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You write about what you care about. You have to give your characters things to care about, too, right?

Interview: Lori Rader-Day, Author of the Mystery Novel ‘Little Pretty Things’

Lori Rader-Day

Excerpt: A pair of headlights grazed over the lobby. The silver car was leaving. Maybe staying somewhere else was the plan she’d had in mind all along. Why had she come? The car, the diamond the soft raincoat. The forty-two-dollar tip on an eight-buck bar tab. The room paid for but not used. Maddy Bell certainly wasn’t a Bargain. Which could only mean she was desperate.

Lori Rader-Day’s debut mystery, The Black Hour (Seventh Street Books, 2014), received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal and was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her second mystery, Little Pretty Things, was released this month and is garnering rave reviews as well. In their starred review, Booklist calls Rader-Day “a deft manipulator of dark atmosphere, witty dialogue, and complex, charismatic characters.” Her short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Time Out Chicago, Good Housekeeping, and others. She lives in Chicago with her husband and spoiled dog and is active in the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter and a member of Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers. This is our second interview together. You can find my review of Little Pretty Things here.

Congratulations on the success of your first novel, The Black Hour. How has your life changed since publication and the wonderful reviews and awards? What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened?

I’m busier, that’s for sure! It’s been a wonderful year. So much of it has been unexpected, but I would say the Mary Higgins Clark Award nomination was the biggest surprise. Mary Higgins Clark was important to my early mystery reading, so it was a big deal to me on so many levels. The biggest change in my life is that now I know pretty far in advance what my next step is. When you start out, so much of it is about getting to that first step, that first yes and then the first book on the shelf. It’s interesting to think about what I want to write next and how I want to continue building my career.

How soon after you finished your first novel did you begin Little Pretty Things? How was writing this novel similar and/or different from the process with your first novel? Was it easier, harder, etc.?

I started Little Pretty Things in July 2012, right after I signed the contract on my first book. I would advise anyone to start the next thing as soon as you can, even before the sale, because having something else in process is just about the only way to deal with the process of submission and rejection. Give yourself that distraction and that chance to write before things start to change. Writing to a deadline was interesting for me. I felt a little unsure of myself because I didn’t have all the time I’d given myself to revise The Black Hour. But in the end, I think the process allowed Little Pretty Things to be the book it needed to be—leaner and lighter.

Where did you get the idea for the second book? Why did you choose to set it in your home state of Indiana and how did that setting influence the tone of the novel? Are you familiar with a town like Midway?

The Black Hour got called a mystery, a thriller, psychological suspense. For my second book, I was interested in writing a straight amateur sleuth mystery, to prove I could. The idea for Little Pretty Things came from my reading another author’s book, which had been billed as a book about a woman with a terrible job—but I didn’t think that job was terrible, compared to jobs I’d had. I wondered if there was room on the shelf for a mystery where the job was actually mundane, where the character had a life that felt more real to me. I grew up in a working-class family, and it’s important to me that some of our mystery heroines represent that end of the spectrum. And because I was writing about a situation I knew a little something about, I set it in Indiana. Midway is a combination of the town I’m from, the town where I attended college, the small towns all around the Midwest that don’t often show up in books. The town of Midway is hardly in the book. It’s the outskirts of town that get most of the ink, out where the cornfields start. I think that lends a certain tone of isolation to the story and to Juliet’s prospects.

Both of your novels feature flawed, female protagonists existing on the fringes with failed relationships, or unrealized dreams, who must find strength and courage to survive their situations. Can you share a little about what draws you to those characters and their particular challenges?

Other authors are writing great characters who have their lives together, who are savvy and sophisticated—I’m thinking of Miss Fisher, here—and I’ll read them. But I don’t know if that’s the kind of story the world needs from me. I can only write the stories that occur to me, first of all, and about the kinds of things that I like to think about. And flaws? If a character doesn’t have some kind of flaw, do you want to be near them? I read a book once where the terrible things that had happened to the main character were all swiped away in the matter of a paragraph, and I realized: Nothing at all interesting is going to happen to this woman in this book. So I put it down. You have to write the book you want to read. Writers have to spend so much time on their books. You can’t cheat your own interest level.

Your title alludes to unease not just with the main character but with all the female characters in the novel. Marginalization, violence, objectification are all themes throughout the narrative. How did you come up with the title?

I typed it into the story. Juliet Townsend thinks the phrase at one point early in the book, and as soon as I typed it, I knew that was what I wanted to call the book. There’s no guarantee, by the way, that an author’s title will survive the publishing process; the publisher has the last say. But so far both of my titles have been my own. I like titles that do a lot of work for the story, that help guide me as I finish up the draft and revisions.

Was this intentionally a “message” book or why did these particular themes strike a chord with you?

You write about what you care about. You have to give your characters things to care about, too, right? I would never write a message book. A manifesto is no fun to read, and it would be terrible to produce, as well. But I think there’s room in the mystery community for books that touch on social issues—they’re about crime to start with, so most crime books do touch on social issues. Maybe we just don’t read them that way all the time. If our characters are supposed to live in the real world, then they will encounter the kinds of larger issues we do. It’s only fair.

Can you share a little about your writing process? Do you outline first and if so, do you always know your ending? Do you believe in doing extensive character backgrounds that may or may not show up in the narrative? How many drafts are typical for you?

I don’t outline. I start from a what-if situation or a character and just start writing as best I can. That means that I learn things as I go, so I will revise as I go. I also keep a separate document for random thoughts and connections I want to think about or remember for later. I don’t know the ending, and in fact for each book I had a long, dark night of the soul that lasted about three weeks where I wondered if I could figure out the ending the book deserved. I guess that’s part of my process now. I do at least three or four big rounds of revisions where I “save as” the document in case I get too edit-happy but even my first drafts aren’t raw first drafts. I love Anne Lamott’s advice about quick first drafts, but I don’t take it.

What are you working on now? When will the next book come out?

I’m working on my third novel, a mystery tentatively titled An Elegant Hand. It’s about a handwriting expert who has rewritten her own life, which comes unraveled as she helps out with a small-town kidnapping. It’s out in summer 2016 from Seventh Street Books.

Any favorite reads you’re looking forward to or have enjoyed this year?

I have the new Dandy Gilver book from Catriona McPherson sitting next to me right now, Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the Ballroom. I bought it from the U.K. because I’m obsessed and slightly stalkerish when it comes to Catriona’s work. She has another great new book coming out this fall called The Child Garden. Lynne Raimondo has a new book out August 4 called Dante’s Dilemma—the next in her fantastic series. And then later this year, hold onto your hats, because Jennifer Kincheloe’s debut, The Secret Life of Anna Blanc, is going to rip this place wide open.

What’s the number one thing you learned from your first book that you were able to utilize this time out?

Patience. It’s not an easy lesson for me, but I learned that I could take the time I needed with some of this process, that I don’t have to have a million events in the first two weeks of my launch. That I should sit back and enjoy this a little instead of racing toward the next thing.

That’s great advice. Thanks again for taking the time to answer a few questions. Readers can find out more about Lori, including appearances and books, on her website, www.loriraderday.com, follow her on Twitter @LoriRaderDay, or on Facebook.

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About Suzanne Brazil

Suzanne M. Brazil is a freelance writer and editor living in a recently empty nest in the suburbs of Chicago. Her work has been featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Writer's Digest, The Chicago Daily Herald and many other publications. She is a frequent blog contributor and is working on her first novel.

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