Friday, September 24, 2021

Interview with Wendy Corsi Staub


“Her current standalone suspense novel, THE OTHER FAMILY, is about a picture-perfect family that moves into a picture-perfect house. But not everything is as it seems, and the page-turner concludes ‘with a wallop of a twist,’ according to #1 New York Times bestselling author, Harlan Coben.”

     For over three years, I’ve profiled authors each month who are indie and/or self-published ones like me. I do this, obviously, to elevate awareness in my small way for authors who don’t benefit from a Big Five press kit. However, the renewed pandemic through the Delta variant has once again played havoc on the writers’ conferences that were timidly poised to make a comeback. Wendy was one of those casualties and when she announced she had two launches coming up but regrettably had to cancel her appearance at Bouchercon in New Orleans this year (the entire event folded a day or two after Wendy made her announcement on Facebook), I knew I had to help. I’m making a big exception to my own rule because, Big Five author or no, Wendy’s one of the biggest sweethearts in the publishing business (something I get to say with all sincerity on all too few occasions). So, let’s get this expanded show (figuratively) on the road and hope that we’ll get to enjoy Wendy Corsi Staub’s company a year from now in Minnesota.

20) Wendy, firstly, I’d like to thank you for graciously taking the time for this extended interview. Secondly, let’s get down to brass tacks. You have two launches coming up between now and January. One of them is The Other Family, which will be released by HarperCollins. Could you walk us through the basic gist of the book?

     Thank you so much, Robert, for inviting me to do this. I can’t tell you how touched I was when you reached out. You’re one of the good guys in this challenging business, and I so appreciate your graciousness.

     The Other Family is about the Howell family, who move cross country into a Brooklyn rowhouse that they soon discover was the scene of an unsolved triple homicide. Twenty-five years ago, a mother, father, and teenaged daughter were murdered in their beds. Now Nora Howell and her teenaged daughter Stacey are convinced someone is watching the house, watching them. The book unfolds through three viewpoints—Nora’s, Stacey’s, and that of Jacob, an enigmatic figure who knew the teenaged daughter murdered in the house. But all is not as it seems. When I set out to write this book, I knew I would have to pull off the biggest twist of my career. I hope that I’ve done it!

19) This may be a slightly ridiculous question to ask an author who’s published nearly 100 titles in just 29 years. But has the pandemic affected your output at all?

     There are no ridiculous questions! Our youngest was graduating college in May 2020, so tuition payments were in the past, and my husband was doing well in his longtime career as an advertising sales rep for movie theaters. In March, I was finishing THE BUTCHER’S DAUGHTER,   quite frankly exhausted from writing a complex trilogy, and intending not to begin another novel until fall or winter. It was going to be my year to take a step back and work on a couple of television scripts I’d been writing and working with a couple of producers who’d come close to getting them into production.

     The pandemic changed everything in a matter of weeks. When the film industry ground to a standstill, my husband’s commission-based income evaporated. I wrote a couple of book proposals, sold them to two publishers late last spring and summer, and ultimately wound up with  four novels to write in an 18 month period (still have 1 and ¼ to go). I’m so grateful to be working and as the Zevon song goes, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

     It's been emotionally and physically draining, as it has been on everyone. I adjusted to writing amid some unanticipated household disruptions with a full house again. Our college senior was plucked from his final semester in Ithaca and stuck back home with us, with a degree in television production—another industry that had paused, certainly for job hunters--and our older son now working his advertising career remotely from his childhood bedroom. We were very fortunate in that we and our loved ones stayed healthy and were able to stay afloat.

18) You live in the New York City suburbs and you seem to draw much of your inspiration from that part of New York State. What is it about the city’s suburbs that inspire you to set many of your thrillers there?

     People often move to the suburbs to escape the big, bad city and raise a family in a place that is—or at least, that they perceive to be—safe. Bad things aren’t supposed to happen in idyllic towns, so if—when—something goes terribly wrong, it’s especially terrifying. Picket fences and leafy back yards can hide some shady characters and deep, dark secrets—and in those towns where no one ever locks their doors, well…maybe they should!

