An Interview with Elisabeth de Mariaffi
In the debut novel by writer Elisabeth de Mariaffi, The Devil You Know, we’re introduced to Evie Jones, a newbie crime reporter, as she’s just assigned to cover the arrest of Paul Bernardo whose horrible crimes echo some of her own troubling memories, namely the disappearance and murder of her childhood friend. It’s Evie’s search for answers which take her, and the reader, to some dark places. Atlantic Books Today sat with the St. John’s-based de Mariaffi to talk about The Devil You Know and the transition from short story writer to first-time novelist.
What was your attraction to crime fiction?
I don’t know that I set out to write a crime novel, but it evolved that way and it certainly felt exciting. I don’t read a lot of genre fiction, but when I do, it leans to crime or mystery. I was well into The Devil You Know, and loving that aspect of it, when Lisa Moore’s Caught came out. I thought that book was terrific, but I think it also gave me permission to write what I was writing and not be anxious about it.
You’ve stated in interviews that you grew up in the shadow of “The Scarborough Rapist.” What kind of impression did that leave you with? Why was it important for you to write a book about such a difficult episode in Canadian history?
For girls my age in Toronto, say thirteen, fourteen years old, we were just learning to be independent during the Scarborough Rapist era – so, while we were learning to navigate the city on our own, girls were being stalked and raped at bus stops in the next suburb. This was not a generalized fear. This was fear of one specific villain, and it was really spoon-fed to us. How do you learn to become fearless and independent, while everything is teaching you only to be fearful? That’s a big conflict.
Did you have any doubts about tackling such an emotionally heavy and controversial subject?
I have a personal connection to another girl who went missing in the 1980s, so I did a lot of thinking about the victims’ families and loved ones. After the book was announced last year, I got a number of messages from women I didn’t really know, and they all said the same thing: I’m so glad you’re writing about this. Can we finally talk about this now? I don’t think I can understate the importance of that.
There’s a mountain of press reports, investigative books, leaked police files and documentaries available on the Bernardo case. What kind of research did you conduct?
Because all the real-time action of The Devil You Know takes place in the couple of weeks surrounding Bernardo’s arrest in February 1993, I actually had to restrict myself to make sure that I didn’t include information that only came to light much later. For example, Karla Homolka’s involvement was not known at that time, so she barely gets a mention in the novel. I mainly used Toronto newspaper archives and public documents as resources.
The book works as both a meditation on memory and a conventional thriller. Did the concept for the book evolve or change as you were writing?
I became more interested in the thriller aspect of the novel as I went along. What makes Evie’s character so perfect for this book is that she’s a journalist. So she’s going after the story at all costs – there’s your thriller. But also, because childhood memory is unreliable, she’s also trying to put her own story together. What motivates her isn’t just the story of what happened to her friend Lianne – but really, what happened to Evie, after Lianne went missing.
Your first book was a collection of short stories. Did your usual approach change when writing The Devil You Know?
I was basically terrified of the idea of writing a novel, so I had to keep fooling myself. A short story is so perfect, but a novel is messy and living with the mess is a thing you get used to.
Will you return to the genre?
It’s hard to predict, Although I would say I have such an affinity for mystery, it’s hard to imagine writing a novel without it.