Friday, January 18, 2019

Suspense Author Louisa Luna on Her Kick-ass Female Investigator, Her Nail-Biter Plot, and Her Dream Writer's Retreat

Louisa Luna is the author of Brave New Girl and Crooked. She lives in New York City. Her new mystery, Two Girls Down, is available now; Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, saying, "The brisk plot combines psychological suspense with solid action, while providing a realistic look at a family under siege, as it builds to a shocking finale."The story line teams a tough former bounty hunter with a disgraced former cop, and they work well together, both in the novel and with readers.

Louisa, thanks for visiting the blog. First and foremost, I’m sure readers want to know—is Two Girls Down a stand-alone, or will readers see Vega and Cap again? They both seemed to have secrets that could emerge in later books.                                                                                            

Oh, they’ll both be back. I’m happy to say the sequel is done – it’s called The Janes, and it will be out in about a year, published by Doubleday. There will also definitely be at least one more book after that. 

Alice Vega was a paradox—she broke rules, but she did it for the right reasons. I would love to have her fighting on my behalf. Did you have anyone, or any particular concept, in mind when you created her?

When I started writing, I just knew I wanted a tough woman protagonist. Salander from Dragon Tattoo was an influence but I wanted mine to be a little older and well-established in her career path. 

The challenge was to make her realistic – I wanted her to take no shit and do anything to get the job done, and I wanted her to be the smartest person in the room. And I wanted it to be believable that she could fight anyone at any time. All the research I did about bounty hunters (Vega’s former job) indicated that there are very few women in that line of work, and the women who make that their livelihoods are physically built for the job – tall and burly and able to take a bail jumper down through hand-to-hand combat. I wanted to build Vega average-size, but very strong but I knew in order to sell it on the page, she would have to use every other tool at her disposal as well – namely words and weapons. That informed a lot of her character along with her ability to read people and figure out what they need the most.   

The mystery has a terrible reality at its center—the endless narrative of missing girls. Did you do extensive research about abductions of women and girls in America? If so, I imagine it was depressing.

I pulled a lot from my own imagination to begin with. But then I did a lot of reading about missing persons and children, both girls and boys, which were all harrowing, deeply sad and disturbing stories. The grief that the parents and families of missing persons/children feel is just bottomless and never goes away. The three books on the topic that stand out in my memory are Bringing Adam Home by Les Standiford and Joe Matthews, The Last Place You’d Look by Carole Moore and People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry. They are excellent reads, but tough subject matter.

After immersing yourself in this content for so long, what is your response to the recent and unexpected news that Jayme Closs has been found alive?

I would not call myself any kind of an expert on the topic, but this did seem like an unusual case because such a small percentage of abducted kids are abducted by strangers, as I recall. And even more unusual that the abductee survives, I would think.

But honestly I think I’m coming at it the way most people are, which is to say thrilled and happy that she is alive and astonished by her bravery. She has already beaten incredible odds.

I hope she can get to the other side of the trauma she’s been through; I saw that picture of her with her aunt and her dog and read her aunt’s statement – she has a lot of people who love her and who are pulling for her, which is all you can ask for in a situation like that.

One of the things I love about Alice Vega is that she simply refuses to be intimidated. Is this something she had to cultivate, or is it innate to her character?

I think the key to Vega is that she has no fear of pain or death. Once you take that away, there’s a great deal of freedom because she literally has nothing to lose. She’s also a pretty economical character, and I don’t mean in the monetary sense; I mean she only deals in what is useful to her.  I think she has found that fear is not useful in her life and work so she excised it at some point. Of course she is a human so she’ll still experience fear and guilt and love but she’ll do her best to stop it if it’s not serving her in some way.

I appreciated the fact that in creating your various law enforcement officials, who faced some internal conflicts, you stayed away from clichés and stereotypes and let the readers see some good in every one of them. Was this a conscious decision?

