KNUCKLEBONES: The Musical

Marni Scofidio discusses her debut novel, KNUCKLEBONES. Now available for pre-order.

Now available for pre-order.

Everything I write is sparked by rage. On my last visit to America, someone I love confided in me that they’d been abused as a child but never told anyone because they didn’t want the family broken up.

That was the most outrageous thing anyone’s ever said to me. But those words brought me Daere and Clary and Felix, inside whom I’ve tried to live, uncomfortable as it’s been.

I wanted to write characters who’ve been through hell—one is treading water, one isn’t—but also to entertain (if nearly gifting a heart attack to one beta-reader is entertainment), to bring the reader through the catharsis of a story with characters s/he might come to care about. I wrote what I love to read.

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I tried to make one of the villains of Knucklebones sympathetic, in that to their (damaged) way of thinking, nothing they do, up to and including murder, hurts others. They simply pursue happiness like the rest of us. In fact, they probably wouldn’t even do what they do were it not for what others have done to them. I know this doesn’t apply to everyone, that some people who commit evil are just plain twats. But that sort of badness doesn’t interest me.

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I’m so squeamish, at times I wonder why I write in this genre: I must be the only writer in the world trying to research decomposition in dead bodies without actually looking at any of the graphic pictures on my search engine. I have to understand the structure of an image, then describe that image in words that might lodge in a reader’s mind like a poem: a trick three of my favourite writers, Ruth Rendell, Ramsey Campbell, and Chet Williamson, are geniuses at.

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Being an incurable pantser, I used to envy writers who could outline. I can’t even visualise, not a full picture of anything: in my rather flaky mind I can just see parts or corners of things. But now I enjoy the not-knowing. I get excited as I work—my subconscious rarely lets me down—and plot twists reveal themselves to me. If I can surprise myself, maybe I can surprise the reader, too.

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It’s a funny old thing, being a multi-national. At times I’ve felt I have no voice, that to be a proper writer you need one country—Joel Lane’s England or Charles Bukowski’s America or John Kennedy Toole’s New Orleans (a country, trust me)—to infuse your work with identity, with a cultural voice.

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The name ‘Daere’ is supposed to derive from a Welsh word that means ‘fiend’. I can’t find any factual basis for this, but maybe someone else will.

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When I was younger I had a stalker, luckily for me, one who was quite easily discouraged. Stalkers are horrendous in real life but I love nothing better in fiction than that sort of incredibly uncomfortable encounter between two people, one deluded, the other unaware.

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To avoid self-pity that can arise with a chronic medical condition such as ME/CFS, a failing of the immune system which has gifted me with a premature old age and which I’ve had since 1997, I watch programmes about people who rise to challenges far more debilitating than my own.

Clary and Felix were born from watching documentaries, in particular a series (the name of which completely escapes me) about single parents with special needs children. If ever the word ‘hero’ can be applied, it’s to these courageous people. Also to carers, who toil in lonely and difficult circumstances, saving the UK millions of pounds in wages every year.

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All of my characters are cobbled together from parts of me, or are me, distorted, or me in an alternate universe, the alternate universe where I’m a 5’9” thirty-year-old leggy redhead who knocks men dead. The ugliest aspects of human nature, or what a writer can imagine about them, are most useful in fiction. Some of these aspects can even be made beautiful. Though trolls who write one-star reviews to bring down a book’s rating on Amazon are not beautiful. Still, any publicity is good publicity, as long as they spell my name right.

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The flashpoint of Knucklebones was sparked by an unexpected conversation, but the entire thing began with a 2010 note in my commonplace book. I followed Patricia Highsmith’s advice to keep asking, What if? even when the story seemed too far-fetched― postman as love interest―or ludicrous. I’m not comparing myself to her genius, but Highsmith made a cross-dressing schizophrenic art thief/con artist/ serial murderer not only believable but sympathetic over a series of five novels.

Altogether, my story’s genesis encompassed seven years. Originally it was meant not for publication but as a self-printed Christmas gift for a few close friends.

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I wanted to be a stage actress, and for a time in my youth, was, playing a range of roles, from St Joan to Madame Wee Wee Dupres, a Bourbon Street hooker in a hit Buffalo dinner theatre show, to all the girly bit parts in Play It Again, Sam and, in San Francisco in 1978, Dr Frank N Furter in a multi-media production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show; our production was filmed and shown on Argentinian children’s television!

I considered myself to have failed at my dream until I found I could use my acting skills in creating characters. Every single character in Knucklebones, I’ve put myself inside their skin. I don’t understand all of them, but some I don’t want to understand.

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The sad thing is so many people like my loved one suffered, or suffer, in fear or silence, which shouldn’t be: every abuse survivor should be able to be heard, believed, and make themselves whole. For me the process would involve castration with a potato dibber.

In writing about a woman who does her best to not just survive her violent past but flourish, I’d say living well is the better revenge after all. At least I can hope so.

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Ffrynt is an amalgamation of all the towns I’ve lived in on what my husband calls The Welsh Riviera, or Valhalla, according to one South Walian wag: the coast between Rhyl and Llandudno in North Wales. Because of my ME/CFS, I’ve been unable to physically walk these towns. To avoid criticism for sending characters the wrong way down a one-way street, or to eat in a retaurant that no longer exists, I made up my own town, and have a giant wall map to prove it. Making maps is a lot easier than writing fiction. Also I can have my own weather.

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A Welsh, indeed British, custom is to twin towns with other towns, usually European, so as to provide beanos for local politicians. Ffrynt is twinned with R’yleh. Which might explain why the Conservatives got in.

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Knucklebones’ working title was Number 9, as it was my ninth attempt at a novel and the first I was happy enough with to send into the outside world. When I realised that part of a character’s psychopathy was that they played with children a child’s game called jacks, my husband told me about knucklebones, gifting me with the title.

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Readers rock. Beta-readers gave me the confidence to submit my novel. After many, many rejections, I was extremely lucky to be accepted by the best publisher in the world for me: the experience has been all that I dreamed of. If there are any readers I missed in the acknowledgments, I’d like to thank them here. I write for myself, so anyone who reads and likes my work is a gift, and I’m eternally grateful. Thank you. And cheers for reading this, too.

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The friend I’ve known longest in Britain asked if reading Knucklebones will change her opinion of me. ‘Darling,’ I said, ‘only if you can’t differentiate between fact and fiction.’

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