By Brett King
For most people, a cold virus brings misery. For Erica Spindler, it brought serendipity. In June of 1982, she was bed-ridden with illness and found escape in a romance novel. She was immediately hooked, and soon decided to try the challenge of writing one for herself. Despite success writing romance in later years, she found her “true calling” when she took a shot at the suspense genre in 1996.
It proved to be a good move. As a NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author, Erica has written thirty novels, including her latest book, JUSTICE FOR SARA, set for an August 2013 release. The book showcases a bright and determined protagonist named Katherine McCall who returns to an unforgiving Louisiana town where her beloved sister, Sara, was beaten to death a decade before. At age seventeen, Kat had been tried for the homicide, but was acquitted. Most of the citizens of Liberty, however, remain stubborn in their conviction that she murdered her sister. Ensnared in a web of small-town intrigue, Kat teams up with an unlikely ally, Sergeant Luke Tanner, to reopen the decade-old case.Although unwavering in her quest, Kat faces the greatest challenge of her life as she seeks justice for Sara. SUSPENSE MAGAZINE calls her latest novel a“powerful cocktail of seeking the truth and finding your path, all while racing towards the climactic ending. Spindler without a doubt keeps fans on the edge of their seats.”
I first discovered Erica’s work more than a decade ago at a Bouchercon World Mystery Convention. Her publisher had distributed copies of her novel on chairs in the conference hall. For a bibliophile, finding a free book waiting on a chair is like discovering a golden Easter egg. The marketing strategy worked because I’ve been a fan of Erica’s books since that time. I enjoyed interviewing her along with other authors three years ago for the release of ITW’s WATCHLIST serial novel and I’m pleased to chat with Erica again about JUSTICE FOR SARA.
I’ve always believed that the deepest passions are often the ones that find us. That seems true for you. Not many people owe the start of their career to a virus (it’s a great story, by the way). While bedridden, you found escape in a romance novel and it stimulated you to write fiction. What, in particular, about that book triggered your desire to start writing? Or was it more a general sense that you were destined to be a novelist?
I’d always loved to read, but had never considered a career in anything but the visual arts. After escaping with that (Nora Roberts) novel, I went on a romance reading binge. The more I read, the more I wanted to write. Once I finally put pen to paper, I was hooked, totally obsessed with becoming a published author. Was it the magic that is Nora Roberts that triggered my desire to write? Had the stars aligned perfectly at that moment, causing all the pieces of the ‘What’s Erica going to be when she grows up’ puzzle to click into place? I honestly don’t know, but feel extremely blessed to be where I am.
What inspired you to make the move from romance to suspense with your 1996 novel, FORBIDDEN FRUIT?
Once again, I followed my muse. When plotting FORBIDDEN FRUIT, I included a sub-plot that included a cop tracking a serial killer in New Orleans. I’d never written anything like that before, but as I was writing those parts of the story, I was having so much fun. So when it came time to come up with another story, I decided I had to write “more of that.”That trend continued with each book. Perhaps not the most measured approach to a career, but it’s been a fun and wild ride!
Although the circumstances are obviously different in JUSTICE FOR SARA, you make a brief reference to the notorious homicides committed by Lizzie Borden. How often do you look to real-world crime as a starting point for your books?
Often, including JUSTICE FOR SARA. I’ve always been fascinated by crime and punishment, guilt, innocence and the emotional consequences of crime; but lately, I’ve become a bit of a trial junkie as well. Two recent murder trials–the Casey Anthony trial in Florida and Amanda Knox in Italy–caught my attention. In both, the women were charged on circumstantial evidence. Their behavior made them look guilty. Amanda Knox sat on her boyfriend’s lap and giggled while waiting to be questioned by police about the murder of her roommate, and Casey Anthony was out partying while her daughter was missing. We, the public, were certain they were guilty. And when they were acquitted, we were outraged. In JUSTICE FOR SARA, I wanted to crawl inside the head of the accused. What if everything pointed to your guilt? What if you were innocent and no one believed you? What if, because of your actions and the public’s presumption of guilt, your sister’s killer went free?
