Poisonous by Allison Brennan
Uncovering the Darkest Secrets
No one likes a bully, but even bullies deserve justice, according to Max Revere, the no-nonsense, investigative journalist in Book Three of the Max Revere series, POISONOUS. Max receives a letter from a mentally challenged teen asking for her help: his stepsister Ivy Lake is dead, and Ivy’s mother blames him. Max is moved by Tommy’s plea and decides to investigate the cold case. She soon discovers that Ivy’s talent for using social media to spread her poison has ruined more than one life. Whether Ivy Lake’s plunge from a cliff was an accident or a homicide is unclear, but Max is determined to find out.
Every town has its secrets and the picturesque Corte Madera is no different. Max’s investigation meets with resistance from everyone in town, and she finds that most are unsympathetic about the demise of the much hated Ivy. As she digs deeper, she discovers relationships rife with resentment, strife, and buried secrets. When another teen is murdered, it becomes clear that there is a killer on the loose, and finding the truth is more critical than ever.
Ivy is an unsympathetic character whose actions have resulted in the suicide of another teen. As we learn more, we see that others have contributed to Ivy’s bullying by liking her posts on social media. Is Ivy a scapegoat and are the silent followers as culpable as she for the bullying?
Ivy is not a scapegoat–she is responsible for her own actions. However, I do think that the “piling on” behavior of her peers, those who commented and publicly “liked” her gossip, contributed to her behavior. She was validated by the people whose opinions she cared about. She had a false sense of popularity and that fueled her actions.
I’m a mom–two of my kids have survived the teen-age years and are in college, and I have three more in the middle of the worst time in many kid’s lives–junior high and high school. I have lectured ad nauseum about what not to post on the Internet, but I also point out that their comments online have the same impact as a unique post. That if they participate in bashing someone or being hyper-critical, they are just as guilty as the individual who started it. Unfortunately, there are many parents out there who don’t have any restraint on the Internet, either. They make blanket statements, use abusive language, or “unfriend” people because of differing political or religious views, showing their children that it’s okay to ostracize and criticize others because of a different opinion.
Does Max’s childhood baggage incline her to be more sympathetic to Ivy?
No. Max recognizes that she had a difficult and unusual childhood, but she doesn’t use that as an excuse for her behavior. She’s extremely self-aware. She feared she might be more like Ivy than she cared to be, which is why I included the scene with her grandmother. Eleanor doesn’t mince words—she explained the difference between Max’s drive for the truth and Ivy’s drive for attention, as well as why Max would never have done what Ivy did even if she had access to the same tools as a teenager. Max recognizes the difference between finding answers and using those answers to publicly and maliciously hurt people.
Cyberbullying seems to have reached epidemic proportions. How much responsibility do you think the parents bear for a child who harasses others online?
I don’t think it’s epidemic … I think it’s troublesome and needs to be addressed, but it’s not out of control. Yet. I think first and foremost kids need to be taught that what you say online is the same as what you say to someone in person. I think parents are culpable for the actions of their children to some degree—parents need to teach what I call the “character” traits early on, and they do that by both example and conversation. If parents exhibit bad behavior, their kids will absorb that, internalize it, and often behave the same. I also think that parents need to be aware of what their children are doing on-line, not only to stop bad behavior (I mean, you can stop paying for data on your kid’s phone) but to make sure they’re not being harassed or embarrassed, as well as making sure they are posting appropriate photos and comments. One risque picture can come back to haunt a teenage girl for life.
Max has a difficult time understanding the delicate balance required when dealing with ex-spouses and blended families, which causes her to have problems with her boyfriend, Nick, and best friend, David. Will this case and what it reveals about those types of relationships help her to better understand and sympathize with David and Nick in the future?
Max will make more of an effort to understand where David and Nick are coming from, but she’ll always have a difficult time accepting the manipulative behavior of their exes. She comes to a realization that how adults process the adversity in their own lives has a far greater impact on their children, so she develops a respect for David and Nick in how they have restrained themselves in their own relationships for the sake of their children. This stems directly from Ivy’s dysfunctional family and the fallout from the bad behavior of all the adults involved. At the same time, she’s hurt – how can she have a real relationship with a man who closes off part of his life to her? (Nick.) But what happened with David will have a far greater lasting impact because it’s more personal to her because David is a friend and one of the few people Max trusts unconditionally. Understanding doesn’t necessarily make it easier to accept or live with.
