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Liz Moore on her novel 'The God of the Woods'


Liz Moore's new novel, "The God Of The Woods, " opens with a jolt - not something that appears, but someone who is missing. It's dawn in August 1975 in the cabin of a summer camp in the Adirondack Mountains, and we'll ask the author to pick up that moment.

LIZ MOORE: (Reading) The bed is empty. Louise, the counselor, 23, short limbed, rasp voice, jolly, stands barefoot on the warm rough planks of the cabin called Balsam and processes the absence of a body in the lower bunk by the door. Later on, the 10 seconds that pass between sight and inference will serve to her as evidence that time is a human construct, that it can slow or accelerate in the presence of emotion, of chemicals in the blood. The bed is empty. Louise turns slowly in a circle, naming the girls she can see - Melissa, Melissa, Jennifer, Michelle, Amy (ph), Caroline, Tracy (ph), Kim - eight campers, nine beds. She counts and counts again. At last, when she can no longer defer it, she lets one name bob to the surface of her mind, Barbara.

SIMON: "The God Of The Woods" is the latest novel from Liz Moore, author of the bestseller "Long Bright River." She joins us now from our member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Thank you so much for being with us.

MOORE: Thank you, Scott. It's truly an honor to be here.

SIMON: What a book. The missing camper is Barbara Van Laar. She's from a prominent family. And her older brother, Bear, disappeared 16 years before.

MOORE: Yeah, that's right. So this story functions kind of as a dual mystery with an upstairs-downstairs theme at the heart of it because the wealthy dynastic Van Laar family - who are fictional - own basically a mansion in the wilderness that they built in the late 1800s, and they also own a summer camp just down the hill from that house.

So at the start of the novel, as you heard, their 13-year-old daughter goes missing from that camp. But she's not the first child of theirs to go missing because earlier, her older brother, Bear, also went missing from the same grounds. So there are lots of questions about whether this prominent family had something to do with the disappearance of both of their children.

But there's also a lot of local people who come from the working-class community nearby and who staff the camp who also come under suspicion. And so everybody's sort of asking, did both children go missing for the same reason or by the same force? Or was it two different things that caused them to go missing? And, of course, where are they now?

SIMON: And there's a looming presence of a guy called Slitter, isn't there?

MOORE: There is, yeah. So Jacob Sluiter, whose nickname is Slitter - it functions as a kind of like living ghost story for all the campers and the counselors in the 1970s. And he's fictional, but he's based on a real serial killer named Robert Garrow, who haunted the Adirondacks in the 1970s and who kind of haunted my imagination as a kid, although he died just before I was born.

SIMON: Your father used to invoke him, right?

MOORE: Yeah. My mother's family - my maternal ancestors - come from the Adirondacks. And my mother was born and raised just south of there. My dad is not from there, but he loves to tell a ghost story. And he has no problem - or he had no problem when I was growing up, scaring his children and now his grandchildren. And so he delighted in telling us all about the scary things that happened in the Adirondacks for many generations, including Robert Garrow, this real-life serial killer who escaped incarceration and for whom there was a manhunt not once but twice. And that's who the Jacob Sluiter character was based on.

SIMON: As the story goes on, we learn that young Barbara did not have a happy home and family life, did she?

MOORE: No. Her family has very, very rigid ideas about everything from gender roles to social class. And Barbara is an outlier. She has embraced the world of punk music very, very early. It's 1975, so just the very beginnings of the punk movement are occurring. And she dresses in a way that looks very strange, especially to her mother, who has really specific ideas about femininity and the way that her daughter should look and act.

And unfortunately, she's seen as sort of a replacement for the child who went missing, who was a golden child in the Van Laars family. He was 8 years old. He was outdoorsy. He was a beautiful child. He was everything the Van Laars could have wished for. And when he disappeared, they had another child in their grief, but she has gone in the complete opposite direction. So she's really struggling within her family.

SIMON: Tell us about one of the officers assigned to the case, Officer Judy Luptack.

MOORE: Yeah, I did a little bit of research in the writing of this novel about the first crop of female investigators in New York state was also the first crop of female investigators in the nation. And so Judy is a fictional character, but she's based on the women who were among the first to be promoted to the rank of investigators in the state police of New York. And her brother teasingly calls her the nation's first.

She, like many of the women in this book, is up against certain expectations about the way she should look and act. But also, by virtue of the fact that she's a woman, she's able to access certain information that some of her male colleagues are not able to access. And certain characters in the book trust her in a way that they don't trust the men.

SIMON: Help us understand the divisions between the camp families and the townies.

MOORE: Yeah, I became really, really interested in the history of the creation of the Adirondack Park Preserve, which happened in the late 1800s. For many years, the Adirondacks were kind of ravaged by the logging industry and were fairly unprotected from an environmental standpoint.

Only when very wealthy families like the Roosevelts, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers began to discover the beauty of the Adirondacks and began to make summer homes in the Adirondacks did the government of New York state suddenly become interested in environmental conservation, which, of course, was a morally complex issue because it put pressure on the many working-class people who had made their living off the land.

And so the book aims to tell a really good story, but underneath it is this theme of class tension. And so the Van Laars represent this wealthy family who've made a home of the land and who embrace the environment and who embrace conservation but only insofar as it serves them, whereas some of the more working-class characters have suddenly found themselves out of work after generations of making a living from the land. All of that is kind of at play in the background of the novel.

SIMON: You, very skillfully, settle suspicions on a number of characters within the course of a story. And I found myself thinking - especially in this time of the popularity of true crime stories - people can convince themselves of many possibilities, can't we?

MOORE: Yeah, it's a fun exercise for me to never outline a novel. That's my practice because it lets me discover things at the same time that the reader does. Of course, I go back and draft and redraft and redraft. But I love hearing from readers that certain twists were a complete surprise to them, but that they felt earned or that they didn't feel implausible.

That's my great ambition whenever I write a mystery - is to keep people guessing and to have them feel the sensation of surprise but also to feel satisfied that oh, this could really happen. And the best way that I know to do that is by not knowing the answers myself as I enter the writing of a book.

SIMON: Liz Moore's new novel, "The God Of The Woods." Thank you so much for being with us.

MOORE: Thank you, Scott. It's been a joy to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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