TANGERINE IS AN alluring, powerful book. Author Christine Mangan’s prose bursts with confidence, slyly lulling the reader into a state of openness, throwing reservation aside. Her debut comes across as polished and calculated, a Highsmith-like domestic suspense featuring the exotic and lusty setting of 1956 Tangier, on the cusp of Morocco’s move from multi-country international zone to fully independent nation.
But the novel — which finds agoraphobic young housewife Alice Shipley unexpectedly reunited with her college roommate, Lucy Mason, years after a shocking accident wrenched them apart — manages to reflect a decidedly modern sensibility while still clearly owing as much to the works of Margaret Millar and the great Gothic novels of centuries past. Tangerine works on multiple levels, in the way the best crime novels do: exploring the socioeconomic, personal, cultural, and historical context of its characters and setting. It’s a layered and well-paced read, the almost drowsily written first half giving way to a frenetic pace as one of the key characters goes missing. At the same time, Alice begins to question just why Lucy decided to return, what her intentions might be, and how it might affect her shaky relationship with her morally ambiguous husband, John.
Alice and Lucy appear fully formed, their flaws and excesses on display for all to see through the filter of their shared experiences, two powerful forces pulling at one another. Mangan deftly and precisely unspools the fractured and jagged relationship between her two leads, creating a dynamic that feels both honest and painfully relatable.
In conversation, Mangan is thoughtful and measured, her answers loaded with gem-like book recommendations and revealing a deep knowledge of the subject matter that inspired her novel and that continues to inspire her work. We discussed Tangerine’s literary DNA, what’s she’s working on next, and her process.
ALEX SEGURA: The buzz for Tangerine has been resoundingly positive, which is always nice — but it made me all the more curious about you. Can you tell me a bit about your background and your journey writing the book?
CHRISTINE MANGAN: Writing has always been an important part of my life, ever since I was young. I went on to study it in school, eventually earning an MFA in Fiction Writing, with the hopes of one day writing a novel. Unfortunately, after I graduated, while I did a bit of freelance writing and editing, and in between worked on a novel that I had started, in the end, I eventually made the decision to put all that on hold in order to find a full-time job — never considering that writing could actually be one. That was when I made the decision to focus on academia, spending four years at University College Dublin working on my postgraduate degree. In the months after, my partner and I went traveling and ended up in Tangier for a while. It was such an inspiring place that I found myself taking notes in my journal, writing down possible ideas for a novel, one that I hadn’t ever planned to write. Once I returned to the States, I had an entire year where I was just submitting applications before I was offered a teaching position, and during that time, I sat down and wrote what would eventually become Tangerine, feeling as though it was a “now or never” moment, but never actually anticipating that something would come out of it.
I think that moment is very relatable to writers of any stripe — a turning point that has to be overcome before we can put pen to paper, I guess. Now, there’ve been Highsmith comparisons aplenty in discussions about Tangerine, which I think are spot-on, but I also feel a strong Gothic sensibility, which dovetails with your academic career, correct? It also evoked thoughts of another master of domestic suspense in Margaret Millar, filtered through the prism of today’s reader. Can you talk a bit about your influences and how you think they bubbled up in Tangerine?
When I began writing the novel, I had just finished four years of reading and writing about the Gothic, so I had the Brontë Sisters, James Hogg, Ann Radcliffe, Eliza Parsons all circling in my mind. I had also spent a good deal of time reading those novels that, while popular during the 18th century, were not highly regarded by contemporary critics, and I think all of that motivated me in terms of the story that I started to put down onto the page. For the first time, instead of focusing on what I thought I should write, I thought about what I wanted to write. I love novels of psychological suspense, novels that are Gothic in some aspect, and that focus on female characters, on doubling, on madness. Daphne du Maurier and Sarah Waters are two of my favorite authors and ones that I come back to time and again for just these reasons. So I took all of those things that I love and tried to put them into this book that eventually became Tangerine.
I love that you put it that way, because I feel like many new writers feel a pressure to write a certain way, when the most unique and honest path is to not only write what you know, but what you love. Clearly, the crux of the book is the relationship between Alice and Lucy, and, as readers, we see it peeled away slowly, as you reveal pieces from their shared past and how their friendship fractured. Was it challenging to unspool that gradually, and how did you find yourself doing it? Outlining heavily? Instinct?
