Welcome to the five hundred and ninety-seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with suspense mystery novelist and spotlightee Deb Borys. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. You can read Debra’s author spotlight at https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/author-spotlight-no-61-debra-borys.
Morgen: Hello again, Deb. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Debra: I currently live in Seattle and have been here for about ten years. Before that I lived in Chicago, but most of my life was spent in small town Illinois. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I remember even binding a small book using cardboard, construction paper and a typewriter when I was in junior high. I chose not to go to college because I knew I wanted to be a writer and what did a writer need with a college degree? I know better now, but to my 17-year-old mind it made sense at the time. I wrote all through my marriage and that was when I started submitting things. I concentrated on novels at first, but nothing worked until I started writing and submitting a few short stories. Getting a few of those accepted–for pay even!–gave me the confidence I needed to keep working on my novels. As an inspiration for Painted Black, I spent four years living in Chicago and volunteering with Chicago’s homeless, youth in particular. I got to know a few on a personal level that made me want to become a voice for them.
Morgen: I’m always in awe of authors who said that they always knew they wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know until I went to evening classes in my late thirties and then it took me another four years to consider it as a profession (I’m still working on that actually). What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Debra: While I have written spec fic and literary stories, suspense and mystery seem to be my niche. Painted Black is a suspense novel, but because it’s so character driven, it doesn’t fit neatly into a genre. Straight whodunits were never as interesting to me as something that got me into the mind of the character as much or more than the actual plotline. If you care about the main characters, the puzzle they are solving seems less important than what might happen to them while they are following the clues.
If there is one unifying theme to my work now, it is an attempt to see the real world for what it really is, the good and the bad, and keep going no matter what. Like the character in one of my short stories says, “It’s how you deal with the darkness that counts.”
I read a wide variety of books myself (my favorite all time author is historical novelist Dorothy Dunnett) but mystery / suspense has always been my favorite. It started with the Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boy books when I was a kid and continues through Stephen King and Dean Koontz, et al. My favorite authors always have a certain something that makes them rise above the genre, however.
Morgen: I’ve never read Dean Koontz but I was a big Stephen King fan in my teens and read everything as it came out, until somewhere after Misery (which I loved) when I lost interest and switched to softer reads (like Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected :)). What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Debra: Painted Black is my first published novel, but I have had several short stories published in print and online publications. One of them, Red Light, Green Light, is actually a story that arose out of one of the main characters of Painted Black. I also had three short mysteries published. I did use a pseudonym for my Evelyn A. Archer P.I. stories which I call my cynical bitch mini-mysteries. The only reason for the pseudonym was because the books are told from a first person narrative and I thought it would be fun to make it look like Evelyn was a real person writing about her detective agency. The second book in the series, Bend Me, Shape Me, is due to be released next spring, also by New Libri Press.
Here’s a list of my publications so far:
- Painted Black – a suspense novel, New Libri Press
- Heaven Can B Hell – mini-mystery, The Fringe Magazine
- Peeling the Onion – literary short story, City Slab
- Red Light, Green Light – literary short story, Downstate Story
- Love Takes a Licking – mini-mystery, Red Herring Mystery Magazine
- Blackout Blues – mini-mystery, Pirate Writings
- The Nest – literary short story, Iowa Woman
Morgen: Evelyn sounds fun. 🙂 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Debra: Standard rejections are easy to take. I’ve created a database of markets and manuscripts that I’m always adding new markets to. When a rejection comes in, I just send the story off to the next appropriate market in the database. The hard rejections are the ones that take the time to tell you how good they thought this or that was, but they aren’t interested in the piece because of some other thing. There have been times when I have revaluated and even changed a piece based on those kinds of letters, but opinions are always so subjective, it’s risky to take any of them to heart unless they say something you secretly already knew.
Morgen: It’s a good idea to submit elsewhere when something’s rejected. It is just a case of finding the right person for the right story. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Debra: I don’t enter contests really. Almost all of them charge money, and I want to be paid for my writing, not vice versa. Sure maybe I could win and get money as the first prize, but I’d rather spend my time submitting to a magazine or publisher that has the potential to make me money without my having to fork some over first. I did win a competition at a writer’s conference I went to in the very early stages of my writing career, which was extremely encouraging to me. Also my first published work was Honorable Mention in an Iowa Woman contest I’d entered, which was also influential in building my self-confidence. I think contests can be helpful in the early stages or is someone needs confirmation that they’re on the right track, but have limited uses.
