Joanna Margaret, THE BEQUEST: A Dark Academia Thriller

Joanna Margaret, THE BEQUEST: A Dark Academia Thriller

Zibby interviews art historian and debut author Joanna Margaret about The Bequest, a richly atmospheric thriller about an American Ph.D. student who moves to Scotland and finds herself embroiled in a 450-year-old mystery. Joanna talks about her own trajectory from Ph.D. student to archival historian and writer (this book is based on a 16th-century Italian letter she decoded herself!), her experience as Joyce Carol Oates’ MFA student, and the challenge of writing such a complex story. The two also chat about the importance of brick-and-mortar bookstores (Zibby is opening one in LA!!!), and Joanna reveals the details of her next project.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Joanna. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Bequest.

Joanna Margaret: Thank you, Zibby. It’s so great to be here. Such an honor to be on your podcast.

Zibby: Thank you for saying that. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Joanna: It’s about this young American woman, Isabel Henley, who goes to Scotland to start a PhD in history. She becomes embroiled in this 450-year-old mystery.

Zibby: Dun dun dun.

Joanna: Dun dun dun.

Zibby: I read a bunch of different interviews that you did about the inspiration for this book from your own PhD and sixteenth-century history in Scotland and all this stuff. Say it better than I can regurgitate it.

Joanna: I have a PhD in sixteenth-century history. I was in Florence in the Archivio di Stato. I discovered this sixteenth-century woman’s coded letter and key to reading her own code. It had different letter and number combinations. There was all these, 656 meant betrayal or treason, and all these very loaded words. It was really, really cool. I’d never seen anything like that before. It led me to wonder what kind of information was out there in these archives that people didn’t know about because it was in enciphered letters and what kind of information we might glean from historical documents that we don’t even know are out there. That was the original seed for writing this story. That’s where I came up with the idea of this 450-year-old mystery that could be revealed through Isabel’s research in the archives. The mystery that she is dealing with has got eerie repercussions with her present story.

Zibby: Interesting. I love that she even went over there with a friend who she can turn to, Rosa, and have somebody. It turns out then, of course, this led to the whole plot unfolding. Even the idea of getting to a whole program and having your advisor not be able to be there because they’ve just died, it’s so eerie from the beginning. What do you do if something like that happens to you?

Joanna: Exactly, I wanted to just throw her right in there. The first thing she discovers is her advisor that she was so excited to work with has died under mysterious circumstances. Just throw her right into this whole maelstrom of deceit and trying to find out what is behind all these strange goings-on in St. Stephens where she is studying.

Zibby: Totally creepy. I’ve actually never been to Scotland.

Joanna: You have to go. It’s amazing.

Zibby: Anywhere in Scotland, Ireland, none of those.

Joanna: Wow. You should go. Bring your kids. It’s beautiful. If you need recommendations, let me know.

Zibby: Thank you.

Joanna: I lived there for three years.

Zibby: Wait, so how did you get into studying this period of time? I know you went to high school in New York. Let’s go back for two seconds. Then we’ll retrace your steps. I want to figure out how you ended up with Joyce Carol Oates as your advisor and all of that. Go back to, you graduated high school in New York, and then what happened?

Joanna: I graduated high school in New York. I went to Columbia for undergrad, so stayed in New York and studied. I was a French major with a history minor. I did study for my junior year abroad in Paris. That was the first time that I started working in the archives. The archival bug bit me. I knew that I wanted to continue doing work as an archival historian. I did my undergraduate thesis on Marie Antoinette’s household. I worked with a professor at the Sorbonne there. I did that in collaboration with one of my Columbia professors. That was part A. Then I actually went back to grad school. That’s when I studied at St. Andrews and decided I wanted to do a master’s in history and a PhD in history.

Zibby: Was the goal to teach? What was the goal?

Joanna: Yeah, teaching and writing, a little combination, a fascination with the period, doing research. I worked in Florence a couple of summers doing archival studies there and teaching a little bit there. I was always interested in that. Then I wanted to go back and really get into — I’ve always written. I’ve always loved books. I’ve always been writing stories, which I’m sure you understand from your own background. I ended up applying for MFA programs and got into NYU. Now I have this entire New York — I’ve done all the New York school experiences, which has been amazing. I always knew I wanted to experience writing fiction as well as nonfiction, so I ended up doing the MFA program. My first class was in Joyce Carol Oates’ workshop. It was just wonderful. I know she’s been on the show a couple of times.

Zibby: She has. Yeah, she has. Did you read her latest book?

Joanna: Yes, I’m reading it now. Very scary.

Zibby: Weren’t you intimidated? I would be so intimidated to start school under a total master.

