Paige Dearth and I sat down at a virtual coffee shop on the streets of Paris (hey, why not?) to chat about her new book, WHEN SMILES FADE.
We want to know about the new book, WHEN SMILES FADE. What’s it about and why do you love it?
My story is about an innocent little girl.
Her name is Emma Murphy and she is unloved from the moment she is born. Her earliest memory is of being beaten by her father, Pepper, at just eight years of age. Beatings endured as a child ultimately lay the foundation of the person Emma becomes. As she matures into a resourceful teenager, she is unwilling and unable to stifle her desire to even the score. Reaching her breaking point, she can no longer control the impulse to take matters into her own hands. Follow Emma’s plight where her menacing thoughts become the answers to her survival. How far will a child go to protect herself and the people she loves? For Emma, it meant becoming a serial killer.
The reason I love WHEN SMILES FADE is because Emma never submits to abusive people. She does whatever it takes to stay alive and doesn’t dwell on the consequences of her actions against the ruthless predators who use cruelty and manipulation against their prey. As far as Emma is concerned, the killings are justified by the crimes her victims commit.
Readers love Emma because, while she is a serial killer, she is also a woman who is desperately seeking to be loved.
I cried and cheered for Emma throughout the writing process. This was a very emotional and exciting book to write.
Making Emma a killer can be tricky business as far as reader empathy. Did you worry about that aspect, and have you received any feedback on it?
Indeed! It was very tricky to make my protagonist a serial killer. In my initial draft, my editor felt there were two kills where the punishment wasn’t justified by the crime and thought my readers could lose empathy for Emma.
I rewrote several scenes in my manuscript in order to keep my readers engaged and invested in the protagonist of the story.
The key was to ensure Emma only killed people who were a threat to her and those she loved. With all of the physical abuse Emma endured as a child, she was prone to violence and for her to get revenge on those who she deemed deserved it most was the best way to portray her anger and unwillingness to allow atrocities against the innocent to go on.
This is your second book, after BELIEVE LIKE A CHILD, and both deal with the darkest sort of crime: sexual abuse against a child. Given your bio, this subject matter obviously comes from your own painful past, which you share with your readers. I loved your “Resume,” where you display the survival techniques for what you have endured (see Paige’s website) You are very brave to open yourself up this way. What were your concerns about doing so, and would you do it differently if you could go back?
Great question, Tina. The truth is I had read an article (wish I could remember where and by whom) that gave advice to new authors. The message to me, as the reader, was: if I’m going to write about dark subjects, especially those I’m familiar with, I have to do it without worrying that people who know me may become angry at me for what I write.
It took me a while to wrap my mind around this concept. I was also told, by someone close to me, that my story could help unravel some of the relationships in my life. This, of course, gave me pause, but I realized that there was nothing to worry about because, if I alienated anyone who was close to me…well then, we weren’t as close as I believed.
I decided to write my resume so that my readers could understand me better. Everyone has their hardships and can relate to mine on some level. The point is that, no matter what life threw at me, I was determined to go after my own happiness. My life, up until this point, has been a delicate balance of persistence and blocking out all of the negative forces which could have destroyed me.
Would I do anything differently? Yes, I would have written my first book sooner because I am the sum of my experiences and, while they weren’t all good, I’ve survived them, which makes me capable of sharing what I know with others. If I can help someone know and understand that they aren’t alone in this world, then I’ve done my job.
I see a theme of empowerment in your books. Being abused as a child certainly robs one of any sense of power, esteem, and security. Has writing these books restored these in you? And have you heard from readers that they have regained these very important aspects of our psyches?
Wow, this question is very interesting. I would say that I had taken back my power, esteem and security before I wrote my first novel. I was very fortunate to have had several people come into my life in my early twenties. All of these people taught me something different about myself, but the common theme was “don’t be such a doormat” and “you can do anything.”
However, writing BELIEVE LIKE A CHILD was very cathartic for me and WHEN SMILES FADE confirmed that I could continue to write novels.
As for my readers, I’ve heard from so many people who have been through the same ordeal as I was as a young child. What all of them had in common was that they felt like I had told their story and with that came a sense of self and the courage to go after their own dreams.
Both of your books are very dark and gritty. Do you have ways to lighten your work space or working day to counteract this?
Oh, I sure do. I have a ritual, after writing, that’s become very soothing for me. At the end of the day, I pour two glasses of red wine (preferably Merlot or Malbec) for my hubby and me. As I sip away, I turn my energy over to making dinner. I love to cook. The whole process of working with ingredients and maneuvering around my kitchen, like a pro, clears my head and puts me into a relaxed state of being. Then my husband and I enjoy dinner together and talk about whatever feels right. I pretty much cook six nights a week and the seventh night we dine out with friends or family.
Just a note, my husband and I never talk about the book I’m currently writing. He doesn’t want to know anything about my current work until the first draft is completely finished. So with this in mind, I don’t continue to think about what I’ve written once I’ve finished writing for the day.
Your slogan is “Thrillers with Meaning.” What do you want readers to take away from your books?
My greatest hope is that people who read my novels will have a better understanding of what child abuse is really like and that they turn their new knowledge into action. In every book I write there is something to learn about the people we interact with daily.
