Interview with V. S. Anderson
What experiences did you draw on for your novels?
For my two previously published novels that are now in ebook editions, King of the Roses and Blood Lies, I drew on a lifetime love of horses. My bio shares a little of that experience. From the age of 12, I paid for riding lessons with my babysitting money, learning "English," or more correctly, "hunt" or "forward seat" horseback riding, in which you ask your horse to jump over things. I never had the kind of money or, as I became well aware, the kind of talent, to compete at the top echelons, but I did pursue my dream and teach horseback riding for nearly twenty years while postponing my college degrees. Also from childhood, I was fascinated by horse racing, especially the Kentucky Derby; I'd grab the new Sports Illustrated off the drugstore magazine rack just to see if there might be a racing article inside. While I was teaching riding, I moonlighted at Tampa Bay Downs and soaked up the backstretch environment. For Chris Englund's introduction to racing in King of the Roses, I drew on my own experience learning to gallop a racehorse I owned for a while. I bought and trained and sold off-the-track Thoroughbreds for many years.
King of the Roses was the proverbial labor of this love. I always told people, truthfully, that it took ten years to write. It began as a fascination with the character of Chris Englund; I had to consciously learn to move beyond character to novel, to plot. By the time I found agents brave enough to take on my manuscript, it came in at 700 pages! My editor at St. Martin's said 200 of those precious pages had to go. I count learning how to tighten my prose and seeing what a wonderful difference doing so made in my book one of my most compelling experiences as a learning writer.
I wrote Blood Lies because my St. Martin's editor wanted a book about the Thoroughbred breeding industry, which seems to have qualified as a sexy topic. I knew less about breeding, never having had a farm of my own, but I had collected exposure and I am a good researcher. It was fun imagining Holyhead, finding its history and Ted's past, as well as Kite's glamour, in a world I created. St. Martin's ultimately didn't offer enough for Blood Lies to please my agents, so they sent me and the book on to Bantam.
I've tinkered with a mystery/suspense story set at big horse shows. So far, it hasn't defined itself, but I have every confidence that it will. More, perhaps, than the racing novels, it will focus on the incredible patience and generosity of horses, their personalities and perks. For that, I'll be able to draw on my experiences since returning to riding after a hiatus to finish college and go to graduate school. My sweet Paddy will be my star.
What kinds of books do you like to read?
All kinds. As much nonfiction, especially history, as fiction, though I'm currently in a "catch up with fiction" mindset. I pick books by reading reviews, getting recommendations from friends, and by reading first pages and blurbs. I'm not actually one of those people who have to read the "next book" by a particular author, except, actually, Carl Hiaasen.
I like mysteries, which has tended to be what I write, but not "puzzle" mysteries. I need interesting, well-developed characters with intriguing issues. Did not enjoy Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen, but loved Nero Wolfe. Loved Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey. I like Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro mysteries enough to have read most of them, and I have enjoyed several by Tana French. I'm always looking for mysteries with these elements of characterization and strong, evocative writing.
I also don't like (well, it is the same question as what DO I like, isn't it?) mysteries where the "detective," whether professional or accidental, gets told the solution. I got turned off during an early exposure to Sue Grafton by a scene where whatever-her-name-is just asked a cop friend what she needed to know and he told her (though I did enjoy several others in her series and admired her ability to create that particular turn in mystery fiction). Also got turned off my first exposure to Harlan Coben for the same reason: pages of "what happened" from the perpetrator at the end. So I do like mysteries where the detective has to piece together the clues and arrive at the solution by herself. I don't care if I can outguess her. The puzzle does matter, but it's only a piece of what I read for.
I also like historical fiction, if the writing is strong. I've tried some very popular series where the voice was pedestrian; action alone doesn't hold me. Character and evocative language do. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are recent favorites. I love the detail and characterization, which are what bring a plot to life. But my very, very, very favorite historical novels so far are the Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian. If I read them once, I read them twenty times, from Master and Commander all the way to the twentieth, despite O'Brian's having lost his touch in the final book or two as he aged. If you try them, don't be put off by the technicalities of sea life in the early 1800s. You don't need to understand it all to find yourself totally immersed. I learned more history from these books than I ever did in school. I even went out and bought an atlas!
And I like deep, rich books about people's lives. I'm currently finishing up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah. I admire her ability to make what might seem ordinary events in her characters' lives so engrossing. And then, too, there's the chance to learn about the narrator's culture and see my own through her eyes. I also admire Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. Again: ordinary life made revealing. Other authors I've deeply enjoyed for their ability to lead me into other possible lives: Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich, Ann Patchett. My academic life made it hard, though, to read as widely as I wanted, so now I'm exploring every fictional byway.
