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.

 

 

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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].

WeekEND Reading: Brad Parks on his new domestic thriller, CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW

By Leslie Lindsay 

What if you went to pick up your child from daycare only to learn he has been taken by social services? That’s what was haunting Brad Park when he set out to write CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW; understanding the emotional arc of his female characters, how being stubborn is his greatest strength at the keyboard, plus Coke Zero & ice cream

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Brad Parks is back with another stand-alone domestic thriller with engaging characters, stunning twists, and chilling discoveries, this time focusing on Child Social Services, a drug bust and more. 

CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW, the latest thriller from Brad Parks, is the perfect encapsulation of everything Parks does so well—shocking twists, compelling, true-to-life characters, and affecting emotional impact.

So when the publishing house reached out to me with this one, I knew I had to get my hands on it. Plus, that cover! It’s so hauntingly typical.

After a childhood spent bouncing between foster care homes, Melanie Barrick finally has the life she’s always wanted. But one day, Melanie goes to pick up her son Alex from childcare and discovers he has been removed by Social Services.

When she arrives home, she learns that her house has been raided by the sheriff’s deputies, who tell her that they’ve found enough cocaine to put her behind bars for years.

Though she maintains her innocence, Melanie knows she will lose Alex forever if she can’t find definitive proof that someone is trying to frame her.

Parks’ first standalone, SAY NOTHING, received rave reviews from top media outlets, genre titans–including Sue Grafton, Lee Child, and Jeffery Deaver–and readers alike. And CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW is just as thrilling. 

Please join me in conversation with Brad Parks. 

Leslie Lindsay: Brad, I’m so thrilled to have you today. I’m always interested to know what inspired a particular title. Can you tell us how you chose to center the plot of Closer Than You Know around the child welfare system?

Brad Parks: As an upper middle class white kid, I grew up with exactly zero experience of the child welfare system. Then I spent a decade as a reporter in Newark, where child protective services was an enormous presence in the lives of many, if not most, poor families. As a political nerd, it fascinated me that in America—a nation founded by guys trying to resist tyranny—we created a system that gives government so much authority over such an intensely personal aspect of citizens’ lives. Think about it: No matter where you live, there is a state or local agency that has legal ability to take your children away from you. Now, most of the time, that authority is only used with great caution and only as a last resort. But what an awesome power. Especially if it was abused. That’s the basic germ that I allowed to take root in CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW that someone who understands the system could manipulate it to steal someone’s baby.

L.L.: What research did you do for this novel? Were there any differences between this book’s research into the judicial system and that of your last book, Say Nothing?

Brad Parks: I spoke with people who work for Virginia social service agencies at a variety of levels—from a former secretary all the way up to a director. They were, without exception, dedicated professionals whose hearts were absolutely in the right place. From them, I learned how the system is supposed to work. Then I spoke with, and read memoirs by, former foster kids. From them I learned how the system actually works. There are some success stories, of course. But for a lot of children, particularly those who enter foster care at later ages, the system creates as many problems as it fixes.  I also spent time hanging around Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court, talking with lawyers and a judge. The great difficult there is that, unlike adult courts, trials involving children are closed. That was probably the greatest difficulty: Not having the opportunity to observe directly. I found myself asking a lot of my sources questions like, “Okay, how does this go exactly? What does this look like?”hqdefault

L.L.: This is your first novel told from the perspective of female protagonists, Melanie Barrick and Amy Kaye. Did you find writing from the perspective of female characters more challenging? How did you ensure that the tone felt authentic? 

Brad Parks: With forty-three years’ experience thinking like a guy—and none thinking like a woman—the prospect of writing from the female perspective definitely intimidated me at first. And there were a handful of scenes where I was cognizant that a woman would experience the events unfolding in a fundamentally different way. But for the most part, once I got into the story, I was amazed how little it actually mattered. In most of the situations these women faced, gender was probably the seventh or eighth most important thing motivating their thoughts and actions. There were other aspects of their personalities that simply mattered more. They were driven by their wants, their needs, their ideals, their hopes. I realized pretty quickly I wasn’t writing female protagonists. I was writing human protagonists who happened to be female.

L.L.: CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW is your eighth novel. How is this one different than your previous stories?

Brad Parks: I always have strong feelings for my characters. But I was more attached to Melanie Barrick than I’ve ever been to any of my previous protagonists, even the one loosely based on me. There were times when I felt this horrible guilt about what I was doing to her—ripping her baby away from her, putting her through this horrible ordeal, sending her to prison. I always talk my characters throughout the writing of a novel. I found myself apologizing to Melanie quite a bit.

