Monday, July 31, 2023

Sabine Durrant

Sabine Durrant is a former assistant editor of The Guardian and a former literary editor of the Sunday Times whose feature writing has appeared in numerous British national newspapers and magazines. She has been a magazine profile writer for the Sunday Telegraph and a contributor to The Guardian’s family section. She is the author of several books, including Under Your Skin, Lie With Me, and Finders, Keepers. She lives in south London with her husband, the writer Giles Smith, and their three children.

Durrant applied the Page 69 Test to her newest novel, Sun Damage, and reported the following:

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

With every novel, I have a working title which I think is brilliant and in every case my publisher disagrees wildly and we play title ping-pong for several weeks until we finally come up with something that everyone’s happy with. My working title for Sun Damage was Lulu. The main character in the book is a con artist, who takes on personas and plays with identity, and I liked having a title that dealt with that head on (’Lulu’ isn’t her real name). But Sun Damage, which is what it ended up as, is a much better title. It tells you more. It gives you an atmosphere. Lulu could be a romantic comedy, or social realism or a pop star’s biography. Sun Damage could only be a thriller. It immediately sets up a tension between expectation and reality, between vacations in a sunny clime (the south of France) and characters with deep flaws and things going horribly wrong.

What's in a name?

Names are important in Sun Damage because my main character and her accomplice use several aliases. One of the first rules of the con is to choose a name that is bland and easily forgettable, and also one that isn’t too dissimilar to your own so you will react if called. Sean goes by John and Ali goes by Ellie. They are names that blend into the background, and being in the background, chameleon-like, is how my characters make their living. The challenge for Ali in the plot of the book is being forced by events to play the part of somebody whose name draws attention to itself, rings out like a bell: Lulu. The name is representative of the danger she puts herself in.

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

I often have the idea for the beginning of a novel before I have the full plot so the beginning often comes very easily. Before I started writing Sun Damage, I had the image of a young woman in my head, and a beach bar setting, and the notion of a con going badly wrong and of the woman seizing the opportunity to escape from her partner. I knew what the rough arc of the book would be, the adventure of it, and how it would end – but when I got there, the twist didn’t seem strong enough. Ali as a character had developed more layers and more depth – she had more back story, more ‘damage’ of her own - her narrative needed a more complicated resolution than the one I had initially intended. This happens every time. I love beginnings; endings are so much harder.

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

When I first started writing, I used to think, ‘what would I do?’ in the situations I put my characters in. ‘What would I think? What would I feel?’ It was an unhelpful instinct. It’s better to treat it like acting. You put on the coat of your character and you walk and talk like them, and you notice things, and respond as they would. In that sense, I never think about my own personality – which is probably a good thing, as quite often I seem to have found myself writing in the voice of a sociopath. With subsidiary characters, on the other hand, I do sometimes slip myself in. It’s a bit like a form of penance; some of the worst social faux pas or comments are things I may have lain awake at night regretting. At least in fiction I can laugh at them!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Sun Damage was definitely influenced by depictions of the con artist in film and television. I’ve watched a lot of Hustle, a long running BBC drama starring Adrian Lester as the boss of a team of London grifters. It’s brilliant on the nitty gritty of the con artist. Films such as David Mamet’s House of Cards and Stephen Frears’ The Grifters (based on Jim Thompson’s novel) were also highly influential – the relationship between grifters is so rich and complicated; friends and lovers, family even: who can be trusted? There’s a sequence in Ocean’s 11, when Julia Roberts cuts a swathe through the department store Bergdorf Goodman, using charm and spin to dupe her way to free beauty products, which is just deeply satisfying and amusing to watch. The joy of the con as a narrative device is that the intellectual satisfaction of it forces the viewer to suspend moral judgment. That’s gold in a psychological thriller.
Visit Sabine Durrant's Twitter perch and Instagram page.

The Page 69 Test: Sun Damage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 29, 2023

John Milas

John Milas is the author of the new novel The Militia House. He enlisted in the US Marine Corps at age nineteen and subsequently deployed to the Helmand Province of Afghanistan in support of OEF 10.1. He was honorably discharged from active service in 2012.

After his discharge, Milas earned both his BA and MFA in creative writing. As a student, he studied with writers such as Marianne Boruch, Roxane Gay, Brian Leung, Robert Lopez, Terese Marie Mailhot, Julie Price Pinkerton, Donald Platt, Sharon Solwitz, and others.

My Q&A with the author:

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

There's inherent tension when you have an obvious, literal title but the phrase isn't used immediately in the text. In the case of "militia house" not being seen as a phrase until chapter three, I hope the reader is wondering, "What is the militia house? Why is it important? Where is it? What's inside?" Things like that. The title implies a question for the reader, which establishes early, page-turning momentum. I love studying James A. Michener and Philip K. Dick as their titles range from inadequate to ridiculous. Between the two of them, they've come up with Space, Alaska, The Novel, VALIS, Ubik, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. I mean, what do I do with a title like Space? As a reader, I'm wondering beforehand, is this a book that is about cosmic space, interior space, space in an abstract sense? I'm not sure the title pulls me into any of that in a way that generates inherent tension in a compelling way. On the other side of the coin, you've got Ubik, a made up word, which merely causes me to ask, what now?

What's in a name?

My only strategy is to find names that my family and close friends do not go by. I'd rather spend time solving plot problems. I was told by an instructor in college that every character should have a name and I've always disagreed with that. Leaving characters unnamed is neither a contemporary craft choice, nor is it an edgy one. I see it as merely a choice. I know some writers will lean into symbolism, but that doesn't interest me so much. As Matthew Salesses emphasizes in Craft in the Real World, it's important for a reader to understand what makes each character different from the others. A character's name doesn't necessarily describe how a character is different or more sympathetic than other characters. The writer needs to work to achieve that.

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

He would be surprised by such an understated war novel where no one ever fires their rifle.

