Monday, February 14, 2022

Bonnie Kistler

Bonnie Kistler is a former Philadelphia attorney and the author of House on Fire and The Cage. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College, magna cum laude, with Honors in English literature, and she received her law degree from the University of the Pennsylvania Law School, where she was a moot court champion and legal writing instructor.

She spent her law career in private practice with major law firms. Peer-rated as Distinguished for both legal ability and ethical standards, she successfully tried cases in federal and state courts across the country.

She and her husband now live in Florida and the mountains of western North Carolina.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The cage in my title refers to three different things: (a) the elevator where the inciting event occurs, sometimes called a “car” but more accurately a “cage”; (b) the jail cell where Shay ends up; and (c) something I can’t disclose without spoiling the story.

Readers will immediately grasp the first reference and understand that something significant happens in that elevator. Later they’ll recognize the jail reference. And by the end I hope they’ll be surprised by the third reference. (Notice how “cagey” I am there?)

What's in a name?

The main character is Shay Lambert, a young lawyer who’s entirely a creature of her own invention. She’s climbed out of poverty and a squalid family life into the Ivy League and a Wall Street law firm. She’s ditched all vestiges of her past, including her given name of Sharona in favor of the more elegant Shay. She’s also taken her husband’s name––Lambert––because it sounds more posh than her family name and because she hopes to erase her roots.

The second woman in the elevator is the HR director of the company. She’s English by birth and comes from a dynastic British family. I called her Lucy, a name I’ve encountered more often in the U.K. than in the States. For her surname, I decided to give her one of those double-barreled British names that the old, distinguished families often flaunt.

But here I made a major gaffe: I called her Lucy Barton-Jones. It wasn’t until the eve of printing that I remembered Elizabeth Strout’s novel I Am Lucy Barton––which was probably the subliminal source of my selection. So at the absolute last minute, I changed it to Lucy Carter-Jones.

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

Teenage Me would be mystified that The Cage could have sprung from our shared brain. I was a country girl, well-read in classic literature but otherwise so unworldly. I knew nothing of corporate intrigue or life in Manhattan and certainly not life in Southeast Asia where some of the action takes place. I never even met a lawyer in real life until I started law school. My teenaged scribblings were family dramas and romances, not high-stakes thrillers.

In fact, I was so naïve that at age 19 I sent a novel off to a big-time New York publisher without having an agent or contacts or any other entrée. Of course it came back virtually by return mail with a terse note: “We don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts.”

It may have been that experience that convinced me to become a lawyer instead of launching straight into writing. At any rate, I’m glad I chose a different career. My advice to people who want to become authors is this: become something else first. Live in the real world. Engage with different kinds of people. Even if what you want to write are family dramas and romances, your writing will be that much richer for having experienced the wider world.

But here’s a little bit of irony: That publisher who rejected my teenage novel all those years ago? HarperCollins, now the publisher of The Cage!

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

The main characters in my books are women lawyers dealing with some of the same issues and obstacles that I faced in my career. But since I write thrillers, the problems they grapple with are far worse than anything I ever encountered. Fortunately, these women are a lot smarter and more determined than I ever was.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m a big consumer of cinema and all the great work now being done in the limited series format on TV. I try to visualize my scenes as if they were playing on a screen. I’m especially influenced by the pacing of good movies and TV shows – brisk without being rushed, and with judicious use of cliffhangers.

I recently had a number of meetings with people in Hollywood (more about that someday!), and some of them told me that after reading The Cage, they assumed I was also a screenwriter. I took that as high praise.
Visit Bonnie Kistler's website.

--Marshal Zeringue