By Seija Rankin
February 10, 2020 at 11:00 AM EST
Nancy Borowick / Macmillan

Saint X is captivating right from the jump. It opens on a Caribbean island of the same name, where American families have descended in droves to celebrate a tropical holiday but something feels very, very wrong. The book, part character study and part mystery, covers the death (and potential murder) of teenager Alison Thomas and the aftermath that wreaks havoc on her sister.

It is author Alexis Schaitkin‘s debut novel and on the precipice of becoming one of those literary fairytales — it has already been blessed by one Joyce Carol Oates. But romanticizing the haunting tome’s glowing reception would do a disservice to the fact that it took very real — and very hard — work to come to life. Here, Schaitkin takes EW’s author questionnaire to let us in on her process and divulge the trickiest parts to write.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
ALEXIS SCHAITKIN:
A cookbook I wrote with a friend. We were probably seven. I remember there was a recipe for raspberry soup. Our slogan on the front cover was, “Other chefs haven’t tested their recipes. We have!” We hadn’t.

Which book is at the top of your current to-read list?
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad.

Where do you write?
I live in a small town with one café, and I write there almost every day. I have tried so hard to become someone who can work at home. I have a desk I stained myself, driftwood gray, so I would love it and use it. Above the desk, I have a corkboard covered in inspirational index cards for my next book. None of it helps — I always end up at the café. I find a lot of comfort in doing the solitary work of writing surrounded by other people.

Which book made you a forever reader?
My way into reading was through poetry. I loved Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman and all the small poems by Valerie Worth.

What is a snack you couldn’t write without?
Sugar in all forms. My dream writing spot would be a café with pick and mix candy on premises.

If you could change one thing about any of your books, what would it be?
I can’t name just one thing I would change within the book itself. If I could make changes, it would be endless. But if I could change one thing about how I wrote the book, I would have finished it before our son was born.

Pick a GIF that you think, in this moment, best describes your book/your writing:
Commuting New York City GIF by WNYC - Find & Share on GIPHY

It’s February right now and it’s been sleeting for three days. I like to think Saint X is one-part love letter to miserable city winters.

What is your favorite part of this book?
A sense of place drives everything I write. In Saint X, there are two primary settings. There’s the fictional Caribbean island of Saint X in the 1990s, where Alison Thomas dies on a family vacation. Then there’s Brooklyn in the present day, where Alison’s little sister, Claire, and Clive, who was briefly a suspect in Alison’s death, are living within a few blocks of each other. I like the feeling of movement that switching between these two settings creates in the book: One chapter, you’re at a Caribbean resort; the next, it’s a frigid winter night in Flatbush. But mostly, I like the way these settings are in conversation with each other in the book, the ways they mirror each other. Both places undergo parallel, intense transformations over the decades the novel encompasses.

What was the hardest plot point or character to write in this book?
The middle. Isn’t the middle always the hardest? Once Claire encounters Clive, a man her sister was with on the night of her death, she is unable to stay away from him. But she’s a cautious person — she threads herself into his life slowly and furtively. She observes him, follows him on long walks, and shares quiet meals with him. There is little explicit action; the tension is all about the secrets Claire and Clive are both keeping and about Claire’s slide into obsession. It was some of my favorite material to write, because it’s psychologically intricate — both of these characters are still very much living in the aftermath of this tragedy and everything they lost because of it. But it was a challenge figuring out how to structure it so it didn’t feel static, but sort of relentlessly, stealthily escalating.

Write a movie poster tagline for your book:
One mysterious night on Saint X. A chorus of lives changed forever. That’s terrible, but I think it’s the best I can do!

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