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

The opening of my book has changed many times, mostly in the interest of getting to the point earlier. For my tastes, the book is now scary from page one. With endings, I try to know them before I get started on a first draft, so this tends to change less frequently, but I'm neurotic about selecting the right opening sentence, which makes it difficult to settle on something. My theory is that the opening sentence should make the reader feel obligated to read the second sentence as if they have no choice, and so on and so forth. As a reference, I like Amy Hempel and Robert Lopez for their opening sentences. Full disclosure, I learned opening sentences in a workshop with Lopez, so I'm biased.

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

I think there's some of me in all the characters in The Militia House. There's the side of me in the narrator who's tired of institutional BS, which is how I authentically am. There's the side of me like Johnson who is shy with people he doesn't know well. There's the side of me who likes to read books like Vargas and the side like Blount who complains a lot about work. Staff Sergeant Rynker is frustrated by people who don't know what he's capable of, which is a type of frustration I've often felt.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I suspect I have a three-act structure embedded in my brain from watching so many American films when I was younger. I'm focused on plot and causality now because of that. The Militia House draws significant influence from the films The Blair Witch Project, Combat Obscura, and the music of Disasterpeace, particularly his score for It Follows. The graphic novel The White Donkey by Maximilian Uriarte is essential in understanding the 2010s Marine Corps and was another important influence as I wrote. My friends Josh, Mike, and James, who I deployed with, are better storytellers than any writer I know. The longest phone conversation I've ever had was about five hours with all of us merged on the same call telling stories. I live for that type of communion.
Visit John Milas's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Yael Goldstein-Love

Yael Goldstein-Love is the author of The Passion of Tasha Darsky and the co-founder of the literary studio Plympton. She also practices psychotherapy with a particular interest in the transition to parenthood and is working toward her doctorate in clinical psychology. She lives with her son in Berkeley, California.

Goldstein-Love's new novel is The Possibilities.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The book was originally called A Reasonable Woman to get at the dilemma that motherhood puts women in. You’re supposed to be instinctual but also rational, trust your gut but not be anxious. But while that title got at the psychological realism of the book, it hid that this is also a sci-fi thriller.

Then the book was called Hannah42 because my main character teams up a version of herself from another reality who calls herself Hannah42 in a nod to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. She feels that calling herself Hannah1 would be presumptuous given the infinite versions of herself she now knows to exist. This title had the opposite problem– it made the book sound like hard core sci-fi instead of a book that uses sci-fi as a metaphor to explore motherhood.

The Possibilities finally struck the right balance. My main character “rides the possibilities” – travels to other possible worlds – in order to save her son, and this is both the actual plot of the book and also a way of capturing what becoming a mother feels like.

What's in a name?

I chose the name Hannah for my protagonist because it’s a palindrome. To say why this matters would be a bit of a spoiler. It’s also the name of the prophet Samuel’s mother, and I’ve always read the short snippet we get of her in the bible as a really excellent metaphor for something deep about parenting. In order to have her child, she first has to surrender her claim to him.

All the names in the book have meaning, but the most important name in the book to me was the one that derives its rightness from an almost anti-meaning: the baby is named Jack. The simplicity and familiarity of the name captures for me something so unexpectedly bizarre about having a child, which is that here they are, this particular person, where before they were not. Here is Jack. Why is he here rather than someone else? No reason, he just is. In the book, the word Jacklessness becomes important and there is really no other name that can do the work that Jack does there.

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

So surprised, but the book wouldn’t exist otherwise. One thing the book is about is how having a child creates a disorienting sense of discontinuity with your past self so that it almost seems as though all your memories belong to someone very close to you who is not exactly you anymore. And at the same time, your past has never been more in play – caring for a newborn brings up so much that can otherwise stay hidden in deep recesses of our minds, hidden scripts and patterns, expectations that color our experience of the world. So I think my teenage self would read this and feel that a total stranger had exposed her in ways she could not quite name, but that still felt a bit violating.

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 I write is formed out of some piece of my psyche. I see myself in every one of them. They each take very different aspects of me and develop them in very different directions.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I also practice psychotherapy and was getting my doctorate in clinical psychology while writing this book. I think my other career was a crucial ingredient because this book is so personal. It grew out of the hardest period of my life, almost losing my son in childbirth and then feeling that he’d come too close to dying for him to truly be safe now. On the first draft, I was writing to make sense and meaning of my own experience. If I didn’t spend my days immersed in other peoples’ attempts to make meaning of their transitions to parenthood, I wouldn’t have understood the more universal elements of what I was writing about. I suspect I would not have had the gumption to write the book as ambitiously as I did, taking a part of life that usually gets written about as quiet and domestic and writing it instead with rip-through-reality loudness – new motherhood as hero quest.
Visit Yael Goldstein-Love's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Possibilities.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Bruce Borgos

Bruce Borgos lives and writes from the Nevada desert where he works hard every day to prove his high school guidance counselor had good instincts when he said “You’ll never be an astronaut.” He has a degree in political science which mostly served to dissuade him from a career in law while at the same time tormenting his wife with endless questions about how telephones work. When he’s not writing, you can usually find him on a tennis court somewhere or at his cabin in the mountains of Utah.

Borgos's new novel is The Bitter Past.

My Q&A with the author:

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

It's funny because I didn't pick the title. I had a working title for what ultimately became The Bitter Past, but it wasn't until my editor and the team at Minotaur started kicking around some alternatives that we were able to find a title that did exactly that - it took readers into the story. My novel is about a time in our history when we were racing to stay ahead of the Soviet Union and "win" a nuclear war, if necessary. We were literally blowing up the Nevada desert, sending poisonous clouds of radiation downwind and, eventually, across the globe. In many ways, we didn't understand or appreciate the consequences of those actions. It is a bitter past.

What's in a name?

I used to pull character names out of a phone book. Of course, we don't have those now. For this novel, I wanted something for my main character that sounded western but wasn't overly cowboy. I chose Porter Beck. My character doesn't like his first name, and almost everyone just calls him Beck.

