Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Catherine Bybee

Catherine Bybee is a #1 Wall Street Journal, Amazon, and Indie Reader bestselling author. In addition, her books have also graced The New York Times and USA Today bestsellers lists. In total, she has written dozens of beloved books that have collectively sold more than 11 million copies and have been translated into more than twenty languages.

Raised in Washington State, Bybee moved to Southern California in the hope of becoming a movie star. After growing bored with waiting tables, she returned to school and became a registered nurse, spending most of her career in urban emergency rooms. She now writes full time and has penned The Not Quite series, The Weekday Brides series, The Most Likely To series, and The First Wives series.

Bybee's new novel is All Our Tomorrows.

My Q&A with the author:

What’s in a name?

After forty plus novels sometimes the names I pick depend on what I haven’t used in the past. But most of the time I choose names that represent both the age and the nationality or background of my characters. When I start a new cast of characters, I ask myself who their parents were. Would the hero have his father’s name? If his parents were hippies from the 60’s, is the name on his birth certificate Moon Child? These two characters would likely have completely different childhoods and different challenges they would need to overcome in the story that I’m telling. If my characters are in law enforcement or the military, I have many people in the story call them by their last names.

In the case of All Our Tomorrows, my hero’s name suits both his age and his background. Male, one syllable names are often viewed as strong and capable. That is certainly the truth about Chase Stone. His deceased father was entirely too narcissistic in life to believe anyone could live up to his name, and certainly wouldn’t have given his first name to his son. At the same time, he would have wanted his son to have a strong name. A name like Bartholomew wouldn’t work. While Bartholomew is a nice name, it doesn't scream confidence and powerful.

Conversely, Piper, my heroine, has a name that feels soft. Yet she is anything but. Much like the name of her dog… (I’ll let you read the book and discover that gem).

Names are super important to my writing process. I like nicknames that my characters create for each other. As with Piper and Chase. Piper rubs in Chase’s new-found billionaire status that he’s completely uncomfortable and unfamiliar with, in an effort to keep him down to earth.

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

Shocked. It often comes as a surprise to my readers that I was not the best student in high school. I barely pulled a C out of English Lit and still struggle with spelling. However, I have always been a fantastic storyteller. And thankfully technology has removed the obstacles that would have prevented me from my current career. The craft of this novel would

e amazed me, the content however, wouldn’t have. I’ve always read books with happy endings. I knew if I ever actually wrote a book, it wouldn’t be one where the hero or heroine dies at the end.

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

Getting started is a challenge, but once I’m in, I’m good. The middle is the struggle. It is often where a reader will lose interest if plots aren’t twisting and questions aren’t being asked. So long as I remember what plots need to be tied up, the ending takes care of itself.

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

Yes, yes and sometimes. It is difficult not to interject my personality with my characters. There have been flat-out plots I’ve used pulled out of the pages of my life. My last two series are prime examples of that. Why reinvent the wheel when you don’t have to? I’ve colorful life and see no reason to not use that in my work. If I’m writing about a character with abandonment issues…I know that life. Been there, done that. Is my character a parent? A single parent? Have they lost someonWhile everything I just mentioned are circumstances, these are the things that shape the nature of my characters. Are they led by fear or strong despite how they grew up? I write by the rule, “If I’m not crying laughing or swooning as I’m writing a book, my reader isn’t either.” So yes, I see myself in my books often.

As for the characters that are nothing like me, I try hard to put myself in their shoes as I’m writing. I feel like I’m role playing all alone in my office at my computer. It’s awesome!

There are an infinite amount of personalities out there.

I’m a professional people watcher. Utterly fascinated by the difference between each and every one of us.

Yet we all have one thing in common. At the end of the day…we are all heroes of our own story. Even the bad guys.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My personal struggles of course. I was an ER Trauma Nurse for many years. If you read the Author’s Note in the back of All Our Tomorrows, I spell out exactly what influenced this book.

I travel as often as I can and those experiences and the people I meet along the way, inspire locations and characters that I write about. I’ve also lived 55 years on this floating rock, have two grown children and a completely different life than I had ten years ago.

Inspiration is everywhere. You just need to open your eyes and look.
Visit Catherine Bybee's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Rob Hart

Rob Hart is the author of The Paradox Hotel, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award that was named one of the best books of 2022 by Kirkus and NPR.

He also wrote The Warehouse, which sold in more than 20 languages around the world.

He is also the author of the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, the novella Scott Free with James Patterson, and the comic book Blood Oath with Alex Segura.

Hart's new novel is Assassins Anonymous.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I think Assassins Anonymous is the best title I've ever had. You want something that's going to tell your reader—clearly and directly—what the story is about. With this one, you have a pretty strong sense of what it is you're going to get.

What's in a name?

The main character is named Mark, and that was for two reasons: Mark seemed like a good hitman-style word (the mark is the target, and he's being targeted by someone in the book). But also, I liked the idea of writing a character who was, on one hand, the world's deadliest assassin, but on the other hand, was just a regular, unassuming guy you could be standing in line with at the bank. Mark is a nice, solid name, with nothing fancy on it.

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

I think I'd be shocked that I'm actually making a living, doing this!

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

Beginnings are generally pretty easy for me. I tend to know where I want to start. Endings are a little harder—I know the emotionality I'm aiming for, but creating the container is a little harder. I went through a lot of different ideas for how to present it in this one, before I landed on the ending it has. But the truth is, the middle parts are the hardest. Because you want to keep the story going, you want to keep tension high but not overwhelm the reader, and you want the journey to make sense. It's when I'm writing the middle parts that I wonder whether a book might truly come together. Luckily they sometimes do!

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 is me working something out for myself, so all my main characters are me, to some degree. It's like therapy, except I get paid instead of my therapist. Obviously I don't know what it's like to kill someone, but I know what it's like to look at my past, regret things that I've done, and want to be better—but wonder how that's even possible. Beyond that, I think Mark is a pretty funny—witty, acerbic, ready to crack a joke to break the tension. I like to think I'm pretty funny, but that's for other people to decide.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Two things: this one dug deep into my movie queue. I love action movies, and in particular hitman movies. My favorite of all time being The Professional. I wanted to pay homage to that genre the best I could. But also: I fight train, first in Krav Maga and now in Muay Thai, and it's fun to do that and then go write some action sequences. I like to think it makes the job a little easier for me, because I know what it feels like to get punched in the face.
Visit Rob Hart's website.

