Judgement, Absolution, and Crickets: MysteryPeople Q&A with Alexandra Burt

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

If you’re out and about tomorrow night, have we got a great event planned here at the store! Alexandra Burt joins us to speak and sign her latest psychological thriller, The Good Daughter (also our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for February) on Tuesday, February 21st at 7 PMThe Good Daughter follows a daughter’s search for her own, and her mother’s, true identities. The novel takes place in a small Texas town, and weaves together modern-day murders with historic injustices for a well-crafted and suspenseful tale. 

Molly Odintz: You’ve spoken a bit about the experiences that inspired you to write The Good Daughter – could you tell us a bit about the real story behind the characters in the novel? 

Alexandra Burt: The Good Daughter was inspired by the demise of a marriage I witnessed. A middle-aged woman disappears and her husband finds their house void of her belongings. There are questions but no answers and he makes it his mission to get to the reason as to why she left him. Through detective work her life story unfolds and with every passing day more secrets come to light. It becomes apparent that he knows next to nothing about her; thirteen years of marriage yet she has remained a stranger. This is not just the whim of a middle-aged woman looking to end a marriage, but bombshell after bombshell explodes and a story unfolds of victims she has left in her wake.

When I found out her entire family suffered from mental illness, I struggled to assign blame, I bounced back and forth between judging her and absolving her from guilt. She was in no way responsible for any genetic predisposition regarding her mental health—but I questioned the choices she had made that impacted people around her, especially her children. In The Good Daughter Dahlia says about her mother: “Before she committed a crime against me, there were crimes committed against her. And though I know one cannot understand someone else’s pain, I want to say that hers was much heavier, reached much further beneath her skin.”

I wrote The Good Daughter because I felt the need for her story to end, to conclude itself into some sort of lesson learned, something fathomable; after writing the book, my preoccupation with her story became less powerful. Her life still haunts me and I have a feeling it will for a long time.

MO: I loved the creepy cricket imagery – so perfect for a Texas setting!  Can you tell us a bit about Texas as a sort of character in The Good Daughter

AB: There was an organic relationship between the setting of Aurora, Texas, and the crickets. In Texas, crickets are a plague of biblical proportions. You can’t escape them; they cover sidewalks and buildings, especially after periods of prolonged dry weather. Crickets are a symbol of the ugly parts of someone’s past that can’t be denied and the secrets we keep. A little known fact about crickets is that they display cannibalistic behavior and killing a few makes things worse. I chose a fictional town because the character Memphis has created this fictional story about her life, this condensed version that Dahlia, her daughter, can no longer accept. Big cities conjure up sentiments of loneliness and abandonment with literally millions of people around but small towns are places where secrets just won’t die. In The Good Daughter the past only comes alive because the characters find themselves in the same place where the past has been stuck in a dilapidated farmhouse, almost lying in wait. Small towns are unforgiving that way. It was a perfect setting for the story.

MO: The characters in The Good Daughter take the families they can get, assured in the knowledge that they probably can’t do better, yet frequently surprised by the secrets their loved ones hide. What did you want to explore about mother-daughter relationships, and family in general, in the novel? 

AB: I revisit mother-daughter relationships because it allows me the opportunity to live vicariously through my characters. My mother passed away when I was in college and her passing left such a vast black hole—I felt grief beyond loss, beyond darkness and despair. Her death was the end of nurturing, the end of safety, and the end of who I was. I was no longer a daughter. Eventually I became the mother of a daughter, and I was able to speak for both sides. I love to explore the mother-part as much as the daughter-part, I step inside that relationship and I poke around, see what they are made of, what it takes to pull them apart and bring them back together. We become parents and raise children and we have to define what our childhood was all about and what it means to be a good parent. It’s a very profound experience, much more than I expected it to be.

MO: You’ve described the novel’s setting of Aurora, TX, as like any small town in Texas. We cover the topic of small town secrets quite a bit on this blog – what drew you to a small town setting? 

AB: Setting is literally my first thought when I start a project: which city/town/area lends itself to telling the story, how is the setting a mirror of the theme? I live in a small town in Texas and I have come across old farmhouses and buildings that have remained abandoned for decades. In cities, buildings are usually demolished and new ones take their place but in rural areas buildings sit undisturbed and are left to their own devices for decades. Most people don’t give them a second thought—but there are stories left behind within those walls, remnants of peoples’ lives. An abandoned farmhouse on the outskirts of a small Texas town is a metaphor for time passing yet being stuck in the past at the same time, and that creates the friction. Abandoned houses are not just bricks and wood and stucco but they are a state of being.

MO: What inspired the rather brutal folk magic in the book? What did you want to say about responsibility and ritual? What is the purpose of the witch in the novel? What is her message?

