By P. J. Bodnar
When a firefighter named Bucky dies in a mill fire and three others are injured—including Andi Comstack’s brother—his spirit enlists Andi to help find the arsonist and solve his murder. Having proven herself a worthy advocate in the past, Andi helps the local fire department with information from her “Smokies”—those who have been recently cremated, like Bucky.
“The afterlife intrigues me. Does it exist? What’s it like? Who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell? Are people caught in limbo, and that’s why there are so many ghost sightings?”
These are the questions that inspire and intrigue author Ann Simas, and she tries to answer them in her supernatural series of books featuring Andi Comstock. With HELLFIRE, the fourth book in the series, Simas hopes readers will “approach this book and the others in the series with an open mind. I’d like them to consider the possibilities the series suggests.”
Here, she takes time to chat with The Big Thrill and answer a few questions about this fast-paced paranormal thriller.
This is the 26th book you’ve written and the fourth in the Andi Comstock series. How has your writing process changed over time?
Like most writers, I’ve taken classes, attended workshops, and read how-to books. I felt compelled to write the way I was taught—outline, synopsis, query letter, character sketches. Aargh! I hated all of it. I wanted to sit down and write.
In 2012, I decided it was my time to focus on writing full time. I had four books languishing in my computer. I tackled them one by one, updating each and editing with a fresh, different, and fun perspective. I knew where the story began and where it would end. If, as I wrote, it veered in different directions, so be it. If my characters did something unexpected, that was okay, too.
With those books published, it was a joy to keep on writing using my new method. Some people describe that method as being a pantser, but personally, I don’t like that label. For the first time in my writing life, I felt free and unencumbered. No more outlines, no more synopses, no more character sketches—plus, editing became much easier. I’ve never looked back and never regretted my decision to alter the way I write.
You are a celebrated romance novelist. What made you jump to thrillers?
I don’t know that I’ve ever been a “celebrated” romance novelist—but I am a three-time Romance Writers of America Golden Heart Finalist. Even though I started out writing romance, my books have always had a thriller or mystery element, and often, a paranormal/supernatural element. I suppose I like to include suspense in my books because that’s what I like to read. I also enjoy doing the research involved in putting a thriller together. By publication day, my fervent hope is that my readers will be entertained, even while they’re encountering twists and turns that leave them guessing about the final outcome at the end of the book.
Your resume includes award-winning watercolorist, budding photographer, and novelist. Which of these creative outlets is your favorite?
I love writing best. Back in the days when you could run text as a screensaver, mine said, Writing is an uncontrollable obsession. That still stands. After that, I love counted cross stitch (which I find relaxing), then watercolor (which can be frustrating if you lay down the wrong pigment), and finally photography (which I’m still trying to master). I have a graphics design background, so I design all my own book covers, some of which use photographs I’ve taken. I’ve won awards for my needlework, watercolor, and photography. Some of my best watercolors have been from photos I took in the little town in Italy from which my grandparents immigrated.
Your main character, Andi Comstock, can speak to the recently departed—but only near her office. Why did you anchor her abilities?
I wanted Andi to have a life where she wouldn’t be bombarded constantly by Smokies, as I call the cremated dead who speak to her. That said, even when she’s away from the block where she works, she’s persistent in her dedication to helping those who ask, and if she needs to speak to the Smokie of the moment, she can always park in the lot after hours to ask questions. I felt it would be too overwhelming for her to have to deal with the voices 24/7. As the series stands, she sometimes questions what she’s doing and how long she can keep up the pace. She might not be so worried about it if she didn’t undertake “innovative” means to trap killers.
Andi’s strong family support is an ongoing theme in the book. How would your family react if you told them you could talk to the dead?
If I told my family I could talk to the dead, they’d believe me. I come from a large Italian family. We have superstitions, we believe in what you can’t see, and we’ve all had experiences that are inexplicable. When my mom died, we discovered something she’d written that revealed all the strange occurrences she’d had over her lifetime. Those included a near-death experience as an adult and a vision of the Virgin Mary as a child. She also had dreams that informed a “feeling” about something. My siblings and I have had similar experiences. Who’s to say if they are real or not. What I know for certain is that they affected us in ways that we don’t discuss except with each other.
Love doesn’t come easy in real life, so why should it come easy in fiction?
What was the biggest challenge this book presented? What about the biggest opportunity?
Challenge: Andi Comstock is a coding whiz—she’s innovative, creative, and fast at what she does. I had a learning curve when I researched everything that’s involved in writing game apps, because quite honestly, while I’m amazed by video games, I didn’t have a clue about how designers make them work. Now I do, and while Andi’s job isn’t the main focus of the series, it is an integral piece of the series.
Opportunity: I love doing research and this series involves a lot of research. You can’t do much after a person has been cremated to determine cause of death, so I am constantly challenged to find ways around that obstacle, which provides me an opportunity to keep learning new things.
Where did you get the idea for the Andi Comstock books?
When I had a day job, we moved into a new building and from the first day, I smelled smoke, though no one else could. I was concerned, because I’d overseen renovations to the building, and I thought maybe there was an electrical problem. Once that possibility was eliminated, I examined other sources. I live in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, so I had to consider field burning, slash burning, and back-yard burns. I also considered nearby structure fires or smoke from fireplaces and wood-burning stoves. The latter two I ruled out right away because there simply aren’t that many structure fires in Eugene, and it was summertime, so people weren’t burning fires to keep warm. It also wasn’t field-burning “season,” but there were some slash burns going on, though never in our immediate area. Back-yard burns weren’t being permitted, either.
One day I discovered that there was a crematorium in the funeral home at the opposite corner of the block and I began to imagine the smoke was associated with cremation days. I knew that I’d be able to use that experience in a book, and eventually, the Andi Comstock Supernatural Mysteries were born. When I began my research, I learned a startling fact: That crematorium was smokeless and had been for years, even though the old chimney had never been removed.
Without spoilers, are there any genre conventions you wanted to upend or challenge with this book?
Andi hears the cremated dead and readers learn that pretty quickly in book 1, Holy Smoke. For those who don’t believe in life after death, this book may present an obstacle, but if readers are willing to suspend disbelief for 300 pages, they may be surprised at how believable the possibility is.
Ann Simas lives in Oregon, but she is a Colorado girl at heart, having grown up in the Rocky Mountains. She has been an avid reader since childhood and penned her first fiction “book” in high school. She particularly likes to write mystery-thriller-suspense with a love story and paranormal or supernatural elements. She is the author of 26 novels, one short-story collection, and one novella.
An award-winning watercolorist and a budding photographer, Ann enjoys needlework and gardening in her spare time. She is her family’s “genealogist” and has been blessed with the opportunity to conduct first-hand research in Italy for both her writing and her family tree. The genealogy research from decades-old documents in Italian, she says, has been a supreme but gratifying challenge.
To learn more about Ann and her work, please visit her website.