by Cynthia Chow
& Lorie Lewis Ham
This week we interview mystery author Sandra Parshall, review her latest book Bleeding Through & you can enter for a chance to win a copy of the book-details at the end of this post.
While leading a group of teenagers on a roadside litter cleanup Mason County Deputy Sheriff Tom Bridger and his girlfriend and veterinarian Rachel Goddard discover the body of Shelly Beecher, hidden underneath an old mattress. The young woman had been missing for over a month and was actively working for the Virginia Innocence Project to overturn the conviction of Vance Langford, a man found guilty of beating to death his band mate Brian Hadley in a fit of jealousy over another singer.
The real tragedy is that the Shelly’s murder only ignites the rage of the three families who are all mourning the loss of their children. The Hadleys were infuriated at Shelly’s attempt to free their son’s convicted murderer, and her parents in turn blame the Langford’s surviving son for harassing and ultimately murdering their daughter. The rest of the Hadleys continue to threaten and attack the entire Langford family through threats and vandalism. Even Vance himself, convicted and resigned to prison, never believed that Shelly had any information that could aid him.
While Tom attempts to solve one murder, reinvestigate another, and hopefully prevent any more, Rachel is thrown into a situation with her sister that threatens the delicate calm they have developed between them since the death of their manipulative and mercurial mother. A psychologist like their mother, Michelle has been receiving harassing phone calls and emails, and with her husband doubting the existence of a real stalker Michelle seeks comfort and aid from Rachel. The two sisters have extremely different memories of their mother, and being together only highlights their differences as they struggle to avoid speaking of the secrets they believe would destroy their lives.
Jeopardizing their efforts is Detective Nate Fagan, who is back in town to investigate Shelly’s murder and whose sympathetic testimony acquitted the man who stole prescriptions from Rachel’s clinic, shot her, and now continues to torment her from a state mental hospital. The well-meaning but naive detective’s need to solve the mysteries concerning Rachel’s past prove that the road to her hell is paved with good intentions.
What Parshall has achieved so well in this series is the development of so many real and evolving characters who have been forced to change by the traumatizing events they’ve endured. The secrets discovered and then buried by Rachel in the first book, The Heat of the Moon, continue to have resonating effects, and as she releases them she finds that she is finally allowed to have a fuller life.
The author balances multiple plots exceedingly well, and she as well creates so many characters who are never truly evil or completely good. Everyone has some damage and vulnerability; it’s just that some are better at having found ways to cope and pull themselves out of the turmoil.
Rachel still manages to find some time to care for her patients, but the focus of this novel is on her relationship with her sister and Rachel’s continual need to care for others. Despite the serious themes, the tone of the novel never becomes too dark and the dialogue remains witty and sharp.
What began as a gothic mystery series, where Tom Bridget barely made an appearance, has become a blend of police procedural and amateur detectives. This is a compulsively enjoyable read.
Interview with Sandra Parshall
By Lorie Lewis Ham
Lorie: How long have you been writing?
Sandra: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel the compulsion to write fiction. I was making up stories and recording them on lined tablet paper as soon as I learned how to write. I had a vivid imagination, to put it mildly, and it sometimes got me in trouble. I started trying to sell my writing when I was in my twenties.
Lorie: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
Sandra: My first published book (not the first one I wrote) was The Heat Of The Moon, which came out in spring of 2006. It begins the story of Rachel Goddard, a young veterinarian, who suspects her controlling psychologist mother is hiding a terrible secret about their family. After a battle of wills with her mother, Rachel uncovers the devastating truth, which has haunted her ever since. The book won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel.
Lorie: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Sandra: I wrote several mainstream novels that I couldn’t get published. The Heat Of The Moon was my first attempt at suspense.
Lorie: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series? Tell us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Sandra: In my second book, Disturbing The Dead, I moved Rachel from McLean, VA, to the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, and she’s been there in all the books since. Once I decided to write a series, I felt I needed a richer setting, and I’ve always loved the mountains, so that’s where Rachel went when she wanted to start a new life far from reminders of her family and the past. Trying to outrun the past is usually futile, though. In Bleeding Through Rachel’s estranged sister shows up in her new home, seeking Rachel’s help with a stalker and bringing their family’s emotional baggage with her. While Rachel and her sister try to cope with increasingly vicious harassment, Rachel’s fiancé, Deputy Tom Bridger, hunts a young law student’s killer.
Lorie: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Sandra: A crime novel must, above all else, be entertaining. Who would read it if it weren’t? Good pacing and intriguing characters are vital. But I hope the basic decency and compassion of Rachel and Tom is what will stay with readers, along with Rachel’s deep love of animals.
Lorie: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Sandra: I try to write in the mornings and afternoons, when my brain is reasonably fresh.
Lorie: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Sandra: I do a sketchy outline, but what guides me is a list of scenes–a list of things that have to happen in the story. I shift them around until I see a design that will provide peaks of tension on a gradually rising scale. I tried writing everything on index cards and moving the cards around, but that didn’t work well for me. I prefer a plain document on the computer.
