I first encountered this week’s guest, Lisa Alber, when I was looking for authors to join me for a signing at this year’s NW Book Festival in Portland, Oregon. (See this site’s Events page for the place, date and time). Her debut mystery novel, KILMOON, caught my attention right away. It’s been gathering high praise. I was delighted, then, when she consented to be interviewed. I think you will be, too.
Lisa Alber’s County Clare mysteries feature Merrit Chase, a recent transplant from California, and Detective Sergeant Danny Ahern. KILMOON, has been called “moody,” “utterly poetic,” and a “stirring debut.” She received an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant based on KILMOON. Ever distractible, you may find Lisa staring out windows, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging round out her distractions.
“Brooding, gothic overtones haunt Lisa Alber’s polished, atmospheric debut. Romance, mysticism, and the verdant Irish countryside all contribute to making KILMOON a marvelous, suspenseful read.”
New York Times & USA Today bestselling author of Through the Evil Days
Welcome to The Write Stuff, Lisa. I’m so glad you could join us. You write about some very scary stuff. Why have you chosen your particular genre?
I’m a private, perhaps even secretive, person, and I love psychology — the dark side of what makes us human. I’m fascinated by what we hide. We’re all supposed to present well-adjusted facades to the world, but, man, what lurks inside even a “normal” (hmm…some might argue…) person like me would shock some people. So, if I have lots of dark stuff within me, what about those of us who actually don’t have a moral compass? What about the sociopaths? Most of all, what about the people who are basically good but are compelled by extreme stress to kill another person? Crime fiction is the perfect vehicle for delving into our humanity.
Brrrr! Gives me the shivers. That makes me ask, aside from your book’s plot, is there a story behind your book?
Sure is. Two places in Lisdoonvarna village, County Clare, Ireland, initially sparked my imagination: The Matchmaker Bar and an early Christian ruin called Kilmoon Church. The Matchmaker Bar represents the village’s annual matchmaking festival and Kilmoon Church represents secrets long buried. Together they grounded me in place and set my thoughts churning about a matchmaker with a dark past.
My dad’s death also inspired this story. I was grieving his passing (from cancer), and it was only later that I realized I was processing our relationship through the father-daughter themes that run through the novel. Of course, in the novel they’re far darker than anything from my life. Thank goodness!
Thank goodness, indeed! Now that Kilmoon is finally released, are you working on anything else?
I’m revising the second draft of the next novel in the County Clare mystery series. I’m calling it GREY MAN. I have a feeling the title will change, as titles do. I have two primary series protagonists: Merrit and Danny. KILMOON was Merrit’s story. GREY MAN is Danny’s story. He’s a detective sergeant. In this novel, Danny’s investigation into the death of a teenage boy leads to tragedy within his own family. I’m having fun deepening Danny’s character. I kind of have a crush on him!
I enjoy the revision process as well. It’s like polishing a stone.
Your novel’s setting is quite unique and unexpected. This leads me to believe your writing is unique as well.
My novels are traditional mysteries (but not cozy mysteries). I’d say the way they differ is that I concentrate on character rather than, say, the police procedural aspect of the plot. I use ensemble casts, and all the characters have their own narratives, whether they’re major arcs like Danny’s and Merrit’s arcs, or minor arcs. I’m attracted to secrets and the way the past impacts the present, so my stories tend to be layered. In fact, I’d say my novels are mainstream novels that revolve around several layers of mysteries.
Mysteries are complicated works and the complications involved can sometimes trip one up. When you get stuck, how do you get back in stride?
I find that consistency over the long run is the surest way to keep the writing flowing. This doesn’t mean perfection in our routines. We all have our off days or off weeks, times when life gets in the way because that’s what life does.
Just a simple consistency. Sitting down at your computer for an hour at the same time every (or nearly every) day signals to your subconscious that you’re in writing mode and it’s safe to come out and play. Not that you’re always going to have good writing days, but even on the bad writing days, sit quietly and write what you think is garbage for the hour. Most of the time your garbage won’t be as bad as all that.
Also, another trick is to tell yourself you only have to write, say, a page a day, or for 10 minutes a day. That’s not much; we can all do that, right? What happens is that most of the time you will write more or for longer. And on the days you don’t? You can be OK with yourself because you met your goal.