L.L.: You write a lot about the bond between a mother and her child in CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW. How were you able to convey this unique relationship on the page so vividly? And did your own experience as a dad shape the narrative?

Brad Parks: I did a tour of duty as a stay-at-home dad with an infant. For many long hours each day, it was just me and this baby. I came to realize that a big part of what our culture calls “motherhood” is really just having another human being who is wholly dependent on you for every need, all the time. So I certainly drew on that physical and emotional experience. But I also came to understand there is another aspect to motherhood, and that’s because I watched my wife parent this same child. She wasn’t with the baby for huge chunks of the day, like I was, and yet there were ways in which her bond with the baby was undeniably closer. That really helped me flesh out Melanie Barrick, because when Alex gets taken from her, she is no longer his caregiver. But, deep in the very core of her, she is—and will always be—his mother.

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L.L.: This novel is so emotionally resonant, but also quite thrilling in that psych-suspense aspect.How do you balance the plot so they are both something the reader will ‘feel’ but also entertaining?

Brad Parks: I write by feel. If I don’t feel something, chances are the reader isn’t going to feel something. And if the reader isn’t feeling something. . . well, really, what’s to stop them from putting this down and playing Sudoku?

L.L.:  Before you were a full-time novelist, you were a successful journalist. How does that inform your work today?

Brad Parks: One year at a daily newspaper brings you into contact with enough fascinating stories and weird characters to fuel at least twenty novels. It also teaches you how to learn (quickly!) about anything at all.

L.L.: Do you miss journalism?

Brad Parks: I miss the people. The newspaper newsroom of yore was a magical place: A collection of bright, talented, irascible folks—many of them temperamentally unsuited for employment in any other industry—who spent half the morning strangling each other and half the afternoon worrying about lunch. But then somehow by the end of the day, they managed to get their act together just enough to publish the equivalent of a full-length novel, complete with pictures, graphics, and the horoscopes. And then they’d get up the next day and do it all over again. It was magical to be even a small part of the whole crazy show.

L.L.: How did you make the decision to transition into writing novels?

Brad Parks: In some ways, the decision was made for me. The newspaper business began entering its death spiral around the time I turned thirty. I came to realize there was no chance I was going to be able to ride that dinosaur all the way to retirement. I took a buyout in 2008, when I was 34, figuring it was better to jump than be pushed. At that time it was frightening. And depressing. Journalism was all I had ever done, all I knew. But looking back, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Under ordinary circumstances, I am far too risk-averse by nature to do something as outrageous as leaving a steady job for the uncertainty of writing novels. It took the collapse of the industry to make me pursue a dream I otherwise would have been too chicken to chase on my own.

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L.L.: Can you tell us something about your process that might surprise people?

Brad Parks: How—for lack of a better word—physical it is. While I’m working on a novel, particularly in that crucial first-draft stage, I treat myself like a professional athlete in season. I do everything I can to maximize performance: I eat right; I don’t drink much (besides Coke Zero); I try to give my brain lots of rest, whether that’s goofing off in the afternoon, or getting eight hours of sleep at night. Don’t get me wrong, I have distractions, like everyone. But my goal is to structure the other twenty hours a day so that those four hours in the chair can be as productive as possible.

L.L.: What do you think is the most important trait you bring to the keyboard?

Brad Parks: Stubbornness. It’s the gas for my writing engine, and I’d like to think I have more of it than most. When my wife was in grad school, she had to learn how to administer intelligence tests and I served as her test dummy. There was one test where you had to rearrange blocks. The scoring was a sliding scale based on how quickly you could complete the task. You didn’t get any points if it took longer than two minutes, but the test administrator couldn’t tell you to stop. I kept fumbling with those stupid blocks for twenty-six minutes before I finally solved that second-grade problem. But that’s the great thing about writing. There’s no stopwatch on you. I may not be the smartest guy in the world, but I am willing to bash my head against the screen until the words come out right.

“Exciting. . . Parks excels at keeping the pages turning with brisk pacing, relentlessly high tension, and a knotty narrative.”
Publishers Weekly

L.L.: Rumor has it that you’re known to break out into song during author events. Me, too but not at author events…just around the house. And not well. Everyone rolls their eyes. What inspired you to make this a trademark at your events? Were you involved in musical theater during your school years?

Brad Parks: Those rumors are malicious and false. How dare you. . . Uh, okay, guilty as charged. I was all-state chorus, did high school musicals, sang a cappella in college (yeah, I was one of those guys) and have continued to sing in pretty much any forum in which I am not muzzled by either decorum or someone’s hand. It’s just something I love to do. 