After a decade away, Katherine McCall returns to her roots in a small Louisiana town called Liberty (an ironic name given that the town signals a small loss of freedom for Kat). As a result, the bittersweet nature of homecomings plays an interesting role in JUSTICE FOR SARA. Did that dynamic evolve as you wrote the novel or was it present in your preliminary outline?
It evolved as I wrote the story. For me, that’s part of the magic of the writing process.
You are skilled at creating fast and efficient characterizations through relationships. By the third page, you establish the bad blood between Kat and Liberty’s police chief. A short time later, in the second chapter, Kat is identified as a clear underdog. What advice would you give to aspiring writers about creating memorable characters?
Thank you for that, Brett. My advice: Zero in on what drives your character. Once you know–really know–that, it will direct your character’s every action and reaction. That sounds like “duh, no kidding” advice, but the aspiring writer (I was one, too!) often doesn’t get that and focuses instead on a character’s looks and on action without motivation.
You make effective use of setting when bringing a character to life, such as the way you use Lilith’s home to reflect her personality. In a larger sense,Liberty becomes a kind of character as well, brimming with a curious mix of cordiality and suspicion (your phrase “little towns have long memories”helps to convey a subtle sense of threat). In your writing, what do you see as important for capturing the atmosphere of a scene?
For me, creating atmosphere is about engaging–and manipulating–the senses. The reader’s by way of the character’s. The way a place smells, the feel of the breeze or the sun, the sounds of a particular moment and the memories they invoke. Defining character through setting, I use visual detail–the way an artist does–to tell a story or evoke an emotional response.
Although Sara and Kat share a powerful bond, there is a disparity between the sisters. What would you say is the most critical difference between the two women?
Age, maturity and the effect of their parents’ tragic death has on them–the parental role being forced on Sara, all the responsibility and worry that comes along with that; in Kat’s case, anger and grief fuel her teenage angst and rebellion. Tragedy shapes us and who we become. I imagine even if Sara’s life hadn’t been cut short, those differences would have defined them forever.
In Chapter 35, Sergeant Luke Tanner has an explosive exchange with his father, Chief Stephan Tanner, concerning the investigation into Sara’s unsolved homicide. The tension between them builds to this scene and gives definition to their relationship. To what degree does the conflict in their relationship parallel the tension between Kat and Sara?
Such an interesting observation, Brett. Luke and his dad’s relationship had also been altered by tragedy. In the course of the novel, they get the chance to do what Kat and Sara can not: work through all that tangled mess of emotions, memories and misunderstandings.
Almost one third of the chapters in JUSTICE FOR SARA contain scenes that switch viewpoints and time periods from 2003 to 2013. RT BOOK REVIEWS and Shannon Raab of SUSPENSE MAGAZINE have praised the seamless way that you present alternating storylines. What challenges did you face in telling a story set in dual time periods?
I’m so glad you asked this question. The alternating storylines and time periods presented my biggest challenge in writing JUSTICE FOR SARA, but is also what I loved most about writing it. That aspect developed organically, which was exciting, but also presented one of the challenges. I’d never organized a story that way and doubted myself. I worried about the novel’s pace, about how it compared to the storytelling style my readers were accustomed to. But I pressed forward because it felt right. The other big challenge for me was juggling the timelines and information revealed along the way. That was huge! I had to create a detailed timeline that included dates, times, memory details, and characters. One detail misplaced could totally have totally blown the suspense!
Can you tell us a little about your next book project?
I’d love to! It’s tentatively titled FINDING TRUE and is another story of a woman’s search for the truth, in this case, about her new husband’s shadowed past and what really happened to his first wife, True. In it, I’m once again tackling alternating time periods and storylines, though this time challenging myself by throwing in another “twist” on that. Crazy, masochistic writer!
Thanks, Erica! It was great visiting with you!
A NEW YORK TIMES and International bestselling author, Erica Spindler’s skill for crafting engrossing plots and compelling characters has earned both critical praise and legions of fans. Published in 25 countries, her stories have been lauded as “thrill-packed page turners, white-knuckle rides and edge-of-your-seat whodunits.”
To learn more about Erica, please visit her website.