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

My teenage reader self, as cocky as he was, probably wouldn't be surprised at all by this novel. He would have expected it, although a few decades earlier, no doubt. I've always wanted to write novels and have always been a voracious reader. I can remember as a teenager reading spy novels and marveling at an author's turn of phrase or how a chapter was constructed. My teenage self would have seen this novel as a natural consequence of those first steps I took in creative writing so long ago.

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

Beginnings are definitely more difficult for me. By the time I move from my extensive outline to the first words of a first draft, I already know the ending pretty well, and that seldom changes. But determining where and when to start the novel usually takes me about fifty miles of morning walks. It's so crucial to start the story in the right place, and even after I think I've gotten it right, I find myself going back and eliminating parts of the beginning. In medias res - in the midst of things - is what I'm shooting for.

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

Well, they say to write about what you know. For me, the easiest way to do that is to inject elements of myself into my main character. In this novel, Porter Beck, for better or worse, has my sense of humor. And we see the world pretty much the same way. Neither of us takes things very seriously at first contact.
Visit Bruce Borgos's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Bitter Past.

My Book, The Movie: The Bitter Past.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Simon Toyne

Simon Toyne is the author of the internationally bestselling Sanctus trilogy (Sanctus, The Key, and The Tower), The Searcher, The Boy Who Saw, and Dark Objects, and has worked in British television for more than twenty years. As a writer, director and producer he’s made several award-winning shows, one of which won a BAFTA. He lives in England with his wife and family, where he is permanently at work on his next novel.

Toyne's newest book is The Clearing, his second suspense novel featuring forensic expert Laughton Rees.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The Clearing was not the first title for the book. For most of the first draft it was called The Cinderman which refers to the urban legend of a forest dwelling bogeyman who is supposed to haunt the ancient Forest of Dean in the west of England where the book is set. The Cinderman, as I reveal in an origin story within the book, was a charcoal burner whose daughter vanished, driving him mad and cursing him to roam the forest in search of young women to replace her. In the “now” of the story women are going missing in the forest and the local police don’t seem to be that bothered about it. My lead character, however, Dr. Laughton Rees doesn’t believe in ghosts and legends so when another young woman goes missing she heads there to try and find out what is going on. Her investigation centres around an off-grid community at the heart of the forest called The Clearing.

I always liked The Cinderman as a title, but my editors in the UK and US were both worried it might read more as a horror story than a thriller. Calling it The Clearing definitely grounds the book as something taking place somewhere specific, and I think readers like that. They like to know that the story is anchored somewhere and a forest clearing can be both welcoming and sinister. Lots of the most gruesome fairy-tales take place in forest clearings. That’s where witches tend to live and I’ve got a real-life one of those in the story too.

What's in a name?

My main character is called Laughton Rees, which is the bane of her life as no-one knows how to pronounce it (For the record it’s LAW – TUN.) Names are so important, especially for series leads, because they really need to fit and do quite a lot of heavy lifting in terms of framing the character. Laughton has a very fraught relationship with her father and it was he who gave her the name, calling her after Charles Laughton, the director of his favourite film Night of The Hunter, which you absolutely must see if you haven’t already. It’s Robert Mitchum at his sinister best as a conman preacher with Love and Hate tattooed on his knuckles. She is also a criminologist and academic who is obsessive about rules and protocol, so having the word ‘Law’ in her name, even phonetically, seemed very fitting.

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

Having just finished a book a few hours before writing this I can absolutely say, with the blood still fresh on my fingertips, that endings are hardest. I actually quite like writing beginnings because they’re like taking the first, optimistic step on an exciting new adventure. Endings are more like crawling to the summit of some God-forsaken peak, with no food, no energy and a dwindling air supply. Having said all that I always tend to know what the ending will be, I just never know how it’s going to get there. Starting is easy, finishing is hard.
Learn more about the book and author at Simon Toyne's website, Facebook pageTwitter perch, and Instagram page.

The Page 69 Test: The Clearing.

My Book, The Movie: The Clearing.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 21, 2023

Elizabeth L. Silver

Elizabeth L Silver is the author of the new novel, The Majority, as well as the memoir, The Tincture of Time: A Memoir of (Medical) Uncertainty, and the novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. Her work has been called “fantastic” by the Washington Post and “masterful” by The Wall Street Journal, has been published in seven languages, and optioned for film. The Execution of Noa P. Singleton was an Amazon Best Book of the Year, the Amazon Best Debut of the Month, a Kirkus Best Book of the Summer, Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year, and selection for the Target Emerging Author Series. The Tincture of Time was featured on PBS and NPR, and was an O Magazine/Oprah’s “Ten Books to Pick up Now."

My Q&A with Silver:

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

The title has several meanings that I hope will become clear as people read the book. A majority opinion in the law is literally the judicial decision handed down by a judge or Supreme Court Justice that becomes the law. Also, women are the majority population of America, but the minority in power, and so the novel explores both of these themes as it imagines the life of a first fictional woman on the Supreme Court.

What's in a name?

Sylvia Olin Bernstein, or S.O.B. is the narrator of the story, and her name and initials become a large talking point in the book. The initials make it clear who the inspiration is, but Sylvia’s name takes on great meaning as “the contemptuous S.O.B.” and she is forced to confront her past and future based on the meaning the external world puts on her by nature of her name and its meanings.

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

I hope my teenage reader self would be proud of this novel. Of my novels, this one is probably closest to home, so she would be less surprised by the subject matter of this one than my other books, I think.

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

I think it’s probably more difficult to write beginnings than endings because you are starting from nothing. By the time you’re ready for your ending, you’ve had years working on the book, living with the characters, and are likely working toward a specific goal. That said, sometimes I’ve taken endings or portions of endings and turned them into beginnings after the fact. Beginnings, as they are written and as they appear in a book, are rarely the same. It takes hundreds of pages, sometimes, to write your way to the “beginning.”

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

It might be a bit obvious with this one, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor and other women on the Supreme Court, directly inspired this novel. Meanwhile, elements of Jewish history and culture, such as the shiva, or customs for how to honor someone who has recently passed, also inspired other parts of this book. Many family members who survived the Holocaust are also inspirations for the character of Mariana and Sylvia’s pull to pursue more education.
Learn more about the book and author at Elizabeth L. Silver's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton.

