Q: What influences have there been in your writing?
A: First my grandparents, who were great Southern-style storytellers. My grandmother was a 2nd-grade teacher for 37 years; she introduced me to books and taught me to read at an early age. (I wasn't extra bright - she was just a fantastic teacher.) In terms of other authors, you can't raise yourself up to your idols, but I think I've been influenced most by the short stories of Eudora Welty and the novels of John D. MacDonald, who are decidedly a mismatched pair. But both brilliant in their own ways.
Q: How long have you been writing?
A: I wrote a "novel" (I use the term loosely) in high school. Handwritten, about five hundred pages. Truly horrible. But I had always written, usually stories revolving television shows I'd like to have seen. I never formally studied writing but I got serious about it in 1992, and my first novel was published in 1994.
Q: You've moved from writing more traditional mysteries to more mainstream suspense. Why?
A: It was a creative decision. The ideas I was getting for books weren't appropriate for the traditional series I'd written. So I had to make a change, and I think I've made the right one for me.
Q: What's your writing schedule like?
A: I write in the mornings, generally from about 8-12. Also late at night, after my kids are asleep, if I'm close to deadline or on a roll.
Q: Where do you get your ideas?
A: Like everyone else, at that secret aisle at Target. Kidding. A lot of writers hate this question, not because it's a bad question, but because 1) the idea is only the tip of the iceberg of what the book is and 2) most writers don't know where their ideas come from. An idea is meaningless until the book is written around it. Anyone can come up with an idea, and I have far more ideas than I could ever write books about. Some of my ideas are quite bad, and I sure wouldn't want to spend a year with them. But to try and answer the question, ideas tend to be related to something you see or hear or read about and it sticks in your mind, dormant but present, a seedling, maybe waiting for the fertilizer of another idea or stimulus to take the appropriate shape. It's not that you go somewhere to get ideas; it's that you make your mind receptive to all the ideas that are confronting you each day.
Q: Do you play music while you write?
A: Sometimes. I love listening to suspense soundtracks, like for "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Jackie Brown". Or big, sweeping soundtracks, like "Henry V". (I'm a Kenneth Branagh fan.) I like Southern music, bluegrass, blues, old country, or Seventies funk. Often, after a book is done, it feels to me like it has a soundtrack to it, or certain songs become suggestive of certain scenes. I think, for instance, in A Kiss Gone Bad, the soundtrack could include "In the Middle of the Night" by Louann Barton and Jimmie Vaughn, "Essence" by Lucinda Williams, "Simple Song" by Lyle Lovett, "It Comes to Me Naturally," by Charlie Robison, "Better Be Home Soon" by Crowded House, "That's Real" by Mary-Chapin Carpenter, and "You Owe Me Some Kind of Love" by Chris Isaak.
The older I've gotten and the more I've written, the more interested I am in singers who are also songwriters, like Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Dolly Parton, Robert Earl Keen, and Chris Isaak.
Q: What's your advice for aspiring writers?
A: Read heavily in the area where you want to write. Be aware of what's selling and what's doing well but don't try to write to market trends; they are fleeting. Set a schedule for yourself; novels are big and you should try to break the work down in manageable chunks. So write for an hour each day or write 2 or 5 or 10 pages a day and stick to that schedule. If you do, you'll have a book eventually. It may not be publishable, but you'll have a book. Alsodon't worry about getting an agent until the book is finished. I wish I had a dollar for every time an aspiring writer asked me how to get an agent and they don't even have a first chapter written. First things firstfinish your book.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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