My Book, The Movie: Potter's Field.

The Page 69 Test: Potter's Field.

The Page 69 Test: The Warehouse.

The Page 69 Test: The Paradox Hotel.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Justine Pucella Winans

Justine Pucella Winans (they/she) is a queer and nonbinary writer who lives in Los Angeles with their husband and incredible Halloween-colored cats. Their books include YA mysteries like the critically acclaimed Indies Introduce title, Bianca Torre Is Afraid of Everything, and One Killer Problem. Their MG speculative horror titles include the acclaimed Stonewall Honor Book, The Otherwoods and Wishbone. When not writing queer, creepy, and funny fiction for kids and teens, they can be found training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, reading (a lot of) manga and webcomics, and actively avoiding real life scary situations.

My Q&A with Pucella Winans:

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

It was difficult for me to come up with a title for this book! Initially, it was The Westbridge High Mystery Club, as the story follows the main character, Gigi, enlisting the help of the school's unofficial Mystery Club to investigate the suspicious death of her favorite teacher. My agent wanted something a little more unique and catchy, so the next idea was Crimesolving, Crushes, and Other Things that Kill You. My editor wanted something shorter, and we eventually agreed on One Killer Problem. It definitely sets up the book as a murder mystery, and also gives a nod to the high school setting and the crime scene being a math classroom.

What's in a name?

I have only the highest respect for authors that put a lot of meaning in character names, but I am not one of them. A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet in my cases, since I usually just go through lists of names and see what stands out and feels fitting for the character. If I have to name a more villainous character, it's possible I will use a name of someone who has wronged me in the past, but I'll never admit to which ones!

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

My teenage self would be surprised by the amount of queer representation in One Killer Problem, mostly because I was still figuring myself out and closed in high school. So she'd also be secretly excited, I think. There would probably be some surprise that I was writing in the mystery genre, especially something so funny. I was already trying to write novels while in high school, but the kind of stuff I wrote then was either dystopian or contemporary on the darker and emotional side!

I did write and even queried one thriller, but it was super dark to the point of agents not liking that it did not have a happy ending. So I think teenage me would really enjoy it, but be surprised that I was able to write something more lighthearted and fun and still get it published!

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

I've always been very drawn to characters and voice, so beginnings come more naturally to me. Endings are definitely harder, especially for mysteries like One Killer Problem. I had to nail the twist and big reveal in a way that doesn't feel entirely obvious from the beginning, but also isn't impossible for readers to figure out. For that reason, and my tendency to rush through endings in my early drafts because I just can't wait to get to the end, the ending definitely goes through more changes.

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

None of my characters are exactly like me, but they all have some elements of myself that allows me to write from an authentic place. Gigi definitely shares my bisexuality, my IBS, my love for plushies and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and my past tendency to push people away so I wouldn't get hurt. However, we're totally different. I'm way more of an anxious and non confrontational person than she is! I relate to her brother, Luca, in the sense that I was the nerdy theater kid stressed about finances before college, but I'm not the kind of outgoing that he is. I relate to Gigi's friends, Sean and Mari, in being big readers and mystery fans, but they are both way cooler than I am. Some characters I'm not really like at all, so I wouldn't get too in their heads, but they are still fun to write!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I was a film and theater major in college, so I do take a lot of inspiration from movies and some plays. I'm also a big fan of anime, manga, and webcomics, so that storytelling inspires me a lot. When I was first coming up with the concept of One Killer Problem, I took some inspiration from the anime/series Hyouka, which has a Classic Literature Club that is dragged into cozy mysteries around the school. In previous drafts, the Mystery Club would constantly do odd jobs, which might have had a little Gintama inspiration, especially with the humor. I do also pull from my personal experiences, occasionally texting myself jokes and ideas as they come up.
Visit Justine Pucella Winans's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

James L. Sutter

James L. Sutter is a co-creator of the best-selling Pathfinder and Starfinder roleplaying games. He’s the author of the young adult romance novel Darkhearts, as well as the fantasy novels Death's Heretic and The Redemption Engine. His short stories have appeared in Nightmare, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the #1 Amazon best-seller Machine of Death, and more. His new novel is The Ghost of Us. Sutter lives in Seattle, where he's performed with bands ranging from metalcore to musical theater.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Titles are both difficult for me and absolutely crucial—I want something that immediately conveys to the reader what the book is about. In the case of The Ghost of Us, I wanted people to know that it's about a ghost-hunter, and also that it's a love story. Of course, there's also a deeper resonance to the title, beyond just marketing: the book is a sapphic YA supernatural romance about a teenage ghost hunter who finds a ghost, but the ghost won't give her the evidence she needs to get famous unless she first agrees to take his little sister to the prom. So the "us" in the title refers to both the romance between the two girls, but also the complicated emotional bond between the sister and her deceased brother.

What's in a name?

Honestly, not that much. Since I'm writing YA, I generally start with the US Census's list of the most common names for the year my characters would have been born in, then scroll way down and try to pick something that's familiar but not too common.

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

Extremely! Before making my switch to queer young adult romance novels with my previous book, Darkhearts, I had spent fifteen years focused exclusively on fantasy and science fiction—in addition to publishing two fantasy novels, Death's Heretic and The Redemption Engine, I was also the co-creator of the Pathfinder and Starfinder tabletop roleplaying games, and have done a ton of work in TTRPGs, comics, video games, and short fiction, always with that SF&F bent. My teenage self would have been shocked to find me falling in love with romance novels! (He also would have been shocked to discover I was bisexual—that took another few years to really sink in...)

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

I think beginnings are slightly harder, but in truth they're pretty much the same for me. That's because so much of my writing is based on character and relationship arcs—to me, a story is about who the characters start out as and who they become by the end, how they grow and change and become better. Since wanting to write about a particular change of heart automatically implies both a start and end state, I usually come up with the first and last scene at almost the exact same time, and they rarely drift much. It's everything in the middle that's challenging!

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

There's so much of me in my books! While I was never a ghost hunter like Cara, my protagonist in The Ghost of Us, she's still a queer teenage outcast who's desperate for fame and can't wait to escape the suburbs of Seattle, all of which describes teenage me pretty perfectly! (And her relationship with rock-climbing in this book is pretty much my own...)

