Richard and Judy Interview: Hollie Overton on Baby Doll

Richard and Judy Interview: Hollie Overton on Baby Doll

You’re familiar with extreme criminality – your father was a member of a notorious crime gang in Texas and went to jail for manslaughter, so you were raised by your single mother. How much of your background is in this novel?

When I was growing up, my father’s alcoholism and drug addiction made him unpredictable. I loved him deeply, but at times I feared him. His temper could turn on a dime. He’d lash out at my mother and stepmother, inflicting physical and emotional damage. It was only later, when I discovered more about his past, unearthing details about not just his role in the Overton Gang, but also the extreme poverty and abuse he experienced in his own childhood, that I began to understand who he was. When my sister and I were born, he was attempting to put his past behind him but he could never break free from the cycle of addiction. At times, I think he missed the thrill of his old life, the burdens of raising a family weighing him down. I’m fascinated by my family’s history and I imagine one day I’ll explore that story, but writing fiction has always intrigued me. I enjoy creating new characters, giving readers insight into a world they aren’t familiar with. Somehow, without even realising it, so much of my own life made its way into Baby Doll.

The twin relationship between Lily and Abby is the most autobiographical part of my novel. My sister Heather and I are best friends, but like most twins I know – and oddly enough I know a lot of twins – there’s a great deal of dysfunction, including (but not limited to) competitiveness, jealousy and co-dependence. There is also deep and incomparable love. In the book, Abby says again and again that the only thing that truly matters is Lily, and that’s how it is with my own twin. Heather will always come first, something even my husband understands.

Lily, the abducted twin in the novel, is a composite of myself, and Abby is an extremely heightened version of my sister. Some people have said Abby’s character is too harsh at times, but that’s what I love about her. In fact, Abby is my favourite character. To me, her anger and fierce determination are the appropriate emotions for what she’s been through. Whenever I wrote Abby’s chapters, I kept envisioning Heather. What’s funny is that even though Heather read many, many drafts of the book, it took getting it published for her to realise how much of her persona I had stolen for Abby!

There are real-life twin moments threaded into Baby Doll. Heather lost my favourite black sweater what seems like a lifetime ago and I still haven’t recovered. Abby and Lily argue over the same thing in the book. In fact, that fight over a lost sweater is the last time they see one another. What I love about that detail is it’s such an insignificant disagreement and yet, it ends up being monumental to Abby because she said awful things in the heat of the moment and then her sister vanished.

There are elements of both my parents in Baby Doll, too. The book’s antagonist, Rick Hanson, is like my father: handsome, charming and charismatic. They both possess a type of charm and ease they use to their advantage and they both have a Dr Jekyll/ Mr Hyde persona. My father’s was the result of drug addiction but there are shades of his personality in Rick Hanson. The twins’ mother, Eve, is definitely more dysfunctional than my own mother, but she shares Eve’s fierce devotion to her daughters and is willing to do anything for her girls.

Though it presented numerous challenges for me growing up, dealing with my father’s unpredictability shaped me both as a person and as an artist. My fascination with the themes I explore in Baby Doll – like domestic abuse, power dominance and addiction – are subjects that I know about first-hand. There’s something very cathartic about exploring them through fiction. I often say writing is my own form of therapy and in writing Baby Doll, I was able to exorcise at least a few demons.

You write very interestingly about the human spirit, and how it refuses to be crushed. How do you think you would cope with being held prisoner against your will?

I cannot imagine what my main character, Lily, and her family endured or what real-life survivors of similar situations have to do in order to survive. If I were in Lily’s situation, I believe my desire to get back to Heather, my mom and my husband, David, would keep me going. I think in any extreme scenario, whether it’s a plane crash in the middle of nowhere or a hostage situation, it’s about that innate survival instinct deep within us, but also the love of those we know are waiting for us to return. I like to believe that I would fight my way back, that I would be strong enough to survive, but it’s hard to know. I have incredible admiration for the survivors of this type of trauma. I always said when I wrote Baby Doll that it wasn’t a captivity story but an aftermath story. I wanted to write about what happens next and how you can overcome and survive such a terrible experience.

Sadly there are real-life Lily’s out there; women who have been abducted and held captive, sometimes for years. Did you base Baby Doll specifically on any true-life cases? Did you speak to women who’d been kidnapped and held?

In Cleveland, Ohio in May 2013, three young women, Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, managed to escape from Ariel Castro after being held captive for over ten years. Having watched endless news reports on this case, I wrote the first ninety pages of Baby Doll. I didn’t read any other true-life accounts until I completed the first draft. Once I was done, I went back and read about similar cases, including Jaycee Dugard, Amy Smart and Elisabeth Fritzl.

As for speaking with victims, I made a decision early on not to seek them out. I was writing fiction, not true crime, and I knew that if I were in the same situation, I would not want to relive the worst experience of my life.

I did consult with law enforcement and mental health experts to ensure I was properly portraying the characters’ situations. SSA Shanna Daniels of the FBI’s Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit was incredibly helpful, explaining the role that law enforcement plays in child abductions. Special Agent Daniels read an early version of Baby Doll and advised me on proper procedure and corrected any discrepancies. Her input required a bit of rewriting, but I was determined to portray the story as truthfully as possible. I’m also fortunate that one of my best friends, Giselle Jones, is a licensed clinical social worker. Her understanding of the psychological effects of sexual assault, PTSD and extended captivity was invaluable. She read several versions of the manuscript, providing me with the information I needed to craft my characters. Research is not always easy. It requires a lot of time and sometimes changing and shifting your story, but I find it’s a crucial part of the process.

You are a full-time TV writer for mainstream American networks. Tell us about the very different challenges of creating a novel – and a debut, too.

The best part about writing a novel is that it’s entirely your own creation. The worst part is that it’s entirely your own creation. As a novelist, the story is solely in my hands. I don’t have to listen to anyone or take any notes from executives or producers or actors. I am the master of my book’s destiny. Good or bad, it’s all mine! Writing novels, though, is a lonely endeavour. Endless hours spent alone staring at the computer, trying to figure out what happens next, what journey your characters should take and hoping your instincts are steering you down the right path.

The upside of writing for TV is that it’s a group effort. You have a showrunner, generally the creator of the show, who has a vision of what the show should be. It’s a very collaborative process. All the writers pitch story ideas, write scripts and offer notes on every draft, each episode morphing into something better but also different than it was originally. Episodes change based on the network or studio’s input or production issues. What’s great about writing for TV is that you’re not alone. You’re surrounded by incredibly talented writers and producers, working together for months at a time. You’re creatively challenged and pushed to dig deeper. On the flip side, because it isn’t your show or your vision, you’re often forced to compromise as a writer, to give in to ideas you don’t believe in or stories you’re not interested in telling. You have to accept that and be okay with it.

When I wrote Baby Doll, I was newly unemployed after the show I wrote on was cancelled and I was struggling creatively. I wanted to write something for me, and not worry about getting notes or trying to make my vision conform to someone else’s. Getting Baby Doll published and the positive response has been the icing on the cake! I know that’s not always the case for a debut novel. I really love writing TV and novels. I am so grateful that I’m able to tell stories in both mediums and I plan on doing both for as long as possible.