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Malice Aforethought

The Big Thrill Interviews Debut Thriller Author Lisa Malice

By Jaden Terrell

Book Cover: LEST SHE FORGETIf names are destiny, there’s a handful of crime writers born to the genre. Karin Slaughter and Bruce Coffin come to mind. Lisa Malice married into her last name, but the seeds were planted in her childhood, sharing mysteries with her mother. She says, “We would drive home from our cabin on Sunday nights, listening to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater and watching NBC Sunday Mystery Movie. I loved Rock Hudson and Susan St. James. The Snoop Sisters were my favorite. We watched Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote, too. In high school, I devoured the mysteries on my mother’s bookshelves—Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Margaret Truman, and more.”

In college, she toyed briefly with a romantic comedy, but she didn’t start seriously thinking about writing until around 2011 after her children were in their teens. She took some online writing classes but decided she was better suited to writing mysteries. She joined Sisters in Crime in 2012 and would later become quite active in the group, serving a two-year stint as president of the Atlanta chapter and playing a vital role on the organization’s national education committee. Back then, though, she was still finding her place in the writing world.

In 2013, someone in the group mentioned the Killer Nashville International Writers Conference. Malice signed up and went to every panel she could fit in about the writing craft. She remembers telling herself, “This is my time now.”

Author Photo: Lisa Malice

Lisa Malice

Not long after, she was on the elliptical at the gym when a commercial for an identity theft service came on the overhead TV.

“It sparked an idea,” Malice says. “It was like, what happened if, and I just kept going. Every what-if answer sparked another question, and it kept going and going and going. Until I had a general idea of a plot that would actually work.”

That story became her debut novel, LEST SHE FORGET, a psychological thriller about a woman who wakes up from a coma with no idea who she is. All she knows is that her medical records list her as “Kay Smith.” Can she trust the mysterious stranger who seems so familiar yet claims not to know her? Is he trying to save her from a killer—or lure her into danger? What secrets is she hiding, even from herself? Kay’s survival depends on finding the answers.

Malice says, “I’m a pantser, so I just started writing, and the scenes started coming, and supporting characters popped in where it made sense. I was there with Kay when she came out of her coma and there when she decided how she was going to approach her dilemma. We figured it out together.”

She went through a lot of revisions. “It ended up being very different from the original draft,” she says, “because I had to figure out the logistics of exactly how this would all work. And that was actually a lot of fun.”

But after pitching the book with no luck, she worked with a talented developmental editor who gave her a new approach to revisions. “Instead of saying, ‘Well, I’ll just fix this scene, then this scene,’ I realized, ‘No, I have to start at the very beginning and organically put everything where it needs to be. And that made all the difference.”

Malice’s background in psychology gives her a unique perspective on the genre. She has a longtime fascination with the mind and the way the brain works. In the run-up to her book launch for LEST SHE FORGET, she decided to write a four-part blog series on amnesia, its causes, and its popularity in commercial fiction. “There are people who consider it a lazy plot device,” she says, “but readers love it.”

But why are people so fascinated by amnesia stories? Malice has a hypothesis. “I think it’s that, as a reader, you have a character who, from the very start, is full of puzzles you’ve got to figure out. You’ve got to start putting the clues together—with that person—to figure out who they are. As the story moves along, you’re experiencing flashbacks and dreams with her and trying to figure out what everything means. Then, at the end, when everything comes together, you have that aha moment with her. From a psychological perspective, it delves into the nature of identity. Do our memories define who we are? And to what extent? And if we don’t have those memories, what does that mean?”

The book has plenty of action and suspense, but Kay’s search for her identity is one of the most fascinating parts of LEST SHE FORGET. In an early chapter, Kay’s case psychiatrist encourages her to observe herself and note things that could give her clues to who she is—not just to her name and background, but to herself as a person.

Malice says, “She’s trying to do a search on the computer, and she notices that she’s very comfortable using the keyboard. Not everybody can type really fast, so it tells her something about the kind of job she might have had. She looks at her hands and thinks: Look, they’re not calloused. The nails are well manicured. So, I didn’t do manual labor. It’s like solving a mystery about herself based on these little physical clues.”

This unfolding mystery of self-discovery gave Malice a lot of creative fodder. “A lot of these things can be red herrings because Kay speculates on what every little flash of memory means without any context to guide her thoughts toward reality. At one point, Kay thinks she might be a witness to a murder, and a call to the police leads her to believe she might be one-half of a killer couple. This all goes to the nature of identity. Our memories can define who we are, but it’s going forward that makes all the difference. You have that sense of how much of yourself do you lose, but also that appeal of starting with a completely fresh page.”

Malice generally likes to write in the mornings when the house is still nice and quiet. She wakes herself up with her daily Wordle puzzles, then starts looking over what she’s working on that day. “Once everyone wakes up, and the dogs start running around, it’s easy to get distracted. Sometimes, I just have to power through it.”

Alone time is critical, too. “I would write and write,” Malice says, “but then I would have to get up and either go for a bike ride up at the cabin or take a walk on the beach. Those were important opportunities because you have thoughts floating around in your mind, and then something begins to gel, and you can start working through it. That’s a major part of my process. I could be taking a shower when something comes to me. Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘The Shower Effect.’ When you’re mildly distracted—not focused on a problem, but with the issue still simmering in the back of your mind—you’ll often come up with a solution.”

Malice has two new projects in the works, both psychological thrillers. In the first, a young woman who learns she was adopted goes up against a decades-old black-market baby ring. It’s a complex story with threads running through several generations. She’s also in the planning stages for a book about a woman who realizes her father, a former FBI agent now teaching forensic psychology at her college, is implicated in a series of murders on campus. “It’s like Presumed Innocent meets a serial killer movie.” Malice says. “There’s lots of research to do. A lot of nuances to work out.”

Just the way she likes it.

Want to know more about Lisa Malice and her work? You can learn more here.


The Big Thrill Interviews Debut Thriller Author Lisa Malice

Jaden Terrell
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