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW?

Brad Parks: To my knowledge, there’s never been a thriller that uses the child welfare system as its backdrop. And while I’m not trying to cram a social work textbook down their throats, I would hope readers come away with a more nuanced understanding of that world and some compassion for those involved in it. That’s one of the things I love about the thriller genre: It’s a vehicle that allows you to explore some weighty social issues, yet do so in a way that’s still wildly entertaining. Done right, it’s like ice cream that’s good for you.

L.L.: Thank you, Brad. It was a pleasure…and now, for that ice cream.

For more information, or to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of CLOSER THAN YOU THINK, please visit:

Order Links:

brad-parks-smile-225-shadowABOUT THE AUTHOR:   International bestselling author Brad Parks is the only writer to have won the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty Awards, three of American crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. His novels have been translated into a dozen languages and have won critical acclaim across the globe, including stars from every major pre-publication review outlet. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Parks is a former journalist with The Washington Post and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger. He is now a full-time novelist living in Virginia with his wife and two school-aged children.

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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website and used with permission from publisher. Images all retrieved on 3.15.18. Sources as follows: stay at home dad image retrieved from, newspaper newsroom image retrieved from, Juvenile and Domestic Relations court sign retrieved from,]

 

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.

###

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]

WeekEND Reading: Julie Lythcott-Haims on her new book, ‘REAL AMERICAN’

By Leslie Lindsay

‘Where are you from? No, where are you from, from?’ Julie Lythcott-Haims tackles race, self-love, how poetry helped unleash her voice, the unique structure of REAL AMERICAN–how the formatting was intentional, and so much more

Searingly honest, raw memoir about what it’s like to be biracial in 1970s-today’s America.

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I tore through Lythcott-Haims’s memoir, REAL AMERICAN; this is such an important read, one everyone ought to take the time to read and reflect upon. In fact, after I finished, a barrage of emotions hit me and also, I began cataloging all my interactions with those of a race other than my own.

In first grade, a gangly Black* girl with a head full colorful clips that rattled and clanged as she peered at me through the cracks in the bathroom stall caused me alarm. I told my mother, who was convinced the ‘bussing program’ was a problem. She wanted to have words with my teacher, but I assured her it wasn’t a problem.

Also, in first grade, I was made math partners with an Eastern Indian boy. We worked with plastic stacking cubes while learning our 10s, 5s, etc. The cubes were brown, like candy caramels. I told him, proudly, ‘Hey–your skin is the same color [as those cubes].’ I thought my observation was astute, but was quickly embarrassed when he shrugged and went back to the task at hand.

At some point, in my elementary years, I inspected the freckles on my legs quite regularly. One was particularly dark and a little larger than the others. “Mom,” I said, “Is this what I would look like if I were Black?” I pointed to the freckle. The skin around the freckle started getting pink from all of my poking. My mother nodded and said, “Yes, probably.”

And there was one girl who, like Julie Lythcott-Haims, *was* biracial. Her mother was white, her father black. Just like Julie. She had golden-brown ringlets her mother fastened in two ropy braids alongside her face. She had a gap between her teeth and full lips. Her skin was a beautiful tawny and she was well-liked. She may have been the only biracial girl in my entire elementary school.

There are more stories and tid-bits throughout my years, but this, too is much like Julie’s story.
She recounts her life as a Black girl, mostly and not what it’s like to be ‘white,’ at all. The writing is raw, uncensored, powerful, brave, and bare. It stirred me and made me think of conscious and unconscious racism. And in some instances, I was quite embarrassed with my assessments of others.

“Courageous, achingly honest.”
—Michelle Alexander 

The narrative in REAL AMERICAN is slightly experimental, almost as though Lythcott-Haims is sending a series of emails about her race, her self-esteem, her identity to the big wide world. Pieces of it are quite poetic, but all of it is seriously enlightening.

You may remember Julie from her bestselling book, HOW TO RAISE AN ADULT, which I featured in 2015. She holds a BA from Stanford, a JD from Harvard Law School, and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. She also served as undergraduate dean of freshman and undergraduate advising at Stanford.

Today, I am so, so honored to sit down with Julie Lythcott-Haims and chat about REAL AMERICAN, which may be more important than ever given our social and political climate. Please join us.

[*Black is capitalized throughout REAL AMERICAN, I will keep it that way here, too]

Leslie Lindsay: Julie, oh wow. Just wow. You had me hooked with the first line of REAL AMERICAN:

“Where are you from?”

“Here.”

“No, I mean, where are you from from?”

