What kind of research do you do for a book, and how much do you research before you start writing?
I research all the sex myself. The rest–it depends on what the story needs. For PIECES OF HER, there wasn’t a hell of a lot of questions for the experts. After doing this for a long time, I have a lot of knowledge of things the police do, or how investigations work, or clues or things like that that are in my head just from working on previous novels and talking to cops and forensics folks and that sort of thing. With the GOOD DAUGHTER, that opening—I talked to Georgian Bureau Investigation Agents who were on scene at school shootings. Even though it wasn’t told from a cop’s point of view, I wanted to know what the cops were thinking and how they would respond. I actually watched a GBI drill with all the agents from the state, where they took over an abandoned school and simulated an active shooter incident. Each agent had to go through and find the bad guy. Having witnessed the drills, I was pretty conversant with what the situation felt like, but there’s always stuff that surprise me that people who are on the other side of law enforcement never think about, like the fact that—I talk about this in the GOOD DAUGHTER—everybody shows up. They could be ATF, they could be training canines for the DEA, they all show up. They’re all there to help. And no one says where’s the jurisdiction, where’s the money coming from, or whatever. It’s just “tell us what to do” when a large scale tragedy happens. I love writing about those “inside baseball” sorts of details. With PIECES OF HER, I talk about how even if you’re in Witness Protection, you can still go to prison. And just from a practical standpoint, Andy’s driving was something that I had to be very careful about. Andy’s navigating of half the country difficult for me because I suck at directions. I’m the kind of person who’s told to get on a train—I was in Rotterdam, told to get on a train to Antwerp, and I ended up in Germany. So, I’m not very good with directions at all. I just had to knuckle down with all that, and think about how many days it would take and what it would feel like. Because I’ve been on trips like that (someone else was navigating), and I wanted to describe the sensations in a way that made sense. I was also mindful of my European readers, and how compact some of the countries are as compared to America. Taking a detail, like you could put all of England in Lake Michigan and it wouldn’t touch the sides, that kind of puts it in scale for people. But just the grueling hours and hours of being trapping in a car, and what that would look like on the interstate, I know intimately from long road trips. I wanted to capture that with Andy.
How do you select the names of your characters?
I like to look at names on my Facebook page. Queller, actually…. I watch Super Girl, and one of the producers on that show, her last name is Queller, and I was like, oh that’s a good name. The thing about names is, I really have to think about them, because if it’s an unusual name, or if it’s a memorable name, that’s generally my way of telling the reader, “Pay attention to this character.” Like, Queller is an interesting name, so I think that goes with the character and the family I’m talking about. Oliver’s not an unusual name. I’m very deliberate with that, and I feel like it’s important visually and mentally to help keep the reader anchored in the story. If everyone was named Smith or Jones, it would be really hard to follow. But I just got a query from my Danish translator, because Mike’s fake yard service is Knepper’s Knippers, and Knepper in Danish is a really nasty word (fucker). So we had to change it just for the Danish.
Who do you consider your literary heroes? Why?
Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee. I have great respect for some contemporary non-southern writers. Lee Child is pretty amazing. He’s basically writing the same story—Reacher shows up in some strange place, kicks butt, makes things right–but each time it’s interesting. Each time he manages to say something new. There’s a formula, and sometimes people mean that in a negative way, but Lee knows what he’s doing, and to be able to consistently deliver a good story is laudible.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
There’s a book I read when I was a kid, it’s science fiction, called the Forever Formula. It’s about being able to transfer consciousness of older people into younger people. Like, an invasion of the body snatchers sort of thing. This was not a particularly clever or exciting story, but, if you read sci-fi when you’re a kid, it opens you up to all kinds of reading when you’re an adult. And I think every story, whether it’s A Tale of Two Cities or Gone With the Wind or Beowulf, there’s some element of fantasy. You’re making stuff up. Even if you’re writing about something real like Atlanta, my Atlanta is going to be very different than someone else’s. We bring our experiences and our imagination to the work. On the surface I’m writing about the same thing Michael Connelly writes. I’m writing about murder and cops, and ordinary people in horrible situations. But it’s our experience and our attention to what details we point out that make the story uniquely ours. So I think reading something like the Forever Formula—and to my memory that was my first time reading science fiction—I had no idea what genre I was reading but I loved it. I just picked it up because the cover had a brain on it. And I’m sure if I read it now I might think, God I was really stupid to love this book. But it did have a big influence on me, because it opened my mind to possibilities. But also, at an older age, Flannery O’Connor really changed my life. I grew up in a town where I was constantly being told to be more lady-like, to not horse around, to not let guys know if I was smarter than them. You know, to sit with my knees together and my back straight. The stories I was interested in weren’t stories a young lady should be interested in. And then I read Flannery O’Connor, and learned about her life as a writer, and how renowned and celebrated she was around the world for writing about these things, and I thought, “You lying F***rs!” She grew up in a small Southern town, and she’s writing about murderers and crime, and she’s being rewarded for it!
