Wednesdays with Writers: Stunning Psychological Debut from Roz Nay OUR LITTLE SECRET

By Leslie Lindsay 

Stunning Psychological Debut from Roz Nay about first loves, mother-daughter relationships, a disturbing twist and so much more in OUR LITTLE SECRET; oh and her TV obsessions, literary influences, those delicious almonds, and so much more.

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Stunning voice-driven psychological thriller explores first love and the dark recesses of a twenty-something’s mind. 

High School. Oh, how we loathe to love. Or love to loath. It’s often a time complicated with first love, self-discovery, and parental angst. That’s where OUR LITTLE SECRET starts–with Angela Petitjean, a girl living with her high-achieving academic parents and feeling like she’s not really fitting in. Plus, her mother is a little overbearing and a little too enmeshed in her daughter’s life. 

But back up a bit and the story actually begins in a start interview room at a police station. The officer keeps asking Angela questions about a missing woman, whom she claims to have no knowledge of. What she ‘forgets’ to tell us is that missing woman is the wife of her first love, HP. 

Angela promises the officer she will tell him everything she knows if she is able to ‘go back to the beginning.’ He agrees, somewhat reluctantly, to hear her story. OUR LITTLE SECRET is one of those books where the backstory *becomes* the story; it’s a bit like a frame story in which the beginning and the end are tied together by a character looking back. In OUR LITTLE SECRET, we get breaks in which we are in the present/interview room with Angela and the detective, which were probably my favorite pieces. 

I was completely intrigued with the mental games and present relationship between Angela and her mother. Keep a close eye on who you trust, on who you think the ‘our’ is in the title.

That said, there’s much to love about OUR LITTLE SECRET. It’s twisty, it’s dark, it’s winding and just plain evil at times. I found a handful of really fabulous lines and astute, poetic observations and psychological foreplay that left me a bit bewildered. 

I promise, OUR LITTLE SECRET is a dark, psychological thriller that will have you guessing till the very end. It’s not to be missed.

Please join me in welcoming Roz Nay to the blog couch:

Leslie Lindsay: Roz, congratulations on such a gripping debut. I’m always, always intrigued by what was haunting writers when they start out on a particular title. What was it for you?

Roz Nay: Thanks for hosting me! OUR LITTLE SECRET actually began as a homework assignment in a writing class my husband signed me up for because he wanted me to have a hobby. That’s quite funny now. Once the class was done, I couldn’t let go of Angela’s voice so I wrote the book in amongst the chaos of raising two children under five. It came at me in the snippets of time I could grab. I’d given up teaching high school in order to parent, and I missed the kids I used to teach and that sense of potential that hums around teenagers. I wanted to write a lonely story in the voice of woman who feels wronged, and who’s ended up not meeting any of her potential. In terms of being haunted by that, I think it’s ongoing: I’m always interested in the tragedies people bury, the losses they carry, or the lies they tell themselves and others. These might be themes that creep into every book I write because to me they just feel human and relatable.

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L.L.: There’s a lot of psychological tension throughout OUR LITTLE SECRET—and that’s a good thing! Did this come easy for you, or did you have to dig deep to bring that to the forefront? Did you do any research, for example, about first loves or mother-daughter relationships, or police interview techniques?

Roz Nay: First loves and mother-daughter relationships came ready-stocked for me! I actually wrote the book while my own daughter was four, so she’s very close to the character of Olive. My relationship with my mum is utterly different from the one in the book – I’m really close with my mum and had to do some fast talking when she read it! But the world as I see it is always full of tension – all of it psychological, not all of it negative – and I think writers steal moments every day from their own lives or other people’s. I’m always watching for dynamics when I sit anywhere in public, and I’ve heard some of the best lines of dialogue ever in coffee shops and bars. There’s nothing more interesting to me than what real people say in their lives, what they annotate. In fact, if you ever notice me sitting next to you in a coffee shop or a bar, you should probably whisper. Or move.


“In her debut novel, Roz Nay lures readers down a dark and tangled path that explores the aftereffects of lost first loves. Our Little Secret is a gripping addition to the psych thriller world.”
Mary Kubica, New York Times bestselling author of The Good Girl


L.L.: So why do you think we cherish those first loves so dearly?

Roz Nay: I think it’s because they happen at a time when everything’s exploding into colour and sound. And there’s so much at stake in those years because it’s all so formative. When I think of myself at sixteen, I see how curious and trusting and new I was; and while I might have held on to some of those things, newness is by definition a one-time offer. That’s what makes first loves so tender, I think: we’ve never been anywhere like this before.

L.L.:   I’m curious about your writing process—the structure, in particular—was it your intention all along to delve into the past, or did it grow organically as you wrote?

Roz Nay: I definitely knew that Angela would want to tell a story different to the one that Novak needs. And I knew that I wanted to put the two characters into a confined space, and that this disconnect between the stories they tell/need would create most of the tension for them. My sense has always been that love stories very much enjoy the company of crime stories, and so the love triangle was also always with me from the start. There were a lot of pieces of the story that evolved as I wrote, and my editors helped me find my way through it all; but Angela arrived for me pretty fully-formed, and so in a sense I always knew what the end scene would be.

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L.L.: Did you ever get to the point in the early writing process where you wrote yourself into a corner, or felt you were spinning your wheels? What propelled you to move forward, when sometimes it’s so easy to throw in the towel?

Roz Nay: The interesting thing about this book is that it was signed with a different crime and a different victim. That’s quite a serious swerve.  It was only in edits that I realized I’d forgotten to ask myself the number-one-most-important question of my main character: what does she want? Yep, forgot that one. So there was a day mid-edits, where suddenly 40,000 words of the book had to be cut and on that day I thought to myself, right, Rozzy, sink or swim. I freaked out for about three hours, and then I sat down and started the rebuild. Because what else was I going to do? I couldn’t leave Angela in the lurch like that! All the way from the very beginning, hers was a story I wanted to tell and when you feel like that, it’s really just about sitting down each day and keeping going.


“A clever and addictive read that had me enthralled from the first chapter all the way to the shocking twist that left me breathless. I stayed in bed one lazy afternoon and polished it off, then stared up at my ceiling, stunned that it was over and still half in love with the characters. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a debut this good. Roz Nay is going to be a name we hear a lot of in the future.”
— Chevy Stevens, bestselling author of Still Missing


L.L.: What—or who—are your writing influences?

Roz Nay: I grew up on Enid Blyton mysteries and all the Nancy Drews. I had a well-developed crush on both of the Hardy boys. At 15, I read John Fowles’ THE COLLECTOR which has always stayed with me in terms of ultimate creepiness done really subtly, and for beautiful sentences I always go to Ian McEwan or Donna Tartt. I read a lot of psychological thrillers now and devour anything Jessica Knoll and Harriet Lane come up with. I also really like Andrew Pyper’s style but I can only read his books in the morning sunshine or I get nightmares. For real.

L.L.: Angela is obsessed with HP. What’s obsessing you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Roz Nay: The book I cannot stop talking about this year is Thomas Christopher Greene’s THE HEADMASTER’S WIFE. [See Leslie’s interview with Thomas Christopher Greene here]. In my opinion it’s perfect and everyone I know is hearing that opinion often and relentlessly. I’m also obsessed with the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS although it’s not a new obsession. SHETLAND is also high on my list. My daughter has just started karate so my brain is shouting instructions in Japanese at me at night which is rather unsettling. And I’ve just discovered tamari almonds at the co-op so I’m buying those in bulk to stave off book 2 writing fatigue…

L.L.: Roz, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Like, your weekend plans, what you’re binge-watching (or eating!—Crème Brule almonds, anyone?), if you’re writing another book…

Roz Nay: Almonds are getting a lot of good press here! This weekend I plan to not attend a minor hockey event, which feels celebratory because I’ve been in attendance every weekend since October with both kids. In terms of books I’m working on, I’ve written another psychological thriller and it’s with my editors , and I’ve just had my pitch for book 3 approved, so that one’s starting to fizz in my brain, too. But this weekend I’ll be walking the dog, listening to Coldplay, and hanging out with my husband and kids. I love spring – it’s all about renewal! I might even clean the fridge so I’ll really feel like I have my life together.

 For more information, to connect with Roz via social media, or to purchase a copy of OUR LITTLE SECRET, please visit:

Order Links: 

Roz Nay_credit Lisa SeyfriedABOUT THE AUTHOR: Roz Nay grew up in England and studied at Oxford University. She has been published in The Antigonish Review and the anthology Refuge. Roz has worked as an underwater fish counter in Africa, a snowboard videographer in Vermont, and a high school teacher in both the UK and Australia. She now lives in British Columbia, Canada, with her husband and two children.Our Little Secret is her first novel. Follow her on Twitter@roznay1 and on Facebook.com/roznay1.

 

 

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites (please do!): 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press and used with permission. Image of woman in interrogation room retrieved from, ‘the end’ from, image of Enid Blyton books from; all retrieved on 4.4.18].

Wednesdays with Writers: Jane Corry talks about her second novel, BLOOD SISTERS, how glass as art is both beautiful yet lethal, the bond of sisters, her love for her grandchildren & watercolors and so much more

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Three girls. Two sisters. One  dead. BLOOD SISTERS is a tangled web of adolescent deception looking from the present to the past with an eye toward justice. 

Having read–and enjoyed–Corry’s first book, MY HUSBAND’S WIFE (January 2017), I was super-excited to get my hands on this gorgeous book, BLOOD SISTERS (January 2018). The beginning few pages completely pulled me in: a woman in her early-mid 30’s who happens to teach stained glass at a local college.

BLOOD SISTERS is a slightly different kind of tale—one that is ripe with old secrets, sibling rivalry and justice.

BLOOD SISTERS is a split-perspective of two adult sisters in the present looking back at a horrific accident that left Kitty paralyzed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), unable to speak, and aggressive/hostile at times. Kitty lives in an institution and has nearly every need tended to. Meanwhile, Alison is living in London with one eye over her shoulder: she’s waiting for the bottom to drop from an event that happened when the girls were teenagers. 

Just what happened? 

That story is unspooled as we dive into the past, told mostly from Alison’s POV.  

Corry also takes us inside a men’s prison, which is drawn from her own experience as a writer-in-residence at a prison herself. It’s quite eye-opening.

Please join us in conversation.

Leslie Lindsay:  Jane, welcome back. BLOOD SISTERS is a complex tale of sibling rivalry, emotional scars, deception, and the varying definition of ‘truth.’  I’m curious what inspired this tale? Was it a character? A situation? A place?

