Watch for this week's featured author, Sandra Ruttan, in January when her debut novel, "Suspicious Circumstances" hits shelves. She's also one of the members of the Killer Year, a group of new suspense/thriller writers and one of the editors of Spinetingler Magazine.
For more about Ruttan, visit her website, or blog, or check her out at Killer Year.
WN: "Suspicious Circumstances" is due to hit stores in early January. What circumstances led to you having this idea for this book and writing it?
RUTTAN: Part of the original idea was to start a book without a body. So many crime fiction books start with the murder. At the beginning of Suspicious Circumstances you don’t know if you have an accident, suicide, murder or hoax.
In order to make that premise work it couldn’t be a cop who launched the investigation. I put reporter Lara Kelly in an environment where she wasn’t sure she could trust anyone and handed her what seemed like a dead-end story that actually turned into a major investigation and forced her to deal with a cop from a precinct plagued by rumors of corruption. In some respects Lara is as naïve as I was ten or fifteen years ago. She’s trying to be guarded and smart, but she’s going to make some mistakes. She’s going to deal with questioning her own instincts.
Another issue that runs throughout the book is forgiveness. Farraday is not your typical washed-up cop who drinks too much and is completely jaded, but he’s dealing with someone who hurt him. In ways, I gave both Lara and Farraday issues I’ve struggled with, in part to see if their experiences would change them, and if so how.
This is particularly interesting with Farraday because he comes from a close-knit family and what affects him affects them. So many fictional cops are on the road to or from divorce and their siblings and parents aren’t around much, they don’t take holidays because they can’t stop working. Farraday is the antithesis of the stereotypical crime fiction detective.
As to the circumstances that led to writing it, I was off work because of health problems. I had time and no more excuses. I focused on finishing a manuscript and ultimately Suspicious Circumstances was born.
WN: You're a part of Killer Year; how has that group helped you? What's been fun/exciting/encouraging about being part of that group?
RUTTAN: Any time you interact with other authors you learn a lot. We all have different backgrounds, agents, publishers, experiences. A lot of times, as newcomers you have all these questions and uncertainties. One thing I know now is that there are people I can always turn to.
Of course, the collective name power helped sell the Killer Year anthology that St. Martin’s will publish in 2008, which is unheard of. Not many debut authors can pitch an anthology successfully. Working together as a group has achieved a lot.
I’ve also made some great friends. That’s the best part of it. Writing is a solitary process. It’s good to interact with real people occasionally, and I look forward to seeing some of them at Left Coast Crime in February.
WN: How did you get involved with Spinetingler Magazine?
RUTTAN: I am the co-founder of Spinetingler Magazine. I was reluctant at first, because I was concerned Spinetingler would take too much time from my writing. Now I think it’s a good thing, because it gives me something else to focus on that puts my writing in perspective. I get a thrill when I stumble across a blog or website where someone posts that they’ve sold us a story and they’re really excited about it. For some people, we’re their first sale and it’s great to be part of that process. Now I go to conventions and see bookmarks quoting Spinetingler reviews, and recently we discovered James Patterson had quoted one of our reviews on his website. This is a great way to give back to the crime fiction community by supporting the work of other authors.
WN: How has your background in education and communication theory helped you as a writer?
RUTTAN: My experience in education has contributed to some elements of all of the books I’ve drafted so far. There’s a self-destructive teenager in Suspicious Circumstances. The first book in my Canadian police procedural series has several threads running through it and teenagers are central to one of the storylines. In the second book in that series I relied on my experience with kids heavily. I had to write scenes from the point of view of a girl who’s been kidnapped, and then there were scenes when the police question her younger brother. I’ve dealt with social services, with child removals, with children who were victims of abuse as well as children with learning disabilities. The experience with abuse, particularly the challenges of dealing with those parents, helped me when I was dealing with those scenes in my books.
As for communication theory, I think I could be here all day. I keep a copy of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death on my desk, and in particular some of the topics discussed in one course, about front-stage and back-stage regions, are on my mind when I think about publicity issues. Communications theory actually teaches you a lot about image.
WN: What's the best part of being a writer to you? What's the most challenging part of writing for you?
RUTTAN: There are so many things I love about writing. I actually learn a lot about people when I think about creating believable characters and how and why people react to things the way they do.
I’m also one of those people who loves using crime fiction as a forum for social commentary. I think some of the best books out there are ones that make us ask tough questions. Maybe not always provide answers, but address issues like violence in schools, racism, discrimination. A great book is one that will linger with me long after I’ve finished the last page.
The most challenging thing? Separating myself from my writing enough to know when it isn’t working. I get to a point where I’ve read my work so many times that I recite it from memory, and then it’s hard to catch all the errors when I’m editing. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that you can never be edited enough.
WN: What is the best/most influential book you have ever read and why did it inspire you?
RUTTAN: When I was in high school I had an English teacher who told me I wrote like Bronte. As a result I read Jane Eyre. I actually read a lot of classics, like Great Expectations, Heart of Darkness, Anthem, The Chrysalids, Fahrenheit 451, Stone Angel.
Although those books aren’t crime fiction there are a lot of things about them that carry over. There are crimes. There are social issues that are being addressed. And those books aren’t what I’d call cheery reads.
They paved the way for the moment I picked up my first book by Ian Rankin, The Falls. I knew nothing about him or his other books, and hadn’t been reading contemporary crime fiction. It was a stroke of luck that made me pick up that particular book and when I read it I thought that I’d be happy if I could write half as well.
I systematically read through his entire backlist. Although there are others who’ve had an impact on my development as a writer there is no author who’s influenced me more than Rankin. I was working on a series for children when I decided to try writing what I loved reading and turned my focus on crime fiction. I may yet finish those other books but I’ve never regretted my decision.
WN: What is your favorite word and why?
RUTTAN: This is the hardest question I’ve ever been asked, but I’d say tapestry. When I was in Tunisia I went to a carpet factory and watched a woman weave. What amazed me was that from behind, there were all the knots and rough pieces. It looked ugly. But from the front it was this beautiful tapestry, every color coming together in just the right way to create an image that told a story. I’m intrigued by how different experiences intersect to shape a person’s life, and in writing it’s the threads weaving together and how they affect other threads that’s really interesting to me. Writing a book is not that different from weaving a tapestry.
WN: What piece of advice helped you out the most as a writer?
RUTTAN: A couple years ago, before I was shopping manuscripts, before I knew him, I received a postcard from Ian Rankin. At the end he wrote, “Keep reading.”
I’m one of those people that loves to read an entire backlist all the way through, and as a result I wasn’t reading a wide range of books. I was always worried I’d pick up a book that had an idea too similar to mine and that it would convince me I’d never sell my work.
What I was actually doing was limiting my exposure to different styles, techniques. I started reading a wider range of books and learned so much from how different authors approach their work. Think of it this way. Writing without reading a wide range of books is like trying to learn how to play the guitar if you’ve never listened to music.
There is nothing that will make you grow as a writer more than just writing, in my opinion, but reading a wide range of styles is liberating. A few years ago I couldn’t have imagined producing a short story about a hired killer who cuts people up in his butcher shop, but you can find that story in the July 2006 issue of Crimespree Magazine. In February 2007 I have a twisted little tale about a criminal in an anthology called Out of the Gutter. Reading a broad range of crime fiction inspired me to try more things with my own writing, and I’ve learned a lot about storytelling, characterization, dialogue and pacing as a result.