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  • NYS Writers Institute

Q&A with Lily Hoang, author of the new novel Underneath

Interviewed by Moriah Hampton, PhD, an instructor in the University at Albany's Program in Writing and Critical Inquiry (WCI)

Lily Hoang is the author of five books, including A Bestiary (finalist for a PEN USA Nonfiction Book Award) and Changing (recipient of a PEN Open Books Award).

She has been a Mellon Fellow at Rhodes University in South Africa, a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Cornell College, and a Cultural Exchange Faculty Fellow at Wuhan University in China. To date, she has taught creative writing on five continents. She currently teaches in the MFA Program at UC San Diego. She lives in San Diego, California.

About Underneath, from the publisher:

Over a five-year period, Martha Johnson murders her four children, one by one, in order to punish her husband when they argue, but Martha is no ordinary serial killer. She murders her children by using the bulk of her 250-pound body to suffocate them.

Unlike other fictionalized true-crime novels, Underneath neither valorizes nor focuses on the specific acts of violence. Instead, it attempts to understand how feelings of powerlessness, the residue of trauma, and the need to find justice in a world that refuses to give a fat body justice finds its only respite through murder.

Congratulations on the publication of Underneath. Why did you want to explore the topic of female violence through the character of Martha, the protagonist of Underneath?

First off, I want to thank you for taking the time read and sit with Underneath. I know it isn’t an easy novel to read because the content is relentless in its despair. Underneath really is quite different from anything I’ve written before. The bulk of my published work uses fairy tale as either narrative mode or method of inquiry—which of course Underneath does, too, but this novel is, at its core, realist. It’s based on a real, living human, and real historical fact.

I found Martha’s story by accident. One night, I was reading up on serial killers — as one does, periodically, right? — and I found some article or another explaining female serial killer archetypes. Whereas many of the “big name” male serial killers are described as meticulous geniuses, that isn’t an option for female serial killers. Instead, female serial killers are neatly put into archetypes such as: the Angel of Death (caregivers who murder, e.g., nurses), the Black Widow (kills her partner/spouse), Revenge Killers, Team Killers, etc.

While I was reading about female serial killers, I stumbled onto Martha’s story. She is somewhere between an Angel of Death and Revenge Killer, and I became obsessed with the idea that the very body that gave her children life became the weapon used to murder them. The body as weapon, and she didn’t use any other weapon, only her body. It’s haunting. It’s frightening. I wrote this book because it scared me so thoroughly that I could find no other strategy for relief.

Martha is based on a real person according to the acknowledgement’s page. Did you approach this character any differently than some of your other fictional characters?

Underneath was my very first attempt at writing a realist novel. Realism was simply not something I’ve ever felt much allegiance to, but it was required for Martha’s story. I found out in even early drafts that I understood Martha much more than I was comfortable admitting.

Let me back up for a minute here to explain the basic idea for the novel. Underneath is based on real-life events. Over a period of five years, a woman named Martha used her 250 pound body to systematically roll over her four children to murder them by suffocation. She murdered her children to punish her husband (her third, and she was only 22 when she started killing) for arguing with her. He would threaten to leave her and she would murder a baby. Of the four children, only two belonged to this third husband. The first child she murdered was just over a year old. The cause of death was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and it’s a cruel thing that happens: sometimes infants die, and it’s nobody’s fault.

The second child she murdered was three months old. Again, the coroner declared that it was SIDS. But then, the third child she murdered was three years old. No longer an infant. And there were traces of arsenic in his blood. They called it SIDS, again. More than a year later, Martha murdered her oldest child, who was eleven years old at the time of her death. I couldn’t easily find a cause of death, but nothing happened to Martha.

For seven years, she was not punished in any way at all. Her husband divorced her, and Martha eventually re-married. Seven years later, a newspaper reporter wrote a story about her, and shortly thereafter, she was arrested. At first, she confessed to all four murders, but she later revised her statement, claiming that the police manipulated her during her confession and that she really only murdered two of her children. She could not explain the deaths of the other two. Martha was declared guilty and she headed to death row.

