Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Interview with New York Times Bestselling author Heather Graham

What a thrilling way to start spring break! This morning, I was truly delighted to talk to best-selling author Heather Graham, whose new paranormal thriller The Unseen hits bookstores this week.  

MA:  After reading and loving The Unseen, I have to ask, have you ever had a ghost encounter?

HG:  I can’t say I’ve walked down a misty street and run into a ghost. My mother was born in Ireland and they believed in everything.  I grew up around her family and my grandmother watched us. If we were misbehaving, she would threaten us with “The banshee will be getting you in the outhouse!” She did such a good job with it. We were teenagers and we didn’t even have an outhouse, but she could threaten us so well.
But a friend of mine in Florida had an experience. He is this big 6’4 cop in Dade County. He was on the scene of a really horrible accident on I-95. There were ten cars involved and a gas spill, so the main objective was to get the humans out of there.  He got a man out of the front seat of one car and the man was hysterical and begged him to go back and get his daughter. My friend hadn’t seen the little girl, but he dropped the man off with the paramedic and went back and found the terrified little girl hiding under the seats in back of the car.  So he got the little girl out and brought her to the paramedic and asked the paramedic how the father was doing. The paramedic looked at him as if he were crazy and said, “What do you mean? The man was dead on impact. His neck was broken.” I knew this guy really well and he would have scoffed at a story like this before, but this experience really shook him tremendously.  
When it comes to ghosts, we don’t know. No one knows what comes after life.There is nobody out there that can prove anything to me, so I love to think of the possibilities. I take it with a grain of salt and have fun with it.

MA:  When you were a teenager, what did you read?

HG: My parents were immigrants and they brought a lot of books with them. That was the main thing they brought.  Most of it was history—history of Ireland, the British Isles, the Norse invasion.  Lots of non-fiction and history. My mom was also an avid reader of Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, Dorothy Eden, the gothic writers. That probably influenced me a lot. I love Dickens too.

MA: I think it's safe to say you like research. 

HG: I love it! That's a major perk to being a writer.  Research really is a bonus to writing. For The Unseen, I spent a lot of time looking at Texas Rangers and I went out with a friend of mine who is a US. Marshall. I read everything I could find on the Alamo, too. I remember I had been in Texas for a business meeting a while back. The kids were with me for that trip and the babysitter had a problem so I had to run back to the hotel. It was late. On my way there, I went past the Alamo in the middle of the night, when the moon was out and the place was dead quiet. I just stopped there and I don't know how to say it, but you just feel history.

MA:  I totally get that.  What do you read now?

HG:   EVERYTHING. I think a good book is a good book. Genre doesn't really mean anything to me. 

MA:  I love that you have a band called The Slush Pile. Once you started writing, what was your path to publication like? 

HG:  At the time, I didn't know anyone. I knew nothing about publishing. I bought Writer's Digest and The Writer's Market and just started sending things out there. It took me a couple of years. The first things I sold were short horror stories. I couldn't really make any money on those. Then I sold some category romances. I also joined the Romance Writers of America. For someone just starting out now, it is an invaluable resource because groups have more power than the individual. I think writers are the most generous people in the world. They are so giving and they have so many different contacts that you would never have on your own. 

MA: A few years ago, you organized the Writers for New Orleans Conference. Tell us how that started.

HG:  We had just filmed a ghost trailer there when Katrina hit in Florida and Lousiana that same week. I couldn’t wait to get back. I was terrified of what might have happened to the city. I had friends there who said the American people had been wonderful after the storm—not the government...they really screwed them up—but what they really needed to do was get back to work. So I thought we should have a writers conference. It was really for any kind of writers, not just romance or horror. We just wanted people to come and support New Orleans and her writers. I have friends who host parties and we do dinner theatre on Saturday night. It has been a labor of love and it’s really tremendous fun too. We had to change our dates this year, so it might be a little tough since it is in December. But it would make a great Christmas present! 

MA:  Aside from joining organizations like RWA, HWA, and MWA, what advice do you have for writers?

HG: READ, read, read. Of all the people I know who are writing, whether they have degrees out the kazoo or just made it through high school, the one thing they have is that they love to read.  Even as writers, they never forgot to read. So many people will say, "Oh, I'm too busy. I don't have time to read anymore." But if you don't read anymore, you forget why you love writing so much.

Thank you so much, Heather, for taking the time to chat. I am absolutely looking into the Writers for New Orleans Conference and may even bring Ghost Hunk along if we can swing it. In the meantime, I have quite a to-be-read list building.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Gray Matter

Adolescence is a time when what should be and what is come crashing together in a world flooded with swirling hormones and shifting perceptions. That is the challenge of writing books for teenagers. As I look at my characters, I am constantly asking questions like:

  • What does she expect?
  • Why does she expect that?
  • Is it fair?
  • What does that mean?
  • How does she rationalize that?
  • How does it affect her?
  • How does it affect other characters?
  • Why is it different?
  • How would she change it?
  • What difference can she make?
  • Where is the justice?
  • Why is it important?

If the answers are too easy, then I'm not sure I'm doing it right.

I finally figured out that the hardest part of being a teenager for me was the barrage of grayness that came the minute my hormones were launched. No longer were the big questions a simple matter of a black or white answer. Suddenly my moral and social landscape had gone all gray.

In my battle for self-discovery, I was an unarmed civilian stumbling through a dusty minefield of choices. There was no map to me. No schematic with neat little dots marking where all the bombs were buried so I could navigate my way safely to adulthood, which to most teenagers means freedom.

(Who am I kidding? After the hormones kick in, there is no safety, ever. Of course, I didn't realize that until I reached about...40.)

As I read some tween and MG novels to my 11-year-old daughter, I see her perception struggling to hold on to the black and white. Allie Finkle isn't always right, but my daughter is outraged when other characters are so clearly wrong. Her sense of justice is still holding out for the clear answer. But I see the color wheels turning and those answers are a little bit harder to find.

My almost-15-year-old son, on the other hand, crossed that valley quite a while ago. He is painting his social consciousness with a much more nuanced brush and is cautiously stepping into the arena of boy-girl relationships. He has no map. Just a vague destination. But he marches onward with amazing determination. He is one of those rare kids who has decided very early that he and no one else is going to choose who he is.

As I revise my latest WIP, I need to remember to pay attention to the gray matter, to leave some things unanswered, to let my characters choose badly sometimes. Adolescence is not devoid of conviction or even lacking in direction (for some, anyway). Teenagers are not the clueless wanderers so many stereotypes try to portray.  They are just us...at our most human.