Jane Corry: All these subjects are part of my life. When you’ve worked in a prison for two days a week over three years, it’s hard to get it out of your head. This is strange really because I never wanted to go into a prison. However, I took the job as writer in residence after my first marriage ended. It showed me another world. BLOOD SISTERS depicts a different view because Alison – one of my main characters –  takes a job in prison just as I did. Lily in MY HUSBAND’S WIFE visits it occasionally to see her client but she doesn’t spend so much time inside.  

L.L.: Your first book, MY HUSBAND’S WIFE, focused on similar themes as BLOOD SISTERS: art and prison.  What prompted your return to these subjects?

Jane Corry: I started dabbling in watercolours as an adult. Looking back, I’d always been interested in the subject but there were so many good artists at school that I felt intimidated. Then I went to a class and found that I had a ‘loose style’. This helps me sketch scenes for my settings. I made Alison into an artist because I wanted her to have a job which was very expressive. But again, I use this theme in a different way from BLOOD SISTERS. This time, one of the paintings contains a clue in the plot. 

L.L.:  I have to say—stained glass! My grandfather was quite accomplished in the field and I’ve been writing about his art and process lately in a slightly fictionalized manner. It felt a bit surreptitious when I picked up BLOOD SISTERS and there it was on the first page. How did this medium work its way into the narrative?

Jane Corry: What a co-incidence! Stained glass was a real find of mine five years ago. I’d always loved the way that  light filters through coloured glass. I’d also had ‘Go To A Stained Glass Workshop’ on my ’to do’ list.  Then my second husband and I moved to the sea and I found myself in a community of artists. To  my delight, I discovered a nearby stained glass workshop and immediately decided that it would be a perfect job for a character. Glass can be beautiful and also lethal. 

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L.L.: There are a lot of institutions in BLOOD SISTERS. There’s the prison, the care facility where Kitty lives after her TBI (traumatic brain injury) and then school (and also the college where Alison teaches). In many cases, all of those settings are like living in a fish bowl. Can you expand on that?

Jane Corry: Fishbowl settings are  a great way to link characters together. My aim is to create two or three ‘communal landscapes’  which turn out to be connected – even though the reader doesn’t know it at the time. I spent some time doing research and treatment in a brain injury unit. I thought it would be depressing but in fact it was uplifting. I met some incredible patients and staff. They showed me it was possible to have a sense of humour in the face of adversity. 

L.L.: I’m so intrigued with your work in the prison system. I understand you are/were a writer-in-residence. Can you tell us what that entails and if you still do it?

Jane Corry: As a writer in residence, I helped men who had committed some terrible crimes to write novels, short stories, poems and letters home. They didn’t have to come to my classes – they were voluntary. So I had advertise my wares by putting up posters and pushing leaflets under cell doors. I didn’t have a guard looking after me and at first I was nervous. I was only threatened on a couple of occasions and each time the other men came to my rescue. I discovered a lot of talent and entered my men for national competitions which some of them won. This increased their self-esteem which in turn reduced the risk of re- offending. However  I found it emotionally exhausting. I was also a single mother at the time. I would have to pull off the road sometimes on the way home from the prison because I needed to close my eyes. I now do voluntary work by running occasional workshops in prisons and am also a judge for the Koestler Awards which gives prizes to writers and artists in prisons and mental institutions.

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from BLOOD SISTERS?

Jane Corry: I hope readers will re-examine relationships – especially if they have a sister! There are so many issues at play here. But in the end, it’s a bond which is always there , however hard you try to ignore it. I also hope they will be intrigued and entertained by the twists and turns in the plot.

L.L.: What’s obsessing you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Jane Corry: I’m obsessed by my grandchildren! I’m a fairly young grannie and am lucky enough to live round the corner from my daughter and her little family. There’s nothing like the wonder on young children’s faces when they see a leaf or a bird to make you value the every day miracles of life.

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L.L.: Jane, it’s been a pleasure! What question should I have asked, but forgot?

Jane Corry: You’ve done a great job with your questions, Leslie! I love being interviewed by you. However, you might be wondering if I’ve been to the United States.

The answer is yes. Each time , it’s been a pivotal part of my life. I visited New York with my first husband, shortly before our divorce after a long marriage. Then I went again with my youngest son – the year after the divorce – which was a big thing for me to do on my own. Later, I learned to enjoy my own company in Boston. I remember taking a trip round the harbour and wondering what the future would hold! And then I returned to New York three years ago with my second husband! We also went to Atlanta  to visit Margaret Mitchell’s house because I’ve always loved GONE WITH THE WIND. I’d love to come out to the USA again!

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For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of BLOOD SISTERS, please see: 

Order Links: 

Jane Corry_credit_Justine Stoddart (high res) - croppedABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jane Corry is a writer and journalist and has spent time as the writer in residence of a high-security prison for men—an experience that helped inspire the book. Jane has been a features writer for the following publications: The Times; The Daily Telegraph; The Daily Express; Woman’s Own; Good Housekeeping; Woman & Home and many others. She runs regular writing workshops and speaks at literary festivals worldwide, including The Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, Italy. Until recently, she was a tutor in creative writing at Oxford University.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites: 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Viking/Pamela Dorman Books and used with permission. All images retrieved 3.29.18.  NYC/Central Park retrieved from;  , Jane’s watercolors from her Instagram account; stained glass tree retrieved from ]

 

 

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Master of suspense and eerie ghost tales, Simone St. James tackles her most suspenseful tale to date about friendship, secrets, cold cases, the Holocaust, decaying boarding schools, and so much more in THE BROKEN GIRLS

By Leslie Lindsay 

A chilling and disturbing tale of secrets, friendship, justice and…a ghost at an abandoned boarding school for girls…

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I tore through THE BROKEN GIRLS. It has all the elements I absolutely adore in a book: great, atmospheric writing, a gutsy protagonist, an old decaying building, secrets, mysteries and a ghostly haunt.

Told in alternating POVs–and time periods–(1950s and 2014), THE BROKEN GIRLS is a break-out suspense novel from the award-winning author of THE HAUNTING OF MADDY CLARE. If you’ve read that one, you’ll see how the style is similar, yet different. This  one is more suspenseful, more action-driven, but the writing is just as good .

I love how St. James resurrects the history of the land where the old boarding house sits. The story is definitely eerie and unsettling, but handled in such a realistic and believable way. What if ghosts were really just manifestations of things that haunt you and not something beyond your control? THE BROKEN GIRLS touches on just that.

Throw in a cold murder case from 1994, a sleuthing journalist sister looking for justice, a dash of romance (but not too much), and the restoration project of that old boarding school. And why, why does the old garden plot smell so rancid?

“Vivid, riveting, and thoroughly unforgettable.”

— Deanna Raybourn, New York Times bestselling author of the Veronica Speedwell series

Today, I am super-excited to share an excerpt from THE BROKEN GIRLS.

Grab your favorite reading comforts and settle in.

Prologue

Barrons, Vermont

November 1950

The sun vanished below the horizon as the girl crested the rise of Old Barrons Road. Night, and she still had three miles to go.

The air here went blue at dusk, purplish and cold, a light that blurred details as if looking through smoke. The girl cast a glance back at the road where it climbed the rise behind her, squinting, the breeze tousling her hair and creeping through the thin fabric of her collar, but no one that she could see was following.

Still: Faster, she thought.

She hurried down the slope, her thick schoolgirl’s shoes pelting stones onto the broken road, her long legs moving like a foal’s as she kept her balance. She’d outgrown the gray wool skirt she wore—it hung above her knees now—but there was nothing to be done about it. She carried her uniform skirt in the suitcase that banged against her legs, and she’d be putting it back on soon enough.

If I’m lucky.

Stop it, stupid. Stupid.

Faster.

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Her palms were sweaty against the suitcase handle. She’d nearly dropped the case as she’d wrestled it off the bus in haste, perspiration stinging her back and armpits as she glanced up at the bus’s windows.

Everything all right? the driver had asked, something about the panic in a teenage girl’s face penetrating his disinterest.

Yes, yes— She’d given him a ghastly smile and a wave and turned away, the case banging her knees, as if she were bustling off down a busy city street and not making slow progress across a cracked stretch of pavement known only as the North Road. The shadows had grown long, and she’d glanced back as the door closed, and again as the bus drew away.

No one else had gotten off the bus. The scrape of her shoes and the far-off call of a crow were the only sounds. She was alone.

No one had followed.

Not yet.

She reached the bottom of the slope of Old Barrons Road, panting in her haste. She made herself keep her gaze forward. To look back would be to tempt it. If she only looked forward, it would stay away.

The cold wind blew up again, freezing her sweat to ice. She bent, pushed her body faster. If she cut through the trees, she’d travel an exact diagonal that would land her in the sports field, where at least she had a chance she’d meet someone on the way to her dorm. A shorter route than this one, which circled around the woods to the front gates of Idlewild Hall. But that meant leaving the road, walking through the trees in the dark. She could lose direction. She couldn’t decide.

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Her heart gave a quick stutter behind her ribcage, then returned to its pounding. Exertion always did this to her, as did fear. The toxic mix of both made her lightheaded for a minute, unable to think. Her body still wasn’t quite right. Though she was fifteen, her breasts were small and she’d only started bleeding last year. The doctor had warned her there would be a delay, perfectly normal, a biological aftereffect of malnutrition. You’re young and you’ll recover, he’d said, but it’s hell on the body. The phrase had echoed with her for a while, sifting past the jumble of her thoughts. Hell on the body. It was darkly funny, even. When her distant relatives had peered at her afterward and asked what the doctor had said, she’d found herself replying: He said it’s hell on the body. At the bemused looks that followed, she’d tried to say something comforting: At least I still have all my teeth. They’d looked away then, these Americans who didn’t understand what an achievement it was to keep all your teeth. She’d been quiet after that.

Closer, now, to the front gates of Idlewild Hall. Her memories worked in unruly ways; she’d forget the names of half of the classmates she lived with, but she could remember the illustration on the frontispiece of the old copy of Blackie’s Girls’ Annual she’d found on a shelf in the dorm: a girl in a 1920’s low-waisted dress, walking a romping dog over a hillside, shading her eyes with her hand as the wind blew her hair. She had stared at that illustration so many times she’d had dreams about it, and she could recall every line of it, even now. Part of her fascination had come from its innocence, the clean milkiness of the girl in the drawing, who could walk her dog without thinking about doctors or teeth or sores or scabs or any of the other things she had buried in her brain, things that bobbed up to the surface before vanishing into the darkness again.

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She heard no sound behind her, but just like that, she knew. Even with the wind in her ears and the sound of her own feet, there was a murmur of something, a whisper she must have been attuned to, because when she turned her head this time, her neck creaking in protest, she saw the figure. Cresting the rise she’d just come over herself, it started the descent down the road toward her.

No. I was the only one to get off the bus. There was no one else.

