WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: As you know from my stalking tweets, messages, etc, I am a big fan. Before we get into your amazing new novel Miraculum, can you talk about your journey into writing before this book? What was it like working toward getting published?
Steph Post: It was just that: work. I sort of started at the bottom and just clawed my way up, teaching myself as I went along and learning from others. I had always wanted to ‘be a writer,’ but it took a conscious decision and commitment to take the first step, to write the first novel. That was about six years ago- I’ve written a novel a year ever since I made that promise to myself to give writing my all, not as a hobby, but as a career. I can be very determined when I want to be and once I made that promise, there was no going back. I started with a small book (A Tree Born Crooked) and a small publisher and have tried to grow as much as possible with each new book and stage of my publishing journey.
MT: Were you always a reader? Always a writer? What books, crime or otherwise, had the most influence on you during your formative years, and what books do you read now, as well as authors, and what authors and books do you turn to now if you get stuck or need inspiration?
SP: I’ve always been a reader. I’ve been devouring books since before I can remember. I think in many ways, I was always a writer, though I didn’t quite realize it until I was in my teens. I was always a storyteller—I created these complex dramas and worlds in my head—but in sixth grade my English teacher had us write a short story (I absolutely remember this, it had to be about a firecracker—that was the topic) and it was the first time I put two-and-two together and realized that everything I had been carrying around in my head could be put down on paper. That what I was doing with all my complicated daydreams and self-storytelling was actually the same thing authors were doing with all the books I loved. It sounds so silly now, but that firecracker story really was a bolt for me.
The only crime novel I read as a kid/teen was David Eddings’ High Hunt, which is definitely not a kid-appropriate book. I learned the most incredible curse words from that book, which I was smart enough not to share with anyone at the time. I can’t even count the amount of times I read High Hunt as a teen. It’s a pretty unknown novel, but I think anyone could read it and see its imprint on A Tree Born Crooked, Lightwood and Walk in the Fire. Other novels that clearly sparked something in me during those years are Michael Ondatje’s The English Patient and Sherri Reynolds’ The Rapture of Cannan. I think with all three books, they showed me how to push the boundaries of what was expected of a writer. Of how storytelling had to be grounded in authenticity to work, even at its most fantastical.
As for right now, I read everything. I wouldn’t say there’s anyone one author or group of authors I ever turn to, but I know that I glean inspiration from every book I read. Sometimes, it’s even negative inspiration, a lesson in what not to do. I’m a complete scavenger—picking up bits and pieces and storing them in my subconscious for another day.
MT: You write a book, you think This is great or maybe This is good or even more often for writers I wish I typed everything by typewriter or wrote by hand so I could burn every copy and forget this.What’s next for you as a writer? What is your rewriting, revising, and editing processes like?
SP: I’m currently in the beginning stages of my latest novel, so soon I’ll be diving under a rock and staying there for the next nine months or so. I am always working on a book, always at one stage or another, and there are very clear, defined cycles I go through. A lot of daydreaming to start, just letting ideas crash into another and spiral around one another to see what happens. This usually takes place during the back half of writing another novel. Then research, planning, some outlining, at least three drafts. I have a clear process that works best for me and though I’m always changing some things up— I’m always learning from what worked or didn’t in the previous novel—having this ‘schedule’ of sorts really helps to keep me going.
MT: You have a really strong background in noir, crime, mystery—whatever genre or subgenre you want to group yourself and your work in. What made you decide to take a leap toward Miraculum, a miraculous book that is both at times a stretch but also often similar to your previous writings. Can you talk about this change from one type of book to another? How did your agent, your editor(s), publicist, publishers feel about everything?
SP: I have a strong background in crime fiction, yes, but I always maintain that I’m an accidental crime writer. I actually wrote Miraculum after writing Lightwood, but before Lightwood was picked up by Polis Books. So, at the time of writing, I had no idea that I would ever be following the crime writer path with a Southern crime trilogy. I think the crime novels are closer to my reality, my upbringing, where I live, etc., and Miraculum is closer to my inner world, what I love and what most sparks my imagination. They’re two sides to me, but I’ve always been a walking dichotomy.
