Macgregor Delivers Synergistic Blend
of Logic and Paranormal
Joanne Macgregor is a counselling psychologist in private practice where she works mainly with victims of crime and trauma. She brings her 20 years of experience as a therapist to her writing—creating deeper characters and realistic psychological reactions. She’s the author of a number of successful books for children and young adults, and she tried her hand at a thriller, Dark Whispers, published in 2014. It was one of the scariest books I’ve read.
In her new mystery thriller, THE FIRST TIME I DIED, she’s moved venue from South Africa to winter in Vermont and added a paranormal twist, but the writing is just as tense.
When Garnet McGee returns to her small Vermont hometown for the holidays, she vows to solve the mystery of the murder that shattered her life 10 years ago. But while trying to rescue a small boy on a frozen pond, she falls through the ice and dies. After she’s resuscitated, she starts hearing voices, seeing visions, and experiencing strange sensations. As a psychology student, she suspects post-traumatic stress disorder and an overactive imagination.
However, trying to catch the killer without embracing her shadow self becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous, because in a town full of secrets, it seems like everybody has a motive for murder.
Here, she takes time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions for The Big Thrill.
You have a successful series of young adult books, and an earlier thriller set in South Africa. What attracted you to write a thriller set in small-town Vermont, and one with a paranormal twist at that?
This is the sixth book I’ve set in the US—four of my YA books are also set there. Partly, this is about targeting a bigger market (the book-buying market in South Africa is very small), but partly it’s because it gives me the opportunity to write different kinds of stories.
Usually, an idea comes to me and then I choose the appropriate setting in which to locate that story, plus I select the genre which will best support the story, especially in terms of exploring its themes.
I wanted the small town so I’d have a smaller pool of suspects and characters, and I needed a place where a pond would freeze over in winter. I asked for ideas from one of my writer groups and received loads of suggestions—all the way from Montana across to the Smoky Mountains. But Vermont met all my needs and gave me some interesting issues to work with—for example, the massive drug problems in that neck of the woods.
Your treatment of the setting is completely convincing (at least to me). How did you go about researching that?
One of the small Vermont towns suggested by my author friends looked like an ideal setting, so I based my fictional town on it—using its police, school, and local government structures as a guide, and its architecture to inspire that of my fictional town, Pitchford. I found photographs of small Vermont towns, researched the covered bridges, used Google Maps (in map and street views), read guide books about the state, and read novels set there. Then I researched birds, trees, animals, car models, average daily weather, architecture, local industries, tourism, and more! I even corresponded with the State Medical Examiner in Burlington to make sure I got the medical and judicial procedures correct.
To help get the story and language of my US-based novels right, I always use a couple of American beta readers. I also use an American editor for the express purpose of highlighting and correcting errors of setting, idiom, and the myriad of others ways life across the pond differs from life in Africa. My proofreader is primed to look for errors of grammar and punctuation. For THE FIRST TIME I DIED, I also tracked down an editor-cum-beta-reader from a small town in Vermont, and hired her as my expert reader.
I’m going to be setting more books in “Pitchford,” so I’m saving up to finance an in-person research trip, hopefully in the Fall when the trees are at their most splendiferous.
Garnet is a down to earth young lady, and her rather “alternative” mother makes her even less willing to consider the possibility of anything supernatural. Further, her psychological training makes her doubt her sanity instead. Did you deliberately set her up to be as difficult to convince of any paranormal actions as possible?
Yes, because I wanted the reader to see both sides of the issue. I always find that books which dive too deep and too fast into the supernatural lose me as a reader—they just begin to seem silly and unbelievable—so I wanted to keep the paranormal element restrained. I aimed to make the onset of the odd phenomena so insidious and subtle that neither the reader, nor Garnet, notices them at first, and both then write it off to coincidence, imagination, or psychological problems. For me, this is scarier than in-your-face ghoulies and ghosties.
I also wanted to give Garnet a growth trajectory as a character, because this will be a series, and over time she will grow in acceptance and trust of these strange abilities she has.
She’s always categorized her mother as absurd, irrational, and embarrassing, so one of the true horrors of the series is for her to realize that in fact she’s much more like her mother than she would want to admit. Aren’t we all scared of becoming just like our parents, or of discovering they were right all along?
As a practicing psychologist yourself, have you had experiences where patients seem to exhibit mental disorders that possibly could be something more than that?
Yes! It’s a really strange experience as a therapist when a client who seems completely rational and believable in every other respect starts describing odd occurrences like this. Psychologists are trained so see these as psychotic symptoms—hallucinations and delusions that are symptomatic of disorders such as schizophrenia. But what to make of the client who has none of the other symptoms to meet the criteria for such a diagnosis? Worse, what to make of it when you yourself have experienced some things that defy logical or scientific explanation. (And no, I’m not going to give you any details.)
You alternate between the present and 10 years earlier when Garnet was at high school and very much in love. Why did you choose to develop the story that way?
In many ways this is a story about love and grief. Garnet’s personal development has stalled, and I needed to show why, what she’d lost, and how that had an impact on her. I didn’t think simply recounting what had happened in a backstory filler paragraph or two would have the same effect. I wanted the reader to get a real punch in the gut when they hear who dies, and how, and that wouldn’t happen if they hadn’t emotionally connected with the character by the time they hear of his/her death. (No spoilers!) So I came up with the idea of sprinkling a few chapters set in the past between the bulk of the ongoing story in the present. They give insights into theme and character, but there are also clues there, which drive Garnet’s investigations in the present.
Despite Garnet’s help from an unknown source, she is the one who solves the mystery using her own analysis. She uses the help more to confirm what she arrives at by investigation and logic than as a direct way of solving the murder. Do you feel that anything beyond the clues she receives would spoil the structure of a mystery?
I’m not so sure that she would have solved the mystery without the paranormal clues, but I do think it’s walking a fine line when it comes to writing this dynamic. Your protagonist has to be active and smart, to show initiative and independent agency in solving the crime in order for the reader to respect her and to root for her as a character. If she simply sat on her ass receiving all the clues from the great beyond and having the crime solved for her, then where would the excitement be in that? So I have to make the messages she gets be vague enough that she sometimes misses them, sometimes misinterprets them, and occasionally gets them right. Ideally, I wanted it to be a synergistic blend between her logical mind and the paranormal help she receives.
At the end of the book, Garnet seems to have come to terms with the past and also the strangeness she’s experienced. Yet there is a hint that her “gift” has not departed. THE FIRST TIME I DIED is described as the first book in a series. Could you tell us a bit about the next book and how you see the series developing?
We’ll see some of the same characters and settings, and Garnet will grow as a character, but each mystery in the Garnet McGee series will be able to be read as a standalone novel. I’m going to use the serial killer mystery from book one as an overarching story that runs through each of the books, so there will be more creepy revelations on that front, too!
I’m about halfway through writing the second book. Garnet returns to Pitchford, tumbles onto another murder and discovers that her psychic gift is not restricted to receiving messages about the murder that shattered her life 10 years ago. Her abilities are growing, and something truly disturbing is happening in the place where she lives. Dare she trust her developing powers?