Jon Interviews Writing Maven Wendy Corsi Staub
Jon: I want to start by digging into something that kind of blows my mind. You’ve written over eighty books. You have at least two books a year coming out. What is your schedule like? Do you have time for anything besides writing?
Wendy Corsi Staub: The short answers are hectic, and no.
When I say I work seven days a week, 12-14 hours a day in my home office, I’m not exaggerating. When I’m not traveling, that is what I’m doing. It’s not ideal, and I worry that it’s going to kill me, but it’s been necessary.
I’ve honestly had to sacrifice just about every shred of personal time to make this career work, with two exceptions. The first: I’ve cooked and eaten dinner every night with my husband and sons. Now that the kids are older–one away at college, the other about to go–the dining room at 7:30 is more often the living room at 8:30-ish, usually just me and my husband eating in front of our favorite Tivo’d programs. But I still value the daily ritual of cooking and sharing a meal. The other “me” time is the hour I spend every day swimming laps at the gym, simultaneously listening to audiobooks. It’s a way to get exercise and indulge my love of reading, which had fallen by the wayside for years along with everything else, until I discovered the handy dandy waterfi iPod.
J: Right now you have two series running at the same time. Is there an adjustment from writing the Mundy’s Landing books to the Bella Jordan books?
W: Absolutely. The Mundy’s Landing books–BLOOD RED, BLUE MOON, and the work-in-progress, BONE WHITE–are psychological suspense, and what I’ve been writing for years. The Bella books–officially The Lily Dale Mysteries–are a traditional mystery series, and my editor for those had to remind me before the first revision that I’m writing mystery, not suspense. Intellectually, I’ve always grasped the differences between the genres. But as a writer, I had to resist going back to my comfort zone and remember that the plot wasn’t so much about what was about to happen, it was about investigating what had happened. A revision or two later, I figured it out.
J: SOMETHING BURIED, SOMETHING BLUE hits a lot of notes for me that I loved. Where did idea for Bella come from and what inspired this book? The description alone just screams fun and reading it delivers on that promise.
W: Thank you! The inspiration for the series as a whole came from Chance, the pregnant stray cat who landed on our doorstep two summers ago, when we were in the middle of a household crisis–the worst possible moment for added complications. Plus, my husband is deathly allergic, but flash forward two years, and she sleeps on his head every night. In between, she delivered six kittens, and she and the babies developed a life-threatening infection that had me rushing them–a doorstep stray and her litter–to the pet ER in the wee hours. It cost us thousands of dollars to save their lives, at which point I guess I realized–A) she’s ours, and B) she’d better earn her keep.
I literally conceived this series that morning, when I heard she and the kittens had pulled through the night, and I was wondering why she’d chosen our doorstep, of all doorsteps, at that terrible time. Now I realize she was there to save us, and not vice versa. So I’ve written that premise into the book–a pregnant stray named Chance arrives on my heroine Bella’s doorstep in a pivotal moment, and quite literally changes the course of her life.
I knew I had to set these books in Lily Dale, a real-life upstate New York town entirely populated by spiritualists. I’d written about it before, and I know that the spiritualists believe everything happens for a reason, and that cats are mystical creatures.
Bella is a skeptic, the proverbial stranger in a strange land, a level-headed widowed mom who is not only mothering a precocious son, but also wrangling a cat and kittens, and surrounded by eccentric, lovable characters who say they can talk to the dead. It’s fun to see her reluctantly learn to embrace her bizarre new “normal,” though she occasionally draws the line, and often with amusing results. I like the irony that in this town filled with “seers” there are so many people ignoring what’s right in front of them. Bella uses good old-fashioned logic to solve mysteries while surrounded by people who are, say, attempting to channel the murder victim’s spirit. There’s a depth of emotion, too, as Bella has lost her husband–she’s trying to move on, but is intrigued and frustrated by the idea that he might be hanging around Lily Dale communicating with these strangers, while she herself can’t see or hear him.
J: Did you do research on mediums? And do you yourself believe?
W: I grew up a few miles away from Lily Dale, and have always been fascinated by the place and what goes on there. It isn’t a town filled with tricksters, gypsy fortunetellers, or charlatans trying to make a fast buck. Spiritualism is their religion. Only registered mediums who have passed a rigorous series of tests can give readings in the Dale, and their philosophy is to use their gift for the greater good. They don’t do it for money or attention–if they did, they wouldn’t live so modestly, and they wouldn’t be in a private gated community in the middle of nowhere. Talk about an intriguing setting!
I first wrote about Lily Dale in my 2000 suspense novel IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE, which was so well received by readers that I wrote a young adult series set there. But unlike those books, the new series is not paranormal. The mediums say they’re communicating with spirit, but is that possible? I’ve left that up to the reader–and Bella–to decide.