My Book, The Movie: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton.

The Page 99 Test: The Tincture of Time.

The Page 69 Test: The Majority.

My Book, The Movie: The Majority.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Andrew Ridker

Andrew Ridker was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1991. His second novel, Hope, is now out from Viking.

His debut novel, The Altruists, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Paris Review staff pick, an Amazon Editors’ Pick, and the People Book of the Week. It won the Friends of American Writers Award and was longlisted for the Prix du Meilleur livre ├ętranger and the Yasnaya Polyana Literary Prize.

He is the editor of Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Le Monde, Bookforum, The Paris Review Daily, Guernica, Boston Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Ridker lives in Brooklyn, New York.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Hope, as a title, serves two primary functions. For one, it situates the novel in historical context: the book is set during Barack Obama’s second term, at a time when the optimism that propelled him into office had begun to wane. Though most of the story unfolds in 2013, I approached it like a work of historical fiction. Trump, Covid, and #MeToo, among other catastrophes, hang over the novel like a ghostly epilogue.

With a title as brief and abstract as Hope, I knew it needed a powerful image accompanying it. The photograph that I found for the cover, Bat Mitzvah Dance, Chicago, IL by Melissa Ann Pinney, fills in the specifics that a single word can’t. Comedy, tragedy, family, ambition, Jewishness, the pains of growing up: the title and the cover in tandem suggest all of these.

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

The book is set primarily in Brookline, Massachusetts, the sylvan streetcar suburb west of Boston where I grew up. As a kid, I didn’t think much of it, but as I got older, I started to see my hometown for what it was: a liberal utopia built—like all utopias—on contradictions. My teenage self would be surprised to learn I wrote about Brookline, but I think he’d be pleased with the result.

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

Beginnings are torture for me. I must have written a hundred different drafts of my book’s first section, “The Hunger Banquet.” I feel an immense amount of pressure to get the tone right from the opening lines, since they’re coming out of nowhere. Endings, on the other hand, tend to grow organically from the story that precedes them.

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

I think my characters are all grounded in parts of myself. One of the joys of writing fiction, and especially fiction with multiple points of view, is the freedom to wear those different masks. But it’s still me under there.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Hal Ashby, John Prine, Faith Ringgold, Mel Brooks, MF Doom, Isabelle Huppert, Thomas Hart Benton.
Visit Andrew Ridker's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Claire McMillan

Claire McMillan is the author of Alchemy of a Blackbird, The Necklace, and Gilded Age, which was inspired by Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.

McMillan was the 2017–2018 Cuyahoga County Writer-in-Residence and currently serves as a member of the board of trustees of The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts. She practiced law until 2003 and then received her MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. She grew up in Pasadena, California, and now lives on her husband’s family farm outside of Cleveland, Ohio, with their two children.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I like a title that's a little mysterious and a little poetic. It also satisfies when a title strikes like an 'a-ha' at some point in the book. Remedios Varo's journey is one of finding herself, her artistic expression, and her own voice as a painter. She was also heavily influenced by the tarot and the spiritual in her work. I had a long list of words associated with these topics that I wanted to incorporate into the title, and I'd often play around with them when I was stuck writing. When I came up with Alchemy of a Blackbird I loved it, and I never thought my publisher would let me keep it. To my surprise, they loved it too.

What's in a name?

Since I was writing historical fiction about actual people, the names were a given. That said, it's daunting to write about real people. In the process of my research I tried to get a feel for the characters since I invented their emotions and dialogue. I wanted to ground that in as much background as I could to make it seem plausible.

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

My teenaged self would be shocked and delighted that I even wrote a novel. I wrote short stories throughout high school and college, but I chose to go to law school because I wanted a stable way to support myself. I was miserable as a litigator, though the money was good. When my husband and I moved to Cleveland, we had enough breathing space that I could take a flyer on writing. My teenaged self would be so glad I’d found a way back to what I’d always wanted to do.

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

Halfway through each of my books there came a point where I knew what I wanted the ending to be. I then wrote that scene, full out, in one sitting. With Alchemy of a Blackbird, I absolutely knew I wanted the novel to end with a fully embodied and empowered Remedios making her way through the world. As for beginnings, what is initially the beginning in draft form almost never winds up the beginning in the final draft. Along the way it gets sliced, diced, tinkered with, and massaged almost daily. My initial beginnings are entirely unrecognizable from the end result.

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

I started researching Varo's life after viewing her painting, The Call. I had no idea that I'd write about her. I just wanted to know everything about the person who painted that picture. But as I learned more about her life, I felt an affinity with her. We have very different life circumstances, but her calling to be an artist, her struggle to be true to herself, her fascination and engagement with the esoteric all spoke very directly to me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Varo's paintings had a huge impact on me and are the basis for me writing the book. Similarly, the tarot has been a steady influence on this book. I had been studying tarot mainly as a form of self-reflection and self-discovery for many years and never thought it would come into my work.
Learn more about the book and author at Claire McMillan's website.

Writers Read: Claire McMillan (September 2017).

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Kevin Sites

Kevin Sites is an award-winning journalist and author. He has worked as a reporter for more than thirty years, half of that covering war and disaster for ABC, NBC, CNN, Yahoo News, and Vice News. He was a 2010 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University and a 2012 Dart Fellow in Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. For a decade he lived and taught in Hong Kong as an associate professor of practice in journalism at the University of Hong Kong. He’s the author of three books on war, In the Hot Zone, The Things They Cannot Say, and Swimming with Warlords. He lives in Oregon.

Sites's new novel is The Ocean Above Me.

My Q&A with the author:

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

For me, titles are like the first block in a game of Jenga. It’s the foundation. It cues my brain to what I’m trying to accomplish whether a journalistic piece, a short story – or a book-length work.

But like Jenga, that doesn’t always mean the whole structure will collapse if you decide to pull it.

