Up Close: Lynn Chandler Willis

The Path From True Crime to Fiction

By Jaden Terrell

Lynn Chandler Willis’s first book was a nonfiction account of a murder that actually occurred in her community. But her interest in writing the book was less about the grisly details of the crime than what motivated it.

“I’ve always been interested in the why of crime more so than the how,” she says. “What makes one person do the things they do that goes against societal norm? It’s an age-old question, but it fascinates me.”

In the case of Unholy Covenant, she knew the victim and the suspects. The crime, she recalls, was devastating to both families and to everyone who knew them.

At the time, Willis owned a bi-weekly newspaper in the community where the murder occurred. She covered the story, from the crime itself, through the investigation, to the conclusion of the trials, which she attended every single day. This significantly reduced the amount of research she needed to do when it came time to write the book.

For Willis, the most taxing part of the true crime process came a few years after the book had been out.

“I was contacted by several television production companies wanting to do a feature on the case,” she says. “It was all fun and games until I realized every time a crew showed up, the victim’s family lived the nightmare again and again. They’re good people and deserve to be able to move on with their lives. How could they ever move on if every few years a camera crew showed up wanting them to relive the worst day in their lives?”

Lynn Chandler Willis poses with a fan at a signing event.

That was when she made the move to fiction.

“Your words and actions aren’t meant to be life-altering,” she says. “Pure and simple entertainment. With all that being said, I did recently tape an episode for an upcoming show on the Discovery ID Chanel with the victim’s family’s blessing.”

Willis brings the same heart and dedication to her fiction. Her first two novels, Wink of an Eye and The Rising, were published to accolades. As a result, Willis is a Shamus Award finalist and the first woman in a decade to win the Private Eye Writers of America’s Best 1st PI Novel competition. She was also the winner of a Grace Award for Excellence in Faith-Based Fiction.

Her Ava Logan mysteries are also carefully crafted. “I’m a huge fan of Megan Abbott,” Willis says, “and I study how she makes every word count. Every ‘and’ or ‘the’ has a purpose. I blame her for the way I agonize over every word I write in the first draft.”

Asked what other authors have influenced her, she says she finds Elmore Leonard’s characters fascinating. Then she adds, “I’m also working to be Lee Child’s protégé, but he doesn’t know it yet, so don’t tell him.”

So far, there are three books in the series. In Tell Me No Lies, Ava must face her turbulent childhood while seeking justice for a friend’s murder. The second, Tell Me No Secrets, begins when Ava interrupts her daughter, Emma’s, baptism ceremony by plunging into the river after the backpack of a missing colleague. In the third, TELL ME YOU LOVE ME, Ava discovers the body of a long-dead murder victim while researching a story about prize-winning beagles for the small-town newspaper she owns.

Like all of Willis’s work, the Ava Logan books depict life in rural Appalachia with a deep sensitivity toward mountain culture. Granny woman (or “granny witch”) Mary McCarter plays a key role in both stories, as does her “simple” son, Keeper, and his grave dowsing rods. These are eccentric characters, but Willis is careful to show their complexity: their stubbornness, their suspicion of strangers, their generosity, and their wisdom.

Keeper and his mother, Mary, are two of Willis’s favorite characters.

Six of Chandler Willis’s nine grandchildren.

“Keeper is so innocent and trusting,” she says. “He sees the world in child-like fashion and Ava is very protective of him. Mary is a walking conflict of time periods and new world versus old world. She’s an ‘old hippie’ in that she came of age in the turbulent sixties, yet never left the mountain. The old world ways, like using herbs and tonics, is her way of life, it’s not something she’s recently embraced in a back-to-nature mode.”

From the McCarters with their mountain wisdom, to Ava’s mentor, pastor and surrogate mother, Doretha, to Pudge Collins with his blue-ribbon beagles, Willis’s characters are both memorable and believable.

“They’re everyday people,” she says. “You’re more likely to find them at Walmart griping about the cost of groceries than out saving the world. It’s their normalcy that makes them memorable. I learned when publishing a small-town newspaper, it was the feature articles about your neighbors that drew the most interest. Readers looked over the police blotter to see who got broken into but it’s the story on Joe’s prize-winning pumpkin they’ll read every word of. And argue that he used some forbidden chemical. Those are the people I base my characters on.”

In a series like this, character and setting are inextricably linked. Willis says she’s totally obsessed with all things Appalachia. “The sheer beauty of the land itself is awe-inspiring, but the people are my main focus. Despite the hardships they’ve faced through centuries, they hold tight to their beliefs and way of life.”

Lynn Chandler Willis

She tried to capture that as she developed the series. “Ava is strong, often fearless and very resilient. Much like the region itself. Mary and Keeper McCarter represent some of the old-world traditions brought over from the Scots-Irish. Granny women are still very much a part of the culture, especially given the lack of accessible medical care in the region. The biggest thing I wanted to avoid when writing about the region was portraying the people as uneducated and toothless, and I’ve been told I succeeded.”

In creating Ava, Willis draws from her own experiences as the owner/publisher of a small-town paper. With a background in journalism, both print and broadcast, Willis knows how a news story develops. “I know how important advertisers are,” she says, “and how it’s a very fine line we walk in catering to their needs while maintaining the integrity of the truth.”

The books explore big themes like religion, tolerance, prescription drug addiction, poverty, homosexuality, gender roles, and domestic abuse. These are weighty topics for a series marketed as cozy.

Asked how she manages to balance the dichotomy, Willis says, “I keep the blood and sex off screen. I also strive for emotional depth more so than fun and lighthearted issues. The Ava Logan series seriously pushes the boundaries of ‘cozy!’ The characters, primarily Ava, deal with very real issues. Raising kids, acceptance, bad marriages—these are all things we or people we know live with daily. If I want a reader to be able to relate to my characters, they have to be able to put themselves in the character’s shoes.”

Her advice to aspiring authors is simple: Write. Then she adds, “Unless you’re that one-in-a-million oddity, your fifth, sixth, or seventh book will sell the first. No matter how much you post on Facebook about your book, people want a backlist. Have that second book ready to go as soon as you turn in the first one.”

 

Jaden Terrell

Jaden Terrell is the author of the Jared McKean private detective series and a contributor to Now Write! Mysteries, a collection of exercises for writers of crime fiction. Her short stories have appeared in KILLER NASHVILLE NOIR, and she writes for the Killer Nashville Magazine. The recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, Terrell is also a writing coach, workshop leader, and compassionate editor.

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