In the opening pages of Lindsay Hunter’s explosive Hot Springs Drive, readers learn a few simple facts: Jackie and Theresa have been friends since giving birth on the same day fifteen years earlier, Jackie later had an affair with Theresa’s husband, and Theresa was later brutally murdered in her garage. What follows is a moving exploration of what led up to the shocking act of violence and its ripple effects on the characters’ lives years later. Hunter tells the story through a chorus of voices, from the family members most affected to peripheral community figures who observed from afar. The result is a compassionate and haunting examination of friendship, complicated family dynamics, and desire that has earned rapturous praise from critics. The Washington Post hailed Hot Springs Drive as a “gripping psychological thriller that is both a character study and a twisting combination of lust and tension” while Publishers Weekly noted that “Hunter’s masterwork hits all the right notes.” Hunter spoke to us about the origins of her novel, playing with time, and writing during the pandemic. Note: the interview contains some mild spoilers about information the reader learns halfway through the novel.
I wanted to start by asking what sparked the idea for Hot Springs Drive. Did you begin with a character or a specific relationship?
I’m just going to go ahead and use spoilers because it’s hard to talk about it otherwise. it was definitely the relationship between Jackie, the main character, and her son Douglas. This book is based on a real murder that I heard about on a “Dateline NBC” episode that completely shocked me, because I couldn’t imagine a son killing for his mother and, you know, probably prompted by her in some way. I had been thinking a lot about codependent relationships between parents and children. I thought, “Oh, this is an opportunity for me to write about that, to see how far I can push it and try to understand it better. And to try to understand what in the world happened in this home with this mother and her son that led to him violently killing his mother’s best friend.” So it started with that relationship. The murder was secondhand in the first draft I was really just interested in that [relationship) and who Jackie was. In revision, it became more about the central act of violence and everything leading up to it and everything that comes after. But yeah, it was Jackie and her strange relationship with her son.
Thinking about that there’s so much of the book is like characters observing each other whether it and I guess it comes into play with kind of like this symphony of voices that that narrate the book. How did that part come into it? Did you always know that you wanted to have the story, told by this huge swath of people?
Yeah, I did. I wanted to give people everything all at once, because that’s how I felt when I was done listening to the [“Dateline”] episode, trying to process what I had just heard. I was thinking of everything all at once. I was thinking of the family. I was thinking of the victim and her family. I was thinking of the relationship. I was thinking of the violence itself. I was thinking of the community. I was thinking of the neighborhood. I wanted people to be able to grasp that all at once.
Another thing is that Jackie is honest with you as much as she’s able, but we need other glimpses of her, because she’s not telling the actual truth—and people rarely do. (laughs) I wanted to give as much of [the story] as I could by offering perspectives to everyone involved, even if they’re fourth in line—not secondary, not tertiary, but completely outside everything. Because I think those are really informative viewpoints. I think those can add to this feeling of collective humanity, and that was the feeling I was trying to create.
I’m fascinated by how you play with time in the book. The second chapter gives us this very concise, sweeping description of Theresa’s life the reader frequently gets these glimpses into the future of different characters’ lives. How did the element of playing with time come into the book?
In my initial draft, I was jumping around in time a lot more so. Theresa would be alive, she’d be dead, she’d be alive again. The boys would be grown up, they’d be boys again. What I thought it was doing was showing you how time can collapse. That’s something that I think about a lot. Prior to this I had written what I thought was my motherhood novel and what I was also calling was my collage novel. I’m not sure if this was just aging or if it was becoming a parent, but time had started to change for me. I could feel myself being a child at the same moment that I’m a mother at the same moment that I’m suddenly able to access my future self, looking back. And all of it was happening all at once. It was this uncanny, meaningful, sometimes terrifying feeling. So I had this this novel that I had written that moved forward in time for two of the characters and backward in time for the other character. Time and our perception of time was just really interesting to me. When I moved on to this novel, I was still really processing that. I wanted to be able to capture that feeling, that our perception of time is limited. It’s much deeper than then we know. These little feelings we get sometimes—and I think we all get them—they matter and they’re informative.
But in the first draft, it was much less chronological. I honestly thought at times, “Oh, people can just shuffle the pages together and reread it in a different order.” In revision, it wasn’t as meaningful. After having some time and space away from the book and coming back to it and reading it in a more objective way, I was like, “Oh, this is actually distancing me from what the core of this narrative is.” So I had to go back and rework it in a more chronological way. But I always want to give this feeling—like those little glimpses into the future that you mentioned—that what’s happening now is meaningful now and it’s going to be meaningful later.
That makes me think of how the reader knows early on that Theresa will be brutally murdered, and then you spend time in the first half of the book interacting with her and for me, at least, just falling in love with her. I think that creates an immediacy that’s counter to that distancing you were talking about.
