In July, Lori Rader-Day will have two published novels in two years. Not bad for someone who didn’t write for what she describes as “five lost years.” Her debut novel, The Black Hour, was nominated for several illustrious mystery awards, including the Mary Higgins Clark Award and the Rosebud Award, among others.
Rader-Day avoided the sophomore slump by beginning her second novel as soon as possible after her first. Her Midwestern childhood (Rader-Day grew up in Indiana and currently lives in Chicago) may have contributed to both her practical approach to writing and her subject matter. An avid reader as a child, she was directed to the adult section by a librarian. She stumbled into the mystery section and, in a sense, never left.
Her second novel, Little Pretty Things, introduces a high school rivalry, small town scandal and gossip, a dead-end job, regrets, and, of course, a murder. Little Pretty Things was released on July 7. Rader-Day launched the publication of her novel with a panel discussion event with Barbara Gregorich, Susanna Calkins, and Sharon Fiffer, all Chicago-area mystery authors, at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square on July 9.
I spoke with Rader-Day about her second novel, giving back to the mystery-writing community, and why she set her book in a small town in Indiana with a protagonist who has a dead-end job.
The Rumpus: Your first novel, The Black Hour, was nominated for several awards, including the Anthony Award, the Rosebud Award, a Barry Award, and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Did you feel any pressure when writing your second novel, Little Pretty Things?
Lori Rader-Day: Did I feel any pressure? Oh, a little.
Honestly, yes. I still feel the pressure, not just to write a good book but to write a book that the readers who liked my first book will also like, on deadline, in less time. When you write your first book, you take as much time as you need, or as much time as it takes to find an agent and/or a publisher. The first book creates expectations and, if you’re lucky, some fans eager to see what else you’ll write. It’s all good news, but it can mess with your word count.
When I sold The Black Hour, I knew that my most important job in the approximate eighteen months I had before it was published was to write another book. Because I started Little Pretty Things immediately, I had a big head start before reviews and award nominations started coming in for The Black Hour. I tried to do the same thing this time around. Writing the next thing works as a distraction no matter which way the reaction goes.
Rumpus: What inspired Little Pretty Things?
Rader-Day: I heard about a mystery series that featured a woman struggling in a terrible job. I thought that sounded amazing. But the character’s first job was in a fancy shop. I work in a clean, shiny office job now, but I have had far worse jobs than working in a fancy dress shop in my life. I’d worked a few short-term factory jobs, worn an awful uniform at a family restaurant with greasy floors. And these are just the things I did for pocket money to get through high school and college. I started thinking about the jobs I might have had to live with if I hadn’t gone to college. Little Pretty Things was born. The motel in the story is based on an old Holiday Inn near my hometown and while the competitive friendship between Juliet Townsend and her old rival is pure fiction, I think readers will recognize the relationship.
Rumpus: You grew up in Indiana. Why did you want to write about your home state?
Rader-Day: I don’t want to offend anyone in publishing, but I’ve read enough books about New York to last me a while. I’ve read some good ones, but that’s not my experience and it’s not the experience of millions of other people, many of them big readers. We all like to find ourselves in the pages of a book. The Black Hour is set in Chicago, where I live now, but I wanted to write about Indiana because not that many writers do. Don’t get me wrong. The Indiana Tourism Board isn’t going to be calling me, because Juliet feels stuck where she is. Juliet’s town isn’t a picture postcard. Lots of places aren’t, and people live there happily, or they want to leave them and never do, or they do and they miss them. There are a lot of stories in a place like Indiana.
Rumpus: Do you think your childhood reading, hitting the adult section in the library, influenced your writing today?
Rader-Day: When I first hit the adult section of my library, I veered directly, by accident, into the mystery room and basically never left. So, yes. I was a fan of mystery and crime books before that, though. My favorite books in the kids’ section were Lois Duncan’s creepy psychological thrillers. I also loved From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, which is a mystery. I read everything as a kid, but I drifted dark early.
Rumpus: Do you reread books? What are some of your favorites that you go back to again and again?
Rader-Day: I’ve read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott six or seven times. It’s very good for writer’s despair plus I just love her voice. I’ve also reread a few fiction favorites like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. I don’t have a lot of time to read these days, but there are certain books I want to reread because I liked them so much the first time, anything Catriona McPherson has written, Tana French, Agatha Christie. Rereading is joyful but of course it’s also instructive. If I’m completely charmed or consumed by something, I want to reread to know how it worked.
Rumpus: You’ve referred to “five lost years” when you didn’t write. Why did you stop writing during that time, and how was your writing different when you started again?
Rader-Day: I quit writing right around the time I moved to a new city, into an apartment with my fiancé (now my husband), living together for the first time after living an hour apart our entire relationship. I also started a new, more demanding job. What should have happened is that once I got a little settled I should have taken out some time to write something, anything. But I didn’t. I let five years go by and the only things I wrote were for work.
It’s easy not to write. It’s hard to make time and it’s easy to let days go by. Writing also requires so much more of you than reruns of The Big Bang Theory, let’s be honest.
I started writing again by taking a one-evening class at StoryStudio Chicago, where I now teach occasionally, by dedicating some time to writing, just to see if it was something I still enjoyed. I used the story I wrote that day to apply to a master of fine arts program in creative writing. I took a couple of years to finish that program, though I don’t think that particular step is necessary for everyone. I developed my discipline that way.
