Rachel Lyon

On the Ancient Problems of Women, Writing Monstrous Men, and Her Novel ‘Fruit of the Dead’

Cover of Rachel Lyon: On the Ancient Problems of Women, Writing Monstrous Men, and Her Novel ‘Fruit of the Dead’

We culturally inherit stories—folklore, myths, legends, parables, fables—and those story labels affect the way it is received. Legends are typically heroic whereas fables are wildly, though not morally, untrue; parables are often not questioned. Beyond their entertainment value, stories wield power over us. 

When Rachel Lyon began writing her latest novel, Fruit of the Dead (Scribner, 2024), she didn’t intend to explore the complex relationships between mythological characters Persephone, Demeter, and Hades. She was writing about what was culturally happening at the time. That’s the funny thing about stories: They have the power to permeate our realities. They are learned, taught, and passed on over generations, shaping the societies we inhabit and the binary framework of right and wrong we often operate within that influences what, and who, we choose to believe. And what history has shown us, is that when power goes unchecked, there is damage done. Fruit of the Dead has been called a contemporary reimagining because it is the perfect blend of using fact to inform fiction, holding a mirror up to the archaic act of erasure.  

Talking with Rachel, we couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of ancient problems, the various iterations a single story can hold, and how she created believable characters out of the seemingly unbelievable moments in our recent history. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, so the [laughs] have been erased. A new story has emerged in its place. 

Ashley Rubell: Tell me about the first time you heard the Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter. What was your first impression?

Rachel Lyon:  The D’Aulaires book is sort of indelibly printed on my memory. I was really interested in princesses and goddesses and I think that was probably what interested me in Persephone, if anything did. But to be honest, I didn’t embark on writing this book with the intention of writing a retelling of Persephone. I actually started the book a couple years before I started incorporating the myth into it. It was almost happenstance. 

I was thinking a lot about the #MeToo movement and sexual assault and how these stories were revived in our culture with this incredible force around 2017 and 2018. What really got me about the dialogue then, which got so intense so quickly and then faded so quickly, was the reaction of some men that I was seeing who were like, Why now? You know, How is it possible that this is all happening right now? And I was really angered by that, and I really wanted to tell a story that showed that this was an ancient problem. This is not a “Why now?” problem.

AR: I remember reading an interview you did a while back with Michele Filgate about her anthology, and you two discussed the ways we tend to mythologize our mothers, both as this distant origin story and as the home we’re always trying to return to, and I’m wondering if becoming a mother played any part in what drew you to giving this particular story of Persephone and her mother Demeter a contemporary retelling? 

RL: Ironically, I was trying not to include the mother character in this book when I first wrote it. Initially, once I sort of understood that I was going to be using the Persephone story as a touchstone and structural model, I was looking for versions that were told from Persephone’s perspective and I couldn’t find any. I was like, this feels important to me to write the story of the “victim,” the character who in the myth is abducted and negotiated over. She’s not given any agency. My project was really to give her that agency and try to write a version of this story where the character who is abducted, who is negotiated over, who is raped, still plays an active role in her story. And that brought up some really gnarly, interesting gray area that I really was fascinated in writing.

I felt like there was enough out there from Demeter’s perspective. I didn’t want to include Demeter’s perspective, but as I kept working on the book and the years went by and I did become a mother, it kind of became inevitable. Not because I was writing them then, but because of a few reasons. My character Cory (who is cast as the Persephone in the story) is a teenager and unable to see herself clearly or understand really where a lot of her decisions are coming from. She’s impulsive. Her self-image is really unstable. Over the course of the book, she sees herself in many, many different ways and she’s very unsure of herself. So I needed a character who knew her really well and could see her really clearly for the reader. So the reader could feel sure of who this girl is and be validated in their concern for her, basically. 

Then there was also this inevitable draw toward writing about the difficulty of early parenthood and what a mindfuck it is. It’s so difficult and it’s so profound to make a person and then have to wrestle with that person for the rest of your life. They are who they are. I don’t have teenagers—my kids are one and three—but I’ve always been drawn to writing toward the next stage of life. And in this case, that question really interested me. Not just how hard it is at the beginning, but how that difficulty will change and evolve in future stages.

