Sunday, January 31, 2021

Joanna Schaffhausen

Joanna Schaffhausen wields a mean scalpel, skills she developed in her years studying neuroscience. She has a doctorate in psychology, which reflects her long-standing interest in the brain―how it develops and the many ways it can go wrong. 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 lives in the Boston area with her husband, daughter, and an obstreperous basset hound named Winston.

Schaffhausen's new novel, the fourth book in her heartpounding Ellery Hathaway mystery series, is Every Waking Hour.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Thriller titles are often short and punchy, evoking a feeling or idea rather than a detailed description. Every Waking Hour implies there’s a clock on this story; the passing of time has particular significance. In this case, a twelve-year-old child is missing and someone devious may have abducted her. Every hour she’s gone is another hour lost. As an idiom, Every Waking Hour also suggests extreme effort or endurance, and indeed, the main characters, Ellery Hathaway and Reed Markham spend their hours in desperate search for the missing Chloe. Finally, the phrase evokes a sense that time itself is a pursuer, that the only way to escape is to sleep, which in literature is akin to death. Ellery Hathaway lives her every waking hour as the lone survivor of an infamous serial killer. The public hunger for his story dogs her, defines her, and tries to limit her. Each book in the series is as much about her efforts to carve out an identity for herself that is separate from her kidnapper as it is about the central mystery.

What's in a name?

I suspect I spend less time agonizing about character names than most authors. In fact, I’ve been known to use a random name generator for secondary or background characters. For main characters like Ellery Hathaway, I do consider age, ethnic and regional background, and, inasmuch as this can ever be deduced, the “feel” a name evokes. Ellery was originally named Eleanor, but I had to change that when my daughter was born and she became Eleanor. I switched to Ellery because they sound somewhat similar. Also, they are easy to pronounce but not common American names, which makes them stand out a bit on the landscape. You want your main character to be memorable. As an added wink, the name Ellery ties in with mystery/suspense giant Ellery Queen, so you could say she is “on brand.”

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teenage self would not be surprised one iota. I was already writing mystery novels in high school. In fact, I landed my first literary agent at age eighteen with a romantic suspense novel that never saw the light of day. (Thank goodness.) I imagine my teenage self would only be surprised that it took me another 20+ years to get my act in gear and live out her dream.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I typically begin with a beginning and an ending in mind, so I am most apt to mess around with the mushy middle. I think with a mystery the beginning is fairly easy because it’s whatever event kicks off the plot. For Every Waking Hour, the mystery begins with Chloe’s disappearance from a busy street fair. It immediately becomes more complex when her mother’s first reaction is “Oh God, not again.” The missing girl is the stakes. The mother’s reaction is the surprise. Mix both together and we’re off and running.

I often use juggling as a metaphor for my writing. The first half of the book, I’m chucking balls into the air, introducing characters and clues and themes, etc., all of which I will juggle for the back half of the story. At the end, I have to catch all the balls without dropping them. I like mysteries that answer the questions of the plot—who did it and why—but also show us how the characters have changed as a result of the events in the story.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Every character comes from the author, if only that we can imagine such a person. They might represent everything we despise, but we “know” them just the same. Ellery and I both survived sexual assault by a serial predator as children, although her story is infinitely more dramatic. The media hunger for serial killers means Ellery has to relive her trauma almost on a daily basis. Mine is blessedly anonymous. Neither of us drinks coffee and we both have a basset hound we adore. Hers is named Speed Bump while mine is Winston, but they are both galumphing goofs. Ellery is more emotionally closed off than me, estranged from her family and suspicious of anyone who might want to be her friend. Reed somehow likes her anyway.

Reed is biracial, an adoptee, and raised in Virginia as part of a wealthy family. He also works for the FBI and hunts missing children. I have none of these traits. But we are both parenting a young daughter, and many of Tula’s quirks and lines are inspired by things my daughter has said or done. Reed likes to cook, as I do, and his educational background is in psychology like mine.
Visit Joanna Schaffhausen's website.

The Page 69 Test: All the Best Lies.

Writers Read: Joanna Schaffhausen (February 2020).

--Marshal Zeringue