Morgen: I used to enter them but actually submit very little to anywhere at the moment (too busy with this blog and the novels I have waiting to go online) but I know from the other side of the table (being a first-round judge for https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/competitions-calendar/he-bates) how enjoyable the stories are to read and useful competitions are to writers’ CVs. 🙂 Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Debra: I do not have an agent although if I found one I liked who wanted to represent me, I’d be all for it. I don’t know that I’d say an agent is vital, not in today’s evolving publishing market. If you are aiming for the larger traditional publishing houses, then you do need an agent in my opinion. But there are so many other options out there right now that it is possible to get published without one if you keep at it. If you can find an agent who can do some of the work for you and keeps an ear to the ground that are knowledgeable about the markets, then that would be a valuable asset.
Morgen: I’d never say never to an agent too. 🙂 Are your books available as eBooks?
Debra: Right now Painted Black is only available as an ebook. It can be downloaded as a Kindle book, or an epub from the Barnes & Nobel site. It should be available in the iBook library by the time this interview comes out, although as I understand it, the epub version can be ready on almost all devices except the Kindle. A trade paperback is estimated to be available in the spring. I have some short stories available for download on Kindle and B&N as well.
Morgen: Yay for short stories (they’re what started my writing ‘career’ – a short short in Woman’s Weekly). Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Debra: I love the availability of ebooks. I have an Android phone with several book apps like the Kindle and Nook and I am much more likely to search for and buy books electronically if something takes my fancy. It’s the instant gratification that I like. I also love going into bookstores and browsing the shelves, letting the title or the cover catch my eye, but lately I have not gone looking for a specific print book when I knew it was available on ebook also.
Morgen: I have a BlackBerry, which I love, but don’t use it for reading anything other than texts or emails but I do read Kindle books on my iPad because I get the double-page spread like a ‘real’ book. 🙂 How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Debra: Because New Libri Press is a small start up venture, the marketing they do is not geared toward one author, but toward themselves and their catalog of authors. Promotion specifically for Painted Black, setting up interviews, reviews, etc. are my responsibility right now. That could change depending on how interest goes.
Morgen: Most publishers work like that. I’ve only had one author say her publisher does her marketing but she’s very active on social media, we all have to be really. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Debra: Jo Sullivan and Chris (known as Cry) are the characters that drive the plot in Painted Black. To me, these are the characters that make the book worth reading. I also try to give the reader a true feel for what Chicago is like, particularly if you are young and homeless. The city is like another character almost. I think an actor like Nick Stahl or Joseph Gordon-Levitt would make great Chris, although they might be too old now to play a sixteen-year-old. I saw both of them in roles that came very close to the way I envision Chris–wounded scrappy survivors fighting the odds.
Debra: One of the great things about working with a small press like New Libri is that you do have the opportunity to get involved, not only in the details of your own book, but in exchanging ideas with the other writers on their work as well. The title I gave the book is the one it’s published under, no contest. The concept for the cover of Painted Black is very similar to what I first imagined it: an alley wall covered with graffiti and a door leading to who knows where or what. I took several photos that we worked with before finding one that worked better. I was involved with every detail, even approving fonts and tweaking the image. On my website, www.paintedblacknovel.com, I actually posted a slide show that goes through every single version we considered. It’s interesting how similar some of them are and what a difference the little things can make sometimes.
Morgen: Fun. 🙂 What are you working on at the moment / next?
Debra: As a freelance writer, I always have an assortment of projects I’m working on for various clients. But of course the piece I’m invested in the most is the second Jo Sullivan novel. The working title is Bend Me, Shape Me and in this one Jo works with Snow Ramirez, who is bi-polar and believes the psychiatrist treating her brother is trying to harm him in some way. The suspense comes in the reader not knowing if her allegations are true and the brother does need saving, or if it actually Snow who needs to be saved from her own delusions. I touch on the fact that many people are homeless because of mental health issues and also the fact that sometimes we are too quick to label people simply because it’s easier to dismiss them.
Morgen: I had a go at internet dating some months ago (the inspiration behind my chick lit novel) and it’s all too easy to click on ‘no’ when all you have is a photograph. Unfortunately with hundreds of people to choose from it’s what it comes down to and I know it’s not the same thing but it’s all about judging a book by its cover… as the saying goes. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Debra: I’m at my computer almost every day. Some days I might get distracted from writing to work on promotional activities like tweaking my websites, social networking, or researching PR opportunities, etc. I try to be realistic when giving my clients deadlines so that I can juggle several projects at once, including my own writing. Although to be honest sometimes my fiction writing ends up waiting until the weekend–much like it did when I worked a fulltime job outside of the house.
