by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review of Little Pretty Things by Lori Rader-Day, along with an interesting interview with Lori. Details at the end of this post on how to win a copy of Little Pretty Things, along with a link to purchase the book where a portion goes to help support KRL & indie bookstore Mysterious Galaxy.
Little Pretty Things By Lori Rader-Day
Review by Cynthia Chow
In the ten years since graduating from Midway High School, former track star Juliet Townsend is living a life she never expected. The death of her father forced her to leave college in order to support her agoraphobic and depressed mother, and Juliet continues to feel trapped working in a dead-end job at a bargain motel. Juliet’s lack of a future is slammed in her face when her former best friend Madeline Bell walks into the Mid-Night Inn. The contrast between Juliet and the beautiful and obviously well-off Maddy stirs up a wave of bitterness and envy, and Juliet is unable to control them when Madeline asks if they could once again be friends.
Juliet regrets the insecurity that caused her to lash out, but before she can make amends, she discovers Madeline’s body swinging from the Mid-Night Inn balcony. The death is ruled a murder, and investigating officer Courtney Howard still simmers with her own resentment for once having felt overshadowed by Juliet and Maddy: in this small dying Indiana town, memories remain long and unforgiving. Believing that Courtney would love nothing more to wield revenge by arresting her, Juliet investigates not only who could have wanted Maddy dead, but also why their friendship shattered, and she finds herself back in the one place she had been desperate to escape—Midway High School, where she’s now a substitute gym coach.
From the opening chapter, readers will be completely drawn into this dark novel narrated by a woman seething with bitterness and anger. Despite this, and despite Juliet’s kleptomania, the author manages to create a sort of empathy with her.
Feeling as though she has been going nowhere for the last ten years, Juliet is desperate to share any sensations of travel and escape (hence stealing items from motel guests), a sentiment felt throughout the town, as many of the residents struggle to pull themselves out of roles they’ve fallen into. As Juliet faces the secrets the town has been complacent in hiding, she displays a strength and intelligence that make her engaging. This extraordinarily compelling novel is one that is nearly impossible to put down, and rarely has there been a heroine so sympathetically flawed and so entirely worthy of redemption.
Interview with Lori Rader-Day
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Lori: I remember trying to write for the first time when I was about seven years old. It took a long time for me to finish anything, though, and much longer to get to the point where I was committed–working to get better, spending the time. I’ve been serious about writing since 2006.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
Lori: My first novel was The Black Hour, published in 2014 by Seventh Street Books. It’s the story of a Chicago sociology professor who survives a campus attack by a student she didn’t know. With the help of an over-eager grad student, she undertakes a reluctant investigation into the attack in the hopes of reclaiming her life. It received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal and was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and for Anthony, Barry, and Macavity awards.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Lori: I wrote short stories at first, and these weren’t crime stories. I had a short story in Good Housekeeping magazine, for instance just a family story, no mystery. When I started writing a longer piece, what I wrote turned out to be crime fiction.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Lori: Little Pretty Things is the story of Juliet Townsend, a woman about ten years out of high school who is stuck in her hometown in a sad motel-cleaning job, living far below the dreams she had for herself. Once she had such promise, second only to her best friend and track team rival. I set the book in central Indiana, where I’m from, because the setting is an isolating one that fit the story and of course I could get some of the details right from memory. Juliet is also based on the kind of girl I might have turned out to be if I hadn’t gone to college. I think I would have had a hard time finding the thing I was good at, finding a way to make a living, all of that.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Lori: I write to entertain myself first, but I do want readers to be swept up in the story and carried away. I don’t mind if my books make them think a little, too. Both novels have had social justice themes at their heart–not manifestos by any means, but topics that I found myself thinking about as I wrote. Writing a novel is such a big part of your life. When you’re working on it intensely, real life starts to send you ideas that seem to fit the story. I’m not going to give any muse the credit; I think it’s just your brain at work on the novel even when you’re not writing.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Lori: I wrote my first two novels while working a demanding day job, writing during my lunch hours and in the evenings and on weekends. I wrote 10,000 words of my first novel on a cruise ship on vacation. Actually, vacation writing has been good to me. I started Little Pretty Things in a rental house in Wisconsin.
KRL: 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?