Absolutely. I find character clichés so lazy, and I get frustrated when I’m reading a book or watching a show/movie, and there’s a c*ckblocking FBI agent or an-impulsive-yet-talented rookie or a bad girl with a heart of gold. It’s not that these people can’t or don’t exist; I just always want them to be full real characters. That’s what I tried to do with all the cops and Feds, give them faces, names, quirks, bad sides, good sides. 

Also I have a good friend who is a cop who advised me a lot on procedural stuff, and from his stories on the job, it was very clear that law enforcement is like other workplaces in that some people are great and trying to do the right thing and some people are jerks and absolutely not trying to do the right thing.

I am assuming you are a mom based on the way you wrote the character of Jamie Brandt, and for this reason I am guessing her character was the hardest to write. Was it rather terrifying to imagine how it would feel to have your child abducted, almost under your very nose?

I am a mom! When I had my daughter, I felt like I suddenly understood something beautiful and terrifying about life. I started writing the book when she was two, and the plot kick-off was pretty much my deepest fears laid out on the page, so I suppose it was therapeutic in a way. 
There were times when we’d be at the playground or somewhere, and I’d be chatting with another mom or looking at my phone and then I’d glance up and not see her for thirty seconds, and well, there it is, that’s the fear, and every parent has felt it.

As for Jamie, I just tried to get inside her head and walk through those moments. I wanted them to feel excruciatingly real. 

Your dialogue was a pleasure to read. It was sophisticated, immersing me in the story, but it was also an opportunity to insert much-needed levity into a grim tale. I especially love the dialogues between Cap and his daughter, but also some that Cap had with his former colleagues. Is writing dialogue something that comes easily to you?

It feels that way. I love dialogue because it can do so much in such a small space. I think I also find out who my people are through dialogue more than prose. I knew Cap was going to have a teenage daughter who was sort of thoughtful but I didn’t know who Nell was until she started talking. Now it’s like she could have her own spin-off.

As for Cap and his buddies, again, I tried to work against cop clichés and layer shop-talk with humor and familiarity. But dialogue definitely crystallized these characters for me – Junior, Em, Traynor – all of their images sharpened up through the dialogue.

What got you started writing in this genre?

I’ve always loved mysteries/thrillers/noir. When I was in my twenties I was lucky enough to publish three books in a row. The third one, published in 2004, was my crack at a modern noir, and it was not particularly successful (narratively or commercially-speaking), but I was just starting to play around with the format.

So I read a lot between the time I finished that one and the time I started 2GD, and for some reason, I thought I could pull off writing a suspense novel. I didn’t know the ending when I started, but I think one of the things the most successful mysteries have in common is atmosphere, tone. And I thought if I could get that along with good characters, I’d be halfway home and could figure out the plot later.
Are there any particular authors that inspire you, in the mystery genre or elsewhere?

Oh, so many. I love a lot of authors are that can’t be genre-ized, or that create new genres, or are just really good at what they do. And as you see, they are all over the map. Some are: George Saunders, Rachel Kushner, Donald Ray Pollock, Carmen Maria Machado, Anna Quindlen, Lee Child, Mo Hayder, Donna Tartt, Elizabeth Strout.

What are you reading now?

As I wrote above, I recently finished the sequel which had an intensely complicated plot, and after that, I just needed to cleanse my brain of fiction so I read a great non-fiction book on a topic about which I knew absolutely nothing: What The Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing by Brian Seibert.  It is fantastic and totally accessible and beautifully-written. Now I’m a little obsessed with tap dancing.

Also I read a bunch of short stories but there’s one I can’t stop thinking about: “Two Lasagnas” by Elisa Albert in Tin House magazine. Talk about tone. I was sad when it was over. I would have been up for reading a Knausgaard-length autobiography in that character’s voice.

If you could go to a beautiful writer’s retreat anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Bolinas, California. My parents lived there for a while while I was in college and in my twenties, and something about the ocean and the beach and the fog just makes me want to slow down and let the ideas come in.

Where can readers found out more about you and your books?

Someday I’ll have a Twitter and an IG, but that day is not today.

Thanks so much, Louisa! I look forward to THE JANES.