Fortunately, Jason Pinter at Polis Books was extremely supportive of publishing a novel that veers off the beaten path. Miraculum defies a lot of a lot of genre boxes and I think in general there was some worry, by everyone, of how Miraculum was going to ‘fit’ in the book world. Much like what I’ve done myself, I think Miraculum is carving out its own niche for itself.
MT: You’ve created an incredibly strong heroine in snake-charmer Ruby, a woman who works at a carnival—the book has, at first, a very Carnivalefeel, only you leave feeling more completed and fulfilled, and you have a badass heroine to top it all off. Can you talk about your influences for this book, how this character, Ruby, came into being, and how many drafts of this novel you wrote before you came to the copy we are reading and thoroughly enjoying today?
SP: I actually wrote a very early draft of this novel as my master’s thesis for UNCW in the Liberal Studies Program. Different characters, different storyline, different title and presmise but I was still writing a novel about a traveling carnival. HBO’s Carnivale was a huge influence on that book. I loved that show so much. It got under my skin and I carried around those splinters for years. Fast forward five or so years later, I began to work on Miraculum. I still wanted to write about a carnival, I just couldn’t seem to let it go. But I didn’t want to be influenced by that early work either. I’ve never gone back and read it, but it definitely was a starting point for me.
Once I set out to write Miraculum—the story we have now—that was it.
MT: There’s this magical element in Miraculumthat comes out stronger and stronger as the book progresses. In this area of sexism and misogyny, plus this disbelief in both female and male rape victims (sorry, I have to point out how crazy our country is right now with this whole Bohemian Rhapsodything), and I wonder what you think Ruby’s natural—and other—powers are?
SP: Aside from the supernatural elements that wrap around Ruby and her story, I think Ruby has a tremendous amount of innate power and the will and desire to use it, as well. One of the reasons I love Ruby so much is that, yes, she’s jaded and been through hell when we first meet her, but she has just a tremendous amount of willpower and self-worth. Despite all of the limitations in her world, caused by her appearance and past, she just keeps fighting. There’s also a rawness about her, and even a vulnerability, and her power comes from that as well. She refuses to take the kicks lying down, no matter how much it hurts, and I so love that about her.
MT: What was your favorite part about writing this book and your least favorite part? And, speaking honestly, if you had to rewrite or just cut a part of the book—or, the reverse, add a major part—would you do anything?
SP: My favorite part was definitely writing in Daniel’s voice. His monologues just came out like falling water and I loved being in his head for this writing periods. My least favorite was the frustration I experienced. I wanted to tell this amazing story, but I didn’t have all the tools when I started out. I had to teach myself about the importance of research and of planning, of building a complete, complex world for the characters to run around in. It was a learning curve, for sure, but an invaluable one.
And now? So, I’ve written two books since Miraculum and grown so much as a writer. If I had to go back and rewrite the book, the story would be the same, but I think it would be filled out a little more. The book I’m working on now is stylistically in the same vein as Miraculum, compared to me crime novels, and I’m taking everything I wished I had done in Miraculum and being sure to include it now.
MT: The book is both a mystery and a fantasy novel. But it’s a lot more than that, one of my favorite being a sort of feminist epic. How hard was it getting all of these different aspects of genre to work in the novel? Did this come naturally, or was it something you had to work at? What do you advise to writers of transgeneric fiction?
SP: Fortunately, when I was writing Miraculum, it was so early in my literary career that I wasn’t thinking about genre at all. It just wasn’t on my radar. I just had a story to tell and along the way I discovered the best way to tell it. I think that’s the very simple key right there: just tell (write) a good story, the one only you can tell, the way only you can tell it. Genre is something to worry about once the book is complete. I don’t think it works to think about it too hard beforehand.
MT: There’s also this element of horror. What are your favorite horror novels—and also, especially, horror movies—that influenced the book? Also, there seems (at least to me) to be a special naming to each character, something that corresponds with who they are, who they are supposed to be, and sadly for some who they could have been. I know Toni Morrison, for example, gives a lot of thought into the names of her characters. Do you do the same?