But she’d known, hadn’t she? She had. It was why she was already in a near-run, her knuckles and her chin going numb with cold. Now she pushed into a jog, her grip nearly slipping on the suitcase handle as the case banged against her leg. She blinked hard in the descending darkness, trying to make out shapes, landmarks. How far away was she? Could she make it?

She glanced back again. Through the fog of darkness, she could see a long black skirt, the narrow waist and shoulders, the gauzy sway of a black veil over the figure’s face moving in the wind. Unseen feet moving beneath the skirt’s hem. The details were visible now because the figure was closer—only moving at a walk, but already somehow closing in, closer every time she looked. The face behind the veil wasn’t visible, but the girl knew she was being watched, the hidden gaze fixed on her.

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Panicked, she made an abrupt change of direction, leaving the road and plunging into the trees. There was no path, and she made her way slowly through thick tangles of brush, the dead stalks of weeds stinging her legs through her stockings. In seconds the view of the road behind her disappeared, and she guessed at her direction, hoping she was heading in a straight line toward the sports field. The terrain slowed her down, and sweat trickled between her shoulder blades, soaking into the cheap cotton of her blouse, which stuck to her skin. The suitcase was clumsy and heavy, and soon she dropped it in order to move more quickly through the woods. There was no sound but the harsh rasp of her own breathing.

Her ankle twisted, sent sharp pain up her leg, but still she ran. Her hair came out of its pins and branches scraped her palms as she pushed them from her face, but still she ran. Ahead of her was the old fence that surrounded Idlewild, rotted and broken, easy to get through. There was no sound from behind her. And then there was.

Mary Hand, Mary Hand, dead and buried under land…

Faster, faster. Don’t let her catch you.

She’ll say she wants to be your friend…

Ahead, the trees were thinning, the pearly light of the half moon illuminating the clearing of the sports field.

Do not let her in again!

The girl’s lungs burned, and a sob burst from her throat. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t. Despite everything that had happened—or perhaps because of it. Her blood still pumped, her broken body still ran for its life. And in a moment of pure, dark clarity, she understood that all of it was for nothing.

She’d always known the monsters were real.

And they were here.

The girl looked into the darkness and screamed.

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For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE BROKEN GIRLS, please visit: 

Order Links:

Simone St. James photo credit Adam HunterABOUT THE AUTHOR: Simone St. James is the award-winning author of Lost Among the LivingThe Other Side of MidnightSilence for the DeadAn Inquiry into Love and Death, which was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada; and The Haunting of Maddy Clare, which won two RITA Awards from Romance Writers of America and an Arthur Ellis Award from Crime Writers of Canada. She wrote her first ghost story, about a haunted library, when she was in high school, and spent twenty years behind the scenes in the television business before leaving to write full-time. Visit her online at SimoneStJames.com, Facebook.com/SimoneStJames and @Simone_StJames.

 You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media websites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Berkley Publishing Group and used with permission. Image of Blackie’s Girls’ Annuals retrieved from Abe Books , woman in black veil and vintage bus from Pinterest, no source noted. Abandoned road image retrieved from .  Excerpt reprinted with permission from THE BROKEN GIRLS by Simone St. James from Berkley Publishing Group, copyright 2018]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesdays with Writers: What if you disappeared–intentionally–following a natural disaster? Could you deceive everyone and get away with it? That’s what Catherine McKenzie explores–and so much more–in her new domestic suspense, THE GOOD LIAR

By Leslie Lindsay 

A Goodreads Hottest Thrillers of 2018 Selection

When tragedy strikes in a Chicago building, three women’s lives are thrust together in a tale of secrets, lies, and grief, in THE GOOD LIAR (Lake Union Publishing, April 3 2018)

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A year ago, Cecily (Lily) Grayson became the poster child for a horrifying explosion the ripped a Chicago building apart on October 10th. The media is calling this Triple Ten because it occurred at ten in the morning. Cecily was supposed to have been in the building that fateful day, but she wasn’t; she was late for a meeting. Her husband, Tom, worked in that building, so did her best friend, Kaitlyn. They both died.

Meanwhile, Franny Maycombe, a young woman in search of her birth mother, watched in horror as that building went up in flames. She was desperate to reconnect and now, it looks like she’ll never have that opportunity.

Now, the anniversary of the explosion haunts the town. Documentaries are being made, memorials, and even a memory book, showcasing all 513 lives lost.

And yet, thousands of miles away, in Montreal, another woman is hiding some deep secrets. 

I found THE GOOD LIAR wholly original, delightfully twisted domestic suspense. The writing is razor-sharp, witty, and smart. McKenzie definitely has a gift for dialogue. In some ways, THE GOOD LIAR is more about ‘good,’ ‘better’ and ‘best,’ in terms of who can be the most deceiving. You decide.

“A riveting story that revolves around the aftermath of a national tragedy: three women, three separate yet deftly intertwined lives. I adored the look at the story behind the story, the background lives of the women we so often see in the news. The twists are shocking, the characters are well drawn but unpredictable, and the conclusion is as poignant as it is surprising. THE GOOD LIAR is thrilling, captivating, and not to be missed!”

—Kate Moretti, New York Times bestselling author of The Vanishing Year
and The Blackbird Season

Please join me in welcoming Catherine McKenzie back to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Catherine, welcome back! I know the idea for this novel has been percolating for quite some time, with the thought, ‘what would happen if someone used a national tragedy to escape from their life?’ What an intriguing concept. Can you elaborate, please?

Catherine McKenzie: Thanks for having me! It’s perhaps awful to say but it is something that kind of haunts me every time I see a national tragedy on TV. I can’t help but wondering, what would you do if everyone thought you were supposed to be in the Twin Towers, for example, and you weren’t. Would you use that event to escape your own life? What would make you consider it. That’s one of the threads that I used in this book.

L.L.: And yet, you’ve said the writing came more difficult than others. What do you think contributed to that feeling and how were you able to muster through?

Catherine McKenzie: I had a deadline! I had some challenges in my personal life while I was writing this book and that took up a lot of the time and energy that I use to write. So I found myself having to write the last third of the book over my Christmas holiday which I did, but which was a bit stressful.

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L.L.: In many ways, THE GOOD LIAR is about deception born of tragedy. Or does tragedy lead to deception? It’s a bit chicken-and-egg. What are your thoughts?

Catherine McKenzie: I think that tragedy can reveal deception. Think of all the things someone might learn about you if you died or disappeared suddenly. Feeling nervous?

L.L.: THE GOOD LIAR is told from the POV of three different women: Kaitlyn, Cecily, and Franny. Is there one you connected with most? Or enjoyed writing more than the other?

Catherine McKenzie: Franny was fun to write because she was so different from my experience. It’s always fun to get in the shoes of a character who is so completely different than you.

L.L.: Did you write THE GOOD LIAR in a linear fashion, as the story unfolds, Point A to Point B, or did you write certain portions (characters) and then piece them together?

Catherine McKenzie: I always write in the order the story unfolds, whether that is linear or not – it’s linear to me! Sometimes I’ve shifted around events or chapters, though not in THE GOOD LIAR.

L.L.: Do you ever think about what might happen with your characters once you finish a novel? Or, do you sort of close the book and move on?

Catherine McKenzie: No, that’s how I know a book is finished. When I don’t have any questions about the characters in my mind anymore, I am ready to be done with them.

L.L.: Franny was obsessed with finding her birth mother. Cecily was obsessed with her failing marriage, and Kaitlyn was obsessed with running. What’s obsessing you these days, and do you think it’s important for characters to have an ‘obsession?’

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Catherine McKenzie: I think it’s important for characters to have a focal point. I think characters in books are characters in crisis, so their crisis is front and center and that can seem obsessional. I don’t think anything’s obsessing me at the moment, which must mean I’m not in crisis. Oh, wait… I have a book coming out!

L.L.: Catherine, it’s been a pleasure! Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Catherine McKenzie: Nope! Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions.

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE GOOD LIAR, please see:

Order Links:

Catherine McKenzie credit Jason Trott © 2016ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Catherine McKenzie, a graduate of McGill University, practices law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine’s novels Spin, Arranged, Forgotten, and Hidden are all international bestsellers and have been translated into numerous languages. Hidden was an Amazon #1 best seller and a Digital Book World bestseller. Her fifth novel, Smoke, was an Amazon bestseller, a Goodreads Best Book for October 2015, and an Amazon Top 100 Book of 2015. Her sixth novel, Fractured, was a Goodreads Best Book for October and Fall 2016, a Buzzfeed Big Book of Fall 2016, and made numerous other Best Book lists including those for Real Simple, Redbook, PopSugar, and Read It Forward.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Kathleen Carter Communications and used with permission. Neurobiology of writing image retrieved from, image of laptop from, all images retrieved on 3.20.18]

Wednesdays with Writers: What if your neighbor and her children went missing and there were no clues as to where or why? That’s what Jessica Strawser explores in her sophomore novel, NOT THAT I COULD TELL, set in real-life Yellow Springs, Ohio, plus it’s a March 2018 Book-of-the-Month selction

Leslie Lindsay 

Small town mystery of a missing woman and her children has everyone on edge and the truth that is revealed is even darker than anyone could imagine. 

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NOT THAT I COULD TELL (March 27, 2018) is Strawer’s sophomore novel, and it’s certainly no slump. I feel like this title shows a significant growth on her part, in her astute suburban politics, page-turning goings-on, and her down-to-earth, girl-friend like narrative style. NOT THAT I COULD TELL IS darker than ALMOST MISSED YOU, but not a thriller, per se, yet I raced through to the dark and carefully plotted end.

Just Named Book of the Month Selection for March 2018! 

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Kristin Kirkland seems to have everything together. She’s cute and well-liked, going out of her way to help other mommies at preschool, volunteering in the classroom, and those twins–Abby and Aaron! But when she and the kids go missing, the tightly knit community of Yellow Springs, Ohio is on edge. Where did she go and why didn’t she tell anyone? Not to mention she’s estranged from her soon-to-be ex-husband, who is an affable and successful OB/GYN.

The neighbor women rally, searching out clues as to what happened to their friend. Or, is she really even a friend? The women soon realize they don’t know much about Kristin–everything was discussed at an arm’s-length, superficial level. An investigation ensues, but there are no leads, and only so much the police can do.

In NOT THAT I COULD TELL, we get an authentic slice of suburban life with various families and parenting styles, but is mostly focused on young motherhood(women raising babies through preschool, though there is one precocious 12-year old, whom I could relate to having one myself).

I particularly liked the diary-like entries from the missing doctor’s wife, Kristin, as well as the ephemera at the beginning of each chapter.