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I'm influenced by everything, but I think music in particular has been a big part of my writing journey—not so much specific songs or bands, but the experience of being a gigging musician at a young age, booking my band's shows, etc. I learned early how to grind and accept that rejection is an inevitable part of being an artist, and you just need to believe in yourself and keep pushing. As a punk and metal kid, I think I've had an easier time accepting that it doesn't matter if most people don't resonate with what you're making—it's about finding the people who do.
Visit James L. Sutter's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Maggie Auffarth

Maggie Auffarth is a lifelong book obsessive and crime fiction enthusiast. She holds a degree in creative writing from Wheaton College and she was a finalist for the Helen Sheehan Book Prize in 2018. When she isn't plotting fictional crimes, she enjoys baking, running, and binge-watching Lifetime movies. She lives in Atlanta.

Auffarth's debut novel is Burn It All.

My Q&A with the author:

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

She’d absolutely be scandalized (I was a pretty sheltered teenager), but I don’t think she’d be surprised. I often joke that every story I’ve ever written explores the same core concept: the relationship between two people, one driven by sadness and one driven by anger – and Burn It All embodies that idea more than most. In fact, my first ever attempt at a novel, which I started when I was fifteen, was about a teenage girl navigating lif in the aftermath of her best friend’s unexpected death, so maybe my teenage self would see Burn It All as the inevitable conclusion of her own groundwork.

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

In general, I find beginnings much harder to write than endings. It’s true that there’s nothing scarier than a blank page. (And, if you’re like me, even a new scene or paragraph can be intimidating.) But, once I figure out where my story begins, it almost never changes. The same can’t be said for my endings. In fact, the original ending for Burn It All was completely different than the ending I eventually settled on. It took a long time – years, in fact – to find an ending that felt both genuinely surprising and inevitable for these characters.

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

For me, the answer is both. I think it’s impossible to spend so much time creating a character and writing from their perspective and not put at least a little of myself into them, but I don’t think anyone who knows me in real life would recognize me in either of the two main characters in Burn It All – Marley is more calculating than me, and Thea is more perceptive. Even if the characters start with a germ of something that is true to me, they definitely develop their own distinct personalities over time.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m always inspired by music, and there are a few key artists, including Hozier and The Neighborhood, whose music was crucial to me when I was drafting Burn It All. I also took a lot of inspiration from movies like Promising Young Woman and A Simple Favor – psychological thrillers about emotionally complicated women trying to take some agency for themselves in a fraught world.
Visit Maggie Auffarth's website.

My Book, The Movie: Burn It All.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 7, 2024

Catriona McPherson

Catriona McPherson was born in Scotland and lived there until 2010, then immigrated to California where she lives on Patwin ancestral land. A former academic linguist, she now writes full-time. Her multi-award-winning and national best-selling work includes: the Dandy Gilver historical detective stories, the Last Ditch mysteries, set in California, and a strand of contemporary standalone novels including Edgar-finalist The Day She Died and Mary Higgins Clark finalist Strangers at the Gate. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, The Crimewriters’ Association, The Society of Authors and Sisters in Crime, of which she is a former national president.

McPherson's new novel is Deep Beneath Us.

My Q&A with the author:

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

The title I’ve ended up with does a great job of telling the reader what kind of book they’re considering. Deep Beneath Us and the jacket image combined say: dread, threat, secrets. While I was writing I called the book Hiskith, the name of the reservoir and the flooded village at the bottom of it, and also a pun on “his kith”, evoking the centrality of a character who, Rebecca- like, starts out already dead and telling us the book is about his family.

But I knew, even as I wrote the drafts with “Hiskith” in my mind, that it was a disaster of a title from a marketing point of view. I let it go without a backward glance.

What’s in a name?

I love naming characters, even when it’s difficult. It was pretty easy this time. I wanted four cousins, two of whom had very ordinary names and two of who had slightly more unusual names, since their mothers were, on the one hand, aggressively down-to-earth and scathing about pretensions and, on the other, arty and ambitious.

Tabitha – guess which type of cousin she is! – has an ex-husband called Scott and a son called Albion, which is an archaic name for Scotland. I wanted just a hint of her ex’s ego as well as her own flight of fancy.

Naming the two men who’re fellow POV characters was slightly tougher. Lyle Gordon is still called Gordo – a very typical Scottish boy’s nickname – at twenty-nine, suggesting (I hope) his arrested development, which is no fault of his own. Barrett Langholm was a name I thought resonated with solidity. He’s a jobbing gardener and divorced father of girls. Maybe I’m too close to my characters but I think his name basically means with “good friend, great dad”.

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

Not at all. I’m writing about a birth family – in one of which I lived full-time back then – and I’m writing the geographical setting and social milieu I came from. Teenage Reader Me would be enchanted to find any novel of domestic suspense back then, mind you. Did they exist as a sub-genre? I’m not sure they did.

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

I find both fairly easy. It’s the middle that gives me all the angst. I rarely change a beginning much, except to add a short prologue, perhaps. At the other end of the book, though, I quite often realise that I’ve banged the story shut too abruptly and I have to add at least another scene if not a whole chapter.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

It’s going to have to be place. I can’t imagine any of my novels unfolding in any other landscape than where I’ve put them. This book wouldn’t work in a city, or suburb, or flashier bit of countryside. It needs the bleakness of shut shale mines, poor agricultural land and marginally productive forestry to produce exactly the mix of characters with just the mindset to let the story happen.
Visit Catriona McPherson's website.

The Page 69 Test: Go to My Grave.

My Book, The Movie: The Turning Tide.

The Page 69 Test: The Turning Tide.

My Book, The Movie: A Gingerbread House.

The Page 69 Test: Hop Scot.

The Page 69 Test: Deep Beneath Us.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Kasey LeBlanc

Kasey LeBlanc (he / him) is a queer, trans, Jewish and neurodivergent author who writes stories for young people. His debut young adult novel Flyboy tells the story of a closeted trans boy, his Catholic high school, and the magical dream circus where he can finally be seen for his true self.

My Q&A with the author:

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

One of the things I love so much about my title is that Flyboy, I think, really captures the essence of who the main character is and wants to be, and it's a title that takes on multiple layers of meaning as the story unfolds.

