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By Millie Naylor Hast

Jennifer Lawler takes a deep dive into organized crime in COYOTE’S POISON.

Lily Gilmartin knows human traffickers and drug smugglers have a short life expectancy, but when her fiancé disappears, she goes into hiding and searches for answers. In her quest, she finds herself caught between two warring crime families in the desert Southwest, the Nakos mob and the Humes, led by the man she calls Dad. Staying alive becomes ever more negligible, as she fights to protect the one thing she values even more.

The Big Thrill tracked Lawler down as she prepared for the launch of COYOTE’S POISON this month. The developmental editor and author of more than 40 fiction and nonfiction books—everything from romance to fantasy, essays, articles, and more—first conceived Lily about eight or nine years ago.

“It took me a long time to figure out the best way to tell her story,” she says. “The themes kept me working on the story for so long—how much can we change, what does it cost, and what happens when it doesn’t work? But I didn’t want the story to be ‘about’ those themes. I wanted it to be a story about a character for whom readers would care, and that took a lot of tinkering.”

Lawler doesn’t want to hammer people over the head with the issues, because ultimately the story is about a person who gets into trouble and tries to get out. “As a reader I’m always a little disappointed when the trouble is only personal with no connection to the larger issues in the world. We’re all enmeshed. It’s all connected. These things matter. I can’t solve them, but I can draw attention to them and maybe make a tiny difference.”

COYOTE’S POISON didn’t start out to be a thriller. “I first thought of the story as romantic suspense, given my history as a romance writer, but the story became too complex for that genre.”

The original idea was “simpler and dare I say, softer. Over time, I pushed myself to give the characters higher stakes and more significant conflicts. That led to more complexity and ambiguity.”

Perfect for the thriller genre.

Lawler’s research “often was a result of something I read rather than my deliberately going out and digging up information. What originally sparked my idea for Lily’s background was reading a story years ago about the Irish Travelers in the U.S., although almost none of that information ended up in the final version. For me, the most awful thing I learned was how little a human life is worth to a trafficker.”

She also didn’t want Lily to be a cliché. “Overall, I think it’s common for women in thrillers to be treated as either victims or as kick-ass superwomen, and I find both uninteresting. A strong woman isn’t a man with breasts,” Lawler says. “In an early version of the manuscript, Lily was more of a victim of circumstance. I didn’t want that either, so I tried to have her interior motivations drive the plot. Other characters do the same thing, so they all get enmeshed. For Lily, the Nakos gang is like a version of family—they look out for each other, have disagreements, even have betrayals—but they help her learn to trust again.”

Lily’s own family is another matter. “I think it’s always easier to hate people from a distance, which is what Lily does in the beginning. She despises her father in peace. When he comes back into her life and seems to try to help her, she has a harder time maintaining her animus towards him. She feels he has taught her everything she knows, much of which was useful and helped her survive. She also remembers moments of love and affection, which is the confusing thing about dysfunctional families.”

For the author, the most fun aspect of writing this story was working on the moments when Lily tries to manipulate people. “That’s when she felt most real to me. The hardest part was figuring out how to make the plot complex enough to avoid being totally predictable, but not so complex as to be incomprehensible.”

For the main takeaway, Lawler hopes readers will simply enjoy the story. “But if they also do some thinking about how we make choices and what happens when all of your choices are bad, I wouldn’t be sorry.”

Her previous experiences in publishing influenced COYOTE’S POISON. “Oh, if it has happened to a writer, it’s happened to me. I’ve had projects orphaned and agents wander off and books released at the exact same time as a Harry Potter installment. But I’ve also had wonderful experiences: a book selling at auction, a couple of great agents, high praise from people who matter to me. For COYOTE’S POISON, the biggest challenge was, surprisingly, to learn to trust my own instincts about my work.”

She writes every day and combines plotting and pantsing. “For me the plotting process is more like a layering process. My first draft is only about twenty percent as long as the project will end up being. Each subsequent revision adds to or subtracts from this framework.”

A big challenge has been writing while earning a living and caring for the special needs of her daughter. To others who may face a similar circumstance, she says, “As a mother, I will tell you that people will judge whatever you do for whatever reasons you do it no matter what, and caring about that makes it very hard to do anything well. So don’t care about that.

“We’re all more capable than we give ourselves credit for being; if you had asked me 25 years ago how I would feel if you told me what was going to happen, I would have assumed that my life was basically over. But it wasn’t. Having my daughter was the beginning of an amazing journey I wouldn’t have willingly missed for one minute.”


Unlike her protagonist Lily Gilmartin, Jennifer Lawler doesn’t have an evil ex-husband, a psychopathic cousin, or a bomb-making father, and for this she is grateful. Also, she’s not in hiding from any bad guys although there is that one friend whose calls she tends to duck.

She is the author or coauthor of many nonfiction books and novels, including her popular and award-winning Dojo Wisdom series.

She earned her PhD in medieval English literature from the University of Kansas and a black belt in Taekwondo at approximately the same time. Her hobbies include meditation and kicking people’s asses. Obviously.

To learn more about Jennifer, please visit her website.

Millie Naylor Hast