I’ve been guilty of asking this very question. I was in 9th grade and it was directed toward a boy I had a major crush on. He was dark and gorgeous and a little exotic. His response, “I’m from the same place as you:  Earth.” I don’t think I ever asked that question again. What was the driving force behind your desire to write REAL AMERICAN?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Haha. I guess partly it was from being sick of that question, which I’ve gotten for the better part of 50 years (along with its twin, “What ARE you?”), which connotes, “You are confusing to me, perhaps problematic; I need these answers so I know where to put you in my schema of how humans are valued.”

The driving force behind it was to try to tell a story many of us experience but often don’t talk about, which is the self-loathing we feel when we discover our place in a nation that is built in large part on racist attitudes and practices. The narrative arc of the book goes like this: I am a Black and biracial child with a Black daddy and white momma and I am discovering something is wrong with brown skin. Over time, your racism makes me loathe myself and my Blackness and makes me dislike and distrust Black people. Shame on you for heaping your racism on me. I’ve now done the work to lift your racism off of me. THIS is what I sound like now that I am unrestrained, free.

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L.L.: REAL AMERICAN must tackle the race question because that’s what it’s all about, really. Let’s start with your parents. Your father is Black; a direct descendant of slaves. He was also the assistant surgeon general under President Carter. He met your white mother while living and working in Africa raising his four children from a previous marriage as a single father. Your mother came from Yorkshire, England. They fell in love. They married. You were born in Africa. But you are not African. Your father is American. Your mother is British. You hold American citizenship. Why does this matter? Because, it does.

Julie Lythcott-Haims: I’m proud of have been born in a S***hole country – Nigerians were the first humans I knew outside of my own family. But I am not Nigerian, or African, no. At least, not recently.

The vile movement known as Birtherism made our birth stories matter. I’ve spent over ten years wondering, wait, even if Obama was born in Kenya (which he wasn’t), he’s still an American because he was born to an American, right? This mattered to me because of the circumstances of my birth. I felt like my own American-ness was tarnished whenever the racist birthers slung their mud about Obama.

Because what am I if not American? American is the only citizenship I have ever held (Britain wouldn’t recognize citizenship through the mother at the time of my birth, although they do now; Nigeria would let me claim their citizenship if I applied for it by age 18, which I saw no need to do although I wish I had dual-citizenship now). Who are these people to carve lines between which of us are real Americans and which of us aren’t?  

Beyond the fact of my citizenship, is identity, and like any mixed-race parents, mine were told to “raise her as Black, so she’ll be Black and proud.” It was the prevailing wisdom in the 70s when I was coming up and biracial kids were an anomaly, and it is sound advice still today. But you can’t just tell a kid what their identity is. You have to give them cultural touchstones so they can feel it, hold onto it, make it real. My parents did the opposite by raising me in all white towns. I think this was a way for my father to thumb his nose at white society and demonstrate his status and success all at the same time. He’s been gone for over twenty years now, so I can’t talk to him about this, but Mom says he wanted me to be “comfortable in any room, with any people,” by which he meant he wanted me to make it with white folks. What he overlooked was the importance of being in community with Black folk, who could help me navigate the treacherous line of race, and who could help me back up to my feet when I racism’s blows came. If my father hadn’t passed away over twenty years ago, I think I’d be having this out with him right now.

5982e1e1c7ec62338170b1e625bf1a2cL.L.: And then you were raised in some very ‘white’ places, Madison, Wisconsin for one. You felt not white-enough for the white people and not black-enough for the Black people. I can see how you’d feel in the middle. Can you talk more about that feeling? Also, I feel like Madison is now a very progressive city, but…you were there in the early 1980s. Do you think things have changed?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Madison was and is a huge college town with folks who hail from all over the world. But as with many college towns, go a few miles out of town and you can find yourself in whiteville where you get stupid comments, angry looks, or far, far worse. I went to high school in Middleton, a community on the outskirts of Madison, which was almost entirely white. There, I was subjected to stupid comments from friends, like, “I don’t think of you as Black, I think of you as normal,” and racist remarks from teachers such as: “Blacks have a higher infant mortality rate because Black parents don’t love their children as much as white parents do.” I left in 1985 and never looked back. I can’t speak to whether it has changed, although it has to have.