In terms of research, over the years, I’ve worked very closely with a number of Lily Dale, mediums who have taken me behind the scenes to show me what their lives are like, and shed light on their philosophy–even on how they do what they do. I was invited to participate in a “beginning mediumship” class. I have tremendous respect for them and I count many among my friends. Do I believe? I will say that strange things have happened to me in Lily Dale, experiences that seem to defy logical explanation. A few have involved some of the people closest to me who have passed away, and have brought comfort. So, whether or not I believe, I value those experiences and would like to think my loved ones were reaching out.
J: Bella also cares for cats. I know you have a rescue cat and have fostered cats. As a cat lover, I know they are a big part of who we are. What is your favorite thing about having cats? And what is the part about cats that makes you nuts?
W: We have two indoor pet cats, the aforementioned Chance and Chappy (full name Chapter), whom I rescued as an orphaned kitten from the Manhattan kill shelter last summer. There’s currently a third, Sanchez, a new stray living on our back steps, and I’m working with a local rescue to save him and find him a home.
My favorite thing is that they have such distinct personalities. Not just their own personalities, but that quirky Cat personality that all cat-lovers recognize. You know–they go through life on their terms, and they’re dignified one moment and endlessly batting a stray twist tie on the floor in the next. Chance is maternal, loving, cautious, loyal. Chappy is playful, a wild-eyed lunatic, and a klutz. They make us laugh. My older son and I get a lot of amusement out of the distinct voices we’ve created for each of them. Chance sounds like a regal academic. Chap sounds like a cross between Mickey Mouse and a wacky kid my son once knew as a summer camp counselor. Sanchez, too, has a voice, but I swear he’s not coming inside, because Chance and Chap glare at him through the screens with every ounce of hatred they possess. Sanchez’s voice is high-pitched, with a dashing Latin flair.
What makes me nuts? When they’re aloof when I need a cuddle, then paw at my lap while I’m trying to write. Oh, and Chappy snatches things off of counters and tables–like prescription medicine, and pens, and jewelry–and stashes it all way back under the stove. Retrieval entails a flashlight, a yardstick, and occasionally a three man lift.
Also, hairball puke.
J: Wedding planning has become an actual industry and people can get really carried away. In your research did come across any crazy wedding stories? If you were able to go back in time would you have done anything different with your wedding?
W: When I came up with this plot, I was wondering what Bella’s colorful and persuasive neighbor, Odelia, could possibly throw at her next–you know, what major domestic upheaval could she face after the cat and kitten situation in NINE LIVES. So I have her planning–and hosting–a wedding for a Bridezilla, who comes complete with a murderous stalker. I’ve always loved the premise of a location wedding in a bizarre locale, and this seemed to be the place to use it.
Every wedding has a crazy story, including our own, exactly 25 years ago this October. A few days before we were married, we had what shall forever after be known to my husband (and my poor father, who witnessed it and was wondering if he’d invested thousands on a wedding that was not going to happen) as The Great Pumpkin Fight of ‘91. I won’t go into detail, and luckily, it all worked out. But I suppose if I could have done anything different, I probably wouldn’t have dragged my husband-to-be into a rainy pumpkin patch two days before our wedding and forced him to spend hours help me gather three dozen uniformly sized pumpkins for reasons that were–and shall remain–utterly crucial to the bride, and utterly inexplicable to the groom.
J: BLUE MOON, the latest Mundy’s Landing book is a bit darker than SOMETHING BURIED, SOMETHING BLUE, but more than that it is much more intense. In hindsight I wish I had read BLUE MOON first so the other book would have calmed me down enough to sleep! When you are writing do you ever freak yourself out?
W: Never. For me, fear is all about the unknown, and wondering–worrying–about what might happen next. When I write this stuff, I know exactly what’s going to happen. I’m making it happen. It’s all about being in control. It’s the reason so many people fear flying–they’re not in the pilot’s seat. After all, the pilot isn’t terrified. He’s just doing his job. So am I, and my job is to scare you silly.
J: The Sleeping Beauty Murders in BLUE MOON were presented in such a way it felt like it could have been a real case. Did this come out of your head ready to rock or did you need to research to add details to flesh it out?
W: I knew I wanted to write about a historic, unsolved true crime that had put a small town on the map and made its name synonymous with something terrible that had happened there. Think Salem, Massachusetts, or Lizzie Borden’s Fall River. But what was the crime? It had to be truly unsettling in order to resonate a hundred years later, because I wanted to use a specific device–that the town of Mundy’s Landing controversially capitalizes on its macabre reputation with tourism. Every year, they invite amateur sleuths to visit on the anniversary to try to solve the historic crime for a reward. It’s become known as the media-frenzied Mundypalooza, and into this mix comes a copycat killer who has secretly solved the crime and is about to recreate it. Okay…so what was it?
The premise popped into my head one morning when I walked into my college son’s bedroom, which was supposed to be empty, and saw what looked like someone lying there under the covers. It was just the way the blankets were rumpled (I blame the cats, of course), but it occurred to me…what if you walked into a spare bedroom one morning and found a stranger’s corpse neatly tucked into your guest bed? (Yeah, there might appear to be some kind of disconnect between point A and point Z–but that’s the way all writers’ brains are wired!)