The ending brings a twist which I honestly didn’t see coming, though a more astute reader might. I found NOT THAT I COULD TELL a riveting read about suburban drama, lessons centered around love, friendship, and the power of community. 

“Equal parts mystery and female bonding, this riveting tale asks the question: Can we truly know our neighbors? The compelling cast of characters is led by the fiercely protective Clara, the endearing, naïve Izzy, and the inexplicably vanished Kristin. Their distinctive paths lead to powerful lessons about love, connection, and community.” – Cynthia Swanson, New York Times bestselling author of The Bookseller and The Glass Forest

Please join me in welcoming Jessica Strawser back to the blog couch!

Leslie Lindsay: Jessica, I’m curious what the inspiration was for NOT THAT I COULD TELL? Was there an event, a character, or setting that was haunting you?

Jessica Strawser: Haunting is probably the right word. I lost a close friend to domestic violence almost a decade ago. In a very loosely associated way, I felt pulled to write about the issue from the distance at which most of us experience it—from that arm’s length perspective of a neighbor or friend who doesn’t really know for sure what’s going on behind closed doors, and frankly may never know. How much responsibility should we feel for one another?

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L.L.: I think it’s fair to say that this novel is much darker than your first. [Read my 2017 interview with Jessica here] Was that intentional on your part, or did it evolve organically?

Jessica Strawser: While it deals with some dark subject matter, I think it’s ultimately a hopeful story, or at least a thoughtful one, ultimately showing positive sides of humanity even in dark circumstances. That was my ultimate focus, and so it didn’t feel dark to me as I was writing it.

L.L.: Similarly, what can you tell us about being in the ‘pressure cooker’ as you say, in terms of writing that second novel? Is it really as hard as others say?

Jessica Strawser: In my experience, at least, it was, simply because—even aside from the pressure—what began as a passion or hobby quickly turns to the business of juggling various projects at various stages, and the distractions from the creative process itself can become overwhelming. My years of work as an editor trained me well for the more methodical parts of managing my to-do list and my calendar, but creatively speaking there’s certainly a whole new set of interruptions, challenges and, yes, expectations.

L.L.: What can you tell us about the setting, Yellow Springs, Ohio? I hadn’t heard of it before picking up NOT THAT I COULD TELL, but I found myself looking up the town on Google. Are you personally familiar with it? And what is it about small, idyllic towns that intrigue us so? 

Jessica Strawser: I’ve spent many weekends in Yellow Springs—camping in the state park (the “Sunday morning moment of Zen” hike that Izzy seeks out in the novel is one my husband and I stumbled upon ourselves), trekking to the springs, biking the old railroad trail, and enjoying the shops and restaurants. It’s my kind of place. This story required a close, contained environment where the events would reverberate beyond just the main characters, and so when I started thinking in terms of small towns, Yellow Springs immediately came to mind. It was a nice place to live in my imagination for the year-plus I spent writing this book.

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L.L.: NOT THAT I COULD TELL takes a dark situation and pulls the community together, but there are also some who feel alienated (Clara’s son is asked not to attend preschool till things ‘die down;’ Dr. Kirkland is asked to take a leave of absence) Can you talk about how some experiences unify, but others polarize, and how some have the power to do both simultaneously?

Jessica Strawser: I think very few situations are only one or the other, because even collective experiences filter through individual lenses.

There’s some subtext in the book stemming from a tragedy in Benny and Clara’s backstory, and how it has continued to impact the couple in curiously opposite ways. In their case we see the aftereffects, but in the disappearance that sends the present action of the story in motion, layers of something similar are peeling back in real time. I think that’s true to life.

In the course of crafting Dr. Kirkland’s story line in particular, I spoke with a real doctor about what bearing public speculation about private indiscretions might have on a professional practice, and he was very clear that in his personal experience opinion tended to be split, even in somewhat clear-cut cases where a doctor’s license was stripped for good reason.

L.L.: And the ending! Did you have that all mapped out first, or were you just as surprised as I was? Also, both your novels end at an ocean. Any significance there? 

Jessica Strawser: I actually did know the ending from the start in this case, which was new for me—though I had only a foggy idea of how I was going to get there. Getting from Point A and Point B was the adventure! And I hadn’t even noticed that about the ocean. I guess I just love the way it makes me feel: The perspective of being so wide open in the world, and of being able to see as far as humanly possible until the earth curves away from you.

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L.L.: Everyone in Yellow Springs was sort of obsessed with their missing friend…what’s obsessing you these days? For me, it’s how to structure my next project, which could go a multitude of ways!

Jessica Strawser: Aside from my next novel, which is due to my editor quite soon, I’m borderline obsessed with my new Instant Pot right now (I’m a little late to the party on this one, I know!). When my family gets busy the way it is now, between my amped-up book schedule and spring sports, it’s easy to let healthful meals slip, and I’ve been loving experimenting with quicker, easier ways to eat well.

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of NOT THAT I COULD TELL, please visit: 

Order Links: 

Jessica_Strawser_credit Corrie Schaffeld (1)ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  By day, Jessica Strawser is editor-at-large for Writer’s Digest magazine, North America’s leading publication for aspiring and working writers since 1920. By night, she is a fiction writer with a debut novel, ALMOST MISSED YOU, new from St. Martin’s Press (named to the March 2017 Barnes & Noble Best New Fiction shortlist!), and another stand-alone book club title, NOT THAT I COULD TELL, forthcoming in 2018. And by the minute, she is a proud wife and mom to two super sweet and super young kids in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Her diverse career in the publishing industry spans more than 15 years and includes stints in book editing, marketing and public relations, and freelance writing and editing. Having served as WD’s chief editor and editorial director for nearly a decade, she blogs at WritersDigest.com and elsewhere (if you’d like a guest post, contact me!), tweets @jessicastrawser (please do say hello), enjoys connecting on Facebook, and speaks at book clubs, libraries, writing conferences and events that are kind enough to invite her.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites: 

[Cover and author image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press and used with permission. All images retrieved via web on 3.6.18. Image of BOTM from ,suburban street image retrieved from, beach image from image of yellow springs retrieved from ]

Wednesdays with Writers: Historic ‘dummy boards’ come to life in Laura Purcell’s eerie double-historical Gothic ghost tale, THE SILENT COMPANIONS; braiding time periods, woman’s mental health in the Victorian era and so much more

By Leslie Lindsay 

A Gothic, foreboding Victorian ghost story set in a crumbling mansion among dual-historical time periods. 

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Already published to rave reviews in the U.K., Laura Purcell’s THE SILENT COMPANIONS (Penguin Books, Trade Paperback Original; on-sale March 6, 2018) is a mesmerizingly creepy Victorian Gothic that will have you staying up all night—and perhaps checking to make sure your door is locked!

When Elsie Livingstone marries Rupert Bainbridge, she is believed she is destined for a life of luxury. He’s handsome, a bit older than she, and quiet handsome. But he dies shortly into their marriage. Elsie finds she’s pregnant and alone in her late husband’s crumbling family estate Somewhere in England (near London, I assume).

The family estate is not very inviting. The servants are resentful and a little rough around the edges. The villagers are suspicious of the old place and feel it’s cursed; they refuse to work there. Elsie has only her deceased husband’s awkward female cousin, Sarah for companionship…or does she? Could there be other ‘companions’ inhabiting the home, too?

Told in alternating POVs and thus time periods, in addition to St. Joseph’s Hospital/the asylum, one gets a thrilling reading experience piecing these tales together.
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Plus, the actual ‘companions,’ are a real historical artifact/antique I was unfamiliar with, leading me in search of more information. [They originated in Holland and were popular in 17th-century Europe]. Whenever a book propels me to do a little digging, I consider it a good read.

I loved the gloomy setting, the skittish maids, the old house, those locked doors, journals from the past…truly, this book packs quite a punch. The reading experience is a little slower than typical ghost stories and tales of suspense, but I think that has to do with the time periods being depicted. THE SILENT COMPANIONS is a fabulous read for a rainy night at home with a roaring fire.

So, join in welcoming Laura Purcell to the blog couch:

Leslie Lindsay: Laura, this tale blew me away! I had never heard of these ‘companions,’ the eerily lifelike wooden figures the were popular in 17th-century Europe. It seems like something one might uncover on “Antiques Roadshow,” but I don’t think I ever have. How did you discover them and was that the spark for the novel, or were your inspired by something else?

Laura Purcell: I’m so glad you find them as creepy as I do! I discovered ‘companions’ completely by chance, when a friend of mine was exploring a stately home. She sent me a picture of an antique wooden figure and asked if I knew what it was. I had no idea, but my immediate feeling was that the figure was unsettling. After some research, we discovered it was a dummy board, often called a ‘silent companion.’ They could be used as fire screens or elaborate practical jokes. Illusions and trickery played a large part in the entertainment of the upper classes in 17th century Holland, where they originated. Taking advantage of dark interiors, people would position candles to make the ‘companions’ appear real and surprise their friends.

I knew at once that I wanted to include such an unusual historical detail in one of my novels. But the ‘companions’ were so uncanny, it became clear that my story would need to be a scary one – which was  a brand new challenge for me!

L.L.: The atmosphere in THE SILENT COMPANIONS is gloomy, dreary, and ominous. Parts of it reminded me of REBECCA—as in Bainbridge being slightly reminiscent of Manderly. It also reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. And then, there were parts that had a CANTERBURY TALES feel. Maybe it were the 1635 sections that gave that impression. How did you determine the time periods you used in the book: 1865/66 and 1635? In a sense, it’s akin to a double-historical fiction. And was there a time period you enjoyed writing more than the other?

Laura Purcell: I absolutely love both REBECCA and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, so I’m delighted to hear this!

 

Since THE SILENT COMPANIONS was my first ghost story, I was keen to set the main action in the Victorian era. It’s such a perfect period for tales of the supernatural. Firstly, you have a society where the mortality rate is high and there is an almost obsessive focus on funerals and mourning rituals. Then you have the rapid rate at which scientific invention was taking place. People were seeing steam engines and photographs for the first time. It must have seemed like magic. So the spiritual theories that developed seemed quite reasonable – if it had become possible to send messages by telegram, who was to say mediums could not knock a message to the dead? I was a bit more familiar with this [Victorian] period, so it was probably my favourite to write in.

But my Victorian heroine needed a ghost to haunt her. Since the ‘companions’ originated in the 17th century, I wanted the spooks to come from this time. Mid-century, we had huge upheaval in Britain with the English Civil War and various witchcraft trials, so this gave me a lot of material to work with.

Of course, I’d then set myself the huge task of writing these two interweaving stories in separate time periods – which wasn’t easy!

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L.L.: Similarly, did you write in a linear fashion, that is, start to finish, or did you write certain sections (1635, 1865/66; and the asylum) bits separately and then splice them together?

