On the surface, Kate Brody’s debut, Rabbit Hole, appears like the slick true crime novels that have come before it. Teddy Angstrom has just lost her father by suicide on the ten-year anniversary of her sister Angie’s disappearance. But within a few pages, the reader loses their footing as they plunge into a world of secrets and subverted expectations. Memory twists into something slippery and intangible as Teddy tries to piece together what happened, and eventually turns to Reddit for more information. There, she finds amateur internet sleuth Mickey, who is much younger than Teddy and oddly fascinated with the case. Together, they uncover unspeakable truths, and illuminate the gloomy, gritty underbelly of true crime: grief.
Kate and I met a year ago in a writing class, and because of her sharp questions and ideas, I knew I wanted to keep in touch. Since then, we’ve rooted for each other’s careers and commiserated over the challenges. We caught up over the phone to discuss Rabbit Hole. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Elizabeth Endicott: Can you explain where the idea for Rabbit Hole first came from?
Kate Brody: It started with the idea that there’s this cold case disappearance, that Angie had been gone for ten years, and that Teddy’s father’s suicide sparks this renewed interest in the case. I started with the beginning, which is that scene of Teddy and her mother finding the wreckage of his car—I wanted to jump right into the action. The Reddit piece was also there early on. I had gotten interested in Reddit because I was teaching high school kids at the time, and they were all on it. All the adults I knew talked about it like it was the worst place on Earth. I got very curious about it. The intersection of Reddit and the true crime world was where I think the concept finally got a foothold and started to make sense to me. And then it changed a lot.
One of my favorite things I know about you is that Rabbit Hole sold while you were in labor with your second child. Having written before and after kids, I’m curious how motherhood has impacted your writing?
That’s a good question. I started taking writing seriously when I was about twenty, towards the end of my college tenure, then jumped right into an MFA program (which I don’t recommend) and wrote for a couple years after that. But really, the birth of my first kid sort of dovetailed with the failure of my first book, the one I wrote before Rabbit Hole. So that was a weird time. It was 2018 when I got pregnant and that was right around when I finally decided to stop—the book wasn’t going anywhere, and I just needed to shelve it. I remember being surprised by the fact that I knew that wasn’t the end. I was worried that I tried and failed and would just put all that away. But motherhood motivated me in a way that almost surprised me. I still really wanted to get a book done.
Most of Rabbit Hole was drafted during that first maternity leave. I’d been teaching full-time and it was really hard to write during the school year. When I got time off after having my oldest in 2019, I finally got a lot of the first draft done. So that first year of motherhood is very tied up in the book to me. Both my kids feel tied to this book. When I think about how old the book is, it’s as old as my oldest, but it only became official, like you said, when I went into labor with the second. I was really worried that if I failed twice, and had a second kid, I wouldn’t try again. So it was such a relief to sell the book. It also made my second maternity leave kind of brutal—I was editing this book on a deadline. But I was just so glad to have done it. And I wanted my kids to know me as a writer, the way I know myself. So I was pleased that the timing of it ended up working out. This is who I am to them, who I’ll always be to them. That felt important.
So you wrote this beautiful autofictional piece for The Rumpus about your deceased father and it made me think about how debut novels often pull from an author’s life and can have autofictional qualities. I’m curious if that was something you grappled with while writing Rabbit Hole?
I don’t think Rabbit Hole is hugely autofictional, but the biggest piece is definitely my dad. My dad was really complicated. I was kind of obsessed with him and in many ways still am. I adored him. He is the biggest shaping force on my personality. When he died, it was a mess. He left a lot of loose ends, but also tried to control the narrative of his life—he left all these letters behind. So I struggled a lot with the question of memory. In the ensuing years, I started to doubt that I had a clear picture of him, like my memory was getting crowded by everyone else’s hagiography, by his own letter writing, by all these other elements. . . . Like Teddy’s father, mine had a son who he didn’t really acknowledge, which has been something I’ve really struggled to reconcile with the man I knew.
