By Karen Harper
Author Barbara Taylor Sissel recently took time out of her busy schedule to answers some questions for the BigThrill:
Please tell us a bit about the storyline in EVIDENCE OF LIFE.
On the last ordinary day of her life, Abby Bennett feels like the luckiest woman on earth. But everyone knows that luck doesn’t last forever…
As her husband, Nick, and teenage daughter, Lindsey, embark on a weekend camping trip to the Hill Country of Texas, Abby looks forward to having some quiet time to herself. She braids Lindsey’s hair, reminds Nick to drive safely, and kisses them both good-bye. For a brief moment, Abby thinks she has it all—a perfect marriage, a perfect life—until a devastating storm rips through the region, and her family vanishes without a trace.
When Nick and Lindsey are presumed dead, lost in the ravaging waters, Abby refuses to give up hope. Consumed by grief and clinging to her belief that her family is still alive, she sets out to find them. But as disturbing clues begin to surface, Abby realizes that the truth may be far more sinister than she imagined. Soon she finds herself caught in a current of lies that threaten to unhinge her and challenge everything she once believed about her marriage and family.
Your bio on your excellent website emphasizes that you have lived in varied places and had a great variety of jobs. How has this affected your writing?
The constant shifting from here to there was disconcerting at times, but sitting down to write, all that eclectic history and collection of experiences is like the biggest bank vault filled with all kinds of great material. I don’t think I realized there was such a wealth of information stuffed in my brain until I started writing and certain memories from this job or that person I knew or place I lived began to bubble to the surface. I think it’s brought a degree of flexibility and open mindedness to the writing, too, that I might not have otherwise.
Your experience of observing prison life close up (married to a warden, that is) and the contacts and observations you made there obviously give you a special insight into your characters. Can you relate that to EVIDENCE OF LIFE?
I’m sure many people would argue and find me very naïve when I say that living there is what really brought home to me how good people are. All that good might be tarred over with the worst sort of meanness and criminality, but I don’t believe anyone is born that way. They make terrible choices, often out of desperation. On the spur of the moment, they take a wrong turn and maybe they can’t recover. They can’t make it up. They can’t change the outcome. Listening to the inmate’s stories, I was confronted with the abiding nature of human frailty. I realized the truth behind an old ballad, There But For Fortune. Who hasn’t made a bad decision, a wrong choice? The only difference between “us” and “them” may be in the degree of ill effect. Regardless, in the end what you have is the person who perpetrated the mistake/bad decision/crime, and the victim, who’s often left to wonder what happened to them and why. EVIDENCE OF LIFE revolves round answering those questions.
Two of your novels, THE NINTH STEP and EVIDENCE OF LIFE have a hook for the book that deals with the traumatic event of people vanishing. Is there some reason you are particularly drawn to that tragedy?
This is a very intriguing question! I hadn’t even realized the books shared this theme until it was asked. I think to some degree it might relate to how frequently I moved as a kid. I would just get acclimated to a new neighborhood, a new school, and new friends when we would pack up and move again. Poof, all the comfort of that routine, that home vanished. It might also relate to the fact that I lost my dad when I was very young, and then my mom, too, not so many years later, both of them quite suddenly. People and things can come and go so quickly. I do strive to appreciate every day.
Your website uses the intriguing quote, “In the heart of every crime, there’s a family, someone you love.” Most readers would not link crime and love, so can you expand on that a bit for us?
I’ll go back to the experiences I had while living on prison grounds, (and I’ll qualify this a bit by saying it was a first offender facility and a temporary home to mostly young offenders). I met a lot of the parents of the inmates. They were regular people who were devastated by what their sons had done. They had raised this boy, loved him his whole life. How were they going to love him now? Or forgive him? Was it even possible or right that they should? Or should they turn their backs and walk away? I would have been hard pressed not to have compassion for them. In a sense they were victims too. So that led me to see that crime doesn’t limit itself in its terrible effects. Whether you’re talking the victim or the perpetrator, a family is involved, grandparents, parents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles. All that love, all that calamity and collateral damage. Where do people, families, go from this dark place?
The cover of EVIDENCE OF LIFE, a woman’s face behind bare tree branches is very evocative. How does the cover reflect the plot or main character?
I love the cover! It’s very suggestive of the mystery at the heart of the story. The main character might be peering out from the tangled secrets that are exposed in the aftermath of a natural disaster, when the floodwater recedes. Will she withstand knowing the truth in the event she can even unravel it?
Can you tell us a bit about your working world? Do you plan ahead or does your book grow as it goes? How much do you revise? When do you use another reader? And time management?
I’m definitely a “write by the seat of her pants” writer! I seldom plan. I wish I could because it seems more orderly, and I think it would save time if I could stick to an outline. I’ve tried working that way, but nothing ignites my imagination more than to uncover the story as I go along. It means a lot of detours and writing myself into nowhere. I can work days on a scene only to scrap it, so, I end up revising a lot. The process for me is very organic. I really want to know the characters, and I feel that takes a good deal of writing, while I learn who they are, that doesn’t get included. I keep what I label an “Outtake” file and store all the deletions in it in case I might want them later. I work every day, four to six hours, usually. More if it’s called for, occasionally as many as ten or twelve, if I’m caught up. And I do have other readers. I have a remarkable critique group, that meets regularly to vet each other’s work, and then I also have one or two people who are not writers, but who are avid readers, and they’re wonderful as they will offer to read the finished manuscript the way they would read a purchased novel off the shelf. I don’t think I could ever manage all alone. Writing down the story, initially, is solitary, but in the end for me, it does take a village!
To learn more about Barbara, please visit her website.