Author Lori Roy has lived in Florida since 1996, but it wasn’t until her fourth novel that she wrote a story set in the state.
"I just wrote an essay for CrimeReads on the intersection of Southern Gothic and crime fiction," Roy says. "You see it in books like To Kill a Mockingbird and lots of others.
"If, as they say, you write what you want to read, that’s what I want to read."
And with The Disappearing, to be published Tuesday, that’s just what she has written: an irresistibly propulsive mystery wrapped in the haunted atmosphere of Southern Gothic, and inspired by real Florida crimes.
Talking about her days as a student at the Writers in Paradise annual conferences at Eckerd College, Roy, 53, says of classmate and friend Michael Koryta, "He’s kind of gotten ahead of me."
It’s true Koryta has published 13 books in 14 years. But Roy’s 2011 debut novel, Bent Road, won the Mystery Writers of America’s prestigious Edgar award for best first novel. Her second, Until She Comes Home (2013), was an Edgar finalist. Her third, Let Me Die in His Footsteps (2015), won the best novel Edgar — making Roy the first woman to receive Edgars for both best first novel and best novel, and only the third person to have done so in the awards’ six-decade history.
Three novels, two Edgars is not too shabby. And The Disappearing might be her best book yet.
The fictional story in The Disappearing draws upon two infamous, real Florida crimes: the abuses and deaths over a century at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, and the last terrible days in the 1970s of Ted Bundy’s career as a serial murderer, across North Florida.
The book’s plot is built around the Fielding family, whose patriarch, Neil, ran a reform school for boys in a small town in the Panhandle. In the present, Neil and his wife, Erma, are frail and elderly but still living in the old plantation house called the Fielding Mansion, separated by a fence line from the now-shuttered school and its eerie little graveyard with 31 unmarked white crosses.
Their daughter, Lane Fielding, fled the town and her own shameful past years ago but is back with her daughters, wild teenager Annalee and lonesome preteen Talley, after a fractured marriage.
They’re just finding their footing in town when a young woman, a pretty and popular Florida State University student, disappears. Her fate echoes not only Bundy’s crimes but Lane’s abduction at age 13, as the darkness of the past reaches out for the present.
Roy has lived for years on Tierra Verde with her husband, Bill Roy, who works in commercial real estate. With their son and daughter grown, they’re selling their house and shopping for one in the Old Northeast, she says.
Roy has already finished writing her next novel. When she had to start giving interviews about The Disappearing, she says, she had to write down its characters’ names because she had become so "immersed" in the world of the next book.
She talked to the Times at her Tierra Verde home on a recent afternoon.
How did you come to live in Florida?
I was born in Manhattan, Kan., which is also where Kansas State (from which she graduated) is. Right out of college, I got in my car and drove here. I bummed around for a while, then I got a job in public accounting. I was dating Bill then; I went back and we got married and spent five or six years in Kansas City. I was working in accounting there. Then we woke up one day when it was really cold and we thought, where do we want to live?
Your first three books were set in Kansas, Detroit and Kentucky. Why did you finally choose to set one here?
I decided that maybe I knew enough as a writer to tackle the state. (The Disappearing) is based on the Dozier investigation. I followed it for about 10 years. I was always compelled by the story but didn’t feel I knew enough about it.
I finally got to a point where I was comfortable with what I knew. And it was the consequence of various decisions. One, the book would not be set at the school, and two, it would not be the story of one of the boys. I felt I had no business entering that point of view.
I decided to write about this family that is plagued by its patriarch’s criminal past. I was interested, with Neil, in the question of do we ever outlive our sins?
He’s quite elderly and obviously not always aware of what’s going on, slipping between past and present. But does it make a difference?
This is also the first time you’ve set a novel in the present; your first three were all set several decades in the past. What led you to that?
It was a challenge. It’s always been very comfortable for me to write about the past. There’s the technology you don’t have to deal with, for one thing.
I do quite a bit of research. I read biographies and history. My notes are totally unorganized, but somehow it works its way into the books. I think if you try to push too much of it in there, it just feels contrived. I want the tiny details.
