A Between the Lines Interview with Tami Hoag
By Julie Kramer
Even with fifteen consecutive #1 New York Times bestsellers to her name, Tami Hoag still feels a tinge of panic trying to figure out the identity of the killers in her gritty psychological thrillers.
This was especially true with COLD COLD HEART, in which her protagonist, Dana Nolan, moves from abduction victim in Hoag’s previous bestseller, The 9th Girl, to a brain-damaged heroine trying to solve a cold case.
The ending shocks, to be sure, but for me the real surprise comes in Hoag’s Author’s Note in which she reveals a personal secret.
In the back of COLD COLD HEART, you share details about the lasting effects of a traumatic brain injury you suffered as a child. What made you go public with this?
One, because if I share my story I will reach other people who have struggled with something similar, and they won’t feel so alone in their experience. It’s very isolating to feel that no one understands what you’re going through, whatever that is. Two, because I wanted to illustrate the vagaries of traumatic brain injury. How one person can have a seemingly serious injury but walk away, while another might seem to have a mild injury but a devastating result.
How much of your own experience factored into your decision to center a plot around a brain-injured heroine? Did you ever consider that might be risky?
I never considered my own injury at all when I created Dana. I originally thought Dana wasn’t going to get out of The 9th Girl alive. But when the climax of her part of that book came, she fought harder than I expected, and I just couldn’t kill her off. I knew then I had to tell her story in the aftermath of her being a victim of a horrible crime. I knew she had suffered a brain injury and that she had been disfigured and would have PTSD. It never crossed my mind that a character might be risky commercially. I love writing complex and damaged people, real people with good traits and difficult traits. I have to write first to satisfy myself, then to satisfy my editor. Beyond that, I know that some readers will love what I do, some will like what I do, and some won’t like it at all, and that’s fine with me. I’d rather be a great shot of whiskey to my audience than a weak cup of tea to the masses. Of course, I’m very grateful that a lot of people like whiskey.
COLD COLD HEART was supposed to be a summer release, but was moved to winter. Why the delay?
Blame it on the brain damage—not mine, but my characters’. There are two characters in this book with traumatic brain injuries. So, first I did a lot of research on TBI and the workings of the brain—where and how different kinds of memories are stored, the effects of injury to different parts of the brain, and so on. It was very important to me to get that right. Then I had to sink myself into the minds of those two characters and imagine what they had to go through on a daily basis because of their injuries. That was tough and exhausting, and the words just came slower than usual. Stories aren’t always meant to be written the instant we want them, and I’ve learned the hard way that it doesn’t pay to try to force it. I always ask my poor tormented editor if he wants if fast or good.
You also mentioned having particular trouble deciding who the killer was in COLD COLD HEART. Lots of intriguing suspects and motives, how did you make the final call?
That’s me and my commitment issues. I might go into a book thinking I know who the bad guy is, but I’ll change my mind again and again as the story unfolds and the characters develop. I suppose I don’t want the reader to figure it out too soon, so, if I don’t know, how can they? I’ve had it come right down to the climax of the book with me thinking it was one character and it turns out to be another. It’s kind of a crazy way to work, but ultimately the story decides for me.
Do you outline at all?
No. It’s a scary way to write. You’re just flying by the seat of your pants. There’s always that moment when you think, “Oh my God, what if nothing happens? What if I don’t have an idea? What if everything just stops, and all these characters look at me like, ‘Now what?’” That can be unnerving.
Is there a little bit of you in your protagonists?
For sure. We have to share some points of view and attitudes. It has to be somebody I’d want to hang out with. If this person is so different from me that I wouldn’t want to have dinner with him or her, it’s not going to work because I’m going to spend however many months with this person day and night. The flip side is, with antagonist characters, that’s great, because I love a good argument. I love to butt heads, but for sure there are little bits of yourself in your main characters.
So are there little bits of you in your villains?
I don’t think so. If you’re writing about a character who’s just a step off the moral beam and they’re an ordinary person and something extraordinary happens that kicks them off the moral beam, I can understand. But if you’re writing about a serial killer, what do you have in common with a serial killer, really? This is a seriously unhinged human being. I can’t see myself becoming a serial killer. I can see myself being driven to a point where I might want to do something drastic, but luckily I have the restraint where I don’t actually do it.
On an airplane the other day, I saw a man reading one of your books. With forty million books in print, how often do you see someone reading one in public?
I don’t feel I see it nearly enough. I don’t know if I’m not as observant as I should be, but I’ll have friends call and say, “I was in India and I saw someone reading your book.” Or “I was on a remote island off the coast of wherever and there was a woman reading your book.” That rarely happens to me. I think it’s a form of Murphy’s Law.
From romance writer to thriller writer, how did the transition go?
At the heart of it, no matter what you’re writing, it’s about human interaction. If the subject is “Then They Fell In Love,” that’s an interpersonal relationship. If it’s “And Then She Killed Him,” that’s still an interpersonal relationship. It just had a negative outcome.
Were your parents surprised when they first read your books and got a glimpse of what’s inside your writing mind?
How could I know, they’re from Minnesota. They are all very polite. My first book was full of romance and lots of sex. Lots of sex.
So, were they embarrassed?
I don’t know. But I warned my mother ahead of time, because she was bragging to all her friends about me being an author. I told her, “Maybe you need to read these books so you know what to expect.” Finally I just said, “There’s lots of sex in these books.” She said, “I’m sure it’s nothing we haven’t seen on television.” I’m like, “Well, it’s a whole lot different when it’s on a printed page.” Never ever have they had a reaction to my books. And I’m kind of shocked actually. I mean the dark stuff I write is awfully dark.
