This week’s interview is with author Lori Rader-Day. She writes with a strong, unique voice, and having a little insight into her writing process was something I’ve wanted to learn about for a long time. Welcome, Lori….
Lori Rader-Day’s debut mystery, The Black Hour, won the 2015 Anthony Award for Best First Novel and was a finalist for the 2015 Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her second novel, Little Pretty Things, won the 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award and was a nominee for the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original. Little Pretty Things was named a 2015 “most arresting crime novel” by Kirkus Reviews and one of the top ten crime novels of the year by Booklist.
Your work explores not just acts of violence but also human psychology and relationships. What do you find most interesting or challenging about creating complex characters?
What I like when I’m reading someone else’s books is to enter into a character’s life and feel like I’ve just stumbled into a lived life. So when I’m writing, that’s also what I want to create, the sense that these people are real people, that there’s a lot to learn about them, and not all in chapter one. What I find interesting about the process is that I don’t usually know everything about them in chapter one. I have to write the book to learn the full story, and then I might have to go back and revise the early pages to make sure it’s set up for the reader to learn and enjoy. That’s the fun part for me: discovery, over time, and then making sure it’s written so that the reader gets the discovery, too.
“I have to market each book separately, but then that’s not exactly a con—it’s an opportunity…”
In an era of mystery series, you’ve written three successful standalones. What do you feel are the pros and cons of standalone novels?
The main pro to writing standalones is that I like standalones. I also think there’s some benefit to the writer in terms of getting a clean slate, not being tied to canon as you progress in your storytelling skills, getting the chance to marry up story with a particular character instead of having to hew to the certain character you’ve got a three-book deal to keep writing about.
Standalones have benefits for the *author,* it seems to me. I think mystery series benefit a great deal in terms of marketing and in building a loyal readership that loves to know what happens next to characters they already enjoy. I have to market each book separately, but then that’s not exactly a con—it’s an opportunity. I’d like to have a series someday, when I meet a character I want to spend that much time with.
Your work has been described as literary, thriller, psychological suspense, and mystery (and compelling, absorbing, and page-turning). What do you believe has had the most impact on the development of your voice as a writer?
The subgenre terms are just marketing terms, and sometimes there aren’t distinct lines between them. Nobody knows what to call what I write, apparently. I’ll take “compelling” or “page-turning” over any marketing term. When I was studying writing, I was writing “literary,” the genre of MFA programs, but when I started writing something longer than a short story, a crime story emerged, and my voice began to come together. I can only assume that I’d gotten out the early ya-yas of imitation at some point and started writing as myself. So finding your own voice is a matter of writing a lot, experimenting, reading, finding the books that inspire your own ideas, and then writing the stories that speak to you. Stop trying to be X author and tell yourself the story you want to tell.
“A friend of mine from high school published a book and I realized—oh, this is a thing you can do….”
Tell us about your road to publication.
I wrote most of my life off and on and then a lot off, until a friend of mine from high school published a book and I realized—oh, this is a thing you can do, if you work at it. So I worked at it, earned a master of fine arts in creative writing for three years just to buy myself the focus and time and audience, and then wrote during lunch hours and vacations from my day job for two-plus more years before I had a book manuscript I thought might be good enough to get published. That was The Black Hour, which got me my agent and my first contract. It was published in 2014. This is the shortest telling of that story I can manage, but the important part is that it took longer than I hoped, left a failed manuscript in the drawer, and was something I worked at, daily, for a good amount of time.
I wished the whole time that someone would just magic me toward the life I wanted, but I didn’t wait around for that—I used the time I had, which was sometimes not very much at all. The interesting thing about this story is that the book I wrote was only possible because of the timing of when I wrote it, the person I was by the time I attempted it. If I’d rushed into publication earlier, as we all *want to,* that book wouldn’t have been what it was. My second book, Little Pretty Things, was published in 2015. After a full re-write and a little delay, The Day I Died was published in 2017; this was the formerly failed manuscript from the drawer. (Side note: never throw any words away. Just tuck them into the archives.) So again, circumstances weren’t what we all hope for, best case scenario, and yet, it all worked out. The road was pretty curvy, is all I’m saying, but it goes to the same place.
“Write the stories you want to read…”
With three award winning novels as the foundation for your writing career, what advice would you give new authors about how to find their way in this profession?
Write the stories you want to read. The awards are not under your control; most of publishing isn’t under your control. But if you write stories that please yourself, you’re likely to also write stories that will please other readers. Up-and-coming writers should also look for other writers. Find or start a writers group and definitely find writing associations for people who write what you write. In mystery, that’s Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime (sisters and misters can join this group). Then get involved; this is on-the-job interning into the life of a writer.
What are you working on now?
The final edits are in for Under a Dark Sky, which will be published by Harper Collins William Morrow in the summer. That’s a sort of modern locked-room mystery set in a Michigan dark sky park, where people go to look at the night sky as nature intended. I’m also now drafting what will be my fifth book, and it’s early days there. Too early to talk about.
Final Words of Wisdom:
Write, read, write some more. When you’re starting out, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea of marketing and sales and agents and pitching. But none of that will be of any use to you if the book isn’t written first, and written well.
Great advice, Lori. Thanks for visiting.