Up Close: Lori Rader-Day

Rader-Day Delivers a Riveting Nightmare Journey

By Wendy Tyson

Award-winning author Lori Rader-Day is known for creating compelling characters, dark, twisting plots, and page-turning suspense—and her latest release, THE LUCKY ONE, is no exception. Masterfully told, THE LUCKY ONE takes readers on a riveting nightmare journey into the world of missing persons—with an unforgettable climax.

The Big Thrill recently had a chance to sit down with Rader-Day to talk about THE LUCKY ONE, her path to publication, and her current role as president of Sisters in Crime.

Your book has an exciting premise: a woman kidnapped as a child who uses an online amateur sleuth network to track down a kidnapper. What inspired this storyline? Did you have to do any special research to write this novel?

One day my new neighbor announced the reason she hated the fence between our houses was that she worried someone would lean over it and nab her little girl. I was dumbstruck, because it’s my job to worst-case-scenario everything, and yet I hadn’t seen that one coming. She said, “Oh, it’s because I was kidnapped as a child,” and I had to stop her to make sure she didn’t mind me using her in a book. It happened that fast. I combined the idea of being kidnapped but living to tell the story with the online sleuth community that I had been reading about—precisely a website where I had discovered a profile on the girl, Debra Jean Cole, who went missing from my childhood neighborhood. She was 12, lived down the street, and has never been found.

I researched the real website, the Doe Network, interviewing Todd Matthews, one of its founders. I read several books about amateur sleuths or by them. (My favorites were The Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, and True Crime Addict by James Renner.) I also went back to my hometown and scrounged through decades of microfilm, looking at how Debra Jean Cole’s disappearance had been reported (and not—this was before Amber Alerts existed. Debra Jean’s disappearance didn’t show up in the newspaper as far as I could find until her older sister was found murdered two years later, at which time people stopped believing Debra was a runaway). That research also helped me start to understand how easily a person could become obsessed by a case. The fact that Debra Jean Cole is still missing gets to me. If there was any way to try to find her body, I would be tempted to mount the search myself.

Rader-Day’s Under a Dark Sky was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. Rader-Day is pictured above with fellow nominees Alison Gaylin, Naomi Hirahara, and Lisa Unger.

What can you tell us about your main character, Alice Fine, that isn’t on the back cover? Other than the harrowing events surrounding the kidnapping, what elements of her past have shaped who Alice is today?

It feels a little dangerous to say this, as we’re expected to write strong women leads, but my women protagonists often have heavy vulnerabilities and are reluctant to sleuth in any way. Much to my chagrin. In Alice Fine’s case, she’s grown up so sheltered and protected because of her brush with crime that she’s naïve and timid. Yes, she’s hanging out on a website full of terrible stories; she has a strong constitution for it, or maybe it’s more correct to say that she feels like none of it can touch her. She’s the lucky one, after all. In the process of the story, she’s learning not to take things at face value, to ask questions instead of accepting what other people tell her. She’s suspicious, as her dad has taught her to be, but she’s also too trusting that she’ll always have a back-up plan when her back-up plan should be herself.

Under a Dark Sky won the 2019 Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original. Rader-Day is pictured here with Best Novel winner Lou Berney after the awards ceremony at Bouchercon in Dallas last November.

You have written five standalone crime novels. Have you considered writing a series? What appeals to you about the standalone format?

Ah, you’ve found my weakness. I am fundamentally incapable of sustaining my own interest longer than one novel. I did try to start a series. My second published novel, Little Pretty Things, was a series starter. I changed publishers for my next book, but really the decision was made before then, when I finished the draft of Little Pretty Things and didn’t immediately dive into another project featuring Juliet Townsend. I liked that character, but at the time I was working a full-time job, a difficult one, and I really needed to keep myself interested in writing if I was going to get any done. I wrote almost entirely during my lunch hour from work at that point. The shiny new idea was very alluring. It was a siren song, and I went swimming after it and never came back. What I like about standalones is that I can try a different topic or point of view or location easily. I can follow my own interests. What doesn’t appeal to me is that standalones are held to the book-a-year program devised around the rabid fans of series books. I have enjoyed having a little extra time on THE LUCKY ONE, thanks to my editor going on maternity leave with her new son. I owe you one, Patrick.

Your books have won or been nominated for a number of awards. What elements are key to a riveting suspense novel? What advice do you have for new crime authors who want to improve their craft?

