Friday, February 3, 2012

Author Q and A: Brandilyn Collins author of Gone to Ground

Brandilyn Collins, author of the book Gone to Ground, stopped by to share her Q and A with PR by the Book.

Brandilyn, thanks for talking to us at PR by the Book. We understand Gone to Ground is your 23rd novel and your first suspense set in the South. Why the South?

Ah, because it’s a place of such rich culture and heritage. I love the South!. I particularly wanted to set Gone to Ground in a small southern town, in which everyone knows everyone. Or at least they think they do. Small towns are rife with intrigue. It’s not that there no secrets. It’s just that they’re buried deeper. So I created my fictional town of Amaryllis, Mississippi, in rural Jasper County (which is real). Amaryllis has about 1700 residents.

Give us a one-line description of Gone to Ground.

Three women independently discover they know the identity of the serial killer—someone dear to them—in their small Mississippi town, and must bring him down. But each suspects a different man.

Okay, that’s two lines.

That does sound intriguing. These three women form an ensemble cast for Gone to Ground. Reviewers are loving these characters. Tell us about them.

The characters represent two races—white and black—and three generations. Cherrie Mae is an African American woman in her 60s. She runs her own housecleaning business and has a penchant for reading classic literature. While she’s reading she loves to write down quotes that stand out to her—and she tends to quote these lines at some rather odd times. She’s a little thing, barely over five feet, yet with a powerful personality. Cherrie Mae is very respected in her town and church. Deena is white, age 32—a hair dresser that knows how to talk, sure. But off duty she’d just as soon be quiet and by herself. Not that she’s any kind of pushover. Just ask her ex husband—an officer on the Amaryllis police force. Tully is also white, age 19, just out of high school. She’s married and about ready to give birth to her first child. Tully was valedictorian of her class and headed for college—until Michael, a town rebel, swept her off her feet. She’d always been shy and withdrawn, but he made her feel so special. So wanted. Now that she’s married to him, and he’s turned out to be abusive, she’s trapped. What will she do when her baby is born?

Sounds like three very different characters. What man does each suspect is the killer?

Cherrie Mae discovers it’s the beloved mayor of the town and one of her biggest housecleaning clients—Austin Bradmeyer. Deena discovers it’s her brother, Steven. Tully discovers it’s her husband, Michael. All have strong reasons for these suspicions.

Wow. So each of their lives will be turned totally upside down.

That’s the idea.

As we mentioned, reviewers are raving about these characters. We’ve seen quotes such as: “I was spellbound. The characters are interesting and believable.” “The characters are so real!” “Not often do I love all the main characters in a novel, but I sure did this one.”How did you go about characterizing these women?

Well, there are many techniques I use to create my characters. In fact, I wrote a book about that called Getting Into Character, in which I take techniques from the art of method acting and tweak them for the novelist. For Gone to Ground I do something I’ve not done before—run multiple points of view. Each character tells her part of the story in her own unique voice, which allows for deep characterization. In first person even the narrative is told is that character’s voice, not mine as a writer. This approach created a richness in the story that I wouldn’t have had if I’d written the book in third person.

How did you get to the heart of each character’s voice?

I knew I had to write in dialect so readers could truly “hear” the voices. This would be absolutely key to the characterization. So the most important thing was to learn that Mississippi dialect. Especially for Cherrie Mae. I traveled to Jasper County in Mississippi, in which Gone to Ground is set, to interview people. In Bay Springs, the county seat, I interviewed some black women around the age of Cherrie Mae. I made careful notes of how they spoke certain words and phrases. I noted common patterns of speech—didn’t seem to matter whether the person had lived in the area all her life or had gone off to college and returned. For the white characters I also needed southern idioms and speech patterns. When the manuscript was done I sent it to an author friend in Mississippi so she could check my characters’ dialects.

You have a story to tell about one of those women you interviewed, don’t you.

I sure do. One of the African American women in Bay Springs was named Cherrie Mae. I so loved the name, I asked her if she’d allow me to use her it for my character. She was thrilled to say yes.

After the book was written and it was time to create the book trailer, my publisher and I, plus a technician, traveled again to Bay Springs to audition voices for my three characters. The book trailer would be the venue through which readers could physically hear my characters’ voices—so they had to be exactly right. I knew I couldn’t get what I wanted unless I traveled back to Mississippi. The real Cherrie Mae had already agreed to play my character named after her. Her voice was absolutely what I wanted. It has a kind of child-like, yet firm quality to it. Very musical. For Deena, we ended up using the receptionist at City Hall who’d first introduced me to Cherrie Mae. Tully’s young southern voice was recorded outside of Bay Springs. I love the way the book trailer turned out. These three audio voices completely capture my characters.

That’s a great story. After all you’ve told us about your research of dialect, it’s interesting that the Publishers Weekly review—which is favorable about Gone to Ground and your writing in general—takes you to task for Cherrie Mae’s dialect, basically saying it’s not correct for this day and age. Particularly for a character who’s self-educated through reading. What’s your response?

Oh, LOL. I’d say the reviewer needs to get out of New York once in awhile. Her shrug-the-shoulder remarks show her lack of knowledge about the area and its culture. The dialect issue was the very thing I researched the most! I don’t mind reviewers disagreeing with one of my writing techniques, but I do mind when they make a public statement of “fact” for which they have no basis.