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
The biggest stress you have when you’re not published is that you’re not published. By my second book, I knew they were going to publish at least two. So that particular stress was taken off. But also, my first book was very successful—I was really fortunate—and there was a lot of unanticipated stress that came with success. I remember at the time a friend of mine gave me this interview with Dorothy Allison. She said the worst thing that can happen to a writer is to get published. And I think what she meant was, you realize it’s a business, and not many people want to accept that. They want to be zillionaires, but they think that once they write the book, it’s solely the publisher’s job to make the book successful. It’s never been that way in the history of publishing. I mean, Dickens toured. He performed his work for crowds. So did Poe. So did most every author you still read today. I think that to be successful is a great thing but it presents new challenges. For me, I was very lucky, because my publisher, Morrow, was bought by HarperCollins, and I’d written my first book, but they postponed my publication. So, I started to write my second book before the first book was out there. And that was a great gift, because I didn’t have that added stress. I mean I still had to work on the second book and edit it and all that stuff, but I had more confidence because I still felt like I was in that unpublished cave. Confidence is a tricky and elusive thing, but with writing, the more you write, the more confidence you feel about certain elements. With PIECES OF HER, there’s a sense of confidence that comes from writing so many books—”I know how to do this, I know how the story and plottng should work, I am confident in the structure so I can take risk in the narrative.” And also unfortunately I’m getting older. A woman in her thirties looks at life differently than a woman who’s not in her thirties anymore. I remember, with my third book, I did an event at the Washington Post with Mary Higgins Clark, and there were three people in my line to get their books sign, and two were there because they thought it was the bathroom, and Mary had 600 people in her line. She was so sweet, she bought one of my books. I was leaving after ten minutes, totally humiliated, and Mary pulled out her Prada bag and her wallet and said, “Let me buy one of your books!” She has always been such a kind, supportive lady. I remember once I saw all of her books stacked up, and I said, “Wow, one day I hope I can write half as many.” And Mary said, “There’s a down side. You have to get older to do it.” And now I get what she meant, and it sucks.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
My bladder. But also, I guess it’s good because it makes me get up after sitting for so long. I’m pretty focused when I write. I really need time to think about plot and character or I’m not a very efficient writer. Normally I write very quickly, because I give a lot of thought to what I’m going to write, so by the time I sit down it’s really plotted out, and I feel very sure about where I’m going and what I want to do. And when I don’t have that sense of surety, then I can overwrite or make it boring, or it just doesn’t work, and I have to do it all over again because I’m not going to turn in crap. So not taking time is the kryptonite.
What does literary success look like to you?
To me, it means I get to write the stories I want to write. I’ve never been censored, my editor Kate Elton has always trusted me and believed in what I was doing. I think sometimes editors might publish a book they’re not actually excited about, and Kate is always excited about all kinds of books, whether it’s rereading Daphne du Maurier, or reading my stuff, or Eleanor Oliphant, or whatever. She loves popular fiction. And I think sometimes people don’t embrace what’s popular because they want people to think they’re smart so they say, “I only read Proust and listen to NPR,” which is bullshit because your brain would shrivel if that’s all you did. So success to me is basically, I get the write exactly what I want to write, and that’s given me the confidence to write things like PIECES OF HER, because it’s a little different, but I’ve always known that my publishers will support my choices. Not all writers can say that.