Following yesterday’s review of Half in Love with Death by Emily Ross, I’m pleased to welcome the author of the young adult thriller novel today for a little chat about her current book, her inspiration, process, and future plans.
She’s also offering a giveaway of a signed copy of her book. SIGNED COPY, GUYS!
Read to the end of the post to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway, which runs for a month from February 12, 2015.
About Emily Ross
Emily Ross received a 2014 Massachusetts Cultural Council finalist award in fiction for Half in Love with Death. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Boston Magazine, Menda City Review, and The Smoking Poet. She is an editor and contributor at Dead Darlings, a website dedicated to discussing the craft of novel writing. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Massachusetts Boston, and is a 2012 graduate of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program.
She supports her writing habit by working as a software developer, and has been coding since before the existence of the Internet, the iPhone, or any tech gadget that is remotely cool. She loves dark mysteries, television shows like True Detective, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, and anything noir.
She is the mother of two millennials and lives in Quincy Massachusetts with her husband, Dave, and her elusive cat, Beau.
Emily Ross in Interview
Set in the sixties, Half in Love with Death follows the story of Caroline in the wake of her elder sister’s disappearance. Jess was beautiful, blond, and temperamental — a difficult teenager for their parents to handle. When Jess vanishes overnight, Caroline is more than aware that the leads the police are following up on are all dead ends.
Jess’ boyfriend Tony offers Caroline the comfort her parents cannot: he’s charismatic, handsome, and a shoulder to lean on — a shoulder that Caroline’s parents would prefer she avoided altogether.
Tony offers the solace Caroline is looking for. He’s certain that Jess will be found in California: a place of peace, and love, where many of those wild child flower children escape to. Tony confides in Caroline that he wants nothing more than to find her sister: “Come with me,” he tells her. “We’ll find her together.”
And like the Pied Piper, Caroline can only follow him.
Tell us a little bit about the idea behind Half in Love with Death. What inspired you to write this story?
I was having trouble plotting my novel when my sister suggested I turn to a true crime for inspiration and not just any crime. She confided in me that when she was 12 she’d been obsessed with the case of Charles Schmid, ‘the Pied Piper of Tucson.’ This was the first time I’d learned about her obsession, and this sensational crime that took place in 1966. I had to look into it.
Schmid was a charismatic young man who murdered three teenage girls, and buried them in the Arizona desert. Two of his victims were sisters. Though he was a cold-blooded killer he was popular with Tucson teens and had lots of girlfriends. Most of his friends did not see the evil that lurked behind his charming façade. Looking at photos of this handsome but strange young man made me think about how little I understood about my own friends as a teen, and how blindly I’d counted on love to solve everything. Slowly a story emerged about secrets, lies, and a girl who falls for someone who may not be what he seems.
What was the most difficult part about writing about a serial killer from the perspective of a teenager?
I had to remember how intense and blinding first love can be for a teen. I also had put aside that inner voice shouting, “Stop, bad choice,” and feel what Caroline would be feeling. And I had to go back to my research about Schmid and not just understand but feel what made him so attractive to some teen girls. I did succeed in doing that, so much so that I began to wish I’d find some clue that would prove Schmid innocent. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that he was guilty, but this process illuminated just how seductive a sociopath can be to anyone, not just teens.
Did you have any reservations while writing about drug culture in the sixties? With books like Go Ask Alice serving as cautionary tales for teenagers, how did you approach such tough subject matter without pulling any punches?
I didn’t have any reservations, though I hope my book would never convince a teen to take drugs. My kids can attest to the fact that I am adamant about not using them. But I am also adamant about not using fiction to convey a message. In my opinion the best novels present reality so vividly that you form your own opinions. In my novel I wanted readers to experience first hand how alluring and dangerous the sixties drug culture was. During that decade teens and adults sought enlightenment via psychedelic drugs. Their desire was genuine and some people did have positive ‘mind-blowing’ experiences. Others were less fortunate. I had friends whose lives were ruined by drugs, some who died. Like Caroline many of them shared an innocent idealism that led them into unexpected darkness.
What was the most difficult part of writing Half in Love with Death?
Writing a novel from the point of view of an impressionable teenage girl was difficult. At times I longed for a broader perspective, and worked hard to keep everything in Caroline’s voice. Caroline is smart but not savvy. She’s a teen girl who doesn’t slay dragons, who isn’t empowered, but who gains strength from her emotional struggles, and it was important to me to stay true to that. Though I knew a great deal about Tony as a character, I had to make sure to depict him as Caroline would see him. Similarly a lot of the big historical events going on in the sixties weren’t on her radar, so I had to focus on the things she would notice like clothes, music, and drugs to convey that complicated era.
What have you learned from your debut to apply to future work?
My debut taught me the hard way the value of planning your story ahead of time. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter and it took years and dozens of revisions to get this story right because I took so many wrong turns. I’d rather not take a decade to write my next novel, so I am going to force myself to do more planning up front.
Is there any particular approach with regards to planning that you’re working with next?
I think movies can teach novelists a lot and I plan to read Save the Cat to learn about story from a screenwriting perspective. Also since I’m writing a more conventional mystery this time around, I’m going to make sure I understand all aspects of the mystery (who did it, where, when, why, and so on) before I get too far into the draft. These are my plans. We’ll see if I follow through …
I know it’s come up a couple of times in previous interviews, but as a designer myself, I always get excited when I run into other people in the tech industry — especially programmers. Have you found any links between your processes as a developer and a writer?
As I’m sure you know programming relies heavily on abstract logic. Writing a story with a mystery in it relies on logic too. When I was plotting Half in Love with Death I would ask myself is it logical that this would happen. If it wasn’t I’d discard the idea or find ways to make it logical. This process really helped me to work out the mystery in my book.
One of my favorite aspects of programming is debugging. Debugging has taught me that even if it seems like something can’t be solved, by being patient and persistent you can almost always find the cause of the problem. When I get stuck in my writing, the debugger in me helps me to stick with it until I figure things out.
What advice would you offer new writers who are trying to carve a niche for themselves?
You need to find your tribe i.e. other writers whose work is similar to yours, and you need to understand where your work fits in the market. Study the writers you like, and the conventions of your genre. You need to walk a fine line between cultivating what makes you unique, and being aware of the market. I made a lot of changes to Half in Love with Death so it would fit in the YA genre, but I only made changes that I believed would make it a better book. Whether you’re published or trying to be, you should also connect with organizations and groups (online or otherwise) that support writers. Though I don’t consider my novel to be a typical thriller, I joined International Thriller Writers and discovered that they are enormously supportive of debut authors. There is a lot of help out there for writers at all stages of their journey. Carving out your own niche doesn’t mean you have to do it all by yourself.
Can you give us a hint at any future writing plans? Where do you want to go next?
I’m working on a contemporary YA mystery about an aspiring ballerina who must prove that her Russian immigrant boyfriend and dance partner is not the mythical butterfly killer who murdered the captain of the high school dance team. I’m having fun setting it in my gritty hometown of Quincy, and writing about dance, murder, and creepy butterflies!