Recently, I’ve found that it helps to have more than one project going on at the same time. If I’m feeling blocked on my novel, I can just turn my mind to editing a story for a client, for instance. Having a deadline hanging over my head always works, especially when meeting the deadline means being able to pay the mortgage. Before I started freelancing, I would often lapse from fiction writing for months at a time, not so much blocked as avoiding it subconsciously for some reason. I much prefer my mode of writing these days.
Morgen: Other than NaNoWriMo, Story a Day May, and 5pm fiction, I’ve done very little writing since I gave up my job in March (best thing I ever did, I love being at home). Although a new novel and 181 short stories sounds like a lot, I wanted to get more editing done than I have (on four previous novels), still… Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Debra: The original idea for the Painted Black suspense plot came from a news article I read years ago in the Chicago Tribune. It was about a new method of preservation being used by taxidermists who freeze-dried people’s pets to produce lifelike replicas that would last indefinitely. One person they interviewed stated that freeze-drying could be used on people as well, and compared the process to cooking pizzas in an oven. He sounded so bizarre and unconcerned about it. In my research, I actually found an article in a mortuary magazine about a firm that did preserve a man in this manner.
I usually try to have a broad idea and maybe even a few scenes in mind when working on a book-length manuscript, but for my short stories I often just start with a great first line that I expand to a first paragraph. Once I have a great first paragraph the story usually starts to come together, although I have quite a few stalled stories that haven’t yet ripened to fruition.
Morgen: But I’m sure they will if you go back to them (I have 100+ of those, going back seven years). Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Debra: Creating main characters usually just happens–I often have a character in mind before I really know what their story is. If a name doesn’t just come to me, I might go to a baby book, but that’s only if I’m really stuck or need a name for a less important character. For developing and keeping track of those characters, I find some kind of form helps–one where you fill in things like hair color, strengths and weaknesses, what kind of car they drive, etc. For more in-depth characterization I like free writing in a notebook about them. My most successful attempts have been when I did the free writing from the character’s point of view talking about themselves and their thoughts and backgrounds.
Morgen: I use one of those forms for my writing group workshop (I list it on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/exercises). Do you write any non-fiction or poetry?
Debra: As a freelance writer I often do articles or business writing etc, but other than that my non-fiction takes the form of essays which usually just sit on my computer. I have no idea what to do with them or if they are worth doing anything with. My few poems are for my ancestors to discover one day on yellowed paper in an attic–where they may either laugh, or wonder at the depth the old lady once had.
Morgen: 🙂 My poetry’s like that; fairly far and few between, usually when it’s on one of my other writing group’s calendar. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Debra: First drafts come slower to me these days than they used to, but they also come more fully-formed. That’s not to say they are brilliant out of the gate–sometimes the shiniest sections need the most editing later. And there are sometimes scenes that I have to force even though I know what’s supposed to happen in those. I’ve found that usually if I’ve forced something, it’s because I’m making a character do something they shouldn’t be, or I’ve missed including something important that needs to happen earlier. Once I figure out what’s wrong, it’s possible that scene gets cut entirely or is so changed it in no way resembles the original.
Morgen: Oh yes, the joy of having to buff and polish. Do you have to do much research?
Debra: I don’t do extensive research during the writing, through I often get distracted into web surfing when trying to nail down a plot idea or detail that’s just not working. Before I started the novel I am currently working on, the sequel to Painted Black, I did do extensive research on modern Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest because I wanted to bring their culture into the completely converse one of the homeless community in Chicago. There is a lot that is noble and a lot that is misunderstood in both cultures and I wanted to contrast and compare them.
Morgen: I’m the same; I’ll have a quick look for something but if I can’t see what I want I’ll put ‘MORE HERE’ or if I have something but not sure of the validity I’ll put ‘CHECK’ then I can always go back to it. The most annoying is when I need to know something in order to move on, although that doesn’t happen very often. Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc., do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Debra: Much of Painted Black was worked on in a Borders Café near where I worked in Schaumburg, Illinois. I would go there and work for an hour or two to avoid the rush hour traffic before heading to my apartment in Wicker Park. Currently I work at home, which my dog Sophie loves since she gets an extra walk after lunch that way. I have found that having blues music playing in the background seems to help, too. I like to mix it up sometimes. I’ve even written with a TV show playing in the background, but there’s always the danger something about the show will catch my attention so that’s not always a good idea.
