WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Lori! I know I’ve been meaning to conduct an interview with you over some period of time, and I’m so glad we finally have the chance now. In Under a Dark Sky, you summon a novel reminiscent of recent hits like Tana French’s The Likenessand Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Woood. What books and authors hold the strongest influences over your writing? What books do you turn to again and again?
Lori Rader-Day: I love Tana French, as a matter of fact. I’m woefully behind on reading Ruth Ware, but I have been stockpiling her books. The books I turn to again and again are few, actually (see the part about stockpiling books I have not yet had time to read). Pride and Prejudiceby Jane Austen, To Kill a Mockingbirdby Harper Lee, The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx, We Have Always Lived in the Castleby Shirley Jackson, and The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett are the only books I can think of that I know I’ve re-read multiple times as an adult. (As a kid, I re-read all the time, and kid books are good for that activity. I’ve re-read some of my kid favorites recently.) But there are books I wantto re-read, which is a very high compliment, I think. If I keep the book around so I will have it always, that means true book love. In this category are books by Agatha Christie, Rebecca du Maurier, William Gay, Josephine Tey, and among my many favorite living authors, Gillian Flynn, Caleb Carr, Ben H. Winters, Sara Gran, Terence Faherty, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, and Catriona McPherson.
MT: This book is incredibly complex, and I want to avoid giving away spoilers as much as possible. From the very beginning, it feels like a mystery unraveling, and does so in the best way—the revealing of a killer or killers, and the developing of a realization from the protagonist’s point-of-view, a realization that cannot be turned from or shunned away. How much did you know about the ending when beginning the novel? What is your writing process like?
LR-D: My process is, in a word, haphazard. I don’t usually know much about the story when I start writing, usually only two or three points on the map. I figure things out as I go on the first draft, going back to the beginning sometimes, if I lose my way, and relying on revision when I have a first draft. It’s not the most efficient way to write a book, but I’m OK if the thing people can’t say about my books is that they are “efficient.” Not really a goal of mine. I didn’t know the ending when I started this book. I had a lot of suspects in Under a Dark Sky, a little exercise I gave myself, to have an Agatha Christie-amount of suspects. I let the characters tell me who they were, what they worried about, and what they were hiding. The thing is, I think if I started out designing what ever character was and wanted and hid, I don’t know that I would have liked the results as much. Yeah, the process is painful at times. I live through it.
MT: I find it hard to juggle books I’m writing with many suspects, yet you do so effortlessly. How do you manage to develop each character—suspect or not—and his or her personality? Similarly, how do you flesh out and develop a character who is perfect for this plot, and develop a personality for that person (in this case, a woman) that will fit well with the mystery that’s unfolding?
LR-D: If it seems effortless, that’s great. A great deal of effort was extended! I gave myself so many characters to keep track of that I had to, you know, break out a spreadsheet, a la JK Rowling. The answer to both your questions is that when you’re the author, you have to set out who the story needs, or if you’re starting from the character, what the character needs to go through, plot-wise, to learn what it is she will learn. I write standalones, so I have the flexibility with each book to build the story around the character. As I learn things about the character or as actions occur, I have the chance to make the character, the setting, the plot all work together. I suspect with series books that the constraints are a bit tighter, since the character needs to remain the same.
MT: Who is your dream audience? Other than writing for yourself—that old saying about “write the book you want to read”—most frequently, what audience do you find yourself targeting?
LR-D: Middle-aged lady readers just like myself. Luckily, that’s who reads. Some of my characters are younger than I am, though. Eden Wallace from Under a Dark Skyis a young widow at 34. That seems like a good age for a freak out about who you are and what will become of you. The key is that I write for women. I’m happy when I hear that a man liked one of my books, too. That’s great news for me and for publishing, generally. But I wrote the book for his mom, wife, and daughter.
MT: This book really hit home for me in myriad ways I won’t go into, but I will note how personal this novel seems for so many people, as there are multiple topics the novel investigates that deal with a lot of everyday issues readers may find themselves dealing with. Were any of the issues very personal to you?
