Up Close: Tracey S. Phillips
Pinkie Swears, Secrets, and Sociopaths
By K. L. Romo
Best friends tell each other everything, right? But what if your bestie held something back that had gotten her killed? In her debut, BEST KEPT SECRETS, author Tracey S. Phillips blends old homicides with new, and creates a murderous puzzle that screams to be solved.
Morgan Jewell lives with guilt and grief—someone murdered her best friend 20 years ago. The night before moving into a college dorm together, Morgan’s best friend Faye went missing. Days later, they found her—beaten, bloody, and dead. That’s why Morgan became a homicide detective—to track down her best friend’s killer.
Now homicides, both old and new, are eerily reminiscent of the killing of Faye Ramsey, and Morgan thinks she might finally solve her best friend’s murder. Siblings Ekhard and Caryn Klein seem to hold the key to her investigation. But what she uncovers shakes her soul. Faye might not have been the only one keeping secrets.
Phillips lets us pick her brain about her new novel, her writing, and her own little secrets in this interview with The Big Thrill.
What was the inspiration for BEST KEPT SECRETS?
BEST KEPT SECRETS was born from my interest in personalities and the human mind. My family is small, but there are some wacky characters in it. Why are they like that? That’s what I love to figure out. So characters drive my books.
The idea for Caryn Klein came long before I knew her story. Like so many writers, my debut wasn’t my first manuscript. I had been writing and rewriting other stories for four years before starting this one. I’d also been attending many writers’ conferences across the Midwest.
I wanted accuracy in my stories. So when I found out that Sisters in Crime had moved their Writers’ Police Academy to Appleton, Wisconsin (two hours from my home), I enrolled.
At WPA, forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland taught classes on sociopaths and criminal behavior. I remember the exact moment I got the idea for BEST KEPT SECRETS while sitting in her class as she discussed juvenile killers.
What is something interesting you’d like to tell readers about the novel?
I’ve always enjoyed studying psychology and mental states. Reading about borderline personality disorder and psychosis fascinates me. I’m also curious about spectrum disorders, like Asperger’s and sociopathy. We can put every single human quality on a spectrum of some sort, but what makes one person sacrifice their life for another—as first responders can and often do—while another person has no compassion or ability to empathize? Those attributes make me curious and light up my writer brain.
In BEST KEPT SECRETS, Morgan witnesses something. We don’t know what, but the event is so disturbing that her mind erases it from her memory. She can’t remember it. Her psychiatrist diagnoses her with Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS). When she least expects it, something will trigger her to remember what she saw.
What is a fact about one of your characters that didn’t make it into the book?
There was a sex scene that got cut. Sorry.
It’s funny to me that in polishing BEST KEPT SECRETS, I had written twice as much as I needed. The streamlined rendition that got me a publishing deal was the bare-bones book. Once my editor at Crooked Lane got into it, they asked me for more. More character development and more of Morgan, specifically. So what I thought didn’t belong went back in.
How long have you been on your writing journey?
Since 2011. My son was still in high school and my daughter was a sophomore in college when I began to fantasize about taking my laptop on a vacation—alone.
At Berklee College of Music, I majored in Music Production and Engineering. Now I teach piano lessons. But it isn’t my dream job, by a long shot. One of my professors asked us to write a paper about our favorite song. In it, we were to include the instrumentation, notes about the arrangement and form, and talk about the harmonic structure. The song I chose was “Elevator Man” by Oingo Boingo (Danny Elfman’s band for you fans out there). And I nailed it. The professor gave me an A++ and asked if he could use my paper as an example to show future students in his class. I didn’t realize I wanted to write, but I should have recognized the clues.
What’s some advice you’d give writers who are struggling to reach their publishing goals?
Though it seems like the dumbest advice in the world, I’d have to say, keep writing. Many instructors on my journey had the same advice, and they were right. Keep writing. Keep revising. Do it every day. That adage of “butt in chair” only works if you do it. Write and write until you can no longer see the words. Beneath them is the story. Find the story and make it the best you can.
What types of books do you read for pure pleasure?
I read what I love to write—thriller, suspense, and mystery. But I’ll read almost anything if it’s a good story. I gravitate to the British writers like Ruth Ware. But I also love a good thriller that has a fantasy element—Alma Katsu is so good at that.
When you read for pleasure, do you prefer print books, e-books, or audio books?
I love paper books. I love the feel and the smell. When I was growing up, my family owned a summer lake house in Northern Indiana. The house was—and still is—the oldest house on the lake. The floors creak and the rooms are small. The plumbing is noisy. Up a narrow flight of stairs, there’s a library. It’s a big, expansive room with a fireplace and a couple beds. There’s a table to play cards and a couch and an old rocking chair. On either side of the fireplace are bookshelves. The books in those shelves go back to when my great grandmother owned that house. She used to read and play cards while sitting at the window, watching my mom and aunt play in the water. Those books smell so good to me—it’s because they are damp with humidity and slightly moldy. I love opening them to inhale the musty, papery fragrance. It’s where I first began to enjoy reading. The first book I remember was The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.
Do you ever have days when you are “unconnected” from the web?
Sadly, no. Sounds like a good idea, though, and I plan on trying it… someday.
Do you use any writerly apps, and if so, what are your favorites?
Just Pro-Writer, and I wait until I’m on a near-final draft to use it.
What is an interesting fact about you that readers don’t already know?
I love music and playing the piano. I was raised as a classical pianist, and my favorite pieces are Chopin etudes and anything Beethoven. I’ve played the Beethoven Pathetic Sonata no. 8 and Debussy’s “Clare de lune,” as well as Albeniz, and Rachmaninoff. Right now, I’m memorizing the even numbered Bach two-part Inventions, 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10.
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