AB: There’s an elephant in the room/novel and it is the fact that the story has a witch in it. It was a peculiar yet crucial part of the story. A long time ago, wise women lived on the edge of their communities and made a living with herbalism, prophecy and divination as well as healing and midwifery. In The Good Daughter the character Aella lives on the outskirts of the town of Aurora, practicing folk magic. The ritual she suggests, as brutal and horrific as it is, is historically authentic and was relayed to me during my research. Aella’s presence in the story is foresight of justice to come; there’s a price to be paid for everything, nothing will be given to you without the universe demanding something in return. So be careful what you wish for. The truth Dahlia is after contains not only facts and explanations but also pain. It’s like tearing open curtains allowing sunlight to flood in—suddenly everything is exposed; cracks in ceilings, chipped china, and dented furniture. We have to take the good with the bad and we instinctively know that but often it comes as a surprise. Aella’s presence in the story is my paying homage to the wise woman in all of us.

MO: With your first crime novel, Remember Mia, you immediately became not just a Texas writer but an internationally best-selling author. How has it felt to reach bestseller status so quickly? 

AB: It doesn’t cross my mind often, I’m just too busy. More than anything I’m incredibly humbled by the fact that people believed in me. A bestseller is the combined effort of countless people and I’m reminded of that when I get an email from my editor on a Saturday at midnight, the extent to which people go to help me succeed. All the copy editors and line editors, the booksellers, the librarians, and of course the readers. When I think of a bestseller, I think of all those people whose names do not appear on the cover of a book. I am so full of appreciation and so many people gave so much to make this possible. Eternal gratitude is what I feel and the hope that I have many more good books and some bestsellers in me.

MO: Who are some of your writing inspirations, both in the genre, and outside of it? 

AB: I have a passion for crime fiction and a love for literary fiction so if an author can combine the two, I’m in hog heaven. One of my favorite books of 2016 was Descent by Tim Johnston, it combined crime and literary fiction. I adore classic crime writers like Patricia Highsmith and my favorite contemporary crime writers are all across the board. I have come across many novels that aren’t from known authors but were amazing, just blew me away. The name of an author is not important; if you captivate me, you will inspire me, regardless of the genre, literary or not. I’m always looking for a dark horse, an underdog, someone fresh and daring with a bold, weird tale that catches my attention and draws me in.

MO: As someone who has lived in multiple countries, would you be tempted to use Germany as a setting in some of your future work, or do you plan to continue writing Texas tales? 

AB: Yes, I am tempted, very much so. I can’t say that I have a concrete story in mind but I have been thinking about the possibility for years. So the answer is yes, I am tempted but I’m not sure when. My next book is also set in Texas but I see myself mixing it up a bit in the future. Whatever the story demands is where I’ll take it.

MO: What are you working on next? 

I am working on a book that is loosely based on and inspired by a true crime in which money allowed the guilty to evade criminal justice. I diligently follow unsolved crimes and there is one high profile crime that went unsolved and I have been fascinated with it for decades. The story is very much set in stone but it is structurally still wobbly. I’m still toying with it, trying to figure out what it demands.

You can find copies of The Good Daughter on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Alexandra Burt joins us tomorrow, Tuesday, February 21st, at 7 PM to speak and sign her latest. 

The Destructiveness of Love: MysteryPeople Q&A with Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough comes to BookPeople this Saturday, February 18th, at 3 PM to speak and sign her new genre-bending tale of psychological suspense, Behind Her Eyesa novel already internationally renowned for its insane twist ending. Pinborough was kind enough to answer a few questions before the event. 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

“I think the main theme is the destructiveness of love. I wanted to write about how it’s not always the positive force we hope for and it can do as much harm as good if the wrong people fall in love.”

Molly Odintz:  You’ve worked in multiple genres, and without giving anything away, Behind Her Eyes is a genre-bender as well as a mind-bender of a read. What’s your most-preferred genre to work in, and what advice would you give writers interested in telling stories across genres?

Sarah Pinborough: I don’t really think of story in terms of genre, but I like writing stories that are puzzles, and most of my books have been mysteries of on sort or another. I like making the reader have to put a jigsaw together, whether that crime with sci-fi or horror or fantasy or straight thriller. As for advising writers who like to cross-genres, I’d probably say that the important thing – for me, at least – is to have a dominant genre. So, it might be crime with a hint of sci-fi, but it adheres to the rules of crime. Or horror with romance – then it would be primarily horror, but with gothic romance elements. I think where it is most likely to fail – not always, but most likely – is if it’s a 50/50 split between genres. I prefer just adding hints of other genres rather than over-loading. But that’s just me!

MO: Behind Her Eyes can be read cover-to-cover, and then reread with a completely different lens. Did you know how the book was going to end when you started it? Was it difficult to adhere to a primary narrative, while also embedding a complete reversal of the reader’s expectations?

