SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH JOANNA SCHAFFHAUSER

I was hooked on No Mercy as soon as I read the opening line: “You kill one guy, one time, and suddenly everyone thinks you need therapy…” The protagonist, Ellery Hathaway, a police officer, is famous because she killed a particularly brutal murderer. He’s in prison, she’s involuntarily suspended.  

No Mercy: A Mystery (Ellery Hathaway #2) Cover ImageThe author, Joanna Schaffhausen, keeps the action and adrenaline and droll wit that first sentence implies. This is the second book in a series involving Hathaway, the first is called The Vanishing Season, for which she won the Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award in 2016.

While dealing with harassment, unwanted attention and personal threats for her actions, Hathaway is pushed to join a group therapy consisting of other survivors of terrible crimes. As she and an FBI profiler, Reed Markham, began to investigate the cases of two of the survivors in the group they find things are not as simple or clear as one would expect.  There are many twists and turns as well great character development.

The author has a doctorate in psychology. Previously, she worked as a scientific editor in the field of drug development. Prior to that, she was an editorial producer for ABC News, writing for programs such as World News Tonight, Good Morning America, and 20/20.  

She agreed to do an interview via email.

Scott Butki: I want to start by asking where in the writing process you came up with the awesome first line: “You kill one guy, one time, and suddenly everyone thinks you need therapy…”

Joanna Schaffhausen: Ha! Well, they say you need to hook readers early with a killer first line. I just took that literally.

More seriously, the audience has to get to know Ellery Hathaway quickly, and this line captures her thinking at the start of the book. Part of the mystery is whether she will still feel the same by the end.

Scott: How did you come up with this story?

Joanna: I asked myself what would be next for Ellery after the events of The Vanishing Season. Most police departments now mandate counseling for officers involved in shootings, especially if they result in the death of a human being, so it made sense that she would be required to do some introspection. Ellery, though, has survived to where she is largely by blocking out unpleasant events, so she’s not excited to talk about her feelings. So then I asked what she’d be doing instead, and the answer was obvious: she’d start investigating her fellow support group members.

Scott: I, and I assume many other readers of your books, find police officer Ellery Hathaway a fascinating character, someone who shot a murderer in cold blood but refuses to apologize. How did you come up with her character?

Joanna: Ellery survived a notorious serial killer as a teenager and has to live out her days in his shadow. This premise is loosely based on Carol DaRonch, who survived her encounter with Ted Bundy back in the 1970s. Bundy was executed for his crimes in 1989, but for Carol, he never dies. The public appetite for Bundy stories means that Carol gets to see his face on magazine covers, has to turn on the TV and see who is playing her in the latest movie adaptation, and field endless messages from kooks and creeps.

In the fictional world, Ellery’s had enough of other people dictating her life. She wants to be a force for good in the world, but she doesn’t like letting people get close to her, emotionally or physically. She has her own moral code and isn’t easily dissuaded from it.

Scott: How would you describe Ellery and FBI Profiler Reed Markham?

Joanna: Ellery has a passion for justice and is especially moved by women and children in harm’s way. The fact that she survived a brutal experience at the hands of a serial killer has given her the sense that she lives on borrowed time. She will risk her life without a second thought to save others.

Reed Markham is biracial and was adopted by a wealthy white Southern family after his Latina mother was murdered when he was a baby. He is empathic, intelligent and, as Ellery notes, lives his whole life on the premise that he makes a difference. He rescued Ellery as a young, green FBI agent and rocketed to fame on the back of the case. The world told him that he was a big hero, and for years, he believed it. Reuniting with Ellery has shown him all the ways he didn’t save her, and thus, it’s like a wound for both of them that never completely heals. However, they are also the only two with this precise shared history, the only two that see each other clearly in the storm cloud of a famous story, so they remain drawn to each other because of this.

Scott: How has your background – which included studying neuroscience, a doctorate in psychology, working for news programs – helped you with this book and this series?

 Joanna: The brain is so endlessly fascinating! Both neuroscience and psychology have devoted much research to criminal deviance, and these articles make for fascinating, if frustrating, reading. Behavior as complex as violent crime will have multi-factorial roots, including genetic, developmental, and environmental origins. Studies provide insights into why some people turn violent, how they justify this behavior to themselves, and how investigators might use this knowledge to stop them. However, none of it provides definitive answers. There is so much that is unknown, and this gray area provides fertile ground for writing.

Working for the news taught me so much. There are whip-smart, curious, and talented people at all levels, but we’re all feeding the same hungry beast in the audience. The beast wants sensational headlines and crazy, entertaining stories. It wants the stories now, in bite-size form. It can be a challenge to balance the truth, which is often messy, boring, and long-winded, with a format that demands a fast, digestible narrative.

Scott: I understand you get some of your idea from true crime stories. What is it that you take away from those stories?

Joanna: Partly, I am interested in the puzzle aspect. How did the investigators piece together the clues to find the suspect? This can provide a road map for similar fictional cases. I’m also interested in the psychological and emotional impacts of crime, so I want to know what it felt like to be involved in the cases. Yes, from the victim’s and investigator’s sides, but also people who were falsely accused, people who were related to the perpetrator, people who were witnesses, etc. I am interested in how all the pieces fit together into one story.

Scott: What did you learn from writing fan fiction for the X-Files?