Joanna: Totally. Yes, very, very much. Very much. I’d been reading her since sixth grade. All of a sudden to be in her class — she was wonderful. She’s really a great teacher. I remember talking with someone. They were like, sometimes there are great writers, and sometimes there are great teachers. They’re not necessarily the same. I feel like she’s both. I was really lucky to take that workshop with her. I felt very, very grateful to have had that experience to work with her and learn from her.

Zibby: Amazing. I read that you were targeting two hundred or three hundred pages, and she told you to make your book six hundred pages.

Joanna: Yes, exactly. I remember going. She said, “How long is this book going to be?” I said, “I don’t know. Maybe 350 pages.” She said, “No, no, no. Once people get involved with solving mysteries and wanting to know about these characters, they’re going to want a longer book.” I did expand it a lot and got more into the intricacies of these mysteries going on.

Zibby: Tell me about the writing process of it and how you brought in all the research, about how you structured the narrative and how long it took to write. I know it was eight years ago or something that you found the codes. About eight years ago?

Joanna: Exactly. It was eight years ago I found the code. Then I started drafting it. It’s undergone many different versions and different drafts. It evolved a lot since it was my thesis at NYU. The first version that I wrote, actually, Rose wasn’t a character. She was just this spectral figure. I was doing kind of a Rebecca thing. She was this previous researcher that had studied this Italian family, the Falcone. Then she had disappeared. We were trying to find out what happened to her. She appears at the end. Spoiler alert. Then when I rewrote it, I was like, now I want her to be a character in this. I thought that it would give Isabel stronger motivation to find out what happened, solve some of these mysteries, if it had to do with her close friend. That was a big change, bringing her into the narrative. I talk about this with Joyce a lot too. You have to know where you’re going to know where you start. That was a big thing. I rewrote the beginning once I had the new ending several times. That was the last thing I did, actually. It’s sort of interesting to write something in reverse. The projects that I was working on for the MFA, I was doing some short stories. I wrote a novella. This was different. It fit into the confines of a specific genre. Writing something that’s mystery/suspense/thriller, you can’t reveal too much information in the beginning or at once. You have to reveal it slowly over time. That was a big challenge for me, especially coming from academic writing where you have your thesis. Then you have to prove different points. I had to start from scratch in terms of my process.

Zibby: Wow, it’s a lot.

Joanna: That was a great experience for me. Working on the craft at the same time as having this very defined structure and specific structure, that was definitely a challenge.

Zibby: Somebody said something about giving you advice to read The Godfather.

Joanna: Actually, that was when I was doing my PhD. This professor at St. Andrews, a Scottish history professor, said, “If you want to learn about the sixteenth century, you should watch the first Godfather film, read the first Godfather book.”

Zibby: Did you?

Joanna: Yeah. This whole system with clients, it sort of mimics the court system in the early modern period. That was definitely educational. It’s true. All the things going on behind the scenes and all these manipulations were very relevant to both the historical world and also the world of fiction. I wanted the historical documents and the history that’s unfolding in the historical period to be mimicked by what is going on in the contemporary storyline.

Zibby: This makes me think, I got this beautiful copy of an anniversary edition of The Godfather this year. It’s so cool. It’s beautiful. Now I’m wondering where I put it. I really should’ve included it in this gift guide I just put together. It’s beautiful. It has this great cover. Then when you take the cover off, underneath — I always like to peek under the flaps. On the front is the horse head. Maybe it was the back. The back or the front. The other one is related. It’s very cool. It’s very, very cool.

Joanna: That’s amazing. I want to see that. That’s so cool.

Zibby: I don’t even know where I put them. I recently watched — I don’t know if you’ve seen it. There was a whole miniseries or limited series about the making of The Godfather with the guy who starred in the new Top Gun movie.

Joanna: Oh, I heard this. It’s the kid, right? Am I right?

Zibby: I’m sorry, my brain is not working today. It was so good.

Joanna: It’s so good, right? I want to watch that.

Zibby: You have to watch it. It’s amazing. Even if you don’t like The Godfather, you will still love it because it’s just what it means to be a producer and how hard it was to get that movie made and all these old-school Hollywood moments.

Joanna: That’s so cool. We were just in LA. My husband went to this exhibition. It was an exhibition on the making of The Godfather also. They have the horse’s head exhibited. I don’t know if you saw it. I heard that you’re opening a new bookstore in LA. That’s so exciting. Congratulations.

Zibby: I am. I am opening a bookstore in LA. I am so excited.

Joanna: Good luck with that. That’s amazing. When is it going to open?

Zibby: 2023. Dates TBD. It depends on the renovations. We’ve ordered the flooring and a lot of the other materials. I’m very excited.

Joanna: That’s so cool. That’s so exciting. Congratulations.

Zibby: Thank you.

