Shebooks is thrilled to publish Flora’s latest mystery Girls’ Night Out, a deliciously dark book club murder tale. A popular crime and mystery writer, Kate Flora has a fascination with people’s criminal tendencies that began after law school when she worked in the Maine attorney general’s office. Deadbeat dads, people who hurt their kids, and employers’ acts of discrimination aroused her curiosity about human behavior. Her books include seven “strong woman” Thea Kozak mysteries and three gritty police procedurals in her star-reviewed Joe Burgess series.
What prompted you to write Girls’ Night Out?
I’d been working on a book, Finding Amy, about a real murder, and one of the things I learned about the killer was his history of sexual violence toward women. He believed he was “entitled” to have sex if he wanted it, and if it wasn’t forthcoming, he would use violence or drugs to achieve his goal. He was charming and attractive and the young men in his circle admired him while the women felt guilt and damaged and as though it was their fault that they’d become victims. So that was the first strand.
The second strand is that I’m a good old-school feminist who likes to see women rescue themselves. My first mystery series, the Thea Kozak series, features a strong young woman who is a rescuer. Often, when I write a story, I begin with an image, a picture of someone in a situation, and ask myself, “What is that about?” In this case, the initial image was of the character Jay Hanrahan’s victim’s face when he gives his smiling press conference expressing pleasure that the jury understood it was a consensual act that the woman later regretted. I then began to imagine her friends seeing the devastation on her face and wondering what they could do to help her recover. That led me to the book group and a friend’s declaration that she was sick of men getting away with behaving badly.
What would you say is the key to successful mystery or crime writing?
When I figure this out, I’ll be happy to share. Obviously, there is no one key. Characters the reader wants to spend time with. A story that’s sufficiently compelling to pull the reader in and hold her there. Enough plot twists to keep the reader unsettled and keep her guessing. And of course, along with endless research, there is the element of curiosity. If the writer isn’t curious about things, the reader won’t be.
Why do you think people find glee in reading crime stories and murder mysteries even when they are horrified by real crime?
A librarian once told me that the reason her patrons are attracted to crime novels is that it lets them experience the world from the safety of their chairs. There’s a lot of vicarious pleasure that comes from those adventures. And my friend Hallie Ephron, in an interview during her book launch right after 9/11 where she was challenged about the morality of writing books that profit from violence, crime, and death, said that we should all wish the world were more like the world of a crime novel, where justice is gotten for victims, morality prevails, and order is restored to the world.
Are there any characters or themes that you find recurring in your writing? What is their origin?
Characters? That’s easy. I write two different mystery series—one featuring a strong woman, the other a weary, damaged, middle-aged male cop—and with them, I’m exploring how people find balance between work and life and manage the complexities of family relationships. Thea Kozak grew out of going to law school in the 1970s, wanting women to have bigger roles in the world, and seeing so much embedded discrimination at work. Once—the storyteller can’t help herself here—I did a three-plus-hour negotiation for the state on a computer services contract, at the end of which the contractor’s lead guy rose, said to the room, “Thank you, gentlemen,” and left. The world has changed but we always have to keep an eye on it.
Thea is also my vehicle for exploring how women find balance between work—especially the kind of work that can fill all available time—and having a satisfying personal life.
Themes? I have several themes running through my work, both fiction and nonfiction. Probably because of my early work with abused and neglected children, I’m very interested in the relationships between parents and children—the ones that work and the ones that don’t, who is resilient and who isn’t. I also spend a lot of time with cops and people who work with victims, and I’m interested in how people are shaped, so I’m always sending scenes or questions to psychologists or psychiatrists and asking them if the adult behavior I’m portraying matches the childhood I’ve imagined.
Also, for a time, I was a volunteer working with domestic violence victims, and I tend to explore power balance issues in work and domestic situations.
Why did you choose to use a book club as the central group of characters for this piece?
A couple of reasons: First, because it goes against type—the image of women’s book groups tend to be passive readers who eat delicious food and sip wine and chat. This group is anything but passive. Second, because there are often such strong connections and loyalties in book groups, and often, also, a long shared history. Here, these women have been together since college. Now, they’re professional women who can use their skills to make things happen in the world. Their lives may have diverged, but their connections and their caring have not. And they are all strong women who have had to take chances to get where they are and are willing to take chances for each other.
