Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Real Writer At Last

Several years ago I read an interview with Laurel K. Hamilton. She was talking about how embarrassed she was to interview a detective for her first Anita Blake novel because she needed to ask him what the police would do if they found dug-up and partially eaten corpses in a graveyard. Apparently the question didn't even faze him; he eluded to worse things that have actually happened, though I can't imagine what that could be.

What I took away from the interview was a kind of jealousy for her courage and success before she was published. I'd often wanted to interview police or certain professionals for research on my novels, but I felt that as an unpublished writer, I hadn't earned the right to be taken seriously. I didn't think they would have time for a nobody. Even after three published novels, I still felt that way becuase I wasn't "famous" or published by a big house like Penguin. And I'm sure some of my novels have suffered for it when I glossed over details to hide my ignorance. Then earlier this year I wrote my first YA novel, and because of the sensitive subject matter, I was forced to grow some balls.

Subjects like teen suicide and bullying deserve more than a "glossing over" of facts. It's real, it's pervasive, and it's terrible. Aside from being burned by critics for not doing my research, I also feared I would be doing a kind of injustice to teens who had been affected by bullying, or the ones who had committed suicide because of it. So I put out a request on Facebook, asking if anyone knew cops and detectives that I might be able to interview. The response was overwhelming; because I'd made so many connections with other authors, everyone knew someone connected to a police force. Soon I had more than enough leads to follow up on, and settled on a classmate's retired dad, and a friend of my sister's who works for the local police department. The first interview, with my classmate's dad, was conducted by email and was therefore pretty easy. The second, which ended up being with a detective with the Phoenix Police Department who specializes in teen bullying, was done over the phone. Needless to say, I was a nervous wreck.

I came up with a list of questions because I knew I would be too nervous to remember everything, and I even practiced my opening "monologue." I psyched myself up by reminding myself that I had three published novels with a traditional publisher, one of which won Novel of the Year. I had published articles, short stories, three plays. But in spite of all that, I couldn't quell this underlying fear that I was just a big sham. I felt like I was twelve years old, writing a "book" on a lark, and that a real detective would see (or hear) right through me. The fact that he was so willing to talk to me was the key to my eventual success in going through with the phone call. Without knowing anything about me and my publishing history, he was very interested in talking to and helping me, which told me he took me seriously enough to give me his personal cell phone number which I could call when he was at home. Talk about trust! I was still nervous as hell throughout the conversation, and mortified myself at the end when I got choked up telling him how much it meant to me, that he'd taken me seriously. "You've made me feel," I told him, "like a real writer." To which he responded, "You are a real writer."

Anyway, I learned a lot about investigations into bullying and suicide, most of which I hadn't known. I'm sure I'll still get some things wrong because I was so nervous, but at least I have a chance of getting away with looking like I might know what I'm talking about. More than anything, I came away from the interview feeling empowered, like now that I had gotten that first important interview out of the way, I could request interviews with just about anyone. It's really more about a writer's own confidence than their experience that will garner interviews with "important" people, and that was the big difference between Laurel K. Hamilton and myself. She knew she was worth someone else's time.

At the end of the phone conversation, the detective even expressed interest in reading my novel once it's finished. Now that's being generous with his time, especially since that came after I had to confess the main plot of the novel. "Well, see, there's this alien that takes over a teen's body." He was very polite: "Oh. Um...okay."

Ashley J. Barnard
Dark Fantasy with a Contemporary Twist


Rosemary Gemmell said...

Excellent post, Ashley, and I empathise completely. Well done on getting those interviews. My daughter has written a YA novel on a similar dark subject (out on spec with agents just now) and consulted her friend's policeman husband with a query.

I was always in awe of one of my friends who seemed to have no hesitation in contacting all sorts of police/forensics people for her FIRST crime novel - I'd never have the nerve!

Now, her 10th crime novel is about to be published (she's with a big traditional publisher) and she even gives talks to the professionals sometimes. My husband reckons it's not talent writers (like me) often need, it's the nerve and push to go with it!

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

I like your kicker at the end. No wonder you were nervous.

We do tend to discount ourselves if we don't have a high profile. Your addressing this issue is very encouraging. We forget the experts have ego and shyness issues, too, and might be feeling like they have to "fake it to make it," as Dr. Phil says.

Good post.

Ashley J. Barnard said...

Thanks, ladies! I agree that nerve is everything. And something I hadn't thought of before is that professionals might really want to be involved in the making of a novel. Then when it gets published, they can say, "I taught her everythign she knows." : )

TK Toppin said...

Great post! And quite inspiring.

Hehe...loved the last line. I may have just withered away and hung up before answering that...

January Bain said...

Ashley, thank goodness you had the heart to do it right on such an important subject.

Anonymous said...

If you want to see wacky murder stuff, watch BONES on TV. Creepy.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year, (2008 and 2009)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...


I thought you were in your cave writing books.

Wacky medical stuff is on House.

Jude Johnson said...

Well done, Ashley. And you didn't have to grow balls. As Betty White says, a vagina is far tougher. ;-)