Frequently Asked Questions
You seem like such a nice Southern lady. Where do you come up with all the terrible things you write about?
First off, thank you! I’m delighted that people find me so genteel–my mother would be proud! I am southern, and I try to be nice, but what I am personally has little to do with the stories I tell. There’s an old chestnut that says, “write what you know.” If I wrote what I knew, it would bore the pants off everybody. So I write about what scares me–the awful things that ordinary people come up against any day. I live near the woods, so my fiction tends to the rural more than the urban. The snapped twig behind you on a hike, the strange cry at twilight that you can’t identify. Perhaps it harkens back to my enjoyment of campfire ghost stories when I was a girl, but that’s the fiction I like to write.
Are there scenes you won’t go to in fiction?
Sure. I never harm animals in my work, especially dogs or horses. Also, I write children very carefully. There’s kid-on-kid meanness and trouble that a child can get into, but that’s a part of life and is a legitimate subject in fiction. Still, as a mother and grandmother, I’m sensitive toward it. As for the bad guys, the villains always get what’s coming to them. That’s one of the joys of writing mysteries. They affirm that justice will prevail and good will triumph (mostly) in ways not guaranteed in real life. Love scenes are fun, but the trick is to leave a lot for the reader to imagine. Once you’ve engaged their imagination, then your work is really compelling!
How did you start writing?
When I was in the second grade, I wrote a one page story about my chihuahua and won a prize. My parents were so thrilled they bought me a typewriter for Christmas, which I still have (check it out on my editorial services page). I was an early reader and loved books, so I guess the writer tracks were laid down early in my little brain. English major in college. I’d hoped to go into journalism, but wound up writing ad copy for the Grand Ole Opry. Fast forward a few years and I had a chance to ghost write for Bonnie Bryant’s Saddle Club series. It was great fun and taught me a lot about plot and writing on deadline. After that I started writing my own novels, but without much success. Then I moved to the mountains of North Carolina and set my work in hills and hollers. Apparently, something clicked, because I came up with In the Forest of Harm and the rest, as they say, is history.
What’s your favorite book?
Too many favorites to list here, but if I were stranded on a desert island, I would take Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. It’s funny and exciting and sad and moving and everything wonderful fiction should be. It’s also a master class in point-of-view, for those of you who would like to write. I would probably also take a dictionary, the Bible and a Shakespeare. I’d be extremely well-read if I ever made it off the island!
Who do you read?
I’ve recently read Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety, Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead and Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia.
As mentioned above, I rarely miss a Kingsolver book, or Margaret Atwood. I read The Handmaid’s Tale years ago and am so glad it has become popular on TV. Gillian Flynn is a wonderful stylist; Julie Smith writes funny, scary mysteries. I’ve always thought Stephen King could tell a good tale, though I don’t much care for the monster aspect of his work (too many monsters in real life). The late Richard Wright and Toni Morrison did some amazing work. The writer who really got me cranked up when I was little was William O. Steele, who wrote about pioneers in the early years of our country. His words just sang, and really made a story come to life. I always thought if I could write that well, I’d be doing okay.
What books would you recommend for someone who wants to write? What advice would you give a wannabe writer?
Well, the cliché of READ is true. Read copiously what you want to write—be it mystery or historical fiction or literary fiction or Sci-Fi and fantasy. Get to know what’s been done before. At first everything will seem beyond your capabilities, but keep reading and someday you’ll go into the bookstore and flip through a book and think ‘Wow, I could write at least this well ‘ Then it’ll be time to sit down at your computer and get to work. There are a jillion books about writing, and many of them excellent. The ones I’ve found most helpful are books by Sol Stein and Lisa Cron. Also, the irreplaceable Elements of Style by Strunk and White. And a good dictionary (if you haven’t left it on the island)
As for other advice, as Woody Allen said, “eighty per cent of success is just showing up”. Writers write, and sitting down and writing will probably teach you more than any book. Yes, it’s hard, particularly when the weather is nice and there are soooo many other fun things you’d rather do, but that’s the price of admission the muse charges. It’s high, and it separates the sheep from the goats pretty fast.
When you’re stuck, what do you do?
I know this totally contradicts my above answer, but I turn off the computer and DO something physical. I play tennis or take my very bad dog on a walk or take myself on a walk. While I’m doing all this exercise, I do not consciously think about my work. I just let my wheels spin. If it’s a plot problem, the answer will usually just pop in my head. If it goes beyond that, then it’s a characterization problem, and I’ll realize that I need to go deeper into the character that’s holding me up. Listening to opera helps me, too. It’s so huge and beautiful and overblown, it kind of sets me free as a writer.
What’s a day like for you?
My writing day is mostly this: Up early, consume lots of coffee, get to work. Knock off early afternoon, have lunch, run errands and exercise. After supper I read or watch TV (writing late keeps me up too late). Rest and repeat. As I said earlier, my real life is, for the most part, blessedly uneventful.
What are you most proud of?
At the moment, I’m most proud of my latest book, The Cassandra Curse. It’s a bit autobiographical, in that I grew up in an extended family and my mother was a portrait painter. Also, it was fun to leave the Appalachians and write about New York and Charleston, two very different cities that I love.
But beyond that, two comments from readers have always stuck in my mind. One was from a woman who, while going through a difficult divorce, read one of my books over a weekend. She wrote and thanked me for giving her a two-day escape from her own troubles. Another woman wrote me and said her teenage daughter had basically been a non-reader, until she read my In The Forest of Harm. She finished the book, loved it, and started reading everything she could get her hands on. Those two letters just blew me away. If I have, in some small way, given someone a respite from their troubles or opened the world of words to a young person, then all the countless hours, days and years I have spent at my typewriter have not gone to waste.
What happened to Mary Crow?
At the end of my eighth Mary Crow novel, Mary finally arrived at a good place in her life. Her romance issues had resolved and she left her beloved Appalachians with new horizons and opportunities to explore. I took a cue from my own heroine, and did the same thing. I wanted to write a novel set outside the mountains, so I chose Charleston, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York, two cities I love and visit often. I wanted a different heroine—someone not professionally connected to crime or criminals. So I chose a Southerner (like me), a portrait
painter (like my mom). Like Augusta, I have a deep love for all things Scottish; unlike Augusta I do not have a twin brother. From a technical standpoint, I wanted to try a first-person narration in this novel. The reviews are good; I guess I pulled it off.
Will Mary Crow come back?
Never say never, as they say. I’d like to write one more novel to resolve some lingering questions about Augusta. But I’m certainly not averse to bringing Mary back. A lot of people love her, and I appreciate it!