WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Wanda, I am so excited to pick your brain about All Her Little Secrets. Can you tell me a little bit about this novel, how it came to be, and what your life and writing life has been like up to the publication of this novel? How did this novel come into existence, and what events and elements of your life have led up to this?
Wanda M. Morris: Hi Matthew! Thank you for having me. All Her Little Secrets is the story of a Black female lawyer who gets caught in the crosshairs of a group of unscrupulous executives following her rapid promotion to the executive after the death of her boss. Despite the body count, this book is really about family¾ the family we choose and the family that chooses us. This is the story of a woman who overcomes near insurmountable tragedy to forge a new life and protect the people she loves. Getting to this point has been an amazingly surreal experience. I’m glad people are getting to see a smart, sophisticated Black woman in the thriller genre.
MT: Names are important to many writers. I know Toni Morrison said she simply can’t write a character unless she knows the name, and they have to come to her almost immediately, with the conception of the character. Likewise, in your novel, names play an important role: there’s the name of the protagonist’s hometown (her real hometown), her own name (first and last) and white characters asking where she’s from, what her origins are, etc, and the names of others as well. What’s important to you when it comes to the names of people and places, and what role do you think the naming of things play in a novel both specifically to race, but also in other ways that may not be obvious to the reader?
WMM: I’m glad you asked that question because character names are very important to me. When I write books, I am very intentional about names. I want the reader to get a sense of who the character is by what they are called. Names can evoke a certain image or in the case of setting, a certain feeling. The town of Chillicothe sounds light and breezy and homey to me, a town was anything but for Ellice. Littlejohn was selected because I wanted to convey the irony of who Ellice is. She is not little in terms of her strength. And of course, like you mentioned, I wanted a name that was usual, and would elicit inquiry. With Ellice Littlejohn, I wanted her name to stand out, something uncommon so that she would be questioned about it. I think people like to categorize you by your name, find out your history and association. But because of the fractured nature of slavery in this country, a vast number of Blacks cannot trace their history back several generations as white people can do. Other names in the book like Willow and Lumpkin also evoke a certain image in my mind and hopefully in readers’ as well. Like Toni Morrison, I need to know the name of the character before I can fully flesh them out. Sometimes the names may change depending on how the character evolves over the course of writing the story.
MT: What books and other works have inspired you to write most, and this novel in particular? What novels and authors shaped you? What are some books you’d recommend to others, including those you feel don’t get enough attention and maybe should be more widely read?
WMM: Some of my favorite writers include Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. I love Attica Locke, Alafair Burke, Karin Slaughter, Gilly Macmillan, William Landay and Joe Ide. As for books I’m currently reading and recommending, I just started Alex Segura’s Secret Identity. It a really cool mystery that takes place in the world of comic book publication. It even has comic book graphics inside.
MT: What’s your writing process like? What’s writing been like in your life, and how do you find time to write? How long did it take you to write this wonderful novel?
WMM: I love talking about my journey to publication although it was not an easy one because I hope it inspires and encourages other writers. Someone recently asked me how long it took me from first draft to publication and it occurred to me that it has been 13 years (which is fitting because I’ve always considered 13 to be my lucky number!). I started a draft of this book and then put it away for 7 years because I convinced myself that nobody would want to read about a 40-ish Black woman who worked with awful people. I think people want an escape when they read a book and who would want to escape to the world I had created in this book?!
But 6 years ago, I had a health scare and I started to look at my life differently. I’ve always loved to write, so why not do what I loved to do. I pulled out the manuscript. When I read it again, I knew it was pretty bad, but that was okay. All first drafts are bad. I knew immediately I needed to improve my craft. I began reading about fiction writing and took night classes on creative writing. In 2015, I attended Thrillerfest, an annual conference of mystery and thriller writers held in New York City. There, I met so many authors, people whose work I read and admired and each of them was so accessible and generous with their wisdom and advice. I returned the following year and entered Thrillerfest’s Best First Sentence Contest – I was named one of the winners! It gave me confidence that I was on the right track, but I knew I needed some concentrated attention to my craft, so I applied to the Yale Writers Workshop using an excerpt of my manuscript and miracle upon miracles, I got in! Far and above, it was one of the best things to happen to my writing. I learned so much and met some really wonderful writers who helped me rethink and reshape my manuscript.