I think that happens for everybody who loses somebody, that you don’t know how to make sense of who they were in a way that feels comfortable, because you want it to be this thing you can hold on to. But people are slippery and complicated. That was at the heart of the book. And not just with Teddy’s father, but with Angie too. Teddy has this sense that her own memories of Angie are fading, and they’re getting colored by things that maybe aren’t real, like other people’s voices and a very sunny version of Angie that was part of the press around her disappearance, and also all these sordid things she’s learning after the fact.
So there were all these pieces that were a big part of writing the book. I don’t think I solved any of it. I think it’s just the thorny part of loss. If you try to remember the person as they were, you end up sitting with these contradictory, uncomfortable truths about someone who is no longer there to help you figure it out.
Sisterhood is portrayed so beautifully throughout Rabbit Hole, and yet it’s framed by absence, as Teddy’s sister Angie has been missing for a decade. How did you bring such nuance and specificity to sisterhood in the book?
I have two younger sisters. My relationships with my sisters are the most important relationships in my life. When I imagine the scariest thing it is losing that and trying to navigate without that shared history—without that person who is sharing this experience with me. From a fictional standpoint, sibling relationships are so fraught in such a rich way, because they’re intimate and also often competitive. You see yourself in a sibling because you are so closely related, and yet you are often literally competing for resources, attention, whatever. I see it in my own kids now, it’s just such an odd, specific relationship. It’s not a friendship. It’s not the kind of unconditional parental relationship. It’s not romantic love. It’s this really odd thing that I find interesting from a fictional perspective. It’s the one kind of relationship where you are maybe constantly in conflict, and also constantly in love. Those things exist at the same time. You are so clear-eyed about that person’s faults, but also about the fact that you’re tied to them for life. There’s really nothing else like that.
With Teddy, I wanted Angie to be a big loss, but also something where maybe Teddy had these moments of remembering that Angie was a pain in the ass and they weren’t best friends. They were not constantly having a great time. Sisterhood isn’t this neat, perfect story.
Some of those sibling dynamics show up in Teddy’s relationship with Mickey. At times they act sisterly, at times they’re partners in crime, sometimes Teddy acts in a maternal way toward her, but then other times there’s this tension of will-they/won’t-they. I’m curious what aspects you were interested in exploring within their relationship?
I had conceived of Mickey as a kind of gothic doppelganger for Angie. The question of how much Mickey actually looks like Angie is open for interpretation as Teddy’s perspective is so warped. But Mickey was a way of taking that sibling relationship and making it even more bizarre because like you said, there is this kind of like a strange, almost taboo, will-they/won’t-they sexual tension in the relationship. There’s also a kind of teacher-student thing, given Teddy’s job and their age difference. Mickey and Teddy take elements of Teddy and Angie’s relationship and put them in a funhouse mirror to see what comes out. The problem is that they’re not sisters, so there isn’t that ride or die aspect—it’s not unconditional. Mickey is looking for that, she wants to touch that kind of love, and I don’t think you can really replicate it.
Teddy isn’t written as plus size, but I noticed that she inhabits a bodily unease that’s very familiar to me as a plus-sized person. Having read your LitHub essay about your experience having author photos taken, I’m curious if body politics were something you thought about while writing.
Yeah, I mean, I’m just always thinking about that. I wish I could escape it, but that is one of the fundamental broken things about my brain. I am constantly thinking about my body and other people’s bodies. I really don’t like describing characters’ looks. I get a lot of feedback like, “I can’t picture this character.” And what people want is a hair color, a dress size, an eye color. I resisted that with Teddy because I wanted her to also have a loose grasp on what she looks like in the way that I do with myself and a lot of people do where they can’t really see themselves clearly. She wouldn’t be thinking about herself in terms of like, “I’m a semi-young, semi-conventionally attractive whatever.” There are days where she feels like a swamp monster. I’m interested in characters who are very in their bodies, but with Rabbit Hole, I wanted to do that from the inside looking out and on the outside looking in.
