In Margaret’s debut, The Bequest (Scarlet, Oct.), a grad student plunges into a maelstrom of larceny, lies, and murder.
What inspired this novel?
I was in the academic world previously and had an experience about seven years ago in Florence while I was doing historical research in the Medici Grand Ducal Archive and I found this code, an original 16th-century key to ciphered letters. That sparked my interest in coded letters and communications that were happening then, what kind of information would be exchanged that someone would want to keep secret. And that led me to want to write a novel that was a mystery at its core.
When you were studying the 16th century, what surprised you most?
One of my history professors told us that if we wanted to know about how people interacted in the 16th century, we should watch the first Godfather film.
In The Bequest, you seem to be drawing comparisons between the intrigues of characters in your dual timelines—academics in present-day Scotland and then the 16th-century Italians in their correspondence.
I wanted to have the parallel between a lot of intrigues from the past and echo that in the contemporary story. I also wanted to explore this idea of how do we establish the truth about what happens. So I like having multiple versions of the story told by different characters, both in the 16th-century part and in the contemporary one. In that way they echo each other as well.
How did working with Joyce Carol Oates as your thesis adviser for your MFA at NYU change your writing?
She’s a really great reader and a great editor and always knows how to steer students to the best version of their work. And she was very supportive of the novel and gave good advice about both big picture and more specific details. She encouraged us to develop our own authentic voices as writers, and I think that was very important in the beginning, especially coming from academic writing. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have had the opportunity to work with her and learn from her. I remember showing her some early drafts of what became The Bequest and she asked me how long I thought the book was going to be. I said maybe 300, 350 pages and she said, “No!” She said, “Something like this, I’m thinking more like 500, 600. People are going to be very interested in the mysteries and all the complications of this book.” So I actually expanded the story a bit.