Lori Duffy Foster’s heroine, Lisa Jamison, has done well for a single mom who got pregnant at fifteen. She’s a reporter at a well-respected newspaper and her teenage daughter is both an athlete and honors student. Though their relationship is rocky these days, Lisa has accomplished what she set out to do; she has given her offspring the kind of life she never had herself. But all that changes when her daughter’s father is murdered, the victim of a suspected drug killing.
Lori’s new novel, A Dead Man’s Eyes, is the latest in her Lisa Jamison mystery series and she joins us today to talk about the craft of writing compelling suspense.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Were you a voracious reader in your youth? If so, what titles and authors might we have found on the nightstand of your adolescent and teen self?
A: I certainly was! My father used to go to auctions and buy boxes of books without looking inside. We never knew what he might bring home, but I devoured just about all of them, from used social studies textbooks to Harlequins to encyclopedias. Some of my favorites were Son Rise by Barry Neil Kaufman, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys mysteries, Mopsa the Fairy by Jean Ingelow, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath,
Q: What are you reading nowadays?
A: I just finished From Ashes to Song, by friend Hilary Hauck, and Not My Boy by Kelly Simmons. I am about to start Walter Mosley’s John Woman (as soon as I finish this interview!).
Q: Who or what was the earliest influence in your passion for the craft of writing?
A: My earliest memories of writing are in my room as a kid, passing the time when I was being punished. It was easy to feel sorry for myself as one of eight kids, to feel like I was invisible. So, I sketched my feelings on paper and wrote poems (I was and still am a terrible artist!). One of those poems won a local contest. That was a huge confidence boost. Writing has always been therapy for me, a way of figuring out the world, but that was the first time I ever thought it might become something more.
Q: For 11 years of your professional life, that passion manifested in a full-time career as a reporter. How does journalism inform your fiction and structure your particular writing schedule?
A: I had always thought that when I wrote novels they would fall more into the literary genre. I am fascinated by human nature and the forces that make us go against our natures. But my career in journalism showed me that crime is the perfect intersection of those forces. Most people don’t set out to be criminals. Some still don’t see themselves as criminals even after killing someone. Something happens that alters their thinking, that forces or entices them into actions that clash with their values. Journalism gave me incredible access to those people and those situations.
In a more practical sense, journalism taught me a lot about police work, forensics, writing quickly and hooking readers from the start. I also learned to write in my head, driving back from interviews or crime scenes or press conferences. With my current job and my kids, I find it hard to keep a regular writing schedule, but when I sit down to write I am super productive.
Q: You began your first novel 20 years ago whilst working part-time jobs to supplement the family income and raise four kids. Did you ever go through periods of depression and doubt and feel as if you should just quit and throw that manuscript into a bottom drawer? What kept you going?
A: Oh, yes! There were many times I just cried and cried and pondered how much easier life would be if I could just wipe out this urge to write. We could have no debt right now. The house would always be clean. My stress levels would be so much lower. But, whenever I tried, even for just a few days, I felt empty and numb. My husband, a writer himself, always came to the rescue. He would talk me down from that ledge and take the kids somewhere for a day so I could write or send me away for a few days for some retreat time, even if the hotel had to go on a credit card. He has been my greatest supporter. The writing community was a huge help as well. Some of the best writers are also some of the more giving people I know.
Q: Aside from the fact your main character, Lisa Jamison, shares your own skill sets in journalism, what are some of the other influences that drive her emotions, beliefs and actions?
A: The inspiration for Lisa came from a couple of different directions. I had two colleagues at the newspaper who were awesome reporters and single moms. One was fresh out of college and had no family around to help her raise her toddler. Yet she succeeded and her daughter grew into an amazing adult. I have so much respect for both women. Another inspiration was a pregnant 15-year old I met while covering a house fire one night in Syracuse. She was living with foster parents in the neighborhood and had been drawn out by curiosity. This girl was determined to keep the baby and make something of herself, maybe go to college. She struck me as extraordinary—smart and capable—and her name seemed familiar. I looked her up in my old notes when I returned to the newsroom. She shared a name and age with a girl who had witnessed a fatal game of Russian roulette. I forgot her name over time, but I never forgot her. So, together with my own journalistic ethics and experience, those two women and that young girl converged to create Lisa.
Q: What governed your decision to write a series?
A: I never intended to write a series and I had not read much serial fiction when I completed A Dead Man’s Eyes. It was my former agent who suggested I write a second Lisa Jamison book and I was surprised by how naturally that second novel, Never Broken, came to me. I am almost finished with the third book now and I already have ideas for the fourth.