But I realized this story was in the present, even though it’s tied to the past. So I had to buckle up and write it.
The story is told from four points of view: those of Lane Fielding; her mother, Erma; her daughter, Talley; and Talley’s friend, a church caretaker named Daryl. What’s the origin of Lane?
I sort of got the name from (Tampa Bay Times staff writer and Pulitzer Prize winner) Lane DeGregory. Years ago, when the reading festival was still at Eckerd (College), Lane and (former Times editor) Mike Wilson and some other people did a writing workshop. I still think about some of the things I learned there. Plus I just admire her work.
(The character) Lane is the closest to me in some ways. She lives in the present, she’s raising a couple of kids. That was uncomfortable for me, too. But she’s not me. I write the character that interests me. If they’re too close to my own life, I’m not interested, because I’m already living it.
How about the other main characters?
Often it’s the child in the story that comes first and easiest. Talley for sure. And Erma, too. I found her easy to write about. I like that gritty quality, a character who has to overcome something, as we all do.
In addition to four different points of view, the book has a pretty complex timeline, not to mention lots of shocking surprises. How did you manage all that as you were writing it?
It was largely controlled chaos.
Often I would just write about Daryl for a while. Then I would have to figure out how to fit those parts in. The other characters’ stories were more linear. I’d just weave Daryl in there.
I’d write a Lane chapter, I’d write a Talley chapter. But if I got with Daryl’s story and it started really humming, I would just not worry about how it’s going to go together.
Then about three-quarters of the way through, it was time for the index cards and the corkboard. It’s kind of an after-the-fact outlining. I have to find a way of leveraging the structure.
Sometimes you’re figuring out what happened rather than what’s going to happen. There’s a lot of bumping around in the dark and cutting a lot of stuff.
At the beginning (with earlier novels), I did much more planning. I used spreadsheets. And I wrote novels that went nowhere. I started writing when we moved down here. I chose to stay home but I wanted to build a career. I wrote for five years and finished a couple of novels. They were bad.
What got you on track as a novelist?
I was a student (at Writers in Paradise) four times, three before I had a book deal and one after. For teachers, I had Dennis Lehane twice, then Tom Franklin and Stewart O’Nan. That’s a pretty good lineup.
What made the history and investigation of the Dozier School so compelling to you?
The seed of this story sat with me for 10 years. It’s something that permeates all my books: How much are those in power willing to sacrifice to keep it? So often it’s children who are sacrificed. That obsession with power and reputation runs through all my books. It’s a thing that gnaws at me.
There were so many headlines (about the school, including The Lost Bones, an award-winning series in the Tampa Bay Times). It made me spend a couple of years trying to figure out a way to write about it. It seemed insurmountable. That abuse went on for 100 years. When something is that awful, we really can’t internalize it.
The novel also refers to other notorious Florida crimes, the last several murders committed by Ted Bundy. The characters recall them when young women with similar appearances begin to disappear. How did you incorporate Bundy?
I had read a couple of books about him. There are interviews with him on YouTube, so I watched all of those. I know all the facts of his life, so I would think, I know he’s lying. But he was so good that I slowly found myself drawn in. Slick and pretty, that’s what he was. Finally, I shut the computer down and pushed it away. It was just awful.
The fact that something can be so slick and pretty on top doesn’t change what’s going on underneath. You saw that in (sexual abuses connected to) the Catholic Church, Penn State, women’s gymnastics. The facts are the facts. It was a disturbing thing to find myself drawn in.
I couldn’t use his name. I just call him Ted. I call the school "the school" and don’t name it either. Because we see the same thing happen over and over and over again. It could be any small town.
I talked to a forensic psychiatrist. We talked a lot about psychopaths. It was very useful.
What can you tell us about your next book?
The new one is set in the present day, around Milledgeville, Ga. It’s about a woman with ties to the rebirth of the Klan, from around the time of the movie Birth of a Nation. It will be out in about a year.
That combination of Southern Gothic and what it illuminates, with crime to propel it. I think I’m in the South to stay.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.