Mariah Fredericks is the author of “The Girl in the Park,” our April Book Club pick. The book, a mystery set in an elite Manhattan private school, is easy to read yet thought-provoking and engaging — especially for teens still navigating the socially stratified nature of high school. The lessons learned by Fredericks’ protagonist Rain are important for teens: listen, observe, find your voice. Since “The Girl in the Park” is also an engrossing whodunit, it’s entertaining to try to solve the central crime before the “big reveal” at the novel’s climax. The clues are there, you just have to look and listen like Rain did.
As native New Yorkers (now living elsewhere), Sandie and I appreciated and enjoyed the many references to familiar sites in Manhattan (Sandie went to Columbia, so she particularly loved that Rain lived in Morningside Heights). We also understood the attitudes of Manhattanites toward those live off the island. In fact, we still know many adults who refuse to consider anything over a bridge or tunnel worth visiting or knowing.
After you read Mariah’s Q&A, read our reviews of “The Girl in the Park” and our giveaway for five copies of the book!
When Wendy Geller’s body is found in Central Park after the night of a rager, newspaper headlines scream,”Death in the Park: Party Girl Found Strangled.” But shy Rain, once Wendy’s best friend, knows there was more to Wendy than just “party girl.” As she struggles to separate the friend she knew from the tangle of gossip and headlines, Rain becomes determined to discover the truth about the murder. Written in a voice at once immediate, riveting, and utterly convincing, Mariah Fredericks’ mystery brilliantly exposes the cracks in this exclusive New York City world and the teenagers that move within it.
What made you decide to do a “whodunit”? I was thrilled and surprised when an earlier novel of mine, Crunch Time, was nominated for an Edgar. It is a whodunit in a sense, but it didn’t really occur to me I was writing a mystery. I have enormous respect for mystery writers. They make a unique deal with the reader. Can you figure out where I’m going? What do you feel this character would do or not do? So I wanted to try it again. Plus, my mother was a mystery junkie. The shelves in our house were crammed with Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, and Agatha Christie. It was nice to write something that she would have particularly enjoyed.
How did you go about mapping out the plot and the clues that would be revealed along the way?
What kind of research did you do into the way journalism and crime detection works in this kind of scenario? How did I map out the clues? Not very well, at first, to be honest. Because Rain was a “listener,” I wanted most of the clues to be verbal, things people let slip or gossip that comes to her. But that gets very convenient after a while—”I overheard so and so say she could have killed her!”—so I had to add some tangible element she could track herself. That’s where the E pin came in. Let’s just say it will be a long time before I write another book where jewelry is the central piece of the puzzle!
Was it difficult to hold the coming-of-age aspect together with the mystery aspect of the book? Not at all. The mystery was based loosely on the Jennifer Levin murder in the 80s. I had a very strong reaction to that case, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about that emotional reaction and grow beyond it. It hit a nerve with a lot of people. So it seemed natural in this story to intertwine Rain’s emotional journey with her need to speak for Wendy and identify her killer.
Did you go to a Alcott-like Manhattan private school like Dalton or Calhoun? If not, how did you research the nuances like how upper-crust Manhattan kids feel about “middle class” classmates and the outerboroughs? Bingo—you got it. I went to Calhoun. And I knew exactly how upper crust Manhattan kids felt about the “outerboroughs” because as a kid, I was a dreadful little snot who didn’t acknowledge anyone not living on the island as a New Yorker. Slap me 17 times. Fittingly, since I graduated and started paying my own bills, I have always lived in the “outerboroughs.” So I’ve experienced it from both sides.
Why did you set the story amid the “Gossip Girl” world instead of, say, a more middle-class and relatable group of New York students? Part of the hysteria over the Jennifer Levin case stemmed from the fact that—in the official story at least—she and Robert Chambers were kids who “had it all.” Money, private school, looks. They became emblematic of upper class decadence, of how we were literally spoiling our children. So wealth was part of the story. Rain, however, I see as slightly different. She’s definitely comfortable, but not wealthy in the same sense. For that and many reasons, she has an outsider’s perspective.
