You have been busy! Congratulations on winning Zondervan’s first novel contest in 2009. It has been a while, but your winning novel, “Someone to Blame” is finally about to be released. That is very exciting. Tell us about it.
Someone to Blame was the sixth novel I’d written. I’d already written three contemporary relational dramas/mysteries, one a psychological takeoff of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” her best-selling mystery. I thought it might be fun to do another based loosely on “Murder on the Orient Express.” So instead of on a train, this story is set in a small coastal town. At first I had planned to make this story primarily about the young drifter who comes to town and have him cause so much trouble the townsfolk murder him. But as I laid it out, it morphed into something much deeper and more universal. I especially got hooked with exploring the theme of blame and how we blame ourselves and others sometimes in ways that is hurtful. So the focus shifted to a family reeling from tragedy that moves to this town to heal, yet gets entangled in this drifter’s life. I love writing ensemble pieces set in a crucible, and this certainly is what happens to both Billy Thurber, the drifter, and the Moore family. Through this collision, there are unexpected repercussions of healing and grace. I originally intended it for a commercial audience, but then decided to tweak it for believers too.
1. Tell us how much of yourself you write into your characters.
I can’t imagine how any author could avoid putting herself into her characters in one way or another. I certainly do. And I put in just about everyone I know, in bits and pieces along the way. My latest novel, Conundrum, is 95% autobiographical, although it is a mystery. That was tough to write—all about my mother’s betrayal and the greatest pains I’ve suffered. It wasn’t, though, cathartic for me at all, and that wasn’t why I wrote it, either (that’s another story), but I’m very much in that book. I’d say most of my other nine novels in both genres only pull from my passions and opinions through the voices and actions of my characters.
2. What is the quirkiest thing you have ever done?
I’ve done a lot of quirky things. (I just looked up the word to be sure) Peculiar. Well, that’s subjective, isn’t it? To some people running a commercial pygmy goat farm might seem peculiar, but seemed pretty normal at the time. I chased a couple of bottlenose dolphins around at sixty feet underwater, which was one of my best experiences in scuba diving. And I hid behind my very tall husband when four 9’ reef sharks headed my way. Maybe not quirky but funny nonetheless.
3. When did you first discover that you were a writer?
I’m sure most authors say this, but I’ve written since I could hold a crayon. I even “published” a neighborhood magazine back when I was about eight called “The Stone Canyon Gazette.” It was in those ancient prehistoric days before copy machines and electric typewriters. I organized a handful of neighbor kids and we handwrote ten copies of each issue on construction paper, including drawing the same drawings ten times. We charged ten cents. The mothers complained I had too many entries in the magazine and didn’t feature the other kids enough. Already hogging the limelight! After that I helped my mother with her scripts, collating and offering ideas. I got my first rejection letter at age twelve from the producer of Woman from Uncle regarding my script idea.(I was raised in TV industry.)
4. How do you build suspense?
Any great writing teacher will tell you suspense is all about getting your readers to care about your characters. I don’t write suspense (genre) but I do try to infuse all my stories with suspense. I want readers to care so much about my characters that they are tense with anticipation over what happens next to them. In addition, I believe you must have a tight, compelling plot. As a professional copy editor and writing coach, I’d say the lack of a well-thought-out plot that has twists and surprises is a common flaw in most manuscripts I critique.
5. Pick two characters from your book, and tell us about them. What makes them tick?
I love deep, rich characters. I’m a very character-driven author. I have about fourteen POV (point of view) characters in this book, but my favorites are probably Jerry Hubble, the newly divorced motel owner who wants to stir up trouble in town and Sheriff Joe Huff, who feels a lot like Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity on the Firefly series (which I happened to be watching a lot at the time of writing his scenes). Firefly fans may pick up a bit of Mal’s jargon. But Huff is his own character—a daydreaming wishes-he-really-was-retired sheriff trying to keep the town of Breakers from falling apart as all the crimes escalate. I’d like to do a spinoff book featuring Huff, so it may happen one day. Hubble nurses a lot of anger at his ex-wife and directs it toward everyone else.
