A quick Q + A with a Medford, Oregon book club, ade up of a group of sweet, older readers that usually gathers to chat about the latest cozies but wanted to support a local author and her... chillier... title.
1. How do you “attack” a subject?
This question always makes me smile a little bit, because often times it is paired with a preamble that goes something like: you’re a mother of three… you seem so happy… how did you start writing about serial killers? Usually I laugh or shrug, then ask if anyone’s ever watched Dora the Explorer for eight hours a day for months on end… that “I’m the Map” song can be very inspirational for murderous thoughts.
But the simpler truth is that human nature can be terrifying. Yes, we are capable of so much good, but we are also capable of terrible atrocities, or of turning a blind eye toward literal atrocities so long as we benefit from them, or they make our lives more convenient. The subjects I write about – the worst subjects – they’ve all happened before, are probably happening right now. And maybe that’s the scariest, most unsettling thing of all. We are forced to square with the truth that people like Michael, etc., exist. Keeping that in mind, if I decide I am willing to “attack” a harder subject, I cannot allow myself to flinch in how I present it. To do so would be a minor disservice to the craft but, more importantly, a disservice to the people for whom this fictionalized horror was in some way a reality.
2. Where do you get your info?
The almighty Google is handy, and my internet search history has probably been flagged on every watch list on every level of government, but I try to ask people who have working knowledge and/or experience in the specific fields that I’m researching because the information can be explored in more depth, and follow-up questions can be asked. Google can’t tell you what something FEELS like, how it might come home with a person after a shift, how something that seems harmless might slip through a tiny system crack and become a Very Big Deal. People are still my best resource.
I am thankful that I have friends and contacts in many professional fields: teachers, a paralegal, paramedics, a retired police officer and now grows palm trees – which appears in an upcoming project. My husband is a doctor and a surgeon, so he’s who I go to for medical/hospital advice. For SILENCE ON COLD RIVER, I picked the brain of a dear friend who counsels teenagers working through severe childhood and adolescent trauma to make sure his behavior and evolution were authentic and within the boundaries of a true psychological disorder. It was important to me – with this subject being as difficult and volatile as it was – to present it in a genuine, organic way, and to steer clear of anything that could be considered added purely for baseless “shock factor.”
3. What writing process do you use?
I am too disorganized to write without any outline at all, and also too disorganized to write without any idea of where I’m headed. I call myself a forecaster: all I need to know about what’s coming next in the story is the next couple scenes. For this story, I knew how it opened. As I said, Michael’s opening scene in the courtroom was written in a single draft – his voice was crystal clear in my head. I knew a victim’s father would go into the woods looking for Ama and would unintentionally shoot her instead. And I knew the climax of the story would happen on a high place near a river. Other than that, I had no idea what was going to happen until I got there.
The ending changed four or five times. Then I realized that for what I’d be putting potential readers through, I should give them some real closure (in one draft, he’s never found. You’re welcome.) Since this is told by five points of view on two running timelines, I actually wrote each character’s stories one at a time. Once I had the scenes how I wanted them, I printed out the first page of each chapter, laid them out in my bedroom floor, and rearranged them over and over until the pieces fell in a way that felt smooth and natural.
4. Do you write every day?
I used to try to – and when I am on deadline, I have no choice but to get it done, but with three kids and a farm to run, devoting time to writing every day is hard. I deliberately took the summer off so I could just be a mom and not feel like I was falling behind on my work. I also hired a couple editors to evaluate two new projects that I have that were at a point where they needed outside eyes to evaluate the story structure for strengths and weaknesses before I move into the next stage of editing and polishing. I also made myself read as much as I could. It’s the best thing I’ve done, because now my kids are back in school, and I am so hungry to get to work.
I write while they’re at school, and sometimes I’ll work a little more at night after they’re in bed, but I am bad to fixate on a scene/project, and suddenly it’s 3AM. Then the next day can be a wash. So, I only pull all-nighters when I absolutely have to anymore.
This industry is really, really tough. During the recent antitrust trial for Penguin Random House and Simon&Schuester, it was revealed that out of the 58,000 trade titles published per year, about half of those sell fewer than twelve books. That was stunning to me. It also helped shift my priorities and my expectations. Agents can leave, editors can quit, publishers can drop your contract on a whim, or even close all together – and all of those have happened to me. But to my kids – to my family – I’m their mom, their glue, their cheerleader, their north star (at least for now,) and that job comes first.
5. Any fun facts / discussion points you'd like to share?
The original title for this story was: Rule of Three, but there was a book that did fairly well that had been published in the last few years called “Rule of Four,” and the publisher was worried they’d get mixed up or think we were trying to copy the title. Silence on Cold River was one of about ten options we were tossing around. It was chosen because there is a marketing advantage to a title that speaks directly to senses: “silence,” which has connotations for both fear AND peace, and also can make a person search for silence with their ears upon reading it, and “cold” because you will likely imagine deep, dark water. Water is another one that can have a spectrum of meaning. Some people find sanctuary or fun in water, and for others it feels very dangerous and deadly.
The story is considered a southern gothic, and in this genre, atmosphere is very important; experiencing the “rot” inside of a scene where you can taste/smell/hear what’s going on. Symmetry is also important – so you might find instances of circling back or “mirroring” scenes in the beginning and end of the book.
One thing I find interesting is WHY people are disturbed by this story. If you think about it, little violence happens “center stage.” It is often either in the peripheral, or the consequences of the violence are highlighted after the fact, and no murder is spelled out in vivid, gory detail. It’s all much more psychological. Some are interested in the villain’s point of view, and some are horrified by it. The funny thing is that I’m just as scared of a would-be killer as probably anyone else. In exploring the WHY behind who Michael is and what he becomes, I’m wrapping a weird security blanket around myself where I can hide from the truly random violence than can and does occur every single day, which I find so much more terrifying.