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Friday, February 22, 2008

Author Sandra Parshall ~ Interviewed

Sandra Parshall is the author of The Heat of the Moon, which won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel of 2006, and Disturbing the Dead, published to favorable reviews in 2007. A former reporter on newspapers in her home state of South Carolina as well as West Virginia and Baltimore, MD, she now lives in the Washington, DC, area with her journalist husband and two cats. Visit her web site and her blog.

What is your current project? Tell us about it.

I recently finished a suspense novel with new characters. The book is told from two viewpoints, but the central character is the daughter of Vietnam-era radicals who went underground 35 years ago, with murder charges hanging over them. Now they’ve decided to resurface… and people start dying. I hope to have some good news about this book to share soon. I’ve had the idea for quite a while – I came of age in the Vietnam era, and the radicals were my contemporaries, but I began to wonder what it would be like to be the child of two infamous war protesters and how I could tell her story in the context of a suspense novel.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head?

I’ve been writing stories and living in my imagination since I was a child. I started trying, without success, to get my writing published when I was a teenager. I have several unsold novels stacked on a shelf. The Heat of the Moon was rejected by New York editors, although two loved it enough to want to publish it. For different reasons, neither bought it.) I gave up on it and went on to write other things.

Eventually, at the urging of two friends who loved THOTM, I submitted it to Poisoned Pen Press. It was so different from anything they’d ever published that I was certain they would reject it – so certain that I more or less forgot they had it. After 16 months, I returned home from doing errands one day and found a message from Rob Rosenwald, the PPP publisher, telling me they wanted to publish my book and asking me to call him. It seemed completely unreal. The Heat of the Moon was published exactly as I wrote it – the same book no one in New York would buy – and went on to win an Agatha Award.

I owe a huge debt to Barbara Peters, my editor at PPP, for giving me a chance to have a writing career.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

I have constant doubts. I am never confident that I can finish a book anyone will want to read. All those years of writing without success have left a deep mark that publication hasn’t erased.

I don’t have writer’s block, though, because I concentrate on the moment, on the scene or chapter I’m writing today, and I try not to let any worries about marketing derail me while I’m creating the story. The actual writing is a refuge from all the anxieties surrounding the effort to sell the finished book. I’m usually able to write regardless of what else is going on.

I was writing on 9/11, and every day in the weeks afterward. When I stopped writing, the horror of what had happened overwhelmed me. Writing was an escape.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

I wish I’d found a critique group earlier. I’m sure my writing would have improved more quickly and I wouldn’t have spent so many years making the same mistakes again and again. Some people say they can’t work with critiquers, but I can’t get along without that feedback. I also wish I had developed an interest in mystery/suspense earlier, because I know now that this is what I was meant to write.

What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?

I believe the advice to “write what you know” has been responsible for billions of words of self-indulgent, unpublishable writing. We need to get outside our own heads and our own narrow range of experience if we want to write for a broad audience. We should write about what fascinates us, and if we start out knowing next to nothing about it, there’s a process that will expand our knowledge. It’s called research.

The best advice is what you’ll hear from most writers: READ. An appalling number of people never read a book, and even some aspiring writers read very little. Yet reading a novel will teach you more about writing than any how-to book.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

The world around me. If a writer can’t look around and see more potential stories than she’ll ever have time to write, she’s simply not paying attention. Through newspapers and magazines, television and the internet, we can see more of the world than ever before, but our own families and communities can also be rich sources of story ideas. I would never slavishly try to duplicate an actual event, though. Reality is merely the starting point. Imagination takes care of the rest.

Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.

To tell you the truth, I don’t pay much attention to other people’s reactions when I’m talking about crime. My husband and I sit in restaurants debating the best way to kidnap and/or murder somebody, and I’m sure we draw some stares, but hey, if people are going to eavesdrop, they should be prepared to hear almost anything.

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?

I’ve considered quitting many times. If you spend a long time trying to get published without succeeding, you will inevitably begin to feel you’re wasting your life. An especially hard blow was being dropped by an agent I liked very much and wanted to stay with.

What are a few of your favorite books?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine, Mortal Memory and Breakheart Hill by Thomas H. Cook, Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass by Isak Dinesen, Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?

I’m proud of The Heat of the Moon because I was able to get inside the main character’s head and heart more completely than I’d done in any previous writing.

Dean Koontz recently shared his take on the concept on “the writer’s sacred duty.” What comes to your mind at the mention of “the writer’s sacred duty?”