After the Yale Writers Workshop, I was ready to query agents. I did so with horrendous results. My queries either went into a black hole of which I didn’t hear a word back or I got a standard form letter thanking me but advising that the project was “not right” for them. I still felt deep down that I was on to something with this book, so I kept revising and polishing it. I queried some more. More rejections. But this time, some agents responded that they liked the premise but went on to give me specific comments about why the book wasn’t working for them. I took those comments and poured them back into my manuscript revisions.
While on my “Journey of Rejection,” I did a really smart thing – I built myself a community of support in other writers, some more advanced in the journey and some right where I was in the journey. I came to rely on their friendship, wisdom and insight. Rejection is hard and having people to support you along the way is hugely important. I joined groups like Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and Crime Writers of Color.
In 2018, I learned about Pitch Wars. Pitch Wars is an online mentoring program that pairs an unpublished writer with a published author for a three-month mentorship, at the end of which agents review the first page of the manuscript and may request to see the full manuscript. I worked hard during those three months with a lovely author named Wendy Heard. During the agent showcase, I got a large number of agents who requested to see the full manuscript. I knew for sure, this time, I would get signed with an agent. Again, more rejection! And while you would think I would have given up on this book, I didn’t. I had this mantra in my head that came from the lyrics of a gospel song by Kurt Carr. It says, “I almost gave up. I was right at the edge of a breakthrough but couldn’t see it.” I knew if I just stayed with this book, I would see a breakthrough.
In July 2019, I went back to where it all started – Thrillerfest. I participated in their pitch event and there, I met a lovely woman, Lori Galvin of Aevitas Creative Management, who became my agent. She is a fierce advocate for this book and my career. But above all, she is an absolute joy to work with. I tell my friends that I think this book was merely waiting for Lori to come along. After I signed with Lori, she gave me notes and I spent another nine months or so (the pandemic intervened and at one point I was not writing all!) working on more edits. We went on submission in July 2020 and 12 days later, we were in an auction! The book sold to the enormously talented Asante Simons at HarperCollins. Asante has been a godsend of an editor. She understood right away what I was trying to accomplish with this book. She has provided so much insight. Asante and my entire team at HarperCollins/William Morrow have been so supportive and generous. I am in very good hands.
As for my writing process, I tend to be a plotter. I need a loose outline of where the story is going. However, I never know how the story will end when I start, and I like that feeling of writing toward the unknown. I do have certain rituals too. I do all my first drafts in longhand with blue Pilot G-2 gel ink pens. I print out a hardcopy after I’m done and do all my revisions by hand, with a red Pilot G-2 gel ink pen. Crazy and old school I know but over the many years it took me to write this book, I tried all different ways of writing and this one works for me!
MT: What draws you to mystery novels, and why do you think they’re important to you as a reader and a writer? Do you feel they can accomplish some things more than others? Or execute something better? What’s most important to you when reading a mystery novel?
WMM: I’m drawn to mysteries because of the intellectual element of figuring out the puzzle in them. Whether it’s a thriller that hits the ground running and never lets up the pace or a slow-burner of a mystery that unfolds over the length of the book, I love them both. There’s something about the magic of trying to figure out what happens next and why characters behave in a certain way. I love writing in this genre for the same reasons. I want to explore why people do the things they do and what happens when they do. I also think analyzing this in the context of criminal behavior is a way to understand society and the people around us.
MT: Because I love them so much, I have to ask: what are your favorite courtroom novels?
WMM: My all-time favorite is Defending Jacob by William Landay. That book had me mesmerized. I have kids so I can empathize with a character who has a child that is hurt or in trouble. Of course, I love other courtroom novels like John Grisham’s The Firm and Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. Interestingly, All Her Little Secrets has elements of the legal system, but there are no courtroom scenes.
MT: How do you balance what I consider the great Southern novel (often character based, engrossed in this marvelous use of language, think Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina or Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland) and the fast-paced, adrenaline heavy thriller (especially like the novels of Karin Slaughter, although I may be stuck in the marvelously place-centric parts of your novel, wonderfully describing Atlanta)? How do you feel you approached the thriller in a unique way specific to your own voice as a writer?