For instance, the opening line of chapter one begins: "There's a fly buzzing near my ear at the edge of my peripheral vision, and if looks could kill, this fly would already be dead". By the end of the scene that fly is (spoiler alert!) quite dead -- smashed against the very same church pew where Asher, our closeted trans protagonist, has just traced his real name with his finger. At the end of the chapter, Asher wonders why God would "give wings to such a useless creature", because if he could fly, he "certainly wouldn't stick around here".

So right from the start I think we have these dual desires -- of Asher wanting to be a boy, and not being seen as one, and of Asher wanting escape, which he envisions attaining through flight. Then we get into chapter two and Asher arrives at this magical dream circus where he is finally seen for the boy he truly is, only to once again have his dreams of flight crushed as he's assigned to perform as a clown, rather than on the trapeze rig. So much of Asher's journey is one of fighting to beseen and fighting to live the way he wants to live, and I think Flyboy as a title really encapsulates his experiences.

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

Not at all surprised to see that we published a novel (though teenage me would probably wonder why it took so long!), but I do think my younger self would be quite surprised to learn that we are trans! Pleasantly surprised, I think, especially once teenage me learns about the joys of testosterone and top surgery. Being a guy wasn't something I realized was a possibility for myself when I was younger, and it's part of why it's so important for me to write stories like Asher's for young people today.

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

Great question! I think that beginnings often change the most as I write because it's so hard to start in the right place from draft one, but I also enjoy the process of testing out new starting points as I go along. For endings, once I can really see a story's ending in my mind, it tends to stay pretty similar between drafts, at least in terms of the big picture and characters' emotional journeys and resolutions.

When I have a new idea and I feel like I can see where my characters' journeys begin and end, that's when I feel confident I can turn the story into a book. Unfortunately that tends to be the easy part -- where I truly struggle is everything that comes between, which is probably why so many writers refer to it as the 'murky middle'!

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

Both! I think people are naturally going to be most curious about how similar I am to Asher, the protagonist in this story, given my own identity as a trans guy. And it's really hard to say, in part because Asher's circumstances are so different than my own. I figured out that I was trans in my mid-twenties, and began coming out to people in my life not long after, all of whom were wonderfully supportive.

Asher doesn't have that luxury. He knows he's trans from a young age, and he is terrified of his conservative grandparents finding out, particularly given the financial leverage they hold over him and his mother. So much of Asher's personality is influenced by circumstances he doesn't have the power to control, and as a result he is very different than me.

At the same time however, there are very much moments in the story, particularly relating to Asher's experiences of gender dysphoria, or gender euphoria, where I feel very much like I'm baring a part of my own soul to the world because the only way I knew to convey the depth of his relationship to his body was through my own lived experiences.
Visit Kasey LeBlanc's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 3, 2024

Joanna Pearson

Joanna Pearson’s debut novel is Bright and Tender Dark. Her second story collection, Now You Know It All, was chosen by Edward P. Jones for the 2021 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and named a finalist for the Virginia Literary Awards. Her first story collection, Every Human Love was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Awards, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction, and the Foreword INDIES Awards. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery and Suspense, The Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net, and many other places. Pearson has received fellowships supporting her fiction from MacDowell, VCCA, South Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the North Carolina Arts Council/Durham Arts Council. She holds an MFA in poetry from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars and an MD from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Originally from western North Carolina, Pearson now lives with her husband and two daughters near Chapel Hill, where she works as a psychiatrist.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Bright and Tender Dark works in an oblique way to introduce some central thematic concerns—and paradoxes—of the novel. Bright conjures Karlie, the brilliant and charismatic young woman found murdered in her college apartment in the early days of the year 2000. Tender is the sore spot, tender as a bruise, left in Joy, Karlie’s freshman roommate, who both envied Karlie and yet also misses her, and who still has questions about what really happened. Dark is the space of uncertainty, where questions turn to urban legends, myth, or Reddit threads. Karlie’s absence becomes a void into which people who knew her, or hardly knew her at all, whisper their theories.

What's in a name?

I love that you’ve asked this question! One cannot name a main character Joy, particularly as a writer living in the South, without it being a little nod to Joy/Hulga in Flannery O’Connor’s much-venerated story, “Good Country People.” I’m someone who is never not being haunted by O’Connor’s stories, which were formative for me. I love how they grapple with questions of belief and interpersonal connection, exploring the ways in which we flawed humans have capacity for such grace and yet can also be so petty, vain, and short-sighted. It should be no surprise, then, that Joy in Bright and Tender Dark is a disaffected preacher’s kid. Her own reckoning with faith and organized religion, her sense of what faith means to Karlie in her own short life—I think these are powerful elements in the book. Much like Joy/Hulga in the O’Connor story, my Joy is someone who also feels she wears her own name poorly—or at least, with ambivalence.

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

Ha—I think she wouldn’t be surprised at all! Spooky lit fic? Urban legends? The weird liminal spaces where doubt starts to shift into belief, and belief into doubt? She’d be into all that!

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

Landing an ending is always tougher—and the ending for a novel like this presents an interesting challenge. On the one hand, I feel I owe my readers some specific answers (namely, who dunnit, and why). On the other hand, because I never set out to write a beat-by-beat mystery/crime novel, I’m playing with genre conventions, subverting them, and even abandoning them. The feeling I want readers left with is a complicated one—hope is a part of it, but I also want the reader to walk away with a shiver of recognition, a feeling of implication. I hope there are flashes of all our best and worst selves in these pages.

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 when one is writing truthfully, there are always pieces of one’s self in every character, “bad guys” included! One of my abiding principals as a writer is that I must write with empathy, even when writing about characters whose actions I might never condone. I want to understand even when I don’t necessarily agree.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Two things come to mind. The first is season one of the podcast In the Dark, one of the smartest, most thoughtful investigative podcasts I’ve ever heard. It’s about the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling, but it’s also about the rippling impact of this tragedy on an entire community. The second is that wonderful television series High Maintenance, which started as a web series, then aired on HBO from 2016 to 2020. It follows a pot dealer in New York City delivering his product to clients, so you get these little, prismatic glances into many different lives. What I loved about it—and what I found so inspiring—was the way each episode functioned as a beautiful, contained story, and then how the entire series wove into a larger tapestry, capturing the ways in which we are so profoundly interconnected and yet also often oblivious to those connections. The show is both moving and funny, as precise
Visit Joanna Pearson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Miya T. Beck

Miya T. Beck is a native Californian who always had a deep interest in the Japanese side of her heritage. Though she tried and failed to become fluent in Japanese, her studies did introduce her to the myths and fairy tales that inspired this novel. A former daily newspaper reporter and magazine writer, she lives in Brooklyn with her family.

