A Mural and a Murder in ‘Small Town’ North Carolina

Many Americans felt hopeless in the years following the Great Depression. Jobs were scarce and families were hungry. In an act that seems quaint today, the federal government stepped in and tried to boost morale with art. In 1934, the Section of Painting and Sculpture, was tasked with commissioning 1,400 murals in federal post offices buildings across the country.

In Diane Chamberlain’s latest novel, Big Lies in a Small Town, set in Edenton, North Carolina, we meet one of the only female artists to win a commission to participate, a fictional 22-year-old New Jersey artist named Anna Dale who is murdered in 1940.

I was fascinated to learn about the 1934 post office mural competition. How did you decide to use this piece of history as the jumping off point for your novel? 

I came across an article about the WPA murals and wondered if I might be able to use them as the backdrop to a story. Then I read about the 48-State Competition, in which the contestants entered anonymously, and I realized I could create a character who was a very new, very green artist. By making her a northerner and planting her in the south–a true fish out of water–I could add to her challenges and discomfort. As a writer, I find it fun to turn the expected on its head, so yes, a story about art can indeed be a story about madness and murder. 

The novel is told through alternating points of view in alternating chapters. Have you used this technique in previous books? Why did you feel this method would be effective for this story? 

Yes, I love alternating points of view when they fit the story well, as I hope they do here. It’s not only a way of advancing the story, but it also allows me to drop clues as to what is really going on. The challenge in using alternating chapters from different points of view is to make each equally intriguing. I hope readers find Morgan’s story just as gripping as Anna’s. 

You examine some pretty heavy issues from racism to addiction and mental illness in this novel. What was your research process like?

I actually did little research with regard to addiction and mental illness. I think my background as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist comes into play with regard to psychological issues. Racism, though, was another matter since I grew up in the north and didn’t have specific knowledge of what life would have been like for Jesse and his family in 1940. I was fortunate to meet a woman who helped found a “racial reconciliation group” in Edenton, NC — the setting for the story. I learned a lot through visiting her group and even more from taking two of the older African American gentlemen in the group out to lunch, where they shared their experiences with me. I couldn’t have written Jesse’s part of the story without their help. 

There are many different moving parts in this novel, how did you keep track of the timeline and interweaving narratives? 

I always have charts and timelines scattered all over the house as I write so that I can keep everything straight. However, I wrote the past and the present storylines–Anna’s and Morgan’s–separately. I grew increasingly nervous as I worked on their stories, unsure how they were going to fit together. When it was time to intertwine them, though, I was amazed at how neatly they aligned. I only had to make three or four tweaks. It was a huge relief. 

Finally, I love that the act of creating art is healing, in different ways for different characters, in this story. Was that concept inspired by your own experience as a writer? 

Not intentionally. To be perfectly honest, my intention was only to create an intriguing story. I hope I succeeded with that. 

Big Lies in a Small Town
By Diane Chamberlain
St. Martin’s Press
Published January 14, 2020