Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Laura Benedict says she spent more than 20 years writing, and trying unsuccessfully to sell, novels and short stories “in which nothing happened.” When she decided to take her agent’s advice to explore the darker side in her work, the result was Isabella Moon, a genre-blending novel that sold quickly. Her second published book, Calling Mr. Lonelyhearts, comes out today. Laura lives in Illinois with her writer husband, Pinckney Benedict, and their two children and two dogs.
Q. How would you categorize Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts? Paranormal thriller? Horror? Is it less of a mystery than your first book, Isabella Moon?
A. If I had to pick a single category, I would have to say Horror. Maybe. I never know what sort of book a book is going to be when I first begin writing it, but as I look back at Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts, I see that it does have a lot of horror elements: the supernatural, a monster, good vs. evil, grisly details. Ballantine marketed Isabella Moon as an up-market thriller, though many folks categorized it as a mystery. I never set out to hide much from the reader--there were few "a-ha!" moments. For me it was always about the characters and their very messed-up lives in their strange small town. The three young women in Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts are making trouble for themselves from the very first page, taking on the supernatural willingly--daring it to change their lives. And it does in some terrifying ways.
Q. What was the inspiration for this story?
A. Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts came from so many places. It started out as the story a woman who was suffering from a false pregnancy--but then I realized that it wasn't the pregnancy that was false: it was her lover who was imaginary. (And, in the novel, a whole different character is pregnant!) Around the time I started writing, I saw the Hitchcock film Rear Window for what was probably the 20th time. One of the film's plot lines is about a lonely woman who is so desperate for a lover that she dresses up one evening and pretends that she's entertaining a man in her apartment. She breaks down in tears, of course, as Jimmy Stewart observes her through her window--he feels terribly sorry for her, referring to her as "Miss Lonely Hearts." Later, she goes to a bar, picks up a stranger, and brings him back to her apartment. But he is not her fantasy man, and attacks her. He was her Mr. Lonely Hearts, a villain. The story of Father Romero's destruction also owes a lot to my fascination with Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Q. How did you end up on the dark side? What is it about this kind of story that appeals to you? And do your family and friends ever give you odd looks after reading what you’ve written?
A. Many people have asked me how I can look like such a "nice woman" and write such frightening stories, as though my external appearance has something to do with what goes on in my head. I think they rather expect me to wear Goth clothing, live in a moldy basement that gives me a sickly indoor pallor, and chain-smoke non-filter cigarettes! It's kind of fun to freak people out in that way. But when people hear that my work has supernatural elements, they see me and automatically peg me as a romantic suspense writer. I fear I disappoint in that department, though--as I write, I have to constantly remind myself that EVERY relationship can't be dysfunctional.
I've been drawn to dark fiction and spooky tales of the natural world since my early teens. I started out with Nancy Drew and Bewitched and graduated to Stephen King and Hitchcock (Frenzy was an early favorite, as well as The Birds. There are birds all over Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts). I wrote a lot of bad, depressing poetry as a teenager, too. My affection for such things may have sprung from the fact that I had an appallingly normal childhood. I wanted to know about our creepier neighbors just because I was warned away from them. And what I couldn't know about them, I just made up. It helped, too, that I grew up in the Roman Catholic church, which has the deepest of mysteries at its heart. I've also always been distressed by sentimentality. I can't watch dog movies--particularly films in which a dog dies. (Does the dog in Marley & Me die? I won't take the chance....)
Q. Do you have to do research for your books, or does the paranormal element allow you total freedom?
A. Every writer has total freedom to make things up--it just depends on what kind of risks he or she is willing to take. I don't write fantasy. I spent three hours the other day researching hand and machine sewing techniques for something I needed for a single paragraph. It's important to be precise, but if the story goes off on a technical tangent, it becomes zero fun for the reader. My characters are, for the most part (and it's true for most paranormal stories), real people who must have real jobs and must function in a fairly practical world. It's hard to fudge a scene in a dentist's office or a police station.
Q. When did you start writing with the goal of publication? Was selling the first book easier than you expected, or harder?
A. I started out writing copy, so lots of people saw my work, but didn't know I was attached to it. I was in my mid twenties when I went back to college to take a couple of fiction classes, but it was seven or eight years before I had a story published, and eighteen years before Isabella Moon came out. I call Isabella Moon my third first novel because the first two were practice novels. As a result it was easier than it might have been to sell Isabella Moon: it arrived at several publishers on a Thursday afternoon and we had an offer the following Monday morning.