Joanna: I could write an essay on this topic alone. I wrote approximately 1.2 million words of XF fanfic spanning fifteen novels and a bunch of shorter works, and that’s invaluable practice in terms of craft. However, I think the most important lessons for me are those that are difficult to find before you’re published, namely what it’s like to write for an audience. Not just your critique group or your best friend, but a diverse set of readers numbering in the thousands. My main takeaways are these:

  1. You can’t control your story once it’s out there. People will have reactions to it that you never anticipated, and that’s okay. Some will love it. Some will hate it. The author doesn’t get a say in how people feel about their story, and the reaction isn’t personal (even if it might feel that way sometimes.)
  2. Some stories are more popular than others, and the reasons are mysterious. I have works that people read once and yawned, and I have others I receive daily letters about, even after twenty years. I couldn’t tell you when I was writing them which would be the popular works and which would be the duds, nor could I do anything to force the issue. The only thing I could do is to write the next story. This is a freeing concept if you embrace it.

Scott: What do you want readers to take away from your book?

Joanna: First and foremost, I hope they are entertained. I am a storyteller at heart. Beyond that, Ellery and Reed’s stories are largely about identity. What are the defining factors that make us who we are? What are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and how do they change over time? One of the threads through all the books is that we have more power over our own stories than it often feels like, and I hope readers embrace that too.

Scott: What can you tell us about the next book in the series, The Neon Boneyard?

Joanna: Reed receives shocking information about his family at the end of No Mercy, which sets up his quest to learn what happened to his murdered mother. She was stabbed to death in Las Vegas when Reed was only a baby, and the killer was never caught. Reed and Ellery set out for the neon lights to see if they can unearth the truth after all these years.

Scott: What are you working on next?

Joanna: I’m working on another serial killer tale. An amateur sleuth trying to find a serial killer who disappeared twenty years ago ends up dead in the same fashion as his victims. Did she get too close and force him out of hiding, or did someone else in her life use her unusual hobby to murder her?

Scott: What’s a question you wish you were asked more often but haven’t been? Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

Joanna: How many unpublished or abandoned manuscripts do you have?

At least a half dozen completed original novels and a handful of partial manuscripts. Some of these were written after I published my debut book, which shows you that publishing is not some magical wand to forever success. This doesn’t mean that all these other manuscripts were failures, either. I learned from them and cannibalized some for other works, and hey, maybe one or two will even resurface later in another form. Writing is about trying new things and if one of those attempts doesn’t yield immediate success, it doesn’t mean you failed as a writer. You take what you can learn from that project and move onto the next one.

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SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH NICK PETRIE

I have a theory that if you give an awesome book full of adrenaline, excitement and plot twists to someone who usually needs a cup of coffee to get moving in the morning, the book will do the job. Nick Petrie’s new novel, Tear It Down, is one such book.

Tear It Down (A Peter Ash Novel #4) Cover ImageAs the book, the fourth in Petrie’s Peter Ash series, begins, Ash’s girlfriend sends the restless war veteran to Memphis to help a friend, Wanda, with a situation: she’s receiving strange threats. By the time he arrives her home is under attack, bulldozed by a garbage truck.

Meanwhile, a young homeless musician in Memphis, on the run after a jewelry store heist goes sideways, steals, at gunpoint, Ash’s car and Ash finds himself immersed in a second case with Ash trying to help not just Wanda but also this musician, Eli.

Petrie masterfully advances both stories while fleshing out all the characters.

Petrie’s first novel, The Drifter, won the ITW Thriller and Barry Awards, and was nominated for Edgar, Anthony, and Hammett Awards. He won the 2016 Literary Award from the Wisconsin Library Association and was named one of Apple’s 10 Writers to Read in 2017.  Light It Up was named the Best Thriller of 2018 by Apple Books.

His books in the Peter Ash series are The Drifter, Burning Bright, Light It Up, and Tear It Down. A husband and father, he has worked as a carpenter, remodeling contractor, and building inspector.

Petrie agreed to let me interview him via email. This is the result.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this adrenaline rush of a story?

Nick Petrie: For me, stories evolve in strange ways.  Memphis is near the New Madrid Seismic Zone, and I set out to write a natural disaster tale.  I began to research Memphis and its historical conflicts and challenges, and I had a lot of stories to choose from.  I began with Wanda Wyatt because I’d met a photojournalist with post-traumatic stress, and I thought Wanda would provide a new way of looking at the consequences of war.  Then I remembered an article in a building magazine with a photograph of a dump truck that had crashed into a building, which gave me a way to dramatize a certain kind of conflict.  When Eli Bell showed up, he was so sympathetic and compelling that I knew something else entirely was happening, and the earthquake would have to wait for another book.

Scott: Am I right in guessing this is a story where you did some major outlining? It seems you would need it to explain both the plotline about Eli and the others robbing a jewelry store AND the plotline about Peter Ash helping Wanda?

Nick: That was the challenge I set for myself with this book – to write two separate plotlines that would twine around each other, and relate to each other, simultaneously.  Unfortunately, I’m not a big outliner, I tend to write more organically, and at times I really despaired for the structure of this book. (I often think my writing life would be easier if I could outline.  But I seem incapable of it.) I have a big corkboard on the wall of my office, and after I had most of a draft, I marked up a bunch of notecards, one card for each scene, and used the corkboard to arrange and rearrange until it felt right.  Not very scientific, I’m afraid.