Joanna: I can’t wait to visit next time I’m in LA.

Zibby: I hope it’ll be open by February/March. That’s my goal. It’s been a lifelong dream, like so many book lovers. The funny part is it’s not like it’s so hard to buy books. We don’t need a bookstore to buy books. There’s something else, which I feel like has never been more obvious to me than since making this announcement. We can all go online and buy a book in two seconds. It has nothing to do with that. It’s much more about the connections and community and what it means to be inside of a bookstore and surrounded by books. All of that other stuff is what’s much more important and appealing.

Joanna: You’re absolutely right. Also, that’s why I loved working with Mysterious Press and having this bricks-and-mortar bookstore in Downtown Manhattan, which is so amazing. I’m sure you’ve been.

Zibby: I actually have not been. I have to.

Joanna: You have to go. We should go there. Let me know if you’re downtown. That would be really fun. That’s so great, this whole tradition of editors and writers having an actual bookstore too.

Zibby: We’ll have to go. It’ll be a competitive analysis so I can make it feel like a work trip.

Joanna: Research trip, absolutely. I love that tradition, the press and bookstore combination. It’s just amazing. Let me know when you want to go.

Zibby: Amazing. Maybe you’ve already been roped into this, but in April, there’s going to be a mystery and crime writers’ festival/retreat, I think more like a festival, in the Hamptons that the town of East Hampton is organizing. I know they’re assembling speakers and all of that. I feel like you would be perfect.

Joanna: I would love that. That would be amazing. Yes, totally up my alley.

Zibby: I have to make myself a note, put you in touch with the organizer. That sounded so fun. This isn’t really my genre. We don’t publish this. It just seems so cool.

Joanna: So cool. That sounds great.

Zibby: There’s a trip to a graveyard.

Joanna: Ooh, sign me up.

Zibby: I will do that. What kind of books do you like to read?

Joanna: I’m omnivorous as a reader. Just everything, any genre. For the MFA, obviously focused on a lot of literary fiction. Before that, a lot of long history books written by French academics. Now I’m reading some books written by some of my colleagues, so other Mysterious Press and Scarlet writers. Jaime Lynn Hendricks, Debbie Babitt, Mandy McHugh all have books that came out this past year, so I’m reading all of their books, which are great. Like I said, Joyce’s latest, Babysitter, I’ve been doing a deep dive into that. As I prepare my next book, I sort of like to stick with the specific genre that I’m writing in for reading as well, so keeping it in the mystery/thriller/suspense world for now.

Zibby: What is your next book?

Joanna: I’m doing another dark academia that is taking shape now. It’s set in the States, not in Europe this time. Again, this historical element that resonates with the present contemporary storyline.

Zibby: I feel like you should do something with Trinity Church downtown.

Joanna: Oh, yeah, I love that place.

Zibby: It feels very spooky. What are the stories there? Lots of ghosts lurking.

Joanna: Yes, it is. There is something very spooky about it. You walk down any random street in New York, and we forget there’s so much history, so many interesting things. I’ve lived here my whole life. I’m sure you feel like this too. I still discover stuff like that, just all of a sudden, some corner of New York that has all this history that I don’t even know about. It’s a constant process of discovery. My husband’s Danish. Sometimes he’ll be like, “I just took this long walk. I found this new cemetery that I didn’t even know about in New York.” I’m like, “Wait, what cemetery?” That’s amazing also, seeing New York through a non-native New Yorker’s eyes.

Zibby: My in-laws, my husband’s dad and his wife Miriam — she’s from Holland. They’re doing the same thing. They were going to all these cool places and discovering with fresh eyes and just so excited. They keep telling me about all these societies and buildings. I’m like, really? Here I am just stuck in my neighborhood.

Joanna: Isn’t that so cool, though? You’re also a New Yorker. Getting to all of a sudden discover all these new things, it’s pretty refreshing.

Zibby: It’s true. It is refreshing. Joanna, thank you so much. Thank you for coming on to discuss The Bequest. I’m holding up my hands underneath the hands holding a book.

Joanna: Thank you so much, Zibby. This was such an honor to be on your show. So nice to finally meet you.

Zibby: You too. I’m so glad to know you’re in New York. When I have more events and bring all that back, I’d love to get together and all of that.

Joanna: That would be great. That would be really, really nice.

Zibby: Where is the bookstore we were talking about going?

Joanna: It is in Tribeca on — I’ll send you —

Zibby: — Tribeca, that’s all I need to know. Let me think about when I can get down there.

Joanna: Let’s do it. This is great. We’ll do a little research trip together. Sounds amazing. Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Thanks a lot. Take care. Buh-bye.

Joanna: Bye.

THE BEQUEST: A Dark Academia Thriller by Joanna Margaret

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