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L.L.:  Switching gears a bit to the structure of REAL AMERICAN; the pagination and font of the narrative is a bit like an email. It’s not written in chronological order, but more like a series of essays. Some points are reiterated throughout but the overall theme is about identity. Can you talk about how you structured your memoir?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Thanks for asking about this. This stuff goes over the heads of most readers but I love talking about it. The genre is creative non-fiction—I let the form support the narrative rather than stuffing the narrative into some pre-determined form. It’s in nine parts, with the first and last parts being summative and analytical, and with parts 2-8 being largely chronological with a few flashbacks here and there and one large piece of backstory on my family. The narrative voice is prose poetry, meaning there are places where the prose violates the rules of grammar and syntax in order to most effectively convey my intent. There is a large right margin on every page which is the omnipresence of whiteness in my life as a Black woman; that is, I’m not entitled to use the whole page but I try to make good use of the space I’ve got. The font is sans-serif as to my mind, serif conveyed a flourish, a flounce, a privilege that I believe betrayed the narrative. Each part consists of chapters demarcated with a roman numeral. Some of the nine parts have only five chapters, some have over thirty. Some of those chapters take up the full page or multiple pages, whereas other chapters are a paragraph long, or a few sentences, or one sentence followed by a completely blank page. By the way, I had to fight like hell with my publisher about all of these structural points; to my dismay they hadn’t realized all of these devices were “intentional” and “integral” to the text even though I sold them a manuscript that looked exactly this way.

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L.L.: There’s a piece in the narrative where  you talk about not liking or ‘getting’ poetry. Actually, your exact words were:

“I hated poetry for its confounding barriers […] obscurity […] wasn’t interested in trying to open that locked gate.” Yet there are pieces of REAL AMERICAN that read very poetically.

For example:

“These words. Like quicksand. A trap. Like a truth that swallows itself.”

Can you talk about how race and poetry both become ‘unlocked’ in REAL AMERICAN?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yep I hated poetry right up until I read Lucille Clifton’s poetry collection, Good Woman. My reaction to her poetry was, “If these words are possible, if she is possible, then maybe I am possible.” To me free verse is our natural state of expression; the notion that words have to be gathered in sentences or rhyme is a fiction, an imposition, designed by whomever was in charge at the time. Our words come to us as they will, and I think my job as a writer is to honor how they came.

I only knew this, believed this, felt this, as my own Black self was healing itself from the wounds racism had inflicted upon me. So as I heaved the cloak of racism off of me, my voice, too, became less constrained by rules, custom, the opinions of others. I became self loving as a Black woman and my voice became more poetic. I can’t say it was causal; on the other hand, I’m hardly surprised that it happened this way.

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L.L.: And going back to identity, do you feel like yours is more cognizant, more actualized after writing REAL AMERICAN? Was the process in any way…cathartic? Did it show you other truths you didn’t expect to discover?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: I feel like I became cognizant and actualized before I wrote the book, which is what allowed me to write it. (Yes, I’ve learned a lot more about myself now being the author of this book, as I get questions and hear commentary from others; but those newer knowings are deepenings and nuances as opposed to stark truths.) I read Clifton in 2005 and it would be three to five years later that I unpacked my ugliest truths of my identity with an executive coach (truths like, as a child I: 1) hated being Black; 2) feared other Black people; and 3) wanted to be what white people wanted. Speaking the truth to my coach was not just catharsis but release, and relief. Then self love and love of all Black people flooded into me. Writing the book was more of a question of, “Okay I know this is true for me, but do I really want to share this with others?” More often than not, the answer was “Yes.”

L.L.: You have two teenaged children, a boy and a girl. How do you hope the world is different for them? Oh, this is a huge question! How do you hope they see race?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Well we’re not post-racial and probably won’t be in their lifetimes, so my job is to equip them to love themselves in an America whose founding, economy, history, systems, narrative, and policies right up to the present exist on a framework of whiteness. My husband is white and Jewish. Our son is unambiguously a man of color. Our daughter passes for white to many people. As a result they will confront racism differently. My son has to love himself regardless of the prejudice against brown skin which is out there, and he has to know how to conduct himself out there so as not to incur the attention of racist law enforcement officers or civilians. My daughter, too, has to love herself regardless of what others think, and carrying the privilege that comes with skin perceived as white, when she overhears people saying racist things about Black folk I hope she’ll be so self-loving that she will call them out and claim me, her Black mother, all the way back to Sylvie, her slave ancestor, rather than act as if these words are not about her.

[Julie mentions a woman, a mother in REAL AMERICAN who is raising two black children and three white. Her post is incredibly powerful and I am grateful to have come across it in REAL AMERICAN. You can read it here.]

