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Chicago author Lindsay Hunter poses at home.

Chicago author Lindsay Hunter said the idea for ‘Hot Springs Drive’ came as she was watching Dateline, but it quickly spiraled into something darker and more kaleidoscopic.

Taylor Glascock for WBEZ

For your holiday reading list: Lindsay Hunter’s new crime thriller mines motherhood and murder

Lindsay Hunter didn’t intend for her latest novel, Hot Springs Drive, to be what she calls her “motherhood book.” But partway through writing her first draft, the 43-year-old Chicago writer realized that’s precisely what the crime thriller was shaping up to be.

“I wanted to write about what it is to be a mother and be lonely,” says Hunter, a mother of three, the youngest of whom is in kindergarten. “And what it is still to have a body that feels desire. All these things about motherhood that are really hard to talk about.”

A psychological portrait that opens with a crime scene, Hot Springs Drive is not the typical offering in the motherhood genre. The raw, self-assured prose immediately jumped out to Roxane Gay, the New York Times-bestselling author who launched her new imprint under the publishing house Grove Atlantic in 2021. Gay, who has known Hunter for years and has long admired her ability to capture the messiness that often couples shame and desire, acquired the book right away.

Hunter has never shied away from our darkest inclinations, instead wrapping her stories and characters in them. Her 2014 novel Ugly Girls, for example, follows two teenage girls in a precarious tete-a-tete with an online catfisher. Her 2017 book Only Eat When You’re Hungry examines addiction and unbounded appetites. With Hot Springs Drive she takes that same approach — barbed, biting — to motherhood, an experience too often scrubbed clean.

'Hot Springs Drive' is one of the first releases on the new imprint Roxane Gay Books.

‘Hot Springs Drive’ is one of the first releases on the new imprint Roxane Gay Books.

Taylor Glascock for WBEZ

The idea for the book was born on a pandemic evening when the Old Irving Park resident was watching Dateline, one of her favorite pastimes. This particular episode, titled “Secrets on Hot Springs Drive” detailed the story of a mother murdered by her best friend’s son. “I was already thinking about codependent relationships and how toxic that can be between a mother and child,” recalls Hunter. “It just felt really juicy. When that happens, I know the only way out is to write about it.”

So, Hunter got to work. In her fictionalized version of the true crime story, both murderer and victim are identified within the first few pages of the novel. It’s a narrative turn that allows Hunter to explore the why rather than the who. “What I’ve come to understand is that questions remain even if you know who did it,” says Hunter, a self-described true crime fanatic. “There are these central mysteries that I love to think about as a writer and as a human.”

The book plot centers on the friendship between two women, Jackie Stinson and Theresa Linden, the latter of whom ends up dead. The two meet in a maternity ward and their bond deepens as they raise their children together. The relationship takes a turn, however, when the two friends join a weight loss program, a decision that awakens a darker side to Jackie, who becomes consumed by her carnal desires. The kaleidoscopic narrative also shifts between a chorus of other characters — teenage sons, an oblivious husband — whose experiences offer insight into both how the murder unfolds and the mess left in its wake.

Throughout the 275 pages, Hunter mainly focuses on Jackie Stinson, whose chapters are the only ones written in first person. Jackie is far from likable — she is consumed by resentment and just plain mean — but in Hunter’s deft hands, she still evokes empathy. “I was really interested in whether we accept the fact that the monstrousness of Jackie is human,” asks Hunter. “That’s a question I will never stop exploring.”

Hunter sits at her desk in her Old Irving Park home.

Hunter sits at her desk in her Old Irving Park home.

Taylor Glascock for WBEZ

Putting those ideas on the page was exhilarating for Hunter, especially after struggling to sell her previous novel. “I decided I just had to write the thing that I feel good about,” says Hunter. “Something that challenges me and keeps me coming back, something where I could just be me.”

Giving herself permission to write unbridled, Hunter wrote her first draft of Hot Springs Drive in nine months. “At first it felt like my secret project,” recalls Hunter. “Like I was getting back to my zine, punk rock background.” When considering how best to describe the feverish process, Hunter simply holds up both middle fingers. “It was really freeing.”

But as Hunter continued to write, she realized the frenetic, collaged project might in fact be her next book. So when preeminent critic and writer Gay asked if she had any books in the works, Hunter sent her the draft.

“I love her voice and the energy she puts on the page,” says Gay. “She understands appetite and the ways that we try to control those appetites or give into them.”

Gay bought the book. She also spent a year with the manuscript and gave Hunter a prodigious set of notes. In response, Hunter almost entirely rewrote the novel and added another 20,000 words to it, too. The pulse, however, remained the same. “Lindsay writes a very specific understanding of the overwhelm of motherhood,” says Gay. “And it’s not thinly veiled memoir. Whatever Linday is working through is fiction.”

Hunter, for her part, still has much to mine when it comes to the parent-child relationship. The topic, she says, is an endless source of inspiration. Hot Springs Drive is perhaps not Hunter’s definitive motherhood book, but the first of many. “Motherhood is in everything I write. I just have so much to say and so much to explore,” says Hunter. “I don’t think I will ever stop writing about it.”

Elly Fishman is a freelance writer and the author of “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America.”

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