Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A New Voice: C.C. Harrison

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

C.C. Harrison’s first novel, The Charmstone, was published in 2007 to rave
reviews. Set in the desert southwest, the book was praised by Tony Hillerman for its “insider’s view of the Navajo culture.” C.C. is the author of hundreds of articles and short stories but is now living her dream of being a published novelist. She makes her home in Arizona.

Q. Writers use pseudonyms for many reasons. Would you mind telling us why you chose not to use your real name for fiction writing?

A. I decided to use a pseudonym because I didn’t want my real name all over the Internet, and my reason for that would make a good plot for a suspense novel
(which I will write some day). But it’s nearly impossible to remain anonymous in this day and age, and within a month of my book’s release, a writer friend mentioned me in her blog using my real name as well as my writing name. There were some consequences as a result of that which, so far, and happily, were minor and quickly resolved. But C. C. Harrison is a registered legal trade name and I think it looks great on a book cover.

The down side of using a pseudonym is that friends and family don’t know what to call you. My daughter now introduces me as C. C. Harrison.

Q. Romantic suspense is perennially popular, drawing readers of both
mystery and romance. Did commercial prospects play a role in your choice to write in this subgenre, or are you simply writing what you love to read?

A. Basically, I’m writing what I love to read. When I was young, I loved the early romance novels full of mystery and intrigue by Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, Norah Lofts, Mary Stewart. By the time I began writing my first novel, that style of romance was long, long out of fashion. But I’m greatly influenced by them, and by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Today, the female leads in those books are seen as weepy, wimpy and naïve, but I saw them as courageous. Courage is being afraid but doing it anyway. In every story, the heroine was thrown into unfamiliar circumstances to face mysterious and unpredictable events that were out of her control, but she always found a way to survive. And isn’t that what romantic suspense is today? Despite Scarlett O’Hara’s flaws and weaknesses in some areas of her life, I thought she was a kick-butt, take-charge survivor.

Q. You teach a workshop titled “Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?” Which are you? How did The Charmstone develop?

A. Oh, I’m a plotter, compulsively so! I need to know where I’m going. I don’t even leave my house without a map, and if I’m going over 100 miles, I need a Triptik!

Seriously, I’ve always been interested in the process of writing a book, how novelists actually did it. I’d been widely published in nonfiction, but that was easy. I just took information someone gave me, did a little more research, and wrote an article. Fiction was something else. I truly thought there was only ONE way to write a novel, and I needed to find out what that one way was. I’m embarrassed to admit that misperception blocked me for a long time. At the time, I didn’t have any writer friends, didn’t belong to any writers groups, so had no one to ask. Joining an RWA chapter opened up a whole new world when I learned that every author had a different way of putting a book together, and that they pretty much made up their own process.

My workshop on Plotters or Pantsers is geared to beginning and early career writers who may be struggling with finding a process that works for them. I talk about the many different ways published authors actually put a book together. It’s about process, not technique.

The Charmstone developed out of my experiences living in Monument Valley on the Navajo Indian Reservation as a VISTA (now called AmeriCorps) volunteer. That was truly a life-changing experience for me, and the characters and plot just sort of came together. I knew a week after I arrived on the reservation that I was going to write a book set there and pretty much what the main plot points would be. I didn’t begin the actual writing until some time later, when my assignment was over. After I left the reservation, I worked on an archaeological dig at an ancient Anasazi site (which gave me more plot ideas), bought a house in the Four Corners area and lived there for a few years. During that time I drafted three novels, one of which was The Charmstone.

Q. Was The Charmstone the first novel you attempted? How long did it take you to write it, from idea to finished book? Would you tell us about your road to publication, once you had a completed manuscript?

A. The Charmstone was my first novel. (Okay, I’ll admit I do have one in the closet that hasn’t seen the light of day, but I plan to resurrect it at some point.) The road to publication for The Charmstone was quite circuitous involving multiple lost or misplaced submissions, a change of acquiring editors, you know, the usual. But it all worked out for the best in the end because I used the time when nothing seemed to be happening to tweak it into a better book, and outline or draft two others. Life is what you make of it and things always happen in their own time.

Q. Will you continue to use Navajo characters in your books? How have your Navajo friends reacted to your portrayal of reservation life in The Charmstone?

A. My second book, Running from Strangers, due out in September 2008 from Five Star, doesn’t have Navajo characters, but the story is set in Durango, Colorado which is in the Four Corners area just off The Rez. It’s the story of a child advocate who finds herself on a run for her life with a child in her care.

My work in progress, working title Navajo Girl Gone, takes the reader back to the Navajo Reservation with heroine Keegan Thomas as she searches for people in a fifty-year-old photograph, one of them a child who she’s told was kidnapped by missionaries and never returned. In the book, she meets a lot of resistance from the Navajos for poking around in the past. They tell her that people who dig up the past end up digging their own grave.

However, in reality, the Navajos are at heart very hospitable people. When I first went to the reservation as a VISTA volunteer, I think they were a bit leery of me, because historically, the intent of some of the white people who came to the reservation was to exploit the Indians despite their promises of help. In the end, I made some wonderful friendships that have survived over time, and I go back to Monument Valley often. And, yes, my book has been very well received there; at least I haven’t heard any complaints so I guess I got it right. My biggest fear was not getting the culture and history correct.

Q. What advice would you offer to other authors who want to write about cultures not their own?

A. I think it’s very difficult for authors to write about a culture not their own, and the only way they can do it and get it right is to live it. I could never have written about life on the Navajo Reservation if I hadn’t actually lived there and interacted with people on a daily basis. Even so, I have to spend a lot of time on research.

Q. Your second book was inspired by your experiences as a CASA (court-appointed special advocate) in the child welfare system. To an onlooker, this kind of work looks emotionally draining. Is it also rewarding? What have you learned from working with underprivileged and abused children? Have you seen many positive results of your work?

A. For me, being a child advocate was extremely emotionally draining. I had to limit the kinds of cases I worked on. I wouldn’t take any case that involved child sexual abuse of any kind. What did I learn by working in the child welfare system? Nothing good. It’s shocking and unbelievable what people do to their children. Looking back, I guess I could say there were a few moments of joy and reward, but only a few. Lack of money, staff, and effective management are huge problems in most child welfare systems.

Q. Has being a published novelist changed your life? Did you know what to expect, or have you had some surprises (good and bad) along the way?

A. No surprises, not really. It’s pretty much what I expected. The biggest change it’s made in my life is I can’t go to the supermarket in sweats and grubbies anymore. I have to dress halfway decent because people in my community now know who I am and recognize me from signings and seeing my picture in the paper. Basically, I’m living the kind of life I’d always hoped to live -- a published author, living alone, secluded, surrounded by my books and papers, writing more novels.

Q. Do you think you’ll write a series in the future, or do you have more fun with stand-alone novels?

A. Every book I write I think I want to be part of a series because I fall in love with all my characters and don’t want to let them go. So far, instead of writing a true series, I try to bring a few characters from previous books into my new books. In the book I’m working on now, I brought in at least one character from Running from Strangers. The next book after that will be set on the Navajo Reservation and I plan to bring in several characters from The Charmstone.

Q. Do you plan to attend any mystery conferences in 2008 where readers can meet you?

A. I don’t have as much time for conferences anymore, but I will be at the Desert Rose RWA Desert Dreams Conference in Phoenix on April 4-6, 2008, and also RWA National in July. So please, everyone, I’m very approachable. It’s okay to stop me to say hello. Also, check out my website at and read my blog for news and updates.

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