What: Author of over a half-dozen novels, including the thriller FLOWERTOWN and the sci-fi drama, DAMOCLES. A former radio host, Sheila now spends her non-writing time traveling and arguing with her cats about traveling. Her latest novel is AT RISK.
Where: West Virginia
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
Congrats on your fantastic new novel, AT RISK. Can you tell us a little about how this one came about?
AT RISK is a departure for me from my previous thrillers. I gravitate toward protagonists who are less traditional—women with occasionally questionable hygiene, a love of profanity, and a warm flirtation with substance abuse. (The first person who says “Write what you know” gets punched in the face.) As you know, writing is all about trying new things, pushing yourself a little farther. I didn’t know if I could write a protag who was, by all appearances, pulled together. Colleen is polite, reserved, tasteful. On the inside, however, she is a complete disaster, the core of her confidence beaten to pieces by her violent first marriage. She challenged me and surprised me.
On a sad side note, from which I promise I will pull back, I finished this book as my mother was dying. I didn’t know if I could do it. In some ways it felt as if I was writing on scabs. On the other hand, I reaffirmed that writing really is my solace. Still, there are parts of this story that feel alien to me, written by some part of me that writes on when everything else is falling apart. On the up side, I think my mother is delighted that I finally wrote a hero who is comfortable in sweater sets and pearls.
That was a really compelling aspect of the story for me and the reason I chose to set the story in Kentucky. I live in Huntington, West Virginia, which sets where WV, KY, and Ohio meet. It’s a small quasi-urban, middle-class area (inasmuch as such a thing exists anymore.) One hour south, however, you get to the coal fields of Southern WV and Eastern KY. This is some of the most beautiful country you have ever seen and also some of the most dangerous and economically desperate. We hear a lot in the media about inner-city poverty, but rural poverty is a different beast altogether. (It’s also a blog post of its own.)
What makes Kentucky fascinating is that, in such a small state, you have the entire economic spectrum. Once you’re out of the mountains of Eastern KY, the grasslands start, horse country opens up, and you can feel the economic index rising to the multi-million dollar levels of thoroughbred horse racing. It feels like two entirely different states. One common denominator, however, is the foster care system. Kids from inner city Louisville can wind up at a group home in the mountains of Rush, KY. Once I began to wonder about the mobility of these at-risk kids throughout the state, I realized I had a perfect vehicle to express this contrast.
Colleen is from old money, but marries into new money—which is a great twist. How does wealth, or the lack of wealth, shape the world that you are writing about? How does it feed her paranoia?
Economic paranoia is a great way to express the theme of this book. Where were you when I was writing my cover copy??? Paranoia and privilege are the twin engines that move this story—the fear that someone has what you want, that someone can take what you have, that someone is privileged enough to dismiss your pain and struggle as irrelevant or trivial. And the currency isn’t always money. This is a sticking point with Colleen and her husband and his friends. They feel her old money upbringing mocks their laborious climb up the economic ladder. On the other hand, they often dismiss her painful experiences in light of their own rough childhoods. This constant need/want/dismissal corrodes Colleen’s sense of agency and self-worth, which gives her a great arc in this story. I really felt for her in ways that surprised me. We all grew up with that old private school versus public school trope. The Socs and the Greasers. Every John Hughes movie. My goal was to put many of those similar players on the board, but not let them run the usual paths. Hopefully I pulled that off.
That was a fantastic night. I highly recommend folks try out live reading events like that. Besides being entertaining, they force you to up your game.
Back to the question. It’s funny I had two back to back works about domestic violence since it’s something I almost never write about. For AT RISK, it worked because it truly is a danger that has no class barriers. It was a monster that could get to an otherwise sheltered and pampered young woman. For the live reading, I wanted to put a dark spin on the old ‘Burning Bed’ theme. The story was called “Gravity” and it was about mutually assured self-destruction, the bond that can form in abusive relationships. Writing for live reading is so much different than writing for the page. Timing, power, word choice—you have to write performance, not prose. It’s a great way to work on decluttering your writing.
Do you do a lot of live readings? What do you like/dislike about them?
I love live readings. I love hearing experienced writers reading at them. I did morning radio on a Top 40 station for fifteen years and I learned a LOT about communicating. A couple of the big takeaways are that, no matter how clever you think you are, your audience is ahead of you. Talk up to them. Also, people are busy. Get to the point. Bring your A game every time. The audience owes you nothing so their attention is an expression of their generosity. Appreciate it. And finally, six minutes is the absolute outside limit of how long you should ask anyone to listen to you. Four minutes is ideal. Practice at home. Time yourself. Cut the excess words. Your story, your reading, and the audience response will be better for it.
Who would you consider some of your major influences as a writer?
Is it weird that I hate answering this question? I always feel like I’m giving the wrong answers. As a thriller writer, I’m supposed to list off the classics and that wouldn’t be a lie but the bigger truth is that I’m a story junkie. I don’t care if it’s Raymond Chandler, Murder She Wrote, Rex Morgan, Gordon Lightfoot, or a couple of drunks at the end of the bar. If you can keep my attention, I’m yours. I’m fascinated by how people communicate stories, the things they choose to focus on, the things they choose to omit. I’m a Georgetown English major who reads fanfic. And not the cool stuff, either. An anti-snob? I hope so. I’m terrified of becoming narrow as a writer so I keep my story searches wide and deep.
As I said earlier, AT RISK came out during a very difficult time. I’ve been putting out a lot of work in a very short amount of time and I see now that I need a little space. I’m working on a longer, weirder book right now that is going to need some room to groove. I’m hoping to have it done in early spring of 2017 but I’m not rushing it. It’s a big, weird, bloody story about madness and family and small town politics. I’m deeply in love with it. In the meantime, however, I’m putting together some short pieces that I hope to wrangle into a cohesive collection for the end of the year, as well as releasing the sequel to my (also very weird) urban fantasy novel OURSELVES.
On top of all that, I’m going to keep going to conferences like Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime. They go a long way toward keeping me sane. Getting to meet writers like yourself, getting out of my head and into a group of people who are making art and trying to craft stories is as important as the writing and the reading. I appreciate the chance to hang out with you, both in New Orleans and here on your blog. Cheers!
Some Recent Interviews:
- Jay Stringer Talks About The Replacements
- Erik Arneson
- Ro Cuzon
- Alex Segura
- Mike McCrary
- Gabino Iglesias
- Dharma Kelleher
- Erik Storey
S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, will be published in October 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available from Down & Out Books.