Why Gillian Flynn launched her book imprint with a debut noir about a rebel nun
On the Shelf
Scorched Grace: A Sister Holiday Mystery
By Margot Douaihy
Gillian Flynn: 320 pages, $28
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In the opening pages of “Scorched Grace,” Margot Douaihy’s debut crime novel and the first release from Gillian Flynn Books, Holiday Walsh is taking a smoke break when she notices the east wing of St. Sebastian’s Catholic School is on fire. She rushes to the building just as someone plummets from a second-story window, and finds the body “charring in the grass, his limbs splayed — the devastating choreography of a stomped roach.”
Thinking she hears more people inside, Holiday runs in and nearly succumbs to the flames. Her actions attract the suspicions of Fire Investigator Magnolia Riveaux of the New Orleans Fire Department. Holiday’s gold tooth, extensive tattoos and appetite for vice mark her as a prime suspect despite the fact that she works at St. Sebastian’s: She is a member of the Sisters of the Sublime Blood.
No, that’s not the name of a band. Sister Holiday is a nun. In order to clear her name, Sister Holiday sets out to solve the mystery of the arson.
If you’re thinking a nun as a hard-boiled detective stretches the limits of credulity, you’re not alone. When Gillian Flynn, author of the wildly successful novel “Gone Girl,” was searching for a novel to launch her new imprint under Zando Projects, she initially skipped over “Scorched Grace.”
“I don’t want to read a book about a nun,” Flynn recalled thinking. “They’re trying to trick me into reading a cozy!” A cozy mystery is the kind where violent crime occurs off the page — needless to say, not Flynn’s style.
“I was being really picky,” Flynn said. “I wanted a book that I could deeply vouch for, that I could feel comfortable going out and saying, ‘If you like my stuff, I promise you will like this book!’”
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Once she was reassured by her team that she had to read “Scorched Grace,” it took only a few pages for Flynn, who attended Catholic high school in Kansas City, to fall in love with Sister Holiday. “She isn’t this tough, impenetrable human,” Flynn said. “She really understands her own demons and empathizes with people who are themselves wrestling with their demons. There’s a real humanity to her.”
Sister Holiday reminded Flynn of the protagonist from her debut novel. “I really feel like my character Camille Preaker from ‘Sharp Objects’ would be totally great friends with Sister Holiday.”
Flynn’s taste here is very much the point. Zando Projects was founded by Molly Stern, who was let go as publisher of Crown in 2018 as Penguin Random House completed a brutal wave of consolidation. Never mind that Stern had made hits out of relative unknowns like Flynn, “The Martian’s” Andy Weir and “Ready Player One” author Ernest Cline (as well as Michelle Obama). With Zando, Stern embarked on a more unorthodox model of publishing, enlisting famous partners like Flynn, Sarah Jessica Parker and John Legend.
“Scorched Grace” doesn’t read like a first novel. Although the plot is a bit loose in places where Douaihy unpacks Sister Holiday’s baggage — and there’s a lot of it — the prose really sings. Her description of the nun cleaning a stained glass window is as precise and evocative as an epiphany:
“I discovered that if you pressed your face to Mary’s face in the Nativity glass, you could peer right through her translucent eye and see New Orleans shimmering below like a moth wing. On the highest rung of the ladder, my eye to Mary’s eye, I saw Faubourg Delassize and Livaudais unfold to the left, Tchoupitoulas Street and the hypnotic ribbon of the Mississippi River to the right. The city was electric at every hour, but at dawn, I was astonished by the wattage of color that vibrated in the silken light.”
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Such lyricism in the service of setting the scene betrays the author’s background as an established poet. Douaihy, who lives in Northampton, Mass., and teaches an hour north at Franklin Pierce University, grew up in Scranton, Pa., and went to Catholic school. “I grew up in the Maronite denomination of Catholicism,” Douaihy explained, “and it’s unbelievably beautiful. The art in our church, these extraordinary murals, the stained glass.”
The Maronite Church is the largest Christian denomination in Lebanon and part of the Eastern Catholic Church. Douaihy’s uncle was a deacon and her cousins took school trips to Lebanon; she can trace her family history back to a 13th century ancestor who was a Maronite nun. But as Douaihy got older she pulled away from the church.
“Longing to go into a sacred space and feeling distant is a hard, hard feeling,” Douaihy said during an interview over the phone. “Yearning to feel called because that’s what your tradition is. Wanting to make your people proud, make your priest proud, and failing to do that can be self-lacerating. It felt awful for me.”
Part of the issue was Douaihy’s sexuality. “I did not feel comfortable coming out of the closet for a long time and, as a result, silenced my true self and my true voice,” she said. Ultimately, it was art — not religion — that saved her.
Once she found her voice in poetry, she was able to make peace with the many paradoxes in her life: her faith, her queerness, her love of hard-boiled crime novels and punk rock. “Practicing art is my prayer,” Douaihy said. “That’s just a way I try to give passion and heart and sincerity and rage a space where it can coexist. Art is my religion.”
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Enter Sister Holiday, a queer, tattooed, guitar-playing party animal from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, who leaves it all behind for a life of sacrifice and service in a religious order in New Orleans. While Douaihy insists that Sister Holiday “is not a mouthpiece for me,” the nun reflects her desire to “make peace with the dichotomies in her own life in a way that feels believable. She’s a character that I use to explore the possibilities of storytelling.”
To flesh out those possibilities, Douaihy drew on her experiences living in both Brooklyn and New Orleans, where she was part of a group of educators and artists who joined the Creative Alliance of New Orleans and Recovery School District to set up writing and art studios for local youth.
In some parishes, a nun with tattoos would be seen as a gaudy costume — a prelude to something scandalous. But it almost makes sense in a place like New Orleans, where music spills into the streets and the collision of cultures is a cause for celebration. For Douaihy, the city’s “fluency with the possibility of disaster” was the perfect refuge for someone like Sister Holiday.
With a sequel — “Blessed Water” — under contract and more Sister Holiday adventures in the works, Douaihy will have plenty of opportunities to return to her old haunts and make new memories in what she considers “the most important American city.”
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It’s the perfect place for Holiday to confront both sides of her psyche: the one that used drugs and loud music to drown out her demons and the one that finds sanctuary in service to others on her journey through faith and flames.
“Even though it’s very paradoxical,” Douaihy said, “there is something that just makes sense about devoting your life to something that feels true, even if it’s difficult.”
Ruland’s new novel, “Make It Stop,” will be published in April.
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