What is next for Max?
I have two story ideas and I think I’ll keep them to myself until I decide which one to write. Ha ha. I’ll probably end up writing both eventually, but it just depends on which idea I’m drawn to the most when I need to start the book. Fortunately, I don’t have to decide until I turn in my next Lucy Kincaid book in April! Then I’ll start Max #4.
You are a prolific writer, have five children, and still get to the gym. When do you sleep?
Ha ha … I sleep six hours every night. Sometimes more! And … I don’t get to the gym. I have a treadmill in my office, but it’s a bit dusty.
What is a typical day for you?
Get up at 6:30, drink coffee. That’s always number one on my list—there is nothing better than the first cup of coffee. Get the kids up by 7, make lunches, send the kids off to school. Drink more coffee while reading email, running through social media, dealing with this and that. Sometime between 9 and 10 I start writing. I write until 3:30, when the kids come home from school. We have lots of sports and other things as is the case with all families, but after dinner I will often sit back down and continue working—especially if I’m excited about my story or a deadline is looming. I write a minimum of 5 hours a day, but some days I’ll barely squeeze out 1,000 words and other days I’ll pour out 5,000 words. If I’m really into a story, I’ll work on it up to 12 hours in a day.
You write three series a year. Do you focus on one book for four months, or do you work on more than one at a time?
It takes me 8-10 weeks to write the first draft. I prefer to write one book at a time, but often I’ll have copyedits or page proofs of another book I need to drop everything for, which is why I build in more time. I then go through once and clean up the book, fix problems that I can see, and add editor questions into the manuscript (yes, I always have questions for my editor …) and then turn in what is really the second draft, which is pretty clean because I also edit as I go. While my editor is reading, I start my next book, but often have to put that aside to work on revisions. For me this works, because usually about page 100 I get stuck on my current project and like the break to work on something else. By the time I’m done with revisions, I go back to the next book and usually completely rewrite those 100 pages because the time away has enabled me to see the flaws clearly.
How much time do you spending revising and editing a book?
Four to six weeks. Revisions are an important part of the process for me. I take my editor’s notes, my own notes, and then decide what’s working and what isn’t and what I need to fix. I then revise and edit from page one to the end. I touch every scene, some lightly, some heavily, even if my editor didn’t think there was a problem. I slash and burn, expand and contract. Then I’ll print it out and edit it on hard copy because I see different problems in print than I do on the computer. (Things like repetition, timing issues, etc.) But I read it like a book in one or two sittings if possible, making circle and slash marks no one else would understand. If I’m on a tight deadline, I’ll by-pass this part and take more care with the copyedits.
As you’ve become more successful and conferences vie for your appearance, how do you ensure that traveling and speaking don’t encroach upon your writing time?
With five kids, I have never traveled extensively. I’ve had to say no a lot more over the last couple of years. Conferences are kind of mini-vacations for me. When I first started attending them, I rarely left the conference hotel; now, I always build in an extra day or two so I can enjoy the city, research future stories, and have fun. But … I write at conferences. I write on the plane and I write at least 2 hours a day in my hotel room. I don’t put in as much time as when I’m at home, but I can’t take a week off to go to Thrillerfest or Bouchercon or Romance Writers. I have to make sure I build in writing time. I go to three conferences a year – usually Left Coast Crime, Thrillerfest and then alternate between RWA and Bouchercon and RT. One year I went to all and it nearly killed me. This year I’m going to four, which is probably too many. I limit speaking engagements to 1-2 a year, unless it’s local. Conferences are fun, but writing will always come first.
You’ve mentioned that it took two and a half years, five books and over 100 rejections before you were published. Did all of those early five books ever get into print?