SP: I definitely had the ending there before I started writing. I can’t imagine writing a book like this without the ending in place! I always know what I’m aiming at when I write, even if I don’t know what happens in the middle, I invariably have the beginning and ending fixed in place. When my UK editor read the outline, she said, ‘Oh my god, I love this but it’s going to be so hard to write.’ I was very ‘yeah right’ at the time, but only when I started writing it, did I realise how careful I had to be, and how hard it was to be true to the characters and the story and yet still hoodwink everyone.

“I like writing stories that are puzzles, and most of my books have been mysteries of on sort or another. I like making the reader have to put a jigsaw together, whether that crime with sci-fi or horror or fantasy or straight thriller.”

MO: You’re an incredibly prolific writer, yet you’re poised to reach more markets than ever before with Behind Her Eyes. What’s the country you’re most excited to see your work translated and marketed to?

SP: Ha, all of them! Gosh, I don’t know. But my mother is hugely excited about China for some reason. She’s told all her friends. It’s as if all the other deals were just froth! I think it will be interesting to see it in Russian and Chinese and Korean simply because the language looks so different.

MO: As a follow-up, if you could pick any (preferably small) country or linguistic group to worship you as their favorite English-language writer, who would it be?

SP: Hmm.. I’m not sure. Maybe the Inuits. I’m not sure there’s a massive translation market for the eskimos but that would be cool. Literally;-)

MO: Behind Her Eyes seems to me to brings together the classic themes of mental illness, status anxiety, and fear of the subconscious, mixing a gothic tale right at home in the 19th century with mid-20th century fears of suburban imprisonment and betrayal by our own minds. Would you agree, or are these fears too timely to relegate to a distinct historical era?

SP: I wouldn’t really say the book had a theme of mental illness. Addiction perhaps, but not mental illness. I think the characters are disturbed people, and filled with secrets, but I think the main theme is the destructiveness of love. I wanted to write about how it’s not always the positive force we hope for and it can do as much harm as good if the wrong people fall in love.

“What I wanted to explore in the novel was actually the dynamics of women when embroiled in an affair. It’s always struck me how fascinated women are with each other – wives become fascinated with mistresses and vice versa in a way that doesn’t happen with men – from what I’ve observed anyway.”

MO: Who are some of the writers who’ve inspired you in your crime fiction?

Oh my gosh, so many! John Connolly, Daphne Du Maurier, Gillian Flynn, Donna Tartt to name a few.. but there are so many, often newer writers who I’ve just read one book by thus far and really enjoyed.

MO: Behind Her Eyes got me thinking about the transformative aspects of female friendship, and the difficulty in distinguishing a friend trying to help from a friend trying to create a mini-me. What did you want to explore about female friendship, versus competition, in the novel?

What I wanted to explore in the novel was actually the dynamics of women when embroiled in an affair. It’s always struck me how fascinated women are with each other – wives become fascinated with mistresses and vice versa in a way that doesn’t happen with men – from what I’ve observed anyway. The man almost becomes a pawn in that dynamic and it becomes all about what does she have that I don’t have and I won’t let her win. I wanted to take that slightly further by having them become friends and add another layer of deceit to all the relationships. I think that part of the problem women face – especially young women – is that competition and friendship go hand in had to a certain extent. When you get older, you realise what a waste of time all that is and that women should be supporting each other, but when you’re young there’s a conditioning that seems to kick in. It did back in the 90s.. maybe it’s changed for young women today. I hope so, but I think there is still competition within friendships.

MO: Your works have been praised by many of the most prominent authors in the horror, scifi, and crime fiction world, including Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Harlan Coben and Joe Hill – how does it feel to have support from so many folks at the pinnacle of their genres?

I may let them all out of my basement now that they’ve said nice things;-) No, on a serious note it’s very overwhelming, and I want to print them all out and frame them and hang them on the wall. It’s very easy to get caught up with the ‘business’ of writing – because after all, we all need to make a living – but those moments are real touchstone moments. As much as I love all these people, the Stephen King blurb was just a brilliant brilliant moment. I was actually shaking when they sent that through to me, and the link to what he’d said in the NYT. I actually got a bit teary!

You can find copies of Behind Her Eyes on our shelves and via bookpeople.comSarah Pinborough comes to BookPeople this Saturday, February 18th, at 3 PM to speak and sign her latest. 

MysteryPeople Review: BEHIND HER EYES by Sarah Pinborough

  • Review by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Sarah Pinborough comes to BookPeople this Saturday, February 18th, at 3 PM to speak and sign her new genre-bending psychological thriller of suspense, Behind Her Eyesreviewed below. 

9781250111173When given an opportunity to read master-of-all-genre-fiction Sarah Pinborough’s shocking new thriller, Behind Her EyesI had no idea what to expect – aside from the cover’s promise of a twist at the end. After finishing the book, staring at nothing for a good half hour thinking “wtf just happened?!?!!!,” and rereading various parts of the book to reinterpret the meaning of significant passages in the light of new information, I felt grateful that I came into the book with no expectations. The reader who thinks they know what to expect should just toss that idea out the window right now. You cannot possibly predict that wonderful horrorshow of an ending.