17) Let’s talk about the other launch, which will be on December 7th this year, Prose and Cons, the new Lily Dale book. One of your earlier paranormal series took place in Lily Dale then later in your career, you started a new series set in it, only about a decade later. What made you decide to revisit and resurrect the series?

     My readers! Truly, I would have continued writing the first series, which was targeted to young adults and set in the real life town populated by spiritualists who talk to dead people—or so they claim. Due to the changing market a decade ago, the publisher opted not to continue it after four books. I was busy with other things by then and was prepared to let it go, but kept hearing from readers—adults and teens alike—who wanted to know what happened next.

     The new series is a spin-off but is a traditional mystery series, not paranormal or young adult like the first. The heroine, Bella Jordan, is the only skeptic in a town filled with psychic mediums. She uses logic to solve cases, rather than, you know, consult with the murder victim’s soul to find the killer. These books are quirky and populated with eccentric personalities. Some of the well-loved characters from the first series do appear here, with that teenaged heroine Calla now a grown woman. PROSE AND CONS is the fourth title, and centers around a pair of mysterious newcomers and a priceless literary treasure. I’m currently writing the fifth.

16) Out of all your series, my favorite is the Mundy’s Landing trilogy. The Sleeping Beauty Murders, which is central to all three books (especially Blue Moon), was a fictional series of three murders that took place in the summer of 1916. Yet, while fictional, it sounded oddly familiar. Were the Sleeping Beauty series of killings inspired by a real life analog?

     First, thank you. I’m so glad you liked that one. I’m partial to it myself. The inspiration to write about a Victorian-era true crime stemmed from my lifelong fascination with Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, H.H. Holmes, etc.

     In the brainstorming phase, I just loved  the idea of a town that is notorious for unsolved historical murders--like Fall River—and how it would draw all sorts of interesting people, from murder buffs to armchair detectives to—well, no spoilers. That’s how Mundy’s Landing was born—the town that stimulates the local economy by inviting people to visit and try to solve the centuries-old crimes each year on the anniversary.

     The Sleeping Beauty murders popped into my head one morning when I was going past my son’s empty bedroom after he was away at college, and for a moment, I thought I saw someone crumpled in the bed. It made me wonder what would happen if someone woke up one morning to a corpse tucked into a guest room bed—and had no idea who it was or how it had gotten there. And then it happened again, in another house…and again. It was one of the creepiest premises I’ve ever come up with, and that’s really saying something.

15) Bone White, the third entry in the Mundy’s Landing series, was underpinned by a tragic turn of events that took place in the 1660s. How difficult or easy was it for you to do research into 1666 New York?

     I absolutely love to research the past for my work, so the problem wasn’t in any real difficulty, it was more about the time-consuming aspect of doing it while under deadline. I have shelves full of books about the era right here at home, and of course, there’s a trove online. I’d have loved to spend years delving into 1666 New York, but I had to settle with just enough to make the period ring true. The hard part was nailing the language for the series of letters in the book, so I went through countless personal documents that I found online—letters, diaries, etc.

14) Will there be any future installments in the Mundy’s Landing series or is it fated to remain a trilogy? Because you’d seemed to purposely leave quite a few loose threads hanging at the end of Bone White.

     It’s always difficult for me to say goodbye to characters and a setting I’ve dwelled in for several years of my life. In this case, the loose threads were setting up my next trilogy, which again features Detective Stockton Barnes. His storyline is picked up—and tied up—over the course of LITTLE GIRL LOST, DEAD SILENCE, and THE BUTCHER’S DAUGHTER. Because parts of those novels are set in the 1960s and the 1980s, we’ll meet him long before he got to Mundy’s Landing, and learn what happened after he left.

13) While growing up, what were some of the authors you’d read who would go on to inspire or at least inform your own work?

