By Karen Harper
“Survivors of a serial killer who invaded their childhood, Lucy Walsh and Jeremy Cavalon are married now, replacing nightmares of their terrifying past with joyful dreams of the upcoming birth of their first child. Fiercely determined to protect the fragile balance of their lives, Lucy doesn’t know that her new husband guards a deadly secret…or that an Act of God is about to unleash a vengeful fury.
For shell-shocked Lucy and Jeremy, the horrible death of a loved one is a tragic accident. But for a shadowy predator, it’s the first step toward completing a deadly mission that was interrupted so long ago. Now, at last, the members of the Walsh and Cavalon families will pay for their sins, one by one…”
Karen Harper had a chance to chat with Wendy Corsi Staub about HELL TO PAY and why this prolific author uses “methodical twists and turns” to surprise her readers.
You have a great career background for professional writing: you worked in a bookstore, a publishing house and an advertising agency. Obviously you learned a lot to help the business-savvy side of your career, but what did you learn in those endeavors to help the writing side of being an author?
I’ve learned that while my work certainly begins with my own artistic vision, it ends with the people out there who sell and read my books. So I keep an open mind when it comes to feedback from booksellers and readers. I’ve researched growing trends and incorporated new angles into my plotlines because booksellers alerted me that customers were growing more interested in them. My readers have convinced me to resurrect characters, write sequels, and even turn what was meant to be a standalone title into a 5-book series!
Likewise, you have another great part of your back story in that you ghost wrote for authors, celebs and co-authored a mystery series with former New York City mayor Ed Koch. Did those varied experiences help or hinder when you began to write totally on your own?
I had actually published almost a dozen of my own books by the time I accepted that first ghostwriting assignment, so it was quite an eye-opener: I was doing the same amount of work I’d always done—for a heck of a lot more money, a higher profile, mass distribution…all the things I hoped one day to achieve for myself. Did ghostwriting help? Yes—in the sense that it allowed me to prove to publishers that I was a professional (I met all my deadlines and I was discreet–some of those top-secret ghostwriting gigs were pretty juicy!). Did it hinder? Yes—because I had two small children and limited time and energy. Ultimately, I realized that I’d better focus on promoting my own name, instead of someone else’s.
You are certainly a writer at heart, not only knowing you wanted to be a fiction author when you were very young, but also in writing in so many different genres over the years. Currently, you are successful in three areas: YA paranormal; women’s fiction; and especially your New York Times bestselling thrillers. Were you trying to find which genre you preferred in the beginning or was there another reason your writing has been across the gamut of fiction?
The truth is simply that I am, by nature: A) extremely impatient and B) utterly incapable of relaxing. When I launched my career almost 20 years ago, most publishers weren’t interested in doing back-to-back releases, or even more than one book a year from an author they were building. And I was just too antsy—and yes, passionate about my newfound career–not to write several manuscripts a year. I couldn’t turn around and sell more suspense novels to competing publisher, but I could write in other genres under pseudonyms. It kept things fresh, and it kept me contentedly productive—in other words, sane. That I wound up branding myself under two bestselling author names and building a following in various genres was almost incidental.
Many of your excellent thriller/mystery reviews highlight the fact you snare the reader by writing about “ordinary” people who find themselves in extraordinary—and terrifying—situations. The Examiner remarks on the “menace behind everyday events… the ‘ordinariness’ of the…family.” Can you elaborate a bit on why this “common everyman/woman” approach works well for your stories, especially in HELL TO PAY?
For most of us, home is our haven—the one place where we feel safe. If we were out in the precarious world, say, skydiving or hunting terrorists, we would anticipate danger. But not at home, where there’s a certain level of comfort to familiarity and the rhythm of an ordinary day. To me, and to many readers, nothing is more frightening than the thought of danger crossing that sacred threshold so that suddenly, nothing is familiar and you don’t know who to trust or where to turn.
Suspense Magazine praises the “methodical twists and turns” and how your separate plot threads come together. It takes a lot of planning ahead to write like this—or does it? Do you outline your story strands before you begin, or can you let such a complex structure grow as you go?
