- Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz
Lori Rader-Day first appeared on our radar with her first crime novel, The Black Hour, a wicked tale of murder in academia that pleased every member of the 7% Solution Book Club when discussed. Her second foray into the genre, Little Pretty Things, takes us into a high school reunion from hell as a former student athlete investigates the murder of her recently returned frenemy, and won the Mary Higgins Clark Award.
In her third crime novel, The Day I Died, a handwriting expert with secrets to hide is recruited to analyze the ransom note left behind after a toddler’s disappearance. Soon, her son’s investigation into his own past and budding teenage rebellion will put this handwriting analyst on a collision course with her own past, leading to a denouement with a surprising amount of both action and heart. The Day I Died is an IndieNext pick for May and Lori Rader-Day will be here at the store to speak and sign her latest this Wednesday, May 31st at 7 PM.
Molly Odintz: When I first picked up your writing, your voice, more than any plot point, was what initially drew me in. Your books explore ordinary settings in the most hard-boiled of language – did you set out to contrast the banality of the ordinary with the darkness that lurks within?
Lori Rader Day: I set out to tell a story and entertain myself. I never thought of my language as “hard-boiled.” That’s fun. But I do enjoy ordinary settings—Midwestern settings—being tainted by violence. Darkness within that leaks out into bad decisions and bad deeds.
I see what you mean about the hard-boiled language now.
MO: I’ve read a series of books recently exploring the instability of female identity and the dynamics between female friends – you go beyond the Bechdel Test in your latest to use a mystery to investigate one woman’s relationship, not with other women, but with herself at different stages. What did you want to explore about our changeable natures?
LRD: You are giving me a lot of credit here, but I like your interpretation. I wanted to write about a person willing herself into another identity—a strong woman character, we call them, right? But she’s so strong and so good at separating herself from the path she’d been on that there’s nothing in front of her. The future is wide open but by that, I mean it’s empty. I wanted to write about a character who is strong enough to survive the worst and then also doubt her choice.
MO: Atmospheric setting plays an important part in The Day I Died – which came first, the setting or the story? How did the setting influence the story (or vise versa)?
LRD: The story came first, because this story started as a short story. Thirty pages, forty. And then when one of my writing instructors told me it was a novel instead of a short story, I had to figure out what the story would be beyond the ending of the short version. For a long time, I didn’t know the setting would be so crucial to the plot. I know at one point I was shopping around for a location to set Anna’s hometown but then realized I knew exactly where it should be. I based the town on a place I had been vacationing for years in north Wisconsin, way up where it’s easy to disappear, which fed me all kinds of ideas about how Anna would feel about her home and about not being there.
MO: The Day I Died is certainly a mystery, but it’s also a book about motherhood, and the extremes to which one will go to protect one’s child (or someone else’s child). With May the month of Mother’s Day, what did you want to say about parenthood with your latest?
LRD: I’m in awe of people who become parents and take it seriously, like my friends and my sister. I’m no one’s mother. I have a dog. I started writing this story ten years ago, so maybe I was exploring the what-if of parenthood that I was not choosing. Probably more likely, I was looking around at what my friends were choosing, and thinking what-if… that’s how the writer-brain works. You write what you know but you write what you don’t know, too.
MO: Without giving away anything about the ending, it seems like the theme of the story is personal change. Your main character has transformed her identity before, but the act of running has, in a way, restricted her identity into a mere alias, while those characters the reader expects to be frozen in time have actually changed significantly over time. To ask the broadest question possible, can any of us really change?
LRD: I think we can, in some ways. Just as a for-instance, I used to be very shy. I would have done anything to avoid public speaking. At one point I had given up writing for five years, just by letting time pass me by. And now my daily life is that I write fiction and then go talk to strangers about it.
In the book, I was careful (I hope) to leave some of these calls up to the reader. Anna doesn’t make these judgments, either, but she makes room for the judgments to be made.
MO: Your main character has an intriguing profession – why a handwriting expert, and what kind of research did you do to prepare your character for the role? Should I be glad I’m typing these questions to you rather than hand-writing them?
LRD: Back in 2007 when I was in my master of fine arts program in creative writing, I went to the library to troll for story ideas and came out with a book about handwriting. So handwriting was the origin of the entire story, and the character and everything else came after. I read that book and did some online research. Since the book was written, I’ve had the chance to talk to a handwriting specialist—who says I got it right, good news—but I never took any classes in the subject or anything. I feel like I’m disappointing people when I admit this. So you can send me a handwritten note and I won’t analyze it—I don’t know how.
I can tell you that when I was deep in the middle of the research, my own handwriting suffered a bit. It sometimes still happens that I’ll be writing something and, mid-word, will get self-conscious and muff whatever I’m writing. Sometimes it’s my own signature.
MO: I’ve followed your crime fiction for a few years now, and I’ve watched your name become increasingly prominent. What did it feel like to win the Mary Higgins Clark award for Little Pretty Things?
LRD: It was amazing, of course, to stand on the Edgars stage accepting an award (the first year the Mary Higgins Clark was given out at the Edgar Awards). I was especially humbled because I had read all the nominated books. Reading Mary Higgins Clark books was part of my writer’s education growing up, so it was extra special to me for that reason.
MO: Your main character has suffered in her past, and in ways that (if I interpret the novel correctly) were known to her small town, yet her neighbors failed to provide her with assistance in confronting the brutality in her life. What did you want to explore about small town violence, and secrets that aren’t really secrets?
LRD: I’m really interested in small towns, having grown up in a few, but also small communities of any making, how they operate, how they break down. If violence and tragedy can bring out the best in us, it can also bring out the worst, or at least cause us to freeze and withdraw into the isolation that’s so easy out in the country. Oh, sure, we’ll have opinions, but we might not voice them, because we’ll have to live with the fall-out. So…isolation or making nice. That’s the Midwestern way, anyway. Maybe Texas does it differently.
MO: You can start to see the main character’s tattered past in the ways she reacts to the present, even before the reader is given concrete details about the character’s past – her stunted reaction to the kidnapping of a young child, and potential sympathy for the kidnapper, immediately makes her a more interesting character (to me, anyway). Which came to you first, the present-day kidnapping or the character’s backstory?
LRD: I started writing this story as a short story in 2007, so forgive me if the details of construction are a little hazy. I know I started with the handwriting and then gave that job to the character, but I think Anna’s backstory developed alongside her present self simultaneously. I enjoy ironies and parallels in my characters, so when I decided the story would be about a kidnapping, I went searching for ways that Anna might have encountered kidnapping before. I probably chose her backstory from there because it was the most complex. Writers like to give ourselves interesting assignments; I gave myself such a difficult assignment, in fact, that I had to put the book away and let my skills develop for eight years before I could write it the way I imagined it. And now I’ve given away all my writing secrets.