Today I’m conducting a session with…Susan Alice Bickford!
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Me: Tell me about an experience that had a profound impact on your life.
Susan: At the end of my freshman year in high school, two classmates from my homeroom did not show up for the last day of school. The whispers were that they had left in their bathing suits to go swimming and “run off.”
They hadn’t run off. Two months later their bodies were found in a nearby field. But the whispers didn’t stop. They were from a disadvantaged community in our district. One girl had been pregnant that year. The other was mildly on the special needs spectrum. They had brought this on themselves. At least that was the message I heard. Their killer(s) were never officially identified.
We were friendly but not close friends. I sat next to them every day. The way their case was treated made me angry. The school bent over backward to mourn kids who died in car accidents—usually due to drinking—but did not even talk about these girls. I was convinced the police just didn’t care enough. This might not have been true, but I felt that at the time.
Decades later I sat down to write the beginning of A Short Time to Die, and I knew I had to make the story about a girl in high school who is faced with mortal danger and manages to escape. I knew she comes from a community that choses to look the other way.My book is about my deep need to address the tragedy of my classmates deaths. @bixxib #AOTC #AmWriting Click To Tweet
Me: What personality trait of yours helps you most as an author?
Susan: Although I do not consider myself an impulsive person, as I look back I can see that I have been willing to make a number of disruptive changes. These may seem very abrupt but to me they are the result of many wheels turning into just the right configuration, making the way forward obvious—if sometimes a bit scary.
For example, at sixteen I decided to drop out of high school and apply to college. I visited a college I knew was perfect, they said I could get in for the coming year, and off I went. My parents were a bit shell shocked. I had a wonderful education and a fantastic time and that probably set the stage for future decisions.
Over the years, I transitioned from fine arts to computer arts to high tech in Silicon Valley, trusting that I could “figure it out” at each juncture.
When I took a break from my lean in career, I was overwhelmed by the need to write stories. Undaunted by lack of deep understanding of publishing or genre fiction, I embraced my new passion. I continued my high tech work and built my skills and wrote like crazy, which leads to another trait: I am willing to fail. Up to a point. I don’t expect instant success as long as I can see progress, plus that I am learning and having fun.
Me: What personality trait of yours hinders you most as an author?
Susan: I like variety and having choices. This not a bad thing, but it means that I am easily bored and may allow other tasks or opportunities pull my attention in different directions.
Sometimes that’s a different story than the one I’m working on, or other life issues. Compensating for this is a tricky balancing act. In careful measures, variety and change are stimulating. Indulging them can lead to stress because I know I have obligations that require attention.
Every trait / characteristic is neutral—neither good nor bad. It’s all about trying to keep the positive side of the coin facing up. To do that, course corrections are often required.
Me:What was your high point as a writer?
Susan: When I was looking for an agent, I talked to a number of smaller publishers and agents who told me that A Short Time to Die had to be the first in a series. I wrote it as a standalone and I found this very discouraging.
During my first phone conversation with my to-be agent, Anne Hawkins, I said that I assumed I would have to make this the first in a series. Anne said, “Oh this is clearly not a series. It’s a standalone.”
Anne was the first person who truly “got” my book and I was thrilled. I knew she would find a publisher.
Of course I was also thrilled when we landed at Kensington. Michaela Hamilton, my editor, got this too. But there is something special about the first time.
Me: What was your low point as a writer—a time when you questioned your path?
Susan: My second manuscript just didn’t cut it. It was good, but not gripping enough. As the author I was too close be certain, so I finished it, stepped back and thought meh. I was hoping my editor wouldn’t notice, but she agreed J
I was very discouraged at first. I took a deep virtual breath and acknowledged that this is my profession now and I owe it to myself to face up to shortcomings. I need to produce work that is the best that I can possibly produce. My editor worked through some suggestions with me and I’m off and running again.I need to produce work that is the best that I can possibly produce. @bixxib #AOTC #AmWriting Click To Tweet
Me: How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Susan: I caught the bug at about the age of 10. I was an avid reader but not much of a student as I saw no point to homework. When my fifth grade teacher assigned creative writing papers, I realized that was what I loved.
