Today’s interview with New York Times Bestselling Author Diane Chamberlain was months in the making, and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity not only to read The Last House on the Street before its release but to be able to interview Diane. As those of you who follow along here already know, I shared about The Last House on the Street in my ‘Most Anticipated New Releases of January‘ last week, and today you’ll get an inside look into the novel from the author herself.
When did you first come up with the idea for your latest novel, The Last House on the Street?
I was reading a book about the 1964 fight for civil rights, as that’s a topic that’s always interested me. In the book, there was a sentence or two about the 1965 SCOPE program in which college students were trained to help Black southerners register to vote. The program intrigued me and as I started researching it, the story idea began to take shape in my mind.
Where did you write the majority of the novel?
I did most of my writing in Starbucks in the North Carolina town where I live, or at my beach condo, or on my back porch with a view of the woods, which helped me imagine Kayla’s backyard. Covid has really put a damper on my Starbucks writing these days!
What was one of the most interesting finds you made during the research process?
Although I’ve lived in the South for decades, I grew up in New Jersey, so I still found some of the racial relations surprising. I also was surprised that the SCOPE program wanted only Northern (and some Western) students. Through my research, I finally understood the reason for that choice: the potential Black voters wouldn’t trust the motivation of Southern students. That fact also added another obstacle for Ellie when it came to winning the trust of both the residents and her fellow students.
Was the town of Round Hill based on an actual town in North Carolina?
No, Round Hill is a complete figment of my imagination. I didn’t want to be locked into the reality of the towns that were actually involved. I needed to be able to make up settings and events. The one thing that is true, however, is that the courthouses did shut down rather than allow people to register during that summer. They only opened when they were forced to by the signing of the Voting Rights Act in August.
Which of the character’s timelines, Ellie in the 1960s or Kayla’s in the present did you enjoy writing the most?
I really enjoyed both of them equally, although it was a bit crazy-making, writing such different storylines. The most fun for me was having those two stories collide. I loved when both Ellie and Kayla were finally connected in the same timeframe.
Was it difficult going back and forth between the different timelines?
No, not really. I’ve done it often in my books. I do write one of the timelines first, though, and then the other. That way, I don’t lose the chain of what’s happening, nor do I lose the “voice” of the main character in that timeline.
How do you feel things have changed for civil rights, and what aspects do you feel still need to be brought to light?
I think we made real progress for several decades, especially with regard to voting rights. So much so, that the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, giving “permission” to the states to create new obstacles to vote through gerrymandering and limiting voting opportunities, etc. We’ve gone backwards with frightening speed. The two laws under discussion right now, The John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act are not making much headway through congress at this time.
If The Last House on the Street was turned into a feature film, who would you want to play Ellie, Kayla, and Win?
I’ll let my readers figure this one out!
What was one of your favorite scenes to write?
The whole KKK event and the hospital visit that followed were a couple of my favorite scenes to write. I was fascinated and shocked by my research on the Klan activities in North Carolina and the scene at the rally gave me a chance to illustrate Ellie’s youth and the poor judgment that came with it. The scene in the hospital also let me show the shifting relationship she had with Win.
When planning out the storyline, did you have scenarios where certain scenes played out differently or was the ending how you envisioned it from the beginning?
Oh, there are a million different ways in which the story/scenes/characters changed over the course of the writing. The characters themselves often lead me in directions I don’t expect. That’s the joy of writing for me; even though I may plan the storyline ahead of time, those pesky characters have minds of their own!
Are you currently working on your next novel and if so, can we get a sneak peek?
To be honest, I am not yet sure what it will be about, as I’m toying with a few different ideas and don’t know which will win the competition. I hope to have the answer very soon so I can dig into the story.