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L.L.: Julie, I could probably ask questions all day, but I will stop here. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Sometimes an audience member asks who the book is for.  Drawing ever wider circles of potential audiences for the book, I tell them the smallest circle is Black or biracial people whose heads may nod up and down toward certain passages in the book because they’ve felt what I have felt. (And, I have to say, my book tour was filled with interactions with Black folk, particularly Black women, who did in fact have this reaction often expressed with choked-back tears.) The next larger circle are all the other people of color who can relate. The next circle is anyone who has been made to feel like “the other” in America. And finally, the outermost circle is anyone willing to feel compassion for “the other” and to turn that compassion into radical ally-ship so as to make this country a better place.

L.L.: It’s been a pleasure! Thank you.

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Thanks for your fabulous questions, Leslie.

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

Order Links:

JLHB&WHighResABOUT THE AUTHOR:  I’m interested in the human experience, and I write non-fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry with the aim of helping humans thrive. I hold a BA in American Studies from Stanford University, a JD from Harvard Law School, and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. I am a member of the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto. I live in Silicon Valley with my partner of close to thirty years, our two teenagers, and my mother.

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

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[Cover and author images courtesy of Henry Holt Publishers and used with permission. GOOD WOMAN cover image retrieved from Amazon, image of ‘race face’ from, ‘girls who dream have vision’ from Pinterest, no source noted, English writing structure retrieved from, white parents with black children retrieved from, black mother with white mother from,; all on 3.21.18]

LESLIE A. LINDSAY….ALWAYS WITH A BOOK.

Writer. Reviewer. Author Interviews. 

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” ~Toni Morrison

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. 

NOT THAT I COULD TELL

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 ]

WeekEND Reading: Bestselling Historical Fiction author Margaret George is back with this stunning tale of THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO, now available in paperback…oh, and a GIVE-A-WAY!

By Leslie Lindsay 

[original interview posted March 2017]

 

With a perfect streak of over six New York Times bestsellers, and 1.5 million books sold, MARGARET GEORGE turns her gaze to the ‘bad boy’ Emperor of Ancient Rome.

THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO is meticulously researched, gloriously written, and transports the reader to the heart of Rome and beyond.

Margaret George burst onto the scene in 1986 with her historical fiction of Henry VIII…and she continued writing critically-acclaimed biographical novels of historical figures, including MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, MARY, CALLED MAGDALENE, CLEOPATRA, among others.

NOW AVAILABLE IN TRADE PAPERBACK!

See below for information on a GIVEAWAY COPY.

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 “With conviction and flair, George looks past two millennia of bad press about Nero to reveal an intelligent man of justice and religious tolerance who takes refuge in artistic expression. This is the first of two novels charting his dangerous, outrageous life in first-century Rome; the second will be eagerly awaited.”

—Booklist

Emperor Nero. Many things come to mind at the mention of his name: Spoiled. Murderer. Tyrant. Pervert. Hedonist. Many of these caricatures are put in motion through Hollywood and rumors as ancient as the forum. Having come to power at the tender age of sixteen, THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO follow his life in a two-part saga (this is the first book; both are written to stand-alone). Enshrined in power and raised by a cunning and ambitious mother, Nero is the 5th Roman Emperor, the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty founded by Julius Caesar. We follow his young life from about age four to mid-twenties, just before the Great Fire of Rome.

Nero’s life is riddled with murderers, rivalries, plots, orgies, and incest. Sensational on its own—but the story is not just about revisiting these instances—there’s reclamation in Nero as an artist, a musician, an athlete. In fact, George’s book had me cheering for Nero at times, in fact, completely changing my opinion of him.

Today, I am so very humbled to welcome Margaret George to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Margaret, it’s truly an honor. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us about THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO. I’m so in awe of the breadth of knowledge, your impeccable research, and the magical way you are able to weave a deeply moving, stunningly visual narrative of Nero. Before we get into specifics, I am curious why Nero, why now?

Margaret George: I’ve actually been thinking of Nero for a long time—for over twenty years, in fact.  I was all afire to do this back in the 1990’s.  But all the stereotypes you mention above were in full force then, and people weren’t interested in exploring farther, they were so prejudiced against him.  Since then the climate has changed; in 2003 there was a major revisionist biography, and three big Nero exhibits—two in Rome and one in Germany—have been outstandingly popular, the last one in 2016.  His moment has come, and at last he can make his case.220px-Nero_1

L.L.: You’re known for your meticulous research. In fact—you’ll laugh; I’m no sybil—but I dreamed you researched this book for twenty years!  In your ‘afterward,’ you list some amazing titles referenced in writing; do you have any research rituals?

Margaret George: Isn’t that funny, maybe you are a sybil.  As I said above, I started doing research on Nero back in the 1990s and continued on even as I was writing other books.  The research for HELEN OF TROY (early 2000s) in Greece was also Nero research because he was so nuts about Greece and made a big ‘arts tour’ there that lasted sixteen months.