Lori: I don’t. I forge ahead as best I can with the information I have and then go back over now and then when I have new information and ideas. I keep one Word document for the text of the book and one Word document for notes and little reverse-outline notes on what I’ve written. For Little Pretty Things, I had a little room map outlined so I could remember which direction the office was from the bar, etc. And then of course I changed the design of the motel late in the game and had to rewrite all those parts of the book.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Lori: I wouldn’t say I’m a morning person, but I love the quiet of the morning for writing.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Lori: I had some early wins with short stories getting placed and winning prizes, but then of course writing novels was a new game with new rules. I found that meeting people in the field gave me a chance to ask my dumb questions “off-line” a bit, so that I could bypass some of the early struggles. I also read a lot about publishing but having a small group of people to talk with was the best fast-forward button. I joined Mystery Writers of America as my hack, but others might join other associations or start a writing group themselves.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Lori: I just want to keep writing books that interest me and that readers enjoy. It’s so unlikely that anyone can make a living from writing anymore, but if I could at least keep up the creative side of writing for the rest of my life, that’s all I want.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Lori: Agatha Christie, Lois Duncan, Mary Higgins Clark–long careers, amazing books, strong women. I’ve met Ms. Duncan and Ms. Clark, and those meetings were definitely bucket list-level events for me.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Lori: If I need to do research, I’ll ask around for experts or read a book or online research just to get the gist of a topic. Sometimes I just write something the way I hope it works and let an expert tell me afterward what I got wrong. For Little Pretty Things, I had a friend of mine who had run track in high school read the book to see what I got wrong about running. She gave me some notes that helped me expand a few opportunities, but she said I must have been a runner in a past life. I’m adding that to my bio.
KRL: What do you read?
Lori: I read anything that looks good, but mostly mystery, amateur sleuth and psychological suspense and some police procedural. My favorite books ever are To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (I’m anti-Watchman, before you ask) and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Lori: BBC Sherlock, Vera, The Big Bang Theory, Castle. Anything Jane Austen.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Lori: Write the book before you worry about things like getting an agent or getting published. Write the book and then, if you have to, write another one.
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
KRL: How do you compete in an overcrowded market?
Lori: Write good books. It’s the only thing you can do.
KRL: Juliet is such a unique character, deeply flawed and almost having given up on looking for a better life. Why did you choose to create such an initially bitter, but ultimately very sympathetic, character?
Lori: Juliet is a little young for her age, a little sheltered and stunted. I like characters who get things wrong, whose worldview is skewed in their own favor. We all do that, if we’re honest. Juliet’s bitterness is misplaced, and in the process of reconciling the things she thought she knew with the truth, she also gets to reconcile the things she’s always believed about herself with the truth. She gets to grow up a bit. I hope it’s as satisfying to the reader as it was to write.
KRL: There is so much desperation felt by several characters who feel trapped in a small town. Were they inspired by people you know?
Lori: I was desperate to leave my home state until I did, but that’s such a young person mentality. Once you’re a little older, you’re able to see the positive aspects of the places you couldn’t imagine staying forever. And of course you can see things more clearly with distance. Every place has its merits and detractions. You can make a life for yourself anywhere. I’m sure plenty of people I grew up with have regrets that they never tried somewhere else, but then I wonder what it would be like to live closer to my family. We always wonder about the grass on the other side of the fence.
KRL: Friendship appears as such a prevalent theme. Have you experienced those levels of friendship?
Lori: I haven’t had the exact kind of friendship that Juliet had with Maddy, but I think it’s possible to love someone fiercely and also have a competitive relationship. I have marvelous friends, mostly from college and from jobs I’ve had over the years. It’s hard to make friends as an adult, so I really value these people and the efforts we all make to stay in touch, even if we don’t see each other very much.
KRL: Why do you think that our experiences in high school have the ability to affect us for the rest of our life?
Lori: It probably has to do with the time of our life we spend in high school, not just four years but four very formative years, when we’re trying to figure out who we are and what we want to be. Who we are in the high school yearbook isn’t who we are, but then it’s there, in place, for everyone to see. High school is the last universal experience for most American kids, before some peel off toward jobs and others go to college, some start families, some don’t. It’s a touchstone, but then we’re so young, we don’t know as much as we thought we did at the time.
KRL: Do you think that it is only living in small towns that make it difficult to escape your high school identity?
Lori: I think it could make it difficult, but then that wasn’t my experience. Maybe everyone back in my hometown still thinks of me as I was in high school and I just don’t know it.
KRL: What inspired you about Juliet’s obsession with Little Pretty Things?
Lori: When I started writing Little Pretty Things, Juliet was at first a character looking for a flaw. She had a lot of big problems with the way things had turned out for her, but I thought maybe she might want control over the little things, or the illusion that she did.
To enter to win a copy of Little Pretty Things, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Pretty,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen August 8, 2015. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
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Click on this link to purchase this book and a portion goes to help support KRL & Mysterious Galaxy: