Sunday, December 24, 2017

Interview With Debut Author Joanna Schaffhausen

A Happy Holiday Season to you all. Hope you're able to enjoy some valued family time, and remember the blessings we do have, even though we live in uncertain times of terrible people trying to make life worse for others.

Here's a Christmas treat for you- debut author Joanna Schaffhausen talks about her work.

Joanna was the winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition, and the result is her new book, The Vanishing Season, which is catching her a lot of good notice, and many people are reading and loving it.

Q. You wrote a few books before this one. Tell us what made you keep going for so long.
A. I just love to write. I love it more than anything that isn’t friends and family or chocolate, and chocolate is on the bubble. I don’t think you can get into this business if you don’t have a passion for storytelling. The road to publication is often long and difficult, and if you want to succeed after that you must keep writing regularly. If you don’t have intrinsic satisfaction from seeing a story come to life on the page, you’ll be miserable.

Q. So how did this novel come to be? Was it envisioned from the start as a bigger canvas, or did it expand organically out of an idea? Please tell us a bit about the origin.

A. Nearly twenty years ago, I was reading one of the many books on serial killer Ted Bundy and I came away fascinated by how ordinary people got so caught up in his terrible story that they never got free of him. For some of the investigators, it was a path to fame and prestige on the lecture circuit, but it also took a personal toll. Robert Keppel was a young man, on the job as a homicide detective just one week, when he got assigned the Bundy case. His hair turned gray within four years.
For Bundy’s living victims, it meant having to constantly satiate the hungry public with the story, or to see themselves portrayed in books and on TV. Their lives were in some sense hijacked by Bundy’s more infamous one. Carol DaRonch still receives up to 15 messages per day about Bundy, more than forty years after he abducted her. He’s been dead for decades but for Carol, he never goes away. We the public won’t let him.
So these two perspectives, the hero and the victim, forged by the terrible acts of a third party, form the basis for The Vanishing Season. Reed Markham is the green FBI agent who solved the initial case. Ellery Hathaway is the victim who survived it. They’ve each been living these roles since their fateful meeting, and it’s only in reuniting in a new case that they come to reevaluate who they really are.

Q. Did you start with the germ of an idea and start writing to see where it went, or did you map a good deal out in your head (or even outline) before crafting?

A. I generally know who did it and why, with perhaps a few twists marked out along the path. The rest I make up as I go along. If I have a detailed outline, I won’t do the work and put the words on the page. The story will remain firmly in my head.

Q. What do you feel is the main theme(s)?

A. The main theme of all the Reed and Ellery books (and I’ve written three now) is identity. Both Reed and Ellery struggle with identity in different ways. Ellery has to wrestle with the fact that she is a famous victim, how that causes people to make assumptions about her based on stories they’ve seen or read. Strangers know intimate details of her life. She has to figure out who she is apart from the Coben story and how to live with the fact that he will always follow her around.

Reed is half-Latino, half –Caucasian, so part of his identity is split from the get-go. He’s also adopted. His mother was murdered when he was an infant and Reed was taken in by a wealthy white southern family. He’s always strived to be the good guy, the hero, the rescuer. Lately, he’s had some missteps, and when we meet him, he’s on stress leave from the FBI. Reuniting with Ellery, his biggest success story, could be a way to get his mojo going again, or it could alter his self-image forever. If she’s not living her best life, is he the big hero he’s always told himself he is?

Q. Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading this book?

A. I hope first and foremost that readers are entertained. But I also hope they’ll think a little bit about the people behind the true-crime stories that we consume for entertainment. I read them too, but I wonder sometimes about my role in all of this. Is my desire to know more about these crimes forcing victims to relive them?