     Laura Ingalls Wilder was certainly the first and one of the most important. I was obsessed with the Little House books long before the television series came along. Beverly Cleary was another. As a reader, I valued losing myself in a fictional world—the prairie, or Klickitat Street--with continuing characters who seemed like old friends. And it was satisfactory that there was always another book so that I could find out what happened next.

     So even then, as a budding writer—the only thing I’d ever wanted to be, from the time I was 9-- I understood the importance of establishing and expanding upon a three-dimensional world, and I sensed that being prolific would be the key to my career.

     After Laura came so many others—just off the top of my head, Judy Blume, Lenora Mattingly Weber, Mary Higgins Clark, Harlan Coben…writers who, when you discovered them, always had a new book around the corner, preferably at the same time every year. That’s the kind of author I set out to become—one who builds a significant body of work and who appreciates and gratifies her readers and who has a reputation among colleagues as being an accountable professional.

12) Since you’re an author juggling a dizzying array of series, is there any chance that, say, two cops from two different series will meet in a crossover?

     Oh, it’s happened! NYPD Missing Persons Detective Stockton Barnes first appeared in my novel THE BLACK WIDOW years ago, and then went on to the Mundy’s Landing trilogy, and got to “star” my Foundlings trilogyLITTLE GIRL LOST, DEAD SILENCE, and THE BUTCHER’S DAUGHTER.

11) Yes, let’s talk about the Foundlings trilogy. First of all, what’s a Foundling?

     A foundling is an abandoned baby or child who is discovered and raised by someone other than the birth parents. And until DNA genealogy, there was virtually no way of uncovering those biological roots.

10) I’d like to think investigative genealogy is an exciting new crime fighting tool that will be intelligently dealt with in future crime fiction. So what made you create investigative genealogist Amelia Crenshaw?

     I come from an enormous Italian-American family. My maternal grandmother was the youngest of thirteen children. Her parents died long before I was born, but she spoke of them often. I was shocked to learn only after her death in 2014 that her father had been a doorstep foundling back in Sicily in the mid-nineteenth century. 

     Around the same time, I had begun tracing our family tree and roots via Ancestry.com. I submitted my own DNA to their database hoping I might be able to uncover my great-grandfather’s roots. That has yet to happen, but somewhere in there, I realized that not everyone searching for their biological past is going to love what they find. As my editor said, Charles Manson had many children who were taken away after his arrest and could ostensibly have grown up not knowing where they came from. That nugget of an idea inspired my trilogy.

     And Amelia Crenshaw—well, I thought it would be interesting if a foundling who grew up futilely searching for her own parents had a career in which she helps others do just that. We follow Amelia back and forth in her life from her abandonment in a Harlem Church in the late 1960s through present day.

9) Walk us through your typical writing day. Do you draft exclusively in notebooks/journals or laptops or is it a mixture of both? Do you set a word goal and, if so, what is it? What’s your happy place when you’re writing?

     I write exclusively on my laptop or desktop. I wish I could write in longhand because it would certainly be convenient to scribble away at every opportunity! But for one thing, I’ve got arthritic hands—boo, middle age! For another, even when I was a kid, I was compelled to use a keyboard—back then, my dad’s vintage typewriter.

     I get up around 4:30 or 5 a.m. and start by revisiting the pages I wrote the previous day. As I edit those, I invariably springboard into writing new material, and I’m off.

     I’ve learned to be extremely disciplined about my schedule, because I am a person who would always rather be doing something else. I allow myself breaks only to do my daily hourlong lap swim (saved me from back surgery so I’m diligent about it), do household tasks, and get out for an afternoon walk or hike. I tend to write straight through the day, even while cooking dinner—I’m a multi-tasker and love to cook. I start prep around 6:00 or 6:30, so it’s my relaxation and my “commute”—the bridge between work and reentry. I’ll go back and forth from laptop to kitchen during meal prep and we eat around 8 or 8:30 pm. Usually it’s just me and my husband in front of the TV, and I often nod off mid-meal/mid-program with my plate in my lap.