SP: Ok, so I’m actually a weenie when it comes to most horror films. I love some horror—the kind that carries with it a deep sense of mystery, for example—but I’m not into slasher films or torture porn, I don’t really like horror films that just give it all away to try to scare the viewer as much as possible. The best, and scariest, situations are the ones where so much is held back. It’s what you Don’t see that terrifies you. As far as influencing Miraculum, Bran Stoker’s Dracula was a big one, of course. Books and short stories by Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Robert Chambers. Even novels like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and the Ripley books by Patricia Highsmith. Anxiety-producing horror. As far as films go, King’s Rose Red (a underappreciated mini-series) and The Village are the first that come to mind.
And yes, most of the names in Miraculum, are well thought-out with special significances attached, even if they are only personal. Daniel’s last name, Revont, for example, relates to the Finnish word “revontolet” which refers to the Northern Lights, also called “fox fires.” Daniel is a trickster, a character type usually associated with foxes. Foxes are also my favorite animals and my spirit animal, so his name is a nod to me as well.
MT: Speaking of horror, what are the things that scare you most? And while we are talking fear, we live in a time where book to book, an author’s career can depend on any amount of success. There are authors who lose careers for having really horrible social media personalities. What is the scariest thing for you about putting a book out into the world for you?
SP: Hmmm… there are lots of things I don’t like (spiders, heights, crowds, large groups of small things, Wal-Mart, sponges, ok, I have some weird phobias….), but I’m not sure what scares me the most. That’s a great question. I think I would be truly terrified if I didn’t have a creative project to work on. I’m always at least one book ahead in my mind. If I had nothing, if I had to face that emptiness, that void, damn, that would scare the shit out of me. As far as fear with my books? It’s been a little nerve-wracking to put myself out there, just as an author personality. To engage with readers, to be open and let them in to my world. I’m actually a very private person—I love being alone—but it probably doesn’t seem like it from my constant Instagram posts.
MT: This book is, on some levels, a history, and a story of freaks—much like the iconic movie Freaks. How much research did you do into carnivals, and how they worked? Being a work, in part, of historic fiction, how did you approach research? Are you a big researcher for novels?
SP: For a novel like Miraculum, research is a huge part of the writing process. I do it in the beginning to build the bones of the world and then research throughout and at each drafting stage. I read a lot of books and watched documentaries, trying to learn as much as I could to back up the story I had to tell.
MT: There’s a love story here, too. In noir, and in any other genre you write, what importance do you put into love and romance? When you write, an examine a major part of someone’s life, and also possibly someone’s whole life, what do you feel you learn about love, heartbreak, moving on, and all the aspects of relationships?
SP: Oh wow, that last part is a pretty complex question. I like romance in novels, as long as its authentic and most especially if its complicated. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to force romance into a novel, though. I just have characters and, like most people, they love or have loved or want to love, and so it goes from there. And when you write these characters, when you live in their skin for months on end, I’d say you do learn from their experiences, from what you put them through. In some ways, having all these fictional points of view have helped me to try to see situations, of all kids, from myriad points of view. I think also, when you can see the scope of a characters life, even if you’re only writing a small slice of it, you begin to see the enormity of life in general. That so many different types of love can exist, on so many different levels, and there’s room and space for all of them.
MP: In crime, we often have the femme fatale and the disposable man, the man who can be killed off or conned. It seems that—not exactly, but in some ways—you have reversed the elements in this book. What were the main themes you wanted to establish, and what were the main messages you wanted to get across to your readers?
SP: One of the biggest themes running through Miraculum relates to this exactly: turning things upside down. Exploring the opposite of what is expected. This goes along with the topsy-turvy nature of carnivals and the history behind it, of fools and misrule, but it also relates to the characters in the book as well. Both Ruby and Daniel play around with personal gender roles and expression and with societies’ expectations of their gender. Most importantly, though, the characters are true to themselves, even though it might take us a while to see that side of Daniel. I hope that message comes through as well: the power in being yourself, in mining who you are and what you have to offer the world. We get that message a lot in children’s literature, but I think adults need it as well.
MT: Were there any other careers you ever considered prior to becoming a well-known writer? Most importantly, for the desperately struggling writers out there, what were the pit stops in your writing career? Where did you finally decide to buckle down and be a really great writer, and were there any other roadblocks in the way?
