Interview by Connie Berry
Buckeye Crime Writers is thrilled to welcome Lori Rader-Day, the Edgar Award- and Agatha Award-nominated and Anthony Award- and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author of The Lucky One and Under a Dark Sky. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing at Northwestern University. Her newest book, Death at Greenway, is based on a little-known moment in history, when a group of London children were evacuated from the Blitz during World War II to Agatha Christie’s holiday estate.
Recently I had a chance to ask Lori a few questions about her writing and journey to publication.
Connie: Your books have been called “dark stories — with heart.” Tell us more about that. Where would you place your writing in terms of genre?
Lori: When I first tried to submit to agents, I called myself “suspense” after a lot of frustrating research. The truth is, there are no lines between subgenres or genres, and a good deal about what a book is called has to do with tone, which is hard for a beginning writer to figure out. My agent said, it’s a thriller! The editor who bought it called it a mystery. And then online retailers called it… suspense. Psychological suspense gets at what I’m interested in, at least, even if it puts my books on the thriller shelf where I’m not always sure they truly belong. So they’re dark stories, but I love a good ending. A happy ending sometimes, not always, but an ending that feels like resolution one way or the other, and characters who I hope feel real to readers. That’s what I like to read, so that’s what I write. Dark stories where readers can invest in the characters. My new book, Death at Greenway, is historical but even though that feels like a departure, I don’t think it is. I just had to figure out a story to tell that felt like a story I would tell.
Connie: You studied journalism at Ball State University, then creative writing at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Was the jump from journalism to fiction difficult?
Lori: It was a leap, for sure, but I did do a half measure. I studied journalism writing, editing, and design first, and then I studied long-form journalism known as creative nonfiction (also at Ball State, with the wonderful writer and human Mark Massé). Creative nonfiction or literary journalism is where real events are reported in scenes, using many of the tools of fiction. I didn’t think of studying this kind of writing as a half measure at the time. I was all in, imagining that I would write for magazines. I wrote fiction on the side my entire life, but there came a moment when I realized I didn’t have to apologize for writing fiction or wanting to be published as a novelist, and that it was a thing that I was allowed to try to do. The difficult part of giving in and studying and writing fiction was that part, the allowance. I’m from a small town in Indiana, and I hadn’t ever realized that writers could come from places like that. When my high school friend Christopher Coake published his first book (We’re In Trouble), that’s when I realized people like us were publishable, too.
Connie: Which came first for you—finding an agent or finishing a manuscript?
Lori: Finishing TWO manuscripts (and honestly, finishing a lot of short stories before that)! I got a chance to talk to a couple of agents before I was ready but — I wasn’t ready! I always knew the process would be an internal one. When I felt as though I had written the book I wanted to, then I would see what agents might say. If I sent it out too soon, how would I know if they were the right agent or if their comments were the right direction? I had to be pretty sure of my story before I could deal with rejection of it or with comments about it. Not confident — confidence is hard to come by. But I had to be able to judge other people’s opinions of it, and that was going to take time. Every step of this process takes more time than I wish it did, by the way. I’m impatient as heck, especially about myself.
Connie: How long did it take for your first book to be published? Were you ever discouraged? If you were, how did you push forward?
Lori: How long did it take? is a question that has many answers. If you mean how long did it take from the first word I wrote of my first published novel to the last word written, then it’s two and half years. First word to sold is another number. First word to published is something like four years. But I had another novel that I’d worked on for years before putting aside, and I think we have to count those years as apprenticeship; from the first word written of that book to publication of The Black Hour was seven years. From the moment I decided to stop talking about writing and actually write to the moment my first novel was published? That was eight years. I got discouraged then and I still do now, but by different things. Writing is an enterprise that has a lot of discouragement built into it. I guess I got through it because I wanted to know how it turned out. In life, I’m a pantser, too. How does this story I’ve imagined turn out? How will readers like it? There’s always something to look forward to, and some days you have to write, even if you can’t quite look forward or see forward. And then some days you take a break until you can see your way forward.
Connie: Are you a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between?
Lori: Pantser, although for my fifth novel, The Lucky One, I had a little glimmer of a thing I was writing toward and that’s the closest I’ve ever been to plotting. So, yeah. Pantser. I get easily bored, so the writing process needs to be one of discovery for me, or I won’t do it. We are living in a time of great television, and I could be watching it.
Connie: What is your number one piece of advice for aspiring authors?
Lori: Read. Read a lot, inside and outside the genre you think you want to write. Re-read, read contemporary successes, read novels you like and those you don’t and learn to articulate why you felt the way you did. What leaves you cold, as a reader? What engages you? Then read closer and closer to find out how other authors create these effects within you.
My second piece of advice is to get involved. Our genre has writers’ and readers’ associations (like, yes, Sisters in Crime) but it’s easy to become a member of a group and then never take another step. The best way to engage in our community is to help out a little, meet new people, find new books to read and champion, find a role and some friends. The publishing game can be very long, but if you have people to connect with, commiserate with, building up your career over time can be fun, too.
Connie: Tell us a little about your latest novel, Death at Greenway.
Lori: Death at Greenway is based on a little-known fact from World War II: When Britain was evacuating London ahead of what would become known as the Blitz — three million people, mostly children — ten children were sent to Agatha Christie’s holiday home, Greenway. I discovered this in a nonfiction book about Agatha Christie, and just had to read that story. But no one had written it. I figured out why pretty quickly: The Greenway ’vacs were all under the age of five. They were chaperoned by a married couple called Arbuthnot and two hospital nurses, according to Agatha Christie’s autobiography, and lived in the house for a short time before the house was requisitioned by the military. To work a crime story in, I got those nurses into a lot of trouble.
Connie: Lori, thank you so much for sharing your story!
You can find Loriat www.LoriRaderDay.com, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Death at Greenway is available wherever fine books are sold!
Bridget Kelly is a nurse in training who has made an error that cost a man’s life. To get back into her Matron’s good graces, she takes on an assignment to evacuate a group of children to the country. It’s really the last thing she wants to do, and Greenway is a place with a lot of rooms one can’t enter and lovely little breakable things the children can’t touch. And a library full of murder books. When a body washes ashore nearby and the other nurse, also Bridget Kelly but known as Gigi, is not what she says she is, Bridey has to keep Gigi’s secrets to keep her own.