WMM: I come from a background in corporate America so there are some passages in the book that come out of that experience. The interstitial chapters that deal with Ellice’s backstory gave me a way slow down and give the reader a moment to catch their breath in what was otherwise a fast-paced story. I don’t know if All Her Little Secrets is considered a great Southern novel, but it was important to me that this story occurred in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that this city was once the epicenter of the Confederacy’s military operations and also the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. To this day, you can still find landmarks and monuments of both eras standing throughout the city. Atlanta has a Black population of over 50% and there are still places called Dixie Hills and Plantation Drive as well as John Lewis Parkway. There are statues of Confederate soldiers right down the street from buildings like the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached. I thought the city of Atlanta, with all its dichotomies, would provide the perfect backdrop for a Black woman’s story of survival and perseverance in the “new South.”
MT: Writing the novel, like in many great stories, character and plot driven, you write in different timelines, bouncing back and forth with this really fantastic control of story and characters. What’s it like to write these different sections, to move back and forth between them, and do you think it’s harder or easier than writing a strictly linear novel?
WMM: Interestingly, it was easier for me to write in dual timelines. I struggled for years to find a way to explain why Ellice Littlejohn, the protagonist, would behave the way she does as an adult. It was only when I gave voice to the 14-year-old Ellice did the story really open up. The darker side of her character is borne out of Black female strength in the face of extreme adversity. Imagine you’re a young Black girl living in poverty, and you have a shot at getting out, but systems of oppression are working against you and threaten to take away that shot. How far would you go? And wouldn’t it be reasonable to believe that such adversity would stay with you for a very long time?
MT: What’s your relationship like with your characters? Is it important for you to strictly love them? Are there any characters you didn’t like at all in your novel? What makes a great antagonist?
WMM: Oh gosh, there are several characters in my book that I absolutely despise. But ugly, disgusting abominable beasts like them are necessary to the story. The stronger your antagonist, the stronger your protagonist needs to be.
MT: When you write a novel like All Her Little Secrets, with a great and strong punch of a social message and social commentary, what comes first—character, story, or do you have an idea, “This is what I want to write about?” Is it ever a combination of a bunch of things, and do you ever sacrifice aspects of one element to make room for another?
WMM: For me, it always starts with the character. I wanted to write about a strong Black female and what she endures. The social commentary was a natural outgrowth of that because living in America as a Black female is tough.Women in this society are stretched thin to be everything to everybody and Black women in particular, suffer the harshest rigors, whether it’s access to opportunity or economic parity with men. We are chastised for being too strong, called “the angry Black woman,” but conversely, we tend to be the most disrespected and maligned. Who wouldn’t be angry? There is a moment in the book, when Ellice returns to Chillicothe, and she looks around the town. She realizes who she is and what this town had made her, not an angry Black woman but a fighting Black woman yearning to be heard, respected, accepted and protected.
MT: What’s next for you? Are you working on a new novel? Can you tell us anything about a project you might be working on, and what we might be able to expect next from you?
WMM: I’m currently working on my next book about two Black sisters, embroiled in a white man's murder in 1964 in the Jim Crow south of Jackson, Mississippi. The sisters make a desperate run, one to the north and the other to a small town in Georgia. But their past is not far behind because a man with dark secrets of his own is in hot pursuit until all three lives converge in a deadly showdown.
MT: A quote often attributed to Toni Morrison includes the sentiment that you should always write the novel you’ve wanted to read but haven’t found yet. Do you feel All Her Little Secrets was this novel for you, or do you think that’s to come? If it’s to come, can you tell us what that novel might be like?
WMM: This is absolutely that book for me. I love the thriller genre. Look, I have an entire bookshelf of John Grisham and Joseph Finder’s books. I love their stories, but they weren’t my stories. I wanted to read stories about smart, sophisticated Black women who drove through speeding traffic or chased down bad guys in dark office towers. I wrote what I couldn’t find.
MT: Wanda, thank you so much for agreeing to let me interview you about All Her Little Secrets. I’m so thankful for you and this book, and it’s such a delightful, compelling read on so many levels. I really hope others will invest time, money, and the intellectual and emotional energy into reading this novel, and most of all be taken with it the way I was! I’m sure they will. Thank you so much again, and I’m so excited to see this novel make its way out into the world!
WMM: I enjoyed this! Thank you for having me.