SP: Well, I always wanted to be a rockstar, but I can’t sing. I have no musical talent whatsoever, so that dream disappeared pretty quickly. I was and still am (to some degree) a high school teacher. I think new writers need to be aware that even well-known writers are people beyond their writing careers. They’re teachers and bartenders and firefighters and parents. They Work. And that work should be as honored and respected as the literary awards they may one day garner.
As for me, I’ve hit every roadblock along the way and, as I typical do, I just hit the gas and pretended I couldn’t see them. The path of becoming a successful author isn’t easy. I’m still very much on it. I’m just too damn stubborn to give up.
MT: In a way, it doesn’t seem like such a crazy transition to the different genres you’ve composed Miraculum of. Just like in this novel, crime—from its very heyday—seems to be composed of myth. The indestructible man. The femme fatale. There are so many different stereotypes that have lasted generations thanks to Chandler and his contemporaries. What stereotypes in your former writing, and in this novel, have you hoped to dismantle?
SP: I love mythology, if you can’t tell from Miraculum, and I love archetypes. But some stereotypes in current fiction just make my skin crawl. In some aspects of popular culture—fiction, film, television—we’ve devolved into stereotypes that to me just smack of laziness with the writing. The femme fatale, for example. This tough, sexy woman who is only tough and sexy in her interactions with the main male character. She’s a ballbuster, but then she’s tamed by the male lead and all is right with the world again. She’s just radical enough to be a fantasy object, but not complex enough to resemble a real woman in any way. That trope just pisses me off to end. (sorry to get up on my soapbox there). And there’s just as many bland, and damaging, stereotypical male characters. I don’t know that I want to dismantle anything, but I certainly want to knock down some walls and give us all some breathing room. Let characters be messy and complicated and not fit into neat, identifiable packages.
MT: Do you think you can come back to normal crime, noir, suspense, thriller, etc—anything in the crime genre or subgenre after this? How do you think your fans will respond? This was a spectacular book, and I know you can top it, but I am interested into what your next steps are.
SP: I’m already there. The last novel in the Judah Cannon Florida series will be out in 2020. I finished writing it last year. So I’m pretty confident in being able to flip around with genres. I’m not sure when I will going back to crime fiction now, though. The book I’m currently at work on is not a crime novel, but who knows what will happen after?
MT: We are really excited to hear about any and future works you are producing. I am so excited for you, at what feelslike the beginning of a bright and beautiful career. I can’t wish you anything but success in the future. Please feel free to leave any comments, thoughts, or other ponderings below. Know that I am so excited to turn what few of our readers don’t know about Miraculumonto the book, and I am so thankful you wrote it. Thank you for stopping by, and I really hope we get to talk again in the future!
SP: Thank you so much!! Readers are everything and readers like yourself, who take the time to really dig into a book, are absolute gems. I so appreciate all of your support. And, yes, please stay in touch!
Purchase Miraculum from Indiebound here: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781947993419
Here is a link to where you can buy signed copies of MIRACULUM:
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Liz! I wanted to talk to you about your newest novel, Don’t Wake Up, which I’m sure will be a smash hit everywhere. The plot features a doctor who may or may not have been raped at the beginning of the novel in this nail-biting, stomach-churning opening that really haunts the reader well after the book is over. What helped you come up with the book premise?
Liz Lawler: Hi Matthew, It’s lovely to talk to you!
You use nail-biting and stomach-churning as feelings felt and this is a good place to start as I remember feeling both those emotions many times in my years of nursing. Tense shoulders and dry-mouth was me during times where critical care was required, which in nursing is par for the course. I used to come home with my shoulders aching and it wasn’t from the physical challenges of the job, but the tension carried in the aftermath. It’s a constant pendulum of highs and lows – joy and sadness – when one patient gets better and the next, not. I think years of witnessing the vulnerability of both patient and relative as they combatted fear burned into my psyche, so possibly there begins the premise of this story. Emotional vulnerability.
MT: I read that you are a former nurse turned writer. What do you feel really prepared you for writing, and writing this specific book, by being a former nurse?
LL: Most definitely all of the above and add that together with snippets of remembered throwaway remarks or opinions from many voices. Not just medical colleagues opinion, but relatives also. Do you think she’s just looking for attention? There’s nothing wrong with him, he’s just lonely. She’s hypochondriac. He’s a drug addict, he just wants drugs. She’s got mental health problems – can we trust what she says? It’s all in his imagination!