Authors thrive on laudatory fan mail. Have you ever received any fan hate mail?
I had a heroine from west Texas. She was a tough character, not Junior League. A lady from west Texas didn’t like the depiction and took me to task for using bad language. That happens every once in a while. They’ll lecture me. “You don’t have to use language like that. That’s offensive.” I’m like, “Did you see the part where the woman was nailed to the floor? That didn’t seem to bother you.”
Here’s the deal. I write really gritty books about really gritty topics and people in rough professions. They are not bankers and preachers, and my first obligation is to be as true to them as I can. That includes speech. For me, how a person speaks and the language that he or she uses is a character trait. It’s no different than having brown hair or blue eyes. This is how that person speaks, and if that offends you, I’m sorry. Don’t read my books. I don’t say that to be flip, but if it’s not to your particular taste, that’s not what you should be reading. But don’t tell me that I can’t do that. I’m being true to my craft and my characters.
So, you read your fan mail?
Unless it’s something ridiculous. And the scary weird stalker stuff gets weeded out. A couple times my publisher and agent have decided that I shouldn’t see things.
What kind of things do you think they held back?
I can tell you exactly. I got a call from my business manager in Los Angeles and he told me my agent forwarded to him a letter that was written by a guy in jail, and that it was very disturbing, they were not going to send it to me, and they were having our security people evaluate it. This was all fascinating, so I was like, first of all, how does this work? Of the three of us—my agent, manager, and I—who is the best equipped to know anything about that subject? “Me,” I told them. “Maybe I should take a look at that letter.” They told me they were bringing in Gavin de Becker. I couldn’t believe it. “You mean Gavin de Becker is looking at my stalker letter?” I was actually thrilled to hear that.
I hate sounding uncool, but who is Gavin de Becker?
Gavin is one of the leading personal security people in the country. He wrote The Gift of Fear. He consults with Law and Order all the time. He’s like a rock star to me. It was such a kick. So now we have to keep track of when this guy is getting out of prison and stuff like that.
How is social media changing publishing for authors?
I was really resistant at first. I’m very private, and the whole Facebook thing was a little freaky. You had to drag me kicking and screaming. Once I got into it and was able to have interaction with readers, I liked that quite a lot. It’s nice to have that immediate cheerleading aspect from fans. Especially if I’m working at three in the morning and I ask, “is anyone awake?” And instantly, I get responses because it’s daytime in Australia, so I don’t feel so alone.
As the author of thirty-four books, where do you find the discipline to stay so prolific?
Every year is harder and every book is harder.
Because you’ve used your good material?
No, as you hone your craft, you see other possibilities. What if I did this? What if I did that? What if this person had a point of view? What if this character was like this instead of like that? And it slows you down. Now I really want to craft a beautiful sentence, whereas when I first started out I didn’t really think about those things. What came out, came out. And it was obviously fine. Now I want to tweak this emotion. I want this language to rhyme. As you tinker, it slows the process down. You also have the burden of expectation, which you don’t have when you start because nobody is expecting anything from you.
Do you still worry when a book’s coming out on how it’s going to do? Or do you know it’s going to do well because you’re Tami Hoag?
That’s a good question. I expect to get a certain response in the marketplace, so yes, there’s always a fear that that’s not going to happen. There’s always that little inkling of fear. By the time a book is at that stage, there’s nothing I can do about it now. This is what it is. I’ve turned in the best thing I can do at that moment in my life. My editor is pleased with it. My agent is pleased with it. The twenty-nine people they have read it in house are pleased. That’s the best I can do.
On paper, Tami Hoag is very scary. Yet, in person, you are very funny. How do you reconcile those two traits?
I suppose I’m both. In general, I’m very easy going. I like to laugh. I try not to sweat the small stuff. On the other hand, I have a nasty temper when provoked, and I blow off steam by putting on boxing gloves and hitting things very hard and repeatedly. One of the reasons I enjoy writing suspense is that I get to explore both sides of the human psyche—the light and the dark.
#1 New York Times bestselling author Tami Hoag began her writing career at the age of nine with the self-published, self-illustrated third-grade hit Black Pony. The school project—a tale of two children sharing a pony named Smoky—sparked Hoag’s love for storytelling, and set her on a collision course with destiny, which would be reached in 1988 with Bantam Books’ publication of Hoag’s first novel, The Trouble With J.J.
With fifteen consecutive Times bestsellers to her credit, including Deeper Than the Dead, Secrets to the Grave, and Prior Bad Acts, Hoag has more than 35 million books in print, published in more than twenty languages worldwide. Her first thriller, Night Sins, was made into a two-part mini-series in 1997, and continues to air frequently on cable networks more than a decade later.
A favorite of readers and critics alike, Hoag began her career writing for Bantam’s Loveswept line of romance novels, penning sixteen titles in five years. Never wanting to be pigeonholed, the novels ranged from romantic comedy to romantic suspense, with richly drawn characters and sharply written dialogue the hallmarks of Hoag’s style. These traits carry through to her thrillers, along with fast-paced plots and dead-on police procedure.
Born in Iowa, raised in Minnesota, Tami Hoag left the frigid north for warmer climes in 1998. “I used to keep a cartoon pinned to the bulletin board in my office,” says Hoag. “It depicted two polar bears sitting in the snow. One polar bear said to the other polar bear, ‘I don’t care what they say. I’m cold.’ I was always that bear: cold from October to June.”
An avid competitive equestrian in the Olympic discipline of dressage, Tami currently lives in Palm Beach County, Florida, where she competes her horses on the prestigious winter show circuit.
To learn more about Tami Hoag, visit her website.
Photography Credit: Jan Cobb
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