Scott: What was it like to get this praise from Lee Child: “Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Petrie’s Peter Ash is the real deal…The writing is terse and tense, full of wisdom and insight, and the plot is irresistible.”  How would you compare Ash with Reacher?

Nick: I am a HUGE fan of Lee’s work, so his praise meant the world to me.  Peter Ash definitely shares some DNA with Jack Reacher – both are rootless ex-military heroes who don’t really fit into the modern world, and who are more interested in solving somebody’s problem than in the niceties of the legal system.  But I think the characters’ differences are far more complex. Where Reacher is a wandering loner by choice, Peter longs for a home, but he literally cannot stay indoors for very long. And where Reacher is a kind of superman, who you feel is almost beyond harm – and this is, I think, one of the core appeals of Jack Reacher – Peter Ash, although physically very capable, is still quite vulnerable, which is, I think, why the series has found so many readers, so quickly.  

Scott: How would you describe Iraq war veteran Peter Ash, as well as the character of Eli?

Nick:  Peter Ash is a Marine Corps veteran with post-traumatic stress that takes the form of claustrophobia, which means he can’t be inside for more than a few minutes.  Although he’s working hard to get better, Peter’s combat skills and wartime experiences have made him ill-suited to the modern world. But like many veterans I’ve met, Peter is driven to be useful.  So he dives back into the world, again and again, even if it means risking everything, to help others.

Eli Bell, on the other hand, is a talented young street musician in serious trouble.  He’s allowed himself to be caught up in a robbery scheme with his friends, but when the robbery goes wrong, Eli finds himself on the wrong side of a local warlord and his paid killers.  Eli is smart and proud and resourceful, and he doesn’t want Peter’s help. But he won’t live long without it.

Scott: How did you develop those two characters?

Nick: This might make me sound more unbalanced than I really am, but characters usually appear first as a kind of voice in my head.  I started writing The Drifter, my first book, because I kept hearing the voice of a cheerful, damaged veteran who needed to remove a big, mean dog from under a porch so he could do some repairs.  The whole story evolved from that basic sense of his character. The way Peter got the dog out from under the porch. His reaction when he found a certain Samsonite suitcase. What he did with the dog afterwards.  How he ended up under that porch in the first place. Everything Peter’s done since that scene has been an extension of that first voice in my head.

I have no idea where Eli Bell came from.  One day I started writing about these four black kids living in an abandoned house.  But I became very involved in their complicated friendship, their hopes and sorrows and dreams and ambitions.  And Eli’s voice was so strong that I just kept writing, not knowing where he would fit in the book, knowing only that he would take me somewhere interesting.  He’s fierce and strong and determined and flawed, with everything stacked against him – a writer could hardly hope for a better character.

Scott: Which comes first for you, plot or characters?

Nick: Character, absolutely.  I start with a character’s voice, then drop him or her into a difficult situation with no real idea of what he or she will do next.  Usually the voice tells me what happens next. In Light It Up, for example, I knew I wanted to write about Colorado’s newly-legal cannabis industry.  It made sense that Peter would want to help other veterans to protect the pot growers – protecting and helping others is like breathing for Peter. So I sent him to work one day, to see what would happen.  Unfortunately, some hijackers decided they wanted what Peter’s crew was carrying. Things went downhill from there.

Scott: You do a great job explaining what life is like on streets for Eli. Are you hoping readers will come away with some learning about that? What else are you hoping readers will take away from this excellent novel?

Nick: My primary job is always to entertain my readers, to jack up their adrenaline levels and keep them turning those pages.  That means I have to create characters that readers will care about, then give those characters increasingly difficult challenges.  And because my own life is pretty boring, I’m most interested in writing about people who are not like me, whether that’s a black street kid or a combat veteran or a working-class guy who feels abandoned and adrift.  

If my work can drop readers into the lives and minds and hearts of someone who is not like them? That, for me, is success. Because reading a good book is a radical act of empathy. The world could use a little more of that.

Scott: How do you go about researching a story like this?

Nick:  I begin by reading enough to hear that quiet voice in my head and get me itching to begin.  Then I write forward in the story until it’s clear to me that I need to know more. Sometimes research is more reading, sometimes it’s talking with experts, sometimes it’s talking with people who have lived an experience I’m only writing about.  This happens multiple times during the writing of a single book – sometimes multiple times in a single week. Also, I always make at least one visit to the place I’m writing about. Visiting Memphis had a profound effect on this book – creating a vivid setting is really important to me because setting is a kind of bonus character.  I really want readers to have an immersive experience. My favorite books are those that make me forget myself for a while.

Scott: This is the fourth book in your Peter Ash series. Do you want readers to start with the first one or with this one?

Nick: I’ve written them to be read in any order you find them.  But if you’re the kind of reader that likes to start at the beginning – and I’m actually that kind of reader – you might enjoy seeing the evolution of the characters and the kinds of trouble Peter gets into, starting with The Drifter.  

Scott: How far out do you have this series planned?

Nick: The thing I like the best about writing Peter Ash stories is that they can go anywhere and can take on any subject – as long as they involve vivid characters and a fast, exciting story.  I have some ideas about the larger arc of the series, but I try not to have too many preconceived notions. Following the characters seems to work best. The next Peter Ash book is set in Iceland, where Peter goes to find a missing child amid the dramatic landscape and strange characters of this wild and wonderful place.  Unfortunately for Peter, it doesn’t go well.