Pinborough’s latest appears, at first, to tell the story of a love triangle. As the tale continues, sinister agendas arise and reshape our perceptions of characters, plotlines, and reality itself. In the elaborate, many layered nature of its twist, Behind Her Eyes conjures the specter of the films The Sixth SenseThe Spanish Prisoner, or any other tale that can be finished and reconsidered in an entirely new light based on the end.

Behind Her Eyes begins with a moral dilemma. A divorcee wakes up with a hangover and a memory of nearly going home with a married man. She heads to work only to discover that her new boss is her almost-lover from the night before, and their desire for each other stretches into the harsh light of sobriety, although their shared workplace gives them an additional reason to deny their baser urges.

Meanwhile, the boss’s wife waits at home, rethinking their arguments and plotting her own escape (or revenge) from what appears to be a loveless marriage.She befriends her husband’s new coworker (and potential love interest), and turns the other woman into a project, ostensibly hoping to restore the young divorcee’s self-confidence, oblivious that there might be any attraction between her husband and his colleague. The two women work out together, shop together, and talk endlessly about the degenerating marriage of the boss and his wife. They begin to mirror each other in their looks and their desires, but to what end?

The imagery of merging and competing with other women in Behind Her Eyes harkens back to the instability of identity in the desired woman. In crime fiction, and film noir, a woman is desired frequently because of her resemblance to or difference from another woman. In order to earn her place in a relationship, she must distinguish herself from the Woman Before by destroying that woman’s reputation, or the woman herself. The Woman Before must meanwhile fight her usurper and keep her man by denigrating her replacement or reestablishing her own primacy as desirable.

Variations on this theme include some classic works of suspense and psychological thrills. The tension between a first wife’s memory and a second wife’s living power in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the uncertainty of identity in the face of odd behavior in Pierre Boileau’s Vertigothe substitution of a murder victim for her lookalike in the homicide squad in Tana French’s The Likeness, and a woman’s search for another, nearly identical woman’s murderer in Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger (coming out April 11th 2017)…All these works, and more, established the tropes honored and exploded by Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes. Of particular interest to the fan of Behind Her Eyes may be Pierre Boileau’s She Who Was No Moreadapted to film under the title Diaboliques, in which a love triangle between a teacher, his wife, and his mistress devolves into an adulterous murder plot with several twists.

After allowing myself to indulge in this brief moment of analysis, I must take a step back and allow you, dear reader, to find out this novel’s twists and turns for yourself. Use the examples above as a guide to further your reading, if you so choose – and as for the rest of the plot, I’m keeping mum. Suffice to say that Behind Her Eyes is beyond entertaining – and into the far beyond of disturbing.

You can find copies of Behind Her Eyes on our shelves and via bookpeople.comSarah Pinborough comes to BookPeople this Saturday, February 18th, at 3 PM to speak and sign her latest. 

 

Ragged Creatures: MysteryPeople Q&A with Ian Rankin

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Ian Rankin is on tour celebrating his thirty years with Rebus, chronicling the rough and ready Edinburgh copper. Even retired you can’t keep him off a case –  when he notes the connections between the cold case murder of a rock star’s girlfriend and the modern-day roughing up of a new tough guy around town, he can’t keep away from the investigation, especially with the knowledge that his old nemesis is the main suspect.  With Rebus working with former partner Clark and former Complaints detective Fox, we get one involving procedural in Rather Be The Devil.

Ian Rankin joins us to speak and sign Rather Be the Devil this Thursday February 16th, at 7PM. We caught up to him ask a few questions about the book and these well loved characters on both sides of the law.

MysteryPeople Scott: I know some of your books are loosely based on real crimes or cases. Is that the case here?

Ian Rankin: As usual, there’s a grain of actuality to one of the plots. It concerns financial shenanigans (not wanting to give too much away!), and was something I saw reported on the TV news in Scotland a couple of years back.

MPS: How much of a challenge has it been to keep Rebus investigating since he’s been retired?

IR: I’m finding there are pluses and minuses regarding Rebus’s retirement. He no longer has to follow procedure and protocol. On the other hand, he is distanced from the tools that would normally aid him in an investigation. I do have some fun with that – getting him in and out of police stations and CID offices. But I always have to be aware of his fresh limitations and try to use these to refresh the way I approach each new story.

MPS: Rather Be The Devil has Rebus looking into a cold case, Clark and Fox looking into a fresh one, and Cafferty maneuvering in both. How did you deal with so many spinning plates?

