BY CONNIE WARD
What made you decide to be a fiction writer?
From about the age of eleven, I have always loved to be “safely scared.” I consider it to be “safe” because I can leave the scariness at any point I choose—close the book, turn off the screen, leave the movie theater. This option makes the fear palatable but also exhilarating, which is what keeps me coming back for more. One of my favorite memories of being “safely scared” was reading Stephen King’s It at the age of fourteen. I was completely engrossed in the characters and their plight to kill It in its natural form. I had never before connected so strongly with a character or book. It was also very significant for me because it was the first time I ever considered writing as a career option for me. The more I read about the character Bill Denbrough, the more I thought I might be able to do that job one day, too.
Since my teens, I have always written journals, poems, and short stories, but I didn’t decide to pursue writing seriously until I was in college. I took a number of creative-writing classes, and those only confirmed for me that I wanted to write. When I was a teenager, I used to call writing my hobby. I’ve found that as an adult I cannot live without the outlet of writing. It’s the constant in my life that keeps me balanced. I cannot imagine living a day without the promise of falling into that rabbit hole of a story, whether in my mind or on paper.
While fiction is my first love, I also write creative nonfiction and screenplays. It all depends on the story that comes to me and the medium that best fits it.
What types of stories do you write and why?
When I first began writing seriously in college, I wanted to be a horror writer. The longer I wrote, though, the more I began to see a shift in my fiction writing that was based more on justice, which led me to the thriller genre. Like many of my characters, I am concerned about the concept of justice: who receives it and why. I suppose this is why I write thrillers and spend so much time with characters who work in law enforcement. I love to read thrillers, mysteries, and horror books. When I choose a book to read, 90 percent of the time it will come from one of these genres. I write what I love to read.
Many of my longer works—novels and screenplays—are generally thrillers. I need the length of a novel to fully develop a thriller, and it doesn’t always work for me to write them in the short-story format. My short stories, however, tend to focus more on characters with an emphasis on gender and sexuality.
What do your family/friends think of your writing?
I’m speaking for my family here, so I hope I get it right! I don’t think many of my relatives are surprised that I write, and they all support me. My father’s family has quite a few members who are in the arts, and, in that regard, I have inherited that gene. My grandfather was a musician who traveled the country performing jazz concerts, and my great-grandmother painted everything she could. I was lucky to grow up in a family where the arts were revered. It only seemed natural for me to also follow as a writer. In terms of my friends, nearly all of them are artists in some way—many write or paint. We all support each other’s artistic endeavors.
Where do you get your ideas?
I have noticed a fascinating reaction from many people when I tell them I have an interest in crime and write thrillers; it has become one of my favorite parts of being a writer. Many people tell me about strange cases they have heard about, bizarre occurrences with crime in their family lineage and close encounters with criminals or strange situations that they or their friends have encountered. Not only are these stories really interesting to me, but sometimes parts of these conversations wind themselves into my writing as well.
I follow crime in the media, and I take some of my ideas from real cases. I have found that the old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” can be very true for someone who writes thrillers. Sometimes I mix elements from different cases to create crimes for my stories. I teach a course on prison literature and culture, and I love to read/hear the firsthand accounts from inmates about their crimes. This resource gives me many ideas as to how to develop strong and believable characters for my stories and novels.
How do you write? Do you plan everything out or just write?
This is an interesting question because it changes for me based on what I am writing. If I’m working on a short story or essay, I basically just write. I plan a very loose outline of what will happen in my mind, but I generally find that changes as I write. As for novels, I draft out the plot and keep it near me as I work. I might use five to eight plot markers (significant events and changes I want to occur in the work). Sometimes those plot markers change and I might write some segments about a character or a scene that isn’t outlined, but the basic storyline is. When I start a novel or a longer work, I know the beginning, the middle, and the end. What comes in between those plot markers is negotiable and given the space to grow and change.
