Up Close: Vanessa Lillie
A New Mother Plagued by Little Voices
By K. L. Romo
“There is fight and there is flight, and I’ve done them both plenty. But there’s a third choice for those of us who have experienced enough terror: focus.”
New mothers are scared, uncertain if they have what it takes. The voices inside their heads undermine their confidence in the most important role they’ll ever have. But what if you were already damaged by your “life before”? The voices in your head are amplified.
In LITTLE VOICES, Vanessa Lillie pits the desire to be a good mother against paralyzing internal doubt.
Devon Burges had a hard life growing up. She still can’t believe she’s married to a wonderful, caring man who has a successful career in politics, and she has a baby on the way. She’d given up her high-powered attorney position to focus on her family. Now she’s 28 weeks pregnant and in early labor, blood pooling around her. As she’s prepped for an emergency C-section, she hears the newscaster on the operating room radio announce the murder of a young woman and recognizes the name of her friend, Belina Cabrala. Then everything goes black.
Two months after delivery, fatigue plagues Devon. Her baby, Ester, has her days and nights mixed up, and they both cry all the time. She almost died during childbirth, and Ester was born at two pounds. Devon is barely holding on. The nasty little voice in Devon’s head insists she isn’t a good mother and never will be. And it whispers the truth that she isn’t good enough for her husband Jack.
The voices had once plagued her after the abuse she lived through as a girl, and now they’re back, louder than ever. Devon “recognizes the thread of crazy.”
“Voices begin in my head, but they are not from my broken mom-brain voice but echoes repeating from a real terrible day. My hatred is always there, burning bright and hot, whether I’m a young girl hiding in the corner of the courtroom or a lawyer obsessing over a long-shot case or a new mother barely keeping it together in a police station.”
And then there is Belina’s murder. The women became friends when Devon saw her taking her college friend Alec’s son, Emmett, on a walk. Belina was Emmett’s nanny, but now she’s gone. Devon can’t help herself—she must find the murderer.
When Alec tells her he’s the number-one suspect in Belina’s murder, Devon’s lawyer instincts take over. She is compelled to use her investigative skills to find Belina’s killer and save Alec from arrest. She must go all-in, using both legal and illegal methods to gather evidence. Whatever it takes.
But she’d promised her husband Jack that she wouldn’t get carried away like the times before. And Ester needs her.
And then again, there are the voices:
“As if someone like you could make a difference. When your whole life is nothing but paying for sin that can never be forgiven.”
“What kind of mother ignores her child this long?”
“Failures follow you everywhere. Repeating and multiplying.”
Devon must find justice for Belina and identify the murderer. But will she be able to keep her sanity and her family?
Will she be able to stop the voices?
Author Vanessa Lillie tells us about how being a new mother inspired the novel, navigating the insecurities and exhaustion that come with the position.
“I think we all hear ‘Little Voices,’ often in our most vulnerable moments, and it’s real work to tamp down that harsh inner critic,” she says. “I wrote about a struggling new mother because I was one. I had a newborn who fought sleep at every opportunity, and I was both elated and terrified by the shape of my new life and title: Mom. I really longed for a story that focused on this strange and euphoric (and often scary) phase of life, but within a thriller structure since that’s what I read and love.
“Also important is that my main character overcomes new-mom challenges. I wanted her to be pumping [breast milk] and solving crimes! I longed to read the journey of a woman returning to herself because a lot of what stressed me out about being a new mom was that my life (which I loved) was suddenly radically different. The person I was before seemed far away, and I missed that version of myself, so I wanted to explore how we uncover our new self that is near who we were before.”
Writing the novel with a new baby at home gave Lillie the first-hand knowledge of a woman in one of her most vulnerable moments—trying to care for a new little being while “tamping down that harsh inner critic.” “I really poured every new-mom anxiety and fear into it. Those feelings came not only from my own experience, but those of my friends from the weekly mom-groups I attended.”
Having a young child at home has changed the way Lillie writes. “Having my son opened creative pathways within me that I couldn’t have accessed otherwise. I also can get more done in 20 minutes now than I ever thought possible. At the same time, not having to save money for plastic toys or daycare and instead spending it on trips to fabulous places would certainly open other creative doors, so you win some, you lose some.”
Lillie funneled her own experiences as a new mother into her writing, making Devon an unreliable narrator.
“As a new mom, I felt unreliable. Not only because of my own doubts, but because of society as a whole—from the news to nosy people on the street. Every decision was an opportunity for judgment, from how I fed my baby to how my baby slept to whether or not he should have a damn hat on his head,” she says. “And I had no idea what I was doing. Suddenly, your heart is outside your body, and every decision feels large and fraught with danger. I put those feelings into my main character and her postpartum challenges because I wanted to express how those moments felt for me.”
And what would Lillie like readers to glean from the novel?
“You never know what someone else is going through—have compassion and be kind. That applies to how we treat ourselves, too. Most of us are doing our best, no matter what the voices in our head (or that opinionated lady at Target) say.”
Lillie also shares some interesting details about her writing process. “I wrote LITTLE VOICES during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2016 and then revised for a year after. That’s the opposite of the 10 years prior, where I wrote and rewrote and fiddled with two other books that didn’t go anywhere. For me, learning the craft of outlining and story structure helped me level-up. I love ‘writing by the seat of my pants,’ but I had to find a balance of that creative experience with the need for solid story structure.”
For Lillie, reading The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena gave her the incentive she needed to craft her story. “It centers on a struggling new mom whose baby is kidnapped, and it gave me the courage to put a new mom at the heart of my story. Later, The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy—which has new mothers solving a crime—affirmed that people want to read these stories.”
In addition to mothering duties and writing thrillers, Lillie has another love. “I am addicted to podcasts, specifically podcasts about writing and reading. My favorites in no particular order: Writer’s Bone, Unlikable Female Characters, Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books, Print Run Podcast, Write or Die, The Creative Penn, The Worried Writer, Write the Book with Shelagh Shapiro, Honest Authors Podcast, The Taylor Stevens Show, First Draft with Sarah Enni, The Bastard Title, Authors on the Air with Pam Stack, Author Stories with Hank Garner, Read or Dead, Writer Types, Novel Class Podcast, and Writer Writer Pants on Fire. (Whew!)”
If you love thrillers, especially those with a new-mom-next-door heroine, you’ll love reading LITTLE VOICES and will be shocked by the ending you didn’t see coming.
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