Oddly—because I am a Type A personality, and almost a compulsive planner when I take a real life trip—my writing process is just the opposite. I always have a general idea of where I’m going, but I don’t decide how I’ll get there until I’m actually well on my way. I always allow myself to backtrack, and I occasionally explore so many different forks as I go that it’s almost a happy coincidence when I reach my original destination.
What draws you to writing thrillers—books like HELL TO PAY that go for the jugular with fear in your characters and, ultimately, for the reader?
I think in part it’s due to a real life fluke of character: my own impatient nature and constant thirst for excitement. Give me adrenaline moments over relaxation any day! I prefer not to wade through quiet pages of narrative when I read a book and I’d rather not sit through lengthy, luxurious scenes when I see a movie—I want twists and cliffhangers and in the end, I want to slap my forehead—ouch!–because I didn’t see the big reveal coming. My readers want—and have come to expect—those big surprises from my books. So twists–like masking the villain behind a familiar face–have become my literary trademark.
You obviously juggle a very busy schedule of events, deadlines—and a normal (ordinary?) family life. Do you have any hints for other busy writers on how to keep your muse alive and your sanity intact with such demands on your time?
It’s become a constant challenge the older my kids get—they’re teenagers now; hello, constant carpooling and late night pacing! I do rely heavily on calendar math: before starting a new book, I divide the number of pages I need to write by the number of weeks I have until deadline. I put a page number on every Friday of my calendar, and I make sure I’ve reached that page at the end of every week. I force myself to stick to it. If it’s Thursday afternoon and I’m still 40 pages away from my Friday quota, I know I won’t be socializing—or sleeping–in the immediate future.
What are you working on now? Or do you prefer not to discuss works in progress? ( I would advise fans to check out your excellent website to read some excerpts and reviews to get the full flavor of Wendy’s work—and not when you’re alone or late at night!)
I’m about to hit the road—and the television, radio, and internet–to promote HELL TO PAY. Harpercollins is sending me on tour with fellow thriller author Jamie Freveletti, so look for us from late September through mid-October in western New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix. All the tour details are on my website.
I’m also writing a new suspense trilogy for Harper, to be launched next summer with the back-to-back (tentatively titled) NIGHTWATCHER and SLEEPWALKER, followed by SHADOWKILLER, with a novella tie-in, DREAMCATCHER, scheduled in between.
As a New Yorker, I’ve never forgotten the immediate aftermath of September 11th: the constant chaos, and the fact that the city’s crime rate fell drastically. My writer’s brain has injected a series of what-if’s into that scenario: what if the horrific events caused someone who was already precariously balanced on the edge of violent insanity to snap? What if, with communications down and lower Manhattan a wasteland of rubble and smoking ruins, a young woman was alone and isolated there at night? What if an opportunistic serial killer took advantage of the NYPD’s distraction with a terror investigation and of course, grief for lost colleagues buried in the “pile”?
That is the basis for NIGHTWATCHER, which opens in Manhattan on September 10, 2001 and unfolds over that historic week. SLEEPWALKER revisits the characters when the tenth anniversary of 9/11 seems to trigger a series of copycat crimes. On its last page, I reveal a shocking twist that goes back to something that happened—or did it?–in the first book, and that opens the door to SHADOWKILLER. Meanwhile, DREAMCATCHER is prequel that largely explores the killer’s and victims’ formative years—and links them through, yep, another one of those big trademark twists.
Wendy Corsi Staub has published over seventy novels, including multiple New York Times bestselling thrillers. Her latest, SCARED TO DEATH (Avon, January 2011), continues a trilogy that began in 2010 with LIVE TO TELL, which received a starred Publishers Weekly review and was a nominee for the Mary Higgins Clark Award at this year’s MWA Edgars. Her YA paranormal series LILY DALE is optioned by Freemantle Productions.
Awards include a RWA Rita, four WLA Washington Irvings, the RWA-NYC Golden Apple for Lifetime Achievement and the RT Bookreviews Career Achievement Award in Suspense. Alter-ego Wendy Markham writes bestselling chick lit.
To learn more about Wendy, please visit her website.