Emily Winslow is the author of the suspenseful new mystery, Look for Her. She shares with us which crime novels she keeps on the shelf, how she transitioned into writing, and why pre-ordering a book is the way to go.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into writing? When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I had originally intended to be an actor and that’s what I studied at college. But after four years in that intense program, I felt finished with theatre. Acting was just too exposed, and too much at the mercy of other people approving of you. Writing seemed to offer similar creativity, but with a bit of distance and more personal control. I went to graduate school to do research for a play I was writing, and started free-lancing for a favorite magazine. I always wanted to write a novel, but it wasn’t until I moved to England years later that I found the setting and story to inspire my first novel, The Whole World.
How long did it take to finish your book? How has it changed since you first began writing it?
All of my books except this one were written in one go, taking about a year each. The writing of Look For Her, however, was interrupted by a real-life court case that became my true-crime memoir Jane Doe January. After living the harrowing events of Jane Doe January, writing it, editing it, and promoting it, I came back to the first hundred pages I had of Look For Her and had to pick up from there. It was difficult to do, but the discipline of it was an important part of getting life back to normal. I wonder sometimes in what ways the book might be different if I had finished it back when I’d started, before I had such life-changing experiences.
Do you have any specific or strange writing rituals that get you into a groove?
Daydreaming is very important to me and my work. I let my thoughts wander, I talk to myself, and I let myself take the time to read and watch things that intrigue me, even if they seem superficially irrelevant to my current project. In that way, inspiration and problem-solving tends to surprise me. Yes, writers should have discipline, and shouldn’t let waiting for inspiration stall them completely, but I find that luring inspiration is an important part of the process.
Which three books would you bring with you to a deserted island?
I think this question is typically code for “what are your three favorite books” but taking the question literally feels a little more interesting to me. In an extended desert-island situation, I wouldn’t want just three finished, perfect stories; even perfect stories would get stale after reading them enough times. I think I’d like books that would provide ingredients for my own imagination: my grad school art history textbook (stories of creative choices), the Oxford English Dictionary (the history of word origins and usage is fascinating), and Sophie’s World, a novel that tells the history of philosophy, which would inspire an infinite number of stories in my own mind. It would be a bit like choosing three sources of ingredients I could mix and match, instead of three finished meals to eat over and over as they are. Or…would it be cheating to make at least one of my choices a blank book? I know I’d like to be able to write things down.
In your opinion, has there ever been a movie adaption better than the original book?
Jurassic Park. I adored reading the book, which I did at a beach house with friends. What a terrific plot, well-told. But when the movie came out… Remember, mine was a generation that grew up on cheesy stop-motion dinosaurs in Land of the Lost. Nothing realistic. And CGI was still new, so we weren’t jaded by it yet. Seeing what appeared to be “real” dinosaurs interacting with people on the screen was astonishing.
Which three authors would you invite to a dinner party and why?
As with the desert-island question, I think this is code for “who are your three favorite authors”, but it’s my experience that someone writing wonderful books isn’t necessarily good at talking about them. So my daydream of the perfect author dinner party would be three authors who had an enormous impact on my early career, and who I haven’t been able to see in recent years because we live so far apart: Carla Buckley, Sarah Pekkanen, and Randall Klein.
Carla (author of The Good Goodbye) was first published by Random House the same year I was. We’d been acquired by the same editor, and Carla wrote my first blurb. (In fact, hers was the only, lonely blurb on the back of my first hardcover.) She is creative, supportive, understanding, and the best person in the world to be around at a writing conference. I’m an introvert, and without her I wouldn’t have met half the authors I now consider friends.
Sarah (author of The Wife Between Us) and I were part of a group blog of debut novelists called The Debutante Ball. In fact, it’s still ongoing, each year with a new batch of five debut authors. Sharing 2010 with her was a delight, and we even did a signing together at a bookstore in DC. I would love to work together again.
Randall was my first editor, at Random House. He now has a novel of his own coming out (Little Disasters). His edits made me a better writer, and his support in the early stages of my career meant the world to me. It’s been an honor to read his manuscripts and offer my own editorial thoughts.
That would be a fantastic dinner party!
Do you have any advice for young writers?
I’m often asked if a young person who wants to be a writer should major in creative writing at college. If you truly want to study writing, fine, but you don’t have to. You could study archaeology, astronomy, history, philosophy… Whatever gets you excited will give you things to write about. Or you could study something that gives you practical skills to support your future writing. Sometimes it takes years to find your voice and what you want to say with it, and being critiqued too early can damage your confidence and future risk-taking. I think if I had studied writing formally too early, I may not be writing now. There are many, many routes to “becoming a writer.”
What is your favorite thing that you have received in the mail?
I love when I preorder a book I’m really looking forward to, and it surprises me weeks or months later, after I’ve forgotten about it. There’s that lovely sound a book delivery makes when it slides, a bit tight, through the mail slot, and then thuds on the floor, so different from the flutter of bills and advertising!
Which books or further reading do you recommend to fans of Look for Her?
These ten books are ones I read and adored before I successfully wrote a crime novel of my own. I don’t claim that mine are necessarily “like” them, but they’re certainly the ones that were in my mind as I set out to create my own fictional world. I hope my books have something in them from their inspirations, and I like to think that those who enjoy my work will enjoy the books that influenced them.
I adore her standalones particularly (she also wrote the Inspector Wexford series). They’re full of genuine surprise. You don’t know at first how your protagonist fits in. Are they good? Are they bad? You have to think for yourself and discover.
Heartstones is a novella about a young woman who is unhappy with her widowed father’s new relationship. A Judgment in Stone is about an oblivious family hiring an unhappy, illiterate (this is significant), and manipulatable housekeeper for their new home. A Fatal Inversion, written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, is about the traumatic memories of a group who had shared a house one summer years ago. In each one, extreme emotions lead to unexpected murder. The psychology is fascinating. I also recommend her collection of short stories The Fallen Curtain. I often find crime short stories unsatisfying, because there isn’t time to establish expectations and then subvert them. But these are little treasures.
My favorites of hers are the usually lighthearted Elizabeth MacPherson series, and her serious, intense Appalachian series. Of those, If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him (the most emotional of the lighter series) and She Walks These Hills (of the Appalachia series), both with a common thread of the psychology of domestic abuse, are the most moving to me.
Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters:
Egyptologist Barbara Mertz wrote under the pseudonyms Barbara Michaels (for her contemporary gothic novels written and set in the late 60s-1990s) and Elizabeth Peters (for her series about fictional Victorian archaeologist Amelia Peabody, her Vicky Bliss series about an American museum curator in Germany, and her Jacqueline Kirby series about a librarian turned romance novelist) and she is delightfully entertaining. Michaels’ Houses of Stone is my absolute favorite of hers, about a college professor who discovers a valuable old manuscript that may or may not describe actual events, coming in just before second-favorite Be Buried in the Rain, about a young woman uncovering the disturbing truth about her family history. Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, especially the first seven books (I became less interested when the younger characters grew up and took center stage), are lighthearted mysteries set in Victorian/Edwardian Egypt and London. You should read them in order, but I enjoyed The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog the most. Peters’ Naked Once More is clearly the best of her Jacqueline Kirby series, as Jacqueline takes on the role of writing the next book of an author who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The Kirby books have a light, humorous tone, but the motives unearthed in this one give it particular emotional resonance.
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