Angie is a little bit different because there’s so much gaze on Angie. The true crime interest has made her an object of fascination. There’s a scene where Teddy finds this old Reddit thread of people talking about how Angie looks in her field hockey uniform and that, to me, is horror. The idea of finding people talking about my body online sends a chill up my spine. Playing with direction of gaze in the book was important to me.
Another place I noticed a parallel between Teddy’s life and your own is that she’s a high school teacher. As a former high school teacher, how do you think a career in education complements writing?
It’s very hard to write when you’re teaching full time. I actually thought for a while it was my kids that were keeping me from writing. Then I stopped teaching full time and realized it was the teaching. That was the bigger drain on my energy, because it is just really, really intensive. You’re reading a lot for work, but not the things you necessarily want to read or the things that will be relevant to what you’re writing. And you’re also writing a lot when you’re teaching, at least at the high school level. And you’re editing a ton of student work. All of that took away from my own work.
But on the other side of it, I wrote the first draft of Rabbit Hole when I was teaching full time and I see some influence of the books I was teaching in this text. I was teaching a lot of Gothic literature, thinking really deeply about Frankenstein and doppelgangers. These things might not be there for the reader, but I feel them in the book.
Teaching keeps you sharp. You’re thinking about literature in such a deep way—deeper than in college or grad school—because you’re the boss. I read things five times in a row and annotated them within an inch of their life. By the third time I gave the same lesson, I would have epiphanies about these books that I’d read a dozen times. So that level of attention to language was great and is something I miss. I don’t read like that anymore, you know, the same thing six times in a week. I don’t talk about the same passage over and over again until I start to hallucinate. That was its own kind of education. It kept me excited about writing because I was plugged into what this tradition means and how great it can be. So it cuts both ways, I guess.
The “unlikable female protagonist,” is both popular and polarizing. Teddy makes lots of questionable choices, but as someone who has grappled with grief myself, I was still able to empathize with her throughout the book. Were you thinking about other “unlikable female protagonists” when you wrote this? How did that inform your character development?
I don’t really think about that. I guess I don’t find Teddy unlikable. I don’t really find that many protagonists unlikable. It’s pretty hard for me to get deep into a book and not like the protagonist. But yeah, I know that is an issue for a lot of people.
I have been thinking a lot about my own impulse to not give people what they want. When I’m writing something, I often have this stubborn, like, “Fuck you, make me,” mentality that I’m trying to shake off a little bit. I read books I love, like Writers & Lovers by Lily King where it ends nicely and it’s so satisfying to me as a reader when these characters are making healthy decisions and doing things in a sane way. So I’m trying to challenge myself to do a little bit of that, but I think my impulses are more like, well, life is hard, and people make bad choices, and we’re going to see how that goes. But it wasn’t something that I thought about as like, “Oh, she’s going to be unlikable, let me see how far I can push this.” I think it’s almost like writing nonfiction, where you have to make yourself the villain—if you don’t come off looking the worst then you’ve written it unfairly. It would feel a little cheap for me to just write this nice character that bad things happen to, like the version of this story where Teddy is a really likable person, and her sister disappears, her father kills himself, and she’s just with a heart of gold? That feels really phony and cheap to me. Like, oh, you know, poor her, if only the world was fair to her. She had to come at the conflict with at least as much of her own venom to make it work.
Teddy slowly untangles this legacy of secrets her father left behind, and along the way ends up with some secrets of her own. What are your thoughts on the cyclical nature of families?
That’s an obsession of mine. If you come from the kind of family where there are secrets, you grow up with an impulse to keep secrets. That has been my experience, anyway. I don’t know if this is an Irish-Catholic thing, but we grew up very much understanding that there were things that you just didn’t know about. And if you found out about them, forget you ever heard it, and if you did something bad, let’s find a way to hide it. I’ve been trying to work against that in my adult life, but I still feel an impulse to hide all the time and feel ashamed of things that are maybe fine and can just be lived out in the open, whether that’s “illegitimate” relatives or addiction or whatever. All those things don’t need to be this shameful weird thing, but it’s very hard to unlearn. That’s part of why I gave Teddy this family background where she’s from this WASP-y culture on her dad’s side that’s used to burying anything that’s not expedient. The legacy of that is that her father was living with so much shame, and his addiction is really not discussed. Angie’s problems are kind of buried under the rug. Even after her death, they’re not discussed. Teddy doesn’t really know another way of coping than to sort of go out on her own to do whatever she needs to do, and then find a way to hide it.
