thirteen-year-old stepson and his friends use when they’re gaming. They’re supposed to be tough and impressive, but they make me laugh every time I hear them.


What was it that sparked your own interest in true crime? Was there a specific story that drew you in?


The real inspiration for what happens to Lauren was the story of the Springfield Three. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but it’s a case where these three women disappeared in the middle of the night in Springfield, Missouri in 1992—a mother, her daughter, and the daughter’s friend. That story always haunted me, and then I ended up living in Springfield in my early thirties, so then I got even more interested in trying to figure out what happened. It’s been over thirty years now and it’s still unsolved, and no trace of them has ever been found. To me, that one case really encapsulates all that’s both right and wrong with the true crime industry. On the one hand, it’s great to still have attention on cold cases that might be forgotten otherwise, but on the other, there’s this temptation to treat them as entertainment or narrative puzzles that doesn’t fully acknowledge that the victims were real people. I wanted to explore both sides of that dilemma in The Good Ones.


Generally speaking, The Good Ones is an authentic, gripping murder mystery. However, the novel also deals intimately and expertly with issues of class, race, sexuality, and rural politics. I would argue it's as much about class as it is about crime. Did you approach the story with that intent, or did you find that to write about small-town Appalachia, you must, in turn, also write about class?


It was probably more the latter. I am emphatically not a pantser in general, but so much of this novel did come to me in the writing process. I decided to write about a scenario that really interested me in a setting I loved, and I put people in it that seemed like people I would know in real life, and then everything kind of followed from there. The one thing I did know from the beginning was that the novel was going to deal with gender roles, and in particular white Southern masculinity.


Do you consider Nicola to be an unreliable narrator?


I do, but I think I have a more generous interpretation of the term unreliable narrator than a lot of people do. Nicola isn’t mentally ill or more morally compromised than the average person, but she is a bit self-absorbed, and she’s deeply limited by the fact that she can only see her own perspective in most situations. I always tell my students that all of us are unreliable in some sense when we try to tell our own stories.


Towards the end of the novel, there is a brilliant line about who really held the pen in this narrative. On that note, do you consider the story even to be Nicola’s?


I think Nicola is mistaken in thinking she can put herself at the center of this story. She tends to think of most situations as things that happened to her, even when another person is clearly more affected than she was. In another interview, someone asked me if I would be friends with her in real life, and I said I would, but she’s one of those people where you’d constantly have to be saying, “This isn’t about you!” Honestly, I’m that person some of the time, so I try not to judge her too harshly.


As much as The Good Ones is about true crime, it seems also to be a comment on the pitfalls of true crime obsession and web sleuths. Do you feel the contemporary fixation on true crime has altered the crime writing genre?


That’s probably true, but I don’t think it’s something that could or even should be reversed. Crime is a part of life, and most people who don’t actually experience violence in their own lives spend a lot of time worrying about it and/or trying to avoid it. It makes sense that as our way of conceptualizing crime in real life changes, the way we imagine it in fiction would alter as well. I am getting kind of sick of crime novels that involve true-crime podcasts, but then I absolutely loved Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions for You, so I wouldn’t want to make any pronouncements about what works and doesn’t work.


In what ways do you see The Good Ones reimagining the Southern Gothic?


It’s so interesting to me that the term Southern Gothic has come up so often when people talk about the novel. I am from the South, but I’m pretty poorly educated in Southern literature, and it’s not really something I was thinking of when I was writing. I teach British literature, so I was thinking a lot about that kind of Gothic, and particularly Jane Eyre. I’ve taught that novel many times, and I’m endlessly fascinated what it seems to be saying about female agency and unruly women. Now that I’ve said that, I do have to admit that I went through a big Faulkner phase in college and his work is definitely baked into my subconscious. It’s been years since I’ve read it, but his novel Sanctuary is a touchstone for me when I think about masculinity and race and violence— all subjects I was trying to explore in The Good Ones.


In younger kids, especially girls, queer feelings and desires tend to be passed off as an adolescent phase. We know Erika and Nicola come to embrace their queerness despite their conservative upbringings. What about Jessi and Lauren? Do you consider either of them to be queer?


I’m glad you see Nicola as embracing her queer identity. I think she gets there by the end of the novel, but it’s a struggle for her, since for much of the story, being accepted is much more important to her than being true to who she is. I think Lauren could best be described as a sexual opportunist—she probably doesn’t even really know who she’s attracted to, since she’s so accustomed to seeing sex as a power game. I hadn’t thought about it in Jessi’s case. Now I want to write a sequel about her and figure out who she’s dating!


Who are the good ones?


I think on a surface level, it refers to the Ballard brothers, Warren and Sean. They’re both goodlooking athletes from a wealthy family, so they have that completely unearned confidence that comes from being born into a certain milieu. The bar is so incredibly low for guys like that, so to me at least, the title is pretty ironic.


And last but not least, where can readers get their hands on your fantastic debut novel, The Good Ones?


I love independent bookstores, so I’d always recommend them first. Bookshop.org is great too, and then there are the big book retailers. I hope people enjoy it, wherever they find a copy!


The Good Ones

Polly Stewart is the author of The Good Ones, forthcoming from Harper Books in June 2023. As Mary Stewart Atwell, she's also the author of Wild Girls (Scribner 2012). Her essays have appeared in the New York Times and Poets & Writers, among other publications. She runs the Craft of Crime Fiction interview series, formerly published on Fiction Writers Review and now appearing on Instagram.


Polly's Instagram: @pollystewartbooks




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