By Mary Sollosi
February 19, 2021 at 08:00 AM EST
Advertisement

As Alexandra Andrews wrote her debut novel, Who Is Maud Dixon?, there were two beloved female authors on her mind. The first was Patricia Highsmith — she was rereading The Talented Mr. Ripley at the time — whose influence comes through clearly in Andrews' stylish, twisty thriller. The second was slightly more meta. "It was also around the time that Elena Ferrante fever was at a pitch," she says of the pseudonymous author. "I was fascinated with everyone's fascination with her real identity."

That mystery gave Andrews, 36, the premise for her tale, which begins when Florence, a young aspiring novelist, gets a job as assistant to the reclusive, celebrated writer "Maud Dixon," whose true identity is a well-guarded secret. Florence becomes obsessed with her employer (real name, Helen Wilcox), but when the two travel to Morocco on a research trip, Helen vanishes — leaving her entire life, including her highly valuable pen name, up for grabs.

Credit: Andrew De Francesco; Little, Brown

A former journalist and "frustrated writer" herself, Andrews worked through some of her own anxieties in the creation of Florence, whose reflections — on what it means to have ambition, to seek inspiration, to be a writer — run throughout the book. "It's a novel about identity: How do we change the person who we are [into] someone we want to be?" Andrews says, though "[Florence's] ambition is much more like desperation." She wanted to follow a character in their tumultuous 20s who refused to resign themselves to a realistic, practical future; "I wanted to watch somebody like Florence say, 'No, I'm not going to settle for my Plan B. I'm going after my Plan A, come hell or high water.'"

The drama hinges on the intense, dangerous relationship between an initially wide-eyed Florence and the glamorous, arrogant Helen, whom the author describes as "a more extreme version of a lot of sharp, ambitious women that I have known over the years, [though] in Helen that confidence sort of curdles into something much darker." Readers may get the chance to see the writerly duo's tête-à-tête play out on the big screen as well as on the page; Universal Pictures snapped up the rights to the novel ahead of publication, with The Post screenwriter Liz Hannah set to adapt and direct. Andrews describes the interest from Hollywood as "so, so, so surreal… I'm still sort of shocked that I finished it, to be honest!"

The film version of Maud Dixon should be a fitting showcase for the often-snappy dialogue between Florence and Helen, which Andrews admits was her favorite part of the writing process. "Women learn these very complex ways of relating to one another… and so much of it comes down to language," she says. "It's like very subtle warfare." And with that, she picks up her pen, still very much mightier than the sword.

Related content:

Comments