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS HAMMER

In Scrublands, Australian author Chris Hammer writes about a journalist, Martin, sent to a drought-ravaged town in Australia where the one year anniversary of an event is coming up: A year earlier a priest, minutes before a weekend service, stood on the church steps with a gun and shot several people before being killed himself.

Scrublands Cover ImageMartin finds things are not as it seems as far as the story told about the incident and, while investigating, there are fires, a fatal car accident and he falls in love with a local resident.

The old journalism rule about not becoming part of the story is broken repeatedly. This book has twist after twist including Martin publishing stories that seem accurate at the time, but soon turn out to be otherwise. This is great writing that will keep surprising you.

Hammer was a journalist for more than 30 years before becoming a full-time novelist with the success of Scrublands.  He served as an international correspondent, the chief political correspondent for The Bulletin and a senior political journalist for The Age. His first nonfiction book, The River, was awarded the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award.

As a lover of good mysteries and a former journalist myself, I recommend this book

Hammer agreed to let me interview him via email.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?

Chris Hammer: I have no idea where large parts of the story came from. For example, mass shootings are rare in Australia – those that do occur are typically domestic murder-suicides. I know of no real-life basis for the homicidal priest Byron Swift, here or in the US.

I was a journalist for 30 years, including extensive stints as a roving foreign correspondent, so those helped inform protagonist Martin Scarsden – for example, I did report from Gaza.  But character-wise he is unlike me.

I travelled through large parts of inland Australia about ten years ago at the height of the ‘Millennial Drought’ – the deepest and most prolonged since European settlement – researching my non-fiction book The River. I visited towns where the river had literally run dry. So the setting for Riversend is based on that.

There was a case some years ago involving Australia’s most infamous serial killer, a man named Ivan Milat. He would pick up hitchhikers, torture and kill them. It’s likely one story line grew from that seed.

There are other bits and pieces that may have origins in real life but much of it has bubbled up from the imagination. Which is good – it encourages me to think I can write more books like this!

Scott: Which came first, the priest and other characters, or the plot?

Chris: The idea of the priest, Martin and Mandy came first. The plot changed and changed again, evolving over time. Entire plot lines and several characters were thrown away and new ones developed. I reckon I discarded more than 200,000 words before settling on the final manuscript.

Scott: The press release for your book states, in part: “The ever-growing popularity of Australian authors like Liane Moriarty, Hannah Kent, and Kate Grenville proves that American readers are hungry for stories about the land down under, a country that feels remarkably familiar while remaining a world away. Interestingly, it turns out that Australia has a wild west, too, and it’s strikingly similar to ours.” Do you think this is the case? Also, are Australians interested in America’s “wild west?

Chris: Australia is a large country, but our population is relatively small. In the past, we have been wholesale importers of culture: movies, tv, books, music, particularly from America and Britain. We still are. So Australians are far more familiar with American culture than vice versa. For example, my dad was a big John Wayne fan and his favourite movie was Shane. So yes, Australians are/were interested in the wild west, as they are with other aspects of American culture.

I’m not sure there is anything particularly wild about the west in either the US or Australia nowadays. Certainly not in the sense they are lawless.

I think Australia does capture the imagination of Americans, who might see it as simultaneously familiar and exotic. I have met Americans who hold an almost nostalgic view of Australia: they see it as a more innocent version of the US, like America used to be. They often warn me: “Don’t do this or that, or you will end up like us.”

Scott: As a former journalist myself, I found myself cheering along journalist Martin Scarsden. Is Martin based on journalists you have known and/or aspects of yourself?

Chris: Scrublands is certainly informed by my past as a journalist, although Martin isn’t based on any particular person(s), and certainly not myself. Certainly, much of the journalistic process in the book is familiar to me, as is the way journalists act and the way they view the world and their craft. However, Martin is no exemplar: he is constantly getting stories wrong! This was one of the ideas I had from the start; a protagonist who gets things wrong.

Scott: How has your career of journalism helped you when writing this novel?

Chris: The discipline of writing is there. While some aspiring writers may wait for inspiration and struggle with writer’s block, no journalist can tell their editor that they aren’t feeling inspired and may not file!

I don’t get too attached or sentimental about what I’ve written and I don’t get precious during the editing process. Particularly in television, editing material and parring it back is all part of the process.

For many years I made long-form television reports of around 30 minutes in length. I think this has helped me with pacing and structure and developing through-lines i.e. leading a reader through a story.

Scott:  Do you have any thoughts or questions you hope readers will take away from this book?

Chris: Not really. I hope they enjoy it and that it might fire their imaginations. There is a theme there of inter-generational trauma, but the book is not meant to be didactic.

Scott: Was it hard switching from non-fiction to fiction?

Chris: No, I found it liberating. Now I get paid for making stuff up. How good is that?

Scott: How do you feel about your writing being compared to Jane Harper and James Lee Burke?

Chris: It’s a compliment, of course. I guess it’s natural for debut novelists to be likened to established writers. That said, I certainly haven’t modeled my writing on any other author, at least not consciously. I hadn’t heard of Jane until I’d finished the first draft of Scrublands, but I’m honoured to be compared with her. And grateful. I think the success of The Dry has almost certainly helped other Australian crime writers, myself included, to find publishers and readers in the US and elsewhere.

Scott: Are you hoping this will be the start of a series?

