Congratulations on your debut novel, A Dead Man’s Eyes, the first in The Lisa Jamison Mystery. Tell us a little about Lisa, and the mystery she tries to solve.
I love Lisa! She is a compilation of several people I knew during my journalism days, including a pregnant teenager who witnessed a fatal game of Russian roulette. There was something special about that girl. She was smart and determined beyond her years, just like Lisa. Here is the official version:
Lisa Jamison has done well for a single mom who got pregnant at fifteen.
She’s a reporter at a well-respected newspaper and her teenage daughter is both an athlete and honors student. Though their relationship is rocky these days, Lisa has accomplished what she set out to do. She has given her daughter the kind of life she never had.
But all that changes when Lisa sees her daughter in the eyes of a dead man.
The cops call it a drug killing, but Lisa doesn’t believe it. She knows her ex-boyfriend was no drug dealer even though she hadn’t seen him in sixteen years. Lisa ignores warnings from her medical-examiner friend. She fails to heed barely veiled threats from the sheriff of a neighboring county. Instead, she risks her life and the lives of her daughter and their closest friend on a dangerous quest for answers.
The investigation leaves Lisa fighting for her family in a morbid, black market world she never knew existed. She learns that trust is complicated and that she, despite her cynical nature, has been blind. She trusted the wrong people and now she might have to pay with her life.
You were a journalist, specifically a crime reporter, in your former life. When I think of journalism, it’s the Hook to capture a reader’s attention and then the rest is the most information, in the smallest possible amount of column space. Did your “day job” help make you a better writer?
A good journalist not only hooks the reader immediately, but also pulls the reader through the entire story. With space limits, that means choosing the most powerful and efficient words possible and achieving a sort of suspenseful pace. In that sense, it made me a better writer. But journalists also strive for objectivity in their writing. It took lots of classes and practice to regain the fictional voice I had developed in my younger years. Crime reporting also gave me invaluable opportunities to immerse myself in the lives of others and to study human nature. It was hard sometimes. I still carry a lot of people and their suffering in my heart.
I know this is hard question to answer, but how would you pitch the Jamison series? Is it a cozy, hard-boiled, a mash-up of both and a procedural? I ask this because a lot of crime fiction is very dark, and there’s a trend these days for unlikeable character, especially a lead female protagonist.
This is a good question and one I have struggled with myself. The most common reason for rejection when my former agent first submitted A Dead Man’s Eyes to publishers involved the focus on the mother-daughter relationship. Big publishers wanted lots of graphic action and less character development. They said the balance was 50/50 and they wanted 80/20. A Dead Man’s Eyes is suspenseful and a fast-paced read, but it is also the story of broken trust and healing. It is about family and how we define family. As Lisa works through her issues, we come to know her better and love her more, but we don’t slow down because life isn’t like that. The world doesn’t stop so we can fix it. If I had to select a subgenre genre, I would say suspense.
You’re a mom—of twins, to boot! You’ve spoken about motherhood, finding time to write, and ignoring the naysayers. You’re on the hook to deliver six novels to Level Best Books, so you obviously have found the time. Talk a little about your journey, from mom to writer.
It has been a roller coaster, for sure! My kids come first, always. That doesn’t mean I drop everything for their every whim or that I never choose writing over something that involves my kids. It means my kids are my greatest priority. I knew it would be tough twenty-one years ago when I decided to stay home with my kids and pursue fiction instead of returning to journalism. We couldn’t afford to go without any income from me, so I juggled kids, part-time jobs and my writing, jotting down paragraphs in McDonald’s play areas, while nursing, and in lots of cafes and libraries. It took six years to write my first novel, but they came faster after that, even when we went from two kids to four with the birth of the twins. Five of the six contracted novels are complete and the sixth is half done. I do not write fiction every day, especially now with a house full of kids studying virtually and my husband working from home. Sometimes I will even go a month or two with no fiction writing at all. But I am always writing in my head. When I do get my butt in the chair, I am very productive.
Who did you read growing up, and who are you reading now?
I read everything as a kid. My father used to buy boxes of books at auctions, never knowing what was in them, so it was always a treat to open them. I was a huge Nancy Drew fan and, when I ran out of those, I dove into the Hardy Boys. I loved fairy tales, the originals with the gruesome endings. I even went through a Harlequin stage at ten years old. Now, I read a mix of mysteries and thrillers and literary fiction, which I define as fiction that transcends genre. I am halfway through Tina deBellegarde’s mystery Winter Witness and loving it, but I am also reading Watership Down because my twins are reading it for class. I like to read what my kids are reading.
What is easiest and most difficult for you to write? Is it a certain topic, or is something in the writer’s toolkit, such as action scenes, dialogue, or something else?
For me, the easiest part of writing fiction is the climatic scenes. I get caught up in them, and then I can’t write fast enough. The hardest part is writing serial crime. I have not read a lot of serial crime, so I was uncomfortable at first. I think I am finally learning to ignore the part of my brain that says I have to follow particular conventions though. If I just immerse myself in each novel, the rest will follow.
Readers will meet Lisa Jamison, but tells us about your standalone novels?
Thanks for asking!
I am very excited that my standalones will be published by Level Best Books, especially Spring Melt. Spring Melt was my first novel, the one that took six years to write. It was inspired by some of my favorite authors – David Guterson, Anita Shreve, John Irving – and by my father, who was a lawyer, and often told colorful stories about his cases and our family’s history in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. It is a courtroom drama set in the Adirondacks in the mid-1920s, focusing on the trial of three men (retired lumberjacks) who are accused of murdering the rapist of their friend’s daughter nearly twenty years after he died in what was deemed a logging accident. The publication date is December of 2023.
Never Let Go will release in December of next year. It is a thriller set in the Finger Lakes region of New York, involving a woman who is kidnapped by her best friend and sealed in a basement room. Her friend is obsessed with her husband and has sold their baby on the black market to get the baby out of the way. Carla, the main character must escape in order to save her husband and get her baby back.
No Stranger Here is a thriller set in the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania, where I now live. The novel, coming in December of 2024, features Marylin Dekker, who moves to rural Pennsylvania, where her husband grew up and she was born, believing she is a stranger to these parts. But, with her arrival, she unknowingly awakens dangerous family secrets that people will kill to protect. Marilyn has a choice: She can escape, like her parents did and raise her children on the run; or she can unravel the mystery of her parents’ past, risking her own life and lives of her husband and children to end the cycle of fear.
You’re active in several organizations. Everyone knows—or at least, I hope they do—Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, but tell me about your work with Pennwriters.
Pennwriters feels like family. I first joined a few years back when I learned about the group’s Novel Beginnings contest. I won first and second place, which earned me free registration for one conference and half-price registration for the next. I was hooked after the first conference. The conference was amazing and the people of Pennwriters are welcoming and generous with their time and advice. They come from all genres, which was refreshing. I volunteered at each conference and was eventually asked to become an Area Representative. I greatly enjoyed getting to know the membership and bonding with board members, but it also opened my eyes to the tremendous amount of work that is involved in running the organization. Area representatives help launch critique groups, run local events and workshops, write monthly newsletters and more. As much as I loved it, I had to step down in January as my release date neared. It was too much in combination with my part-time job, book promotion, writing and my family. I hope to be more heavily involved again when my kids are older.
Area seven consists of out-of-state members and is quite active. I encourage new writers to join Pennwriters and to enter the contests, regardless of where they live. They might win free conference registration and they will get great feedback on your work. Most important, they will become part of an awesome and supportive new tribe.
Lori Duffy Foster at Level Best Books