This was the 1990s in Georgia, and she would’ve been executed in the electric chair. Time passes and the case is appealed and appealed and her death sentence was commuted to life without parole and then to life with parole. All of this is publicly available information. I used the basic, recorded facts about Martha’s life and her crimes, but Martha is also completely imagined. I know nothing about the real woman: I used her crimes to create her character.

Arlene, the murdered narrator of Underneath, describes her mother in this way: “Martha’s crime was her existence. She was so gross she shouldn’t even be allowed to be alive.” What connections do you see between Martha’s “crime” and the crimes she commits?

The chapters in Underneath, which chronicle the murders, move in cycles of four: The Making of Martha; Martha Seeks Revenge; Martha, Confined; and Martha, in Love; with interstitial chapters that allow Arlene to watch Martha in the present, in prison. As such, roughly 25% of the novel is focused on what “made” Martha into a murderer.

Whereas I can’t even guess what motivated IRL Martha’s crimes, in my novel, Martha was made into a monster. There was no single moment that turned her: it was an accumulation of a lifetime of disempowerment and abuse. I empathize with my Martha. I can understand how feeling such powerlessness and swallowed rage might force someone do irrational, unforgivable things.

I am not justifying murder here, but I can understand my Martha. This novel is the only way I could understand her. But, of course, I am speaking about a fictional character that I created here. The real Martha, the one sitting in a prison in Georgia—I only know her crimes. When I do a Google image search, I see a monster.

How did the novel evolve over the time you worked on it? How did you know when it was finished?

I am usually a very fast writer. With every other book I’ve written—and I’ve written 10-12 full length manuscripts—I generate a first draft over the duration of summer break. But this novel, oh this novel, took me more than a decade to write and re-write and re-write.

The first iteration, titled The Book of Martha, established the basic structure that the published novel takes, with chapters moving in cycles of four, with the same chapter titles as well. The novel was roughly 350 pages, and because IRL Martha lives in Georgia, the novel manuscript was also set in Georgia. It was told from Martha’s point of view, and her (third and then-current) husband was a snobbish public intellectual. In short, I had a story, but I didn’t understand it at all.

The next draft of the novel exploded to 800 pages: still set in Georgia, same structure, but much longer sentences. (I had recently taught a grad seminar on punctuation and James Joyce’s Ulysses.) The next draft was a slim 270 pages, but I changed the POV to stream of consciousness. I also changed the husband’s occupation. I put him on disability from a trucking accident. Many drafts later, I arrived at the final draft.

The book’s title changed to Underneath. The book’s narrator changed to first person, Arlene, but I wanted to be able to show Martha in prison and I had to account for the fact that Arlene was murdered, so I created a purgatory-esque world where murder victims continue, not living, not dead, but being. Given that I had no knowledge of Georgia (I’d only been there once for a conference, which hardly counts), I moved the novel to New Mexico. I also added a fairy tale/ghost story element, drawing a parallel between Martha’s murders and La Llorona. It felt like every draft was getting me closer to what I wanted for this novel, but I knew it was “finished” when I found La Llorona.

The novel’s form is unconventional in ways: it contains fragments, a lengthy list. Why did you want to part with a unified, coherent narrative to tell Martha’s story?

The novel’s unconventional forms were necessary for me to understand Martha, but they also have function. The long list contains 365.25 items, which accounts for a year. There are also several four-part chapters, which mirror the four rotating chapters and the four murdered children. There is a chapter that is broken down into seasons, which show the passage of time between the third murder and Arlene’s murder. But, ultimately, if I’m being honest, the multitude of forms were the only way I could tell Martha’s story.

Has working on Underneath changed you as a writer at all? Has it sparked any interests that you want to pursue in the future?

Yes, absolutely, Underneath has changed me as a writer. The most obvious way is the amount of time I spent on it. I have been very lucky as a writer. Publication has been, for the most part, a relatively smooth path. With my first five books, I drafted and re-drafted and the manuscripts were under contract pretty quickly, but with Underneath, I learned rejection.

This novel must’ve been rejected by thirty, maybe forty, presses. I learned patience. And I learned how to radically revise. This book taught me terror—I’ve never been afraid of my own characters before—and it gave me humility.

Read more about Lily at her publisher's website:

More Moriah Hampton Q&A interviews:


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