Laura Purcell: It was really difficult to write. I plotted out how I wanted the stories to entwine but then I wrote each time line separately. My aim was to make sure each had its own distinctive ‘voice’ so that it wasn’t confusing when the reader switched time periods; they would know from the narrative style where they were. Once all the strands made sense on their own, I put them together and sharpened the links. Another task was cutting away in the right places: making sure the reveals from the past came at the right time, and that the pace of the book overall was building suitably.

“An atmospheric, eerie Victorian gothic novel.”
—Publishers Weekly


L.L.: Do you ever ‘write yourself into corners,’ and how do you work yourself out?

Laura Purcell: I’m not sure that I do, I try to plan as thoroughly as possible in advance to avoid that situation. But I do have times when the writing is going badly, or just not flowing. The only way I’ve found to fix that is to push on through it.

L.L.: Can you tell us more about the house, The Bridge? Where, exactly is it located (I’m not sure it’s stated, but I could have missed it; I’m assuming outside of London). I’m fascinated with architecture.

Laura Purcell: It’s intentional that the location of The Bridge is never revealed. I wanted it to feel remote and off the map. I also didn’t want to limit myself geographically to certain types of foliage, wildlife etc. The village of Fayford and the town of Torbury St Jude are also entirely fictional.

The house is Jacobean in style and was once magnificent. By the time Elsie reaches it, decay has set in. I based the floorplan on a real stately home, but the outside was my creation, made up of the architectural details I liked best. At the heart of the mansion are its magnificent gardens, which become essential to the plot.

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L.L.: I’m always, always interested in mental health/illness, too. I am intrigued with your depiction of Elsie’s mental issues, but also those of her mother-in-law. What research did you do in order to capture the time period in terms of women’s place in society and also the way women were treated in relation to their mind?

Laura Purcell: As Wilkie Collins highlighted in THE WOMAN IN WHITE, Victorians could commit their relations to private asylums with relative ease. Obviously there were people who genuinely needed help, but you do wonder how many were put away simply for convenience. Women in particular were at danger, as they were considered more nervous and unbalanced by nature. Rather than ‘embarrassing’ their families in society, they could be neatly hidden. Since repression and secrets are major themes for the novel, I felt the asylum needed to be in there.

My original view of Victorian asylums was that they must be grim, terrifying places, but research showed me attitudes were shifting. Even in Broadmoor, the institution for the criminally insane, treatments were becoming more humane, focusing on finding useful occupation for the patients rather than punishing treatments. I tried to convey this through my character Dr Shepherd, who is sympathetic to Elsie’s plight.

Elsie has endured genuine trauma. But it struck me that any woman acting erratically and claiming to see ghosts would arouse questions about her sanity. In this case, she has also suffered bereavement and is carrying a baby. These would be huge warning signs of ‘hysteria’ in the eyes of a Victorian man.

L.L.: What’s keeping you up at night? What’s obsessing you?

Laura Purcell: Not ghosts, luckily. I have some pretty tight deadlines at the moment, I worry about them.

L.L.: Are you working on anything new?

Laura Purcell: Always! My next book is called THE CORSET. It’s about a seamstress who claims to have a supernatural power to hurt people with the clothes she makes. And I also have something else Gothic in the pipeline … more to come!

L.L.: Laura, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Laura Purcell: No, but thanks for having me!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE SILENT COMPANIONS, please visit:

Order Links:

Laura Purcell - © ph2o PhotographyABOUT THE AUTHOR: Laura Purcell worked in local government, the financial industry, and a bookshop before becoming a full-time writer. She lives in Colchester, the oldest recorded town in England, with her husband. Fascinated by the darker side of royal history, Laura has also written two historical fiction novels about
the Hanoverian dynasty.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Penguin/Random House and used with permission. Image of exterior Broadmoor & women’s dormitories, 1867 courtesy of Reading Libraries via, image of firescreen dummy boards from, misty garden from; pig dummy board from, others from Pinterest and no source noted; image of Jacobean style home retrieved from , image of feathered pen from, UK paperback editions from L. Purcell’s website; all retrieved on 3.8.18] 

 

Wednesdays with Writers: She’s back with a darker and more mysterious tale of families and motherhood with THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR. Join me and Sally Hepworth as we chat about the ‘magical power of hair,’ working from the library, the serious side of mothering in the form postpartum mood disorders, and the predictability of the suburbs

By Leslie Lindsay

Searing secrets…riveting revelations, Sally Hepworth’s fourth book of domestic fiction, THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR (March 6 2018, St. Martin’s Press), is a jaw-dropping gut-punch. 

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This suburban-set story centers on the folks of Pleasant Court, where everything is picture-perfect, at least from the outside. We start the story with Essie, three years ago, when she did a horrible thing just following the birth of her first baby. She’s gotten help and has pretty much put that incident behind her.

But over on Pleasant Court, where Essie moves with her preschool daughter and hottie hubby, and new baby, she can’t help but feel a bit untethered. Her mother, Barbara, the quintessential grandmother moves in just doors away and helps with the little girls. We meet Ange and her boys, her suspicion that the photography client is perhaps a little ‘more’ to her husband than ‘just a client;’ and Fran…her obsessive running. Just what is she running from?

And then we meet Isabelle, childless and single and new to the neighborhood. Who is she and why is she there? 

Questions and concerns all collide in a giant tangled web of curve balls and consequences, ones that will resonate with mothers everywhere, as the tie that brings all of these women together is the simple (or not-so-simple) fact that they are first and foremost, mothers.

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So pull up a seat, grab a cup of coffee and join me and Sally Hepworth in conversation.

Leslie Lindsay: Welcome back, Sally! I know you wrote this book while pregnant and edited with a newborn at your side, so it’s no wonder your tale focuses on babies and motherhood. What inspired this one? Was there a particular moment or situation you were drawn to?

Sally Hepworth: The real spark for this book was probably my nosiness. Shamefully, I am the local busybody in my neighbourhood—I always have my nose in other people’s business and if they are not up to anything interesting, I’m imagining that they are. So it was a natural progression that I’d write a book about people who are a little too interested in their neighbours. As for the motherhood aspect, as you mentioned, this stemmed from the fact that I was pregnant as I wrote the book.

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L.L.: It seems there’s a lot of books that focus on…well, voyeurism. I think we’re all curious what others are doing in their lives, in their homes, behind the perfect façade. Most of the time, it’s just ordinary stuff, but sometimes there’s a secret (or two) brewing under the surface. Why do you think we have that fascination? Is it normal?

Sally Hepworth: I don’t know if it’s normal, but it is certainly common. There is just something so interesting about other people’s lives, isn’t there? Particularly the idea that something untoward might be going on nearby. Perhaps it’s the fact that, on the whole, suburban life can feel so predictable.  You do the same thing at the same time every day—you mow the lawn, drop off the kids, cook dinner. The idea that someone next door might be having an affair, keeping someone in the basement, have murdered their granny, allows the brain a vicarious thrill for a few moments.

L.L.: There are touches of mental instability in almost all of the characters in THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR, which I really like. That’s because I believe mental illness/instability are more common that we realize. Was having this part of the narrative your intention all along, or did it sort of evolve?

Sally Hepworth: All of my books explore an aspect of women’s health, and I have been keen to write about mental health for a while now, particularly postpartum mood disorders. But while I had an idea that this would be explored in the book, the way it played out was something that evolved as I wrote.

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L.L.:  I don’t want to give away too much, but there’s definitely a phenomenon in THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR I hadn’t heard of. I had to look it up and found myself intrigued and also a bit…disgusted. How did that present for you? Was this something you knew of before you started working on the manuscript?

Sally Hepworth: Yes, I’d heard about this particular phenomenon a couple of times … and unsurprisingly, it had played on my mind. Then, when I was writing the book it occurred to me that I could use it. It is definitely confronting, but to me, that was what made it interesting. I liked the idea that I hadn’t seen it in fiction before and it fit perfectly into my book.

L.L.:  I found the crux of the story to be motherhood. In your opinion, why is motherhood so unifying?

Sally Hepworth:  Ha! Motherhood can be unifying but also polarizing, right?

The unifying part, perhaps, comes from empathy. Regardless of the feelings we might have for another mother, we always have an understanding for them as mothers. It’s a link that transcends language, religion and culture.

L.L.: Speaking of, how are you balancing the writing life with the mom life?

Sally Hepworth: As working parents, my husband and I manage the balancing act together. At present I write four days a week from the library and have one day at home with my baby (the older two are both at school). If I get busy or am under deadline, my husband will take a day off and vice versa. If that’s not possible, we’ll call a babysitter (or Grandma!) We’re not perfect parents but we work hard during the day so we can get home to our kids.

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L.L.: In THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR, Essie’s mother schedules time for Essie to get away to have her hair done, ‘maybe her nails and lunch out’…what do you always find time for?

Sally Hepworth: Hair! I really believe in the magical power of hair. If my life is in a shambles a good cut and color can sort me right out. I will go without a lot of things when I’m busy (bye bye leg waxes, gym workouts and eyebrow tinting) but by hook or by crook I’ll be at my quarterly hair appointments.

FL.L.: Sally, as always, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I should have asked, but forgot?

Sally Hepworth: No, but I’d like to thank you for having me once again!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR, please see:

See my past interviews with Sally THE MOTHER’S PROMISE (Feb 2017) and  THE THINGS WE KEEP (Feb 2016)

Order Links:

Sally Hepworth Headshot_highest res_credit Mrs. Smart Photography (1)ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sally Hepworth is the bestselling author of The Secrets of Midwives (2015), The Things We Keep (2016), The Mother’s Promise (2017), and The Family Next Door (Feb 2018). Sally’s books have been labelled “enchanting” by The Herald Sun, “smart and engaging” by Publishers Weekly, and New York Times bestselling authors Liane Moriarty and Emily Giffin have praised Sally’s novels as “women’s fiction at its finest” and “totally absorbing”.

Sally’s novels are available worldwide in English and have been translated into 15 languages.

Sally lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

 

[Cover and author image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press and used with permission. All images retrieved on 2.26.18. Working from library from, Birds-eye view of suburbia from, sad momma from, brick houses from,]

 

Special Pub Day Edition: #1 NYT bestselling author of THE HISTORIAN, Elizabeth Kostova’s new book, THE SHADOW LAND now out in paperback about Bulgaria, horrific labor camps, the magic of music and so much more

By Leslie Lindsay 

[original post 5.7.17]

NOW AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK!

#1 New York Times Bestselling Author of THE HISTORIAN, Elizabeth Kostova takes us on a cultural wandering the troubled hills of Bulgaria seeking truth and peace in the mesmerizing THE SHADOW LAND. 