Lorie: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Sandra: Always the morning and early afternoon. I am incapable of writing at the end of the day.
Lorie: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Sandra: Oh yes. I wrote and submitted book after book for years. It wasn’t easy.
Lorie: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Sandra: Poisoned Pen Press had the manuscript of The Heat Of The Moon for 16 months–so long that I’d almost forgotten they had it. I had changed e-mail servers without bothering to notify them. Then in August of 2005, publisher Rob Rosenwald called and left a message on our answering machine, saying they wanted to publish my book and he needed a valid e-mail address so he could send me a contract to look at. I came in from running errands, listened to that message and almost fainted. Within an hour I had the contract and Rob had also sent a copy to my agent. The whole experience felt unreal.
Lorie: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Sandra: I’ve done signings where I’ve sold a lot of books and others where one, two, or three people showed up. I enjoy library events more than anything, but I think my favorite event was a garden party where Donna Andrews and I signed books sold by Mystery Loves Company. Summertime, butterflies, flowers, the shade of a big tree over the signing table–and I sold out. Another experience, less pleasant but just as memorable, took place at a regional book fair. A woman walked up to my table and demanded to know if my books had any “bad words” in them. A few here and there, I admitted. She turned on her heel and rushed away as if fleeing from contamination.
Lorie: Future writing goals?
Sandra: I would like to write some standalone suspense novels. Beyond that, my ambition is simply to stay published.
Lorie: Writing heroes?
Sandra: Ruth Rendell and Thomas H. Cook. Writers don’t get any better than that.
Lorie: What kind of research do you do?
Sandra: It’s mostly a matter of checking little things for accuracy–how a fatal shotgun wound to the abdomen looks, for example. (Well, maybe that’s not such a little thing after all.) I’m able to find most of what I need on the internet these days, but I also have several shelves of books on forensics, police procedure, etc.
Lorie: What do you read?
Sandra: I love Hilary Mantel’s books about the Tudors, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I read everything by Ruth Rendell, Thomas H. Cook, Tess Gerritsen, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Deborah Crombie, Lisa Gardner, Nicci French, Stephen Booth. I listen to a lot of audiobooks and will go far outside my usual comfort zone with those.
Lorie: Favorite TV or movies?
Sandra: On TV, I love The Good Wife, Dexter, Homeland, Hell on Wheels, Mad Men, and the British version of Law & Order. I was sorry to see The Closer go. As for movies, I see a lot but love very few. Most Hollywood movies these days are wretched.
Lorie: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Sandra: Read with a critical eye. Study books in your genre and determine not just what works or doesn’t, but why. You’re a writer and express yourself best in written words, so write an analysis of a book that excites you. Force yourself to look beneath the surface and see the book’s bones, the way the author put it together. And write as much and as often as you can. If you have any raw talent at all, you can teach yourself technique. A critique group can be invaluable if you like the other members’ writing and trust their opinions. Oh, and one last thing: Don’t let yourself believe for a single second that every word in your manuscript is vital, that nothing can be cut without destroying the story, and that somewhere out there is an editor who would jump at the chance to publish your 150,000 word novel. Cut it. It will be a much better book if you do.
Lorie: How do you feel about the growing popularity of e-books?
Sandra: I think it’s a great development. All indications are that e-reader owners are buying and reading more books, which can only be a good thing for authors. The self-publishing revolution has been fantastic for a lot of writers who can’t–or don’t want to–break into traditional publishing. I know how that frustration feels, how that sense of being shut out can deaden creativity, and I’m delighted there’s another option. As long as writers have their work professionally edited and properly formatted, I see no reason why they shouldn’t self-publish.
Lorie: Do you read e-books yourself?
Sandra: I have a bunch of e-books on my iPad, and I’m perfectly comfortable reading that way if the material is properly formatted. I’ve read a couple of ARCs that were total messes, sloppily formatted almost to the point of being unreadable.
Lorie: Anything you would like to add?
Sandra: If anyone wants a signed bookplate and/or bookmark, I’ll be happy to send them. I can be contacted through my website.
Lorie: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Sandra: I’m a terrible coward, a mass of phobias–not on the Adrian Monk scale, but pretty close. I’m afraid of deep water because I almost drowned as a teenager. I’m afraid of fire because I was seriously burned on my back as a child. I’m afraid of heights, enclosed spaces, and spiders. I am terrified of book reviewers.
Lorie: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
Lorie: How do you compete in an overcrowded market?
Sandra: Not terribly well, I’m afraid! It’s hard for any book to stand out, and harder still for books from small and medium-sized independent presses, which are not often carried by bookstore chains. Online promotion has become essential. It takes time away from writing, and nobody seems to know whether it works, but it’s considered critical. I do what I can and hope for the best–and a single e-mail from a reader saying, “I just finished your new book and I loved it!” can make weeks of frustration worthwhile.
To enter to win an e-book copy of Bleeding Through, simply email KRL at life@kingsriverlife[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Bleeding”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen September 29, 2012. U.S. residents only.
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