Hilary was kind enough to answer a few questions for Pulp Serenade about her new book, her own background as a travel writer, as well as her writing habits and some of her favorite books.
Be sure to visit Hilary at www.hilarydavidson.com and pick up a copy of The Damage Done as your local, independent bookstore. Signed copies are available in New York City at Partners and Crime Bookstore.
Pulp Serenade: Lily Moore is the main character in The Damage Done. Could you say a few words about how you developed the character?
Hilary Davidson: I’m embarrassed to admit how little I knew about Lily when I started writing the book. There were two things I was certain about: Lily’s relationship with her sister, Claudia, is a source of constant pain to her, and she works as a travel writer. I think people will assume that Lily’s day job was determined by the fact that I’ve been a travel writer for the past decade, but it has a lot to do with Claudia. Lily isn’t even two years older than Claudia, but she’s been the “good girl” taking care of her wild, wayward sister for years. I tried to imagine the toll that would take on a person, and what she would do to get away from the burden. For Lily, travel writing is an escape valve — since it’s her career, she can justify going away and leaving Claudia, even though she feels guilty about it.
As I was writing, those elements were like compass points. Lily and Claudia had a very disturbed home life growing up, especially after their father died. I thought about what Lily’s escape was when she was young, and that’s where Lily’s love of old movies and vintage glamour comes from. The character really developed when I figured out what her pressure points were.
PS: From "Anniversary" to "Fetish" to "Insatiable" and now to The Damage Done, your stories feature both compelling, mysterious stories and strong, dynamic characters. For you, do characters create the plots, or do plots create the characters?
HD: That’s an incredibly kind thing for you to say — thank you. Most of the time, what happens is that I’ll have a scenario in mind — it’s a bit like having a snapshot or a short film clip playing in my head. I can see this picture, but I don’t know what’s going on inside it. I want to know who these people are, and why they’re doing whatever it is they’re doing. In “Fetish,” I had an image of an older man sitting in a bar, with a very attractive, much younger woman who’s intent on manipulating him. I started to write it, but something felt off and I set the story aside for a while. When I looked at it again, I realized that the woman was the man’s daughter, and everything clicked into place. So, for me, character drives plot, but the starting point for everything is an image I’m trying to explain to myself.
PS: What was the biggest challenge to writing The Damage Done? The most fun?
HD: Writing the book felt like running a three-ring circus. The Damage Done has two mysteries that are intertwined, and a lot of backstory about Lily and Claudia’s relationship. Getting those elements to work together while keeping up the pacing of the story was a big challenge.
The fun part was immersing myself in that world. The book is written in Lily’s voice, and once I felt that I really knew her, that was so natural. Also, since Lily is really into old movies, I had to watch and re-watch quite a few, because I didn’t want those references to feel tacked-on. I loved being able to watch The Killers and The Barefoot Contessa and a lot of other films and call it research.
PS: Your writing background is as a freelance journalist, and you wrote many pieces on traveling. What sort of places did this take you, and did it help prepare you for your crime and mystery fiction at all?
HD: I’ve written about some really interesting places: Thailand, Turkey, Italy, France, Spain, Ireland, Bermuda, Peru, and Easter Island. But the truth is, by travel-writing standards, I’m a slacker. I know travel writers who brag about joining the Century Club — that means they’ve visited 100 countries and yes, it really is a club. I, on the other hand, have managed to write 17 travel guides about the two cities I know best: Toronto, my hometown, and New York, my home since 2001.
That said, my more exotic trips were really the ones that helped me prepare for crime and mystery writing, because when you travel to an unfamiliar place, you’re suddenly vulnerable in a way you usually aren’t at home. As a traveler, you’re a preferred target — certainly for scams and pickpocketing at the least. I’ve been physically attacked twice while traveling — both times in France, both times by people trying to rob me — and that has made me a little bit paranoid. If I feel that someone might be following me, I listen to that instinct, even if it seems ridiculous. That paranoia definitely made its way into the novel.
PS: I love your first lines -- "My wife is hunting for another man" ("Insatiable"), "Kelly didn’t see the devil tattoo until the man was half-naked" ("Beast"), and "It was bright yellow tape that finally convinced me my sister was dead" (The Damage Done). It can't be easy writing such zingers -- so how do you know when you have the right hook for readers?