I don’t have any rituals per se, but I do like to take things in a certain order.  First read the books, then go to the sites, and last of all do the writing.  It’s best to have done the reading research before going to the sites, because then I am more aware of what I need to notice. I also like to write out notes by hand because I think it registers in my brain better that way.

I take a lot of photos on site and buy any kitsch relating to my characters I find, because it shows they are still  ‘real’ to modern people.  As a result I have a 10’ x 4’ Nero flag, Nero candles, Nero matches (what else?), Nero rubber duckies, and Nero tote bags.  There were even bottles of Nero wine at the German exhibit!

L.L.:  Just like with the Internet nowadays, ancient Romans loved gossip. How were you able to tease out what was ‘real’ and not?

Margaret George: It’s hard after two thousand years to be able to sort out the National Enquirer material, because, well, even the National Enquirer has true material.  (Remember the Bruno Magli shoes that O.J. was wearing, caught in a National Enquirer photo?)  I had to take into consideration the source of the material, and whether it was ‘canned’ and repeated elsewhere about other people, or whether it was just unbelievable and obviously a character assassination.  For example, any time anyone died Tacitus, Suetonius, or Dio Cassius (the main three sources for Nero) claimed it was poison, and that Nero did it.  In many instances it made no sense—why would he poison Burrus, his Praetorian prefect? Often the gossip in one is contradicted in the other, for example, one historian says Burrus died of a throat ailment, not poison.  Another silly piece of gossip is that Agrippina and Nero had sex in the royal litter, and when they got out, their clothes were wrinkled and stained, visual proof of it.  In the novel I even have Nero commenting that, since he had a whole palace at his disposal, why would he resort to a litter in the streets in broad daylight?

L.L.: What details, if any, do you invent?

Margaret George: I actually do invent a number of details, if they are plausible. For example, the horse farm outside Rome where Nero selects the team he wants to train for chariot 240px-Ritratto_di_claudia_ottavia,_da_roma,_via_vareseracing.  Now, we know there were horse farms.  We know his right-hand man, Tigellinus, was a former horse trainer and breeder. We know Nero raced chariots But we have no information about where or how he got his horses.  So I imagined that scene, which I thought would show something about horses and the special training they underwent for chariot racing.  And there are other scenes like that: his secret athletic training under an alias when he was a boy, his visit to the Roman brothel, his wedding night with Octavia.

Some of the details that may sound invented aren’t.  We know Nero had bad eyesight and used an uncut emerald held up before his eye to watch chariot races.  (It probably didn’t work.)  We know he had a special drink named after himself (the decocta Noroonis) made of boiled and re-cooled snow.  We know he didn’t like wearing togas and switched to tunics whenever he could, including flowered ones.   

L.L.: You do a beautiful job of reconstructing a stunning visual landscape for ancient Rome. Your visceral details are quite poetic lending to a tremendous sense of place. Instead of asking, ‘how do you do it’—what do you keep the saw sharp?

Margaret George: That’s very kind of you. I worry that I don’t have enough details!  But I am a student of Ray Bradbury’s (figuratively not literally) and his writing is very ‘visceral’ or I would say ‘sensual’—of the senses.  He explained it this way:

“Why all this insistence on the senses? Because in order to convince your reader that he is there, you must assault each of his senses, in turn, with color, sound, taste, and texture.  If the reader feels the sun on his flesh, the wind fluttering his shirt sleeves, half your fight is won.” ~Ray Bradbury

I try to keep that in mind.  Most descriptive writing is heavy on the visual but if you can bring in the other senses it gives a real feeling of being there.autobiography-of-henry-VIII

L.L.: Can you tell us a little about your early writing days? What do you think you did ‘right?’ What do you wished you had done ‘better?’

Margaret George: It took me a long time to hit my stride, I think.  My father read over my first handwritten draft of HENRY VIII (what a martyr!) and noted two things: one, that writing in the first person isn’t just writing in the third person and replacing all the ‘he’s’ with “I’s” which he said I did, and second, that I was best when I cut loose from the strict historical recounting and used my imagination. 

I think he was right and I believe I corrected those weaknesses, after much trial and error.  As to what I have done wrong, or wished I had done better—-I have gone overboard in memoirs-of-cleopatra-1including everything, which reached its apex with CLEOPATRAI listened to it all on tape and realized as I did so (since you can’t skim with an audio) that, instead of standing the reader before a bulging closet and saying, “Here it all is!” I should have selected the best clothes for him or her.  That’s the job of the writer—to select and present.

