L.S. Hawker broke into the thriller world with The Drowning Game, which is an ITW Best First Novel nominee and a USA Today bestseller. Now, she has released BODY AND BONE, the powerful story of Nessa Donati, a late-night radio show hostess. She has a three-year-old son who doesn’t speak, a soon-to-be-former spouse who is a chronic substance abuser, and an Internet troll who evolves from an ugly pest to a threat to her safety.
Ms. Hawker is an avid music aficionado whose own music library includes more than 160,000 songs. She provides thematic playlists for her books on her website.
We interviewed her by email.
Your heroine in BODY AND BONE does a graveyard-shift radio show. Your description of the tiny studio and the conflict with the producer has the heft of reality about it—what research went into this part of the book?
I pulled the graveyard shift at the one major-market station I worked for. It had just switched to an automated system, so I got to babysit a computer from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. overnight—no board or voice work. The general manager was a lunatic who forbade me from doing anything but literally staring at the machine for eight hours—even reading. He caught me one night editing the public affairs show in the production studio during my shift and screamed at me as if I’d abandoned my guard post on the Berlin Wall.
Nessa’s radio studio is modeled on a small-market midwestern station where I worked, but the producer isn’t based on anyone who worked there—he’s an amalgam of hipster types that I’ve butted heads with through the years.
You have more than 160,000 songs in your music library. How often do you listen to these songs?
Music connects me to emotions like nothing else. It’s the original mood-altering substance. Some songs that I’ve heard dozens of times still make me cry, and I’m talking gut-wrenching sobs (like “Only a Dream” by Mary Chapin Carpenter). Others can spike my adrenaline after hundreds of listens, like Thin Lizzy’s “Jail Break,” as if I’m hearing them for the first time. Sometimes I’ll put my collection on shuffle and hear stuff that I’ve never heard before. It would take many lifetimes to listen to all of it, but I’m giving it my best. It’s about 8000 hours of music, or 333 days.
I left a really great party once because I had to listen to “Ambulance Blues” by Neil Young right that instant. Another time my friend Marianne and I stalked people outside of a block of bars trying to find someone with a copy of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” You could say I’m a fan.
What role does music play in your writing process?
I listen to movie soundtracks or sound generators when I write, because if a song has lyrics, I’m singing to it (my youngest daughter will tell you I know the lyrics to every song ever recorded), which derails any sort of creative output on my part. But I create thematic playlists for each of my novels, which serve as my dreaming, brainstorming music. I listen to them when I’m not writing because they evoke a “soundscape” that instantly takes me to my work-in-progress’s headspace so my subconscious can keep working even when I’m cooking dinner or driving carpool.
Your first book, The Drowning Game, features a heroine who is a blend of vulnerabilities and Rambo-like skills. Nessa, the heroine of BODY AND BONE, seems radically different. What were you trying to achieve with her?
My heroine in The Drowning Game, Petty Moshen, is unable to act contrary to her nature. What you see is what you get. With BODY AND BONE’s Nessa, I wanted to explore the impossibility of living authentically while keeping toxic secrets, whether by necessity or choice. Something’s gotta give, and something definitely does.
Your books are extremely engaging, and they also bring us deep, complex characters who reveal femininity in a way not often seen in thrillers. Is your goal purely entertainment, or are you also pursuing other goals in your novels?
One of my goals with Petty in The Drowning Game was to create a female character who’s not at all driven by or even aware of the emphasis on a woman’s looks in our culture. And neither Petty nor BODY AND BONE’s Nessa depend on their “feminine wiles” or the men in their lives to take care of business.
You call Kansas your spiritual homeland. Would you expound on what you mean?
I grew up in the Denver suburbs, and went to a wealthy high school that was pretty miserable (so miserable I graduated a year early). But in the summertime, we visited my grandparents in a tiny Kansas town called Lincoln, and it was pure magic. You could walk downtown or to the swimming pool, and the graveyard there was epic. The people were lovely and friendly and fun. Lincoln had beautiful limestone buildings lining its charming main street. The Kansas landscape (contrary to popular opinion) is lavish and green, with tons of massive trees. So when it came time to go to college, it was a no-brainer. As a bonus, the University of Kansas just happens to have one of the most beautiful campuses, as well as one of the top journalism schools, in the country. One of the Lincoln kids I knew also attended, and we hung out all through college. To this day, he is one of my best friends.
Your music playlist for BODY AND BONE has 29 numbers that look like contemporary rock-and-roll songs. How did you select them, and what do they add to the reading experience?
BODY AND BONE’s playlist represents a few key concepts: identity, addiction, and secrets, and each major character has his or her own song. It also includes the songs that Nessa either writes about on her blog, plays on the air, or listens to at home. As with movie soundtracks, I believe these songs evince the novel’s atmosphere, mood, theme, and character personalities.