Chris: Yes. I am well into the follow up to Scrublands (which was published July 2018 in Australia). We have a tentative Australian publication date of late 2019 for the next one. It again features Martin and Mandy. And there’s likely to be a third book as well.

Interview with Nancy Boyarsky on writing in the #metoo era & more

Liar Liar: A Nicole Graves Mystery (Nicole Graves Mysteries) Cover ImageFor her third mystery novel featuring protagonist Nicole Graves, Nancy Boyarsky has written an intriguing thriller that turns what could have been a predictable #metoo movement novel on its head.

In Liar Liar, Nicole is tasked with babysitting a witness who has accused a university’s star quarterback of rape. While the witness, Mary Ellen Barnes, has come off as squeaky clean in public, Graves quickly sees that things are not as they seem.

Soon Mary Ellen goes missing and Nicole, over the objections of her fiancé, gets increasingly in the middle of the case. And then a key figure in the story dies. What follows are twists and more twists.

Boyarsky coauthored Backroom Politics with her husband, journalist Bill Boyarsky, as well as several textbooks by herself on the justice system as well as writing articles of many publications.

She is currently working on her fourth mystery about Nicole in addition to a memoir about growing up in Oakland called Family Recipes for Gastroenteritis.

Scott: Where did this story come from and how did it develop?

Nancy: The plot of Liar Liar involves a rape trial that becomes a murder trial. The idea came to me long before #Metoo got rolling. I started thinking about it three or four years ago when a close friend of mine, who’s a private detective, told me about a rape case at a local college. She’d been hired by the college to interview everyone who had knowledge of the incident and write a report without drawing any conclusions. Normally, her cases are confidential, but someone leaked the report online, and Esquire ran an article about it. It involved two very drunk 19-year-olds, and the fallout from their encounter was pretty interesting. It got me thinking about how difficult it is to determine who’s the responsible party in a “she said, he said” situation.

Of course, I had to change all of the circumstances, since I wouldn’t have had a murder mystery without a dead body. In the real-life case, the parties seemed to be traumatized but no one died. I also changed the locale, setting the college in Malibu rather than in urban L.A.

Scott: How did you create and develop the protagonist, Nicole Graves, for this series?

Nancy: When I wrote the first book, The Swap, I wanted to create a main character who was smart, likeable, curious and doggedly persistent. I’ve read too many books featuring detectives who are emotionally damaged; it almost seems a requirement for this type of character. I wanted my heroine to be a normal, reasonably well-adjusted person. As I went through innumerable rewrites of The Swap, Nicole emerged.

Scott: How would you describe her?

Nancy: As I said, she’s smart, likeable, and doggedly persistent. She’s curious about the people she meets and wants to know everything about them, which is probably one of the traits made her become an investigator. She’s also petite and sweetly pretty with dimples. This bothers her. She feels that some people don’t take her seriously because of her looks. But sometimes it’s an advantage to people have underestimate you.

Most importantly, Nicole is a risk taker, and wants to make sure justice is served. She can’t bear standing by and watching when she knows someone has unjustly been accused of a crime or when the guilty party gets away, leaving an innocent person to take the blame. Oh, and she’s also a romantic. She’s has fallen in and out of love a few times during these stories.

Scott: In what ways are you like her? In what ways are you different from her?

Nancy: Well, I’m certainly not as brave as she is, and I wouldn’t call myself a risk taker. On the other hand, I do share her curiosity about people—what makes them tick, their secrets, their hopes and dreams. I share her desire to see justice done. I’m also petite and (while I don’t have dimples) have a benign appearance that sometimes makes people underestimate me.

Scott: I bet you thought about the #Metoo movement while writing this book in which a character accuses a well known person of rape. What are some thoughts you have about the movement?

Nancy: I’m a big supporter of #Metoo, and it was a lucky coincidence that Liar Liar was published as this movement was snowballing. I don’t know any woman who hasn’t been harassed or sexually victimized at some point in her life. I can remember being a teenager walking down the street and getting cat calls from, for example, construction workers. This was embarrassing and upsetting. But so many much worse things happen to women on a daily basis. It’s good that women are able to come forward and confront abusers about what they’ve done. On the other hand, we have to be careful not to get carried away. For example, there was the woman who anonymously denounced the stand-up comic Aziz Ansari for what many would call a bad date. I thought that was going too far.

In Liar Liar, the story the victim tells is not really what happened. She has been sexually victimized and exploited, just not in the way she says. And the man who’s wrongly accused isn’t completely innocent. But cases like this rarely happen. I believe the vast majority of victims are telling the truth. According to the National Institute of Justice, most rapes, attempted rapes, and other sexual assaults are never reported. Why not? The institute referred to a study that gave a number of reasons: self blame, shame, fear of the perpetrator, fear of not being believed, and lack of trust in the justice system.

Scott: So this is the third in your series — should readers start with the first book or is it okay to start with this one?

Nancy: You don’t have to start with the first one at all. Each book stands on its own. If anything happens that refers back to an event in one of the earlier books, I give a brief explanation.

I wrote the first book, The Swap, as a stand-alone; I had no intention of basing a series on Nicole Graves. When it was done, I’d left a lot hanging in the air. By this time, Nicole seemed almost real to me. I started wondering what would happen to her next. As I thought about it, my second book, The Bequest, began to take shape.