LR-D: Each of my books eventually dips into something you might consider autobiographical or personal. Under a Dark Skyfeatures a young widow. In writing this character, I was writing about the thing that scares me most. (Except caves and tunnels. I can’t write about caves and tunnels.) I have never been a military spouse, however. I have never dealt directly with some of the things Eden has had to deal with. I started the book based on the location and the thing that scared me—losing my husband—and everything else I learned as I wrote. I’m glad it resonates for you.
MT: How much are you concerned with constructing a likable female protagonist? I know as years has gone by, especially with the emergence of literary superstars like yourself—Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott, etc—there has been a trend of if not opposing goody-good female protagonists, then at the very least exploring the female antihero. Do you feel this plays into Under a Dark Sky?
LR-D: I’ve written the gamut from fairly likable (Juliet in Little Pretty Things) to grumpy-and-has-every-right-to-be (Amelia in The Black Hour) to really damaged but trying (Anna in The Day I Died). I don’t like writing anti-hero for the sake of anti-hero anymore than I like writing likable for the sake of likable. What I like (and what I think Gillian Flynn has said, in other words) is to be able to write a woman character who gets to be whatever it is she needs to be: real, messy, dishonest, troubled, troubling, trouble. Those are interesting characters to write and to read, and there’s no reason in the world that the characters who get to act out have to be all men. Women are messed up, too. I have proof. Eden Wallace is fairly likable. She feels wronged and abandoned and so she’s justifiably a little rough. She’s trying to get over herself when she goes to the dark sky park on the reservation her husband made before his death; there are just too many people in the guest house once she gets there.
MT: What is your favorite part about writing a book? What is your least favorite part about writing a book? What do you find are your strengths, and what do you acknowledge as your weaknesses when it comes to writing?
LR-D: The beginning is the best. There’s so much possibility and freedom in beginning something. The middle is the worst, when you’re not quite sure yet that everything you need is in place. The idea store is definitely open for business at this point; I’m open to divine inspiration. The ending, once I know what it is, isn’t hard to write. But it’s knowing what the story’s end game is that is the key. My strengths, hmm. I think I do readable pretty well. Like, on a sentence-level, things go pretty well. My weakness is information revealing. I always struggle with how to reveal the mystery.
MT: There are so many prevalent and relevant issues in this book facing Americans today. Did you approach this novel first as a story, or with the idea of addressing certain issues in mind, or both? And do, if you can, avoid spoilers! No need in ruining the book for eager readers!
LR-D: I approached this story from the perspective of: I want to set a mystery novel in a dark sky park, where the artificial light has been controlled so that people come to see the night sky the way nature intended. That’s it. Location. And then I thought I might like to write about a widow, because I could feel that. I write characters who deal with Issues, but I would probably never start from a manifesto of any kind. That would probably feel forced to me. I’m sure other people have done it successfully. This is just how I work. I have to build into the process the things that keep me writing, and exploration is what keeps me writing.
MT: What advice do you suggest for young or new writers? People working toward getting their own work published? Can you rehash, for the sake of readers of this blog, how you came to become the successful writer today, and any of the struggles or major hurdles you faced?
LR-D: My best advice for writers starting out is to find your people. Join the writing associations for what you write (Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America for mystery) and get involved. Volunteer to help out: run an event or a committee or offer to write an article for the newsletter. You meet people by showing up and offering to help out, and when you meet people, you start to see how becoming a writer works. You also get the living inspiration you need to keep going when the going gets tough. The going always gets tough.
I wrote from a young age but didn’t take writing very seriously until about age 33, when I applied for a master of fine arts program in creative writing and started taking classes. You don’t have to do this to be successful, but I got a lot from the experience: deadlines, a community, feedback, the ability to give feedback to other writers (which is more valuable in some ways than the feedback you get on your own work). I started by writing short stories and publishing some in literary magazines. I won a few contests with the stories, and then one of the stories got long. Turns out, that was a novel. I didn’t know how to write a novel—an MFA program is better set up for short stories, in a way. But I wrote it anyway. It was a hot mess. I didn’t send it out to agents or anything. I just put it away after about two years of revisions and started writing something new. The new thing was The Black Hour, which got me my agent and my first contract.
