Inspiration can come at a writer from any direction, but for Rachel Howzell Hall the stories that resonate most deeply are drawn from her own life and the lives of people close to her. SKIES OF ASH, her second thriller featuring Los Angeles Detective Elouise “Lou” Norton, reflects some of the turmoil she witnessed in her friends’ lives over the past few years.
In a recent interview, Rachel said, “I remember having the realization about five years ago that my friends, and friends of friends, were starting to divide into two groups—still married (like me) or now divorcing. Everyone had hit those hard patches in life, late thirties, early forties, kids, private school bills, taxes owed, jobs, lay-offs, failing health, deaths.” At the same time, she noticed a stream of news stories about domestic violence. “Husbands killing their wives, moms killing their kids, and on and on. Everyone was pissed off and frustrated and broke and suicidal. And then, our economy tanked and all these smart bankers were outed as crooks.”
Rachel blended those elements into an intense tale that begins with Lou Norton responding to the scene of a house fire in which a woman named Juliet Chatman has perished with her two children. The grieving husband and father, Christopher Chatman, is hospitalized after supposedly trying to rescue his family. Neighbors and friends call the Chatmans a perfect family living a dream life. Lou doesn’t take long to uncover the sordid truth about Juliet and Christopher’s marriage and to suspect that one of their perfect children set the fatal fire. Lesson: People are never what they seem to be.
For Lou Norton, the Chatmans’ wreck of a marriage strikes a chord. “At this point,” Rachel said, “Lou is trying to salvage her troubled marriage, and the case with the Chatman family leads her to wonder about the secrets husbands and wives keep from each other. She knows how resentments can poison a relationship—and the Chatmans are the fatal end of that. Lou wonders about the trust in that marriage and realizes that her trust issues with her husband, Greg, aren’t too much different. When do you stop and just call it quits? She is confronted with all of these questions.”
Lou is a realistic modern woman to whom many female readers can relate. Her creator wrote the kind of character she wanted to read about. “She came from my desire to see a woman full of contradictions—a woman who’s been hurt, who is smart and yet so vulnerable—be given a badge, a gun, and a mission to seek justice for others. And I imagined her as one of my own sorority sisters, who are all bright and funny, driven and real, like the female officers I’ve had the opportunity to meet.”
Lou has a lot of the author in her. “She is me in some ways, just braver,” Rachel said. “She grew up in my neighborhood, is an alumnae of UC Santa Cruz just like me. If I had started this series back when I was thirty years old, she would not be the same person. I had to do some more living before she could exist.”
Like all great characters, Lou Norton is a mixture of admirable, even heroic, qualities and a multitude of human flaws. “She’s an avenger—but not a crazy avenger,” Rachel said. “She’s methodical and focused. You know what I like the most about her? How she can have it all together at work, but can have unresolved issues at home. Because to me, that’s real. That’s a woman. How many of us are incredibly successful nine-to-five, but you come home, and your husband is a jerk, or your kid is falling behind in math, the laundry is climbing the walls and you owe $6,000 in taxes. Lou has solved lots of mysteries but she cannot figure out her relationship with her husband.”
Before she turned to crime fiction, Rachel published the highly praised A Quiet Storm, a novel of family relationships. She seemed set to pursue career as a literary author, but in 2014 she self-published a serial killer novel titled No One Knows You’re Here and began the Lou Norton series with Land of Shadows, published by Forge. What attracted her to crime fiction? “Writing genre allows me the freedom to write about all kinds of issues,” she said. “I like getting to see the world and solve problems in a very real, direct way.” Mystery, she pointed out, embraces all genres. “Romance, true crime, literary, all of it.”
Her crime novels are praised for their gritty realism, and much of that comes from childhood memories. “I lived in the neighborhoods that I write about—that’s why it feels so real. I know the anxiety that comes from hearing sirens, gun shots, police helicopters.” She also reads a lot of crime news and true crime books. She attends California Crime Writers conferences and Writers Police Academy, where she joins other authors at seminars led by cops and firefighters.
Although she loves crime fiction, she doesn’t read it when she’s actively writing her own books. “I’ve been influenced mostly by Raymond Chandler—great voice and great L.A. stories,” she said. “I like Richard Price and Karin Slaughter. I enjoy Attica Price and M.P. Cooley, and L.A. writers Naomi Hirahara, Steph Cha, and Desiree Zamorano. But I’m also inspired by great nonfiction, too, in particular Erik Larson and John Krakauer. Talk about must-reads—anything those two write, I will read.”
Like a lot of writers, Rachel has a family and a full-time job—she’s a fundraising proposal writer at City of Hope, a cancer research and treatment organization—and has to fit writing around those responsibilities. “It can be exhausting,” she said. “But I’m incredibly organized. Every day except Saturday, I wake at 5:40 and write until 7:00 a.m. And that’s it, unless I take some time to write at lunch. I cannot allow myself to have writer’s block and I’m sure to keep notebooks with me at all times in case I have an idea. My job, though, keeps my writing-on-a-dime muscle pretty strong.”
Although she would enjoy reuniting crime reporter Syeeda McKay and Detective Adam Sherwood, from No One Knows You’re Here, in a future book, she doesn’t foresee an opening in her schedule to make it happen. “Fortunately,” she pointed out, “Sy is a character in the Lou Norton series so she gets to hang out with me again.”
The third Lou Norton book is completed and Rachel is writing the first draft of the fourth in the series. “It’s called City of Saviors. Lou is called to investigate the death of Caleb Washington, a member of Blessed Mission Ministries, a church deeply committed to neighborhood improvement programs, efforts to feed the homeless, and scholarship programs that send gifted but poor kids to good schools. But something wicked is lurking among the pews of this church.”
While she’s working on that book, she’ll also be out and about promoting SKIES OF ASH, which comes out this month. Visit her website to find out where you can meet her.
Rachel Howzell Hall was born and raised in Los Angeles. An avid reader and lover of books, she received her B.A. in English and American Literature from University of California at Santa Cruz. She is the author of Land of Shadows (Forge, 2014), A Quiet Storm, The View from Here and No One Knows You’re Here. She lives in Los Angeles.
To learn more about Rachel, please visit her website.