What changed in the writing at first was only that I was finally doing some again, and then it got better because I was doing a great deal of it in a short time period. Not everything I wrote was good or publishable, but I worked through a lot of voices and found my own.
Rumpus: What brought you back to writing? Why do you write?
Rader-Day: That’s an interesting question. I’m not one of those people who will say MY STORY MUST BE TOLD TO THE WORLD. I’m a Midwesterner, for one thing. I really enjoy the craft. When I wasn’t writing, I missed the creative outlet and the identity, really. I had always been a writer. Of course now I understand that all I needed to do to be a writer was write.
Now when I’m away from the keyboard for too many days in a row, I get cranky. Writing is the thing I enjoy doing, the way other people do woodworking, not because they need another bookshelf, but because they want to make one. I’m lucky now that when I write a book, someone wants to read it, but the writing itself still has the same appeal. To make something that didn’t exist before, to make something I can be proud of, and share. I’m not a particularly crafty person, so this is what I have.
Rumpus: You wrote stories earlier in your career, but it sounds like you don’t work on them as often now that you’re writing novels. Do you ever consider returning to short stories?
Rader-Day: Short stories are a good place to start when you’re learning to write because you can finish something, see it all the way through, and get to revision fast, maybe even see it get published fast. Writing stories takes a different muscle than writing novels, though. When I first started trying to write a novel, I was stunned by how many words I could use to get something described or said. I was probably overwriting, big time, since it was my first effort. Now I have trouble trying to write stories because they’re so precise. Every word is so crucial. I miss them. I miss having five or so of them in process, in revision, and out on submission. When you have stories out with magazines, you can approach your email inbox every morning with anticipation. With novels, the good news happens once, when you sell it, and then after that it’s mostly just on you, the author, to get to the computer and finish it. I was born for novels, though. See how long this answer is?
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned creating music playlists for your novels. How does music help you when you’re writing?
Rader-Day: I don’t always write with music, but when I need it—usually to block out other, more annoying noises—I like to have some songs put together that are thematically or tonally right for the project I’m working on. For both books I’ve had a song come along at the very moment I needed it that helped me focus the book’s direction. I know. It sounds weird, but the first time I heard Awolnation’s “Sail,” I knew I would use it to finish writing The Black Hour. I listened to that song on repeat for months as I wrote. There was something in its sound that put me in the right place for that story.
For Little Pretty Things, it was Lorde’s “Team”—the book is about women who used to compete on the track team, for crying out loud—and then “Buzzcut Season,” which has the line “We ride the bus with the knees pulled in,” which is precisely something that I had already written about the two main characters doing, how they tucked themselves into the team bus to share secrets. “I’m the one you tell your fears to. There’ll never be enough of us.” I guess the song captured something about being a young woman that needed to be in my book.
Rumpus: Do you have any other writing rituals?
Rader-Day: I never thought of listening to music while I write to be a ritual, especially since I write in silence and café noise, too.
I try to make writing about putting in the time more than about anything too cultish. The truth is that sometimes writing does feel like magic. Something you planted in a paragraph months before is the exact thing you need two hundred pages later, or your characters do something you didn’t quite predict. It’s really your own imagination making connections, but it feels like the words start to lift off the page and soar. That’s on a good day. On bad days, nothing soars, but if you get the words down anyway, they usually turn out to be better than you thought they were.
So, no rituals. Laptop plus headphones plus tea plus time I’ve chiseled away from everything else.
Rumpus: You are part of several communities of writers like the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. How do these writing communities influence your writing and/or publishing life?
Rader-Day: I love being a part of these groups for the camaraderie and connection. You can be a mystery writer without joining them, but why would you? Some of our best writers have been members. I’m in Mystery Writers of American AND SO WAS RAYMOND CHANDLER. Some of our current mystery-writing greats are members, too. I’m deep into the Midwest Chapter of MWA, and we have Gillian Flynn, Sara Paretsky, and Ben H. Winters, to name a few. It’s just fun to be in the right place.
Other than having something in common with Chandler, these groups really helped get me started. I found my agent through Clare O’Donohue, a fellow member of MWA, and of course all the groups spread the word for you when your book is coming out.
Rumpus: You work full time, are very active in the literary community, teach, AND write. How do you make time for writing?
Rader-Day: It’s not easy. I write during my lunch hours, on weekends, on vacations, some evenings. Some days I don’t write fiction because I have other kinds of deadlines. But I wouldn’t give up the literary community at this point—they helped me get where I am—and I want to pay that forward. And I do try to make time to teach a couple of times a year, just one-off classes in mystery writing, because people seem to want them.
People who have harder or busier lives than I do make time to write. If you write a page a day—250 words, which is nothing!—you’ll have a book in a year. Of course I’ve written my books even more slowly than that. But they’re still books, eventually. I just chip away at it because that’s the way I have to do it.
Rumpus: You wrote on your blog that you set resolutions each year. Any writing resolutions you’re working on in 2015?
Rader-Day: You know, I had to check the list. That doesn’t bode well for me reaching them, does it?
The only one I’ve met so far is to send fifty pages of a new project to my agent. (Note that my goal wasn’t to “sell my next project.” I have no control over that part. But I did. It sold.) I’m still on the hook to write a new short story and finish the draft of my next book. And also read fifty books this year, which is going to be tough.
Rumpus: And, most important, as a Chicagoan, what’s your favorite deep-dish pizza?
Rader-Day: This is not even a contest. Lou Malnati’s, butter crust, pepperoni.