Scott: I understand at one point you were the associate editor of Los Angeles Lawyer magazine. Did that help with writing about lawyers in this book?

Nancy: One of things I always had to offer employers was my ability to translate legalize and legislative language into plain, simple terms that the average reader could understand. So, I guess my experience with L.A. Lawyer helped me out there. I did the same kind of work at ARCO, where I was director of communications for political affairs for many years, mostly writing about legislative proposals that affected the oil industry. But my main resource for the workings of the justice system in Liar Liar was my brother-in-law, Jeff Boyarsky, who is a newly retired criminal-defense attorney. I was always asking him questions about what would happen before and during the trials in the book.

Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Nancy: I hope they’ll be entertained and that the book will take them out of their world for a while. It would also be good if the book could enlighten them a bit about the legal process and what participants in such trials go through.

Scott: How did you research this book?

Nancy: For quick facts, for example how a particular gun would behave in Nicole’s hands, I used Google. The internet makes this kind of research very easy. In the dark ages before the web, I was a freelance writer. To get information, I had to make a lot of phone calls, spend time in libraries, become an expert at using The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and looking at newspaper microfilms. Yikes! That was a lot of work.

For Nicole’s adventures, I have two main experts I rely on—my lawyer brother-in-law and my friend who’s a private detective. They answer questions as I go along and read the manuscript when it’s done.

Scott: How far out have you planned this series?

Nancy: Not at all. I’m just finishing up Book 4, The Ransom, which is due at my publishers on January 10th and will be released next September. I’m thinking that book 5 should take Nicole to Europe. Maybe London again, which was the setting of The Swap.  I know the city pretty well from our visits there. Or maybe Italy or France. I don’t even plan the book I’m working on advance. I just develop it as I go along. While preoccupied with that, it’s impossible to think about what will be in the next book.

 

Q&A with Sarah Pinborough

While Cross Her Heart was my first time reading a book written by author Sarah Pinborough, it definitely won’t be my last: Her plotting, pace and twists were amazing.

Cross Her Heart: A Novel Cover ImageAmid best selling authors like Gillian Flynn working with unreliable narrators I find myself wondering, when reading new books with female protagonists, if THIS is an character I can rely on. And this one avoided the clichés, the predictable twists of many other authors and instead provided a completely original book that will keep you reading all night.

As the Independent wrote, “Once the first reveal hits you in the face, you’ll be lucky if you can put the book down to go to bed.”

The author, who has also written 20 novels and novellas and written for the BBC,  was nice enough to let me interview her via email.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?

Sarah Pinborough: The central subject matter – which I can’t really talk about without giving away the twist! – has always fascinated me, especially the fallout and how people continue to live their lives in the aftermath. In the UK in particular we have a fascination with these cases and I always wanted to write something that explored it. God, this is so hard to answer 😉 But once I had that the core twist in place, the rest of the story came easily.

Scott: Which comes first for you, the plot or the characters?

Sarah: Often I’ll start with a situation, or a scene, but the characters are very close behind. It’s very symbiotic. But when writing thrillers you need to have the engine of the plot and then house it with characters that people will care about. They don’t have to be likeable for me, but they have to like themselves, even if that particular character is an awful human being. Then you have half a chance that the reader will root for them.

Scott: How do you come up with so many disturbing ideas for novels?

Sarah: Ha! Sometimes I think I’d love to write something funny but my brain tends to go to darker places! When I was a kid I never slept because I was always scared of the monsters in the dark, and that endless death-like quality of night, so I figure I’m just destined to think of the terrible things rather than the fun ones. I hope that there are some uplifting moments in my books, though!

Scott: Am I right in guessing that you outline your books? I would think you would have to do in order to plan the twists and keep the pacing at atmosphere going.

Sarah: Yes, I definitely plan. I don’t always stick to them but they help point out the problems if nothing else. I always have to have the end solidly in place before I begin and that never changes once it’s locked in. If the ending doesn’t feel right I can’t really start. I do screenwriting as well, and there structure is everything, and that has carried over into my novel writing. I kind of get key beats in place but they often change as ideas or characters change!

Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from your books?

Sarah: Mainly, I hope they just have a few hours entertainment. Entertainment is much under-rated in this difficult world we live in, and I love to get lost in a story, and forget about any problems I have, and hope that my readers have the same experience. But, also, the story stays with them for a while, or makes them think about people in a different way, that’s good too.

Scott: You have quite the collection of past works. What prompted you to write modern re-tellings of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty?

Sarah: Well, that was actually my old editor at Gollancz’s suggestion! We’d both been watching the first scene of Once Upon a Time and loving it and she asked if I’d ever consider re-telling fairy tales and they’d want to publish them if I did. I didn’t think I’d be able to write something like that but then I was thinking about Snow White and wondered what kind of man would fall in love with a dead girl in a glass coffin, and then I had my way in. I’m very proud of that trilogy, and it was fun to be able to write dark, saucy humour.

Scott: I understand Stephen King was one of your earlier writing influences. What’s it like to have King, along with Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Harlan Coben and others, praising you?

Sarah: Oh my gosh, it’s just amazing. There’s always lots of fear in this business (I mean, I’m not bigging up writing, it’s not brain surgery or saving people from fires etc, but we have fragile egos and always worry) and whenever i have a moment of wondering if I’m making a mess of a story or if it’s all going to go wrong I think, ‘Well, at least all these people I admire have at some point enjoyed what I’ve done.’ It’’s a great way to calm down. 😉 I love all of them, but having grown up in total awe of Stephen King his words almost made me cry!