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Alexandra Boyd is a 26-year old American who is seeking for something: truth, peace, belonging. She finds a job teaching English in Sofia, Bulgaria, a country she knows little about, but was a ‘beautiful green country on a map her brother found fascinating.’ With Jack no longer living, Alexandra sets forth on her adventure, in part to finally put her brother to rest.

Immediately, I was drawn into Alexandra’s story as she arrives jet-lagged and forlorn at a rustic hostel in the heart of Sofia. An encounter with a Bulgarian family, an accidental switch of bags, and a taxi propels the story into present-day action. Alexandra is left holding the bag, quite literally, of another man’s ashes.

We continue along a jaunty journey meeting various Bulgarians, a monastery, and horrors of a century of civil unrest.

“Kostova has the gift of hypnotic storytelling. [The Shadow Land] overflows with her lush language and descriptions that set the scene of every chapter brilliantly…inspiring.”—The Free Lance-Star

Alexandra will have to uncover the secrets of the talented musician who is was shattered by political oppression, his dreams crushed—yet, she will find that in doing so, she is ultimately in danger.

Please join me in conversation with Elizabeth Kostova, a gifted storyteller, whose characters are constantly evolving, looking to connect past with the present, in the hope that perhaps meaning can be found in the rubble.

Leslie Lindsay: Elizabeth, it is a pleasure and honor to host you today. Thank you, thank you for being here. You visited Bulgaria in 1989 just a week after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Subsequently, Bulgarian communist dictatorship crumbled then, too. You were taken with this ancient place, so much that you fell in love…in more ways than one. Am I right in saying this experience shaped your narrative for THE SHADOW LAND? Can you shed a little more light on your inspiration behind the book?

Elizabeth Kostova:  I first went to Bulgaria in 1989, when I was twenty-four, to do fieldwork on traditional singing in villages there, with two American friends.  It was an incredible experience, especially as the Berlin Wall fell a week before we arrived, bringing down with it the 45-year Bulgarian communist dictatorship.  The country was in turbulence, but also much more open to foreigners, especially in the villages, than it would have been just weeks earlier.  We were able not only to travel to beautiful and remote places but even sometime to stay in people’s homes while we interviewed them about how they’d learned the old songs of their regions.  It was amazing.  While I was there, I met my future husband, and we’ve returned to the country together many times over 28 years.

L.L.: I’ll be honest, I know very little about Bulgaria. But I do know [from reading your author’s note in THE SHADOW LAND] that this land is one of the first settled by Homo sapiens. Can you tell us more? I find that really fascinating.Devetashka-Bulgarian-Cave

Elizabeth Kostova:  Well, those early settlements are among the first settled by our species just in Europe—you can see the remains of those very early humans in several parts of the country, including some cave digs In fact, Bulgaria is a hotbed for archaeologists, because it contains remnants of so many different cultures from over millennia—not only Neolithic, but also ancient Greek, Thracian, Roman, Byzantine, and medieval Bulgarian, to name some of the major ones.  Bulgaria has always been a crossroads, culturally and geographically.

L.L.: Alexandra Boyd, the 26-year old American protagonist in the story has a secret [revealed fairly early in the story]. Was her character based on anyone in particular? Is there some symbolism between her story and the one of Stoyan Lazarov? I found that they mimicked one another in several ways. Was that intentional?

Elizabeth Kostova:  Alexandra isn’t based on anyone in my own life, but I did try to imbue her with the sense of newness, strangeness, and excitement I felt when I first went to Bulgaria at about her age!  (Fortunately, I never got into as much trouble as she does in the story.)  And I have a very vivid picture of her in my mind.  I did indeed want her 21st-century story and the story of my older character, from the 1940s and on–Stoyan Lazarov–to be parallel.  She is a stranger in a strange land, and he becomes a stranger in his own land.

“The Shadow Land is thrilling, and not just as a gripping tale. It’s also thrilling to watch such a talented writer cast her spell. The central character actually begins this deft novel in an urn, only to emerge as one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in a long time.

— Richard Russo, author of Everybody’s Fool

L.L.: And Stoyan Lazarov, the man whose ashes Alexandra is frantically trying to reunite with his family, his past is quite storied. In fact, nearly half the book is fraught with his time in Zelenets, a Bulgarian work camp. I’m so saddened to hear of this piece of history, which in many ways closely resembles the Holocaust. Can you talk about that?

Elizabeth Kostova:  Bulgaria, like most of the Soviet East Bloc, was riddled with different kinds of persecution of citizens, including the use of forced-labor camps that the regime filled with “enemies of the people.”  This was a way to frighten the population and push people to carry out surveillance against each other, and is one of the darkest moments in Bulgarian history.  Zelenets, the camp in my book, is a fictional setting, but closely based on details of some of the real camps in Bulgaria.  I was 18428370_401inspired to include it by my unexpected experience of visiting the ruins of a real camp—dilapidated and closed to the public—while I was doing research in Bulgaria for THE SHADOW LAND.  It was one of the emptiest, eeriest places I’ve ever seen, and it made me feel a responsibility to write about it.  Stoyan’s story also includes some joyful things, like a great love—and his love of his violin.

L.L.: And music! How I loved Stoyan’s use of distraction while he was a ‘walking skeleton’ at that horrific camp. How did Vivaldi and the violin come to the forefront of THE SHADOW LANDS? Do you play yourself?

Elizabeth Kostova:  I don’t play an instrument myself but am lucky enough to have three professional classical instrumentalists in my family!  I interviewed them extensively.  I love music myself, and the Bach and Vivaldi Stoyan plays in the novel are close to my heart.

L.L.: There is so much going on in THE SHADOW LANDS, from the exquisite foreign setting, to the deep grief of a lost life, the work camp, historical and cultural significance, Alexandra’s journey…what do you hope others glean?

Elizabeth Kostova:  My hope is that readers will feel that, like Alexandra, they get to visit and travel all over Bulgaria, a place we don’t usually put on our bucket lists!  Since the book came out, I’ve been hearing from a lot of American readers who are now planning to do just that, which thrills me.203px-Oilcape

L.L.: What’s got your attention these days? What inspires you?

Elizabeth Kostova:  I missed my characters so much as I finished editing THE SHADOW LAND that I started a new novel in October—I’m excited about it, but still developing the story.  It’s definitely going to involve more research travel.

L.L: I’m eager to know a little more about your Foundation for Creative Writing. What can you tell us?

Elizabeth Kostova:  When I first went to Bulgaria on book tour, with THE HISTORIAN (one third of that book is set in Bulgaria in the 1950s), I observed that a lot of Bulgarian writers and translators were working very hard but had very few formal opportunities to apply for—there just weren’t many prizes, programs, conferences, and so on.  And it had become hard for them to publish their own work in Bulgaria after the fall of the Wall, because a flood of books translated from English came into the country.  I wanted to be part of a solution rather than part of this problem!  In 2007, with a Bulgarian publisher, I co-founded the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation,  which offers some of those opportunities on a competitive basis and also bring writers from the English-writing world to Bulgaria to meet with Bulgarian writers.  It’s been very fulfilling, and a lot of fun, as well.

L.L.: Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Elizabeth Kostova:  You haven’t asked if I write with a pen or a laptop!  I’m grateful.

L.L.: Elizabeth, it’s been the utmost pleasure. Best wishes on THE SHADOW LANDS.

Elizabeth Kostova:  Thank you so much—it’s been a real pleasure to think about your questions.  I appreciate everything you do for books and writing.

For more information on THE SHADOW LAND, to connect with Elizabeth Kostova via social media, or to purchase a copy, please visit these links:

THE SHADOW LANDS NOW AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK (March 13, 2018)

KostovaPicks40flat3.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Elizabeth Kostova was born in Connecticut in 1964. She is the author of three novels, The Historian (Little, Brown, 2005), The Swan Thieves (Little, Brown, 2010), and The Shadow Land (Random House, 2017). The Historian was the first debut novel in U.S. publishing history to debut at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List, has been translated into 40 languages, and won Quill and Independent Bookseller Awards. The Swan Thieves was also a New York Times Bestseller and has been translated into 28 languages. Her short fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in such periodicals and anthologies as The Mississippi Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Best American Poetry, The Michigan Quarterly, and Another Chicago Magazine.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through these various social media channels:

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[Cover and author image retrieved from E. Kotova’s website on 5.8.17. Author image credit: Lynne Harty. Image of Bulgarian workcamp retrieved from dw.com, image of Maslen nos Primosko/Black Sea Coast retrieved from Wikipedia, and images of ancient caves retrieved from ancient-origins.net, all on 5.8.17]

 

 

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Debut author, A.J. Finn on his HOT bestselling psych thriller, WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, how he hates the ‘post-truth era,’ his favorite ear worm of 2018 (so far), lifting the stigma on mental health, plus those black & white films that inspired the book

By Leslie Lindsay 

Intricate and suspenseful and utterly unputdownable, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is on-par with smart, psychological thrillers that will stay with you long after you close the book for the final time. 

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THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is the most widely acquired novel of all time. Prior to publication, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (William Morrow, January 2 2018) had been sold 38 territories around the world, and Fox 200, the makers of LIFE OF PI and HIDDEN FIGURES preempted the film rights, with Oscar winner Scott Rudin producing and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts writing the script.

Stephen King loves it. So does Gillian Flynn and Ruth Ware.

Oh, and it’s a debut for A.J. But it doesn’t read like one. THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is smooth, rich, complex, and layered. 38 year old Anna Fox is a child psychologist by training but dealing with a severe case of agoraphobia herself.  Alcoholism plays a role, too and so does her faulty memory.

Anna Fox has been a prisoner of her own NYC brownstone for 10 months. She lives alone, separated from her daughter and husband. She spends her days watching neighbors outside her window, playing Chess on-line, watching old black and white thrillers, and participating in an on-line chat group for shut-ins. Yet something’s not right. We learn this (and what lead to Anna’s agoraphobia) about 2/3 into the story.

But there’s also what Anna *thinks* she saw happen in the home near hers. Something horrific and unimaginable. But no one believes her. She’s a drunk. She’s delusional.

The chapters are short and punchy and I found the reading experience flew. I had my own theories about what was really going on and some of it panned out, yet there were still plenty of surprises. Everyone always wants to know the ending in tales like this and if there’s a twist.

There is. That’s all I’ll say. 

So pull up a spot on the couch and join me and A.J. in conversation.

Leslie Lindsay: I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to chat with you about this stunning debut. I know that THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW draws on your lifelong long of suspense fiction, both on the page and screen; was that your ultimate inspiration for this tale, or was it something else?

