Q&A with Hilary Davidson

Meet Hilary Davidson here at BookPeople Sat, 2/18, 4p.

Hilary Davidson is a great writer in at least two ways. Her work presents a fresh new voice that has earned her a great deal of awards and accolades coming out of the gate. Her 2010 debut, The Damage Done was on many booksellers; Top Ten list and earned an Anthony award. Her sequel, The Next One To Fall, will surely be on many, as well. Also, she is one of the sweetest people in the business. She promotes her peers as much as herself and will do anything she can for a writer or (as I can attest) bookseller. She’s never said a bad word about anybody and a bad word can’t be said about her. She also has a sense of history and respect for the genre. Hilary was kind enough to allow me to ask her a few questions recently.

MysteryPeople: How did the character of Lily come about?

Hilary Davidson: I always feel a little embarrassed admitting that I have different characters living inside my head, but it’s true. Lily’s been around for quite a while. I started working as a travel writer 13 years ago, and that’s let me explore some amazing places, such as Peru, Easter Island, and Israel. But I’ve always felt like the world’s most boring travel writer, because while I love to explore new places, I’m also eager to get home at the end of a trip. On the road, I’ve met writers and photographers who were the opposite — they had bad situations waiting for them at home, and they would do anything to keep traveling for long stretches of time. I started thinking about what it would be like to live like that, always on the run. That’s the position Lily’s in, and thinking about what she’s running away from really shaped the character she is now. She’s a travel writer who never wants to go home.

MP: Did you find it difficult to do a sequel to a book that seemed very self contained?

HD: While I was writing the first book, I also had ideas for two more books with Lily going through my mind. I wanted The Damage Done to have a very clear, well-defined ending, because I wasn’t sure if I could sell one book, let alone three. But I knew exactly where I wanted to pick up with her in the second book. The Damage Done is very much a book about loss. At the beginning, Lily has a strong, albeit somewhat artificial, sense of who she is and where she belongs. She has a glamorous, independent life she’s created for herself, but while she’s searching for her sister, she loses everything she considers important. The Next One to Fall begins soon after, with Lily at the lowest point in her life. She’s drifting through her days like a ghost, and she’s consumed with grief and guilt. Her friendship with Jesse is the only deep connection she has to anyone, and he’s dragged her to Peru because he thinks it will be shock therapy for her system. It is, but not in the way he expected. When Lily finds a woman dying at the foot of a staircase, she’s horrified, but when that woman’s death is dismissed as an accident, she becomes enraged. The police find evidence that the woman used drugs, and they don’t want to look further into the case. Lily gets drawn deeper and deeper into the situation, because it forces her to think about her sister. On some level, Lily feels that if she can get justice for this dead stranger in Peru, she’s getting the justice her sister never really got.

MP: How did Peru get chosen for the setting?

HD: I traveled in Peru for three weeks, and when I saw Machu Picchu, my first thought was that it would be the perfect place to kill someone. It’s an incredibly beautiful spot — you’re on top of a mountain, with this perfectly preserved Inca city around you — but it’s also dangerous. Machu Picchu is filled with steep, stone staircases that are slippery because it rains a lot up there. You’re on a mountain that’s eight thousand feet in the clouds, and it’s a long drop into the valleys below. There’s no hospital around for miles, and there’s not even a road that leads there; if anything happened to you, you’d have to be airlifted out by helicopter.

That pretty much sums up the beauty of Peru: gorgeous, but dangerous. We take a lot of things for granted in North America that you can’t take for granted there. The air is so thin in places like Cusco that you’re pretty much guaranteed to get altitude sickness just by walking around. Travel, generally speaking, makes you vulnerable because you’re putting yourself in an unfamiliar setting, and you may well be jetlagged and sick and dealing with an unfamiliar language, too. I wanted Lily to be in a place where the physical danger mirrored her inner turmoil. At the same time, even in the middle of what can be a difficult place, there’s beauty and grace to be found.

MP: If your two books had to be shoved into a category it would be “the woman in jeopardy thriller” (feel free to disagree) and your character is definitely feminine (I can’t think of learning more about fashion than in any other series I’ve read). That said, you have a large male following. What do you think attributes to that?

HD: I find it so hard to categorize my own books! Woman-in-jeopardy is probably a fair description, though that somehow makes me think of a lady waiting for a man to save her, and that’s definitely not the case with Lily. There’s a scene in The Next One to Fall where she’s gotten herself trapped and starts to think, “Well, if I do X, maybe someone will rescue me…” Then she snaps out of it and realizes that if she doesn’t save herself, she’ll die. She’s definitely a survivor.

I’ve gotten so much support from both male and female readers, and the only way I can explain that is to say that some things are universal. If you can get a reader caught up in a story, and especially if you get them inside the head of a character, I think they’ll keep reading. I keep hearing that men don’t read books by women, but that’s just not true in my experience. I bet writers like Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Linda Fairstein, Sophie Littlefield and Sara Gran would back me up on that.

MP: There seems to be a Hitchcock influence in the books with use of location and ideas of identity. I know you’re something of a film buff and Lily is to an almost disturbing level. Is your writing influenced by film as much as other books?

I used to think I was a film buff. I’ve seen a lot of old movies, and I mistakenly believed I remembered enough to work film references into the books as a sort of touchstone for Lily. Her home life was unstable growing up, and she had to keep friends at arm’s length because of all the secrets she was keeping, and so I thought of her watching old movies almost as a substitute for having real friends. I had no idea I’d end up watching hours and hours of movies just to be able to throw in some offhand reference to Ava Gardner!

That said, I love Hitchcock’s films and consider them a strong influence on me. There’s also a lot of film noir I’ve seen — my grandmother’s favorite actress was Barbara Stanwyck, so we watched a lot of dark movies together. When I’m writing, I tend to think in scenes, and they play in my mind like a movie. But books have been a bigger influence on me than movies, I think. Lily has lines of Edgar Allan Poe’s verse in her head, and that’s an easier fit for me, because those lines are in my head, too. I went through an intense phase of reading gothic fiction — one of my favorite books is The Monk by Matthew Lewis — and that left a strong impression. Some of my favorite novelists, such as Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith, had several of their books turned into movies, so sometimes there’s crossover — but I generally prefer the books to the movies!

MP: You were somebody who started to contributing fiction to online sites like Beat To A Pulp and Thuglit. It seems like they’ve become the pulp magazines for our generation of crime writers. How did they help you?

HD: If it weren’t for Thuglit, I don’t think I’d be publishing fiction today. I got so much rejection from magazines and websites before Thuglit published me, and their encouragement made all the difference; that first story also attracted the interest of an agent, so it helped me get a book deal in a practical way, too. I also got tremendous support early on from Crimespree and Beat to a Pulp, and later from new venues such as Crime Factory and Needle. Five years ago, I kept hearing that “the short story is dead,” and now there’s been this revival of interest. I think that speaks to the quality of the work that’s being published online. The standards tend to be really high.

MP: While you provide a grittier, darker tone to this kind of thriller, your short work is truly hard boiled. Do you plan to be that ho-holds-barred with a novel down the road?

HD: I used to say that I wouldn’t want to spend that much time inside the head of a desperate or depraved person, but now… let’s just say I’m not ruling it out. I just finished writing a third novel about Lily, which will come out in 2013, and I have a fourth novel under contract with Forge. It’s going to be a standalone. How dark will it be? We’ll see. I’m not an outliner, so I won’t know myself until I start writing!

Hilary Davidson will sign and discuss The Next One To Fall on our third floor here at BookPeople on Saturday, March 18 at 4p. Come out and see why she is one of our favorite people in the crime fiction community.

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