However, I also loved art and science and other things. Initially I studied comparative literature in college but switched to Fine Arts. In the process I studied YA writing with Natalie Babbitt.
At some point, the kinds of stories I could tell visually became less interesting and I drifted back to narrative. That hovered for many years until I was finally compelled to write.
Me: Who is your book boyfriend? Why?
Susan: Oooh. Funny you should ask. I adore Carl Harris, the youngest Harris brother who in his late 60’s finally inherits leadership of the Harris clan of rural criminals after his oldest brother disappears (and turns up dead) along with his brother’s favorite son, the heir-apparent.
Carl has been so patient for so long—waiting for his opportunity. Now he wants to be a modern, enlightened crime boss. But he can’t help himself. He is like the scorpion in the classic fable who can’t help but sting the frog that carries him across the river, because it is in his nature.
Is Carl a good bad guy or a bad good guy? I’m not sure there is a valid distinction, but it was loads of fun writing him. Personally, I vote for bad good guy.
Carl and Marly, my main character, are opposite sides of the same coin, and face off regularly.
Both are smart, self aware, and trapped. Carl succumbs to the horrific pressures of vicious family behavior despite his desire to do better. The same pressures transform Marly from coal to diamonds. She struggles but embraces empathy and thrives.
Me: If you could be any character in any book for a day who would you be? Why?
Susan: I would choose Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone. I love the humor in her observations and the tempered humanity in her judgments. She is flawed, prickly, funny, and completely independent.
Me: Tell me about your thriller/suspense, A Short Time to Die.
Walking home from a high school dance on a foggy autumn night in rural New York, Marly Shaw sees a flash of approaching headlights. A pickup truck stops and two men get out. One of them is the girl’s stepfather. She runs. They follow. Minutes later, gunshots are fired, two men are dead, and one terrified girl is running—for the rest of her life…
Thirteen years later, human bones are discovered in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. DNA tests reveal they belong to a mother and son from Central New York. Both have criminal records. Assault. Involuntary manslaughter. Maybe more. Santa Clara County Sheriff Detective Vanessa Alba wants to know how these backwater felons ended up so far from home.
Vanessa and her partner, Jack Wong, head to the icy terrain of the Finger Lakes to uncover the secrets of a powerful family whose crimes are too horrifying to comprehend. Whose grip over a frightened community is too strong to break. And whose twisted ideas of blood and honor are a never-ending nightmare for the one family member who thought she got away…
Me: Share with us a favorite paragraph or two from your newest release, A Short Time to Die.
Elaine thrashed and smashed her feet together. Louise let go with a yelp. Another chunk of the cliff edge dropped away, leaving Louise’s legs dangling in the open air. She pawed at the bare dirt for a handhold as Marly continued to pull Elaine away.
Marly had seen Louise angry many times, but never fearful. Even now, Louise looked more furious than afraid. It occurred to Marly that, perhaps for Louise, those two emotions had always been the same.
Balanced on the soft, crumbling ledge, Louise was beyond help—her upper body among the living and her feet already tasting death. Marly watched, transfixed, as Louise swore, scratched, and scrabbled, grasping at twigs and rock, and slipped from view.
Still tethered to Elaine, Marly tilted her head back and yelled into the uncaring sky.
“Smarties win, Louise. See you in hell.”
What I love about this tidbit is that Marly Shaw finally understands the fundamental nature of Louise Harris, an arch-nemesis. Marly cannot resist the empathetic pull but it is too late. Even if she wanted too, it is much too late to save Louise and Marly knows it.
The notion that our bodies know things is also compelling to me. Louise’s feet know she is already dead, but her head and arms reach for life.
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You can find Susan here:
Abbie Roads writes dark emotional novels featuring damaged characters, but always gives her hero and heroine a happy ending… after torturing them for three hundred pages. RACE THE DARKNESS and HUNT THE DAWN are available now! SAVING MERCY Book 1 in the Fatal Truth Series is available now.