Ashley Ream wrote five novels before she got one published; the most unfortunate of them was an allegorical tale about a hippopotamus stranded in the desert. "They are in the drawer, where they belong," Ream says over coffee at a little café near her Los Feliz home.
She is prim and polite, dressed in dark colors, but laughs easily. "I knew the hippo was awful," she chuckles, "but it was one of those things I just had to get through."
And it seems that hippo did impart to her some of its secrets; it was while writing about it in a coffee shop in Santa Monica that the inspiration for her first published novel, Losing Clementine, dawned on her.
Clementine, in stores March 6, is the story of a successful artist who decides to kill herself; she takes 30 days to put her affairs in order. Clementine initially views the decision as self-sacrificial, believing her friends and family are better off without her.
But the process makes her question the importance of her role in their lives. "That's when things get complicated," Ream says.
It's a jaunt through contemporary Los Angeles as our heroine contemplates taking the big plunge while eating at taco trucks and attending art galas.
Publishers Weekly called it "an entertaining and moody whirlwind."
"As writers we channel things. ... The first chapter of Losing Clementine happened that way for me," Ream says. "We all have moments that are blissful."
Yet Ream doesn't seem to be the kind of person who relies too heavily on moments of divine intervention; she is extremely structured in both her artistic and her personal life. She is up before dawn every morning and frequently runs "ultramarathons" -- longer than 26 miles. She works full-time at a nonprofit and starts her writing day around 5 p.m., when everyone is leaving to go home. She sits in her basement office, powers on the computer and sets to creating.
As is the case with writers from Hemingway to Daniel Defoe, Ream began as a journalist before turning to fiction. She has worked at newspapers all over the country, from Florida to Texas, starting when she graduated early from high school at age 16 and got an internship at an alternative weekly in Kansas City. She eventually attended journalism school at the University of Missouri. Now, "It's a bit strange being on the other side of the table," she admits.
Ream's interest in hunting down a story is perhaps why she has often turned to mystery writing, the genre of some of her unpublished works. "It taught me a lot about how to keep a plot moving," she says.
You get a sense of both Ream's newspaper and mystery backgrounds in Clementine. The novel's structure is, like many mysteries, quite calculated, a slow countdown of 30 days. Suspense builds as we get closer to the planned suicide.
The prose is slightly hard-boiled, but whimsically so, and Clementine has a prickliness reminiscent of Philip Marlowe.
Ream isn't afraid of fragmentary sentences -- simple images laid out on the page in a toned-down version of the style popularized by Cormac McCarthy. It isn't gorgeous writing, but it's clean and competent.
And when it comes to the subject of suicide, her novel's main fodder, Ream resembles a careful journalist in her writing, considering the practicality of killing oneself.
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"I actually took a suicide vacation" for research, she says. "I went down to Tijuana and looked at all the pills you would need to actually do it. There are practical steps involved. Clementine buys her own cemetery plot, picks out a casket, finds a home for her cat."
Ream isn't concerned with passing judgment on the morality of the act but more with the reality of the situation. "Clementine isn't selfishly motivated. But if she goes through with it, it will impact those around her."
Ream wants us to dispel any thoughts we have that suicide is sentimental, because, she says, it just isn't.