A.J. Finn: Thanks for making time for me! Here’s the spark: One night in 2015, while parked on my sofa watching Rear Window, I clocked a light in my peripheral vision: my neighbor across the street, switching on a living-room lamp. In accordance with New York City custom, I watched her for a moment as she settled herself in her armchair and aimed a remote at the TV. Behind me, Thelma Ritter spoke up: “I can smell trouble right in this apartment,” she chided Jimmy Stewart as he peered into Raymond Burr’s window. “You look out. You see things you shouldn’t. James-Stewart-Rear-WindowTrouble.” When I turned back to the screen, she was glaring at me.

Interesting, I thought, how—sixty years later—I’m spying on my neighbors exactly as Stewart did his. Voyeurism dies hard.

L.L.: I heard somewhere that you wanted THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW to have a similar cinematographic feel as some of your favorite classic thrillers. In fact, reading this inspired me to re-watch GASLIGHT and REBECCA. Can you talk more about your fascination with those old movies?

A.J. Finn: As a teenager, I lived down the road from an art-house cinema, where I camped out every weekend. The managers hosted classic-movie nights, film noir retrospectives, Hitchcock marathons… and I steeped myself in all of it. I chased Harry Lime through Viennese sewers in The Third Man. I watched the conspiring women of Les diaboliques drown a man in a bathtub. I boarded Nicole Kidman’s yacht in Dead Calm. And I checked into the Bates Motel with Marion Crane—who, of course, wound up making an early exit.

I love the look, tone, and pace of older films: they’re stylish; they‘re sophisticated; they take their time establishing their characters and building suspense. And they appreciate and reinforce the value of restraint and suggestion. By contrast, many modern films rocket forward at a breathless pace; they appear to have been shot and edited without much care or craft; and they stoop to shock tactics and cheap scares.

L.L.: Anna lives in a large NYC brownstone. Oh, how I love old houses! What was your inspiration for the setting of this story? Do you think it would have worked as well if she were, say, living in a suburban split-level in Ohio?

A.J. Finn: Ultimately, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is a novel about loneliness. It explores how difficult it is to connect to others—and how easy it can be to misinterpret them. That’s why I decided to set the action in one of the world’s most densely populous cities: I wanted to demonstrate how even in a place where people are living shoulder-to-shoulder alongside others, they can still feel isolated, even alienated. Also, New York is a city familiar to fans of classic movie thrillers—Rear Window and Rope, to name but two. The urban environment lends a menace and mood to the story. Or so I hope!

L.L.: Dr. Anna Fox, your protagonist has severe agoraphobia. She’s basically been a victim of her very home for the last 10 months as a shut-in. She’s also a former well-regarded child psychologist. What kind of research did you do to get those pieces of her illness and profession ‘just so?’

A.J. Finn: I drew upon my own experience with depression, which over the years—and until my diagnosis and medication were corrected three years ago—had periodically left me unable to prize myself from bed, let alone leave the house. I also consulted psychiatrists specializing in anxiety disorders, as well as agoraphobes living in Manhattan. It was important to me to communicate, accurately and effectively, Anna’s condition.

L.L.: I’m grateful you shared this tid-bit about yourself. It seems stigma is lifting. There are books—memoirs—popping up all over. We hear about mental illness more in the public (I’m really getting tired of saying ‘media’). What are your thoughts about all of this? How does it inform your writing? Or does it?

A.J. Finn: We’ve got quite a ways to go, but I agree that there’s more discussion about and around mental health today than in years past. That said, mental illness is still perceived as a failing or defect, when in fact it’s as natural—and in many cases as treatable—as any other illness. I feel it’s informed my writing insofar as I try to create psychologically nuanced characters—characters with complications and contradictions, characters who struggle. As everyone struggles, in one way or another. My experience with mental health has also endowed me with what I consider a pretty potent sense of empathy—an invaluable asset, I think, in writing fiction.  

Instant #1 New York Times Bestseller

“Astounding. Thrilling. Amazing.” –Gillian Flynn

“Unputdownable.” –Stephen King

“A dark, twisty confection.” —Ruth Ware

“Absolutely gripping.” —Louise Penny

L.L.: Besides old black & white thrillers, what’s keeping you awake at night?

A.J. Finn: I’m deeply troubled by what some call the ‘post-truth era’ in which we live. We’re at the point where it’s broadly acceptable—at least in the political sphere—to dismiss disagreeable or unflattering facts as ‘fake news’; we hear elected officials suggesting that we ‘agree to disagree’ about inarguable facts. As a writer of fiction, I can appreciate as much as anyone else that there’s a clear, bold line between reality and make-believe. Cross or obliterate that line, and chaos ensues.

L.L.: Are you working on new?

A.J. Finn: I’m working on my second book, another psychological thriller—this time set in San Francisco, probably America’s most mysterious and romantic city. In this novel, characters actually set foot outdoors, which is a blessed relief.

L.L.: A.J., it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? Like, what you had for lunch, if you have a dog, or what ear worm is currently plaguing you? [I cannot get Bruno Mars’s “Cadillac” song to go away).

A.J. Finn: I don’t have a dog at the moment, although I grew up with six of them (not at the same time). I’ll be getting two pooches later this year: a puppy (French bulldog) and a senior rescue dog (Lab or mixed-breed). And my song of the year thus far is ‘Slower Than Usual’, by Ariel Beesley. Propulsive 80s-tinged electropop—very much my speed.

For more information, to connect with A.J. Finn via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, please see:

Order Links:

AJ Finn author photo color_photo courtesy of the authorABOUT THE AUTHOR: A. J. Finn has written for numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Times Literary Supplement (UK). A native of New York, Finn lived in England for ten years before returning to New York City. WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is his first book.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of William Morrow/Harper Collins and used with permission. Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window from.Movie poster images from Wikipedia, all retrieved 3.5.18]. 

Wednesdays with Writers: What do you call a book with recurring characters that isn’t a series? A ‘connected novel,’ perhaps? Robin Oliveira talks about this, her love for Albany NY, bike riding, researching books to be accurate yet emotional, how her former career as a critical care RN informs her writing and more in WINTER SISTERS

By Leslie Lindsay 

A haunting tale of a horrific New York blizzard that leads to missing girls, a court case, and dead parents. 

Winter Sisters
It’s March 1879, fourteen years after the Civil War. The day begins like any other. A light snow is falling as the O’Donnell family leave their simple home for work and school. But an epic blizzard has obliterated the city, separating children from parents and families from homes. Both of the O’Donnell parents area dead and the girls, Emma and Claire (ages 10 and 7) are nowhere to be found.

Close family friends, Dr. Mary Stipp (nee, Sutter)–whom we met in Oliveira’s earlier book, MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, and her husband, Dr. William Stipp, begin a tireless search for the girls, turning over every orphanage, church, home, school…the girls are nowhere to be found. The police feel they must have died in the river. Yet, scandal is brewing.

Meanwhile, Mary’s mother, Amelia and niece (Elizabeth) return from their stay in Paris where Elizabeth had been in the Paris Conservatory studying violin. Together, with the Drs. Stipp, the search continues, as well as grieving for the lost.

I found the writing absolutely glorious, with rich detail to the historical period, making every piece of the story feel very authentic and accurate (though some creative liberties were taken with the dates, as explained in the author’s note). Oliveira’s descriptions sing, as does her experience as a former critical care R.N., bringing so much of this 19th century doctor to life.

The last third of WINTER SISTERS was almost exclusively focused on a trial, which Oliveira depicts in such flourish and beauty, sharp dialogue, and clever characters. I was so taken with this part of the story and couldn’t get enough. Much of the themes angered me, but had me cheering for the ‘good guy,’ too.

Part family saga, part medical drama, part thriller, all set in a historical setting, WINTER SISTERS is sure to delight and enrage as it traverses unspeakable evil to tremendous good. 

I am so, so honored to welcome Robin to the blog couch. Please join us in conversation.

Leslie Lindsay: Robin, I loved WINTER SISTERS so much. I’m curious what drew you to this story? I know you’re from Albany, New York, but there has to be more to it other than it being your hometown. Can you elaborate?

Robin Oliveira: Thank you, Leslie. I’m so glad you loved the book. I love to hear when readers connect with one of my novels. Because we writers write in a vacuum, it is lovely to receive notes of appreciation.

I grew up in Loudonville, which is just north of Albany on Route 9, but we often drove into the city to attend church, visit the doctor, shop, go out to dinner. From the wide back seat of my mother’s Bonneville, I formed indelible memories of the city: the Hudson River seemed wide and forbidding, the trains traveling right down the middle of Broadway spoke of faraway places, and the grand, rococo spires of the churches were enthralling and historic. Albany wears its history on its sleeve. Much of its 19th century architecture remains intact, giving Albany a distinctly visible link to its past. There were wooden row houses and elegant brownstones and verdant parks and enormous government buildings that to a child seemed like the larger world. Of course, it wasn’t Paris or Manhattan, but at that time, to my eyes, Albany was a fascinating, dangerous, romantic place, full of story and drama. That impression, and the desire to convey Albany’s legacy, has lingered with me in the years since.

In the 19th century, Albany was not a city in decline but a significant player on the world stage, a vital crossroads between east and west, which makes it a rich setting for a novel. The Hudson River, the railroads, and the Erie Canal all played an important role in the prosperity of the nation. Hemmed in on one side by the river, high and low society lived cheek by jowl: the rough and tumble lumbermen, barons of industry, tumultuous politics and politicians, and a more genteel society several generations removed from its methods of enrichment. Separated from Manhattan City by only a four-hour dayboat ride or train trip, in its heyday Albany was intimately connected with the commerce of the entire country. This story, WINTER SISTERS, in particular, begged to be set in this thriving, small city, where gossip and scandal could impact multiple levels of society.

What drew me to the story itself is another question entirely. I didn’t set out to bring Mary back. But in the process of researching an entirely different book, I discovered that in 1879, in New York State, the age of consent was ten years old. That changed everything. I knew I had to write about it, and as I discovered that a doctor’s services would be called upon in the book, I thought Mary Sutter might make a cameo appearance. But the issues explored turned out to be grave, and I knew that if Mary got wind of them, she wouldn’t stay silent or stand by while somebody else dealt with the problem. She wouldn’t be content with having a distant role. So, she needed to be intimately affected by the events of the novel. And voila! A new Mary Sutter novel was born.