HD: I’m so glad that you noticed them and like them, because I obsess about them. Occasionally, a strong opening line will mysteriously come into my mind when I start writing a story. That was the case with “Insatiable,” — “My wife is hunting for another man” was there from the first draft. But most of the time, my first drafts are messy and wordy and overwritten, and I have to hack away at them mercilessly through several rounds of revisions. My goal with the first line of a story or a novel is to grab the reader and pull them right in, so that they’re compelled to keep reading. My hope is that putting the story down won’t be an option.
Knowing when I have the right hook is more a gut reaction than anything. Until I have the right opening line, the story buzzes around my head, no matter what I’m doing. The best way I can describe it is that I’m trying to start as far into the story as I can without being confusing. I don’t believe that you need to know what a character looks like or what the setting is like or what the weather is like to get into the story. Whatever explanation is necessary should come after I’ve grabbed your attention.
PS: What is your personal writing station like?
HD: My desk is in a corner of the living room, and it’s sort of hidden behind a screen. The screen isn’t big enough to be a room partition, but it’s just big enough to hide the mess of my desk from the rest of the room, at least at most angles. There’s an overstuffed bookcase behind me. I write at a laptop computer (a MacBook). I just counted a dozen framed photographs around me, but more might be hidden under papers. There are four gargoyles that keep me company, and a few souvenirs, like a carved stone llama from Peru. It’s a wonder I get any work done.
PS: How about your writing habits -- how do you fit it all into your day-to-day life?
HD: Writing has been my job for long enough that I have a pretty good routine. The biggest challenge to the routine is probably Twitter, which I spend far too much time on but love. I will check in on it and e-mail first thing in the morning, but I usually start writing by eight or eight-thirty and I’m not allowed to return to any social networking sites until I’ve written a thousand words. I find it’s easier to get things done if I dedicate blocks of time to particular tasks. Left to my own devices, I’m easily distracted.
PS: The publishing world is currently in a state of flux, with the rise of ebooks and the unfortunate downsizing (and even closing) of both publishers and booksellers. What advice and insight do you have for writers who are just beginning to navigate the modern world of publishing?
HD: I thought things were tough when I started freelancing, but it’s so much harder now. For people who would like to pursue travel journalist, I would say is don’t sign anything you don’t understand. Some magazines have truly draconian contracts that will hurt your career. Not long ago I had a new client send me a contract with a clause in it that said I couldn’t write about the same subject for other travel magazines for two years. Many publications have two contracts: a really lousy one they try to get you to sign first, and then a vastly better one you get when you complain.
For fiction writers, I strongly suggest writing short stories as a great way to build your skills and reputation. Publishers are risk-adverse, so they don’t like taking chances on a completely unknown writer, no matter how brilliant their novel might be. I’m biased, because my short stories helped me get my two-book deal with Forge, but they also got me my agent in the first place. Right now, I’m counting the days until a writer named Chris F. Holm gets a book deal, because his short stories are incredible.
HD: I’m moderating a panel at Bouchercon, so I’m trying to read books by all of the authors on it. Right now, that’s The Sex Club by L.J. Sellers. Coming up soon will be books by Mike Lawson, Lou Allin, Doc Macomber and Mike Black. I also read a lot of short fiction, both online and in print. I love NEEDLE magazine.
PS: Desert island books you couldn't live without?
HD: Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe. Trying to decide which Jim Thompson book I’d bring is hurting my head; maybe Pop. 1280. I’d also have to bring a book of drawings by Gustave Doré — his images are haunting and sometimes disturbing and have definitely inspired things I’ve written.
PS: Finally, what's up next for Hilary Davidson?
HD: I’ve been working on my second novel, which Forge will publish in October 2011. It’s called The Next One to Fall, and it is a sequel to The Damage Done. I have short stories in a couple of collections that are coming out soon: Beat to a Pulp: Round One and CrimeFactory: First Shift. Right now, it feels like it’s been too long since I wrote some new short stories. The new novel is completely written but not what I’d call finished; when it is done, I’ll be back to short fiction for a couple of months, and then — I hope — writing a new novel. Also, I’ll be traveling for the next couple of months to promote The Damage Done. I’ve been practically chained to my desk for months, so I can’t wait to get on the road!