For example, when I first considered my novel in 2018, I saw it as an exploration of the protagonist’s psyche following tragic events in his experience reporting the Iraq War. More metaphysical than physical journey.

I dubbed it rather ambiguously, 15 Fathoms of Grief.

That held for the first five drafts, but gave way to the even more opaque, Beautiful Hole.

This referenced a line in the novel in which the Captain’s daughter, Olveda, speaks about her mother’s use of drugs and alcohol following multiple military deployments overseas. Here’s the passage:

“Mom had that for a bit too, after she was wounded. Got on the pills for pain, stayed for the forgetting. Told me later, after she kicked it, that the percs and the beer made her feel like she was in a beautiful hole and never wanted to come out.”

I loved that title because it created a sense of mystery. It kept readers guessing and interested since the line didn’t emerge until the last third of the novel.

But I was ‘violently’ disabused of that notion when both my wife and my agent, nearly simultaneously, told me it sounded like a porn film. The sad kind with aspirations of being more than what it really was.

I had never once thought of it that way. A common issue of being myopic. Too steeped in the work. But once they’d flagged me, all I could see anymore was the porn title.

It took another two weeks of writing hundreds of options on my dry-erase board. But by that time the novel’s narrative arc had evolved. It emphasized Landon’s fight for survival as much as his psychological agony, as Maya Angelou wrote, of ‘bearing an untold story inside you.’

In the end, crafting a new title became akin to magnetic poetry on the fridge (if we’re to continue with the game metaphors).

I had a list of prepositions and variations of water nouns and rearranged them. Under an Angry Sea was a contender for a while, but felt uninspired.

A good title should tell us something about what’s inside, but also challenge our preconceptions. Get us thinking. Engaged.

The Ocean Above Me did both. The instant I wrote it I knew it would be on the cover. Like everything in this novel, it was a long way from where I started, but so much better than where I began.

The lesson for me here was not to be so creatively self-righteous as to be foolishly myopic.

Consider, like any good artist does, the place others carve out for themselves in your work. That dialogue with your audience, in this case my wife and agent, may wake you up to unimagined possibilities.

And in creating something, that’s about as fun as it gets.

What's in a name?

Naming is tricky. Few things can make a reader lose confidence in you faster than inaptly naming your characters.

At 15, when I first started writing fiction, I shorthanded character descriptions by attempting to shoehorn everything into their names. Brock Woodstrop. Bonita Solano. The kind of clumsy stuff you find in pulpy thrillers or cookie cutter romance.

But there’s another pitfall as well. Names so forgettable or generic the reader has difficulty keeping straight who’s who in the narrative.

My goal is to try to make sure character names are realistic, but also suitably tailored to who wears them.

I accidentally discovered a rich source for names while attending my daughter’s high school graduation. She went to a large and diverse public school near Los Angeles.

Looking over the hundreds listed on the program I was struck by the rich cultural and ethnic diversity in both given and surnames.

I realized that graduation programs, old phone books, anything with lists of names can yield innumerable mix and match variations that help me get exactly the right fit for my characters.

In The Ocean Above Me the two characters I really wanted to make sure I got right were obviously the main protagonists: journalist, Lukas Landon and shrimp boat captain, Clarita Esteban.

Landon, despite his worldly experiences, is still a bit of grey man. Someone on the downward spiral of his life and career. So I didn’t want the name to be too flashy but would still stand out when seen on the by-lines of his articles. Story by Lukas Landon.

I’m not a big fan of alliteration for character names, but here it helped reinforce him to readers. Especially since, apart from his by-lines, almost no one uses his first name.

Everyone calls him Landon, denoting a lack of intimacy. The result of him keeping people at arm’s distance.

With Clarita Esteban I wanted a given name that was sharp, direct as she was and a surname name that conveyed her Afro-Latinx heritage.

This would signpost to readers that she likely faced significantly more challenges in all aspects of life than her white, male counterparts. Especially in her job as a shrimp boat captain.

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

It’s fair to suspect that when a novel’s protagonist has the same day job as the author then the book must be autobiographical.

The novelist might just be lifting scenes from their own life, adhering to that old chestnut of literary advice, ‘write what you know.’

In my novel, the main character, Lukas Landon is a journalist. Just like me.

More specifically, he’s spent much of his career reporting on war and conflict. Just like me.

But he is not me. Not by a longshot.

While we both bumped up against major ethical dilemmas in our reporting careers, his life, his narrative has a much darker and more unforgiving arc.

One developed from the foundational “what happens when” question posed before I started the novel.

What happens when an individual bears a secret so great it could destroy them if left untold? A premise perfectly suited to someone who once reported on war.

And while Landon relates many anecdotes from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which I also covered, his are all fully fictional.

However, some are inspired, at least in part, by my own journalistic reporting experiences or those of colleagues.

Experiences that provided essential specificity and detail to help render war authentically – in all its insanity, absurdity, banality and even -- hilarity. Yet still, in service of that over-arching question: What happens when?

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Let me bend the question a bit before I answer by revising it to this: What non-literary influences have impacted your writing?

All my life experiences have impacted my writing. Including my darkest ones. Like that of alcohol and cocaine misuse.

The key term here is impacted. I don’t see my past substance use as a boon to my writing. Quite the opposite. It shaved away at least a handful of productive years and delayed projects that may have begun much earlier in my career.

In some cases it directly obstructed the work itself.

Some exposition is necessary. After covering war and conflict for nearly half of my career I found it difficult to function in a peacetime environment. I was overstimulated and wracked with guilt and moral injury over bad decisions I had made reporting on the frontlines.

I coped by self-medicating with alcohol and cocaine. I prided myself on never becoming altered in a war zone. Because I believed if those who lived there had to endure their misery straight, so did I.

But this did not apply when I was back home. Drinking was a daily indulgence. Monthly or weekly for the drugs. Due to expense.

A big challenge to this lifestyle was I still had work to do. While researching my second non-fiction book, The Things They Cannot Say, the dilemma became darkly comic in my efforts to interview a young Marine I was profiling.