NERO is a lot more spare but I am pleased that you didn’t feel I skimped.  Less is more…maybe. (Although Nero himself wasn’t known for his minimalism.)

L.L.: I have to believe Nero would be beyond proud of THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO. I know I was rooting for him! What might he say if he read the book?

Margaret George: Oh, I’d love it if he would say I had gotten it exactly right, and how did I KNOW?  That’s what I strove for, to let him speak again and have it be true to character.  I would love to know what he thinks, but I’d be crushed if he didn’t like it after all!

L.L.: What inspires you? What has your attention? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Margaret George: Poetry is a great inspiration—such economy of words to say so many things.  I have a friend who said, “It’s friends and poetry that get you through the hard times.”  She is right.  Friends, of course, and travel, which is endlessly fascinating and the opposite of navel-gazing, an occupational hazard of writers.

Like Nero in the novel, I like sprinting—100 and 200 meters, because for those seconds the whole world vanishes and all you see is the finish line.  The world of competitive sports is so different from the literary one, although there are similarities, too.  Both have starting blocks, finish lines, medals, rankings, and prizes, and both require a lot of solitary hours spent in practice for just a little while in the spotlight.  

L.L.: I’m curious what the next book entails. I have to read it! Can you give a glimpse?

Margaret George: The second part of Nero’s life is as tumultuous as the first.  It opens with the Great Fire of Rome, the largest fire in antiquity, which burned for nine days and destroyed most of the city.  Nero deals with the aftermath, rebuilds Rome according to new urban planning, builds his revolutionary Domus Aurea (Golden House), punishes the Christians, deals with a far-reaching conspiracy against him, involving some of those closest to him,  holds his second Neronian Games, races in the Circus Maximus (image below), Poppaea dies, he stages a spectacular entrance to Rome for King Tiridates of Parthia, he goes to Greece for a year long round of music and athletic competitions, returns to Rome and is overthrown, finally committing suicide with his famous last words, “Qualis artifex pereo”—“what an artist dies in me!”  And he was only thirty years old by then.  What a life story!

L.L.: Margaret, it was a true pleasure. Thank you!

Margaret George: Thank you for having me, Leslie.

Circus_Maximus_in_RomeFor more information, to connect with Margaret George, or to purchase THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO, please see:

NOW AVAILABLE IN TRADE PAPERBACK!

Want the chance to WIN a FREE copy of this book?!

Send me an email at leslie_lindsay@hotmail.com with the subject line: NERO.

Your name will be entered a random drawing (You’ll be notified March 28th if you’re a winner. U.S. addresses only. Please check your junk/spam folder. Your book will mail directly from the publisher).

 

Margaret-George-Hi-RES.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margaret George writes biographical novels about outsized historical characters: Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy, and Elizabeth I. Her latest, The Confessions of Young Nero, will be published in March. All six of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers, and the Cleopatra novel was made into an Emmy-nominated ABC-TV miniseries.

She especially enjoys the research she has done for the novels, such as racing in an ancient Greek stadium, attending a gladiator training school in Rome, and studying the pharmacology of snake poison.

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

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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website, as well as covers of Henry VIII and Cleopatra. Historical images of Nero, Octavia, Circus Maximus all retrieved from Wikipedia on 3.08.17. Special thanks to L. Burnstein of Berkley/RandomHouse] 

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:

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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] 

 

WeekEND Reading: Internationally bestselling U.K. Author Clare Mackintosh is back with her third psychological suspense/crime novel, LET ME LIE and it will most definitely keep you guessing

By Leslie Lindsay

I’m so excited to share with you LET ME LIE (Berkley, March 13 2018), the next work of psychological suspense from New York Times and internationally bestselling author of I LET YOU GO and I SEE YOU.

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Have you read either of them? 

I was absolutely gobsmacked by the cliff-hanger ending of I LET YOU GO and the cat-and-mouse intensity of I SEE YOU had me on the edge-of-my-seat.

She’s back with her third tale of psychological intrigue and I promise, it will keep you guessing. 

 

 

 

 

 

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

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

clare-mackintosh-us-banner-2018-1[Cover and author image courtesy of Berkley/NAL and used with permission. Image of C.M. book banner retrieved from author’s website;  image of infant and mother from, image of Beachy Head retrieved from, Eastbourne pier image retrieved from , image of anniversary card retrieved from Pinterest, no source noted. Excerpt reprinted with permission from LET ME LIE by Clare Mackintosh from Berkley Publishing Group, copyright 2018.]