I am also a writer who believes in the importance of drafting. It’s necessary for me to write at least two drafts—the first, in which I try to get all my ideas down on paper, and the second, which involves shaping the storyline and the characters.
What makes Crossed special to you?
Because Crossed is my first published novel, it will always hold a significant place in my heart. Crossed is also very special to me because it was part of my graduate-degree program. A much earlier draft of Crossed was my dissertation.
One of my favorite parts of creative writing is the research I do for my work. I am a history buff of sorts. The research for this novel interested me because I learned so much about ex-gay ministries and conversion therapy. While these topics appalled me at times, reading about them really helped me understand the history of the LGBT community and its past relations to religion and psychology.
Writing Crossed also introduced me to Detective Luce Hansen, someone whose story needed to be told and a character I have spent a significant amount of time with in the last few years. I have learned so much about justice and the law from her. Most importantly, Luce has taught me a great deal about the power of hope and forgiveness.
How much of yourself and the people you know are in your characters?
I tend to write characters based on two things: what I know and what I am interested in. Many of my characters have some aspect of me in them, some more than others, but I see all of them as independent and separate from me, my family, and my friends. That’s not to say I won’t use a specific character trait from a friend for a character or an experience someone in my family may have had, but the character has not been created as a replica of me or someone I know.
I also develop characters who struggle with a problem or situation that I find interesting and want to know more about. It could be that I have never known a person who has struggled with a particular issue presented in a character, but my interest and research into that topic helps me to create her/him. For example, in my novel Crossed, the character Chaz Jameson has no connection to anyone I know. This particular character is the only child of a devout, self-proclaimed minister who leads the One True Path organization (an ex-gay ministry). Chaz has also been exposed to many sessions of conversion therapy. He is very important to the exploration of that topic in the story, and I relied on case studies of teenagers who faced conversion therapy as well as firsthand accounts of those experiences. All of that documentation helped, but I also had to spend a good deal of time imagining what it must be like to be Chaz and how it might have felt to go through conversion therapy under his father’s orders. In the end, Chaz is one of my favorite characters in the book.
Which gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender authors inspired you most? Do you have a favorite?
Many writers have inspired me, but I would have to say that Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jeanette Winterson, Leslie Feinberg, and Lidia Yuknavitch have influenced me in different ways and at different points in my life. Woolf, Gilman, and Feinberg were earlier influences on my writing, and I first read them in college. I admire the way these works depict the lives and struggles of women as well as the relationships that develop between them. I particularly go back to my Winterson books to reread the way she develops the relationships between her characters. I’m also fascinated by the way Winterson depicts time in some of her writings. She does amazing work with stories that are not always linear. Written on the Body is my favorite Winterson book, and every time I read it, I get lost in its beauty. I have been reading A LOT of Yuknavitch in the last few months and am so inspired by her courage and honesty. She comes to the page like a warrior for women! I hope to someday show as much courage in my own writing.
Do you have any suggestions for new writers?
READ! Read everything you can get your hands on. Read books and stories from many different genres and ones that cover a variety of topics. I love what Stephen King has to say on this topic and remind myself of this advice frequently: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. It’s as simple as that.”
Writing also takes a tremendous amount of practice and a tremendous amount of drafting. You have to be willing to devote the hours to study the craft. I have found that at times writing can be very challenging. It takes a good deal of dedication and hard work. It can also be a lot of fun, and I have met so many terrific and creative people along the way. Neil Gaiman said it best in his description of what it takes to be a writer: “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”
When you aren’t writing, what do you do for fun?
When I’m not writing, I spend a good deal of my time reading. I also watch a lot of movies and detective/mystery series—some of my favorites are The X-Files and The Fall. I enjoy painting and visiting art houses/museums. Most days after work I enjoy nothing more than taking my dog to the park for a good game of fetch. I have always been a fan of water sports, and when I was younger, I swam competitively. I still love to swim and be near the water—pool, lake, river, or ocean, I love them all.