1. How do you get your inspiration
Usually, a what-if question: what if a boy left standing after a botched suicide pact was accused of murder? What if a little girl developed an imaginary friend who turned out to be God? What if an attorney didn't think that the legal system was quite good enough for her own child? I start by mulling a question and before I know it, a whole drama is unfolding in my head. Often, an idea sticks before I know what I'm going to do with it. For Mercy, I researched Scottish clans without having a clue why this was going to be important to the book. It was only after I learned about them that I realized I was writing a novel about the loyalty we bear to people we love. Sometimes ideas change in the middle. The Pact was not a page-turner when I conceived it. I was going to write a character driven book about the female survivor of a suicide pact, and I went to the local police chief to do some preliminary research. “Huh,” he said, “it’s the girl who survives? Because if it was the boy, who was physically larger, he’d automatically be suspected of murder until cleared by the evidence.” Well, I nearly fell out of my seat. “Really?” I asked, and the character of Chris began to take shape. Sometimes I write books because other people make the suggestion: Plain Truth came about when my mother said I ought to explore the reclusive Amish. "If anyone can learn about them,” she said, “it’s you.” And sometimes, ideas grow out of the ones I’m researching. That happened with My Sister's Keeper - information I learned while researching Second Glance so fascinating to me that I stuck it into its own file and turned it into a story all its own.
2. What is your writing routine
I don’t work on weekends, usually (although I have been known to sneak up to an office when I’m in the middle of a chapter - I hate leaving my characters hanging!) But other than that, I’m a workaholic. I will start a new book the day after finishing a previous one. What you need to remember, however, is that there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than writing. My kids know that I need it like some people need medication - as a preventative, because when I don’t write for a few days, I get predictably cranky. They’ve become used to sharing me with people who don’t really exist, but who are incredibly real to ME while I’m telling their stories.
3. How do you do your research?
Meticulously. I hate catching authors in inaccuracies when I’m a reader, so I’m a stickler when I’m writing. At this point, I have several folks on call for me during a book - a few lawyers, a couple of psychiatrists, some doctors, a pathologist, a DNA scientist, a handful of detectives. When I start researching, I read everything I can about a topic. Then I meet with an “expert”. Some things are harder to find out about than others - getting the head of launch operations at NASA to fit me into his schedule, for example; or making a series of connections that landed me in the home of an Amish farmer for a week. These are some of the things I’ve done in the name of research: Watched Sly Stallone on a movie set (for Picture Perfect); observed cardiac surgery (Harvesting the Heart); gone to jail for the day (The Pact); milked cows on an Amish dairy farm (Plain Truth); learned Wiccan love spells and DNA testing procedures (Salem Falls); explored bone marrow transplants (Perfect Match); gone ghost hunting (Second Glance). For Vanishing Acts, I spent time in a hardcore Arizona jail, and met with both detention officers and inmates (learning, among other things, how to make my own zip gun and the recipe for crystal meth); and went to the Hopi reservation to attend their private katsina dances. For The Tenth Circle, I trekked to the Alaskan tundra to visit a remote Eskimo village and to follow a dogsled race on a snowmobile – in January, when it was -38 degrees Fahrenheit. For LONE WOLF, I spent time with a man who lived in the wild with a wolf pack for a year – and got to meet some other wolves he has in captivity. For my upcoming novel, THE STORYTELLER, I spoke with the real-life head of the department of justice division that tracks down Nazi war criminals.
4. Are there topics you particularly like to write about?
Hang on while I get on my soapbox. I hate being pigeonholed. I have always been called a women’s author, but 49% of my fan mail comes from male fans, and I think you can legitimately label my novels as legal thrillers, mysteries, romances, or plain old fiction. I think you can consider my books literary, because they make you think, or commercial, because they are a compelling read. Marketing departments like to label authors with just one tag, so that they know how to promote a book, but I think the best books straddle genres and attract a variety of readers. I’d like to think this is one reason my books appeal to people - because I give them something different every time
5. Can you offer some tips for a writer starting out
Write, every day. Even if it’s just for 20 minutes. Don’t answer the phone, don’t talk to your mother, etc. Take a workshop writing course, so you learn to give and get criticism and be your own best editor. And when you reach the point where you think your story is truly the worst piece of garbage created and want to throw it out…don’t. What you’re REALLY afraid of is finishing and finding out you’re not as good as you assumed you are. Instead, you should finish that story and edit it until it is flawless, and something you’re satisfied with. Otherwise, you’ll never believe you can actually finish any piece of fiction. And read. A ton. It will inspire you to be just as clever, prolific, and eye-opening as the authors you admire.
Many people have a novel inside them, but most don't bother to get it out. Writing is grunt work - you need to have self-motivation, perseverance, and faith… talent is the smallest part of it (one need only read some of the titles on the NYT Bestseller list to see that… :) If you don't believe in yourself, and you don't have the fortitude to make that dream happen, why should the hotshots in the publishing world take a chance on you? I don't believe that you need an MFA to be a writer, but I do think you need to take some good workshops. These are often offered through writer's groups or community colleges. You need to learn to write on demand, and to get critiqued without flinching. When someone can rip your work to shreds without it feeling as though your arm has been hacked off, you're ready to send your novel off to an agent. There's no magic way to get one of those - it took me longer to find my wonderful agent than it did to get published! I suggest the Literary Marketplace, or another library reference material. Keep sending out your work and don't get discouraged when it comes back from an agent - just send it out to a different one. Attend signings/lectures by authors, and in your free time, read read read. All of this will make you a better writer. And – here’s a critical part – when you finally start to write something, do not let yourself stop…even when you are convinced it’s the worst garbage ever. This is the biggest caveat for beginning writers. Instead, force yourself to finish what you began, and THEN go back and edit it. If you keep scrapping your beginnings, however, you’ll never know if you can reach an end.
6. What are you working on right now?
BETWEEN THE LINES – the tween/YA novel I wrote with my daughter Samantha van Leer, will be published in June 2012. It was her idea, and frankly, she's got a better imagination than I ever did at her age. It's about what happens when happily ever after…isn't. Delilah, a loner hates school as much as she loves books—one book in particular. In fact if anyone knew how many times she has read and reread the sweet little fairy tale she found in the library, especially her cooler than cool classmates, she’d be sent to social Siberia . . . forever. To Delilah, though, this fairy tale is more than just words on the page. Sure, there’s a handsome (well, okay, incredibly handsome) prince, and a castle, and an evil villain, but it feels as if there’s something deeper going on. And one day, Delilah finds out there is. Turns out, this Prince Charming is not just a one-dimensional character in a book. He's real, and a certain fifteen-year-old loner has caught his eye. But they’re from two different worlds, and how can it ever possibly work?
It's an absolutely STUNNING book - with the coolest illustrations that remind of Arthur Rackham's work from the turn of the century and silhouettes that take my breath away -- in other words, it's a book you want to keep on your shelves and just look at because it's so pretty. But it's also sweet, and funny, and charming, and it was a delight to have the experience of writing it with my own daughter! I'm incredibly excited for its publication and we'll be on tour this summer to promote it!
Then in 2013, I’ll return with a new adult novel: THE STORYTELLER. Sage Singer, a young woman who works in a bakery, befriends an old man who's particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses…and then he confesses his darkest secret - he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage's grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who's committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren't the party who was wronged? And most of all - if Sage even considers his request - is it murder, or justice?