Have you ever been a member of a book club yourself?
I’ve been in a version of the same book club for decades. The membership keeps changing, but there are two of us who’ve been around forever. I love my book club because it makes me read books I otherwise would never choose, including classics. We’ve also been through our children’s adolescence, college applications, career launches, marriages, and now we’re exploring being mothers-in-law and grandmothers.
How do you think your gender/racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?
The fabulous Roxana Robinson wrote an opinion piece recently in the New York Times about the question of whether we are entitled to write about the things we haven’t experienced because of our race, our gender, or our experience. It’s an important question for writers. I’m deeply aware that I come from a monoculture—white, rural, and Protestant—and something I’ve explored in my upcoming books, And Grant You Peace, is the way that people in a culture like mine deal with immigrants, especially immigrants from very different cultures with very different attitudes.
I tell my students that trying to understand, and write about, people who are different from us begins with us and moves out to grappling with the question of “How is that person not me, and what do I need to know to understand him or her?”
But this is what writers have always done: created well-understood and well-rendered characters who are very different from [the people who read about them].
Is there such a thing as “women’s writing”? Do you hate the term “chick lit” or think we should embrace it, like the term “gay”?
I love and hate the term “chick lit.” It tends to be demeaning, as reviews (we’ve all read the stats, haven’t we?) seem to value men’s writing and men’s viewpoints more than women’s. On the other hand, to the extent that “chick lit” represents a focus on a world where relationships and love and the way women find balance in life [matter], and how valuable women’s friendships are, maybe we should just own it in a more positive way.
For a wonderful essay about whether there is a “woman’s voice” in fiction, I always refer people to Francine Prose’s marvelous article “The Scent of a Woman’s Ink”.
What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?
I always say three things:
One: don’t wait for the fluttery little muse to land; writing is a discipline and you have to exercise your writing muscles so you’ll be there when inspiration does arrive.
Two: Only you get to decide that you’re a writer and you have to be your own best advocate. No one is ever going to ring your doorbell and ask to publish your story.
Three: If you’re aiming at publication, you’ll need the skin of an alligator, because the publishing world is cruel.
I also tell them to establish a sense of themselves as a writer before taking too many classes, so they don’t get whipsawed by too much contradictory advice.
What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?
Writing is the most interesting day, night, weekend, all-the-time job I’ve ever had. Being a lawyer was excellent preparation, but nothing is quite like shooting big guns, getting found by search and rescue dogs, going on a stakeout and finding the bad guy, or riding an ATV through the Canadian woods. And then there’s the night the medical examiner shut me in the morgue refrigerator with all the bodies.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m finishing the next book in my Thea Kozak series, Death Warmed Over. Prepping for the fall launch of a true crime, Death Dealer, and a police procedural mystery, And Grant You Peace. Gearing up for two major rewrites, and then? Well, by then something else will have come along.
What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?
Not too many of those. That I used to have a chicken hospital for the chickens the other hens had picked on? That I own a blueberry field? That I was once a candidate for Maine Blueberry Queen? Oh. I stole two milk crates in Albany, New York, back in the 1970s. I sometimes claim that I have a tattoo and ask people to guess what it is and where it is.
What is your favorite word right now?
Aside from writing, do you have any other secret talents?
I have no secrets. I save all of them for my characters.
Do you have a quote, mantra or thought that you’d like to end with?
I’ve said this before, but it’s something I keep coming back to often. It’s a quote from Philip Gourevitch, in his sad, horrifying, and powerful book about the Rwandan massacre, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Gourevitch writes, “This is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.”
Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, imagining it is a necessary part of the job if I am to write the kind of powerful books that will let my readers truly see the stories in their imaginations. And it can be a hard job, going around with such dark characters and images in my mind, hardest of all when the characters are real. That’s when taking a break, going into the garden, having lunch with a friend, reading a funny book, or hitting the gym and getting pumped with endorphins may become necessary. But it’s also a job I embrace, because when I rise to the challenge and it works, I’ve written the book I set out to write, and hopefully, made you feel the story more deeply.
Looking for a little suspense? Read Kate Flora’s latest mystery Girls’ Night Out, Only at Shebooks!