Debut Author Spotlight – Emily Ross

By Jennifer Hillier

So you’re a software developer! Being technologically challenged myself, I image coding and writing fiction would be worlds apart. They seem like such opposite professions. Does being so good with technology ever help you with your writing?

Coding relies heavily on abstract logic. You constantly are thinking if this happens then what will happen next. You need to consider all the possibilities. The programmer in me makes sure my plot decisions are logical, and helps me to see all the angles.

When I’m debugging I go over my code again and again until I see what I’ve missed. Debugging has taught me that with careful analysis almost any problem can be solved. Knowing this helps me when I have problems with my writing.

I know many writers have writing rituals (for me, it’s candles, coffee, and a closed door). Do you have any writing rituals? And what’s your writing process like?

I like to write in the morning at my son’s old desk that comes complete with shot glass souvenirs and rapper posters. I drink lots of coffee and cue up a playlist to drown out the perpetual leaf blowers and lawn mowers outside. Before I start, I surf the net for a few minutes. Actually, I surf the net while I write too. And I don’t stay sitting down. I pop up a lot and walk around. But I actually get some of my best story ideas when I’m not sitting at the computer, so maybe this is part of my process.

Mad Men was one of my favorite shows. I thought HALF IN LOVE WITH DEATH had a little bit of a Mad Men feel, and not just because both are set in the 1960s. Your writing is both beautiful and subtle, and your characters really drive the story forward. Did you have to do any type of research to capture the feel of the sixties?

Mad Men was one of my favorite shows too! I was a teen in the sixties so I remember a lot from that era including some stuff I wish I could forget. But I had to do some research to really get the feel of the time. I had great fun looking at sixties’ fashions in books like David Bailey’s Birth of the Cool. I also reread two books about the sixties drug culture: The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley and The Joyous Cosmology by Alan Watts. I loved these books when I was a teen. I did not love them when I read them again — sigh.

You’ve mentioned that your book was inspired by the true crime story of Charles Schmid, the “Pied Piper of Tucson.” I can relate my first book was inspired by a real-life serial killer as well. How much of your fiction is inspired by true crime? Where do your ideas come from?

This is the first time I used a true crime as inspiration, and I’m glad I did. Though I ended up changing many things as I wrote, the case of the “Pied Piper of Tucson” gave me lots of ideas. I also sometimes get ideas from movies. Long before I heard of this crime, I was obsessed with Terrence Malick’s movie, Badlands, about a teen girl who runs off with a murderer. Sissy Spacek’s sweet but flat voiceover in this film mesmerized me. I often heard that voice in my head as I wrote HALF IN LOVE WITH DEATH. Someday I’d love to get a killer story idea from a dream. Until that happens, I’m keeping an ongoing list of interesting true crimes to use for future stories.

Your book is described as young adult, though I would definitely say that it has crossover appeal. Have you always written for young adults? Are there any specific challenges with writing YA?

I’ve never written for young adults before. In fact I originally wrote this book as an adult novel, and only realized it could be young adult when I got feedback from agents. I’m thrilled to be part of that genre, but there are challenges specific to writing YA. I tend to write long, and I like a slow burn in the beginning. Young adult novels typically are terse, tightly plotted, and short. I had to cut a hundred pages to get my book to be a good length for YA and I had to make things happen more quickly. This wasn’t easy but it made my book stronger.

I find the character of Jess so fascinating. I thought you did a terrific job making her come to life on the page, even though we only see her through her sister Caroline’s eyes, and mostly in flashback. Where did Jess come from, creatively?

Jess came partly from Gretchen Fritz, the beautiful, troubled older sister in the true crime that inspired my novel. As a teen, I looked up to girls like Gretchen and wanted to be like them. But like my main character, Caroline, I was often in their shadow. So I suppose Jess also comes from my desire as a teen to be one of the wild beautiful girls that all the boys loved, and my need to see through that powerful cultural stereotype.

Stephen King, for me and I’m sure for many other writers, is my greatest influence. Which authors have influenced you and your writing the most? 

Raymond Chandler introduced me to crime fiction and I fell in love with his beautiful prose. Whenever I read him, the voice of his hard-boiled detective seeps into my writing. Judith Guest is another influence. In Ordinary People, Guest conveys the impact of a tragic event on a family so well. I turned to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca as an example of a suspenseful novel with a quiet protagonist who is in the shadow of a woman who is essentially a ghost. Lately I’ve been devouring psychological thrillers like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, or Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. I’ve learned a lot from all of these writers, and I’m still learning.

I personally hate being asked this question, but admittedly I love hearing what other writers have to say: what is your best writing advice?

Be persistent, and when things don’t go your way, don’t give up. Rejection hurts, but some of my worst rejections have helped make me a better writer.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing a novel about an aspiring teen ballerina who must prove that her Russian immigrant boyfriend and dance partner is not the mythical butterfly killer who murdered the captain of the high school dance team. It’s set in my hometown of Quincy, a city that combines the charm of a small town with the gritty darkness of the inner city. I’m having fun writing about dance teams and murder!

Emily Ross received a 2014 Massachusetts Cultural Council finalist award in fiction for HALF IN LOVE WITH DEATH. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Boston Magazine, Menda City Review, and The Smoking Poet. She is an editor and contributor at Dead Darlings, a website dedicated to discussing the craft of novel writing. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Massachusetts Boston, and is a 2012 graduate of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program.

To pre-order Half In Love With Death, click on the cover below:

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Jennifer Hillier writes about dark, twisted people who do dark, twisted things. She’s the author of the thrillers Creep (2011), Freak (2012), The Butcher (2014), and Wonderland (2015). She loves her husband, her son, her cat Kobe, Stephen King, and the Seahawks. Not equally, but close. Born and raised in Toronto, she currently lives in the Seattle area with her family. Find her on the web at jenniferhillier.ca.

And click on the covers below to order the following novels by Jennifer Hillier:

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