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Two Women Search for Justice—It’s Not What They Expect

A Spotlight on Author Sara Koffi

By Neil Nyren

I was on fire. I’d never felt this sort of rage before, the kind that blinds, the kind that was sinking itself into my skin, over and over and over.

The speaker in Sara Koffi’s WHILE WE WERE BURNING is Elizabeth Smith, and her life is falling apart.

She has secrets in her past, she’s had difficulty fitting in with her new Memphis neighborhood, and her husband David has been growing more and more distant. Her only sort-of friend is Patricia, and then Elizabeth gets up early one morning to go for a walk with her and finds Patricia hanging from a tree.

Everyone is sure it’s suicide. Elizabeth is sure it is not. She becomes obsessed, “looking for clues, searching for signs, sifting through every single errant thought that Patricia had ever posted to social media.” Worried about leaving her alone while he’s at work, David urges her to hire an assistant, and when she interviews Brianna Thompson, they instantly bond. A beautiful Black woman, “she seemed to be around the same age as me, but somehow she was immediately more interesting like she had a billion stories to tell.”

She has a story to tell, all right. It’s no accident that she applied for the job because Brianna has secrets, too. The year before, the police wrongly killed her son, and she’s spent the time ever since searching for the woman responsible for the 911 call. She knows it’s someone in Elizabeth’s neighborhood. She knows she won’t sleep until she finds her. And she knows that when she does…it’ll be time for justice.

Sara Koffi
© Pearce Photography

Two obsessed women, one Black, one white, each using the other for their own purpose and slowly unraveling. The more they investigate, the more they discover—but what lies at the end of the road is something neither they, nor you, will ever guess. A taut psychological thriller about race, class, and identity, the twists and turns pile up until the reader becomes as obsessed as the characters.

Look in the mirror. What do you see? It may not be what you think.

“The idea for WHILE WE WERE BURNING had its seeds in the summer of 2020, while I was watching the news coverage about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” says the author. “I had this gnawing feeling in my gut that justice wasn’t going to be served despite what felt like the world’s demand of it at that moment. It was such a maddening and helpless feeling, being so unsure if the justice system in this country was going to come through for them or not.

“The story evolved from there once I started to think more about what justice might look like outside of the system. What happens when someone wants to take it into their own hands? How incredibly dangerous would that be? How horrifying to imagine a scenario where that’s even necessary.

“Once I figured out that I wanted to tackle that question, the story becoming a thriller seemed like the natural next step to me. After all, aren’t thrillers the perfect place for characters to live in the morally gray? Especially characters who are dealing with heavy themes and complicated choices that have devastating consequences.”

You couldn’t call either protagonist “likable,” but that’s one of the things that’s exhilarating about the book.

“For as long as I’ve been pursuing a writing career, I’ve gotten one too many notes back about my female characters being unlikable in some regard. But what does unlikable mean for a woman, you know? Is it because she snaps after having a bad day? Is it because she doesn’t let people cut in front of her in line and doesn’t force a smile when she’s tired? There’s something so nebulous around unlikable female characters that I just kind of felt like going, ‘Okay! Fine! You want to see what an unlikable woman really looks like?’

“I also can’t deny that writing a woman on her worst behavior is pretty damn fun. Elizabeth, for example, was such an interesting character for me to explore because she has zero self-awareness. I think that’s what makes her so hateable but still so fascinating. You’re watching her make these awful choices, talk shit about literally everyone she comes across, and she still thinks she’s so much better than every character in the book. She’s the perfect trainwreck you can’t look away from.

“At the same time, I’d argue that at the heart of WHILE WE WERE BURING is a genuine friendship, a connection that didn’t seem possible while the book explores such a dark moment in time for the characters. Elizabeth and Brianna both experience what they feel is the worst moment in their lives, and yet, they’re able to form a bond between them.

“I just think there’s something lovely about the idea of this sort of unintentional commiseration, to imagine that you can be in the middle of a hellish experience and someone else can say, ‘Me too! How perfect that we’ve been in the same sort of pain.’ Maybe it’s a little odd, but I really do think it can be comforting to be truly seen, especially during moments of emotional devastation.

“It reminds me of one of my favorite James Baldwin quotes:

‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read…’”

It had to be tricky, though, balancing Breanna and Elizabeth, figuring out just what to tell when:

“Oh, my God! This was the hardest thing for me to manage! I wish I could give other writers hope here when it comes to nailing down the pacing for a thriller, but I’ve yet to meet another thriller writer who didn’t experience the same struggle. I often compare it to setting up this long line of dominoes, and if you knock one thing over too early, the rest of it just goes to pieces, and you have to start all over. Whenever I’d get pacing notes from my agent or editor, I’d just want to lie down on the floor and give up…

“…But of course, I’m glad I kept going. I also wish I could offer some advice here, but I think the best thing to do is just take it one page at a time. Revise as slowly as you can. Be so thoughtful it hurts a little bit. Because if you’re able to set those dominoes up just right, watching them fall is going to feel so, so satisfying.