IR: I’m not sure how I keep those plates spinning. They seem to have a momentum all of their own, requiring only a little assistance from me. My first drafts are ragged creatures, but with each new draft I make it start to look as if the plots wee always going to work out and interconnect. And I do take a lot of notes as I write the first draft – things I need to add to the 2nd draft to make sure the various plots work out satisfactorily.

MPS: You’ve put Cafferty in a wonderful place for the reader as to where you’re not quite sure whose side he’s serving until its far into the book. What makes him such a malleable character?

IR: Cafferty is a force of nature. I’ve watched him grow old, and keep wondering: would he retire gracefully, leave the city open for new operators to pillage? Or would he stand his ground? I think he has changed his own mind during the past few books and that has changed my approach to him and to his plot-lines.

MPS: I was glad to see Fox had a number of moments in the series. What has made him worth keeping in your world?

IR: Fox is a company guy. There are more and more of them in the police these days, so he represents that. But he’s on the side of the angels, too, and adds something to the mix. Newly promoted above Siobhan Clarke, their relationship is constantly changing too.

MPS: Do you think Rebus could function in life without a crime to solve?

IR: I really don’t. I know a fair number of real-life cops and they have all managed to retire and move on to other phases of life. Rebus can’t do that. He would spend all his free time deep in introspection, and not like what he saw. Police work allows him to focus on the lives of others, examining their failings so he can ignore his own. And though he is officially retired, he has a whole head full of unsolved cases, cases he may wish to worry away at, since only closure brings him gratification.

You can find copies of Rather Be the Devil on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Ian Rankin comes to BookPeople to speak and sign his latest on Thursday, February 16th at 7 PM – come on by to celebrate thirty years of Rebus! 

(Extremely) Unauthorized Relationship Advice Inspired by Crime Fiction: Part 3

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

We conclude our countdown to the holiday of love with fake relationship advice from three more characters. Jessica Knoll’s TifAni FaNelli gives advice on marrying a blueblood, Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher encourages us to take as many lovers as we’d like, and Paula Hawkins’ protagonist from The Girl on the Train schools us on fact-checking and female solidarity. We hope you’ve enjoyed our series – send us your relationship questions (and which character you’d like to give you advice) to keep the series going! 


luckiest girl aliveDear TifAni FaNelli,

My dream man just proposed, and I said yes! The only problem? He proposed to the version of me that has wooed him, not the real me. How to I get him to accept my complex, inner self while still benefiting from the money and prestige I’ll get from this union?

  • Nouveau Riche in New York

Dear Nouveau Riche in New York,

You do know your fiance is with you for that sweet, sweet arm candy, right, and not for whatever depth you’ve gained from a complex past? I’m going to go ahead and say ditch that boy and let him find a woman more interested in submerging her soul for the sake of appearance. If you are still on the fence, go on a retreat for a while, and ask yourself exactly what you are willing to cover up about yourself to secure your place in the elite. Also ask yourself how important it is to you to reinvent yourself through this marriage. And ask him if he wants a prenup.

You can find Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

  • TifAni FaNelli

cocaine bluesDear Phryne Fisher,

I currently have three lovers, one of whom I worry plans to dispose of the others. I don’t want to give any up, as they are all such pleasing and talented young men, but I don’t want to jeopardize their safety either. Must I give up my jealous lover?

  • In Demand in Indiana

Dear In Demand in Indiana,

You should keep as many lovers as you like, dearie – however, a jealous lover can become a dangerous one! Or, at least, an inconvenient one. Just pawn him off on one of your better-looking friends and get yourself four more! No need to limit oneself with the plethora of available men out there. Get yourself one from every country! A new one every week!

  • Phryne Fisher

You can find Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

9781594634024Dear Rachel,

I know I shouldn’t be calling my ex, or his new wife, late at night (especially after a few drinks), but I keep doing it anyway! In fact, half the time I don’t even remember calling, or what I could possibly want to say, but according to my ex, I spew hateful statements at his wife until she succeeds in hanging up. That doesn’t really make any sense to me – he’s the one I despise. He cheated on me with her, and now he’s cheating on her with half the neighborhood. If anything, I feel sympathy for her. What can I do to move on from this unhealthy fixation?

  • Obsessed in Oxford

Dear Obsessed in Oxford,

Do you trust your ex? Have you spoken with his wife? Before you just believe whatever he tells you, have a sit-down with the new missus and compare details. Maybe he’s telling the truth, or maybe he’s lying to both of you. Instead of competing over his affections, maybe you and the wife can both find ways to define yourselves, and your lives, outside of his purview. And if you really want to get back at him, start a communal feminist society with every woman he’s slept with and just have him round for a toff now and then. When women compete over a man, only the man wins. At the very least, check your facts before you check yourself! Hope that helps.

  • Rachel

You can find Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Q&A: KJ Howe, Director of ThrillerFest, Makes Her Fiction Debut

  • Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor and Blogger Scott Butki

K.J. Howe has written a thriller full of multiple plot twists that will have you looking
over your proverbial shoulder. How appropriate that the author of the debut novel The Freedom Broker may be better known as the executive director of ThrillerFest, the organization’s annual conference held every July in New York City.

