“Is anything…ever only one thing?” asks a character near the end of Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts. Certainly not this warm-hearted novel by Kate Racculia! Wrapped up in a spectacular treasure hunt, the book is part mystery, part Massachusetts-rooted romp, part twenty-first-century comedy of manners. The plot has more twists than Boston’s cow-path streets. It brings together a fundraising researcher whose “mental files” form armor against mourning her first best friend, her buddy who works in finance despite dreams of musical theater, her teenage neighbor “sinking” without a mother, and several eccentrics from two top-tax-bracket clans. Stories nested inside other stories uncover multiple games being played—beyond cards and ingenious puzzles: the games or “under-games” in encounters with a stranger, at each stage of developing relationships, in money- or power-grabs, at school, at work, within families.
It’s hard not to use words like “madcap” or “rollicking” to describe Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts. At the same time, the book is astute, wryly sad, and bursting with quirky, spot-on description. A starred review in Publishers Weekly aptly calls it a “spirited—in every sense of the word—genre-bending adventure.” Kirkus Review notes that this “spooky, witty, and observant” novel “never loses sight of adulthood’s woes.” No spoilers here, but how well can anyone ever solve the mystery of someone else, decipher their multiple selves, their ghosts and secret quests? And yet, like the highly appealing characters, we grope forward, following whichever hunches feel true, “trying to make sense out of senselessness.”
Kate Racculia received her MFA from Emerson College and lives in Pennsylvania, working at the Bethlehem Area Public Library and teaching online courses for Grub Street. Her previous novel, Bellweather Rhapsody, was awarded the Alex Award by the American Library Association. She is also author of This Must Be the Place. Dead Darlings is so pleased she could make time to speak with us, in the busy lead-up to the October 8 release (today!) of Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts.
Dead Darlings: What a fun read! Can you talk about your inspirations for this story?
Thank you! This book is a complete mash letter to my eleven years in Boston, to the experiences I had, the people I met, and the city itself. I moved to Boston in 2003 to get my MFA, so from the beginning it was a place where I was having an adventure, where there was so much to discover—so many people who became My People, so many places that became My Places. And so much history. I’ve always been a lover of mystery and supernatural darkness, so Boston’s past and general aura, that delicious spooky New England gothic vibe, immediately felt like home. I loved it. I loved my life there. And as much as it was the right decision, financially and personally, to leave, I missed it terribly. So I wrote a book that allowed me to capture that Boston, My Boston—which is itself a ghost now, already five years gone—on the page.
Tuesday Mooney is also inspired by the full-time jobs I had while I was writing my first two books on weekends: as a marketing writer in finance (around the 2008 crash), and then in fundraising, researching and compiling dossiers on wealthy prospective donors. When I told my editor for Bellweather Rhapsody, the marvelous Andrea Schulz, about my day job profiling rich people, she said, “Oh, you’ve GOT to write about that!” Thus the idea, an amateur detective prospect researcher, that would become Tuesday Mooney was born.
So I had all my missing-Boston grief to work through, a literal wealth of knowledge about both Boston and money, and a terrific occupation for a protagonist. The last piece was deciding to write an adventure story, something screwball that paid homage to two of my formative loves, The Goonies and Indiana Jones, with a female hero. But when you gender-flip Indiana Jones, you don’t come up with Lara Croft—the last thing Lara Croft is is a fallible everywoman—but instead an independent, knowledgeable, determined…spinster.
Indiana Jones IS a spinster: self-supporting and self-contained, unmarried and unlikely to pair with any one partner. (We can talk later about whether Crystal Skull is canon. In any case, marrying your first love late in life is a classic spinster move). Indy’s singleness, however—if it’s remarkable at all—is aspirational, not pejorative. So Tuesday Mooney was also inspired by an attempt to play with that double standard, to investigate ideas about independence and partnership, family and friendship, and all the other forms of love and human connection that make a life full.
The novel blends an impressive range of moods: from clever silliness and philosophical (or drunken) musing to painful longing. Was it hard to find this balance?
While I was writing Tuesday Mooney, I was going through it. I had moved from Boston to the small town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to take the freelance/self-employed-as-a-writer leap, but it took a long, long time (read: years) for me to create a healthy work and life routine in my new home. Not to mention I was writing throughout 2016, 2017, and 2018, amid the increasing cruelty, pain, and distraction of the world. I was, and still am, feeling a lot—the whole gamut of emotions—while trying to focus on what’s important. So when I was down in this manuscript, I was also reminding myself of what I valued, what had been and what still felt essential and imperative: connections, expression, complexity. Any balance I found, in my life or in this book, was willed into place by imagining a more capacious, generous world.
