When people describe me as a mystery writer, I’m a little taken aback. While I am of the firm belief that there is a mystery at the heart of all fiction—why else are we reading but to discover something new, about the world, others, ourselves?—I have never seen myself in that light. A traditional mystery implies a “who-dun-it,” and as far as “who-dun-its” go, I have always found the reveal of “who-dun-it” to be something of a letdown. I’m far more interested in the why-they-dun-it.
I also don’t consider myself an author of crime fiction. Police procedurals and detective fiction don’t interest me much at all, and while a crime of some sort often plays a part in my novels, it’s never been my focus. Nor do I have any interest in spy novels—my head starts hurting the second I see the initials C-I-A.
As for thrillers: a thriller, by definition, should thrill. It should be exciting, its reality heightened and exaggerated. But while the situations in which my characters often find themselves are sometimes extreme—occasionally even exciting, possibly even thrilling—I have always striven to create characters who are firmly grounded in reality, characters to whom readers can easily relate. “Oh, my,” I hear them whisper in my ear. “That’s my mother…my sister… my husband!” Or better still, “Oh, my God, that’s me!” I am convinced that if you believe in a character, you will follow them anywhere, no matter how extreme or alien the circumstances.
So when people ask me what kind of fiction I do write, my answer is always “psychological suspense.” I love suspense, and for me, that usually involves an interesting idea and a good, strong plot, a set of circumstances that quickly captures the reader’s attention and keeps them turning the pages far into the night.
And there’s nothing more suspenseful than real life.
I got the initial idea for THE HOUSEKEEPER after the death of a friend of mine. Within months, her husband suddenly—and secretly—remarried, not informing his two grown children until after the fact. The new wife, whom no one had ever met or knew anything about, quickly succeeded—whether deliberately or inadvertently—in alienating him from his kids and his friends.
I found the idea of a predatory female inserting herself into the lives of a vulnerable family intriguing, to say the least. (A word of advice: Writers are famous for exploiting the misery of others, so never tell a writer anything you don’t want to see in the pages of one of their books!) But obviously, my story had to be quite different.
As I said, I like a good, strong plot. That usually involves placing my main character on the metaphorical edge of a cliff and then pushing her off. It is important that what happens next is not something arbitrarily imposed by the writer, but rather that any and all subsequent actions be character-driven. In other words, what happens next—and everything that happens after that—should be a result of who this character is.
And who my characters are as adults is determined, in large part, by who they were as children. To that end, I have to know everything about my protagonist: what kind of parents she had and what those parents did for a living, whether or not my heroine was wanted or ignored, pampered or abused; what kind of childhood she had; her relationship with whatever siblings she may have, etc. etc. Knowing these things—even if I never actually commit them to print – gives me the information I need to determine how my character will react in any given situation.
With that in mind, I created Jodi Bishop, a certified member of the so-called sandwich generation, a woman caught between caring for the needs of her two young children and those of her aging parents. I made her a successful Realtor, an occupation that allowed me lots of latitude with regard to her work schedule, then gave her the added burden of being her family’s main breadwinner, her writer-husband struggling to complete his long-anticipated, and long-delayed, second novel. Then, because I’m something of a sadist, creatively-speaking, I gave her difficult, narcissistic parents, a self-absorbed sister who was always the family favorite, and a troubled upbringing, all of which made her highly susceptible to the manipulations of someone like Elyse Woodley, the housekeeper she hires to help her almost-eighty-year-old father care for his wife, who is in the final stages of Parkinson’s Disease.
I saw Elyse quickly making herself indispensable, then gradually becoming increasingly mysterious and sinister as she insinuates herself deeper and deeper into every aspect of the family’s lives. In short, a nice little suspense story to enjoy on a sultry summer night.
But writers are often not the best judges of their work, and as often happens, as the story took shape and the characters developed and took over the story—in much the same way that Elyse seizes control of the family that employs her—it became something much more than the simple tale I’d originally envisioned, concerning itself with issues I hadn’t really even thought about when I began. One such issue is how we care for our elderly, both as a society and on an individual basis, especially with people living so much longer than in previous generations. Today, seventy seems relatively young, and it isn’t unusual to scan the death notices and find a surprising number of people who survived into their hundreds!
Some seniors are lucky enough to enjoy good health well into their eighties and nineties, and continue to be spry, active and loved. But many fall prey to illness, broken bones, and neglect. The job of caring for one’s aging parents isn’t an easy one, and it usually falls to the women in the family. This is no easy task when one is also dealing with a husband and children. Some people are resentful of this added burden, and elder abuse is, unfortunately, not uncommon. There are also people, like the fictional Elyse Woodley, who are adept at working situations like this to their advantage.
While the exploitation of the vulnerable is one we’re quite used to seeing in both mystery and crime novels, these characters are generally either nubile young women or children who have gone missing. The elderly have been largely ignored, much as they are in real life. This is surprising because we all get old. As my late grandfather’s second wife (he married again when he was 80!) once said, “We don’t get young!” And hopefully, the older we get, the more experience we gain, and the more stories we have to tell.
Stories that can be of great interest to readers of all genres.
But while my books are often about more than what is initially intended or apparent—dealing with such issues as the growing invisibility of women as they age, grief, bullying, and yes, elder abuse—my primary goal as a writer has never been to teach or to preach, but rather to entertain. I don’t care if you get the little messages I sprinkle throughout my pages. I don’t even care if you describe me as a writer of mysteries or crime fiction or thrillers. I just want you to continue turning those pages far into the night.