“Ultimately, I consider myself a plantser (half plotter, half pantser). I don’t think I’ve ever written a full outline in my life for anything, but I know enough about the story to take it chapter by chapter. If anything comes to me while I’m drafting, I just throw it in the pot. If I don’t like it, later on, I add it to a Word document titled something like, ‘Cut Footage for Book Title.’ I think it’s cool to have a document like that to look back at and see how characters/ideas evolved over time. It’s also a good way to keep track of backstory, even if it doesn’t make it into the final draft.”

Her influences have been many:

“I grew up obsessed with women-led thrillers. I think the first one I ever saw was The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. After that, it was sort of a done deal. Single White Female, Fatal Attraction, Sleeping with the Enemy. Not to mention the millions of Lifetime thrillers I’ve watched in my spare time, too. I think what attracted me initially to the genre was women being in control of their own stories, for better or for worse. Is she going to use that knife for good or for evil?

“As for literary influences, I’ve always enjoyed a little bit of everything. I think one of my strongest influences is probably Virginia Woolf; her stream-of-consciousness writing style has always resonated with me. I also love Zora Neale Hurston and the way she describes emotion in her work. It’s powerful, and it makes me hope my work sticks with readers in a similar way.

“Last but certainly not least, I have to mention my mom as an influence on me, too. She’s always been the first reader for so many of my first drafts, one of the first people I pitch my ideas to. She helped shape me as a writer just by always being in my corner and encouraging me to, excuse my French, ‘write the crazy shit.’”

There’s one more surprising influence. For a time, Koffi worked on creating story content for a mobile gaming company:

“This might shock you, but all of my work in the mobile gaming space is for romance writing!

“I actually started off as a romance writer and was able to translate my experience in that space to game writing. I think the biggest lesson that romance game writing taught me is how to give the people what they want. By that, I mean if you know that readers are looking for specific tropes or images in your work, it’s not a bad thing to provide what’s familiar (as long as you add your own twist on it, too). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with serving an audience, and it’s probably the reason so many romance-based mobile games are so successful these days.

“I think sometimes writers get so caught up in being original that they forget you’re supposed to be telling an entertaining story, too, something to keep readers invested. And it’s a little easier to get invested when you know what you’re walking into. It also makes twists hit a lot harder when you can play around with reader expectations in that way.”

Did any of that make it easier to find a publisher when the time came?

“My debut novel came about in an extremely roundabout way. I was actually offered a book deal on an entirely separate project, one that I was able to submit to a publisher without an agent. Once I had the book deal interest, I queried agents to see if any of them would be interested in representing me for the deal. That’s how I met my lovely agent, Lauren Abramo, who was willing to walk me through the process as a first-time novelist.

“Unfortunately, that book deal eventually fell through during negotiations. I was devastated, but Lauren let me know she’d be staying in my corner regardless. Fast forward to me writing WHILE WE WERE BURNING and sending it off to her inbox. We revised it over the course of a year, went on submission, and the rest is history.

“I also want to be clear that despite me telling this story very succinctly, I’d been trying to get published for years before a publisher ever took a bite. There’s really no such thing as an overnight success in publishing or really even an over-a-few-months success. The norm is grinding it out until you get there and then pushing yourself to do it again and again.

“I’d just like to add how grateful I am for this interview. Writing a book is like sending a letter in a bottle across the sea and just hoping it somehow connects with the right people. It makes me so happy to know that WHILE WE WERE BURNING is connecting with people, specifically in the thriller space. While I love thrillers, I can’t deny that it’s rarer for a book featuring a Black lead to share shelf space in the genre. My hope is that WHILE WE WERE BURNING is just another in a long line of diverse thrillers to come and that we can make the thriller genre feel accessible to everyone.”

Does that include the next book?

“Am I allowed to talk about this? Seriously, though, I recently submitted something to my publisher. I’m honestly super excited about it and can’t wait until it gets officially announced.

“Other than that, I’m idly brainstorming ideas for Book #3. Maybe something grounded? Maybe something about neighbors not being who they said they were? I’m always meditating on various twists and turns, trying to pin down what feels exciting enough to explore for a whole book.

“I’ll let you know how it goes!”



Neil Nyren

Neil Nyren is the former EVP, associate publisher, and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons and the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among the writers of crime and suspense he has edited are Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, John Sandford, C. J. Box, Robert Crais, Carl Hiaasen, Daniel Silva, Jack Higgins, Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follett, Jonathan Kellerman, Ed McBain, and Ace Atkins. He now writes about crime fiction and publishing for CrimeReads, BookTrib, The Big Thrill, and The Third Degree, among others, and is a contributing writer to the Anthony/Agatha/Macavity-winning How to Write a Mystery.

He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.

This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet.

BookTrib Spotlight: Sara Koffi