I don’t think people are intentionally careless, though in some cases people are just downright cruel. Often comments are made though frustration or tiredness or not finding an answer, but if we give up on looking where then does it leave the person who is suffering? Isolated and alone.
MT: I myself am chronically ill and see a lot of nurses, all telling me they never try to judge their patients. I wonder how you felt about certain characters in your novel—there are a lot of characters who, while entirely compelling, aren’t the most attractive people. Megan Abbott has instructed me never to judge my characters—did you have a hard time doing this for the many people who choose not to believe your protagonist?
LL: So Matthew you have probably seen and experienced a lot of the medical world so I hope your nurses are lovely! I think Megan Abbott is right never to judge characters. Many of us hear about that doctor or nurse who is uncaring or has a miserable face all the time and I worked with a few of those, but oftentimes they are simply wearing a face or displaying a manner that the seriousness of their job has formed. I had a general practitioner once who never smiled, but her care was undeniably there. Characters that are unattractive are still people with real feelings that hurt and hurt back when they are in pain and you still have to care for them. I want to understand their frailties and weaknesses if only to know why they behave as they do.
MT: The book is masterfully written, and you are excellent at creating scenarios that make the reader struggle to pull away from the page, and you also have a true gift for suspense and making the reader turn the page. What are some tricks or ideas you use to do this?
LL: You do say some lovely things! Truthfully, I use my deepest imagination to walk in the shoes of each of my characters. I imagine their fear and hatred and when it gets too much for me I pull back and breathe. If someone were to video me while I’m writing I dread to think what expressions would cross my face. My old dog used to sit on my feet while I sat writing and sometimes, out of the blue, he’d give me a look and sit somewhere else.
MT: As I mentioned, you really have a talent for a lot of things, the greatest of which is creating a phenomenal book that the reader simply can’t put down. What do you feel were the most important books that helped shape you as a writer? What books do you still turn to, and which authors are your favorite in the crime genre?
LL: That’s a really hard question to answer as I’ve read too many books to know what subliminal influences have passed through from them. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was the first grownup book I read and I still have that copy on my bookcase. To read of an injustice so undeniably wrong opened my mind to what I was reading wasn’t just fiction. It was the telling of human nature at its worst. When I closed the last page I was left wishing for the world to be filled with people like Atticus Finch. So I still turn to him! But I love the thriller/crime genre and read all and everything by authors Thomas Harris, Jeffery Deaver and Martina Cole to name but a few.
MT: This idea of not believing a victim—rape, assault, etc—is incredibly important now, as we have sort of peaked with the #metoo area, examining both the positive and negative effects of the movement, and have also moved on to try and press for politicians to make changes so that victims of rape and any type of assault might be helped or seek justice. Why do you feel this book is especially important today and what do you think it can teach readers?
LL: When I was writing Don’t Wake Up I was only thinking and feeling about the story. When I initially wrote it, I shelved it for a few years, and what has been happening in recent times had not yet been spoken about. The Me Too Movement was still to come. But again it is a subject that sadly I have witnessed, along with wife beating, husband beating and child abuse. It has always been there. That is not new. I think if I wanted teach anything (and I’m not a teacher) it would be to point out there was moment in many of those character lives when they were treated in a bad way, or they’d behaved in a way they shouldn’t, then was the time to tell about it and stop the domino effect. By staying quiet and afraid or resentful and jealous or fearing being disbelieved chained and locked them in the life they were living.
MT: In writing, revising, rewriting, what are your habits and practices? Are you a morning, afternoon, or evening writer? How many words or pages do you decide to write a day? What advice do you give aspiring writers about their own methods of writing?
LL: I would have to say in this instance – don’t do what I do. I’m terrible, Matthew, and every week I come up with a plan to put in place good writing practices. But by the time I open my laptop, mostly around 7:00 a.m. the intention has gone out the window. I then tend to sit until bedtime writing. Not healthy at all. Do you know I’ve never actually checked how many words I write a day? I just looked at the word count and it’s up to 1,650. One thing I do every day is read back and edit what was written the day before.