My first book will never see print. It had everything and the kitchen sink. What a mess! But it taught me so much about writing and story structure and character development; I’m glad I wrote it. I sold my fifth book, THE PREY. The three books in between 1 and 5 have interesting stories. My 3rd book had a great beginning but fell apart. I rewrote the entire book but kept the main characters and set up and it became my first indie book (MURDER IN THE RIVER CITY in 2012.) My 2nd book had a great premise, but I was still learning about tension and structure and the story completely fell apart. I took the heroine, the premise, and the first chapter and completely rewrote that book into AIM TO KILL (2015) which I also self-published. My 4th book is a different genre – it’s a futuristic romantic thriller – and while I have rewritten it I’m debating what to do with it. I really like it, but I don’t know if my readers will go along with me for the ride because it’s different, like Jennifer Garner’s ALIAS set in the future. I don’t see a problem in shelving projects that aren’t good enough. They’re learning tools. I have dozens of story ideas I explored, to the point where I wrote hundreds of pages, but they fell flat and are now buried.
What advice would you give someone who is currently wallpapering her office with rejection letters?
Writing isn’t easy. Getting published isn’t easy. Staying published isn’t easy. Did anyone promise us any of this would be “easy?” But if you love writing—if it’s part of who you are as a human being –then you owe it to yourself to write. Explore new things, learn from your mistakes, keep improving. We all started in the same spot. Those who are published learned from their writing (and re-writing!) and never gave up. I would also caution people against self-publishing for the sake of being published. You want to make sure your project is the best it can be, and that means being self-critical, hiring professional editors and cover designers, and taking constructive criticism. Too many people indie publish crap that may have been good with a bit of patience, guidance and a solid business plan.
What most surprised you when your first book became a bestseller?
That my first book became a bestseller.
A strong social media platform is now a must in publishing. Do you enjoy engaging on social media or is it a distraction?
I enjoy social media because I’m an extrovert with an introverted career. Writers are by necessity solitary creatures who spend more time with their fictional characters than real people. So social media is a communication tool I enjoy. BUT it’s easy to get distracted so writers need to limit their time on social media and be smart about it. It’s a way to make connections, not sell books. You can’t go into it thinking you’re going to sell books. You go into it to build relationships with your readers and other like-minded people. It’s a long-tail game, you can’t expect over-night number changes. I think many authors use social media all wrong.
I’m not perfect by any means, but I definitely don’t post about my books every day – I post about my pets, my research trips, my kids, baseball, etc. And yes, about my books … but only when I have something important to share (new cover, new release, a giveaway by my publisher, etc.) If you build social media over time, working on the community not the marketing, then when you have a new release you’ll see a far greater benefit. Yes, it IS marketing in some way, but it’s not like traditional marketing. It’s far more personal.
If you could bring any one of your characters to life and hang out for a weekend with him or her? Who would it be?
Ugh! What a hard question! I think personally, I would get along the best with FBI Agent Suzanne Madeaux, a secondary character in my Lucy Kincaid series (she’s been in 3 or 4 of the books.) I really like her. LOL. I would love to hang out with Sean Rogan, Lucy’s fiance, because he’s probably the most fun of all my characters and has cool toys.
What is your favorite movie?
Impossible question! Classics? I’m still a sucker for Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Thin Man, and North By Northwest. Romance? French Kiss and Working Girl. Action? I came of age with Star Wars and love the franchise. But I’ve been thrilled with the new comic movies. Avengers, Ant Man, and my recent fave, Guardians of the Galaxy. And remember, I have kids and the movie I’m most looking forward to this year is Finding Dory. I can’t pick a favorite movie. I would probably have a problem narrowing them down to the top ten.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
J.D. Robb’s Devoted in Death, J.T. Ellison’s No One Knows (just finished the ARC, but it’s still on my nightstand …), and the entire Walking Dead graphic novel set that I bought myself for Christmas.
Is there a particular author who has influenced you and your writing?
Stephen King, Lisa Gardner, and Iris Johansen. I don’t write horror, but Stephen King is the master of character and tension and I devoured him starting with The Stand when I was 13. Lisa and Iris because before I started seriously writing, I read a book by each (The Third Victim by Gardner and The Search by Johansen) and that was my wake-up call. I thought, “This is what I want to do; this is what I want to write. I’m thirty … what’s taking me so long?”
Allison Brennan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 27 thrillers and numerous short stories. She currently writes two series, the Maxine Revere cold case mysteries and the Lucy Kincaid/Sean Rogan romantic thrillers. Allison lives in Northern California with her husband, five kids, and assorted pets.
To learn more about Allison, please visit her website.
Photography credit: Brittan Dodd
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