Reading history has been my other passion. We learned so little in school. This last year I read two trilogies about World War II: Richard J. Evans's series on the rise and fall of the Third Reich (not to be confused with the epic work by William L. Shirer, but majorly informative all the same); and Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy, beginning with the North African campaign, moving on to Italy, and then to Europe. My father was in north Africa and Europe, but never talked about his experiences, so this reading has been a bit like vicariously following in his footsteps. I highly recommend both series for filling in gaps in one's knowledge of these eras.
Where do you get ideas?
I can safely say I don't "get" ideas; they come and find me, though from where, I don't know. I have sat down and thought up conflict scenarios—the heart of the matter, conflict—but even a strong conflict doesn't make an idea that will carry me through 300 pages. They don't take hold unless something else comes along behind them: a twist that provides a sort of jolt when I think of it, a complication that immediately has me hearing scenes, characters trying to deal with what they're embroiled in. In Blood Lies, I don't know exactly where I got the main plot point (no spoilers!) unless it was my knowledge of the particular breeding issue the plot point turns on, but the jolt was the realization that Ted was in love with his father's wife. Right away, you had guilt, ambition, sex, revenge (not necessarily in that order) on the table. I immediately received as a gift the first scene between Ted and Lucky, as she tries to rope in and he tries not to want her to. In the first of my "Sarah" books, still on the work table, it was the disappearance of Sarah's own child and how that influenced every decision she made. That's not as strong a hook as the fact that the guy she falls in love with was (perhaps mistakenly) accused of killing his wife, but it's the one that took me inside Sarah.
One problem I face is that I come up with the hook and then have to fit the characters to it. I suspect that great novelists don't operate that way. They begin with characters. Well, I did sort of operate that better way with Sarah—her loss is part of her character, not part of the plot per se—and definitely in King of the Roses, where it was Chris's character that got him into the mess he's in in the first place. However, my original need for a character like Sarah came from the question of what it would be like to be browsing the Web and suddenly see an autopsy photo of someone close to you. This idea came from a friend of mine, who knew about sites where you can actually see the autopsy photos of famous people. Nicole Brown Simpson was, I believe, the one he referenced. From that idea came the need for Tommy Pierce, and from Tommy came the need for Sarah. So I can't exactly say I'm doing it all wrong.
So these hooks I start with come from all sorts of places. It seems to be a synergistic process. I would say, follow up on current events or news stories that draw you in. Play the "what if?" game. The "what if?" has to be a question you actually can't answer, not in full, anyway. Not until you see what characters it calls up and what they do. One of my favorite colleagues used to say, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader," and I definitely think that maxim applies.
But above all, you have to feel an emotional leap, a hand on your spine, to write 300 pages.
What do you find easiest about writing fiction?
That's simple: filling up pages.
I found years ago that a very simple technique worked for producing text. I simply set myself a doable daily goal, and then I do it.
I used to tell students in my college writing classes about this technique. It's the antithesis of the time-honored student tradition of putting off that paper until it looms like a Stephen-King monster over the night before it's due. In the case of a college paper, or an research article, you do have to do some pre-writing, for example finding the information you need, analyzing and synthesizing that information, maybe even doing some informal note-taking or outlining. In fiction, sometimes you just have to start writing. Regardless, for me, it has always worked the same: Set a timer or, alternatively, set a page goal. Keep it short, unstressful. When I'm getting started on something, I set my timer for thirty minutes. Or I say, I only have to fill up this one notebook page. For that thirty minutes, or for the time it takes to fill up that page, I'm not allowed to do anything else. But when I hit the goal, I'm done.
Usually, when the timer goes off or I reach the end of the page, I'm deep in the middle of something and am still writing ten minutes, half a page, later.
I was inspired to this method of generating text by an anecdote I read years ago about Joseph Wambaugh. He said he told himself, "If you write a thousand words a day, in one hundred days, you'll have a hundred thousand words. That's a book."
Of course, I think he said, "That's a draft," because we all know what has to happen to that hundred thousand words!
Crucial to this technique is the freewriting mindset. During this thirty minutes, or in the course of filling up this one page, self-editing has to be kept to a rigid minimum if not banished completely. During this thirty minutes, you may or may not produce anything that will ultimately be usable, but the point is to produce. As what you're writing begins to take shape, you may have to refine your daily goals somewhat: I've been writing too much exposition, too much interior monologue (my bête noire); today, I'm going to see what happens when I put these characters in a room and see what they say. Again, the crucial phrase is "I'm going to see what happens." It stops me from the crippling determination to write the perfect scene in one go. A miracle like that can happen, but it's a lot less likely to do so if you try!
I think my "what's easy" answer is a lot shorter than my "what's hard"!
What do you find most difficult about writing fiction?
