Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Alison Gaylin’s first novel, a paperback original titled Hide Your Eyes, was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. After publishing a second PBO, You Kill Me, Alison moves to hardcover with the early September release of Trashed from NAL’s new Obsidian mystery imprint. A journalist covering arts and entertainment, Alison lives in upstate New York with her husband, young daughter and old dog.
Your first two books featured the same main character, but your third book, Trashed, introduces a new lead. Did you feel any trepidation about striking out in a new direction so soon?
A little, but at the same time, I felt like Samantha could use a rest. As my father-in-law said to me, "How much trouble can one poor pre-school teacher possibly get into?" Being an entertainment writer, I've also wanted to do a Hollywood story for a while, and that didn't work for Samantha.
Will Trashed be the start of a new series? Do you plan to return to Samantha?
No, Trashed is a standalone. I definitely would like to get back to Samantha. She's not in the book I'm working on now, but I have an interesting idea for her I'd hopefully like to use after that.
How did you research the Hollywood tabloid world you portray so convincingly? Did you receive help from anyone who works for a tabloid?
Believe it or not, I used my own experience! After I graduated from college and before I went to graduate school, I worked as a reporter for The Star for a little less than a year. This was before Star went glossy, and we did it all -- garbage stealing, infiltrating weddings, funerals, movie sets.... It was quite the adventure, and I always wanted to write about it. My current day job helped me as well. I'm an articles editor at In Touch Weekly. It's definitely classier than The Asteroid (the fictitious tabloid in Trashed). But I still hear all the current gossip, and there are some former tabloid people there with great stories.
Do you think the Edgar nomination has benefited your career?
Definitely. Not many paperback originals are nominated for best first novel, and I'm thinking my publisher was probably just as surprised as me when we heard the news. I think it probably had a lot to do with their moving me to hardcover. I couldn't be more grateful for that nomination.
What drew you to writing crime fiction? How old were you when you decided you wanted to write about murder?
Probably about the fifth grade. I used to love to write humorous short stories with a big twist at the end, usually involving someone getting killed. I wrote plays in college, and murder always found its way into those as well. There's just something about killing people in fiction -- kind of the opposite of a vicarious thrill, if that makes any sense. You write it, and you think, "Yes! Thank God it's only fiction!"
What drew me to writing crime fiction was a fiction workshop I took in New York City about fifteen years ago. I wrote a short story involving a body discovered in an ice chest and my teacher suggested I turn it into a full-length mystery novel. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote for years and finally, it became Hide Your Eyes.
How do people who have known you all your life react to your choice of subject matter?
My mom makes a point of going to my readings and telling everyone that Samantha's mother is not based on her (which is true--she's not). Some of my friends have read my books and sort of raised their eyebrows at me. I guess they didn't know I had it in me. One friend's husband told me he'd never look at me the same way again.
What aspects of your writing have you consciously worked to improve? What aspects give you the most satisfaction?
I work harder on plotting now. I used to write characters, and see where they would take me, and as a result my plots weren't all that compelling. Since I've gotten published, I realize how important a good plot structure is, so I outline and re-outline and re-outline until I think I get it right. The thing that gives me the most satisfaction, though, is still character. There's that point in writing a book when you're spending more time with your characters than you are with most people, and they become real -- your companions. You know things about them that never make it to the page. Someone will say something, and you'll think, "Oh, that sounds like something Simone would say." I really love that.
Do you have critiquers who read and comment on your work before you turn it in to your editor?
If my husband has time, I like him to read it. He's a former screenwriter and amazing with structure. But my editor is really excellent. She's a great person to brainstorm with. Her criticism can be strong, but it's pretty much always right.
How do you divide your time among research, promotion, and writing? Do you attend any mystery conferences? And where does family/personal time fit into all this?
I'm very behind on promoting myself. My website is pathetically outdated, but I'm fixing that as we speak. I don't attend as many of the conferences as I probably should. I try to make it to Bouchercon (though I won't be at Anchorage--it's too expensive) and I'll do almost any appearance I'm asked to do. But I have a day job and a six-year-old daughter and tight deadlines for my books, so any moment I can get for myself is usually spent writing. I like to do research as well, but I have to squeeze it in. For Trashed I went to L.A., and talked to a lot of people (including a homicide detective and a Hollywood club manager with some unbelievable stories...) and spent hours and hours just driving and taking pictures. But that was all done within a three-day period. Then I had to get home and write.
What do you read for pleasure?
It used to be true crime. I've read every Ann Rule book that's ever come out except maybe one or two of the compilations. But now, I'm a true crime judge for the Edgars, so it isn't really "pleasure reading" any more. I like memoirs, literary fiction. Abigail Thomas's book A Three Dog Life comes to mind as a recent memoir that I read and just loved.
Do you study the novels you read to learn how the writers achieved certain effects? What writers have you learned from?
Pretty much everybody. Every crime book I read, I take something valuable from, whether it's Poe, Dostoyevsky, James Cain or somebody new. But probably the ones I've learned the most from are the real page-turners. When I was first figuring out how to plot, I read a lot of Sidney Sheldon. There's something about his pacing that's really addictive.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on another standalone called, appropriately, Next. It takes place partly in New York and partly in a small town in Mexico and features soap stars, dark secrets, and grisly, ritualistic murders.
Visit the author’s web site at www.alisongaylin.com.