The whole thing took not that long and also forever. I just needed to be serious about sitting down and writing and getting a draft first, before I learned the business stuff. I would advise writers just getting started to stop worrying about an agent for a minute and write the book. I believe I told you that quite a few times. Insert smiley face emoji here.
MT: On more than one occasion, the fabulous Megan Abbott has given me the advice to never judge my own characters. Do you ever find yourself—whether you want to or not—judging the characters in your book, even if they are of your own creation? If so, and if you’re opposed to doing so, how do you create a distance between yourself and the characters in an effort to write more effectively?
LR-D: That’s good advice. Wish I’d thought of it. I don’t create distance, though, in order to keep from judging. I go deep. I want to understand the character’s choices and I want the reader to understand those choices. I can only do that by slipping into that life and finding the internal motivations for her actions. The motivations aren’t going to be mine, but they have to make sense for her.
MT: What do you feel is the importance of crime fiction especially in this day and age, what with politics and things going on in the world? What do you feel that crime fiction can reveal or change about the world?
LR-D: I usually answer questions like this by talking about how crime novels are the new social novels, like Dickens wrote. I have to tell you, though, that lately I am having a hard time seeing it. There’s a lot going on in the world that I can’t fix, even if I use it in a book. I’m torn between knowing that books are more than weapons, that they are also soft places we can fall, and wanting to know that someone, somewhere is capable of writing a novel that will fix it all. When that novel is written, it’s going to be a crime novel, because what’s happening right now is wall-to-wall crime.
MT: When creating protagonists, like the photographer in Under a Dark Sky, or the handwriting specialist in The Day I Died, how much research do you go into when learning about their specialties? How much do you leave up to basic knowledge?
LR-D: I do some research about things like that, sometimes early on and sometimes later, when I realize what I don’t know. I read a book about handwriting to write The Day I Died; that’s where the story started for me. For Under a Dark Sky, I researched the dark sky park as best I could up front and over time realized that Eden was a photographer, and so then did a little reading up on that. Luckily I have worked with photographers most of my professional career, so I didn’t have to dig too deeply. How much is stuff I know and how much is stuff I have to learn really depends on the book. I wrote Little Pretty Thingswithout doing too much research but then realized I didn’t know if I had portrayed high school track teams correctly, so I had a friend who had been a high school runner read it for me. Some research is hard to do up front because you don’t yet know what you need to know. And some research feeds the story; it absolutely guides the story, so it has to be done early. But good luck figuring out which is which. Nobody knows.
MT: Before publishing your first book, how many other books or drafts or stories had you written which have never seen the light of day? I know some authors get lucky and publish the very first book they write, whereas other authors struggle for years! Can you give us any insight into this part of the process?
LR-D: I had a “drawer novel” stuffed away from before my first published book came out. After I sent the manuscript for Little Pretty Things, my second novel, to my editor, I opened the drawer and took out that manuscript to see if I could finally make it the novel I wanted it to be. After heavy revision, that book became The Day I Died, and was published in 2017. That was my only drawer novel. I have drawer short stories, but that’s hardly worth mentioning. Some of those stories might be worked on and published at some point, and some of them will never be published. I’m OK with that. I would have been OK with the novel staying in the drawer, too, if that’s where it needed to be. But after six years or so away from the failed first manuscript, I could see pretty clearly where the problems are. When I was hacking away at that book years and years ago, I was too close to it. It needed to be put on ice for a few years, the only thing that saved it. The best revision tool is time away from the manuscript. There’s nothing like it for being able to see what you have clearly.
MT: Lastly, I want to say thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Lori. It was such a pleasure to read your newest book and I have no doubt your fans and new readers will be thrilled by your writing and find the time spent between the publication of your last book and Under a Dark Skywell worth the wait. Let me know if you have any concluding thoughts, ideas, remarks, or commentary in general! Thank you again.
LR-D: Thanks so much for the interview, Matthew. I’m so glad you liked Under a Dark Sky!