You were once a traveling K-Mart photographer. There must have been some colorful events in that gig. Can you share one with us?
I always wanted to write a coffee-table book about my travels with that job called “Bad Art: I Seen (sic) Some” because of all the crappy little motels I stayed in during my travels. One of my favorite memories from that time is a family in Idaho with 18 kids that I had to stack like Jenga tiles to fit them all into my tiny portable photography studio. The mom looked like she’d been hollowed out with an ice cream scoop. She was also missing an arm, and her youngest child played with her stump all through the shoot.
Your heroines feel somewhat alienated from the “normal” society that surrounds them. Is this for dramatic effect, or does something pull you toward such people?
It probably goes back to feeling like an outsider when I was growing up. I was never cool enough, which is the adolescent coin of the realm. I remember vividly feeling outside of the human race like Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, so it’s easy for me to put myself in a lonely, alienated person’s shoes. I owned those shoes.
You once did a radio show called “People Are So Stupid.” It sounds like a precursor to today’s cable news shows. What was it like?
It was ten minutes every weekday, and our program director hated it. He’d stand outside the studio window and hold up his middle finger when we were broadcasting. The show was silly and fun, and we covered topics like the federal government’s stockpile of wolfsbane.
Where did the model for Nessa’s crack-addicted spouse come from?
Unfortunately, I have a lot of experience with addiction. My father was a compulsive gambler, and his addiction destroyed my family. My sister was a crack addict for twelve years, which was the most harrowing and devastating period of my life. My intimate knowledge of addiction’s desperation, deceit, single-mindedness, and despair informed John’s character.
You have a journalism degree and worked as a journalist after graduation. How did you learn to write long fiction?
I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I wrote my first novel when I was fourteen. In college I took fiction-writing workshops and picked apart novels scene by scene to internalize how long-form works. The only reason I got a journalism degree was because I thought it was the one practical way I could make a living with my skill set. But my true love is fiction. I did, however, learn how to succinctly get ideas across writing nonfiction.
What’s the best book you ever read, and what made it so memorable?
Bonfire Of The Vanities by Tom Wolfe, which melds the best aspects of reportage and fiction in the freshest way since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (which was also hugely influential). Wolfe is able to take you deep inside a character’s psyche and emotions with an innovative, distinctive use of language that is stunning.
One of the authors you list among your favorites is John Steinbeck. Do you think any of his works would be commercial successes today? Which ones, and why?
Possibly his Nobel Prize–winning The Winter Of Our Discontent, the last novel he wrote. But overall, probably not. Our short attention spans don’t allow us to sink into a long narrative the way we used to. But I absolutely adore how he allowed his characters the time and space to say everything they had to say, as in the lengthy kitchen-table religious debate between Adam Trask and his cook, Lee, in East Of Eden.
What’s your favorite song?
Only one? I cycle through favorite songs like men flick through satellite channels with a TV remote. The best I can tell you is what my favorite song is right now. It’s “Smooth Sailing” by Queens of the Stone Age, which is Nessa’s favorite band. The song has a funky groove bolstered by dirty, paint-stripping guitars. Josh Homme, the lead singer of QOTSA, has the best rock voice I’ve ever heard—a powerful bass range plus a dazzling falsetto. His vocal phrasing is the very soul of rock. “Smooth Sailing” is what I was listening to when I got my book contract. The first lines are “It’s all in motion, no stopping now/I’ve got nothing to lose and only one way up.” That’s how my life has felt ever since.
If you had to spend a day trapped in an elevator with someone other than a family member, who would it be, and what would you talk about?
My high school freshman English teacher, Mrs. Hodgkinson. She was the first person outside my family who told me I had talent. I’ve lost track of her, and I would love to tell her the profound impact she had on a squirrely 14-year-old’s life.
With summer coming, what strategies do you use to “keep your butt glued to the chair?”
We have one of the most beautiful back yards in the world, with a waterfall my trophy husband built, lush green vegetation, and twinkle lights. In the summertime, we call it the outer office, and I write out there on my laptop.
LS Hawker grew up in suburban Denver, indulging her worrisome obsession with true-crime books, and writing stories about anthropomorphic fruit and juvenile delinquents. She wrote her first novel at 14.
Armed with a B.S. in journalism from the University of Kansas, she had a radio show called “People Are So Stupid,” edited a trade magazine and worked as a traveling Kmart portrait photographer, but never lost her passion for fiction writing.
Her debut thriller, THE DROWNING GAME, is nominated as Best First Novel for an International Thriller Award. She’s got a hilarious, supportive husband, two brilliant daughters, and a massive music collection. She lives in Colorado but considers Kansas her spiritual homeland.
To learn more, please visit her website.