Q. What makes a good book or engaging story?

A. I think this varies from reader to reader. My theory is that, as a writer, you don’t have to do everything well to succeed with readers but you do have to do one or two things extremely well. Maybe you craft impossibly beautiful sentences full of truth and poetry. Or maybe you’ve created characters who feel like family, who burst off the page and demand that the reader pay attention to them. Perhaps you’re a master at plotting, or maybe you can bring alive a particular setting like 1920s Paris. If you excel at one or two of these, readers will forgive you for your weaker areas. I don’t need lyrical prose if I’m gulping down an expertly plotted thriller. Just make me want to keep turning those pages and I’m hooked!

Q. Are there writers with similar themes to yours? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you?

A. On some level we’re all telling a version of the same seven stories, right? The hero’s journey, stranger in a strange land, etc. I’m never quite sure how to answer questions about my influences. I tend to draw most directly from non-fiction versus fiction. I’ve read Keppel, Douglas, and Ressler, the men who published some of the first studies on serial killers. I’ve read books by private investigators, books about arson, con artists and rapists. I want to hear the details from the people as close to the source as possible.
I love to read within my genre, and there are just too many mystery or crime novelist to name as I read around 100 books per year. Some of my favorites are Lisa Gardner, Denise Mina, Michael Connelly, Christopher Brookmyre, Liane Moriarty and Tana French. When I read, I watch for the author’s strengths and how he/she makes that happen on the page: What brings the setting to life? How are the twists handled? I learn something new from every book I read.

Q. Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?

A. It depends on the story. Entertainment is a fine goal all on its own, and I don’t think a story needs to have a larger one to succeed. Stories can also educate or explore new ideas, moralize or attempt to impart A Message. These are also laudable goals, although if your story isn’t also entertaining on some level, you may not get much of an audience. I like crime stories because I find the whodunit and why parts to be entertaining, and the larger questions of where crime comes from and how it affects all of us in different ways to be interesting to explore.

Q. Any other goals you've set for yourself, professionally or personally?

A. To be a career author, not a one-off. Being a writer can mean walking an uncertain path at times, no matter which route you choose to go. Traditionally published authors must deal with editors leaving their positions, publishers closing up shop, and changing sales targets. Self-published authors must deal with Amazon continually tweaking its business model, changing reader appetites and increasing competition from other self-published authors. No writer is guaranteed an audience, and persistence is necessary if you are to stick around in this business.

Q. Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? When you send the book off to the publisher, are you happy with it, or just tired of it?

A. I tend to write fairly clean first drafts, I guess. But I do revise, sometimes major points, as necessary. I hate editing in that it forces me to examine the sentences under a microscope.

Q. Do you have good editors, and if so, how do they help you? Do they look for particular things? Do you have different people for different editing levels?

A. I have a terrific team of sixteen beta readers who bring a diverse perspective with them. I find their feedback invaluable. They ask questions I didn’t think of, point out plot holes and other inconsistencies. I have a tendency to rename minor characters in midstream, for example. But I most grateful for how they act as a reality check on topics I don’t have personal knowledge of, such as adoption. Reed is a transracial adoptee, and while I’ve done a lot of reading on adoption, I’m not an adopted child nor an adoptive parent, nor have I placed a child for adoption. I am in debt to people who are willing to share their experiences with me to help me understand.
Then of course I have an experienced, talented agent and a wise, wonderful editor at St. Martin’s, who also provide invaluable feedback.

Q. If a writer came to you for advice, how would you help?
A. It would depend on what kind of advice they wanted. I am a firm believer in paying it forward whenever possible.

Q. Stories can be told by using a different medium. Can you see your book as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?

A. I write in fairly cinematic style, I think, so most of my work could be adapted for a visual medium without too much trouble. Blackstone has issued an audio book of The Vanishing Season, and Lauren Fortgang kicks some serious butt as the narrator!

Q. What's the next step in your writing world?

A. I’ve left my day job, so I hope I’ll be doing a lot of writing! Minotaur Books has kindly picked up the next two books in the Reed and Ellery series, so I’ll also be working on polishing those.

Q. Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

A. I once drove a car into a house.

Q. Any other information you'd like to impart?

A. I think I’ve blathered long enough.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Worth getting to know Joanna a little better.