When I was sober and ready to talk I would call him only to get his answering machine or find he was too drunk to answer my questions.

Then he would call me back in a day or two, sober and ready to talk, but I would be too drunk to ask them. This went on for months until we both straightened up.

I eventually figured out that both my journalistic and literary aspirations would be permanently derailed If I didn’t find a solution.

Since that time I have used (in-person and online) evidence-based, science-focused programs to achieve intermittent, years-long sobriety.

My work and my mental and physical health have benefited greatly. Yet, while I’m currently Alcohol Free (AF) I still consider myself a nomad between worlds of the imbibers and the abstinent.

Part of this ambivalence is due to the erroneous and deep-seated hold of the concept that psychoactive substances, especially alcohol, are the writer’s friend. Just look at all the anecdotal evidence.

Many of the greatest writers of the 19th and 20th centuries were either firmly in the grip of alcohol addiction or had a very unhealthy relationship with it: Poe, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Parker, Fitzgerald, Rhys, Cheever, Plath, Capote, McCullers, Williams.

If being addled is such a big deal, how did they pull off such masterpieces in the midst of it?

But, if you follow those personal and career trajectories to their final splashdowns, very few end well. In fact most could be considered cautionary tales.

While a little alcohol may reduce inhibitions and even increase creativity for writers, according to some minor scientific studies, even a tiny bit too much can bring it all crashing down.

Probably why even Papa “Pour Me Another” Hemingway never wrote drunk, even though the apocryphal quote, “write drunk, edit sober,” is often attributed to him.

Fortunately our attitudes about the value of drugs and alcohol on writing have evolved to a more sophisticated and nuanced level.

Personally I don’t want to get in the habit of regretting experiences, even bad ones—as they all add to the sum of my character and the authenticity of my work.

And the struggles with anything, whether we overcome them or not, often lead to indisputable benefits for writers, such as enhanced understanding and empathy, if we’re wise enough to let them.
Visit Kevin Sites's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Ocean Above Me.

The Page 69 Test: The Ocean Above Me.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Sally J. Pla

Sally J. Pla is the author of the acclaimed novels The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine. She has English degrees from Colgate and Penn State and has worked as a business journalist and in public education. She has three sons, a husband, and an enormous fluffy dog and lives near lots of lemon trees in Southern California.

Pla's new novel is The Fire, the Water, and Maudie McGinn.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I think the title sums up everything really well. It was the first one I hit upon, and my editor liked it right away, and we never veered from it.

"The Fire:" The story opens with a wildfire. But it isn't the only thing burning in the story. Maudie's keeping burning secrets inside her.

"The Water:" Maudie and her dad evacuate to the ocean, where Maudie swims and learns to surf. Water renews and rebirths her in many ways.

"And Maudie McGinn:" This is a story of coming of age, of how Maudie grows into herself.

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

I think my teen self would feel very 'seen' by Maudie's many nervous mannerisms, quirks, thoughts, and insecure feelings. My teen self would think: "Wow! I'm not the only one?"

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

Beginnings are by far the hardest for me! I'll rewrite the first 50 pages dozens of times until everything finally feels set--tone, characters, plot directions--and I feel I can finally move on.

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

My main characters all reflect different aspects of being different. Growing up neurodivergent (ADHD, or autistic, or with anxiety...) and in that way, they are very much like me. It's what I know, and it's an underrepresented type of character in children's fiction. I'm trying to fix that!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Different settings intrigue me. The ocean, of course -- I live near it in Southern California. My parents, up until they had me, lived in an oil camp in the Venezuelan jungle. I plan to use that setting for a story someday. I like to think of setting as character, too.
Visit Sally J. Pla's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Sally J. Pla & Leo.

The Page 69 Test: The Fire, the Water, and Maudie McGinn.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Reed Farrel Coleman

Called a hard-boiled poet by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan and the noir poet laureate in the Huffington Post, Reed Farrel Coleman is the New York Times-bestselling author of over thirty novels—including six in Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series—short stories, poetry, and essays.

In addition to his acclaimed series characters, Moe Prager and Gus Murphy, he has written the stand-alone novel Gun Church and collaborated with decorated Irish crime writer Ken Bruen on the novel Tower.

Coleman is a four time Edgar Award nominee in three different categories: Best Novel, Best Paperback Original, and Best Short Story. He is a four-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best PI Novel of the Year. He has also won the Audie, Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards.

Coleman's new novel is Sleepless City.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I studied poetry at Brooklyn College with David Lehman. He once said that if it isn’t worth a title, it isn’t worth writing. He also pointed out that the titles of poems are sometimes the actual first lines. Titles have always been significant to me. In fact, in my now thirty plus years of being a published novelist, I have never begun a book without a strong sense of what the title would be and I have never once changed a title to suit a publisher. I have also helped several colleagues title their books. Sleepless City is an obvious allusion to New York City’s reputation as the city that never sleepless. But there’s something edgier about insomnia and sleeplessness. That’s what I was going for, the edge. My sense is that most everyone who might read the book will get the allusion and it won’t take many pages, one or two at most, for them to see how the title is so appropriate to the writing.

What's in a name?

Here again, I’ll refer to my studying poetry. Although I knew from the get go that Sleepless City would be the book’s title, Nick Ryan’s name wasn’t always Nick Ryan. What went into my choice was threefold: 1) the rhythm of the name, 2) the ethnicity of the character, 3) the setting of the novel. I’ve always felt that readers like three syllable names: Moe Prager, Gus Murphy, Nick Ryan. More importantly, I like three syllable names with the first name being one syllable and the last name being two. To me, Nick said aloud, is like the snap of my fingers. I thought it suited him. He’s quick at decision making, but savvy. At first I toyed with Nick being Italian, but felt Brooklyn Irish worked better. I wanted to harken back and to play with the stereotype of the NY Irish cop. Nick is anything but that. Still, he comes from a cop family and is dogged, loyal, and understands his duty to the people of the city. And then of course, Nick must be of a place. My dear friend, award-winning author Peter Spiegelman, has always said that setting is the soil in which your characters grow. A character who can exist in any setting doesn’t work for me. Nick is so of Brooklyn and of the city, that it would be silly for him to be Nick anywhere else.