L.L.:  WINTER SISTERS picks up about fourteen years after the Civil War. In your previous book, MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, we’re introduced to a brilliant, headstrong midwife who eventually becomes a Civil War surgeon. Dr. Mary Sutter (now married to Dr. William Stipp), is back in this tale, but this isn’t exactly a series, is it? Is there a literary term for this type of character cross-over? And what is it about Mary that you—and readers—love so much?mary-sutter-250

Robin Oliveira: I know, it isn’t quite a series, is it? Shall we invent a term? Connected novels, like connected short stories? Though I have received many requests from readers over the years to ‘bring Mary back,’ I could never find a story that seemed as necessary or compelling to tell as the one I had already told about her. I felt as if I’d solved all her problems, and that nothing else would ever be as exciting or interesting as becoming a surgeon in the midst of war. What I think compels readers—and me—to love Mary Sutter is that she is a bright, clear-headed, courageous woman who speaks her mind, ignores societal conventions, slices directly into the heart of things, runs into trouble rather than away from it (the definition of a hero), and persists no matter the roadblock. I particularly love her verbal comebacks. She thinks of and says the apt rebuke or bon mot we all wish we were able to say in similarly fraught moments. There are many situations in my life where I think, Well, Mary wouldn’t have let that person speak to her like that. Why did you? Of course, it took me three or more drafts to write the words she wields as deftly as a sword. But what I think I adore most about Mary is that she is at heart an entirely moral human being. She rejects the frivolous—fashion, status, appearance—for the pursuit of much higher goals.  

L.L.:  Like Mary, you have experience in the medical field as a former critical care nurse. Your knowledge shines through in those medical scenes (I was a former psych R.N.) and so I’m curious how you made the switch from nursing to writing and how your past experience informs your present writing.

Robin Oliveira: Before I ever thought about becoming a nurse, I was a reader. From early in my life, you could find me buried in a book somewhere in a corner, oblivious to the world around me, enthralled by a story. Since you and I have a lot in common—we are both readers, writers and nurses—I think you would probably agree that what connects those occupations is empathy. Writing is nothing if not an act of empathy, as is nursing. We inhabit differing realities, seek out hidden sources of pain, and do what we can to craft meaning from the lives we encounter, or in fiction, the characters we create. On a practical level, my transition to writing began with education. Having failed at making much progress in learning to write on my own, I started taking writing classes at the local community college, then moved on to university extension evening courses, and finally received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. I have made a number of changes over the years. My first undergraduate degree was in Russian, a reflection of my love of language.

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All of these things—reading, nursing, my love of language—inform my present writing. But more specifically, nursing brought me close to people on the verge of mortality. The intimacy of the act of nursing the critically ill breeds the kinds of instinct that work well for a writer: notice everything, try to draw meaning from sometimes inchoate gestures or requests, ask multiple questions to understand what someone’s true desire might be, especially at the end of life. In addition, I probably am able to write about medicine with more precision than another writer, who isn’t in the medical field. But I think that medicine and illness—even cursory illness— isn’t utilized enough in fiction. I often wonder about books covering many years in which no character ever suffers even a cold. It’s important as we write to acknowledge the weaknesses of the body as well as the soul. Nurses and physicians who write may be more focused on this.

“A true tour de force, Winter Sisters is the best period thriller I’ve read since The Alienist. Robin Oliveira is…working at the height of her powers.”
   —Thomas Christopher Greene, author of The Headmaster’s Wife and If I Forget You

L.L.:  I absolutely loved the piece about the courtroom showdown, which takes place in the last third of WINTER SISTERS. I was in awe of the quick wit, the cleverness, and I was thinking, ‘how did she pull this off?’ What research did you do for these scenes?

Robin Oliveira: I spent a lot of time reading 17th and 19th-century trial transcripts. I began with reading the Old Bailey transcripts from England—now available online—which were helpful in terms of tone but less helpful in terms of procedure and law. But New York trial transcripts, also recently digitized, are available from the early 1880’s, close enough to 1879 to be useful to me. I ferreted out procedure from these, as well as language and the kinds of questions lawyers were asking victims and witnesses.

In my first drafts, I didn’t quite know how to portray that court scene, never having written one, and not being a fan of television crime dramas. I couldn’t quite figure out how to craft those scenes so that they were tight and yet still portrayed what would have occurred in the courtroom. At first, I wrote endlessly long scenes recounting events and information that readers already knew. My editors, after reading the 200,000-word draft I sent them on my first deadline, implored me to cut the dross. It was excruciating figuring out which details to include and which to summarize in order to make the scene move with the kind of speed required to keep a reader’s attention without sacrificing any important details. As far as wit and cleverness go—thank you!—that was just rewriting. I went through multiple drafts. I included repartee because the events of the trial are so weighty that I felt the reader needed some comic relief in order to stay with me.

L.L.: There’s a lot to this book. There are missing girls, family drama, music in form of the violin, the natural disasters of the blizzard and flood, medical procedures, and of course that courtroom scene(s). They are all interrelated and form a delicious whole, but is there one aspect you enjoyed writing more than others?

Robin Oliveira: I like learning new things. It’s the perennial student in me. I knew nothing about playing the violin—I can’t play a single instrument and am tone deaf—so I enjoyed figuring out how to write about a character who knew how to play the violin really well. I spent a lot of time on YouTube watching performances and listening to violin instructors explain things. I went to a Hilary Hahn concert to study her phrasing and watched her physicality as played. I went to Paris to visit the Conservatoire, which was wildly fun. Not trusting my two years of college French in conversation, I composed a note that I presented at the door of the school, which explained that I was writing a book and that part of it was set in the conservatory. Could I please come in to see the building and the famous concert hall? Yes! They let me in! I love the French. Then came the challenge of writing about the conservatory and about playing the violin convincingly enough, which was both a terror and a joy. This might be a good time to mention that 90% of my research doesn’t make it to the page; however, I think what I learn imbues the narrative with more depth than it would otherwise hold.  

L.L.: Can you talk a little more about the music piece? In this sense, this story reminded me a bit of Carmela Martino’s PLAYING BY HEART. What was your intention with Elizabeth and her violin?

Robin Oliveira: One of the reasons I chose to include music in the story was that I needed Elizabeth to stand very much in opposition to her aunt. Their differences, both in personality and profession, provide a source of conflict that pushes one of the narrative threads. Mary Sutter is a physician who from an early age was scientifically grounded, practical in the extreme, and as a result seems better equipped to handle the kinds of issues that arise in WINTER SISTERS. By contrast, Elizabeth has always been artistic and emotional, and as a result not only feels far more vulnerable than perhaps her aunt ever has, but also, at first, seems to have very little to offer when the crisis presents itself. But each of them is a prodigy in their own right, and Elizabeth has something to provide that it turns out that Mary, with all her medical skill, cannot. Elizabeth’s musical genius reaches into the soul—and this story cried out for every tool available to respond to the story’s tragedy.

L.L.:  Can you give us a few “Robin” facts, maybe something few know?

Robin Oliveira: I love to ride my bicycle around the San Juan Islands in Washington. I studied in Moscow, USSR, in January 1976, when I was just twenty-two years old. I once skinny-dipped in Puget Sound. (I don’t recommend it. Too cold.) I’m addicted to watching eagle cams so I can observe growing eaglets while I write. I’m afraid of sailboats. I almost drowned when I was four years old on a family vacation in Cape Cod. I included one of my childhood dreams in WINTER SISTERS. I love the ballet. I was a Girl Scout, but probably sold the fewest boxes of cookies of any Girl Scout ever. And I met President Carter on a trip to the White House in 1977, and President Obama when he was raising funds for his first run for the White House.

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L.L.: What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Robin Oliveira: Perhaps the question I most often receive about my books is how authentic is the history in my books?

The answer is 99% of it. If I ever differ from established history, I explain how and why in my author notes. As you alluded to earlier, for WINTER SISTERS I moved a famous blizzard from 1888 to 1879. I did that because I needed my characters to be a certain age, and since they had already appeared in a prior book, I had to fudge that timing. But given the history of deadly winter storms in the northeast, I didn’t think it was too much of a stretch.

I like to put my readers—and myself—back in time. I do this by making my characters contend with reality as it was then. For instance, every boat or train they take adheres to historic schedules. In MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, I wouldn’t allow Mary to possess more medical knowledge than was available at the time. This of course led her to make mistakes, but it was important to show medicine as it was, not medicine as I wanted her to know it. Also, I make certain never to move my historical characters from one place to another unless I can make a good case for how it might have happened. Again in MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, I knew that President Lincoln gave a speech on a certain day very near General Lee’s house in Arlington, Virginia, where most of the Union Army had decamped after a blistering defeat at Manassas. I thought it was possible that Lincoln could have traveled on to visit the general who had mismanaged the battle, so I felt comfortable writing a scene set there. In I ALWAYS LOVED YOU, a story about the impressionist artists Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt, I kept a detailed timeline of where every single artist in their circle was at any given time so that I wouldn’t have them meet while one was in Paris, say, and the other in Aix.

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It’s very important to me to underpin historical story with historical fact. However, emotional character arcs, in my mind, are fair game for interpretation in fiction. While I never go against anything that can be historically verified, story is not made up of facts. It is instead made up of emotion—the why something happened, which at its core speaks to motivation. Characters make decisions based on desire, and story ensues. That’s what makes historical fiction differ from history. That said, when I write about historical characters, I make heavy use of diaries, letters, reports, newspaper stories, etc. so that I can better get to the heart of who they were and what they wanted. Never is a historical figure a pawn in my story about them. Rather, I try to understand their story in order to portray it as intimately and emotionally true as I am able.

L.L.: Robin, it’s been such a pleasure! Thank you.

Robin Oliveira: The pleasure is all mine!

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Robin Oliveira - © Shellie Gansz 2017.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Robin Oliveira grew up just outside Albany, New York in Loudonville. She holds a B.A. in Russian, and studied at the Pushkin Language Institute in Moscow, Russia. She worked for many years as a Registered Nurse, specializing in Critical Care and Bone Marrow Transplant. In 2006 Robin received an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In 2007 she was awarded the James Jones First Novel Fellowship for her debut novel-in-progress, MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, then entitled The Last Beautiful Day. MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER also received the 2011 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction and the 2010 American Historical Fiction Honorable Mention from the Langum Charitable Trust. The book was chosen as an all-city read for both Schenectady, N.Y. and Roswell, Georgia, and in 2015, the all-state read for Iowa. Her book, I ALWAYS LOVED YOU, was published by VIKING in 2014. WINTER SISTERS is her newest, set for publication on February 27th, 2018. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Euphony and Numero Cinq. Robin is the former fiction editor at the literary magazine upstreet and a former assistant editor at Narrative Magazine. She lives outside of Seattle, Washington with her husband, Andrew Oliveira. She is the mother of two grown children, Noelle and Miles.

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Viking/Penguin Random House and used with permission. Author photo credit: Shellie Lansz. Paris Conservatory images retrieved from Wikipedia; signs and storefronts of c. 1892 Albany NY from  Albany mansion from, nurse reading from, backroads biking on San Juan from , image of old letters from; all on 2.15.18]