Beck's new novel is Through a Clouded Mirror.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I never meant for Through a Clouded Mirror to be the title. It was a placeholder inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. I mentioned to my editor a few times that I was open to other suggestions, and I was surprised that HarperCollins wasn’t insisting on a title change. Around the time the initial cover design came to me for review, I asked for a brainstorming session. My editor and I couldn’t come up with anything that resonated more deeply. However, going through that process made me realize how well the title sets up the story for the reader. You know the plot is going to hinge on Yuki going to the other side of the mirror. That the mirror is “clouded” conveys a sense of mystery.

What's in a name?

My main character, Yuki Snow, is half Japanese and half white, and I wanted a name that mirrored her biracial identity and the feeling of not belonging in either world. Yuki (pronounced you-key) is the word for snow in Japanese, a doubling that her parents found meaningful but to her is a burden. She hates that kids at school tease her and call her “Yucky.” Yet the one time she visited her relatives in Japan, they laughed at her double name.

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

Beginnings are the toughest for me because I’m still figuring out who my protagonist is as I write that first draft. The best piece of advice I ever received in a creative writing workshop was that you won’t know the beginning until you’ve reached the end. So I try not to obsess too much over the beginning and keep moving forward. Through a Clouded Mirror opens with Yuki at her new school writing a letter to her best friend from her old school. While the setting never changed, her interiority deepened with every draft.

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

Yuki reflects my own experience as someone who is biracial, in my case half Japanese. How do you find where you belong when you feel like you don’t fit anywhere? She also would rather read a good book than go to a pool party where she doesn’t know anyone. I can relate to that. Though on a hot, humid day in New York City, I’d make the opposite decision now.
Visit Miya T. Beck's website.

The Page 69 Test: Through a Clouded Mirror.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 27, 2024

Hart Hanson

Hart Hanson is a novelist and TV writer, best known for creating the Fox Television Networks longest-lived scripted hourlong program Bones. He also created The Finder and Backstrom neither of which lasted as long as Bones to Hanson’s shame and chagrin.

Before moving to Los Angeles from his native Canada, Hanson created the multiple award-winning Global Television Network program Traders. Before Traders he wrote and produced, amongst others, several Canadian TV series, including Beachcombers, The Road to Avonlea, and North of 60.

After making the move to Los Angeles, Hanson started his American TV career writing and producing TV series Cupid, Snoops, Judging Amy, and Joan of Arcadia before creating Bones.

Hanson’s first book The Driver — a crime novel set in Los Angeles — was lauded as one of The New York Times’ Best Crime novels of 2017.

His new novel is The Seminarian.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Apparently, I am very bad at titles. Everything I’ve ever written has been retitled. My first novel Clear Shallow Water was too hoity-toity so it was re-titled The Driver. My current novel The Seminarian was originally entitled The Irritation Mojo which, I was told, would not do because the word “irritation” is off-putting.

The Seminarian isn’t about a seminarian – my protagonist is a former seminarian who has been thrust back into the real world. However, he approaches his job as an investigator as a seminarian would, so maybe the publisher is right and it’s a good title?

What's in a name?

A lot. My main character is a severely lapsed Catholic so I hung his name around him like a millstone. “Xavier Priestly”. His friends call him Priest. He can never shake his past. His best friend is named “Dusty” – from the biblical quote about how we all return to dust.

I fuss about names and often change them as the character develops.

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

He would be shocked and delighted because my teenage reader self never even dreamed of writing books. Books were magic things written by mythical creatures. He’d also be dismayed that he didn’t become a professional musician or a pilot. The first due to lack of talent, the second due to extreme color-blindness.

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

Both are a nightmare. I outline so I know where I’m supposed to be going – but deciding at what precise moment to start the story is tough.

In The Seminarian I wanted the reader to meet Priest before his whole life got tumbled and disrupted. But that part had to be exciting too, so … shark!

And the ending is constantly trying to get away. I knew where the investigation/mystery ended but the story picked up a lot of baggage along the way that needed to be paid off. What about the boy? What about the contract killer? What about the missing escort? How do we set up another book and leave the reader satisfied and wanting more?

It was very tempting to bring the shark back again.

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

You have to find a part of yourself in every character you create – I think I’m most like the rule-following lawyer in this book – Baz – even though she is a Black woman. However, more than one person has told me that I was “brave” to put so much of myself into Priest – who is, yes, a white man, but also irritable, judgmental, impatient, socially awkward, ungrateful, and a very iffy father.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music affects the whole (excuse me) vibe. I have soundtracks for everything I write and playlists for every character.

I also live in Venice Beach, California, where characters are thrown into my face every day.

Don’t even get me started on my family! What a plethora of characters and stories and unexpected outcomes. I would steal more from friends but many of them are also writers. Alas, they see when I take their great lines and rants. I still do it.
Visit Hart Hanson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 24, 2024

Ash Clifton

Ash Clifton grew up in Gainesville, Florida, home of the University of Florida, where his father was a deputy sheriff and, later, the chief of police. He graduated from UF with a degree in English, then got an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona. He lives in Gainesville, with his wife and son. Clifton writes mystery, thriller, and science fiction novels.

My Q&A with the author:

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

My book is a neo-noir P.I. novel, and I wanted the title to have a slightly retro, pulpy feel. Twice the Trouble fit the bill. It evokes, I hope, the deliberately melodramatic titles of famous P.I. mysteries like The Big Sleep and The Moving Target. So, I’m proud of my title in that regard.

And, of course, it’s a pun on the main character’s name, Noland Twice, which came to me out of the ether for reasons I cannot fathom.

What's in a name?

Names are poetry. It’s that simple. Even if a character’s name is not an outright-metaphor (one of my favorites is a villain named Loveless in a William Gibson novel), the mere sound of a character’s name should, ideally, generate some kind of vibe regarding their essence.

I like my main character’s name, Noland Twice, for all kinds of reasons, but mainly because it’s unusual and yet easy to say and remember. I also think some of my other characters’ names are equally suggestive of their nature: Faith Carlton, Karen Voss, and Arthur Valkenburg.