Scott: What are you working on next?

Ah! Well, I’m describing it as Big Little Lies meets Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It’s fun and sexy. It’s set in America, and it’s lots of terrible, wealthy people doing terrible things to each other … but I love them. Especially the main women characters.  It is a change because it’s third person past rather than first person present and it doesn’t have past chapters like the last two books but thus far, I’m pretty pleased with it. I think it will be a bit different.

Interview With Alison Gaylin

Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight uses the thriller to examine how social media affects our lives. It shows different points of view when a teenager is sent into a coma from apparently stopping a car jacking involving a one hit wonder from the eighties, and how rumors moving at light speed effect the lives of those caught up in the situation as well as those investigating it. Alison was kind enough to talk about the book and life in the era of Twitter.

Image result for alison gaylin booksMysteryPeople Scott: Social media plays a big part in If I Die Tonight. What did you want to explore with that subject?

Alison Gaylin: I’m really fascinated by social media as an unreliable narrator. In the book, the kids and the adults use it in this way – the grown-ups falsely glamorizing their lives on Facebook, the kids (and I suppose anonymous Reddit posters as well) using social media to spread rumors, lash out at each other, bully each other with untruths. I always say I like to write about things that scare me, and in this day and age, social media can be terrifying.

MPS: You have a teenage daughter. Do you think she will be formed in a different way than when we were teenagers by social media?

AG: Yes, I do. As I mention in the book, I feel like when I was a kid, we blasted music, clomped around in our Doc Martens, tied up the family phone and basically wore our heart on our sleeves. Our power was in making noise. This generation is about earbuds and sneakers and personal devices… They’re so much quieter and more secretive, which makes them harder to know, help, save.

If I Die Tonight: A Novel Cover ImageMPS: How much did having a daughter help you get the voices of the teenage characters?

AG: It did help in terms of getting a grasp of teenagers’ concerns. And it was a story that my daughter told me – about a hit and run in a neighboring town – that gave me the initial idea for the book.  She also helped me understand SnapChat, which was invaluable! But my daughter’s voice is very different from that of the two teenage boys in the book. She’s a lot more open than they are – thankfully!

MPS: This is one of those thrillers that probably wouldn’t have existed five years ago. Is there anything as an author you have to keep in mind when you’re writing a story so of its time?

AG: I think the one thing to keep in mind is to make sure that there is something timeless about the story. Yes, this novel has SnapChat and Reddit and Facebook Live in it. But it is ultimately about guilt, secrets, and the terrifying process of raising teenagers – all of which have been around forever.

MPS: If I Die Tonight is a something of an ensemble thriller told through the point of view of several characters. What made you decide this was the way to go for this story?

AG: When I first decided to write a story about a teenager who may have committed a carjacking/hit and run, my first thoughts were, “What if I were his mother?” “What if I were his little brother?” “What if I were the woman whose car was taken?” and “Who is going to solve this crime?” All seemed like valid ways to approach the story, so I decided to go with all of them.

MPS: Aimee Em is the third character you’ve recently used in a novel or short story tied to eighties pop culture. Has anything drawn you to this period?

AG: What is that thing they say about the songs you used to listen to as a teen making the biggest impact on you, emotionally? I am fanatical about pop culture – I always have been — and I think that having grown up in the early 80s, I’m especially obsessed with that time period.

WITHIN A GENERATION OF THEIR EXTINCTION: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID JOY

Our Pick Of The Month, The Line That Held Us, is David Joy’s third book to take place in his home of Jackson County, North Carolina. It concerns Calvin Hooper who helps his friend Darl Moody hide a body he accidentally shot. The body belongs to the brother of Dwayne Brewer, the county’s most vicious criminal. What occurs is a tense thriller that also looks at family, friendship, and search for grace in a place that is going through a lot of changes after it seems to have changed little for over a hundred years. We got a chance to talk about the book with David Joy himself.

MysteryPeople Scott: As in all of your books, family plays a major part in the story. Dwayne is avenging his, and Calvin is trying to save his before it even gets started. What makes the dynamics rich subject matter for you?

David Joy: Maybe more than anything it’s the idea of unconditional love that interests me. I think familial bonds, and deep-seated friendships that become familial, make for some of the richest ground to plow. People will do things that defy reason and that defy even their own morality to protect the ones they love. That’s an interesting place to put a character. There’s immediate conflict. There’s this “I know I shouldn’t do this but I’d do anything for you” kind of conflict. Any time you can create that kind of tension in a story you’re going to have movement, and that’s what a story has to do. It has to move.

MPS: Family seems to be a staple in Southern literature. Do you feel it has a special place in the culture?

DJ: That’s definitely true about Southern literature, but I think the reality is that it’s less a matter of the South or the North or the Midwest, and much more a matter of the rural nature of the setting. Family is an integral part of the rural identity. You could go anywhere in the country and if you get far enough out to places where people are largely isolated and seldom leave and that’s all you have is family or families. Take the county where I live, Jackson County, North Carolina. You go back to the late 1800s when that county was formed and the names on that paper the Brysons and Hoopers and McKees and Dills and Fowlers and McCalls and Shulers and Greens and all these names, those names are the same names that are here now. That’s the culture and place that I’m writing about. The work mirrors that reality.