Morgen: I’m still working out whether my dog (a Jack Russell / Cairn-cross) enjoys having me at home. He doesn’t get as much sleep, that’s for sure (although he’s dozing right now). What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Debra: Most of my stories come to me in the third person. The few that I’ve done in first person were ones where I really had to dive deep within the head of a dark, troubled character and that seemed the best medium to bring the reader into that person’s world. Second person drives me crazy–I can’t imagine ever wanting to use it.
Morgen: That’s a shame, although understandable. I use second person quite often, although only in short stories (my longest being a 638-word free eBook called The Dark Side). Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Debra: Of course. Some of them are just personal essays or poems that are too vulnerable to stand the scrutiny. Then I have tons of supposedly brilliant ideas that I look at now and wonder what I was thinking. The novels I wrote before Painted Black (there were three of them) may come back in concept, but the writing in them looks very amateurish now that I look back at them. The thing I have the most of is short stories. Paying markets for short stories are hard to find and often don’t pay much so I’ve kind of given up on marketing them for the most part. I may self-publish some of them as ebooks someday. I’ve already done that with some previously published stories that have had the rights reverted to me. Red Light, Green Light and Peeling the Onion are available as Kindle downloads and also a collection of my Evelyn A. Archer mini-mysteries, Weeping Widows. You can find them on my Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/Debra-Borys/e/B004WWU9EY.
Morgen: It’s funny how often our first written book doesn’t become our first published. The Serial Dater’s Shopping List was my third written and I’m currently doing final edits to my second (written and to-be-published, a mystery) so I’m going backwards. I may work on my first (a lad lit) after that although I’ll probably go on to my fifth and sixth (crime, a genre I’m settling into) – my fourth was also a lad lit. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Debra: I’m not the most self-disciplined writer so I waste a lot of time sometimes. When I worked for an employer, I was always on time and conscientious about giving them good value, really invested in the job and not even taking breaks when the workload has high. Not so when I’m working for myself. I’d probably fire me if I had hired myself.
Morgen: <laughs> I’m the same although I work on the blog and related emails etc pretty much all day so I’m not slacking, although social media grabs me too often. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Debra: I think I would simply tell someone to believe in what you have to say, say it from the heart, and keep trying to get people to listen to you. I think that’s good advice even if you aren’t a writer.
Morgen: I agree. We have to do what we have the passion for. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or invite three people, hiding the takeaway containers)?
Debra: Pasta al dente with a meaty red sauce and crusty Italian bread still warm from the oven. Picking three people is harder. There was a biography I read a long time ago about a writer I’d never heard of whose name I don’t even remember anymore. I think he lived in the 1800’s. I remember thinking he sounded like a person I would really enjoy knowing. But maybe I can’t count him since I can’t think of his name. I would like to meet Jesus–whether you consider him God or just a person, I think he would be fascinating to get to know better as a human. And then let’s bring my Grandma and Grandpa back for a meal–their house was pivotal to my best childhood memories and I would love a chance to return the favor and host them.
Morgen: That sounds great. Not many people I’ve asked have chosen their relatives. I’d have my father (who died September 2001), and Roald Dahl (who my father did some photography for) and Kate Atkinson. 🙂 Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Debra: Recently I was listening to an interview on NPR by musician Cam Penner, a Canadian who spent some time working with homeless people in Chicago. He mentioned how struck he was by the “Raw Honesty” he experienced there and that term struck such a chord me because it exactly the describes the way I felt about it, too. There is no time for BS when you are scrambling to survive. I wish we could all be as real.
Morgen: It’s easy not to be, especially online. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Debra: I belong to two writing critique groups in Seattle who are very helpful as I work my way through the new book. I’m a member of the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association and plan to join Mystery Writers of America as soon as I feel I can afford it.
Morgen: I’m the same with Sisters in Crime, which is fairly new here in the UK. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Debra: I have some good friends who are fans of a cancelled Joss Whedon show called Firefly. We get together for dominoes twice a month and various other Whedon-related or non-Whedon-related activities as often as we can.
Morgen: Wow. Wouldn’t it be great if Joss got to hear about that. We had Firefly on the TV here but unfortunately I didn’t see it. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Debra: I am a latecomer to LinkedIn but have found it a valuable resource in finding writing jobs and promotion opportunities as well as other networking goodies. Agency Query Connect is another great online community. I haven’t read any writing books for a long time so don’t really remember which ones I found most useful. I do suggest to new writers that you read lots of them, and then from their knowledge you gain, develop your own “manual of rules”.