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

I suspect that my teenage self would not have been nearly as surprised as my college-age self. In my teens, I was consuming huge amounts of genre fiction (science fiction, mysteries, horror), and Twice the Trouble would have fit right in. Later, when I was an English major in college, I was much more serious (okay, pretentious) and determined to write “pure,” literary fiction.

However, I think even my college self would have found some things to admire in Twice the Trouble. It’s a genre novel, but I tried to write it in almost exactly the same way as I would a literary novel—with a lot of attention to detail, atmosphere, and character.

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

Endings are much easier, for me, and I suspect the same is true for many writers. Flannery O’Connor said that the ending of a novel should fall into the reader’s hand like a piece of ripe fruit. Everything in the novel should lead up to the conclusion in a way that, in retrospect, feels inevitable, yet surprising. When I got to the final pages of Twice the Trouble, the last line just came to me, and I thought it was really good.

Beginnings are, of course, totally different. You’ve got a blank page, with nothing to go on except a few vague ideas. (I think this is true, basically, even for writers who obsessively plan-out their novels—a technique that sounds depressing as hell.) To make things even worse, the opening pages, and especially the opening lines, are incredibly important in terms of grabbing the reader’s attention and pulling them into the story. So, yes, I work very hard on openings.

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

Like a lot of writers, I have a semi-autobiographical novel sitting on my computer’s hard drive, where it will probably remain forever. In that novel, the main character is essentially…well…me. (This fact made my life even more absurd when I got rejection letters that read, “We like the writing, but we don’t really like the MC that much.” To which I wanted to reply, “Hey, I don’t like you all that much either!”)

For Twice the Trouble, I deliberately set out to write about a character that was very different from me, at least on the surface. Noland is athletic, brave, hot-headed, and mildly pathological. (And he knows Kung Fu.) I am the opposite in all these respects. However, Noland is also smart, literate, clever, and occasionally funny, which are characteristics that, hopefully, I share, to a lesser degree.

So, I guess one could say that Noland is a blend of my actual self and my fantasy self—with a few big flaws thrown in.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The crime films of Michael Mann were a big influence. Mann’s characters are smart, tough, and highly skilled people (mostly guys; mostly criminals). They’ve got a job to do, and they’re gonna finish it no matter what. Noland is very much in that mold. He’s an anti-hero who sees himself more as a technician than a sleuth.

Music was also an influence, particularly when I was trying to get into the half-crazed, demented state-of-mind that Noland frequently occupies. I listened to a lot of Soundgarden, Depeche Mode, and The White Stripes. In particular, “Seven Nation Army” is perfect for getting inside the head of an unbalanced, semi-pathological character. (I mean that as a compliment, Mr. White. Sir!)
Visit Ash Clifton's website.

My Book, The Movie: Twice the Trouble.

The Page 69 Test: Twice the Trouble.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 20, 2024

Kate Feiffer

Kate Feiffer, a former television news producer, is an illustrator, and author of eleven highly acclaimed books for children, including Henry the Dog with No Tail and My Mom Is Trying to Ruin My Life. Morning Pages is her first novel for adults. Feiffer currently divides her time between Martha’s Vineyard, where she raised her daughter Maddy, and New York City, where she grew up.

My Q&A with the author:

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

Morning Pages — three pages written every morning, the moment you wake up. This was Julia Cameron's suggestion to help creatives get over their blocks in her beloved book The Artist’s Way. Just write, it doesn't matter what you're writing, what matters is that you’re writing. The story in my novel Morning Pages is revealed through the main character’s morning pages. I titled my novel for the device used to tell the story. I suppose if her story was told through diary entries, I would have titled the book Diary.

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

We like to believe that we've evolved since our gnarly teenage years, that we think about different things, that the years behind us have provided us with new experiences to contemplate. But I recently discovered that I'm not only thinking about the same things, I’m even writing about the same things that I did when I was teenager.

Let me explain.

Morning Pages is about a blocked playwright trying to finish a play she was commissioned to write while life is throwing obstacles at her. There are scenes from the play she is writing within the book, and the play reads as a story within the story.

The play is about a 40-year-old single, professionally successful, woman whose parents had an acrimonious divorce when she was a child. During the first act of the play, both her mother and father find themselves needing a place to live, and they each end up having to move in with her. For the first time since she was eight, she is living with her mother and father, and it isn’t going well.

Recently I was sorting through a box that had a few papers I had written in high school that for some reason I had saved. And there I found it - a short story I had written about an adult woman whose divorced parents move in with her.

Apparently my teenage self was waiting all this time to be heard.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings?

Endings! In fact, my novel is about a playwright who can’t figure out how to end her play. Finishing things, or the difficulty in doing so, is an on-going theme in the novel and in my life. I love writing beginnings. If books could just be beginnings, I would be a prolific author. I have hundreds of beginnings filed away.

The main character in Morning Pages has her own thoughts about beginnings, however. This from page 15:
I used to love beginnings. The sloppy adrenaline rush of starting something new. Thinking faster than I could type. Not anymore. These days, beginnings feel ravenous and needy. “Give us a middle!” they shout. Middles are hungry for conflict though, and that’s a problem for someone as conflict-averse as I am.
Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I am all over many of my characters. Some of the characters in the novel are heavily influenced by my life and the people in my life, and others are intentionally drawn to resemble no one I know.
Visit Kate Feiffer's website.

The Page 69 Test: Morning Pages.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Kate White

Kate White is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author of eighteen novels of suspense: ten standalone psychological thrillers, including the newly released The Last Time She Saw Him, and also eight Bailey Weggins mysteries.

My Q&A with the author:

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

I really love the title of my newest book, The Last Time She Saw Him, because it gets a potential reader into the story right away, and in some ways it’s a microcosm of the novel. In the book, Kiki Reed has a brief conversation with her ex-fiancĂ©, Jamie, at a party, and then minutes later he’s found dead outside. Kiki soon becomes convinced he was murdered, but since the cops aren’t on the same page, she has to do everything in her power to make them see the light. Thus, she spends a lot of time thinking about the last time she saw Jamie. Was there something he said or something she saw that could provide a clue as to who murdered him?