Q. You’re married to a highly regarded fiction writer, Pinckney Benedict. Does he get involved with your writing in any way – critiquing, helping you with plot problems?
A. Not really. We made an agreement early on not to look at each other's work in progress. We decided it was better to stay married!
Q. Do you write full-time? What is your writing routine?
A. I'm both a full-time writer and a full-time parent. I like to imagine that I get my work done while the children are at school, but I always find myself back at the computer after everyone has gone to bed. When I'm working on a novel I have to set daily page goals. I'm not nearly as disciplined as I need to be. I tend to write in great chunks, barely covering my laundry, housecleaning and cooking chores until I get a novel done. Then I just kind of crash for a while, catching up on my life until it starts all over again.
Q. What is your writing process like? Do you outline before you write? Do you do a full first draft before revising, or rewrite as you go? Do you know the characters fully before you start, or do they develop as you write and perhaps change the direction of the story?
A. I never outline beyond a possible brief synopsis--and that always changes. I let my characters guide me through the story. I want my work to feel organic--that's where the surprises come from. Over-determination kills so many plots. I'm not smart enough to think my way through a clever plot.
I'm not quite as obsessive as someone like Hemingway who read through his novel or story from the beginning everytime he sat down to work. But I do like to go back and revise what I did the previous day just to get me back into the project. When the novel is done, I go back and do a full revision, and then a second if I have time, before I send it to my editor.
Q. What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a writer? What aspects of craft are you still trying to master?
A. Hmm. That's a hard question. Every new project presents new kinds of challenges. I am able to write a little more quickly than I used to. But even after twenty years, I have to say that I'm learning new things every day.
Q. What’s harder for you to write, the beginning of a book or the ending? Why?
A. The endings of my novels and stories never come easily and are always significantly revised in the first few drafts. It's only when I've gone back over the work a few times that I see the arcs in it and can figure out how to end it on the right note. Also, my characters tend to live on in my head after I've finished a book, so there really isn't an end for me.
Q. Do you ever have writer’s block? How do you get through it and jumpstart your writing again?
A. Yes. I just try to accept it, read through it, and then set up a schedule. Reading is a big key.
Q. What writers have inspired you and taught you by example? Whose books are must-reads for you?
A. I go back to Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and Luanne Rice frequently to remind myself of work done well. They all have astonishingly strong work ethics and their examples challenge me to worker harder, write more. Before starting any new novel, I go back and read Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. It's not so much a how-to book, but more a how-she-did-it book. I don't do a lot of genre reading because I have a terrible fear of being imitative. I turn frequently to old and more recent classics: Thomas Hardy, Dashiell Hammett, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy's early work. I read poetry as well.
Q. What’s in the future for you? Will you continue writing stories with a paranormal element, or can you see yourself producing more traditional mysteries at some point?
A. Each project I start dictates its own content--Isabella Moon didn't start out to have a ghost in it. She just showed up. Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts has a demon, but the project I'm working on has neither ghosts nor demons. I suspect that my work will always deal with the darkness in the human psyche. I believe that evil exists--if not as an entity, then as a force capable and desirous (on some level) of perpetuating itself. While I suppose it's not a very far leap from there to the supernatural, I can't predict what I'll come up with next.
Q. What do you know about publishing now that you wish someone had told you before you sold your first book?
A. I wish someone had told me that no one will care about my work and career as much as I do. To just about everyone else, a writer is a producer of a product that may or may not add to a company's bottom line. Of course, very important relationships and friendships also come into play. My agent and husband are both extremely supportive and I've made a number of very good writer friends. We cheer each other on, give and take advice, cry on each others' shoulders and I wouldn't trade them for anything. But, in the end, writers are responsible for their own career experience.
Q. Will you be doing any signings and conferences where readers can meet you?
A. I love to meet readers! Thank you so much for asking. I'll be touring for most of January: Dayton, Cincinnati, Houston, Nashville, St. Louis, Ft. Wayne and Carmel, Indiana are all on the schedule. I'll be in Chicago at The Book Cellar on January 21st as well as at Love Is Murder at the beginning of February. My schedule is on laurabenedict.com, my Notes From the Handbasket blog and booktour.com
Q. In parting, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
A. I've always liked the advice that someone else (I'm not sure who) gave: Read three times as much as you write.
Also, be open to criticism from more experienced writers and teachers. You don't have to take the advice, but definitely consider it. You can't look over the shoulders of your readers to explain things or justify certain choices--the work has to be able to speak (and speak clearly) for itself.