By L.J. Sellers
She’s been highly praised by bestselling author Tony Hillerman, but C.C. Harrison writes her own brand of compelling Southwest suspense. Her first release, The Charmstone, won the 2008 Golden Quill, and her second book, Running From Strangers, drew high praise from bestselling author Lisa Unger.
In Harrison’s new thriller, Picture of Lies, investigative journalist Keegan Thomas lives a nightmare of guilt and grief after her daughter was kidnapped right in front of her. On assignment, Keegan travels to Monument Valley on the Navajo Indian Reservation, seeking the people in an old photograph found in her grandfather’s belongings after his death.
The Indians do not welcome the prying stranger carrying a picture of their old ones, some of them dead, but eventually Keegan learns one of the children in the photograph was kidnapped by missionaries and taken to boarding school. What follows is a web of deception that stretches back fifty years, and the truth Keegan learns about her own family is the most shocking betrayal of all.
The author shares more about the story and her writing career.
You live in and write about the Southwest, has it always been your home?
No. I was born and raised in Michigan, but even as a child I craved the mountains and the West. As soon as I was old enough, I took off. Most of my adult life has been spent in Colorado—Golden, Winter Park, Keystone, Dillon, Breckenridge, Keystone, Cortez, Durango —and these past several years in Arizona.
In Picture of Lies, your protagonist is a journalist. Is that your background as well?
I knew I wanted to be a writer from the day my mother took me by the hand and walked me to the library for the first time. When I turned the last page of that first book—it was called Val, a Dog—I thought to myself, I can do that. I think I was five or six years old. So, yes, there were early years of journalism and nonfiction magazine writing, but I always wanted to write novels. As a child, I was an avid reader, reading ALL the time, never without a book in my hand. My mother would have to tell me to go outside and play. I often took my book with me.
How long have you been writing fiction?
My first book, The Charmstone, came out in 2005. I’m working on a sixth now called The Missing Girl.
Tell us about some of the events in the story that were inspired by your experiences and the stories you heard while living in Monument Valley.
I lived in Monument Valley on the Navajo Indian Reservation as a VISTA volunteer after I left the corporate world. In Picture of Lies, the story line involves a child who was kidnapped by missionaries and never returned. This really happened. While I was living there, a Navajo man who had been kidnapped by missionaries when he was a baby was found to be living in Farmington, New Mexico, and was reunited with his real family in Monument Valley. There was a huge celebration on the reservation.
In The Charmstone, there were incidents of antiquity theft, which is a very serious problem on the reservation today. The character of Amanda Bell was inspired by one of my fabulous VISTA mates. In that same book, I described N’da’hoo’ah, which is a high school program on the reservation that combines old and new learning. Navajo students design rug patterns on the computer, then the Navajo elders weave those designs into their rugs. The program was developed and is run by my friend Don Mose. And by the way, it’s Don’s beautiful silver and turquoise watch that the hero of that book is wearing.
Your protagonist has a lot of important backstory—her own kidnapped child and her work to keep missing children in the public eye—how did you work all that into the story and maintain the pace?
I don’t know how I did it, but it was hard. Even so, I’m going to carry that backstory through two more books.
You recently blogged about the level of realism in stories. How do you decide when to stick to the exact facts and when to fudge a little to make the story work?
My guiding principle when it comes to reality/realism in my books is some advice I was given by a NYT bestselling author. She said what happens in a story doesn’t have to be real, it just has to seem real. Real events are seldom interesting enough to write about. So, yes, always fudge a little to make the story work. However, I do try to get the guns, explosives, and law enforcement stuff right.
Does Picture of Lies have a theme or message you’d like readers to come away with?
No, I don’t start out with a theme in mind, but I have found that most of my stories end up with someone caring for a child who isn’t theirs.
I guess there is one thing I keep in mind, and that is, I try to develop strong, independent female characters. By that I don’t mean Lara Croft kick-ass type women, but courageous women who are physically and emotionally strong.
I loved all the fictional heroines of those wonderful gothic novels written by Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, Nora Lofts, and Phyllis Whitney. When the women in those stories heard creepy noises and thumpy bumps in the attic, did they slam the door and run away? NO! They went up that creaky staircase to check it out. Some people call that TSTL, too stupid to live, but I thought then and I think now, it took guts to do that. To me, courage is being afraid, but doing it anyway.
I also try not to have my story women fall completely apart when faced with danger or any of life’s disappointments. I make sure they find a way to pick themselves up and keep on truckin’ to save themselves and others. I think it’s important that the girls and young women who read our books today see that.
You’ve had terrific reviews from Booklist and RT Reviews, even a great blurb from bestselling Lisa Unger. Do you do a lot of the work in garnering these reviews? How much time do you spend promoting?
I do book signings and writing workshops. For my upcoming release, Picture of Lies, I’ll be doing a blog tour for the first time. I order a huge supply of bookmarks and pass them out by the handful. But that’s all. I don’t do Facebook or any social media. It would take time away from my writing. And I don’t get Twitter at all. I mean, what is that about? My Tweets would be quite boring—I’m writing today, I’m writing today, I’m writing today. And I can’t think of anyone I’d want to follow in that way.
I have a blog and website, but both are in need of attention. I used to have a publicist, but she disappeared with some of my money. I’ve had two website designers who did the same thing, so I don’t pay in advance for anything writing-related anymore. I should probably do much more promo than I do, but I’d rather be writing.
You write under Christy Hubbard and C.C. Harrison, even though the genres seem similar. Why both names and is it working for you?
Actually, the genres are quite different. My C.C. Harrison books are crime fiction. The Christy Hubbard book, Sage Cane’s House of Grace and Favor, was an Old West historical, though I couldn’t stop myself from putting some crime in it. I’d love to write more Old West historicals, but the market for them is pretty small these days (or so they say.) That’s too bad, because I have quite a few story ideas in that genre I’d like to develop. The Sage Cane book practically poured out of my head, like the story was channeled to me. I think I may have lived a previous life in an old mining town.
Both my writing names are pseudonyms. I decided to use a pseudonym because I didn’t want my real name all over the Internet. Also, I didn’t want my real name signature on thousands of books out in circulation.
I noticed you blogged about a book called Cemetery Trees, but I don’t see it on your website. Do you have unpublished manuscripts and have you considered self-publishing them?
Cemetery Trees is a Michigan mystery. It’s finished, but I put it aside for a little while because I want to jazz up the opening pages. But my work-in-progress, The Missing Girl, was demanding to be written, so I started that.
The Missing Girl is a follow up to my new book Picture of Lies. It continues the story of investigative journalist Keegan Thomas who specializes in stories about missing children. Through her organization, K.I.D. Rescue, she works with families of missing children helping them cope and search for their child. At the same time, she continues the search for her own kidnapped child. And, no, I’ve never considered self-publishing.
Author C.C. Harrison has won national recognition with her suspense novels. THE CHARMSTONE was voted 2008 Golden Quill’s Best Romantic Suspense and Best First Book, and was a Colorado Award of Excellence finalist. Tony Hillerman called it “a valuable book.” Her award winning mystery RUNNING FROM STRANGERS was a 2009 National Readers Choice finalist. SAGE CANE’S HOUSE OF GRACE AND FAVOR (written as Christy Hubbard) was honored at Aspen Institute’s Summer Words Literary Festival as a 2010 Colorado Humanities Book Award finalist. When she’s not writing, reading or working out at the gym, she can be found in the mountains of Colorado or some far-flung corner of the Southwest.
To learn more about C.C. Harrison, please visit her website.