Even creepier, what if it was a young woman who looked like she was sound asleep, and there was a note under her pillow?
What if the people who found her never seen her before? What if–ooh, creepy1–no one ever had?
What if this bizarre scenario happened again in a neighboring home a few nights later…and then again? And then…poof! Just like that, the crime series was over, the killer never caught, victims never identified. A hundred years later, three innocent families living in the so-called Murder Houses are unaware that the crimes will be recreated under their roofs.
I had my premise, and introduced it briefly in the first book, BLOOD RED, setting the stage that during the summer of 1916, the so-called Sleeping Beauty Murders had put Mundy’s Landing on the map. I wasn’t going to resolve this plot until book two, BLUE MOON, which was fortunate, because…I had no idea what the heck had happened. I didn’t know who the killer was, or who the girls were. I didn’t even know who the copycat killer was. So I had to solve the crimes of past and present when I sat down to write BLUE MOON, and there was no turning back or even tweaking the premise, as book one was already being printed. That was a double whodunnit challenge for me, and now I’ve presented it my reader!
J: Being as busy as you are, I’m guessing when on the road it may throw your writing rhythm off a bit. Do you try to work when on the road or is that small chunks of bonus “me” time?
W: I find it difficult to write anywhere other than in my home office, at my Mac desktop, where I can lose myself for hours without distraction. I’m unfortunately not a take-the-laptop-to-Starbucks-and-crank-out-a-chapter kind of girl. In recent years, with frequent travel to promote my books, this creates a problem. I try to reserve other writing– interviews, blog posts, email responses, newsletters, etc.,–for the road so that I don’t use home office time for that. But I never truly put a work-in-progress aside, because I can’t afford to with my deadlines. I’m about to leave for about 10 days and intend to tighten and streamline the book I need to finish this month (BONE WHITE, the final Mundy’s Landing titles)–only about ¾ of the way done, but I don’t expect to write new material until I’m back home.
J: What is your actual process like for writing? Do you outline or do you just let it flow and clean up on second draft
W: I just let it flow, and I usually only do one draft, but it’s a constant revision process. I hone and rewrite every single day, which isn’t the most convenient way to go about things. But when it’s done, it’s DONE. Until my editor gives me her revisions.
J: What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever heard from a reader?
W: That I’d saved her life. Not long after my mother died of breast cancer back in 2005, I gave a keynote halfway across the country to a roomful of aspiring writers using something my mom had always told me about the impossible odds of becoming a New York Times bestselling author–someone has to be in that tiny, tiny percent of people who do it, so why not you? I tearfully shared that she’d had the same approach when battling her illness, trying every treatment no matter how slim the odds that they’d help, and never giving up the hope that she’d be the one to defy them. She didn’t beat her cancer, but somewhere, someone had. The message resonated and years later, a woman came to see me and said she’d been there that day as a writer, trying to distract herself from an exhausting cancer battle, and had decided not to try an experimental treatment that was her last hope, because she didn’t have the strength to endure any more. But hearing about my mom, and seeing that I had made my own impossible dream come true, made her decide to try. It worked. She was in that tiny percent. Years later, she traveled for hours to come tell me, and thank me in person. It was absolutely stunning. I’ve never cried so hard in public, or hugged a total stranger with such heartfelt joy and emotion.
J: You mentioned that you and your husband watch a bit of television together. What are some of your favorite shows?
W: The DVR is programed for an eclectic mix that includes Odd Mom Out, Younger, Criminal Minds, Chopped, Survivor, Episodes (Matt LeBlanc’s brilliant cable show and perhaps the best binge ever). My husband has his sports and Game of Thrones and Walking Dead and Alien Abduction shows, and I have my Real Housewives and 20/20, and ne’er the twain shall meet.
J: If you could go back and talk to a thirteen year old Wendy, what would you tell her and would she listen?
W: She might listen to me, but not to anyone else–she’s always been very stubborn, a little obsessive, and detests unsolicited advice. I’d tell her that she’s not the only one, male or female, secretly rereading her favorite children’s books (Little House, Nancy Drew) on weekend nights when everyone else seems to have moved on to smoking pot in the gazebo.
I’d tell her not to sweat the algebra or earth science stuff (not that she is), because she won’t need it in adulthood no matter what the NY State Board of Regents claims. Nor will she ever turn a cartwheel, or make cheerleader, so stop wasting time. And I’d tell her that her longtime unrequited crush will never be her boyfriend, but he and his wife will one day come to her book signing in a distant city and wait for a half hour to get her signature and a photo together.
Oh, and pssst! Thirteen Year Old Wendy! Your future husband will also be at the Billy Joel concert in Buffalo this weekend, but don’t introduce yourself just yet–he’s twenty, from the NYC suburbs, and is with his fraternity brothers, and you have braces and are getting a ride home from someone’s mom.