The only thing better than reading one of Lori Rader-Day's books is getting to sit down and have a conversation with her. I recently had the opportunity at Left Coast Crime in Phoenix and let me tell you, my cheeks were hurting from laughing so hard.
After I read her latest novel, LITTLE PRETTY THINGS, I knew I wanted to interview her about it and she kindly agreed, in spite of her busy schedule. And in spite of the fact that I keep calling the book PRETTY LITTLE THINGS.
HW: First, I want to talk about LITTLE PRETTY THINGS. I’ve been pretty vocal about how much I like it, so I was happy to see it was nominated for the 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award like its predecessor, the Anthony Award-winning THE BLACK HOUR. Tell us, briefly, what it’s about.
LRD: LITTLE PRETTY THINGS is about Juliet Townsend, who is ten years out of high school and stuck in a bad job, cleaning a hotel in her small Indiana hometown. She used to have a lot of potential as a high school track star, beaten by only one person, her best friend, Maddy Bell. The two friends have been estranged since things went sour over their last race, so when Maddy sweeps into Juliet’s workplace and then is found dead the next morning, Juliet decides to take on the task of figuring out what’s happened to Maddy and also what went wrong in her own life. Friendships between women, regret, and I got to take my readers into the yearbook staff room, which is where I spent my high school career.
HW: One of the things I like most about LITTLE PRETTY THINGS is the setting, which might sound odd considering it’s a little (okay, a lot) depressing. There’s just something about cheap roadside motels, which are the only places my family ever stayed on our yearly vacations, that mixes a sense of dark hopelessness with a sense of freedom and even anonymity. Obviously, the perfect place to set a murder. What inspired the location and were there other menial jobs you considered for your protagonist, Juliet?
LRD: I love old buildings, and not just the architecturally significant ones but the ones that remind us of our own childhoods. I was inspired to create the Mid-Night Inn by two very different hotels near where I grew up. They’re both gone, now. One was a classic single strip of five or six rooms right alongside the highway called the Sunset Inn. By the time I was young, it was ruins, but the nearby building was being used as a café. It’s someone’s house now, believe it or not. My grandparents used to take us there for “coffee”—my sister and I got cheeseburgers. The other hotel wasn’t nearly as dilapidated as the Mid-Night, but I borrowed its location almost precisely. My dad recognized it, so I must have stolen very liberally. I actually had a few ideas for what Juliet could do next—different jobs, in case I wanted to continue Juliet’s story. I haven’t ruled that out, actually, so I’ll just say that Juliet was always a hotel cleaner for LITTLE PRETTY THINGS, but she has plans to get out of there and move up.
HW: Like Juliet, you grew up in Indiana, but you’ve lived a very different life beyond that. Is there anything else of her in you? In what ways do you relate to her and is that relating important to the writing of this book? I suppose the larger question is whether we as writers need to write about something we can relate to, sort of like “write what you know.”
LRD: I don’t think we have to write only what we know, but what we know can inform what we write. People who know me pretty well find plenty in my books to attribute directly back to me, which makes sense since I’m the one who wrote them. For LITTLE PRETTY THINGS, I did borrow from my hometown and other places I have lived but I also borrowed from the what-if file of my own life to create Juliet. I was wondering one day what the hell I’d be doing for a living if I hadn’t gone to college, and it was not too out of the realm of possibility that I might have Juliet’s kind of job. I worked for a couple of factories and a restaurant as summer jobs on my way to paying for college. I didn’t like that work at all, but lots of people don’t get the choice to like what they do. I come from a long line of blue-collar workers, and I think that perspective needs to be visible in our fiction. The problem is that most people who work those long hours don’t have the luxury of sitting down and learning how to write. Juliet is important to me in that way and, even though she gets a lot of stuff wrong, I like her.
HW: LITTLE PRETTY THINGS has sparked comparisons to Megan Abbott’s recent novels, and for me particularly, her novel, DARE ME (which if you haven’t read, you should, because it’s great). There is, I think, an inherent darkness in the world of teenage girls that I didn’t quite realize when I was actually a teenager but am now aware of and it discomfits me somewhat. I certainly wouldn’t want to revisit that time in my life. What made you want to explore this world and in effect, go back to it?
LRD: I’m a pantser, so to ask me why I did something like go back to high school in my books—well, you’re asking an impossible ouroboros question I’m not sure I can answer. I wanted to talk about friendships between women and I find that many of my close women friends I have today are from when I was younger—college, for me, and in my early jobs. I wanted to write about someone who was just at the moment where she might rescue herself or she might not succeed, someone who has, in fact, a lot of potential, even if she doesn’t realize it. Also, I think that when you’re writing about young people or about people still living in the towns they grew up in, it’s pretty easy to think that their high school lives aren’t as far away as it might be for someone who doesn’t drive past their school every day, who won’t be sending their own kids there someday. Plus, yeah, there’s a lot of material for drama when it comes to high school girls. I love Megan Abbott’s books!
HW: With two books published and a third soon to be released, do you feel like you’ve finally got this writing thing down?
LRD: Oh, hell no. I got to see Mary Higgins Clark speak once a couple of years ago and she said with every book she still thinks, “Maybe is the time I can’t do it.” So if Mary can admit it at book eighty-whatever, I feel OK about the truth.
HW: I’m a big advocate of becoming involved in local writing communities. You’re currently the president of the Midwest chapter of MWA, but your involvement in your own local community began long before that. Would you say it’s had a significant impact on your writing success or has it mostly been about the support such communities offer?
LRD: The best advice I could ever give a writer hoping to make headway in their craft and career is to find a tribe. I found two—I got an MFA in creative writing from Roosevelt University in Chicago and am still friends with many of the writers I met there. We read for each other, encourage each other. When I first found out I was a mystery writer (yes, I had to be told), I didn’t know many mystery writers, so I went to my first Bouchercon knowing only one person in the building. Overwhelmed is an understatement. But I met Clare O’Donohue there, who gave me golden advice: go join Mystery Writers of America. I got highly involved, made myself useful, got to know so many great people, read some great new books, and listened in as people who were further along this path than I was talked about the business. Now I’m the person talking about the business to people who want to learn, but I still get a lot from going to meetings and events, and I’m still meeting wonderful people.
Lori Rader-Day’s debut mystery, THE BLACK HOUR, won the 2014 Anthony Award for Best First Novel and was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her second novel, LITTLE PRETTY THINGS, also a finalist for this year's Mary Higgins Clark Award, received a starred review from Booklist and was named a 2015 “most arresting crime novel” by Kirkus Reviews. She lives in Chicago.