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

I love writing the beginning of a thriller (and I usual change that the least). The book is all new to me, and I’m usually beyond excited to start my protagonist off on her journey. In The Last Time She Saw Him, I liked describing the sights and sounds of the party, the interactions between guests, the `really disturbing conversation that Kiki overhears, and then. finally, at the end of chapter two, the shocking sound of a gun going off.

As for endings, I like thinking about the last chapters because I always try for incredible twists, but writing those chapters is, if you’ll excuse the expression, murder for me. I get so impatient because I’m eager for the protagonist to figure it all out and find resolution. Also, in the case of The Last Time She Saw Him, the ending is scary, and I was scared at times thinking about it. Those dark woods, the ominous sound of twigs snapping…. I’m not there, of course, but it feels like I am.

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 a little of myself in every protagonist I’ve created. I just find that makes the character easier to write. All my protagonists have been women with careers, and in general they’ve had careers I’m familiar with in some way. In The Last Time She Saw Him, Kiki is a career coach, and though I’ve never done that, I’ve written several bestselling books on career success, and I’ve given career advice to many people who have come to me. I used a lot of what I’ve learned in the scenes about Kiki’s work. Tip: job interviewers want to see enthusiasm almost as much as anything else, so during an interview consider sitting a little bit on the edge of your seat. Don’t try to be cool as a cucumber.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m an avid bird watcher and I’ve gone bird watching on all seven continents. But as much as I like seeing a type of bird for the first time and viewing my favorites again and again, I also love what I think of as the spaces between birds, when I’m waiting quietly for a bird to reveal itself. This kind of experience always helps my brain to refresh and become inspired. I’ve even named some of my characters after birds—like Robin and Phoebe.
Visit Kate White's website, Facebook page, and Instagram page.

The Page 69 Test: Even If It Kills Her.

The Page 69 Test: Eyes on You.

The Page 99 Test: The Gutsy Girl Handbook.

The Page 69 Test: Have You Seen Me?.

The Page 69 Test: The Second Husband.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Abraham Chang

Abraham Yu-Young Chang is an award-winning, published poet with an MFA in creative writing from New York University. He has worked in the publishing industry since 2000 and currently manages Special Sales for Simon & Schuster. He lives in Forest Hills, Queens, with his wife, Erica—and a substantial collection of Blu-rays, vinyl records, comic books, and action figures. 888 Love and the Divine Burden of Numbers is his debut novel.

My Q&A with the author

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

The title 888 Love and the Divine Burden of Numbers came to me in three distinct parts. It was quick and yet it was slow. I knew my book would address the big idea of belief, as a whole – and how much control we have over our destinies – especially, in luck and love.

I had the “888 Love” part figured out once I was well on my way into writing about the Eastern numerology, superstitions, and the things you pick up from your family growing up that can influence susceptible young minds – especially when there are mental health issues. I had always known that Chinese people loved the number 8, because the number (“bah”) sounds like the word “fah” for “grow, thrive” – so “88” was a common sight, especially around the Lunar New Year. The extra 8 was natural for my main character, Young, to add on as his personal extra bit of “oomph” to ensure that additional stamp of good luck in his life.

I wasn’t aware that the Triple 8, the “888” was circulating around as well. I had not noticed it until I had completed my book and happened across it while walking through a casino! But it’s a “thing” and you’ll see it on license plates, names of restaurants, all sorts of things. Chances are if there are 8s – a Chinese person is likely nearby.

Working through our mental and spiritual health is what I believe is at the core of the meaning of life. We are constantly carrying the weight of our own humanity – this “divine burden” – it can come in different forms, to different people. For Young, he wants to understand the numbers, systems, and patterns that he believes he sees all around him that are guiding him. He is holding out hope that there really is a way to see ahead, to manipulate, to know the right path to take, to make decisions – big and small. This is the burden that he is carrying – the numbers that tease, haunt, and embolden him all at the same time -- whispering the promise of just maybe, maybe - the secrets to the universe.

What's in a name?

I named my character “Young Wang” for a few reasons. “Wang” in Chinese when pronounced correctly is actually the same as “Wong – meaning “king”. We can blame romanization or Ellis Island or what have you for these inconsistencies and “mistakes” in naming. For such a noble surname – there sure are a lot of literal dick jokes for “Wang” in English.

The name “Young” has so many connotations – both in English and Chinese. In English – what better name immediately invokes youth? Especially for a coming-of-age story! In Chinese – “Young” refers to the ocean. What else is larger, full of potential, full of the divine? Also – on a “meta” level: My Chinese name is “Yu-Young”. As with most novels, the reader can’t help but wonder how much of the narrative is inspired by real events, how many of the characters are out in the world living and breathing. The book is packed with Easter eggs, metatextual and textual references, foreshadowing, and hopefully lots of pay off. I want the reader to be constantly thinking and wondering: “Was that intentional? Was that part connected to this – or to that?” My answer is usually: yes and yes.

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

My teenage self would be surprised that I’ve learned to lighten up. There is much more humor (as in the funny “ha ha” kind and not just the funny “hmmm” kind) in 888 Love, than I had originally intended. I think teenage Abe would be proud that I kept my poetic sensibilities throughout and found a way for my Kevin- Smith-comic-book-nerd side to coexist with the angsty, brooding Abe that still prefers to wear all black and dwell on Simic and Rilke.

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

I had the middle, and one of the most dramatic moments scribbled down in a notebook, 20 years ago. The ending, I had a sense of where and how I wanted it to take place. But the beginning, that was tough! I had tried many things (much is still in the book, but in different places). I credit my editor for encouraging me to keep it simple: introduce us to the two most important characters from the start and go from there. I wrote the prologue of the book in a single sitting – it just made sense to start the book with a journey, a change. For Young, it’s a moment where he realizes that things are shifting for him, he’s growing up and with that, the realization that sometimes the people you love the most, need to love themselves and do right for themselves – and this may mean hurting the ones they love. For Su Su, he finally can restart and take action again. Stalled and sputtering, he was lying in wait. As Young learns himself on his own trip later on in the book – the real healing starts when you force yourself to take that first step in a longer journey, in pushing through the ache of change, and leaning into the forward motion. The standing still is just terminal stagnancy – living means moving ahead, “putting the pedal to the metal, a restart, a new start -- and the literal start to the book.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