Did you name Alcott after Louisa May Alcott, or just because it sounded like a posh name? Both. 🙂 It sounded posh, but also has overtones of progressive and Americana that I think appeals to families who attend those schools.
As the story went on, Rain found her voice but also that there is a power in silence and listening. Do you think “listening” is undervalued in today’s teen culture? I remember spending endless hours on the phone, listening to my friends. I suspect today’s kids are similar. I remember my sister, after she noticed her daughter had spent an entire weekend on her phone, texting and talking, telling her, “You need to learn how to be by yourself.” I feel like kids today put a huge value on their social connections. Of course, listening is very different from understanding. Rain gets into trouble when she jumps to conclusions. She only makes progress when she realizes she has to listen to what is and just hear what she wants to. That I think is lacking across the board in our society. We decide what a person is really saying before the words are even out of their mouth. We make assumptions on people based on soundbites. And many of those assumptions can be quite harsh.
Social media/technology plays a big role in how Rain investigates the murder. Do you think teens should be more aware of what they put out there for others to see? Has social media/texting changed the social caste system of high school? I could be very wrong, but I’m not sure it matters in terms of how they may be seen by colleges or employers. I think we all know that kids present one way to peers and another way to adults. If a kid is posting about his constant pot smoking, the college or employer is probably going to see he’s a pot head without having to check his Facebook page. But I do think it matters when it provides another way for people to be cruel to one another. It allows people to put negative images of themselves or others out in the world in electronic type—as opposed to the old methods of whispers and writing on the bathroom wall. I’m stunned by the level of anger and nastiness I see on the internet. I can’t imagine that doesn’t have an impact on the social caste system of high school. I do think, given the random cruelty of the internet, you should be aware of how much of yourself you put out in a public forum, the same way you’re aware when you’re walking down a dark street late at night. Remember your vulnerability. And you should be aware of how much negativity you contribute.
Tell us about the process to get this book published. How long did it take to birth your book, from inception to publish date? I just looked at my old files. In November of 2009, I wrote an opening scene of Rain with her speech therapist. It’s profoundly creepy and I’m sorry it never made it into the final book. That went on to be sixty pages of the mystery. Anne Schwartz and I had been trying to work together for a while. I really admired her as an editor and she liked my work. Happily, she liked the 60 pages and we had our project. Because it was a mystery, there were a lot of complexities I hadn’t counted on, and Anne was very helpful in working those out. I think it took more than a year to get the final manuscript. And then of course, almost another year to publication because the publishing house has to work its magic.
Was the story of the Girl in the Park “ripped from the headlines,” like on “Law & Order”? Was it inspired by true events at all? Yes. It was inspired by the 1986 murder of a girl named Jennifer Levin. She was found in Central Park, strangled. Almost immediately, Robert Chambers, a boy she had dated, confessed to killing her. But he claimed it was self defense because Jennifer was sexually aggressive. He weighed over 200 pounds; if she weighed 100, I’d be surprised. Nonetheless, his lawyers ran with the wild party girl image and people ended up very confused as to who was to blame: Robert for killing her or Jennifer for…being young and making some of the same dumb moves most of us make when we’re young. There were photos of her at clubs. Her diary was published to show her wild lifestyle. Totally unfair and ugly. But it worked. It was a hung jury. People bought Robert Chambers’s story, and he pled guilty to a lesser charge.
I remember the case well because I initially fell for the hype. Two rich kids party, one ends up dead—eh, who cares? I really judged Jennifer in an unfair way. Then a friend pointed out that it’s not actually a crime to be young, pretty, and have boyfriends. So I have Wendy going through a similar smear campaign after she’s killed.
Who are some of your all-time favorite YA authors? Many people writing today, but for “all-time” I will go with the ones I read as a young adult. Paul Zindel, Robert Cormier, the wonderful Paula Danziger, Louise Fitzhugh. And of couse, Judy Blume. I just reread several of her books and I was horrified to see how much I had stolen from her. Unconsciously, I swear!