My memory’s not the best, but I’m pretty certain we reviewed Rachel Howzell Hall’s LA thriller Land Of Shadows earlier in the week — and, boy, did we like it. You’ll find that review further down the page or -I’m always happy to make things easier for you – you can click here.
I’m really pleased to say that Rachel’s here to tell us about her protag Elouise Norton, about her precinct of LA – and, of course, about her writing regime. Sadly, I neglected to ask her whether she always writes in the car.
Tell us about Elouise Norton…
Elouise ‘Lou’ Norton is a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. She initially stands out because of demographics — she’s black and female. But she stands out mostly because she’s committed and honest, haunted and funny. Her sister Tori has been missing for more than twenty years, so she’s driven to help other families find the closure that her family never had.
Norton is bold and funny, but also a complex and conflicted character – how much did you enjoy being inside her head?
I love this woman. Yes, some of her is me — we came from the same poor neighborhood and went to the same university. She and I also are in the same sorority and have some of the same sensibilities. But she’s missing two of the most important relationships in her life — her father Victor deserted his family and sister Tori was kidnapped her senior year in high school. (I’m blessed to have everyone in my family alive and well.) But these losses combined with her upbringing, and her failing marriage to a man who can provide the economic stability she never had as a child…
Her views are skewed — she’s dedicated to fighting crime but that means returning to her old neighborhood where the good and bad live very closely together. She knows that her marriage is in trouble but she holds on because she’s already lost two people she loved. She knows she must move on in her work — so many murders in Los Angeles — but she’s devoted to helping families heal, especially since she cannot.
And because of these conflicts, she’s wonderful to write and I love dropping her in new cases just to see what she’d do!
We’re familiar with LA from plenty of crime books and movies, but you grew up there. Tell us about your Los Angeles?
My Los Angeles is southwest of the LA the world sees in TV and film. It’s predominantly Black with a growing Hispanic community. There are very rich people living there and very poor. We have crime and cops and police helicopters, but President Obama has attended fundraisers in very posh homes. It’s a wonderful mix of everything… and a terrible mix of everything.
What were the rules you set yourself when writing Land of Shadows?
There were rules! I didn’t want this to be just an ordinary murder — for me to write 80,000+ pages, I needed to be passionate about the people in this book!
And then, I didn’t want Lou Norton to be the same detective you meet in other mysteries. For one, she’s not — as an African-American woman, she couldn’t mouth off like her white male peers. She had to follow the rules of the world we live in right now — she can color outside the lines every now and then, but she has to work harder to prove that she deserves that gold badge on her hip. And I wanted her to be a fully-realized woman — not a male detective with boobs or a clumsy airhead with a Glock.
I also wanted Lou to have a full personal life — a family, even if it’s not all blood and even if it’s a bit… raggedy. Even though her father and sister are no longer there, she still has her mom, her husband (in his own way) and two best friends. She can be alone, like other detectives in the genre, but she isn’t lonely.
I wake up six days out of the week at 5:40 a.m. If it’s Monday through Friday, I get to my day job at 6:15 and I’ll write until 7:00 a.m. And that’s it for the day — because I do have a full-time job and I’m a mom. Throughout the day, I jot down thoughts that occur to me, plot holes, clever things for a character to say, but I don’t return to writing-writing until the next morning at 6:15. Not a lot of time, right? But when I do sit down and pick up the pen, the words come out concentrated and quickly because they’ve been brewing for 24 hours. Sundays, I wake up early and write until it’s time for breakfast!
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
Writing is re-writing. That it may take six drafts to get it right. You can get discouraged in the early drafts because it all STINKS. I try not to read my favorite writers during this time because I think I’d just give up. But then, you go back and you cross-out and write in margins and find that right word and hone some more and soon… There it is! And it shines and you can’t believe that came from you!
How do you deal with feedback?
I like feedback but only if it’s from someone who knows what they’re talking about and who has a stake in what I’m doing! 🙂 Like every writer, I’m in the weeds and can’t see the garden, so I miss things. Stories or issues that I clearly understand may not make sense to others, and so I’m always grateful for someone tapping my shoulder, and saying, ‘Umm… I don’t get it.’ My husband is my first reader/listener, and he can be hard on me. Sometimes, his observations make me a little huffy, but an hour later, I come to see his point of view. Most times, he’s right (ssh, don’t tell him I said that).
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
I admire Stephen King the most — his storytelling style and his ease of language fools you. As someone who wants her stories easy to understand, I know that it takes some skill and patience to achieve this. And also, the world knows Maine because that’s where he primarily sets his stories. We’ve met the people there, people in an environment completely different from mine… but who experience the same things. Loss and love, fear and the unknown.
How have your own experiences shaped your writing?
I tend to use writing as therapy — like I mentioned earlier, I have to be passionate about a subject if I’m to spend more than a day with it. And so, my thoughts on identity, race, class, sex, all of it — it definitely informs my writing.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently writing the third novel in the Lou Norton series. A young photographer is found on a trail in a park and… SPOILER ALERT… she’s dead. You’ll have to read it when it comes out!