MT: Toni Morrison is credited with saying that the most important book to write is the book you’ve always wanted to read and have never found. Do you think that Don’t Wake Upis this book, or do you have a few more books to come before you get to this particular book?
LL: Great words! I feel I have much to learn and if anything what I truly aspire to being is a better writer. My second book in the UK has just been released and so that nail-biting, stomach-churning time is with me now. Likewise with Don’t Wake Up now published in the United States. The question being – will it be liked? I’m presently writing my third novel which is fortunately keeping me sane!
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this book? Did you ever feel like giving up, and what kept you going?
LL: The more it became finished the more afraid I was to have it read. And I stayed afraid a good while.In fact I’d completely stopped writing. Then everything changed. I got a phone call one morning from my darling mum. She rang me to say there was a writing competition and I didn’t have long to enter as it was closing soon. I told her I was done with writing and she told me I was a fool. A week later she died suddenly at the age of 89 and she was buried on her 90thbirthday, just before Christmas. After the funeral I returned home and I remembered out last conversation. I remembered hearing the frustration in her voice that I had given up. I decided to check out the details of this competition and saw that the deadline for submissions was less than a week away. I entered a story I knew she liked. The story was Don’t Wake Up, my debut novel. My mum, the hardest working woman I’ve ever known, will always be my inspiration.
MT: What is your favorite part about reading and writing mysteries and thrillers? What has pulled you into the genre, and what do you think the genre’s greatest strength is? What is so important about writing crime novels today?
LL: I think being afraid while being safe is a thrill. Experiencing danger without being in danger thumps the heart in my chest. I think the strength in the thriller genre is that it takes you on a frightening journey and sees you safe the other side. While not a fan of horror (way too scared to watch or read) I’ve always loved the thriller genre, both in books and movies and some have struck a chord of real fear in me. My 18 year old daughter was about to set sail around the world in her new job and a few days before departure I suggested we have a movie night. I put on TAKEN!
MT: The book is largely about love and love that is lost. We see multiple characters lose their lovers, their partners, their husbands or wives, and I really do love when crime fiction involves romantic issues and features these issues in different ways. It seems that every character, positive or negative, has some sort of heartbreak. Why do you think it was essential to write about this?
LL: When I imagine these characters I see them as real people, living and breathing with hopes and dreams, disappointments and failures. They each have a story, a moment, a past that makes them who they are. I think real life is like that – broken hearts, broken dreams and sometimes loss. I am always in awe when I hear of tragedies people have overcome of how incredibly brave they are. And to end on a lighter note – I love a love story.
MT: Trust is a major issue in the book, and being betrayed by those you think you can trust happens often. What do you think is so important in the crime community and in books lately about trust, and why does the issue resonate so profoundly today?
LL: I find it really interesting that more and more books include ways of committing crimes using the internet, social media, mobile phones and technology gadgets. Who’d ever have thought one day there’d be the word: Fraped? It scares the hell out of me that I already know a dozen people to have had this done to them. Cybercrimes: hacking, stalking, identity theft, child pornography and scam after scam happening every day. Valuable tools in the wrong hands causing devastation. I think when crime fiction reminds us of these things happening we learn to trust less.
MT: Do you already have a work in progress, or plans for books in the future? Could you give our readers any clues or idea of what the future book or books might be about?
LL: Yes, my second novel has just been published in the UK. It’s called ‘I’ll Find You’, and that too is about loss, and how far one is driven to find or make safe someone they love. I’m presently working on book three and the setting is completely different. I’m putting my experiences of working on trains and planes to use for this one!
MT: I really want to thank you for taking the time to let our readers get to know you and be interviewed by Writers Tell All. Your book is phenomenal, and I hope all our readers get the chance to read a copy. Remember guys, pick up your copy of Don’t Wake Upas soon as you can, you won’t regret it. As for you, Liz, feel free to leave us with any closing comments or thoughts.
LL: Matthew, thank you so much for inviting me to answers your questions. Have to say they have been the most thought provoking and challenging to date! You’ve made me question my mind in so many different areas, think things I didn’t even know I had any thoughts on. It’s been a pleasure. Wishing you all the best and of course thank you to any new readers over the pond. Hope you like Don’t Wake Up. Liz X