Let’s talk about true crime. I understand people’s draw to the genre in that facing something head-on can kind of demystify and make those terrible things seem a little less scary. But there’s also been recent criticism about glamorization and exploitation, and I think that your book is grappling with that. How did you think about the true crime genre while you were writing Rabbit Hole?
I had consumed a good amount of true crime and felt okay about it in my early twenties. It was mostly like, In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter type of stuff, where I was like, “Oh, this is of historical or literary significance, and that’s why I’m interested in it.” But it ended up being a slippery slope into Dateline. There was this one show I remember watching on Netflix where this man murdered his pregnant wife and two kids. And it wasn’t necessarily that I felt the family had been exploited. It was more that I felt it was bad for my soul, like, “Oh I’ll either watch Arrested Development, or I’ll watch this man murder his two children. And then I’ll go have dessert.” It just seemed perverse.
I thought a lot about what it would mean to be the subject of this kind of attention. Teddy’s family is at the center of it. I know the spotlight can be helpful for some of the families involved in true crime media, and they choose to participate. Power to them. But to me, it sounded horrible to become a character to somebody else and not a real person. True crime kind of turns everybody into stock characters.
I sound more moralizing than I am in my heart. I totally get why people watch it, but I do think there’s something corrosive about it to the human spirit. It’s a little weird to be like, “Oh, yeah, I saw this amazing thing where this woman was brutally beaten within an inch of her life. It’s so good, you should watch it.” These are real people and real things that happened. It’s an interesting cultural phenomenon. I think it speaks to the level of estrangement we all have from each other as a result of the internet age where we see everybody else as avatars and not real people.
At its heart, Rabbit Hole is about grief, which I find so fitting. Grief is the human cost at the center of true crime that isn’t always part of the sexy package. But ultimately, someone has been lost, and that ripples through families and communities and you demonstrate that loss so poignantly in the book. Can you tell me about the importance of grief in this story and why you wanted to illuminate it?
Yeah, that’s true. Grief is not really part of most true crime narratives. Grief is just so hard for us to talk about. It’s really not sexy and very, very uncomfortable. Two weeks after my dad died, I remember thinking to myself, “Everyone’s over it, you just have to move on.” I didn’t want to talk about it, because it felt like a burden that could cost me something socially.
Grief is like death in the sense that we don’t want to talk about it because it’s scary and we know it’s coming for us. You see somebody who’s in a lot of grief and it’s frightening the way that mental illness is frightening and death is frightening, because you’re vulnerable to it.
The new book I’m working on, it’s about ambition and bodies, but less about grief and death. I’m relieved; I wasn’t sure, honestly, if I had anything else to say. I kind of felt like maybe this was my thing, that I just thought about grief a lot. But time passes, and you start to feel better.
I’m excited to hear that you’re working on your second book. How is that process comparing to your experience with writing Rabbit Hole?
It’s tragically the same. I really hoped I had figured something out—for maybe four disciplined months, I sat down every morning and got a full draft done. I thought that I cracked the code, that I was finally a professional writer. But then I went back to it, and it was such a mess. I rewrote the whole thing from scratch when I meant to edit it. And now I can’t even look at it because I think it’s just a disaster and I know it’s going to go the same way as Rabbit Hole with endless iterative edits. So, yeah, it’s the same. I don’t know another way to do it, I guess, other than to just make a huge mess, and then hope that it comes together.
Elizabeth Endicott is a Denver-based writer. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Scientific American, Slate, and more. You can find her on Instagram @weirdbirds and very rarely on Twitter @lizapricot.
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