Some say marketing a book is more difficult than writing it. What is your marketing strategy?
The best piece of advice I received on marketing and self-promotion came from New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth George. I saw her in March at a writers conference, and she told me to say “yes” to every opportunity that came my way. She said this is crucial for authors at the beginning of their careers. So I am saying “yes” to everything that comes my way.
My other strategy is not to stress about book touring right now. I don’t have the means to travel a lot write now, so, instead, I’m ensuring my online presence through guest blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. When you’re out there, participating in your online and local communities, it’s amazing what can come your way.
The other thing? Keep writing. We all need to get our next books out there so that sales from one book will increase sales for the others.
That’s marvelous advice, indeed. Since your book is too new to support you… yet, tell us about your day job.
By day, I work as a technical writer. I don’t mind this kind of writing, and I’m quite good at it, oddly enough, but I don’t fit well with corporate cultures. I’d rather be left alone to get my work done. I avoid meetings when I can, and I don’t hang with my colleagues in social settings. My job is a means to an end while I do my best to get my fiction career off the ground.
Assuming your writing career does take off and you could name where you live, where would you choose?
I’d be a nomad! This answer assumes I’m independently wealthy, of course. I’d keep a home on the west coast somewhere, either the Bay Area, where I grew up, or Portland, where I live now. I’d definitely have a place in Paris, another in New York. I’d just pick places and stay for months at time, writing, and then return to my home for a while before heading back out again.
Hah! I love that sort of ambition. That said, what is your dream job?
Novelist, no day job necessary!
Good for you! I agree. Getting bad to the darker side of life, how do you pick yourself up in the face of adversity?
This is going to sound odd, but one of the ways I pick myself up is to let myself fall. I wallow for a while. This seems to help me overcome the emotional part of the adversity quickly. It’s the emotional fallout that tends to affect me more than the actual adversity, say, job loss or death in the family. I deal with what needs dealing with, and then let myself read and nap a lot for a time. Talking to people helps too.
You are as unique as your writing. Before we delve into Kilmoon, here are a few Lightning Round questions:
The one thing I cannot do without is:
Reading for relaxation and comfort.
In one or two words, what is your defining trait?
Hard copy or ebook?
We won’t go into that. A favorite book:
REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier
A favorite movie:
I loved that one. And I hope everyone’s interest is piqued by now. Here is a brief description of Kilmoon, followed by a short excerpt:
Californian Merrit Chase travels to County Clare, Ireland, to meet her long-lost father, the famous Matchmaker of Lisfenora. Her simple, if fraught, quest turns complicated when she’s pulled into a murder investigation and she discovers that her father’s dark past is at the heart of the chaos. Murder, vengeance, betrayal, and family secrets—not the family reunion she was hoping for!
Back in the alley, Merrit counted doors, passing her lodgings as she went. Fifth door down, this would be Internet Café’s back entrance.
The door was the tiniest bit ajar, which was odd even by Lisfenora’s safe standards. Merrit hesitated with fist raised against the shop’s door. No way was Lonnie at work this early in the morning. Ivan had to be up and about then. She nudged the door open to see a shabby storage area. Stacked packages of printer paper leaned against one another, covered in dust, and a bathroom exuded a musty funk. A yellow tabby sidled through an inner door that must lead to the storefront. The little fellow mewed and brushed her legs. Merrit picked him up.
She carried the purring cat through the storage area and into the shop. Perhaps she could relay a message through Ivan to Lonnie. Something along the lines of, Stop talking to Liam about me, or else.
Or else what? She wasn’t sure, but it was better than nothing at this point.
A squeal, or perhaps a moan, issued from Lonnie’s office. Merrit froze. A moment later the rat-a-tatting of computer keys ceased and oaths in Ivan’s native Russian took over. Merrit smiled. The minion up to no good in the boss’s office. Now he’d see how much he liked having his personal life threatened with exposure.
On tiptoes, she stepped past computers and around the service counter behind which Ivan usually sat. Thankfully, the window blinds were drawn. No one could see her as she stepped toward one of two doorways marked “For Employees Only,” only to freeze again, this time in the office doorway with the cat pressed against her chest. She knew death when she saw it. There was no mistaking its particular brand of stillness. Death had sucked the energy out of Lonnie’s body, leaving it as bereft of life as a hologram.