In some ways, yes, it was very difficult, because I had to be certain that it all tracked, that nothing was revealed too early and that the tension between these two women continued to build over the course of the novel. In one of the earliest drafts, the structure was actually quite different. Rather than switching back and forth between Lucy and Alice, I had written it as two separate parts, with Alice as Part One and Lucy as Part Two. However, it became apparent that in such a format the tension between the two women dragged and certain details were lost among all the information. When I began to intersperse them, I did have to rely on an outline, just to make sure that everything lined up the way it was supposed to.
It’s so interesting to me to hear about how different writers piece together a novel, because it seems like most writers don’t fall into the either/or buckets of outliners and non-outliners — their process often falls somewhere in-between. For me, Tangerine’s exotic setting is one of its most immersive qualities. Tangier, especially on the cusp of independence, is such a fertile place and moment. What made you want to set the book there, and how do you think it helped the novel?
Tangier was the inspiration for the novel in the first place. Traveling has become such a big part of my life and out of all the places that I have been, Tangier is the one that continues to stand out among the rest. I think there is something so unique and so distinctive about that particular place, so that, where other cities tend to blend and blur over time, Tangier remains incredibly vivid in my mind.
It’s also quite a polarizing place. If you read travel essays about it, blogs, the one thing that people always seem to circle back to is how absolutely overwhelming a place it can be and while some are happy to dive into that, others really struggle. That is, ultimately, where the start of this novel began, the idea of setting two characters against this very chaotic backdrop and watching how they react to the city itself.
And of course, because of my background, because of my study of and love for Gothic fiction, I was also quite conscious of depicting the city and of creating a world that was strong enough to live up to Manderley in Rebecca and Thornfield in Jane Eyre. I wanted to recreate the sense of Tangier as this intoxicating, but also potentially dangerous, place, with labyrinthine streets that can be just as threatening as any Gothic invention.
Initially, I was also drawn to that particular moment in history because of Tangier’s literary associations during that time. However, after some research, I began to realize the other reasons that the 1950s would be particularly poignant, as during that time Tangier was moving toward independence, toward a transformation. I thought that atmosphere would particularly resonate with the characters of Lucy and Alice, who are themselves trying to obtain a level of autonomy as women during this time period.
The pace and plot of Tangerine is very much a simmering, slow boil, but in the best way — we get to really spend time in the heads of Lucy and Alice and see the world through their eyes, allowing us to figure out how those views contradict each other and perhaps don’t sync up with reality. What made this a story you wanted to tell? About two women with tragic pasts — one wealthy and cared for, the other more scrappy and abandoned?
The story that I always wanted to tell was one about female friendship — in particular, those ones that we make in our formative years, which are often brief but intense — and the moment when that friendship begins to crumble. I think, in those instances, there is always going to be one person who feels the break a bit more deeply, who is affected more than the other, which played into the decision to make Lucy and Alice come from such different worlds. I wanted to clearly illustrate just how much Lucy is losing when Alice first starts to pull away. And it’s a contrast that is featured in some of my favorite novels, where such an imbalance in the relationship ultimately ups the stakes, creating tension by making the relationship that much more fraught.
I really value how you, as a writer, linger in the gray areas, though Tangerine is a definite and complete narrative. The ending and plot are well paced and clear, but there’s also time spent showing the uncertainty of life and of people. I think part of that is because you spend so much time creating these nuanced and flawed people. Can you talk a bit about Alice, Lucy, and John — about their dynamic and what made them interesting to you?
I think that the dynamic between John, Alice, and Lucy is illustrative of what happens when you have two people who share a past, and then a third who steps in and disrupts it. I was also very interested in creating three characters that are all deeply flawed, so there is no good person or bad person. This was particularly important when it came to Alice and Lucy because of everything that happens between them. There isn’t just one person that can be entirely blamed for what happens, they each are responsible in certain ways.
Yes, the damage isn’t inflicted on one side, but feels more like a ticking bomb that takes them both out to varying degrees — which is something most people can relate to when looking back at complex, intense friendships. Can you talk a bit more about your writing process?
When I begin something new, I always start off writing long hand. I generally write in journals and try to get as much down as possible before eventually collecting everything into a Word document. I find it much easier to come up with ideas when I’m not sitting in front of a computer screen.
As writers, our work never really ends, and reading is a huge part of that journey. What are you reading these days? Can you talk about what’s coming up next for you?
I’ve been reading a lot of different things recently: Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, Ice by Anna Kavan, The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, The Tourists by Julianne Pachico, Waiting for Tomorrow by Nathacha Appanah. My reading tends to be really wide and varied. I write best when I’m reading a lot and lately I’ve been trying to just absorb as much as possible.
I’m not entirely sure what’s next — this year has been so unexpected. I have a few ideas for new stories and a draft for a novel that I’ve been working on.