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

The teenage Reed would have been shocked that I finished a novel let alone one as complex as Sleepless City. As a kid I was a quitter and never finished anything. When things got tough or uncomfortable, I stopped. It was only after a very difficult time in my early twenties and sought to change who I was that I developed the discipline to write anything of length. That said, teenage Reed would understand Nick’s Brooklyn roots and his connection to the city. When I was fifteen, I watched a man die of a gunshot wound not more than ten feet in front of me. It’s a long story, but that incident helped shape my notions about the differences between right and justice, violent crime, and how it reverberates. So, while teenage Reed could never have the discipline to write Sleepless City, he would get Nick’s struggles with justice and violence.

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

Endings are more difficult because I don’t outline, so not being certain of where I’m going makes getting to the end more of a challenge. The end has to suggest itself to me. I don’t write to an end because that seems so artificial. It keeps me engaged all the way through the book and helps to prevent muddy middles. In my Moe Prager novel Innocent Monster, I changed who did it because my own writing suggested a better, more interesting candidate for the role than I thought originally. I’m writing a stand-alone now and have only recently realized whodunit and why and how I’m going to work through the mechanics of it.

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

Depends. I’ve always said Moe Prager was a braver, better looking, slightly less intelligent version of me. He’s from where I’m from, went to the same schools, but is my oldest brother’s age. I’m not much like Gus or Gulliver. The pat answer is that since I write them they are by definition somewhat a reflection of me. It’s the pat answer because, like all cliches, it’s got a kernel of truth in it.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

That’s easy. I grew up in an angry household. My dad, whom I loved dearly, was a bitter resentful person. He had his reasons. His anger and my mom’s passive-aggressiveness led to constant screaming between my parents, my brothers and me. We loved each other but we expressed everything, even love, maybe especially love, through the prism of anger. When everyone is screaming, no one can hear you. So, I believe I began writing poetry as a way to be heard above the din. I suppose it’s worked or I wouldn’t be answering these questions.
Visit Reed Farrel Coleman's website.

My Book, The Movie: Sleepless City.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 7, 2023

Kate Robards

Kate Robards holds a degree in journalism and works in communications at a nonprofit organization. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and children. Her new novel is The Three Deaths of Willa Stannard.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The Three Deaths of Willa Stannard is both a telling and cryptic title. Early in the story, the reader learns that acclaimed journalist Willa Stannard is found dead from an apparent suicide. Her sister, Sawyer, however, is convinced there’s foul play. She begins to dig into Willa’s final days, looking for a clue that might explain her death.

Willa’s death is central to the story, and it hurtles Sawyer into a search for answers, taking her to a small town where a toddler disappeared years before. The mysteries of Willa’s death and this cold case intertwine. It’s fitting that the title references Willa’s death, but … three deaths? What does that mean?

To explain the title would mean I’d spoil some twisty revelations. It’s enigmatic but it doesn’t reveal that the book follows Sawyer’s journey, too. I had alternate titles in mind—as many as 10 titles went to my publisher for consideration! Ultimately, The Three Deaths of Willa Stannard fit the novel best.

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

My teenage self would not be surprised at all. I’ve always loved mysteries and thrillers. In junior high, I wrote a series of mysteries that appeared in the school newspaper. In high school, I worked at the local library, where I dreamed of shelving my own books one day. From a very young age, I’ve loved writing, playing detective, and being scared, so penning thrillers is a natural fit!

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

With The Three Deaths of Willa Stannard, I knew the ending before I knew the preceding story. I built the story around the twist. I wanted to sprinkle clues throughout the novel without making the outcome too obvious—or leave the reader feeling as if the ending came out of left field.

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

Absolutely. I see myself in both of the main characters, Willa and Sawyer. These characters are purposely very different, because everything from their personalities to their ambition (or lack thereof) drove a wedge between them as they grew up. Willa is a driven, analytical perfectionist. Sawyer, on the other hand, is a bit ungrounded and emotionally sensitive. She wears rose-colored glasses.

While I tend to identify more with Willa, younger sister Sawyer reflects more joy. I can see myself in her hopefulness and energy. While neither character is a direct reflection of my personality, both exhibit connections to me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

One of the biggest influences on this novel in particular is location. Growing up, I spent my summers at a family cottage on a remote lake. The isolation of the cottage set my nerves on edge, and that feeling—and wondering if anyone could help me if something went wrong—inspired the setting and one of the storylines of The Three Deaths of Willa Stannard.

In the book, Sawyer begins to retrace her sister Willa’s footsteps to find how she spent her final days. Her investigation takes her to a tiny cabin in a lakeside community where a toddler went missing decades earlier. There are few neighbors and only one road out, but still, police were unable to solve the mystery of what happened to the little girl.

Spending time at a remote lake house, and the notion that while you may think you’re isolated from trouble, you’re also cut off from help, influenced this book.
Visit Kate Robards's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Three Deaths of Willa Stannard.

The Page 69 Test: The Three Deaths of Willa Stannard.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Deborah Crossland

Deborah Crossland (she/her) teaches English and mythology at her local community college and writes myth-based, contemporary novels with a feminist bent for young adults. She is passionate about making education accessible for everyone. She lives in Northern California with her husband and her daughter’s very spoiled, retired service dog.

photo credit: Heather Jean Photography
Crossland's new novel is The Quiet Part Out Loud.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

For the longest time, this book was dubbed The Earthquake Book because I couldn’t find the right title. Then about halfway through the first draft, I realized The Quiet Part Out Loud would be the perfect title. As the description notes, one point of view takes place after a major earthquake, but there are also metaphorical earthquakes in the story, too. Sometimes when the tectonic plates shift, things that are hidden underground get exposed, and it’s no different with a metaphorical shift. As Mia embarks on her journey to find Alfie, she experiences this phenomenon where all the things she’d been suppressing bubble up to the surface, and she has to face them.