As you mentioned, this is your third book. Each involves its own world, of course, and its own writing struggles, but have any parts of the process gotten easier? In other words, do you write fewer “banana drafts,” as you say in the Acknowledgments?
Haha, I write MORE. It gets harder. For me, the books get bigger and messier before they’re done. In my case, I think it’s a matter of having the space in my life now—leaving behind full-time employment had its challenges, but it opened up plenty of time—and my natural creative scope (friends, it is massive). I’m ambitious; I run anxious; and I get bored quickly. My instinct is to challenge myself to do a big idea justice, and see how many little ideas and moments and puns I can scatter along the way. I’m a born maximalist, so my next challenge will be to court more discipline. That, thankfully, is what revision is for.
The structure and plot certainly are big, and wonderfully intricate! Did you have a system to keep track of all the layers, who knew what when, etc.?
Because I was working on an adventure plot model, I outlined a basic three-act cinematic structure. (Everything I know about plotting I learned from screenwriting.) I knew generally what should happen in each act. I knew who my characters were and what external challenges they would face, but I didn’t know what they would do in these heightened situations, or how they would feel or change. It’s like I built a ridiculous high-concept playground, then let a bunch of messy weirdos loose inside; or I was architect of the game, but also each of the players. It took a lot of experimentation and stepping back to reassess, a lot of rewriting and revision—and a lot of plotting crazy puzzles and backstories outside of the manuscript—before I discovered what the book itself wanted to become.
Your novel is also being published in the UK by HarperFiction—congratulations! The British title will be Tuesday Mooney Wore Black. What was the thinking behind this change?
My UK publishers were concerned the original title would read young, and people would be confused it was a middle-grade or young-adult book. This is a reaction I also get here in the States: when I mention the title to people, usually their first question is, “Is it young adult?” Which I understand! When I chose Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts—and this was the first and only title I ever had for the manuscript—I was deliberately quoting a template that people associate with young audiences: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Yet people of all ages enjoy those stories! And part of what the book is about is being an adult and realizing you still have the capacity to discover new things, to be adventurous, to change. Talks to Ghosts as a title is youthful in reference and affect, and ultimately I think representative of the book itself: it’s a coming of age story for whatever age you happen to be. But it’s also a story about exploring your identities and other selves, so when HarperFiction asked me to consider a different title, the very act of re-titling felt in keeping. (Is anything ever only one thing?) My best friend actually came up with Tuesday Mooney Wore Black, which I think strikes a terrific tone that captures the book: gothic, mysterious, and character-centric.
You were saying that it’s been some years since you lived in Boston, and you wrote this novel, which is so steeped in the city, from your new home. Was it, as Tuesday realizes, “easier to notice what’s important when you’re outside looking in”?
Absolutely. I couldn’t have written this book while I still lived in Boston, for a few reasons. First, I literally couldn’t have afforded to step back from a full-time job to write it, and I don’t think Tuesday Mooney would have happened only on the weekends. Living in a small town, keeping an extremely low overhead, and finding great gigs—I work part-time at my public library, freelance for local publications, teach the odd class IRL, as well as Novel-in-Progress and Novel Revision online for GrubStreet—is ultimately what made the writing of this book possible. And yes, this is the part where, as someone who quit her day job, I say don’t quit your day job. Or rather, if your day job is rotten, trade it for some other form of employment, an occupation that supports you financially and socially, that provides stability and community. Don’t get seduced by the lie that the only legitimate writing life is the life where you’re writing only. I trot out this Stephen King quote in classes all the time, because it’s one of the truest pieces of writing advice I know: “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Beyond the practical aspects, it was necessary for me to see my eleven years in Boston from a distance. It was only with remove that I realized, as I was slowly building my writing career, I’d spent nearly a decade in the business of money. (That’s late-stage capitalism for you!) To write Tuesday Mooney required perspective on my whole experience, and a grief-fueled desire to conjure what was no longer right in front of me. I had to write this novel as a love letter to everything and everyone that shaped me during those years, and to honor the ghost in me who will haunt that city always.