Yeah, and that chapter that you referenced—the chapter of Theresa’s life in, I don’t know, five pages—that came about in the revision. It wasn’t there at first. I think it was my feeling that counter to my intention of moving away from like the sort of tropey, formulaic true crime episode, I had put her into this sort of stereotypical silent victim [role]. And so I thought, “I don’t even know as much about her as I want to.” That was my way of giving that to myself and giving that to the book.
Stylistically, that chapter reminded me of your first collection of stories and your background in flash fiction. Is that something that you’re still playing with in in the novel form?
Definitely. I think that my skills in flash fiction help me in every novel, because it’s forced me to be as efficient as possible and to get the heart of what I’m trying to write. That doesn’t always work. I mean, there’s a lot of times when I’m writing and I’m just spinning my wheels. Later, I see, “Oh, it was actually this one sentence that I was trying to get out and there’s 1000 words here.” (laughs) But it’s helped me write these longer things in small achievable bites. It’s helped me take confidence in the fact that I can do this. I do have a method. I definitely use my flash fiction background all the time when I’m writing. Now, having said that, I haven’t been able to write a very short story in so long. (laughs) The last short story I wrote was 1000 words. I just lost that skill. I need to teach myself again, because I do miss it.
In your acknowledgments you talk about how you wrote this book during the pandemic, and that meant writing in your car or while one of your kids was in virtual school. You also mention that this is the first book that you’ve written in your forties. Can you talk more about what the process was like and what it means to you to write this novel at this moment in your life?
It’s everything. It’s a miracle, is what I feel. When I first started pursuing a writing career, I thought, “I’ve got to write a novel and publish it before I’m twenty-five or I’m a failure.” I remember I even had like a blogspot that I titled, “Trying To Finish Before I’m Twenty-Five.” I would challenge myself to write a chapter and you could watch me write my novel in real time. With that writing, I got into grad school, so at least it wasn’t a waste, but I’ve always felt this pressure of producing and making. There has always felt like there’s these arbitrary age goals. I think that’s because there’s so much publicity for young writers, there’s so many awards for young writers. It’s this weird thing that we really laud in the in the publishing industry, youth and beauty. I beat myself up about that all the time. I’m forty-three and I tell myself that I’m going to have to fight tooth and nail to stay relevant.
Those are things that come from inside my own self-doubt. They come from my interpretation of the industry. They come from my brain lying to me, my brain telling me the truth, it’s all of it. But when I sit down and just focus on making something, all of that goes away. The pandemic was a really scary, sad time and at the time, I couldn’t even process how sad and scary it was. All those feelings are coming back now and realizing how sad and scary it was. But if I could carve out an hour—if it was early, early, early in the morning, if it was sitting in the car pretending to use the bathroom, whatever it was—if I could keep working on this thing I was making that meant a lot to me, then I was holding on to this really essential part of myself.
I’ve come to realize as an adult—and that’s funny that I’m saying I’m an adult as if I wasn’t in my twenties, but I do think I was kind of an idiot then—I’ve come to realize that as much as it’s important for me to move my body and work on my strength for my mental health, it’s really important for me to write. Because if I’m not writing, that stuff starts to build up in me like kidney stones. So that’s how I care for myself, by making sure that I’m honoring that part of myself.
Given the vantage point that the book has in terms of looking back on people’s lives and the relationship that these two women have, does this feel like a book you could only have written now?
I mean, I hate admitting that. I never want to say, “So-and-so can’t write from whatever perspective.” I was just thinking about Rumaan Alam’s That Kind Of Mother. I remember reading his description of childbirth and thinking, “I’ve never read someone who understands it so fully,” and he’s a man! He’s never given birth. He does have children, but I would never want to say, “Well, he’s a man so he shouldn’t write that,” right? Or “I shouldn’t have tried to write this when I was in my twenties. But I do think that there has been some seasoning. (laughs) I remember telling one of my professors way back when I was in grad school, “I know that I can write, I just don’t feel like I have something.” And he was like, “You don’t have the chops yet.” And I thought, “Yes, exactly. I need the chops.” (laughs) I think those are what you get when you live and you challenge yourself and you have to continually convince yourself to do it and that you can do it. So I would say it would have been a very different book if I had tried to write this in my twenties.
I look back on my first collection Daddy’s. There are a lot of monstrous babies in that book. I must have really been thinking about having children in a way that I wasn’t aware of. I would never probably write babies like that now that I’m a mother, but I also hate admitting that because again, I don’t ever want to say, “Oh, you’re not a fully formed person until XYZ,” right? But yeah, I think it just would have been really different.
The first half of the novel leads us up to the murder and then the second half explores all the characters’ lives afterwards. Can you talk about how that structure emerged?
I think that’s what’s really interesting to me about events like this. Of course, in the moment and in the immediate afterward, it’s traumatizing and chaotic and horrible and confusing, but I wanted to know what the lasting effects are. I wanted to stay with these characters as much as possible. Like I said, in my first draft, there were those jumps forward in time but they were in different orders. When I smoothed it out in revision and put everything chronologically, that’s when it kind of fell into that part one, part two, and there’s a part three that has a present and it also goes back into the past, right around the time for violence happens.