Q: What are the rewards and challenges inherent in penning a series vs. writing standalone works?
A: There is a sense of security that comes with writing a series. The main character already exists and is well-developed. The setting is at least partially determined. But it can also be limiting and confining. The trick (I believe) is to make it new and exciting each time for both the author and the readers and to think of each book as a standalone. I enjoy discovering something fresh about Lisa and the people in her life with each novel while also developing a new and intriguing protagonist. It is fun to hear readers tell me which characters they hope to learn more about in future novels as well. But I have read some serial fiction in which it is obvious the author is bored. A quarter of the book is a recap of the last one. If it’s not fun anymore, it’s time to stop.
Writing a standalone means starting from scratch each time. Some authors find that daunting. I find it thrilling. The hardest part for me is settling on a conflict of human nature, and then creating a main character and plot that will combine to make that collision especially intriguing and revealing. Once I get past those obstacles, I am good to go. I like writing both, but I enjoy the challenges of standalones most.
Q: To date, you have five novels under contract with Level Best Books. Looking back, how has your writing process changed from the first book to the most recent?
A: It took me six years to write my first novel and another three years to revise it. I completed my second novel, A Dead Man’s Eyes, in only two years. Each novel after that has taken about two years to write, except for the one I am writing now, which will be my sixth. The pandemic took a toll on my creativity. With all four kids studying from home and my husband working from home, it was difficult to find the uninterrupted time I needed. I wrote only about 20,000 words that entire year. But I am on a roll now and should finish that project within a month. That first novel, Spring Melt, is an historical crime novel, so it required a lot of research, but the learning curve also slowed me down. I made lots of rookie mistakes—too many secondary characters, too much worrying about deviating from my original plot plan. I had to learn to relax. I still think Spring Melt is my best novel though and I can’t wait until it is released.
Q: How has your publishing experience differed from or matched your early expectations?
A: I never expected to work so hard at promoting my books. It is like having a second part-time job. It is so dramatically different from the writing aspect. There is not much point in publishing novels, though, if no one knows about them. It has been fun, though, and I expect it will get easier with each novel.
Q: Plotter or pantser and how structured is your writing day?
A: I would say I am a little of both. I usually start off with a plot and an ending in mind, but that plot revolves around decisions the characters make. As I develop the characters and get to know them better, I sometimes realize they will make different decisions than I anticipated. That changes the plot and the ending. But I love that part of it. Writing is a discovery process for me.
As for my writing schedule, I don’t have one. I might go weeks without writing any fiction, and then write 14,000 words in a few days. Some people are critical of that, insisting that authors should be more disciplined and write daily, but that is not practical for me right now. I do hope to start writing more regularly now that my kids are growing up, but I am not sure how that will work for me. One reason I am so productive is that I am always thinking about my fiction, formulating scenes and developing characters in my head. When I finally sit, the word come rushing out. So, I don’t expect I will be much more productive when I am finally able to write fiction every day.
Q: Do your characters ever take your plots in different directions than you expected them to?
A: Always! The plot is really just a guide. I go where the characters take me.
Q: What role have writing organizations played in your career so far?
A: I would not be where I am now without Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Pennwriters and Thriller Writers International. The mystery writing community is so overwhelmingly supportive of everyone, from those who are struggling with their first paragraphs to those who have multiple best sellers. Those organizations have helped me improve my writing; become selective about agents and publishers; and promote my books. I have made friendships that will last a lifetime. I recently joined the Historical Novel Society as well and I look forward to being more active in that group. I highly recommend that writers join writing organizations as early as possible in their careers to get the most out of them.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I am finishing the third novel in the Lisa Jamison series, and then I will dive right into edits of the second book before officially handing it off to Level Best Books. I can’t decide which project to start next when I am done. I am itching to write book four in the series, but I am also tempted to write another historical crime novel set in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State where I grew up. I wish I could write both at once!
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: I really want to encourage novice writers to embrace the ignorance. Believe that your first novel will be a best seller even when others are trying to yank you down to Earth. That ignorance will give you confidence and might even make your dream a reality. I know lots of writers who wrote multiple books before they were published, but I also know some whose first novels were best sellers. Look at Jamie Ford. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is still a best seller after more than a decade. Believe, believe, believe! If you are not published right away, be grateful for the extra time to build up your novel inventory and learn more about the business. See it as a good thing. It will happen eventually if you believe.