I have many readers who, after finishing my novels, have written to tell me that they began to volunteer time to their communities and other organizations. Readers have told me that they see homeless people through different eyes. It brings me joy to know that, through my stories, people can see other people through a different lens. By providing clarity to what people see, we can begin to make a difference and can proactively take a stand against all types of abuse.
You certainly have the background to write books about the terrible abuse some children suffer and how they can survive into adulthood. But what enabled you to actually turn your own experiences into fiction?
I started with the longing to tell my story. When I set out to write my first novel, I began with the idea of writing non-fiction, but that desire quickly faded.
I realized that readers want a good story. I felt non-fiction would, after time, become mundane to write and to read. For me, and for all the meaning I wanted to convey, non-fiction was too limiting.
So, I changed what I had originally planned, followed my instincts and decided to be a storyteller. It was easy for me to write fiction because I’d spent so much of my young teens and twenties thinking about all the things that could have become of me, had I not met the people who helped me save myself.
Is there a book you’re longing to write that you haven’t had the opportunity or time to yet? Something completely different from what you’re writing now?
[laughing]…Funny you should ask that question.
Yes, I’d like to write a cookbook. You may have picked up, from a previous question, that I love to cook.
I know it seems a bit off track from thrillers, but I love to create new recipes. My husband, and guinea pig for all of my concoctions, thinks I’m very good at it, too.
I keep telling my husband that I’m going to put together a cookbook someday, if for no other reason than to make sure my daughter has all of the recipes that I’ve labored over. I have all of my recipes written in notebooks, on napkins and on random scraps of paper that I keep in a plastic envelope, but many of them need work. For the most part, my recipes have a name and the ingredients, but are without any instructions on how to put them all together. Someday, when the mood hits me just right, I’ll put those puppies together and publish my very own cookbook.
Child abuse is, sadly, a common crime, twisting the survivor’s psyche with a mixture of fear, guilt and shame. I imagine you hear from many readers who can relate to the nightmares your characters endure. What’s your most meaningful reader comment?
I have received many endearing emails after each of my novels were published. Most of these letters came from readers who suffered the same kind of torment, as a child, that I did.
There have been so many heartfelt thank you notes and letters of encouragement. Since it’s my goal to write “Thrillers With Meaning,” there was a particular reader from Florida who posted this note on Amazon. This really caught my attention because she was able to see the very essence of why I write these stories:
“Paige Dearth writes from her very soul, pouring angst, pain and true feeling into her writing. I could not read this and NOT be affected by its brutal frankness and stark harshness. Ms. Dearth builds her world with gritty, hard strokes, her characters with unapologetic crispness. Evil is evil, period. The abused are the only ones forgiven for not leading a life more “suitable” to delicate constitutions.”
Do you have any writing rituals before you begin a book or begin working every day?
To keep my emotions high, and my story face paced, I read the last ten pages of my manuscript the night before I write. I consider this the marinating period…the story soaks into my head and, when I get up the next day, I’m filled with ideas of where to go next.
What does your writing space look like? Do you have any inspirational sayings tacked to your monitor or wall?
My writing space, which we call The Lady Den, is a beautiful shade of purple. Purple is not only my favorite color, but also helps me be creative. The room is pretty bare, except for a desk, chair, small bookshelf and printer. I like my space to be cozy and free of clutter.
I have a quote sitting on my desk that I read every time I write. This goes back to your earlier question regarding any concerns I had about writing these books or putting my real-life resume on my website. I had naysayers among my group of friends and family in the beginning, but I just kept reading this quote. It actually gave me courage and enabled me to see some people clearly for the first time in my life…
“Don’t be distracted by criticism. Remember—the only taste of success some people have is when they take a bite of out you.”—Zig Ziglar
Was there one person who influenced or inspired you most where writing is concerned?
There were several in my personal life, including my friend, Ebby, my husband and my wonderful daughter.
However, if I were to look at one writer who inspires me most, it would be Harriet Beecher Stowe. She wrote UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, along with about thirty other books. Her courage to write UNCLE TOM’S CABIN in 1852, a work of fiction about the cruelty and unjustness of slavery, has inspired me to write about the taboo subject of child abuse, in all its ugly shapes and forms.
I think Harriet was a pioneer in exposing a subject that needed a spotlight. Harriet showed true grit and courage in her writing. She didn’t care about anything except helping people understand the real story through fiction.
What’s the best way for reader’s to get in touch with you? Do you Tweet/blog/etc.?
Tina, thank you so much for this interview today…the streets of Paris are marvelous and the coffee was just perfect.
Thank you, Paige, for filling me in on your latest book and your life. Can’t wait to read it!
Paige Dearth was a victim of child rape and spent her early years yearning desperately for a better life. Living through the fear and isolation that marked her youth, she found a way of coping with the trauma of her past and the angst that scarred her present: she developed the ability to dream up stories grounded in reality that would prove cathartic for her and provide her with a creative outlet.
Paige’s novels are a fine balance between what lives on in her imagination and the evil that lurks in the real world.
For more on Paige Dearth and her books, visit her website.