6. Tell us about your upcoming fantasy series, and the first book “The Wolf of Tebron”:
The Gates of Heaven collection of fairy tales is my true heart song. I prayed and asked God what I should write, where I could best reach hearts and change lives, lead people to him. He told me to write fairy tales in the style of C. S. Lewis. Really. No, God doesn’t talk to me directly (he did though in a dream telling me to write Conundrum, which was intense, and a story for another time…) but he led me clearly to see that I was to write a very unique, specific type of fantasy series. So many people love Narnia but there is nothing like it out there. No one is doing full-length fairy tales. I was introduced to Orthodoxy, by Chesterton, and in it he has a chapter all about how fairy tales are the most important books ever written. By the time I finished the chapter, I knew it had been written for me. All I can say is, you have never read fairy tales like these! I take traditional elements from famous fairy tales, but alter then into new stories, deep, intense, evocative. I love being able to play with imagery and language, as I’ve been a huge fantasy fan all my life. Some of my contemporary mystery technique spills over into my fantasy, as my characters are deep and complex and there is always a mystery to be solved (riddles, lost scrolls, ancient sayings and curses…) I believe adults especially will love sinking their teeth into these rich tales. As Lewis sais “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” So true. You can learn all about the series, all the ideas behind it, more on fairy tales at www.gatesofheavenseries.com The first book, The Wolf of Tebron, is out and getting great reviews.
And if those two projects weren’t enough, you’re novel “Innocent Little Crimes” was a finalist in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Awards. (Tell us about that)
Innocent Little Crimes is the book I mentioned earlier—based on the other Christie book. I wrote it many years ago and it’s for the commercial market, as are all the rest of my novels. My agent is trying to sell that one, along with two others. The contest was fun and finaling earned it a full read by Publisher’s Weekly. They called it a thrill ride that leaves readers holding their breaths until the end. All my mysteries are heavy on exploring the psychological aspects of humanity—what pushes people over the edge, how they deal with unmet needs. I’m presently starting a new novel—a modern-day take on the story of Jacob and Joseph called Intended for Harm. I am amazed at how this book is shaping up and how God has led me to explore my version of Jacob. Everyone focuses on Joseph, but no one has really looked at what makes Jacob tick—his flaw of showing favoritism to one son—that tore his family apart, and a twin who felt rejected by his father. This one is going to be deep and literary too. I’m almost done with book four also in the fantasy series: The Unraveling of Wentwater, which is all about the power of words. A lot of fun.
7. You have written so many books, and you are just now bursting on to the scenes. Share with our readers the complexities of your writing journey. (as concise as you can, I know it’s tough)
I hope bursting is really true! I’ve been writing and been agented for over 23 years! Yes! I quit after my third novel didn’t sell. Gave up, very discouraged for about ten years. I wasn’t a Christian then. The odds are way against anyone breaking in. And then I turned it all over to God. I prayed hard for him to revive my passion for writing. I’d been through a horrible family betrayal, lots of loss. I felt numb, worthless, uncreative. I’ve never seen God answer any of my prayers with such immediacy and confirmation. Literally, he just set my heart on fire to write (be careful what you pray for…) and I’m feeling so blessed. Not because he’s open doors to having my books published as much as he is so kind and gracious to care about what is in our hearts. I do believe all my life experiences occurred to be fodder for my writing—that he knows how our lives will play out and our dream and purpose in him. What’s exciting is to ask him to show you what that is and then go with it with all your heart. I know now that it was his plan all along for me to become a novelist and writing coach, to write these books and be faithful to the dream he’s put me in. It is a very different viewpoint that when I was not a believer. Now I don’t stress or worry about my “career.” It is going to be exactly what God wants, not what I want. I could go on about this, but you get my drift.
8. How do your books connect readers with God?
Well, having lived in the dark world most of my life, I feel a strong desire to reach those who don’t know God. Yet, I’m very sensitive to how much a turnoff most CBA books are to unbelievers. Well, many are to me too because of their preachy arrogant style. I am not interested in preaching to the saved or just entertaining to make money. I feel passionately about God and how tough this life is. How the road to God is one of not just searching but groping for God. It can be messy, painful, agonizing, confusing, frustrating, heartrending—in fact, it usually is. God put us on this planet to learn some important stuff and you don’t learn it by just reading a book. You learn it by living life. I love it that the Bible is a collection of people who encountered God and then told about their experience. In a way, that’s what I do as a novelist—I let what I’ve experienced about God spill out through the stories I tell. Many of my books don’t mention God or faith. But I explore what being a fallen human sinner is like and what things are important—forgiveness, grace, hope, trust. Sometimes this leads to a discussion about faith, but not always.
Even so, God’s spirit works on so many levels. Sometimes all a person needs to do to get to God is read about a mother who welcomes back a wayward child. Maybe they haven’t spoken to their child in years. Maybe this moves them toward reconciliation. Maybe later, God uses this experience to help this mother see how God has open arms for her, despite what she’s done. I think we’ve all seen God do amazing things and use unlikely people and circumstances to bring people to him. And if you haven’t personally seen this, just read the Bible. There are plenty of examples in there!
Visit her website here.