AR: That takes me back to one of my favorite lines in this book, from one of Cory’s chapters in that close third person perspective: “When she finds herself this ugly, the self-loathing runs so deep, it feels like grief.” It’s such a simple statement but it really captures that level of self-disgust that you can have as a young female, even without the uncomfortable situation Cory finds herself in, but especially within it. I loved reading that familiar level of obsession in the chapters about Cory. When did you decide to play with the POV in your drafting process? 

RL: I think it was about three or four years into working on it. It was relatively late. This book went through many different identities. Initially I thought I was writing some sort of beach read about a babysitter getting involved with her employer. Once I started incorporating the mythological element, I tried versions that included more of Mount Olympus, with Zeus as a character. And that felt campy in a way that I wasn’t sure I could manage. And then eventually I had enough material in this kind of breathless, overwrought, teenaged third person voice that I was like, this is the story. This is the book. But again, I knew I had to sort of balance that with an external voice that was sober and that would eventually descend into madness too. It took a few years to get there.

AR: That’s really refreshing to hear. 

What gets you in and started on an idea? And how did the chapter titles play into your structuring of later drafts?

RL: I like to sort of break things up into workable pieces. So my first book [Self-Portrait with Boy] was broken up into four sections, one for each season of the year. Fruit of the Dead is separated into twelve sections. I thought twelve was a nice number for the story of Perseophone, which is about this yearly cycle, living six months below, six months above. More than that, it’s just a good working guide. Novels are so long. It’s nice to have things broken up into smaller bits. 

When I first submitted this book it was in three parts. The first section was purely in Cory’s voice, the second section was purely in Emer’s voice (cast as the mother, Demeter), and there was a very short third section which is kind of like the final chapter as it is now. You know that part that’s written sort of like a play, when it’s just dialogue? 

AR: Oh I loved those pages. I honestly thought it would be so cool to scale and print those pages and have them framed because I just loved how beautiful it looked on the page. 

RL: That makes me really happy. I really loved that too. I loved when I landed on that as their moment of reuniting after a whole book of being kept apart. There’s no time for narrative, no time for describing what it’s been like, it’s just boom boom boom boom boom. So that was the final bit and the rest of it was like these two novellas. When I started working with my editor at Scribner, she suggested shuffling them up like a deck of cards and interweaving them. I was reluctant at first but once I tried it I saw how much it really improved the reading experience and made things so much more suspenseful and engaging. Then I was able to use these chapter titles. I had lines from the book that I was already using as chapter titles in that three part draft. But once I had twelve chapters, I went back through the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which was really my source text for the whole book, and extracted some of my favorite lines to use there.

AR: Let’s talk about Rolo for a moment, our modern interpretation of Hades, a Pharma CEO. How did you get in touch with a character like him, to know how to strike that balance on the page of someone whose presence is enticing and frustrating, mysterious and alluring, all at once? And how much of his character was provoked by the recent stories of what’s gone down these last few years in regard to major pharmaceutical companies?

RL: He didn’t start as a Pharma CEO. He started as a writer, believe it or not. The people that I was researching were guys like Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein. What I was interested in was the relationship between power and assault. These guys really don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. I was really fascinated by that. It seemed like such an interesting project to try and write someone who anyone else would look at this guy, at what he’s doing and think, that is fucked up. He doesn’t have that voice in his head. He has other voices that are a lot more interesting honestly because the voice of judgment is one we all have—that’s the voice of society speaking. But what’s going on for him? We get that in bits and pieces in the book. I wanted to show the frailty of someone who feels so put upon by the world. He’s tried very hard and he feels very unattractive and wants beautiful things. 

AR:  And is so controlling. 

RL: Yes, but he doesn’t know how controlling he is, right? I think that’s what’s really important. People like that don’t really understand the amount of power they wield, or they do and they’re getting off on it. There’s a strange balance there where when they finally get a taste of what it feels like to really wield power over another person, another body, they need to seize it. 

All these documentaries, the articles, the witness statements, all this material that was out there to work with as research was incredibly helpful, but it only told this one side of the story that said: this person is a monster and they acted monstrously. And while I agree with that, it’s not interesting to read a character that’s just a monster. It was a challenge. 