I could drop and do an hour talk on suspense, but the shortest answer possible is: character. Yes, yes, there’s more, but if you write a character that readers want to spend time with and/or watch act out, you’re suspending their interest to get to the next page and the next.

The more traditional answer might be suspense is built on unanswered questions. Readers have to wonder about something, or why turn the page? Why ditch friends and family and a really golden moment in the history of television to read something that doesn’t make them wonder about something? It can be something small until it’s something large, but readers pick up books like ours to worry. Give them something to worry about, and someone.

Rader-Day signs copies of Under a Dark Sky at My Little Paris Café and Bookstore in Northville, Mich.

The two best ways to improve craft: read a lot and write a lot. (Credit to Stephen King’s On Writing.) I would add that getting someone to swap pages with you is scary but will give you quick dividends. You learn a great deal from reading someone else’s half-baked story and figuring out what you need to say about it (kindly) to help them make it better. What you learn from helping someone else will help you with your own pages, too.

What did your own path to publication look like? 

I think I might have done publishing by the book. The old school book. I did a master of fine arts degree in creative writing, studied the mainstream industry, went to the AWP conferences and got lost among the serious novelists-in-training. Wrote short stories almost exclusively, started publishing in lit mags, that kind of thing. I won a contest and got some agent interest, but didn’t have a novel ready to capitalize on that opportunity. I went to writer workshops and worked on craft for a long time, and then all of that kind of went a bit out the window when suddenly I had the chance to have some pages read by Terence Faherty, who said, you know, you might be a crime writer.

Rader-Day with fellow author Christine Carbo at Bouchercon 2019 in Dallas, shortly before she became president of Sisters in Crime.

That was a surprise at the time, but as soon as he said it, I knew he was right. That gave me a lot of direction for the story I was writing that had turned into a novel, and it gave me a lot of direction for my career. He sent me to Bouchercon, and that’s where I met Clare O’Donohue, who told me about the mystery community. None of the stuff I had done before was wasted, of course. But I don’t know how long I would have wasted figuring out who I was.

After all that, I finished that draft and eventually put it into the drawer and started something new that became my first published novel. I started getting serious about writing (very, very serious, ask anyone from my MFA program) in 2006, and published my first book in 2014. Maybe I could have done it faster, but I don’t regret any of the steps I’ve taken so far. I wouldn’t have written the books I have if I had skipped any one turn in that path.

You’re the current president of the national Sisters in Crime—congratulations. How important has community involvement been to your writing career? Would you recommend new or aspiring authors get involved in the writing community—and, if so, any tips for getting started?

Community involvement has been everything to me and my writing career. Maybe there’s a pathway that has nothing to do with getting help from other writers and then giving it back once you’re able to, but that’s not the one I chose and not the one I see the most. I joined Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America early, before I had a book fully drafted, before I had a reason to look for an agent. I got involved so that I could talk to people and ask them questions. I knew people who would blurb my first book. I had people to sit with it at conference sessions. I also found a peer group, all the people getting published alongside me now. (This is what ITW gave me, through the Debut Class.)

Rader-Day speaks at the Hey Nonny! Book Club in Arlington Heights, IL, in May 2019.

I always tell beginning writers to find their people. Join the association, go to the meetings, sign up for all the online tools they offer, find out who the other people are who are at the same point in the process you are, and get to know them. And get involved. Don’t just send the check and skip the newsletter. Read the emails, offer to do things you can do, help out at an event, write a newsletter article. Bring yourself to the organization, and you’ll find a place there. That kind of support is worth investing in your own career. Sometimes nine years later you’re the national president but you don’t have to invest that much time to get the benefit of membership.

What’s next for you? 

I’ve already turned in my next novel to my editor, but it’s too early to offer a title or a release date. I can tell you, however, since it was in the Publisher’s Lunch announcement, that my next book is set in 1941 England and is based on true events. When children were being evacuated out of London and other metro areas during World War II because of expected German attacks, a group of 10 children were sent to Agatha Christie’s summer house in south England, Greenway. That’s a fact, but it’s barely been written about ever. I’m using that situation as the setting for a crime novel. Don’t worry, though. The kids are fine, as they were in real life. One of them just turned 81 and she and I are email pals now. There are two fictional nurses taking care of the kids, though, who are going to get into a lot of trouble. The research for that book was tremendous. I highly recommend setting a book somewhere you really want to stay the night.

 

Wendy Tyson
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