Murder in the Midwest, the acclaimed novel written during lunch hours

Mindy Mejia's second novel, The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman, has already attracted interest from cable TV networks. Photo/Supplied
Mindy Mejia's second novel, The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman, has already attracted interest from cable TV networks. Photo/Supplied

Rural Southern Minnesota, 2007; the local high school is putting on a Shakespeare production.

"Nothing suicidal," says the principal.

Fledgling hipster English teacher Peter Lund chooses Macbeth. Peter's been dragged to small-town Pine Valley from Minneapolis on account of his wife's mother's illness. He's an outsider - a vegetarian, his chatroom handle is Lit Geek, he's into Pynchon, not ploughs, and his marriage is crumbling. He was never going to choose A Midsummer's Night Dream.

Soon he'll meet the eponymous star of Mindy Mejia's deft new novel (Hattie's cast as Lady Macbeth in the play). It's no spoiler to reveal Hattie ends up dead on opening night -- like Mrs M, off-stage -- which means, in Hattie's case, a run-down barn where high-school kids make out and smoke dope.

Hattie's an outsider too; a dreamer in a place wary of them. After school she worked in a photo shop at the local pharmacy.

Conversation topics? The weather (frost advisories) and television. Hattie would smile and small-talk and dream of being an actress on Broadway. Her identity was a muddle of Sex and the City, Charlotte Bronte and whatever pop culture references her magpie eye landed on, however her chief ability was being all things to all people: the good girlfriend, perfect student, dutiful daughter, obliging shop assistant.

"When I started writing I was looking for a Laura Palmer-type Twin Peaks figure -- ideal on the surface but with grit," says Mejia down a crackly line from Minneapolis. "I actually went back and read some of my old teenage journals just to try to get back into the head of a teenage girl, because it's been a while," she says laughing.

"That was very helpful. You realise how far you've come, for one, and it was good to understand how you deal with this sense of your world and your boundaries expanding and the balance of 'what could I do?' versus 'what should I do?' at that age. And Hattie obviously doesn't have a lot of 'what should I do?' in her head."

Mejia says that as a teenager she wasn't as focused or determined as Hattie.

"Hattie has a very specific regime and destination in mind. As a teenager, I escaped into books and literature and was much more comfortable in my life. Hattie's primary conflict is that she is constantly trying to fit in in an environment she has deep conflicts with."

The surprise in this outstanding novel (Mejia's second, which she wrote in her lunch breaks over four years) is less the plot mechanics -- and they're very good ones; the last chapter is quietly breathtaking -- but more Mejia's acute sense of character and place. She has the Midwest in her bones, having never lived anywhere else for more than a few months.

The cover of The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman
The cover of The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman

She describes herself as a "first-generation suburbanite". Home is the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-Saint Paul) where she juggles a burgeoning writing career: the book has had amazing advance press and a cable company is in talks re the TV rights family -- two kids under 5 -- and being a credit controller for a manufacturing company.

Both her parents and grandparents were farming people in South Minnesota where her novel is set.

"This book came from a more personal place than my debut [The Dragon Keeper, an eco-lit thriller about a young girl tending to a Komodo dragon]," she says. "It was the first book I wrote after coming out of my MFA [Master in Fine Arts] programme and centred more on my experiences -- not with murder -- but with my grandparents.

"I wanted to write a book that centred on the resilience and spirit of the agricultural communities in that area. I'd spend a week there each year as a teenager and it was the highlight of the summer. There's this very independent, hard-working, stoic spirit there which I admire. You work and you don't complain."

Mejia pits the urban(e) dreamers -- Peter and Hattie -- against the area's rhythms and beautiful, yet unforgiving landscape, which she describes wonderfully.

"This land was all soft hills of corn and soybeans rolling out into the clouds in every direction ... The sky ruled, whether it was the sun baking the crops or the wind whipping dust devils across the roads ... Everything came from the sky and it put you in your place, made you feel how small you were ... That's why we had such good church people here. In the city the sky was all covered up by buildings and bridges and everything else. People forgot how little they were. They forgot they weren't in charge."

A lesser writer might have turned to satire when writing the small-town characters. She laughs when I point out most of them would have voted for Donald Trump.

"I hadn't thought of that but you're probably right, the whole rural part of Minnesota was red."

But Mejia presents them with respect and care, not as hick stereotypes.

One character, local Sheriff Del Goodman who's a Vietnam vet close to Hattie's parents, holds a special place in her heart. I put it to her that he's the conscience of the book.

"Yes, exactly. Del has the voice of my maternal grandfather -- not the life experience or opinions, but his cadence and manner. It felt I was hearing my grandfather in my head when writing his chapters. He was very dear to me and remains one of my favourite characters.

"It was important to me to bring to life the people of Southern Minnesota," she says. "I mean Minnesota is what they call 'fly-over country'. Coast people fly over and we barely register to them. That's okay with us but even within the state there's a big divide between the rural and urban parts. I wanted the people of Pine Valley to come across as genuine and authentic because that's my experience of them."

- Weekend magazine

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