I had an early reader, a man, read the book as a draft, and he said something I’ll never forget. He said, “Is it ok that you’re making this man so charming and seductive on the page? Is that unethical as a writer?” Girls do have to be seduced. They’re not dumb. People who find themselves in these scenarios are not stupid. 

AR: It’s not so black and white. I was really amazed that you could capture a character like him at all, to take an unbelievable type of person and make them so believable on the page. 

As far as setting goes, most of the novel takes place on an island. I think I read somewhere that it was loosely based on your college campus? Or a college experience?

RL: No, not exactly. It was informed by this island I worked on in my early twenties. 

AR: And the camp that Cory attends in the beginning of the novel—was that influenced by a camp your husband grew up going to?

RL: Yeah, as a teenager. And I ended up working there for two summers later, when we were dating. 

AR: Did you have these two experiences in your mind as places you knew you’d someday want to write about? Or did you find yourself in the middle of a story needing to draw upon something that you vividly knew? 

RL: It was definitely the latter. For Rolo’s home I knew I needed a secluded place that would act as a trap, where Cory couldn’t leave without some level of difficulty. At first she was on the coast, then on a lake. But she was never trapped enough, so I knew she had to be on an island. And I have only spent significant time on this one island, which I only know as an employee, not as a person who summers on an island. That’s how that came to be. 

Figuring out the abduction part was hard. Initially, Cory was a writer’s assistant and then quickly she became either a nanny or a babysitter. I knew from the beginning she would be doing childcare. So for the initial seduction, the way Cory and Rolo come together, it eventually made sense that it would be at a summer camp. And I only have limited experience with summer camps.

AR: In one of your Substack posts from early last year you wrote about messiness and alluded to writing your first book and how it felt less precious than writing this book: 

“…this book, it happens to be about a messy girl caught up in a messy situation, and the deep dark mess her mother becomes. So, you know, maybe, in this case, the mess is the message.”

How was the process behind drafting this novel different from the first? What sort of hindsight do you have now, having written two books, and how do you think that will influence your writing moving forward? 

RL: I think I took the same amount of time on each book, approximately five years each. I mean, I didn’t have kids when the first one came out. It’s not that I didn’t have demands on my time, I was working a full-time job. But now that I have children, I understand how much time I actually had, even though I surely felt very busy. 

I remember spending hours on the manuscript of Self-Portrait with Boy. It was also my first book, and I was nervous about it. I didn’t have an agent yet. I was very meticulous and almost self-conscious about it. And I think that was the part of me that came out in the character of Emer, too. Meticulous, self-conscious, worried. She was also all of those things. 

With this book, I couldn’t really afford to be quite as obsessive. I still read and reread it and revised it line by line, but people keep using the word lush. There’s a lot of overgrowth in Corey’s voice. I hope that’s balanced somewhat by the sort of tenseness of Emer’s voice. It was intentional, but also a product of my process.

AR: I’m always curious about what other writers are reading during a project, knowing how carefully selective I personally have to be when I’m writing. What did your reading life look like while you were working on this book?

RL: My first year of work on it, I read a lot of the books that came out around the same time as my first book did because I wanted to be in conversation with writers who were working in the same space as I was. Then there was a lockdown, my first pregnancy and then my second pregnancy, so I was reading a lot of books I wouldn’t otherwise have read. I read Moby Dick for the first time. I don’t think Moby Dick had any bearing on this book, but it certainly freed me up. Talk about a freewheeling, capacious narrative voice. That book is super flexible in what Melville is doing. It’s all over the place. And I was like, if this absolute giant of American literature can be all over the place, maybe I can too.


Rachel Lyon is the author of Self-Portrait with Boy, a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s 2018 First Novel Prize, and Fruit of the Dead, which has received starred prepublication reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist, and been named a most anticipated book of 2024 by Elle, LitHub, and other outlets. Rachel’s short work has appeared most recently in One Story, The Rumpus, and Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. A teacher of creative writing at various institutions, most recently Bennington College, Rachel lives with her husband and two young children in Western Massachusetts.

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