Every so often you come across an author and you think, how the heck does s/he do it? The answer is invariably talent and hard work. Very hard work. Wendi Corsi Staub adds to that a game plan devised many years ago. We’ll call it vision married to determination.
A New York Times and USA Today bestselling suspense writer, Wendy is the award-winning author of more than seventy novels. Yes, seventy! I didn’t ask her how old she is but the answer is not old enough for that tally unless she really burns her days. Which she does, as she describes in the discussion below.
She has published in various genres including suspense, horror, historical and contemporary romance, television and movie tie-in, and biography. She also co-authored a mystery series with the late New York City mayor Ed Koch and has ghost-written for a number of bestselling authors and celebrities.
She has written numerous women’s fiction novels under the name Wendy Markham. THE BLACK WIDOW is her third stand-alone that explores the fascinating, topical and creepy world of predators lurking on the Internet and our vulnerability to them.
Playing on the Internet from the safety of our homes gives us a false sense of security that can make us take risks we never would outside, in the real world.
“In the moonlight, shovelfuls of earth fall on a wooden crate at the bottom of a deep pit. Soon the hole will be filled and covered over with leaves, leaving no trace of the victim below, waking to the horror of being buried alive…”
Newly divorced Gaby Duran isn’t really expecting to find her soul mate on a dating site like InTune. She just needs a distraction from pining over her ex-husband, Ben, and the happy marriage they once had. And she’s wise enough to know that online, the truth doesn’t always match the profile. Almost everyone lies a little—or a lot.
But Gaby quickly discovers that there is much more at stake than her lonely heart. Local singles are going missing after making online connections. And a predator is searching again for the perfect match. One who will fulfill every twisted desire. Or die trying.
I read the novel in two long compulsive sittings. It’s that kind of book. You really, really have to know what’s going to happen next. Wendy cranks up the suspense while creating characters we care about or are fascinated by. When she writes “Some things just don’t feel right until the sun goes down,” you just know those things are going to be beyond bad.
Wendy took time out to answer my questions below.
Tell us a bit about yourself, some biographical details, but also what turned you into a writer. You say you decided to become a writer in third grade. What was it that enchanted you with writing?
Unlike many writers, I didn’t have an angst-ridden childhood or grow up in a dysfunctional family. I grew up in a loving nuclear family in a small western New York town near Buffalo, a few blocks from the shore of Lake Erie, where blizzards and Lake Effect snow kept us snowbound a good portion of fall/winter/spring. A conducive atmosphere for bookworm/budding writer, to say the least!
My parents were happily married—my dad a local banker and my mom a teacher—and I was the oldest of three siblings. My great grandparents had come over from Italy/Sicily during the immigration wave, and as a result, subsequent generations, including my own, were raised to believe in working hard to take risks and achieve dreams. Looking back, I feel as though my childhood was spent sitting around crowded tables eating, laughing, and sharing stories. I was perpetually surrounded by four loving grandparents and loads of aunts, uncles, cousins we saw almost on a daily basis. I learned the art of storytelling from the masters—my father and his father—and I learned to love books from my mom, an avid reader who was passionate about language as well as literature—she was obsessed with word games, word puzzles, etc..
In third grade, I received my first writing assignment from my adored third grade teacher, Mrs. Pizzolanti. I chose to write my piece about Abraham Lincoln, my favorite president. I was something of a Lincoln buff even at eight years old. My parents had driven me to the Lincoln monument and Ford Theater in Washington, D.C., one summer, an to visit Lincoln’s childhood home in Springfield, Illinois, another summer. I worked hard on that piece, and I loved writing it. When Mrs. Pizzolanti had read all our essays, she singled me out and told me I had writing talent. She hung it on the bulletin board for everyone to see. I remember being slightly embarrassed, secretly proud…and memorably inspired. That day, I went home from school and announced that I wanted to become an author when I grew up. Being wonderfully supportive parents, they agreed that that was a terrific idea and told me that I could do anything I wanted to, as long as I worked hard.
Did you write loads of stories back then? Some writers can’t bear to throw out old journals and it is rather magical to look back and see the writer in the making. What have you done with your early stories?
I was always writing, first in longhand, then on an ancient typewriter up in my mom’s sewing room. She kept everything I wrote in those early years. After I lost her—tragically to breast cancer, much too soon—I found them tucked away in my baby book.
Sometimes over the years I wondered whether my active imagination had embellished the Mrs. Pizzolanti tale. But the Abe Lincoln essay was there in the baby book, and sure enough, there was a brown tape square with a thumbtack hole at the top where Mrs. Pizzolanti had hung it up, along a note in my mom’s handwriting that said I’d decided to become an author when I grew up. There were also a couple of early rejection letters from newspaper and magazine editors—clearly I’d thought the essay and a few other early efforts deserved to be published nationally, and clearly, the rejections hadn’t daunted me.
I kept files filled with everything I wrote in my middle school/high school/college years, and one of those early “novels” eventually became the basis for a YA novel I later published. The files are still here, some of the work surprisingly decent, some so awful that it will never see print and doesn’t deserve to.
Where did the idea for THE BLACK WIDOW come from? You’ve written an awe-inspiring seventy-plus novels. You obviously have no shortage of ideas! Do you do anything specific or does it all just come as you are sitting at your desk?