“Kidnapping fascinated me because it is such a painful and unusual experience, a purgatory of sorts. When you’re a hostage, you’re still alive, but you’re not really living.”

The book comes with quotes praising it from authors throughout the mystery and thriller community including James Patterson, Clive Cussler and Scott Turow. For her debut Howe has picked a fascinating yet disturbing topic: the practice of kidnapping for ransom. She has spent two years researching the topic, interviewing former hostages, negotiators, hostage reintegration experts, special forces operatives, and K&R insurance executives.
The premise is that there are 25 elite professionals who travel undercover to the deadliest spots in the world to bring hostages home safely by any means necessary. Only one of those 25 elite response consultants is a woman.

That woman, our protagonist, is Thea Paris. Her life was vastly affected by her 12-year-old brother’s kidnapping when she was 8. Howe makes an interesting writing choice in having Paris, an athlete,suffer from Type 1 Diabetes. Howe, like Thea, grew up all over the world.

I was lucky enough to do an email interview with K.J. Howe. K.J. Howe comes to BookPeople to speak and sign her debut this Wednesday, February 15th, at 7 PM. She’ll be appearing in conversation with bestselling thrillerist Jeff Abbott, whose latest work is The First Order. 

 

MysteryPeople Q&A with K.J. Howe


Scott Butki: How did the story come about?

K.J.: Howe: I had the opportunity to meet former hostage Peter Moore, the longest held hostage in Iraq (in captivity for almost 1,000 days). Abducted along with four British military men, Peter was the only one of the five to survive the ordeal. Blindfolded and handcuffed for months, he spent days killing mosquitoes with his cuffed hands, keeping his mind focused by counting how many he could eliminate in a day. When Peter was finally freed of his blindfold, he was then chained to a radiator. He stared at the cracks on the wall and built an entire train system in his mind, which he was later able to replicate on paper. Peter suffered incredible hardships, illnesses, mock-executions, and beatings. But through his resilience and his ability to occupy his mind, he was able to survive. Peter’s story touched me deeply. I wanted to write about kidnapping, bring awareness to what hostages have to go through—and hopefully help more hostages come home. I feel honored to call Peter a friend, and I’m grateful he is free now, able to enjoy life again. He’s my personal hero.

SB: Why did you want to do a story about kidnapping and ransom?

KJH: Growing up, I was fortunate to live in many different places, including Africa, Saudi Arabia, Europe, and the Caribbean. Given my background, I really wanted to write a series about a character who had to travel internationally for her work. Kidnapping fascinated me because it is such a painful and unusual experience, a purgatory of sorts. When you’re a hostage, you’re still alive, but you’re not really living. Instead, you try to endure the hardships, the boredom of captivity, the fear that you might not make it back home and the fervent hope that freedom will eventually come. It’s a complicated and challenging crime. Even when the hostage returns home, the memory of captivity lingers. In fact, the day a hostage is set free often comes with mixed emotions: euphoria that the ordeal is over, and anxiety, because while you have been held captive, the rest of the world has moved on. People expect you to be the same person you were before captivity, but you’re forever transformed by your experience. It can be tough to adjust, and it’s very important to talk to a professional to receive assistance re-adjusting to your new reality.

When you start a fictional series, you want to make sure there is enough breadth and depth in the subject matter for many tales. With my character Thea Paris, I have a myriad of stories to share. Kidnapping is quite international in nature, so that allows me to take Thea to different parts of the world. Given my love of travel, the research provides an opportunity to visit intriguing places. There are also many types of kidnapping, from political to ransom to virtual to phantom to tiger, so I will never run out of story ideas. In fact, I wish I had more time to tackle them all.

SB: In addition to writing an entertaining novel, were you also trying to educate readers on this topic? Is there anything in particular you want them to take away from this book?

KJH: I would very much like to bring kidnapping to the forefront of people’s minds, create awareness for this growing international crisis. There are over 40,000 reported kidnappings a year—in part due to displaced military and police in many third world countries—and this crime is definitely on the rise across the globe. There are many hostages still being held in captivity, and we need to help them. The US administration created a new government body called the HRFC—Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, a multi-agency group spearheaded by the FBI, to deal with the abductions of Americans abroad, and I hope this effort will assist hostages and their families. We’re living in a challenging world, and we need to educate people on travel safety, so we can prevent kidnappings in the first place.

SB: Did you know anyone previous to your writing the book that had been kidnapped?

KJH: Yes, Peter Moore, as I mentioned above. And I’ve met other hostages during my research. There is an organization called Hostage US (and Hostage UK) that assists captives and their families during the reintegration process. Former hostages really need support, and I’m pleased that people are trying to help.

SB: How did you research this book?