MPS: Dwayne is such a great antagonist, in fact as the book continues he grows more into a counter-protagonist if there is such a thing. Is there any thing you have to keep in mind when writing for a character like him?

Image result for david joy author

DJ: I think one of the scariest things that can happen with a “bad guy” is when they make perfect sense. When, as a reader, you find yourself nodding your head. There’s this great moment in Larry Brown’s novel Father And Son when one of the main characters, Glen, catches this giant fish that everyone had been trying to catch for years. Glen is a bad dude. He’s come out of prison for killing someone. He’s raped at least one woman that we know of. Anyway, he catches this huge fish and he has this moment where he could take it to town and show it off and for once in his life be a hero. Instead, he turns it loose. When they ask him why, the line is something like, “Because that fish never done nothing to me.” Tom Franklin asked Larry about that scene once and he said Larry told him that even the worst people had moments of humanity. I think that’s absolutely right and I think that’s what you’re getting at here. With Dwayne Brewer, I wanted his logic to make sense. I wanted readers to see him doing incredibly horrific things and somehow feel empathy toward those actions. He’s some sort of balance between instinct and reason, between what we feel in our guts and what we think in our heads. At times, we all wash back and forth between those places and that’s part of why characters like that resonate with us. I think he might be the character I’m most proud of. If nothing else, he’s unforgettable.

MPS: In some ways Calvin is even more difficult to pull off. He’s comes off as the friend you want to have and workmate you respect, but I never felt like we had to like or side with him. Is there a way you approach someone like that?

DJ: Calvin Hooper is really an indifferent character altogether, and maybe that’s what you were responding to. He never struck me as a decision maker, as a leader. He reminds me of friends of mine who always wound up in the back of the car riding along to places they had no business going, with people they had no business being with. There were times, especially when I was younger, when I did the same thing. There were times I wound up in the back of a police car because I went along with something someone else wanted to do. Early on in the novel Calvin makes some pretty horrible decisions based on his love and commitment to his best friend, Darl Moody. After those decisions backfire and things go from bad to worse, there’s this sort of detached reaction toward everything. It’s like he just sort of removes himself and thinks if I just leave everything alone maybe it will settle. Well, of course things don’t settle and one of the biggest conflicts in the book is Dwayne Brewer forcing Calvin to acknowledge what he values most and to make a decision based on that acknowledgement. In that way, I think Calvin shows a lot of growth as a character. There’s that question Dwayne asks Calvin toward the end of the book, he asks, “For whom are you willing to lay down your life, friend? Outside of that there is nothing.” I think that question lies at the heart of what this novel is about.

MPS: It seems like with each book, the outside world is closing in tighter on your character’s communities, posing the same cultural threat to the area as gentrification does to cities. Do you see this as an ever-growing problem in real life?

DJ: When a lot of outsiders think about Appalachia, they imagine the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Where I live, that’s not our reality. I’ve said for a long time that unrestricted land development, tourism, rising land costs, and the resulting gentrification, that’s our coal mining. A lot of people refuse to acknowledge tourism as an extractive economy, but it is. It’s not as ugly on the surface as the timber industry was a century ago, or as coal mining was and is, but the result is the same. The result is the destruction of landscape and the displacement of people.

The jobs that are created from tourism-based economies are low paying jobs. What value there is is in the land. There are places here, entire coves, entire mountains, that have belonged to single families for hundreds of years. That land has been divvied up and divided over generations and nowadays its worth more than it ever has been. The thing about that value though is that it forces the hand. Sure you can sell the property to some out-of-state goon looking to build a second or third home that they can come visit for a few weeks out of the year and sure the money you’re going to make on that acreage is more than you’ve ever had in your life, but there’s no lateral move. You can sell the farm but it’s not like you can drive down the road and scoop up another. There’s no other place to go. Those places don’t exist anymore. The family land is broken up and sold and the local people move away. I think we’re looking at the very last remnants of this culture and these people. We’re within a generation of their extinction.

MPS: All three of your books are stand alone novels. Are there any plans for a series, trilogy, or return to any of your surviving characters?

DJ: I’d never even heard that term “stand alone” until I had a book out. I don’t know, I’d just never really thought about books like that. I didn’t grow up reading series. I typically don’t want to stick with characters that long. I like to jump around. I might read something Southern then jump into something South American. Sometimes I’ll read nothing but poetry for months. I won’t say I’d never write something like a trilogy, but the story would really have to warrant the structure. Other than that, my style lends itself more to individual books.

As far as my novels, I do like to throw anecdotes from earlier books into new ones, things that work whether you’ve read the other books or not. So for instance with The Weight Of This World, the time period when that book is set and what’s happening with the methamphetamine culture is largely resulting from the end of the first novel, Where All Light Tends To Go. With The Line That Held Us there’s mention of an event that happened in Weight Of This World. There’s also a lawyer that shows up in Where All Light Tends To Go and The Line That Held Us. The book I’m working on, one of the main characters from The Weight Of This World appears and I don’t know whether that will stick or not, but the point is that I do enjoy playing with things like that.

All of my books are set very specifically in Jackson County, North Carolina where I live and it’s a small place. You get to know people here. It’s the same names in the newspaper week in and week out. When things happen, you hear about them, and when things happen, especially big things, the stories root themselves into the landscape. Nothing is easily forgotten here and I want my books to mimic that reality.