I keep an ideas file, filled with scribbled notes, articles I’ve torn out of magazines and newspapers, et cetera. And I’ve always been Type A and blessed with boundless high energy, so being prolific—in terms of the writing itself—really suits me.
It was my agent, Laura Blake Peterson, who conceived the brilliant idea that I should write a social media-based trilogy a few years back at a time when Facebook and Twitter were just exploding into the mainstream. My editor Lucia Macro at HarperCollins really loved the idea and I ran with it. I zeroed in on three areas of social media for the books: cyber bullying through a fictionalized Facebook network called “The People Portal” for THE GOOD SISTER, a group of bloggers for THE PERFECT STRANGER, and online dating for THE BLACK WIDOW. The books are linked not by characters or setting, like my previous trilogies, but by the common theme that you never know who might be lurking behind a familiar screen name.
These are all cautionary tales about Internet predators—a subject that wasn’t nearly as prevalent when I conceived the trilogy but has certainly grown more timely and newsworthy by the day.
What comes first, character or plot?
I find that hard to answer, because concept is so intangible, varies from book to book, and seems to sort of meld in my subconscious mind before I actually pluck it out and go with it. In the case of THE BLACK WIDOW, I knew the general plot ahead of time because I was working with a trilogy and this was designated as a serial killer book with a villain who trolls online dating sites for victims.
But I’d always wanted to write a Hispanic heroine—in part because travel has made me passionate about the vibrant Latin culture. This was the perfect book for it, as Gaby’s cultural background becomes key in this plot. I find it so similar to my own (with extended family, not to mention food, being so intrinsic)—and my sister in law is Puerto Rican and many close friends are Latino/Latina, so they were on some level inspiration for characters—and helped me with the research.
Tell us three things that your readers do not know about you.
There aren’t many things my readers don’t know, since I’m pretty chatty and perhaps more candid than I should be on Facebook. (Ironic, given my current trilogy) 😉 But here we go: 1. I’ve always been extremely, embarrassingly clumsy. 2. As a kid, I once got my head stuck beneath my bed while the rest of me was sitting on top of it. I’ve since been diagnosed with a joint condition called hypermobility, which explains a lot (see number 1). 3. I’m a very fast mover and speaker (usually using my hands). (Again, see number 1.)
Many writers have a guiding philosophy that inspires their novels. In my own case I have a belief that we are unwittingly, unknowingly, very often walking a tightrope in our lives, with safety and normality on one side and howling chaos on the other. Do you have a guiding philosophy that motivates or lurks behind your writing?
Yes, and it’s very similar to yours. To me, nothing is more frightening than being lulled into a false sense of security—like living in a small town where you know all your neighbors and the crime rate is low and no one locks their doors—only to have danger invade your safe haven. So I write about ordinary people who are going about their daily business, close to home, doing everything the right way—when they find themselves plunged into extraordinary circumstances and their world is upended.
What’s your writing routine? Do you have any odd habits associated with it? How do you juggle it around with childcare?
My children are directly responsible for my writing routine, because when they were babies, I’d get up to give them a wee hour feeding and then go straight to the computer to write while the house was still quiet. My kids were really good, easy babies and toddlers who were used to playing with blocks or hanging with a mother’s helper while mommy write, so it was less an issue then than when they got into their teen years (I now have one in high school and one in college) and started driving and staying out until all hours, making restful sleep an impossibility for this worried mom.
That said, I still try to get up at 4:30 a.m. or so to start writing, and I tend to write on a marathon process because so much of my time is spent on book tour and promo at this stage in my career. I have such tight deadlines that when I’m home for any stretch of time, I usually need to write seven days a week for twelve to fourteen hours a day, eating meals at my desk and leaving it only to do a daily lap swim. I embrace this process because as exhausting as it can be, it allows me to fully inhabit my fictional world and live and breathe the characters and setting.
What’s your favourite part of the writing process? I know some writers love that terrifyingly blank screen that sits in front of them when they begin a new book. Others love holding the physical book in their hand.
I love the point that comes in every book—usually when I’m around halfway through—when I start to feel as though I’m reading a page-turner instead of writing one. The characters take on a life of their own, feeding me their own dialogue, and the plot begins to twist in ways that have me doing that “I never saw that coming!” hand-to-face thing my readers always tell me they do when they read my books.
You’ve fulfilled your childhood dream of becoming a writer and then some! What advice would you give to aspiring writers or those just starting out?
One of the best things I did was approach it like a business venture from a very young age and educate myself on how the publishing industry works. I held part time jobs in two independent bookstores as a teenager and college student, then moved to New York City and began working in publishing houses—as a freelancer, as a temp, and ultimately as an associate editor. Not everyone can take that road, and although being hands-on is a help, it’s the educate-yourself part that is key. Now, thanks to the Internet, anyone out there can access resources that provide insight into how the business works. Anyone can join a writers’ organization and network with other writers, regardless of where they live.
USA Today and New York Times bestseller WENDY CORSI STAUB is the award-winning author of more than eighty novels and has twice been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. In addition to THE BLACK WIDOW, she will launch two new suspense/mystery series in 2015: MUNDY’S LANDING: BLOOD RED (HarperCollins), and LILY DALE: NINE LIVES (Crooked Lane). She lives in the New York City suburbs with her husband and their two children.
To learn more about Wendy, please visit her website.