KJH: I’ve spent many hours interviewing and just getting to know kidnap and ransom negotiators, former hostages, K&R insurance executives, reintegration experts, psychiatrists specializing in the hostage mindset, and the Special Forces soldiers who deliver ransoms and execute rescues. I’ve also been fortunate to have many of these experts read my book. It’s very important to me to get the facts right.

I also enjoy researching weapons, cultures, locales, and pretty much anything else that will bring verisimilitude to my novels. My kidnap negotiator character, Thea Paris, has type 1 diabetes. As a former medical writer, I wanted to portray her condition accurately. I spent time talking to two active, dynamic women in their 30s who have type 1 diabetes to make sure that I had the details and nuances correct. I’m very grateful for their help.

SB: What’s it like publishing your book and having so many great writers praising you?

KJH: I feel incredibly grateful to have writers I respect and admire share positive feedback about The Freedom Broker. Writers spend so much time alone working on their prose, it’s absolutely touching to hear that the book resonated with someone. I’m dedicated to working hard on my craft and storytelling ability, and I hope to improve as a writer as I pen more novels. It’s a long and winding road, and I want to enjoy every step of the way.

SB: How did you get involved with the International Thriller Writers and later become the Executive Director of ThrillerFest, the organization’s annual conference held every July in New York City?

KJH: I started volunteering with the International Thriller Writers, and when I was asked to become the Executive Director, I was honored to accept. The ITW is a not-for-profit organization, and its mandate is to support thriller authors. Anyone who is enthusiastic about suspense novels will really enjoy ThrillerFest. We have loads of great programming for fans, aspiring writers, and authors. We meet every year in July at the Grand Hyatt in NYC for ThrillerFest. Please come join us. This year, the dates are July 11-15th, 2017. If you have any questions, drop me a line at kimberleyhowe@thrillerwriters.org.

SB: What’s it like as a reader and writer to be able to meet so many great writers?

KJH: It’s like being a kid in a candy shop! I’m so passionate about books that it is a dream job to be talking about them 24/7. It’s fun to be able to ask some of my favorite authors questions about their books and receive a personal—and usually, entertaining—answer. I love that ITW’s bestselling authors are so accessible and helpful to our aspiring authors. Everyone pays kindness forward. We have a special group at ITW, and I’m honored to be part of the organization.

SB: How did growing up in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and the Caribbean affect you as a writer?

KJH: I’m grateful for the incredible experiences I’ve had growing up internationally. I’ve learned fascinating things about other cultures, and I hope that these experiences will add some richness and texture to my books. We’re all curious about each other, interested in learning what makes others tick—and the world is becoming a smaller, more diverse place with convenient airplane travel, so the understanding of other cultures is an important and useful asset.

I love traveling to different locales for research. For The Freedom Broker, I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful island of Santorini, historically steeped Athens, and the stunning vistas of Zimbabwe.

SB: Why did you decide to have the protagonist have diabetes? I liked it. It reminded me of when I read my first Ian Rankin novel and the featured criminal was anemic.

KJH: Very pleased to hear you enjoyed the information about Thea Paris having type 1 diabetes. I wanted to demonstrate that no matter what illness you have, the condition does not define you. Although Thea constantly monitors her blood sugar levels and maintains her diabetes with great care, she doesn’t let it stop her from pursuing her passion of bringing hostages home. She lives an active and dynamic lifestyle, and diabetes does not hold her back. At the same time, having diabetes makes Thea vulnerable, which I feel is important. No one is invincible, and this brings humanity to her character.

As a former medical writer, I have researched diabetes extensively. My grandfather also had the condition, and I can remember him injecting himself with needles…that definitely made an indelible impression on me as a child, and I wanted to include the condition in my book. I hope Thea inspires people with diabetes to look after themselves and to pursue their dreams. There are many professional athletes, actors, musicians and other people with diabetes, and they are an inspiration for Thea.

“…one fact that stood out to me is how different countries react to kidnappings. There have been many instances of people being abducted in groups, and often the hostages are people of different nationalities. Given that each country has a unique policy of how they deal with kidnappers, as a hostage, your fate can be greatly influenced by your home country’s policy. A fate of birth, if you will.”

SB: What question did you wish I would ask that I didn’t? Here’s your chance to ask it and answer it.

KJH: Okay, that’s fun. How about this: What is an interesting piece of information that you’ve learned from your research?

There are countless fascinating details in the world of kidnapping, and I could truly write an entire non-fiction book about the facts alone. But one fact that stood out to me is how different countries react to kidnappings. There have been many instances of people being abducted in groups, and often the hostages are people of different nationalities. Given that each country has a unique policy of how they deal with kidnappers, as a hostage, your fate can be greatly influenced by your home country’s policy. A fate of birth, if you will.

