By Leslie Lindsay
I am thrilled to have debut author Lori Rader-Day with us as we delve into academic life on the fictional campus of Rothbert University, a prestigious Chicago institution. Her first book, THE BLACK HOUR will debut July 8th and it’s fantastic poolside reading.
With work appearing in a variety of publications, including the anthology Dia de los Muertos, as well as several review journals and mystery magazines, Rader-Day is quickly on her path to a career as a mystery/thriller writer. Welcome, Lori!
L.L.: You write with such deft precision about college life. The smells, the colors, and the overall atmosphere of Dr. Amelia Emmet’s old college office building truly come to life in those opening pages as she lumbers up the stairs. Can you describe your research into the university life?
Lori Rader-Day: I’m not sure you can call it research—I work for a university. I’ve worked for three universities in my lifetime, and I borrowed things for lovely, fictional Rothbert from all of them. The building Amelia works in is loosely based on one of the older buildings on the campus of Northwestern, but the stairs—warped over time from generations of footsteps—I took from Roosevelt University, where I studied creative writing. When you’re writing a novel, you have plenty of space to pull in many layers of your own experience. Of course I make up a lot of stuff, too. I borrowed the lake from the campus where I work, but a lot of its other features are based entirely in fiction.
L.L.: Speaking of your own college experience, you started out studying journalism at Ball State and then switched gears and studied creative writing at Roosevelt University. In what ways did journalism prepare you for a writing career? What might you advise to others who are seeking a course of study in the written word?
Lori Rader-Day: In the same way that all my experiences get rolled up into what I’m writing, all my educational experience contributed to my style of writing. I think journalism is a tremendous proving ground for those who want to write fiction. In journalism you learn a lot about how to write in a way that’s clear and makes its point. And deadlines—don’t forget deadlines. Creative writing lets you get away from shoving the five Ws into the first paragraph. Those classes let you stretch a bit in your efforts to tell a different kind of story. But together, I think they’re good training. I wish I’d taken a few more English classes early on in college, but I’m not sad I wasn’t an English major. Both my journalism degrees contributed greatly to where I am in life and as a writer.
L.L.: You’re firmly planted in the heartland having grown up in Indiana and now residing in Chicagoland. What qualities do you believe a Midwest life brings to your work?
Lori Rader-Day: I sort of want to pull in some kind of John Mellencamp reference here, but I’ll restrain myself. I’ve never lived anywhere but the Midwest, so I’m strangely unqualified to see my work in any way other than Midwestern. Midwestern stories might get away with a certain slowed pacing—but not too slow. It’s still crime fiction. And Midwestern mysteries are probably helped out by that neighborliness that comes from being enclosed with a small group of people. My hometown has fewer than 400 people in it, and my family actually lived outside of town by four miles, surrounded by cornfields. Truly, I should have taken up horror writing. But Midwest life is just as broadly experienced as life anywhere else. I’ve lived in the deep country and now I live inside the boundaries of a huge urban city. Both spots are in the Midwest, but their stories are different.
L.L.: Can you explain a bit about your writing process and how you find time to do what you love?
Lori Rader-Day: My process is a little haphazard at the moment, but I wrote The Black Hour during lunch hours of my day-job, weekends, vacations. I wrote 10,000 words of it on a cruise ship. You find time when you can. I suspect that people with kids have a tougher time than I do finding time, but we all do what we have to do. I could watch a lot more TV. There are movies I want to see that I will probably never see. I don’t have any other hobbies anymore. Oh, and I read a lot less than I used to, which is the one part of all this I regret.
L.L.: THE BLACK HOUR is written in first person, multiple POVs, and focuses on an inexplicable crime in which the main character, Dr. Amelia Emmet, returns to work as a sociology professor after having been shot. It’s part whydunit, part psychological thriller, and part survivor guilt. Was this your initial intention with the book, or did it evolve, as most do, into something different altogether?
Lori Rader-Day: You’re giving me more credit for intention than I deserve. The only thing I had planned when I started writing The Black Hour was that the professor would arrive back to campus after a long recovery, having survived an attack by a student who didn’t survive his own bullet. I knew that the people she encountered would have a lot of questions and a lot of theories—that’s just how closed communities work—but other than that, no plan. This isn’t a great way to write a mystery, by the way, since the way I did it meant that everybody in the book knew exactly whodunit by the time chapter one started. But the story and the characters compelled me. When Nath, Amelia’s graduate assistant, showed up the first time, he was never meant to take over half the book. Some of the other parts of the book came with further drafts, more intentionally. I’ll take credit for that part. I’m a big fan of revision.
L.L.: Here’s a fun one: if you could compile a playlist for THE BLACK HOUR, what songs would you select?
Lori Rader-Day: This is easy, because I MADE A PLAYLIST. I love to write to music, but the music has to be right for the project. For The Black Hour, I listened a great deal to one single song, “Sail” by Awolnation, on repeat. Many of you will not believe me if you know the song, but the dark, foreboding tone of it helped me get the last half of the book right. I also listened to Dawes (especially “When My Time Comes”) and The Head and the Heart. For my next book, which has to do with the girls’ relationships, I’m leaning heavily on Katie Herzig’s “Lost and Found,” Elliott Smith’s “Miss Misery,” and Lorde’s “Team.”
L.L.: As a first-time author, what’s it like waiting for “your baby” to make its entrance into the world? (The pub date is July 8th, everyone!)
Lori Rader-Day: I’ve been working on “my baby” since early 2010. My baby should be getting ready for Kindergarten right now, but she’s still not yet out on the shelf. I’m an impatient person normally. Publishing has taught me a few things about waiting, using time, planning ahead, and waiting some more. I’m really looking forward to July 8. Then I can start waiting on something else. Two things have made this time much easier: writing friends and a new project. I would suggest to any writer to get at least one of each.
L.L.: As writers, we’re all on a different leg of the journey. In your experience, what are some of the best things a writer can do for him or herself?
Lori Rader-Day: Read a lot and write a lot. There’s probably a great quote on the topic I’m not quite remembering—Stephen King?—but there’s really no short cut. The only way to get a book written is to prioritize it over quite a bit of the rest of your life. It has to be important to you. Write the story that you’re passionate about writing, for whatever reason, and then spend the time. And then spend more time getting it as good as you can, even if you, like me, are terribly impatient.
L.L.: What are you currently obsessing over?
Lori Rader-Day: Getting the draft of my next novel finished before The Black Hour is published. Using all my vacation time to go to conferences and run book events. I’m also very concerned about what I should wear to all these events I have planned. I’m not a very fashionable person, and yet: cameras.
L.L.: Is there anything I haven’t asked that I should have?
Lori Rader-Day: You didn’t ask me what kind of tree I would be. I want to be General Sherman in Tulare County, California, the biggest tree in the world, or El Árbol del Tule in Oaxaca, Mexico, which has the widest trunk in the world. I mean, if you’re going to be a tree, be a big, bad-ass tree.
L.L.: Thank you, Lori! We look forward to a new voice in fiction!
Bio: Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery The Black Hour (Seventh Street Books, 2014). Born and raised in central Indiana, she now lives with her husband and dog in Chicago. Her fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Time Out Chicago, The Madison Review, and others. Best-selling author Jodi Picoult chose one of Lori’s short stories for the grand prize in Good Housekeeping’s first fiction contest. Lori is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers.