I first found Sandra Parshall’s books when I read her second book in the Rachel Goddard series, Disturbing the Dead, a book dealing with the Melungeons, their isolation, and the discrimination they have faced and still do. It was beautifully written, and I was sucked into the world Parshall created. Her books have received much critical praise, and I believe in an earlier day when books were not so pigeonholed, they would have been shelved as literature (and probably wouldn’t have sold as well). Her newest book in the series, Under the Dog Star, is another finely crafted book that stresses rich characterization and deals with complex social issues.
Sandra Parshall bio
I was born and raised in South Carolina, and the first job that paid me for writing was that of weekend obituary columnist on my hometown paper, The Spartanburg Herald. Eventually I became a reporter -- after putting together a feature on my own initiative and giving it to the editor to prove I could do it. From there I went to jobs on newspapers in West Virginia and The Baltimore Evening Sun. I covered everything from school board meetings to a mining disaster, health care in prisons, poverty in Appalachia, and the experiences of Native Americans living in the city.
I've written fiction since childhood, but I didn't find the genre I feel comfortable in -- mystery/suspense -- until a few years ago. The Heat of the Moon was my first attempt at psychological suspense. My friend Babs calls it "Sandy's pecan pie dream book" because the entire story came to me during a fitful night after I had overindulged in holiday dessert. With its publication, I'm setting off on a new phase of life, and I hope to make a lot of new friends along the way.
I've lived for many years in the Washington, DC, area, and currently share a house in McLean, Virginia, with my husband, a long-time Washington journalist, and two unbelievably spoiled cats.
For those new to your series, can you describe the Rachel Goddard mysteries? What was your inspiration for this series? How would you describe Under the Dog Star to someone who has not read any of your previous novels?
When I wrote the first book, The Heat of the Moon, I didn’t intend to turn it into a series. That decision came about after I sold the book. Rachel is a veterinarian with a troubled personal past, and the events of the first novel cast a shadow over her life in subsequent books. The original idea came to me in a dream: two little girls outside in a rain storm, crying for their mother. The image stayed in my mind until I discovered who the girls were – Rachel and her younger sister, Michelle – and what happened to them. In book two, Disturbing the Dead, I moved Rachel from urban Northern Virginia to the mountains of southwestern Virginia, because I felt that would provide a stronger setting for a mystery series.
Under the Dog Star stands on its own as a mystery, although I believe the story will be richer for those who have read the previous books. Rachel races to save a pack of feral dogs wrongly accused of mauling a prominent doctor to death, and at the same time she becomes involved in the lives of the doctor’s mistreated adopted children. Deputy Sheriff Tom Bridger, the man Rachel loves, believes the doctor was killed by a trained dog used as a weapon, and he suspects a link to illegal dogfighting. This is a fast-paced mystery/suspense novel, but it’s also a story about the meaning of family and the power of compassion.
What's your writing process? What is a typical writing day like for you? Do you keep to a set schedule? What are your writing habits?
My “process” when I begin a new book consists of sitting down at the computer, saying a prayer, and plunging in. I write a fast, very messy first draft that I would never show anyone. This is the period when I’m almost overwhelmed by doubts about what I’m doing, my choice of plot elements and characters, the possibility that I can’t make a book our of this mess I’m creating. I enjoy the second and third drafts much more, because the story is there and all I have to do is shape it. I try to write in the morning and early afternoon at least five days a week. Toward the end of a book, I will write six days a week. But I’ll go crazy if I don’t get away from it for at least one day out of seven.
What projects, literary or otherwise, are occupying you at the moment?
I’m writing a fifth Rachel book and bringing back Michelle, who doesn’t appear in Disturbing the Dead, Broken Places, or Under the Dog Star. Someone is stalking Michelle, and when Rachel tries to help her sister deal with the harassment, she becomes a target too. At the same time, Tom Bridger investigates the killing of a young woman who was working with an Innocence Project to free a man she believed was wrongly convicted of murder.
Who were your literary influences growing up? Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?
I didn’t grow up reading Nancy Drew – I still haven’t read a single Nancy Drew book – and didn’t open an Agatha Christie novel until I was in my early thirties. I was one of those weird kids who read Russian novels and literary fiction. Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor were strong influences. Other authors who have influenced me are the ones I began reading in my twenties and thirties, and those books aren’t always similar to one another. I love Edith Wharton’s portrayal of desperate hearts and minds imprisoned by society’s expectations. I love Edna O’Brien’s lush prose, but I also love Ruth Rendell’s economical, razor-sharp writing. Rendell is the author who made me want to write psychological suspense. Thomas H. Cook is another favorite I’ve been reading for a long time. I love his style, but I’m most impressed by the depth he achieves in characterization.
What inspired you to write your first novel? Had you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes, I wanted to be a writer since childhood, and I made many false starts on novels during my teens and twenties. I completed several books that weren’t published before I wrote The Heat of the Moon. I was trying to write literary or mainstream fiction and never imagined writing a mystery, so I discovered fairly late that I have a gift for suspense.
Do you belong to a critique group of other authors? Do you find it helpful? In what ways?
My critique partnerships have all been online, and I’ve found them enormously helpful. Writers can never see our own writing as clearly as others do, because we can’t set aside the personal emotions attached to it and look at the words on the page and nothing else. A good critiquer can assess what you’ve written and also tell you what seems to be missing. It’s essential to find critique partners who understand what you’re doing and share your sensibilities. If you write thrillers and don’t even read cozies, you might not get much benefit from a critiquer who writes and loves cozies.
What is your advice to aspiring writers? How important is it for a young writer to be a reader? What would you recommend they read?
I don’t see how anyone can be a writer without being a voracious reader. We can absorb a certain amount of technique through reading, and even a clumsily written piece of fiction can teach us something if we take the time to study it. My advice to aspiring writers is to read everything, not simply the novels and stories they enjoy most. Don’t sneer at bestselling authors of genre fiction; read their books, find out what makes them appealing to so many people. You may be able to apply what you’ve learned to your own writing, without sacrificing your own special voice. Don’t restrict yourself to one genre, or to fiction, for that matter. Read about the world and the history of human society. Read psychology popular science. The more you know about the world and about human nature, the richer your writing will be.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned in your writing career? What has been the hardest part about being a writer?
I think most writers are surprised by the amount of time and effort – not to mention money – they have to spend on promotion. I enjoy talking to readers and have gradually lost my terror of public speaking, but even the things I enjoy will take time away from writing. The hardest part of being a writer, though, is simply doing it, plowing ahead in spite of an interior voice that’s always whining, “This is too hard! I can’t do it!” At a conscious level, I know I can do it, but sometimes I have to hold my published books in my hands to give myself confidence to try again.
This is a little late tonight because I just got back from Bouchercon 2011, which is still going on—I couldn’t be there for the whole thing. Congratulations to all the award winners!