In the case of the US and U.K., both countries have strong policies of not negotiating with terrorists and not paying ransoms. In the US, things have softened slightly, in that if it can be proven that intelligence can result from a ransom payment that could lead to prosecution, the payment may be permissible. But it’s definitely a touchy subject, a hot bed of controversy about funding terrorism. That leaves rescue as an option, but only one in five missions are successful. Challenging odds. And the UK will not pay ransoms or negotiate with terrorists, but they will make payments to captors. For example, British yachting couple Rachel and Paul Chandler were captured by Somali pirates, and a ransom was paid for their freedom.

Contrast this with nations like Germany, France, Italy, and Spain who have directly paid ransoms to hostage takers. This creates world controversy, as there is a lot of finger pointing, accusing these countries of funding terrorism. Al-Qa’ida alone made 125 million dollars from global ransom transactions of this indirect funding since 2008.

Take the unique example of Israel. They will strike deals and offer concessions for the release of their citizens, even for the remains of their soldiers killed in battle, but Israel has a policy of killing anyone who abducts its citizens and has re-arrested prisoners it has released as part of an exchange.

If you’re taken hostage, your country of origin can profoundly affect your release, your treatment, your future.

Thanks so much for your excellent questions.

You can find copies of The Freedom Broker on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. K. J. Howe comes to BookPeople on Wednesday, February 15, at 7 PM. She’ll be appearing in conversation with local author and renowned thrillerist Jeff Abbott.

Scott Butki reads at least 35 books a year and has been interviewing at least 25 authors a year for more than 10 years.You can see an index of those interviews here.

(Extremely) Unauthorized Relationship Advice Inspired by Crime Fiction: Part 2

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

We hope you enjoyed the first installment of our parody advice column from crime fiction characters – on to the more contemporary (and just as unauthorized) columns! Below, let Gillian Flynn’s Amazing Amy help you keep your boyfriend around, allow Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell to assure your niece of a successful marriage, and consider a cure for an annoying ex proposed by Ruth Ware’s Lo Blacklock. 


gone girlDear Amazing Amy,

I feel like my boyfriend only spends time with me when he’s expecting to get some action. How do I get him to understand that to show me love, he needs to spend more time just cuddling?

  • Lonely in Laramie

Dear Lonely in Laramie,

If your partner doesn’t please you, there are plenty of ways to manipulate him into doing so. In my own marriage, I was forced to resort to drastic measures to put my cheating husband back in line, and get the man I wanted, in bed or out of it. My advice? Fake it. Fake the love, fake the pleasure, fake happiness, and fake your future together till it becomes real – to him and everyone around you. Meanwhile, lie to your friends and family about his behavior, and plant evidence to challenge his credibility. Then tell him what you really want – between the version of him you’ve created for your neighbors, and the iron core he only just now is beginning to notice in his choice of mate, he’ll crack and do whatever you want him to. Even cuddle. And if he doesn’t, fake your death and blame it on him. It worked for me!

  • Amazing Amy

You can find Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

beekeepers apprenticeDear Mary Russell,

My niece intends to marry a man substantially her elder, yet in possession of fine faculties and what I believe to be an even finer estate. She has little family, and I fear he has too much sway over her for her to make this decision. In addition, I had come to expect a substantial portion of her inheritance, and I now worry about (to put it indelicately) sharing with her issue. How shall I tell her, gently, to keep an eye out for a more suitable match, while securing my own future in the meantime?

  • Concerned in Cardiff

Dear Concerned in Cardiff,

My own marriage, despite the significant gap between my husband’s age and mine, has been entirely successful, so far. However, my generation’s hardship was the loss of our young men, and in my day, it was more important to marry someone of one’s class than of one’s generation. As long as your niece and her husband do not decide to have children (they can be such a burden), and as long as her husband is as smart and handsome as Sherlock was when I met him, then both your niece and your fortune should remain intact. Also, if either your niece or her intended dies unexpectedly, do give us a call. If your niece passes suspiciously and you don’t give us a call, we may look into matters ourselves.

  • Mary Russell

You can find Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell Series on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

9781501132933Dear Lo Blacklock,

I’ve just had a terrible fight with my boyfriend, and now I’m stuck with an ex-lover on a cruise for the next week! How do I fight the temptation to fall back into the arms of my former mate, or fight the temptation to throw him overboard for cheating on me?

  • Stuck at Sea

Dear Stuck at Sea,

As a recent survivor of just that dilemma, I have to say I sympathize, and hope for your relationship’s sake that you spend the entire cruise attempting to find a woman who lent you some mascara rather than moping around about a fight with a partner. It certainly wouldn’t help the strength of your relationship were you to hook up with your ex-lover – however, if you do choose to push him overboard, that might actually improve the level of trust between you and your current partner. People do, after all, go missing from cruise ships more frequently than many suspect.

  • Lo Blacklock

You can find Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 on our shelves and via bookpeople.com