Cottage country — just the phrase conjures up enviably peaceful images of long sunny days and warm nights, a quaint retreat. But in Erin Ruddy's Tell Me My Name (Dundurn Press), a rustic cottage setting becomes the stuff of nightmares rather than daydreams.
When married couple Ellie and Neil head out of the city to finally relax, they have no idea what they're walking into. A violent kidnapping leads to a deadly game — but it's only in playing that Ellie learns this is no random act of violence, and that her husband has been keeping a dangerous secret. Tasked with guessing their kidnapper's name as their only path to freedom, Ellie is forced into a desperate attempt to decipher her past and uncover what's been kept from her. Deliciously tense and dark, Tell Me My Name is a fabulous, Canadiana-skewed addition to the growing genre of smart, tautly-written domestic noir.
We're excited to welcome Erin to Open Book to talk about Tell Me My Name. She tells us about some much happier cottage times that helped inspire the story's setting (if, thankfully, not its content), about learning to savour the most joyful parts of the writing process, and about the heartfelt reasoning behind her book's dedication.
Do you remember how you first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?
I started this novel in the summer of 2016, a few months after my husband and I had purchased our new cottage in Thornbury, Ontario. Unlike my first manuscript, which I’d agonized over and ultimately shelved for good reason, this one had a premise that gripped me to the core, and I couldn’t seem to type it out fast enough. What’s now Chapter 2 was the first section I wrote, the bit that sets the stage for Ellie and Neil’s bumpy but loving 10-year relationship. Of course, in novels of this nature, what you see isn’t always what you get...
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
From the moment the idea came to me, Tell Me My Name was rooted in Ontario cottage country, a place that is near and dear to my heart. That said, most of the towns and topography are made-up—I thought it best to keep some separation from reality given the grisly nature of the plot. The story begins near the quaint town of Mapleton, then it jumps around between Toronto and Rockdale. While Mapleton was loosely inspired by Thornbury, I imagined Rockdale as one of those rural communities you might pass through on your way to the Kawartha Lakes district. As a child heading to our family cottage in Haliburton, I spent a lot of time gazing out at that scenery. There are also references to a stretch of rugged wilderness with a steep cliff on the way to Sudbury. This is entirely untrue, but it sure helped bring some extra tension to my story!
Did the ending of your novel change at all through your drafts? If so, how?
To be honest, I struggled a lot with how this novel should end. I think I rewrote it about six or seven times. On the one hand, Tell Me My Name is a love story about a marriage that’s been put through the ringer; on the other hand, it’s a fast-paced thriller about a psychotic man who kidnaps them. It was hard to blend those two things together and come out with an ending that satisfied both threads. Ultimately, I chose to deliver a feeling rather than a tidy resolution.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
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The strangest moment was when I started to hear my characters’ voices in my mind as I got a little deeper in the intricacies of their traits. It was as if the whole cast had suddenly come alive, and they were driving the plot on their own. I’d never experienced such a rush of pure creative energy before. Often writing can be a grind, so when it pours out of you so effortlessly, it’s a remarkable feeling—and one to be savoured, I’ve since learned.
Did you celebrate finishing your final draft or any other milestones during the writing process? If so, how?
You know, I can’t really remember if I celebrated my final draft or not. There’s a good chance I drank some wine that night, but, then again, I do that every night...
Who did you dedicate your novel to, and why?
As my first published novel, Tell Me My Name had to be dedicated to the three people who have been by my side since the get-go: my husband, Brad, and my two sons, Nate and Co. Aside from their steady encouragement, they were the ones who gave me the time and space I needed to develop these crazy thoughts into a book. I also owe a lot to my mom, my dad and my brother, who not only supported my desire to become a writer but suffered through more crappy drafts than anyone ever deserved. I am lucky they all still love me.
Erin Ruddy is a writer, editor, and award-winning journalist. She is currently the executive editor at MediaEdge Communications. She lives in Toronto.