Morgen: LinkedIn’s great. I found hundreds of interviewees (literally; I have another 200 interviewees booked in with 900+ who’ve received the information pack!). What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Debra: I think the future has opened up for us with the advent of epublishing and the acceptance of self-publishing as a potentially respectable venue. However, that also means that now instead of screaming for our voices to be heard by agents / editors over the voices of everyone else in the slush pile, we now have to find ways for our voices to be heard by the readers from an e-pile that is even larger and more widespread. Only the persistent will survive.
Morgen: I agree. I’ve already had one author request his items pulling from my site because he’s no longer writing. It’s a shame but if the passion’s not there there’s no point fighting it. I can’t ever imagine not writing now. My mum said recently that I shouldn’t let writing take over my life – I didn’t like to tell her she was a few months too late – although she loves receiving copies of my published works. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Debra: I would like to encourage people to take a closer look at the homeless situation by taking a closer look at the homeless people. I want my readers to understand that the important thing to recognize about homeless people is that they are PEOPLE. The homeless part is incidental. Sure they can be annoying or scary. But non-homeless people can be annoying and scary, too. Is there a chance a homeless drunk might hurt you? Sure there is. But there’s a chance my drunk neighbor might hurt me too if I cross his path at the wrong time. People are dysfunctional sometimes–all people, not just the homeless ones. But if you treat people with respect, chances are they’ll treat you with respect, too. Not everyone, not always, because people are flawed. All people. Some of us just have homes where we can hide our ugly side– from strangers at least.
10% of any author profits from Painted Black will be donated to the Night Ministry in Chicago and Teen Feed in Chicago to promote solutions for homelessness. I encourage everyone to likewise donate either time or money. Or money AND time, since time is the most important gift you can offer.
Morgen: For the last few years I’ve wanted to spend my Christmas Day at my local homeless shelter but I don’t because I don’t think my mum would understand and it wouldn’t be fair on her (or my aunt / uncle who go to so much trouble) for me not to be there. Of course that doesn’t stop me doing it another time… Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Debra: Thank you for this opportunity to introduce myself to your readers.
Morgen: You’re very welcome, Debra. It’s been great having you back.
I then invited Debra to include an extract of her writing and this is from a scene at The Sandwich Stop, a drop in program for the homeless:
The door opened and a young man joined them, around twenty years old, thin, pale, eyebrows growing in clumps, his hair thick with gel and slicked back. His fingers shook when he took the cup of cocoa, but he returned greetings readily enough. Carol called him Aaron.
“I seen you out there,” the grizzled old man said to the boy. “Plyin’ your trade. Every night I sees you.”
“Yeah, I seen you, too, old man. Samuel Walker, ain’t it? Travis been by?” he asked Carol. “He ain’t been around for days, man. Weeks, maybe. He’d a told me if he just moved on, but nothing, not a word. Like he disappeared into thin air.”
Samuel shook his head slowly. “People disappearing off the streets.” His deeply lined forehead gave him a hound dog expression. “Happen to old Sophie, too. One day there, gone the next. Hard times, living on the streets.” He aimed his conversation at Jo, like she was obviously the novice here, like he needed to explain to her. “Young boys on the corner, drugs, no place to sleep but the train. My daughter, she keep tryin’ to set me straight–keep me from drinkin’. She be tryin’ and tryin’. But it ain’t no good.”
Former Chicagoan Debra R. Borys is a freelance writer who spent eight years volunteering with homeless on the streets of both Chicago and Seattle. She is a freelance writer and the author of several published short stories. She is currently working on a second novel in the Jo Sullivan series which reflects the reality of throw away youth striving to survive.
Update December 2012: Painted Black is now available in trade paperback, not just ebook. And I recently published a mystery novel Through the Dark (under pseudonym Deb Donahue) through PersonalNOVEL. Currently that is only available for shipping to the UK, but the cool thing is you can personalize the characters to be yourself and people you know. The website site is http://www.personalnovel.co.uk/uk/book/581/through-the-dark.
Morgen: Wow, that sounds like fun. 🙂
Update February 2013: The second novel in the Street Stories suspense series, Bend Me, Shape Me, will be released as an e-book in late March with the trade paperback to follow.
Morgen: Great news, Debra. Let me know when it’s available and I’ll add the cover / purchase link here.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
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