     I tend to work 7 days a week on this schedule while on deadlines like the ones 2020/2021 forced. I do only one draft, heavily editing as I go so that when it’s done, it’s done—until my editor’s revision notes, that is.

     I’m religious about sticking to a weekly word count quota, which I lay out in advance according to when the book needs to be in. In the beginning of a book when it’s slow going as I’m figuring things out, my weekly quota is around 5,000 words. In the end, it’s 10,000 on up, depending on where I am with it and when it’s due. On an ideal day, I do 2,000 words and get to keep most of them. I have written books, though, where I had to cut 40,000 to 50,000 words in the end. As I’m creating a world, characters, a plot, it’s much easier to put it all in and then lose it later than to have gaps as I go. A lot of information is essential to me as I work out a crime, but is TMI for the reader. My longtime editor, Lucia Macro at William Morrow, is fantastic about helping me streamline it all down to a manageable manuscript.

8) You’re well-known for having fostered several animal rescue organizations and are the fur mom of three cats. Is there any chance any will end up in your books or have they already?

     Oh, they already have. Our first rescue—whose name happens to be Chance--showed up pregnant and critically ill on our doorstep in 2014. We wound up rushing her to a vet, paying a small fortune to save her—a stray!—and her litter of six. My husband and sons are allergic to cats, but we kept Chance after finding homes for all the kittens. The experience opened my eyes to the plight of ailing or pregnant strays and we began fostering shelter animals. Of course it (and the astronomical emergency vet bills that needed to be paid) inspired me to write my current Lily Dale Mystery series.

     In the first book, NINE LIVES, a pregnant stray named Chance shows up at an opportune moment and is the catalyst that leads Bella Jordan to Lily Dale, and to solve a mystery. Chance is in every one of my Lily Dale books, and in each of them (and in some of my other novels), one of my—or my family’s—real life kitties makes a cameo. Our other cats, Li’l Chap and Sanchez, are series regulars. My sister’s Scottish Folds, Lady Pippa and Clancy, are in my books, and my aunt’s late, great Columbus is in the one I’m writing now.

7) You’d begun your publishing career over 30 years ago, when you were an associate editor at Silhouette Books. In the last three plus decades, publishing has seen many seismic shifts. What do you see as being the best and the worst changes?

     I think the best and the worst changes have involved technology.

     On the bright side, we no longer have to deal with paper and post offices, or even checks and bank deposit slips—though these changes are recent. Until a few years ago, I was doing final edits on hard copy page proofs mailed by the publisher, and then racing to Fed Ex before they closed to get it overnighted back in time. It took a global pandemic for me to be able to sign contracts online and get paid electronically. Which is insane, because authors never even know whether they’re going to get random backlist royalty checks. As recently as two years ago, I had one go missing in the mail that I never would have known existed if I weren’t religious about combing my end of the year accounting statement from my agent and matching it against checks I deposited. So, yes, welcome to the electronic age, publishing industry! It’s nice to have you join us at last.

     Social media is, for me personally, the worst of the changes. Publishers encourage you to establish a presence and regularly connect with readers on at least one platform. And yes, that’s a wonderful thing--it can be a lifeline in this solitary, isolating job, especially for a people person like me.

     But as I said, I’d always rather be doing something other than writing, so it’s also a dangerous distraction. I can log onto Facebook and the next thing I know, I’ve lost an hour or two of my workday. I mean, I truly want to see photos of people’s kids and know what they had for dinner—and of course, as a writer, I’m fascinated by the over-sharing of private lives. I see potential book plots in so many posts.

     Publicists have suggested that an author should post something a few times a day to work the algorithms and keep readers engaged. When I was trying to do that, I lost far too much writing time to the follow-up interaction and of course the rabbit hole of obsession with other people’s lives. So now, when I’m on deadline, I’ve given myself permission to stay away for days at a time. And when it’s time to go into promo mode with a book release, I remind myself that social media is a valuable tool and I have to plan to spend considerable time there.