I just wanted to give everything. I wanted to give the crime and the affair. I wanted to give how it affected everybody later. I knew people would want to see what Jackie was up to. They would want to know what the boys were up to, what Cece was up to. It was hard for me to accept that it was okay for it to be chronological, because it felt like I was giving up something. But actually, as I started to shape it that way, [I found] it was really enhancing it and opening up these other opportunities for characters to speak in the future. I’ve heard from some readers that they love part one and they don’t understand part two, or they love part two and part one was too slow. It’s fun to see it be all over the board like that. But I think the overall effects that I was going for was just this intense view of the consequences.
This book made me think about our culture’s fascination with true crime, especially how the second half really seems to be examining the realities of these events that are featured in podcasts or a “Dateline” episode.
And, you know, there are some really, really great true crime podcasts that do that. they kind of like it’s something you have the podcasts that that are reexamining unsolved crimes, and some of those are real garbage because it’s just like a dude driving around and being like, “I guess I’ll pull up to the trailer. Let’s see if they’ll let me in.” And then the person doesn’t let him in. It’s a lot of that, but there’s also these other really great ones that show you who the person is now and then reveal who they were at the time of the crime. And I love that. I really love that.
I love the notion in any form of literature, or any form of art, that the end is not the end, that it’s going to linger. As a reader, you’re going to be thinking about these things and going back over them. Even getting frustrated, I think, is a very valuable feeling as a reader. I know I’m not in the majority there, but I think it offers a chance to stay a little longer with the story.
Based on reactions that you’ve posted on Instagram, a lot of readers seem to be talking about the sex scenes. Especially in a time where we talk about how sex scenes are not being shown in movies or TV as much anymore, what was it like for you to explore how these characters are revealing about themselves in the sex scenes?
I always love this question, because did you listen to You Must Remember This — Erotic 80s and Erotic 90s?
Karina Longworth’s amazing. I had never really pondered that sex or eroticism is kind of disappearing [from pop culture] and trying to figure out why or the political reasons for it. I know there’s been some talk about how the younger generation is kind of icked by sex scenes, and why that might be. But this is a book very much about bodies, like a literal dead body and then just bodies. I think one of the most informative tools a writer has is a sex scene. You can really show where the character is, what the character is trying to come off like, what the character is searching for, what the character needs, what they’re demanding, what the characters are together.
Also the kind of affair that Jackie and Adam have, it can scramble your brain. That was an important part of Jackie’s arc: she was in this very physical, torrid affair and she was getting something important out of it, but it was also changing into this other thing. It was crucial for us to see that so that we could understand what comes later. Theresa finds them and they’re tearing at each other. They don’t really want it anymore, but they don’t know how to back out of it. I just I think those are really important, base human interesting things to explore in literature and film.
Also, those scenes illuminate their world. There’s something so visceral about them.
My editor Roxane Gay when she read the first draft—poor Roxane, it was very rough, very raw, and it was not finished, so God bless her for still wanting to buy it. But that scene [where Jackie and Adam are] in the front seat, it’s one of the grossest, most carnal of the sex scenes. They’ve just had it with each other, but they also still really want each other. She just highlighted that and was like, “More of this.” I mean, Roxane herself is a very good writer of sex scenes, but just she got it. She understood.
I recently interviewed Laura Sims, and while How Can I Help You and Hot Springs Drive are totally different books, they are both compact, economical novels. When I interviewed her she talked about her love of the “short, weird novel,.” I wanted to hear from you about what you enjoy about working in such an economical frame?
I am also a big proponent of short novels. There are a lot of long books that I enjoy, but I think you can do less and make more. It goes hand in hand with that feeling I’m trying to create where not every question is answered, not every door is closed. I’ve heard from so many readers who were like, “But what about [these two characters]? Did they end up together?” I don’t want to answer that. I want you to think about it. I want to give you just enough. I want your imagination to work. I want your life experience to be working hand in hand with what you’re reading. I just think it can create a more efficient sense of ambivalence almost. I know that’s got a negative connotation, but I think it’s so great when a book sticks with you like that, and I think short books often do because they don’t give you everything.
I think it makes the reader work harder in terms of,filling in the gaps based on what’s been presented.
I think also, in some cases, when a book is really polished, I can see too clearly the writer’s contrivances. I think that’s because of being in the industry for so long. I remember when I was a theater kid and taking classes, they said, “You’ll never be able to watch a movie again in a normal way, because you’ll constantly be thinking about the choices that everyone made.” And they were right. (laughs) And that’s how it is to become a writer. Even though reading is my life and I read all the time, I’m always thinking of those kinds of things. I want there to be space for me. I know that lots of readers don’t feel that way. But that’s what feeds me, and that’s what I’m thinking of when I’m writing.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tags: Lindsay Hunter