What's in a name?

I actually spend a lot of time on names! It’s one of my favorite parts of creating new characters. The name Mia means “beautiful” or “beloved” in various languages, and that’s exactly who she is for Alfie, so it was an easy choice. Mia’s last name, Clementine, comes from the hybrid fruit accidentally discovered by a French missionary. I liked the idea of Mia becoming another version of herself on her journey that still has ties to her religious history. I chose Alfie not because it had a special meaning, but because I wanted a somewhat traditional name that could be shortened to a nickname. His last name, however, is a huge easter egg, so I won’t give that away.

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

Teenage me would be so excited. As a kid, every job I imagined having centered around words—teaching, law, writing. Also, I read voraciously, just about anything I could get my hands on. I don’t think she would be surprised, just impressed we managed to pull it off. Now if you ask 30-something me, that’s an entirely different story.

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

Beginnings are always my toughest spots. I still don’t know the voice well and knowing where to start the story can be difficult to figure out. I think I rewrote the beginning to The Quiet Part Out Loud ten times. I recently came across one of the very first drafts, and let’s just say I’m glad I decided to revise.

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

A few years ago, when I started writing this book, my son casually walked by and asked me what childhood trauma I was working out with this story (he thinks he’s funny). I laughed, of course, but as I sat there, I realized that there is a lot of me in Mia. We share similar personalities in that expressing emotions isn’t the easiest thing, but I’m glad to say that I think we’re both a lot better at it now!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

As a teen, I did a lot of local theatre, and I think that experience really taught me how to get into a character’s head. Being able to “slip into their skin” helps me understand their likes and dislikes, and especially their little tics that make them so unique. As for this particular story, it’s heavily influenced by the song, “If the World Was Ending” by JP Saxe and Julia Michaels. Once I’d heard it, I couldn’t stop thinking about the couple who were fine living without each other until the literal world is threatened, so they drop all pretense to be with each other. We humans sure can make things difficult, can’t we?
Visit Deborah Crossland's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Quiet Part Out Loud.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 3, 2023

David Housewright

David Housewright has won the Edgar Award and is the three-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for his crime fiction. He is a past president of the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA). He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Housewright's new novel, In A Hard Wind, is his 20th title featuring Twin Cities P.I. Mac McKenzie.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I like book titles that are provocative. Take a glance at mine – Dracula Wine, From The Grave, First Kill The Lawyers, Unidentified Woman #15, and Dead Boyfriends to list a few – and you’ll see that they were all chosen both to represent the content of the book and make the reader stop and ask “What is this about?” For example, there’s a phrase that people in law enforcement use when referring to suspects that remain at large, especially those that have already been identified – they’re “in the wind.” Nearly half of my novel In A Hard Wind deals with tracking a suspect that’s on the run.

What's in a name?

With the exception of my main protagonist, I rarely name my characters as I’m writing about them. They nearly always have place-holders – Lawyer One, Thug Two, Housewife, Vic – that represent their purpose for being in the book. When I do name them, it’s usually something that makes them easily identifiable by the reader. I hate it when a character walks through the door and you ask “Who is this guy, again?” And for the most part, I try to use “real names.” By that I mean names of people you might actually meet on the street as opposed to simple John Doe names that people rarely have.

Full disclosure, I also collect names; I hoard them and give them to characters when I think it’s appropriate. I met a woman named H.B. She confessed that H.B. stood for “Heavenly-Love Bambi,” the name her flower-children parents gave her way back when. That’s the name I gave to my character’s financial advisor. A waitress who once served me was named Bizzy. You’ll find a character named Bizzy in my next book. I have a reoccurring character who is a close friend of my protagonist McKenzie. I had no idea what her name was until I met an account executive back in my advertising days. Her name was Shelby.

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

My teenage self would be amazed mostly because my teenage self didn’t read crime novels. I was always a writer. In fact, I self-published my first novel when I was ten years old on a hand-cranked printing press that my parents gave me. Only in those days, I was all about F. Scott Fitzgerald. And Gore Vidal. And Kurt Vonnegut. With a sprinkling of E.L. Doctorow. My first novel, Penance, was meant to be about political corruption. Except, as I was plotting it out, it occurred to me that if I threw a few dead bodies on the floor, it would make a great crime novel. That’s because, in those days, I was reading four or five mysteries for every non-mystery and I was very much immersed in the conventions of the crime novel. Penance eventually won the Edgar Award for Best First Mystery from the Mystery Writers of America, so I tell people, I didn’t choose mysteries, mysteries chose me.

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

Honestly, it depends on the book. Sometimes it’s the former; sometimes it’s the latter. I will tell you, though; I always, always, always know how the book ends before I begin. I do this for the very practical reason that knowing the ending allows me to funnel the action in a way that gives the book the greatest impact. But I also start with the ending because it tells me – and eventually the reader – what the book is about. And I don’t mean just “whodunit.” The best mysteries are always about more than who killed Mr. Body in the library with a candlestick. In A Hard Wind is about identity; who we are and how we became that person. My previous novel, Something Wicked, is about family legacy. First Kill The Lawyers dealt with the conflict between professional ethics and personal morality. I believe the ending should help express the point your book is trying to make.

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

I get this question a lot. My answer is that the good guys who stand up for justice and listen to jazz and watch baseball, yeah, that’s me. The bad guys who commit blackmail, armed robbery and murder, not so much.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

To a writer everything is material. Everything. Every place you visit, person you meet, conversation you have, book or newspaper you read, movie you watch, music you hear – whatever makes you go “Huh.” Anything might inspire a character or a scene or even an entire book. Especially those moments that my pal Libby Fischer Hellmann calls “out-of-whack events.” The trick is to keep open to them. To observe the whole world and not just that tiny part that involves you personally.
Learn more about the book and author at David Housewright's website and Facebook page.

The Page 69 Test: In a Hard Wind.

--Marshal Zeringue