6) Again, it may be silly to ask the author of nearly 100 titles. But did you ever suffer from so-called writer’s block and, if so, how did you deal with it?

     I never run out of ideas, and I will never live long enough to turn them all into books. I find, though, going on thirty years in this career, that there are many more days when I don’t feel like writing than days when I can’t wait to jump in. As a self-employed novelist, you can’t allow yourself to turn those off-days into days off any more than you’d call in sick to a day job every time you didn’t feel like going in—if you did that, you’d be fired. If you did it as a novelist, your productivity would spiral. So I force myself into the chair every morning, and I force myself to write my words every week. They may not be good words, and they may not stay, but I can fix everything later, when the story is told. The important part is to stick to a schedule and be accountable to myself and my publisher.

5) At least one of your books, Hello, It’s Me, was turned into a movie. But out of all your scores of titles, which one would you like most to see turned into a movie?

     I have a few books/series that are actively in play right now for television series, miniseries, or movies, so I’ll keep those to myself until I have news and continue to pray that they make it to the small screen. I’ve learned never to count on Hollywood after getting my hopes up many times early in my career. And then, of course, it paid off unexpectedly when HELLO IT’S ME went into production almost overnight after stalling for years. Ultimately, I think television is a natural for me because I have written so many trilogies and series—world building as opposed to a one-off feature. I do believe that my novels LIVE TO TELL and DEAD BEFORE DARK are self-contained enough to work very well as suspense films.

4) In several of your novels, such as Blue Moon, Bone White and Little Girl Lost, you’d set parts of your novels in historical time periods and had made a pretty good account of yourself. Have you ever had the urge to write an entire standalone or series in a purely historical setting such as Caleb Carr’s Alienist series?

     Absolutely. Always. I’m a history buff and I love nothing more than to lose myself in researching another era.

3) Plotter, pantser or plantser?

     Pantser, all the way!

2) If there’s one theme that unites many of your thrillers, it’s the relentless, almost circular nature of evil. As someone who enjoys a thankfully staid suburban lifestyle, where do you get the ideas for such a canon?

     Sheer terror. I’m a big chicken with a wild imagination. And of course, if you write about things, they can’t happen to you in real life, right?

1) So, what’s next for Wendy Corsi Staub?

     Work, work, and more work! Look, I use the words “grateful” and “gratitude” a lot with regard to my career, and I know that this career is never something to be taken for granted. I’ve been through a dizzying three decades of highs and lows—with many of the highs coming relatively early on, and some unexpected lows in recent years. But having been both an editor and a bookseller in the past, I’ve learned that the one thing that I, as an author, can control is my own performance. The minute I stop working so hard and sit back and think I’ve succeeded, the dominoes will start to topple.

     So I will continue to sit down every morning and write my novels. As I said, I have four coming out in the near future. Two are complete and have release dates as follows: PROSE AND CONS (Severn House, Lily Dale Mysteries Book 4, September in UK, December in US); THE OTHER FAMILY (William Morrow, Psychological Suspense, January). Two are under contract and these titles are tentative: THE STRANGER VANISHES (Severn House, Lily Dale Mysteries Book 5, 2022) and WINDFALL (William Morrow, Psychological Suspense, Pub Date late 2022 or early 2023).

     If you’re interested in learning more about Ms. Corsi Staub’s work, please make use of the handy links provided below:

WEBSITE

2 Comments:

At September 25, 2021 at 10:35 AM, Anonymous Jane Risdon said...

How lovely to have a friend like you, Allan, and this post proves what a good friend you are to Wendy. Loved this and enjoyed it so much. Wishing her continued success and you both a fab weekend.

 
At September 25, 2021 at 11:10 AM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

Thanks, Jane, but my name's Robert.

 

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