We caught up with author Madeleine Asheleigh, to talk about her new book, The Strangers We Call Friends, and her journey to becoming a writer!
*Tell us about yourself
-My name is Madeleine Asheleigh. I am a 22-year-old senior at Kennesaw State University earning my bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. I was born in Atlanta, GA, but I have lived in New York, Ohio, and Guyana, South America before returning to Atlanta for college. While being a student, I have maintained jobs working with children and being a professional dancer and choreographer specializing in the styles of contemporary and hip hop. I am a MASSIVE NBA basketball fan. I am also the proud author of the phenomenal “The Strangers We Call Friends”.
*Tell the readers about the book
“The Strangers We Call Friends” is a coming-of-age murder mystery that focuses on four young women, Maxine, who is also referred to as Max, Sydney, Heather, and Carolina, who have been friends all their lives. When Max's older sister, Margot, is murdered, Max is determined that she knows who did it and is further determined to bring about justice through the means of revenge. The story goes through the twists, turns, ups, and downs as Max and the girls are not only dealing with life and all that comes with it, but also trying to keep Max off the edge despite her constantly trying to throw herself off of it in the name of "justice". It sheds light on themes of friendship, betrayal, the duality of human beings, and whether justice can exist without some form of revenge.
*When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Growing up, I was an avid reader. I’m talking finishing 5 books in a span of 2 hours. I have always loved fictional stories and getting lost in the happenings of the characters, feeling their feelings and going through their experiences. Just as I loved to read, I also love to tell stories and bring fictional characters to life and give others the same experience I had whenever I would read and I’ve always been a great storyteller, even before I could read. My mom would have me go through my bedtime stories and I would say what I thought was going on based on the pictures I would see throughout the book. So, I guess I’ve always known that I would eventually be a writer and thankfully I didn’t waste any time diving into that career path.
*What drew you to this story?
Despite reading a good number of African American authors within the realm of fiction stories, I realized that there are certain genres that are rare for African American authors to venture into and I figured that if I can’t find authors in that genre, I would become one. I randomly envisioned the opening of the book playing out like the opening sequence of a movie and my first thought was “I have to write this down” and thus, my paper baby was conceived.
*How did you come up with the title?
-As a child, and even sometimes as an adult, I would throw around the word “friend” a little too loosely. I would call people my “friends” without really even knowing them, which led to constant disappointments from people that I thought I knew. They were strangers that I would call my friends, so shoutout to them because if they had never hurt my feelings, I would have never written my book.
*What is your favorite passage in the book and why?
“Let’s get one thing very clear, Max does not cry. Ever. She’s the toughest person out of the group. It’s her one defining personality trait. So, you can imagine Sydney’s reaction when she saw Max hysterically sobbing in front of her bedroom door the night it all went down. She cried herself into a panic attack. A bad one. It was the worst one Sydney had ever seen her have, and Max doesn’t have them often. She had to call the families’ doctor. He’s the best medical professional in the state, and even better than that, he’s great at keeping secrets. This was the last thing Max’s parents needed to know about. And by parents, Sydney was really only thinking about her dad.
After getting her heart rate and breathing down, Dr. Hertz took the oxygen mask off her face and gave her a final analysis to ensure that she was stabilized. Once it was confirmed that Max was somewhat calm and could breathe on her own, Dr. Hertz started packing his things as Sydney wired him his payment. Once he had all of his supplies put away, he begun making his way to the door until Sydney roughly grabbed his forearm. “Not a soul. Are we clear?” She demanded through gritted teeth. Dr. Hertz simply lowered his head in understanding, giving Sydney enough incentive to let him go.
Once Dr. Hertz was off of Mannings Manner, Sydney returned her attention back to her best friend. Except Max didn’t look like herself. She was hunched over in a corner of Sydney’s room, wrapping her knees tightly to her chest. She was soaked from the rain and shivering in only shorts and a t shirt, meaning she was probably about to go to bed when she made her way over. “Do you wan-“ Before Sydney could finish her question, she saw the tears roll down Max’s face again. Thankfully, they weren’t coming down violently like when she had first gotten there.