888 Love is a love letter to pop culture in all its forms: mainly in music, film, TV and all the things I grew up with in the 80s, 90s —when we still had a real sense of monoculture – where a good majority of the people you knew had the potential to be exposed to, have access to, and enjoy the same sort of things. All the things! There are references to other works of art throughout the entirety of the book: 888 Love starts with Don Henley and the Eagles and ends with a bit of a remix of Paul the Apostle and the New Testament. I wanted the book to feel big and small, long and short, and fluffy and epic. First love(s) and our formative years tend to be all-encompassing in that way. Pop culture is always chasing that type of feeling – whether it’s expressed on the screen, in song, verse, prose. Storytelling -- in all its liquid, gas, and solid forms -- has inspired me down to my atoms.
Visit Abraham Chang's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Julie Mae Cohen

Julie Mae Cohen is a UK-bestselling author of book club and romantic fiction, including the award-winning novel Together. Her work has been translated into 17 languages. She is vice president of the Romantic Novelists’ Association in the UK. Cohen grew up in western Maine and studied English at Brown University, Cambridge University, and the University of Reading, where she is now an associate lecturer in creative writing. She lives in Berkshire in the United Kingdom.

Cohen's new novel is Bad Men, her first thriller.

My Q&A with the author:

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

My novel, Bad Men, is about a female serial killer who kills bad men who hurt women—rapists, murderers, abusers. The title is slightly misleading and ironic in that the novel isn’t about the bad men; it’s about the protagonist, Saffy, who is by all normal moral standards quite a bad woman, as she has murdered a lot of people. The novel is meant to be funny and highly satirical, and one of the fun parts about writing the story was the inversion of ‘bad’ and ‘good’—with almost all of the ‘bad’ men going unpunished and even abetted by normal society, and almost all of the ‘good’ characters, including Saffy and her love interest, Jon, doing lots of things that are extremely morally questionable. Suffice it to say that the serial killers in this book, while not necessarily cuddly, would be fun to have a drink with.

Of course, there’s a serious intent behind this story, which is to highlight the epidemic of male violence against women. So in that aspect, the title isn’t ironic at all.

What's in a name?

My protagonist is named Saffy Huntley-Oliver. When the hero of the book, Jon, meets her, he thinks that ’Saffy’ is a combination of ’silly’ and ‘daffy’. Of course she’s a serial killer, so this is a misnomer, but she plays up to it—acting like the ditzy blonde on occasion in order to get away with literal murder. ’Saffy’ is a nickname—her real name is Seraphina, which is another major misnomer, because it means ‘angel’. She is sort of an avenging angel, though. I guess it depends on your ideas of angels.

Her last name, Huntley-Oliver, reflects her social class; she’s an heiress, from both old and new money. I wanted something that sounded aristocratic and wealthy. And there’s another glaringly obvious pun, using ‘Huntley’ for a hunter of predators.

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

I don’t think she would be surprised at all! As a teenager I loved serial killer books and movies—I think I have seen The Silence of the Lambs more than a dozen times. It is a comfort movie for me.

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

Beginnings are much more difficult for me. For one thing, you have to make yourself sit down in a chair and write them. Once you’ve got to the ending, you’ve already got momentum, but beginnings are a standing start. You’ve got the whole undiscovered mountain of a novel in front of you, and you’re at the bottom. Which is exciting, of course, but it is also daunting. However, from the moment I started writing Saffy, she was alive in my head. She’s the most enjoyable character I’ve ever written—probably because she’s the happiest—and everything about writing this novel was a pleasure, from start to finish.

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

If I said that I based my serial killer heroine on myself, I think I would be in trouble, so I am saying nothing. I have definitely only killed fictional people. (Some fictional people may be based on real ones.)

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The horrifying statistics about male violence against women. According to the World Economic Forum, six women are killed by men every hour around the world, mostly by their partners or members of their family. Bad Men is a funny book; but the issues it covers are very real.
Visit Julie Mae Cohen's website.

The Page 69 Test: Bad Men.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 3, 2024

Ishi Robinson

Ishi Robinson was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. A Canadian citizen, she has lived in Bern, Toronto, Rome, London and now lives in Berlin with her Czech husband. Her first published work was a short story in Jamaica’s national newspaper when she was eleven years old. At seventeen, she sent a letter to her father from Switzerland that he thought was so funny he sent it to the other national newspaper, which snagged her a weekly column on teenage life in Kingston. She also previously wrote a weekly column on life as an expat in Rome for a now defunct online magazine. Robinson got back into fiction writing in Berlin, from where she has published short stories in several online publications and one anthology. Sweetness in the Skin is her first novel.

My Q&A with the author:

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

There’s a lot of meaning behind the title: I’m telling the story of a young girl who is searching for family, identity and belonging; one who’s using her talent for baking to reach what seems to be an unreachable goal. As she tries to figure out who she is, she’s bucking up against the expectations her family have set for her, which are a direct result of the colorism and legacy of colonialism that exist in Jamaica still. So we’re talking about being comfortable in your own skin, about sweet foods, about which skin color is beautiful and more deserving than another – for me, that all culminates in Sweetness in the Skin.  

What's in a name?  

My two characters with the most unusual names are Pumkin and Boots. My mum calls me Pumkin, so that one was easy – even though this character is not me, there’s a lot of me in her, and she is loved, so the name seemed fitting. The character of Boots was inspired by my Uncle Shoes, a very close family friend. He was one of the loveliest, sweetest men ever. Everyone called him ‘Shoes’ since he was in high school…but no one remembers why.

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

Mildly? I don’t think she’d be surprised that I wrote a novel, but that the novel is so emotional. I typically wrote very lighthearted, humorous things – and also horror stories! So I surprised my adult self that this is what came out when I set out to write a book. 

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

The middle. The beginning comes pretty quickly to me, and pretty soon after I start writing, the end makes itself clear. It’s everything in between that’s a struggle.  

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

I see a lot of myself in some of these characters: in Pumkin, in her tenacity, her fear of rejection, not knowing if people will show up for her, feeling like she has to figure everything out on her own. And in Mandy for her sheer cluelessness about things that ‘every’ Jamaican is supposed to know or do.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?  

Music: I had a specific playlist of 90s Jamaican dance hall, peppered with some older Rockas (the Jamaican equivalent of R&B), that I would only listen to when writing this book. It helped transport me back to a specific time and place and elicited the emotions I was looking to convey.
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--Marshal Zeringue