When I was executive assistant to the Florida Suncoast Writers' Conference years ago, an audience member asked Mary Higgins Clark this question after her keynote talk. I remember nodding when she answered, "Getting people out of rooms."
I interpret that to mean deciding what beat you want to end a scene on. You don't want your high note to fade into a litany of "Well, I guess I gotta go now." I don't have as much trouble with this as I once had; I discovered that the screenwriter's trick works admirably: Just cut to the next scene.
That said, I do find the endings of books really, really hard, and from what I've read and seen in films, I'm not alone. I'm plagued by the urge to keep twisting the screw one more time, one more complication or surprise, until, if I were watching my own book as a movie, I'd be looking at my watch. Be thankful for the reader like an astute friend of mine, who just crossed out the last two pages of my current novel-in-progress with the comment, "Your story ends here."
Another thing I find hard is this business of "throughlines." The ability to find that one-sentence description that tells your readers (and yourself) who, what, when, why, and with what result. Thinking about this, I realized it's the modernist impulse that still informs commercial fiction writing even when most of the literature crowd have moved on. No self-respecting literary critic, or, for that matter, no self-respecting reviewer today, would mimic the hoary English professor I encountered when I went back to school to complete my B.A. He walked us through texts, told us what passages to underline and what they meant, then encapsulated entire Victorian novels in single pronouncements, e.g., "Jane Eyre wants to go home."
Do you think anyone could capture Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Good Squad in one sentence? Maybe you could, but the thirty other people around you would have thirty sentences of their own. Did I care that I couldn't easily answer the question, "What does Sasha want?" Not at all.
Yet I have discovered that having a throughline, a logline, even if only for myself, does help my writing. The problem is, I have to spend a lot of time with my characters before I begin to know exactly what that throughline is. I flounder for months, years, when asked, "What is this really about?" It's a major obstacle to this business of productivity, having to wait to be told by the book what it's about.
This last one is sort of post-writing, since it has to do with marketing a book once it's written. It's this business of genre and "comparables." Ugh.
I fully understand the logic of comparables. Publishers love knowing there's a demographic that already buys books like mine and is eagerly scouring Amazon for the next one ("People who bought this also bought. . . ."). With my first books, it wasn't that much of a problem: they were clearly mystery/suspense. But what happens if you get a little "ambitious" and start finding yourself in unexpected territory, writing things you didn't completely plan to write? What if what you end up with just plain does something different than any other book you can think of? I'm not talking hyper-literary experimental fiction. I'm not even necessarily talking about not having a name for the genre. What's wrong with "literary fiction"? Oh, I forgot, "literary" is the problem. Literary doesn't sell. What would sell would be "Imagine Gone Girl meets Gravity." But what if there's really not a bestsellerA/bestsellerB marriage?
I'm buoyed to know that a great many books that I would classify as unhyper-literary are excellent sellers, that they're wonderful reads as well as provocative and intellectually dense (I'm in the middle of Americanah). That realization keeps my hopes up.
It's all moot, actually, since I just don't know of another book that does what my current work in progress does. I don't write like anybody else, and this book isn't like anyone else's book. It's perhaps "in the spirit of." I'm using that approach in my query: I'm aiming for the X of Y and writing toward the A of B, pulling out specific features of these books that actually do apply.
It's more frustrating yet when the single most common reason for rejection of queries, at least in my experience of reading endless query critiques, is "This is too familiar. I've seen this too many times before." But it is not allowed to boast that one's book does something no other book has done before.
You can probably read the anguish through the ink on this one. But yes, I am buoyed: wonderful books with nebulous throughlines and personas all their own do get published.
So those are the things I find hard.
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Books by This Author
Three Strides Out: A Horse Show Novel of Suspense
by V. S. Anderson
Adrenaline’s good for something, Robb Slaughter tells people when they ask where he found the courage to climb into a burning trailer to rescue a valuable horse. But it will take more than adrenaline for Robb to find out who put that horse there and why—and to make the monsters pay.
by V. S. Anderson
Young Ted Whysse comes home to his family's fabulous breeding farm to investigate his best friend's death. He wants no part of his inheritance, nor of the magnificent stallion Kite. What he wants, though his heart knows better, is his dying father's beautiful young wife. But when he learns she has a deadly secret, he must risk other lives to save her—including his own. "A real winner!" --LA Times
King of the Roses: A Horse Racing Mystery
by V. S. Anderson
Jockey Chris Englund has won five Kentucky Derbies, horse racing's jewel. But his uncompromising honesty has stalled his career.
Out of the blue, he gets the leg up on the odds-on Derby favorite. But Derby week turns to ashes when he's offered half a million dollars to throw the race. But if he rides to win, he will destroy a great horse and lose the woman he loves. (horse racing mystery)