Up Close: Sarah Zettel

By Millie Naylor Hast

Take family drama, pour on a shady past and a terrifying secret, and you’ll find yourself immersed in award-winning author Sarah Zettel’s new standalone psychological thriller, A MOTHER’S LIE, set for release on April 7.

“The manager came over. Beth looked down. Dana was not there.

Beth did not remember anything after that for a while.”

With these evocative opening lines, you board a roller coaster, as Beth Fraser tries to reclaim her daughter Dana from the horrors of her own past.

Zettel has authored more than 30 novels and short stories, but A MOTHER’S LIE holds a special place in her heart. “I’m really excited,” she says. “I wanted a chance to write a suspense book in which the mother gets to be the hero, and the strength of the relationship between mother and daughter gets to be at the center of the story in a positive way. That relationship is tested, and of course, it could fail. But that’s what suspense is about, isn’t it?”

Indeed. And in this case, Zettel’s skill in the romance and science fiction/fantasy genres helped her deepen the mystery. “Every genre has its own emphasis. I’m generalizing here, but… romance, for instance, is about character interaction. Science fiction/fantasy is about world-building and how the shape of society effects the characters. Mystery and suspense, of course, are about plot and action. Each genre allows you to work with a different primary storytelling focus. My experience in genres that focus on character or world-building with a Big Idea helped me make this mystery more compelling.”

Sarah Zettel

In A MOTHER’S LIE, Beth finds herself up against powerful forces from her family background.

“Stories of glamorous scammers are fascinating, but scammers, like most criminals, are actually pretty penny-ante. They work on the small scale, living on the fringes. I wanted to look at what that life does to the families of the criminals. What would it be like to grow up on that kind of edge?”

Zettel mines Beth’s backstory for gold by combining several disparate elements. “I wanted to tell the story of someone who survived a chaotic and abusive childhood. I wanted to talk about the lower levels of life in a family that depended on illegal hustles to get by, and I wanted to explore a mother-daughter relationship that might be troubled, but had inside it a core of strength and love.”

The troubled family history idea had a hidden dividend. “I wanted Beth to be a strong individual, as survivors are. Her fight ultimately is the human fight, to make a better life for her child and for herself. I think everybody can sympathize with that.”

The setting enhances the mood. “Most of the story takes place out in the open, in such stark normalcy, and even affluence. On the surface, everything is just fine, but peel back that top layer, and the safe everyday world has been infiltrated by bad actors.”

Zettel (second from left) and friends at an author event at Perogi Mountain in Cleveland, Ohio.

The effect of a criminal family background on children is stark, Zettel believes. “Dana loves her mother and wants to make her happy, but children who grow up in homes with secrets are very aware of them. For Dana, of course, those secrets have a profound impact on her sense of self. As an adolescent, she wants to create and understand her own identity, so she wants answers. In her mind, the security routine and the secrets are tied together, so she’s questioning everything at once.”

One of the biggest challenges of writing A MOTHER’S LIE was drilling down to the core of the story. Zettel says, “The plot took a long time to come together. I discarded a lot of material to streamline the story and keep the emphasis on the main characters. Suspense is very much about plot and pacing, but the focus has to stay on the central characters, because we, as readers, want to care about them as individuals, otherwise we’re not going to be invested in them getting out of the danger.”

Zettel makes tacos for a book release party.

Zettel’s approach to her writing is methodical. She never wanted to be anything other than a writer and has written more or less full time for most of her career. “Since I started with short stories, I got in the habit early of finishing a project, sending it out and starting on the next project immediately afterward,” she says. “So I’d say to aspiring writers, when you’ve established the project you want to work on, decide what you want for that project. Do you want it to be traditionally published? Do you want to try with a paying e-press? Do you want to indie publish? Then, while you’re writing, work out your plan for submission/publication. This, by the way, is a good way to be productive on days when the words aren’t coming to you. When you’re finished, you have your plan, you can put it into action, and you can start as soon as possible on the next project.”

Zettel writes two to two and a half books a year. “I do my serious writing and editing at a co-working space, so I pretty much keep office hours. As for the plotter/pantser dichotomy, I would not describe myself as either. One thing I have learned across my career is that process changes. Life circumstances change, and every book is different, even within the same series. As a result, for me, the process of learning how to write is ongoing, so my process is always changing. I may start with an idea, work out some scenes, and go on to a loose outline/thumbnail description I’ll use as a guide. Or I may start with that loose outline and develop scenes from individual descriptions or sentences. I may write linearly for a while and then jump ahead. I’m always revising as I write. My openings may get rewritten five, six, seven times while I work on the rest of the book. That’s how I write now. For my next project, the process may change again.”

Zettel (second from right) with authors William Krueger and Lori Rader-Day and the owners of Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookshop at the Ann Arbor Public Library.

Over the years, Zettel’s critique group has proven to be essential. “I am fortunate enough to be part of a long-standing group with an established process.” The group reviews four submissions of up to 7,000 words per meeting, submitted in advance. “The emphasis is on positive, constructive critique of the current submission, as opposed to comments about the author’s previous work.”

Zettel always has several projects underway. “Right now I’m focusing on traditional mysteries. I have a historical series that I write as Darcie Wilde and a new cozy series coming up that I’m writing as Jennifer Hawkins. I’ve also just submitted a proposal for a historical standalone centered around a recently discovered piece of art from belle epoch Paris that might just also be a murder confession.”

We’re hooked already and can’t wait to read more.

 

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