Interestingly, the day before the PW review came out I read a review of Gone to Ground written by a southern African American woman, who raves about the book’s “unique southern charm and highly contagious dialect.” Of Cherrie Mae she says: “With this character, Collins captures the heart and soul of southern African American women. She’s a sassy, comical, no-nonsense, you-better-listen-to-me-I’m-your-elder kind of lady. Often throughout the story I pictured her to be a few different women from my own church. I loved it! It excited me and brought out my own Southern Girl Attitude!” I’ll take that insight—from someone who lives in the South—over PW’s New York attitude any day.

You mentioned Cherrie Mae’s habit of spouting quotes from classic literature. How did you decide which literature quotes to include?

I have my own notebook of classic quotes—which is where I got the idea for this character quirk of Cherrie Mae’s. (Although I don’t go around quoting them as she does.) So I used many of the lines I’ve collected in places in which they were apropos. At other times when I felt a quote was needed I used a web site for classic quotes that are cataloged by key words. The web site was very helpful in coming up with the perfect quote for what was happening at the time in the story.

By the way, in the back of Gone to Ground is a list of Cherrie Mae’s quotes by chapter, noting the original classic book and author.

Let’s talk about your fictional town, Amaryllis, MS. What kind of research did you need to conduct to create this town?

I started online and by telephone, researching the area currently and historically. Even though the story is present-day, I needed to understand how a town like Amaryllis would come to be. I needed to know myriad other things—how are amaryllis flowers grown in Mississippi? Issues about law enforcement. And all sorts of details to make the town come alive. When I traveled to Bay Springs for my interviews I also spent a day driving around, taking pictures of the area and its roads. Other than my fictional town, I wanted all the surrounding information about the county to be real. I found the exact spot, about five miles from Bay Springs, where I would place Amaryllis. I want people in that area who read Gone to Ground to be able to picture it and say, “This writer knows what she’s talking about.”

In the book you’ve incorporated an unusual technique involving a Pulitzer prize-winning article. Tell us about this—and why you chose to use it.

The fictional Pulitzer article is written by a supporting character, Trent Williams. Trent grew up in Amaryllis and left it as an adult to be a crime reporter in a major Jackson newspaper. When the serial killings began occurring in his home town, he wrote a feature article describing the effect of these unsolved homicides on the town. I use very short excerpts from his article here and there throughout the book. (They can’t be long, because I don’t want to stop the action.) But they serve to characterize Amaryllis as a whole, in a way creating the town as a character in itself and providing a richer backdrop for the story. While my three protagonists’ voices are just the way they’d talk in their daily lives, the article has a more formal voice, lending a sort of literary feel to those sections of the book. All in all, I think the article enriches the story.

You’re known for your trademarked logo, Seatbelt Suspense®. What does that mean, and where did the term come from?

I came up with the brand name Seatbelt Suspense® after reading hundreds of fan letters that again and again mentioned “being on the edge of their seats” or feeling like they were on a rollercoaster as they read my books. It was clearly how my readers viewed me. The four-point brand promise of Seatbelt Suspense® is “fast-paced, character-driven suspense with myriad twists and an underlying thread of faith.” As to fast-paced—my readers know my stories start with a bang, and the pace keeps high. Character-driven—absolutely essential. The most intriguing plot in the world won’t keep readers engaged if they don’t care about the characters. I find it a real challenge with every book to keep my pace fast, with constant chapter hooks, yet present deep characterizations. But that’s what I have to do. The third point—twists: my readers know they’re in for surprises. They expect it from me, and I’d better deliver. They also expect a faith aspect in each of my novels. In each book that element must rise naturally from the main character(s) and the challenges/dangers inherent in the story. It’s my job to write the best, rollicking suspense I can. Somewhere along the way, I began to see the “so what?” of the story, and I allow it to present itself through the characters.

Thanks, Brandilyn, for talking to us about Gone to Ground. Before we go—what are you working on next?

I’ve already written the book that’s coming after Gone to Ground. Titled Double Blind. It’s a high concept story about a brain chip implant gone terribly wrong. What happens when the enemy you need to run away from—is your own brain? Double Blind releases this October. I’m now working on the suspense novel following Double Blind. Not letting any cats out of the bag about that one just yet.

Where can we find more about you online?

Certainly on my Web site. There you can read about all my books, upcoming events and other such things. One of the most popular features on my site is the ability to read the opening chapters of all my novels. Gives you a “Sneak Pique” (the name of my newsletter) of the stories. I’m also on Facebook here.

Speaking of openings—as a finale, give us the opening line of Gone to Ground’s first chapter.

“Get me a Bible and some cigarettes—and I’ll talk.”


About the book:

Amaryllis, Mississippi is a scrappy little town of strong backbone and southern hospitality. A brick-paved Main Street, a park, and a legendary ghost in the local cemetery are all part of its heritage. Everybody knows everybody in Amaryllis, and gossip wafts on the breeze. Its people are friendly, its families tight. On the surface Amaryllis seems much like the flower for which it’s named—bright and fragrant. But the Amaryllis flower is poison.

In the past three years five unsolved murders have occurred within the town. All the victims were women, and all were killed in similar fashion in their own homes. And just two nights ago—a sixth murder.

Clearly a killer lives among the good citizens of Amaryllis. And now three terrified women are sure they know who he is—someone they love. None is aware of the others’ suspicions. And each must make the heartrending choice to bring the killer down. But each woman suspects a different man.

About the author:

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense®. Awards for her novels include the ACFW Book of the Year (three times), Inspirational Readers' Choice, and Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice. Also, The Writer magazine named her nonfiction release, Getting Into Character, one of the best books on writing published in 2002.

When she's not writing, Brandilyn can be found teaching the craft of fiction at writers' conferences. She and her family divide their time between homes in the California Bay Area and northern Idaho.


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