An Otto Penzler Book
Walking a lonely forested valley on a spring morning in upstate New York, having been hired by a developer to dowse the land, Cassandra Brooks comes upon the shocking vision of a young girl hanged from a tree. When she returns with authorities to the site, the body has vanished, leaving in question Cassandra’s credibility if not her sanity. The next day, on a return visit with the sheriff to have another look, a dazed, mute missing girl emerges from the woods, alive and the very picture of Cassandra’s hanged girl.
What follows is the narrative of ever-deepening and increasingly bizarre divinations that will lead this gifted young woman, the struggling single mother of twin boys, hurtling toward a past she’d long since thought was behind her. The Diviner’s Tale is at once a journey of self-discovery and an unorthodox murder mystery, a tale of the fantastic and a family chronicle told by an otherwise ordinary woman.
When Cassandra’s dark forebodings take on tangible form, she is forced to confront a life spiraling out of control. And soon she is locked in a mortal chess match with a real-life killer who has haunted her since before she can remember.
Q&A with Bradford Morrow
Q: Do you consider yourself a diviner?
Morrow: I consider myself at best an amateur dowser. But I can say with certainty I no longer consider myself a doubter. Everyone is in his or her own way a diviner. And that's what the novel is in part about. Certainly being a writer demands that one engage in a form of divination, but that's true of so many creative activities in people's lives.
Q: The Diviner's Tale seamlessly brings together themes such as religion, philosophy, Greek mythology, baseball and bird-watching, and also creates a mash-up of literary fiction, mystery, and fantasy. How were you able to bring all those ideas and elements together so flawlessly?
Morrow: That's such a nice question I hate to ruin it with an answer. In fact, I've never really viewed the so-called genres of fantasy and mystery as being, by definition, distinct from the "literary." I've read any number of fantasy and mystery works I think of as highly literary. I'm keenly aware that one of the old cardinal rules of mystery is that it doesn't mix with the supernatural. P. D. James mentions this in her recent Talking About Detective Fiction: "All supernatural agencies are ruled out." But the world into which I was drawn with this book—Cassandra Brooks's world—defied such conventions, and so did I.
Q: Speaking of politics, The Diviner's Tale seems distinctly different from your other novels in that there's no overt political or historical dimension at its center.
Morrow: I think earlier novels like Giovanni's Gift and Trinity Fields examined the deeply political nature of family relationships. The Diviner's Tale is, in many ways, about what it's like to be a true outsider, gifted in ways the culture finds unacceptable or even bogus, trying to negotiate a path through the "real" world, the supposedly sane world. So the politics in this book are more familial and local. More about how some people considered freakish by society are often our most incandescent, brilliant members.
Q: Dowsing, or divining, is rich with metaphor. You play with ideas of the seen and the unseen, and with literary writing within the mystery. Are there hidden literary references in the book?
Morrow: You're right, divining is one of the richest metaphors I've ever worked with, even though much of the divination in the novel isn't metaphoric at all, but the real deal. I always love weaving hidden allusions in my novels. Beyond the obvious reference to the Cassandra myth, though, I think it's best to leave it to readers to do their own divining.
Bradford Morrow on What Inspired The Diviner's Tale
The Diviner's Tale arose from very humble circumstances. My farmhouse basement in rural New York always flooded when it rained even mildly for a day or two. An excavator friend suggested I hire a “water witch” to try to figure out what was going on underground. Skeptical, I agreed. So when Jimmy showed up with an older gentleman who matter of factly got a Y-rod out of his truck and began walking a zigzag across the yard above the house, I watched, expecting nothing. Skepticism turned to fascination, though, as I saw the tip of his rod jump downward with explosive quickness impossible to fake, and fascination turned to a kind of faith, when Jimmy's men excavated to the dowser's precise directions and found the stream where he said it would be. My flooding problem was soon resolved.
When I started writing the novel, a decade after this encounter, I realized I myself needed to learn the fundamentals of divining if I didn't want to make any serious errors in my portrayal of this complex, gentle, ineffable craft. As it happened, the American Society of Dowsers were holding their convention in Vermont that June, so I enrolled in basic dowsing school. Later, I felt a huge sense of relief when, on reading the galleys of The Diviner's Tale, my teacher, Marty Cain, one of the country's most prominent dowsers, wrote telling me I'd truly captured the craft and experience of divining.
My publisher, when designing the marvelous, haunting dust jacket, asked if I'd object if they put “A Mystery” on the cover instead of “A Novel.” Given that my editor, Otto Penzler, is probably the world's foremost editor of mystery fiction, I didn't think it an unfair request. But I felt, and feel, that The Diviner's Tale is more than a mystery, or at least very different from your conventional mystery novel, and decidedly not a whodunit. When nearing the end of the first draft, I toyed with the idea of Cass's nemesis being someone unexpected, someone other than who he had to be, but then realized such a move would be just that--a move, a trick, ultimately a betrayal of my narrator's quest. The mystery was there for Cassandra Brooks to resolve. What drove the book for me was the need to accompany her on her journey from crisis to illumination, whether that meant drawing on elements of suspense, fantasy, or the supernatural. As a reader, I myself gravitate toward fiction that is free of certain genre-driven restrictions. That The Diviner's Tale turned out to be a dark novel, owing much to the Gothic, didn't surprise me, as that seems to be one of my wellsprings. But that I was creating something of a genre mash-up didn't enter my mind. Rather, I tried as hard as I could to stay true to Cass and family, and her rural communities of Corinth County and Covey Island.
Novels, at least my novels, come less from witnessing or thinking something I feel I can explain, than things I can't. By writing The Diviner's Tale, I narrated my way as close as I could toward an understanding of what I saw that day when the dowser visited my house, and solved an everyday problem by means of a gift one doesn't often witness. He planted the seed of this book by simply going about his business. I've now come to think we're all diviners, finally, in our different ways. We only need to know how easy it is to look around unturned corners to see things up ahead that might otherwise go unnoticed.