You want the truth? I think it’s more than a little pretentious. Nonfiction writers have a duty to tell the truth, but a novelist’s only duty is to entertain the reader. If your story also moves people, gives them a new insight, and changes them in some small way, that’s a bonus. If all a novelist does is entertain, she has fulfilled her duty.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

The same one most writers would name – the slowness of it all. Finding an agent will take months, at a minimum, and often takes years. Submissions to publishers can go on for months. Sell a book, and you’ll have another wait for your contract, then your advance check, then your editor’s revision notes. During all this waiting, you have to keep moving forward, writing the next book and the next. Never slow down.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

I’d like to stay published! That’s not easy. Many good writers with solid but not spectacular fan bases are being dropped by their publishers. If I’m still publishing novels five years from now, I’ll be satisfied.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

I enjoy the writing itself. I love fan mail (it’s all e-mail these days) from readers who have enjoyed my books. I love knowing my books are in libraries, because libraries were so important to me when I was growing up. I don’t enjoy most aspects of promotion, although I do have fun talking to readers and other writers at events. I’m not a good traveler and would never go near an airplane if I didn’t have to.

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

Pacing is still my biggest worry. Plotting isn’t easy for me either, and that’s one reason I prefer to write suspense rather than straight mysteries. Plotting Disturbing the Dead, making sure every piece of the puzzle was in place, just about killed me. Writing a mystery is hard work! Suspense has to be plotted too, of course, but it’s a lot more fun. The pacing has to be right, though, or a suspense novel won’t work at all.

How did I overcome this difficulty? I’m not sure I have, but all I can do is pay attention to the rhythm of the story, be aware of when I need to slow down and speed up, and listen to feedback from critiquers.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

Before I actually start writing, I’ll make a lot of notes about the story and the characters. At some point I’ll feel an overwhelming urge to get on with it, and I’ll start a new book file and begin writing.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

I’m lucky enough to have a room of my own for writing. Although I sometimes jot things down in longhand when I’m elsewhere, the desk in my study is where I write. I don’t set a word count goal for each day. First drafts go very fast. Second drafts, which I enjoy the most, take as long as they take. I might revise a whole chapter in one day or I might work on a single page. I never have any trouble getting back to the book, so I don’t have to trick myself into it, but if I’m trying to create a certain mood I will read passages from favorite books that capture that mood. What I need most of all is peace and quiet. I want to be left alone to write.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

Combination. I always know how a book will start and how it will end, and those two things don’t change. I try to outline as much as I can, but I can’t outline a whole book in advance because I don’t really know the characters and story until I actually write them.

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

The first draft is always a mess – unfit for human consumption. But it gives me a chance to get to know the characters and develop the plot. It gives me a nice lump of story that I can knead into shape in the second draft. I have to watch out for long stretches without enough action or suspense, and I have to make sure I’m getting the characters’ thoughts and emotions and physical reactions onto the page.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response? Please share.

I’ve received some wonderful responses to The Heat of the Moon from women who have their own difficulties with mothers and sisters. One woman told me that my book helped her understand and accept her mother and sister. That was extraordinary praise. I can only hope her family life wasn’t quite as dire as that of the Goddards!

Have you had a particularly memorable peer honor? Please share.

Winning the Agatha Award was unforgettable. I was stunned to be nominated, and had no expectation of winning. Going up on the stage to accept the award was a surreal experience. It was also a thrill to be on the Best First Novel nominees panel at Malice Domestic and to hear Margaret Maron, the moderator, read aloud a passage from The Heat of the Moon.

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

I’ve been to Malice Domestic (which takes place in Northern Virginia, where I live), Bouchercon, Deadly Ink, a book festival in Kentucky, the post-Malice Mystery Festival in Oakmont, PA. I’ve done radio interviews, appeared at bookstores and libraries, and in late March this year I’ll be on the program at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. I have a web site and a blog, I’ve had bookmarks printed – the usual indispensable marketing efforts.

Appearing at bookstores and libraries can mean a lot of book sales or almost none, and there’s no way to guarantee a return for your effort. These events are worthwhile, though, because you get to know the booksellers and library staff, and the booksellers will keep signed copies of your book in stock after your appearance. My bookstore signings and radio interviews were set up by Breakthrough Promotions, which saved me a lot of time and frustration. Anyone who can afford to hire a publicist should make the investment, at least for the first book.

Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?

I’m not a fount of wisdom on any topic, but I would advise aspiring writers to learn as much as they can about the current state of publishing and be realistic about the time and effort it takes to sell a book. They should look at what’s being published and ask themselves whether their writing is professional enough yet to compete in a very tough market.

To readers, I would say: If you enjoy a book, let the writer know! You have no idea how much your praise means, and your e-mail might arrive at the very time the writer’s spirits and self-confidence need a boost.


  1. Kelly, thanks so much for inviting me. I'm usually the one doing the interviewing for my own blog, and it was fun to be on the other end for a change.

  2. Great interview, ladies! I've learned things about Sandy I hadn't discovered on Poe's Deadly Daughters. Thanks!


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