An Interview with Mindy Friddle

  • By Margaret Hutton
  • July 9, 2024

The novelist talks thrillers, small towns, and taphophilia.

An Interview with Mindy Friddle

A resident of Edisto Island, SC, Mindy Friddle earned a fellowship from the South Carolina Arts Commission and twice won the state’s Fiction Prize. After writing two novels (The Garden Angel, selected for Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers, and Secret Keepers, awarded the Willie Morris Prize for Southern Fiction), she turned her pen to thrillers. The result is Her Best Self, a diabolically entertaining tale of deception, temptation, and love.

This is your first literary thriller. I imagine creating such suspense required more outlining than your previous projects, but maybe not. Can you talk about what was different about your process this time?

My previous novels are literary Southern novels about complicated family dynamics. When I began drafting Her Best Self, I wanted to write a thriller with a literary voice in a similar Southern setting, but I added a mystery and a violent crime into the mix. The financial chicanery behind the family business, the vicious gossip behind Janelle Wolf’s accident, Haven’s small- town politics, and the magnetic, menacing outsider all served a thriller well. Because the sequence of events is paramount to building momentum, I constructed a timeline to chart secrets and when they would be revealed. I mapped out chapters, hooks, and several “ticking clocks,” such as the impending wedding of Janelle’s daughter.

The women in this novel upend longstanding power structures via their fierce intelligence, especially Lana O’Shield. She’s not very likable at first, but by the end, I felt differently about her. Did you have the same transformation as you wrote the story?

Lana is a scheming, mendacious, self-centered grifter with nerves of steel. That’s how I saw her at first. But she’s also a canny observer of people. The revelations about her troubled past provide some context about her embittered grievances. As I wrote more from Lana’s perspective, it became clear her nefarious intentions make her a worthy adversary for the novel’s antagonist, Charles Wolf. To my surprise, as Lana concocts her own diabolical plans, she transforms into a flawed antihero, one who ultimately liberates Janelle.

Throughout the book, you embed (fictional) news articles about characters and events. This enhances the story in many ways, and I’d love to hear your intention for them.

Before I was a novelist, I worked as a newspaper reporter, covering everything from school-board meetings to crime to profiles of local celebrities. Journalism got me out in the world talking to all kinds of people about all sorts of issues and writing on a deadline. Small-town journalism is so revealing — not only of the individual characters but of the dynamics of a place. The brief news story that opens Her Best Self gives a bare-boned account of Janelle’s car accident. I wanted Janelle and other characters to provide the emotional context around those cut-and-dried facts. Two other fluffy profile pieces written by the town reporter, Agatha Smook, provide a glimpse of Janelle in the past, as well as [of] her frenemy, a senator’s wife. The small-town newspaper’s coverage functions as a sort of gossipy Greek chorus, spotlighting and judging Haven’s residents.

You’re a taphophile, someone who tours cemeteries. Do you remember the first one you visited and how it affected you?

Yes, I am a tombstone tourist! My cemetery-hopping began in my 20s, when I discovered a weedy, neglected cemetery in my neighborhood that inspired my first novel, The Garden Angel. I don’t find cemeteries morbid and sad. I find them life-affirming. They’re open-air museums filled with statuary, motifs, poetry, and architecture — Art Deco, Romanesque, Victorian. They are often city-swallowed, enforced greenspaces that thwart developers and demand stillness, respect, and provide sanctuary for birds and pollinators. For writers, all those names on headstones are an excellent source for characters’ names. And to be surrounded by the arcs of so many lives, so many buried stories of the human heart! Reading brief, weathered snippets on headstones about those departed souls — old and young, after hardship and good times, through grief and love — feels transcendent and eerily inspiring. I could spend all day in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, and I cherish visits to the historic Spanish-moss-draped graveyards in Charleston, SC. The brilliant opening of the novel Ironweed by William Kennedy remains my favorite fictional cemetery scene.

There’s a tradition in literature of female characters being sidelined — doubted, restricted, or literally hidden away in an attic. What were some of the literary inspirations you had in mind as you worked on this novel?

I hope readers find Her Best Self brings a new spin on that tradition. The novel is set in a place and time, from the 1980s to 2015, in which women were (and to some degree, still are) identified by their connection to men, often eclipsed by fathers and husbands. Janelle is a woman long defined — and confined — by her husband. Early in Her Best Self, Janelle’s husband finds her holed up in the bedroom reading Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel that reimagines the life of Bertha Rochester, Jane Eyre’s “madwoman in the attic.” In addition, the color yellow appears in Her Best Self as a subtle reference to that famous story, Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” another nod to the themes of men confining and controlling women. With that in mind, I suggested a yellow dress on the cover of Her Best Self. I’m delighted my publisher agreed.

Margaret Hutton is the author of the novel If You Leave, coming in fall 2025 from Regal House Publishing. Her short fiction has been published in the Sun, the South Carolina Review, the Antioch Review, and other journals.

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