They were calm, as if held back during Dr. Hertz’s visit. Max’s face didn’t even look sad. She looked dead. As she picked up her head to look Sydney in the eye, Sydney noticed that Max’s signature milk chocolate orbs resembled that of a blank screen. Pitch black with no sign of life. Now, Sydney was really worried for her friend. She begun to move toward her friend to hug her, but Max held her hand up to stop her. That’s when Sydney realized she was pitying Max and there is nothing Max hates more in her life than pity. Not even her father.
Sydney backed up and sat on her bed, facing the window with her back to Max. Then, she heard the sniffling. She knew Max was crying again, but she forced herself to not turn around, for Max’s sake. “He killed her Sydney.” She immediately became alert at hearing Max use her full name. The only other time Max had ever done that was when her dad threw her across their living room when they were eight. “Richard killed Margot.” Now, that was the sentence to make Sydney’s whole body go cold instantly.
She rushed off of her bed and wrapped her arms tightly around Max and let her sob on her shoulder as she rocked her best friend back and forth, as if attempting to put her to sleep. Unfortunately, Sydney’s phone started ringing. She knew who it is without having to look at the caller ID. As soon she answered, she heard Carolina’s voice, “I know Max is with you. I need both of you now. I’m outside. You have five minutes or I’m coming in and dragging both of you out here by your ponytails, so move it.” Before Sydney could tell her to f*ck off, she was met with a dial tone.
“Come on.” Max said as she untangled herself from Sydney and walked over to the closet to pick out something to wear from some of the clothes that she had left over the years. Sydney knew better than to try and talk Max out of it at this point. All she could do at that point was make sure Max didn’t end up in prison with a homicide charge.
As Max emerged from the closet, she donned an oversized navy-blue sweatsuit, her hair was in a bun on top of her head and her face was dry. But she still looked dead in the eyes. As the two made their way to the Mondrago’s BMW, Max was walking with a purpose, leaving Sydney trailing behind her, trying desperately to keep up. The windows in the back were down and the girls could see Heather in the backseat on the passenger side. Carolina was leaning against driver’s side door, arms crossed, her eyes trained on Max like a racist store owner.
“Two minutes, I’m impressed.” Carolina told them as she tapped her phone screen. Of course the b*tch set a timer. “Cut the sh*t and let’s go bury my sister.” Max snarled as she slid into the backseat next to Heather. Carolina stiffened at Max’s comment, while Heather turned to Max so quick, she actually got whiplash. As Carolina regained her composure, she fixed her eyes on Sydney and locked her gaze for a few seconds, as if communicating telepathically. Sydney knew what she would have been saying if she were and Carolina was absolutely right.”
This is the opening to Part 2 of the book where we switch from Max’s perspective to Sydney’s. We also go through Heather, Carolina, and a narrated bird’s eye view throughout the novel. I love this passage so much because, to me, it sets everything up rather perfectly. Throughout Max’s perspective, we gain an understanding of what Max’s older sister Margot meant to her and how her death affected Max, but through Sydney’s eyes, we get an extra glimpse of how traumatizing this was in real time. I feel like this passage also helps to describe the dynamic between the girls as individuals and as a group through how they respond to one another, especially during a circumstance like this.
*How did you select the names for your characters?
The names for my characters came from the roommates that I had at the time. I slightly altered them so that they weren’t the same, but they were a massive inspiration. Big shoutout to Hayley, Sydni, and Carolina for being okay with me butchering their names for the sake of art.
*Did you experience writer’s block?
ALL THE TIME! I didn’t realize how deep writer’s block could be until I got it for the first time. It is honestly as bad as authors have described. However, I don’t really see writer’s block as a bad thing. I really saw it as a challenge. An obstacle in my way of finishing a project that I was determined to complete by a self-inflicted deadline. Whenever writer’s block would make an appearance, I would simply type random gibberish on my manuscript until an idea came and replaced the blockage. I also maintained voice recordings of ideas whenever they would come to me at random in case, I wanted to use them, and they were great resources when writer’s block came to visit.
*How long did it take you to write this book?