Please welcome Debra Borys, author of the Street Stories Suspense Novels.
What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Cool but sunny temperatures to start off with. Over ten years of living in Seattle spoiled me to always want temperate weather, not too hot, not too cold. So moving back to Illinois has been a bit of an adjustment, especially after the winter we just had. My mom and neighbor and I have been going to the YMCA in the mornings. While they do their senior exercise class, I swim laps. Not real laps, though, I swim different strokes and take my time. I often think about the writing I want to get done that day and by the time we come home, I am ready to sit down at the computer and start on the WIP. I’m using Scrivener for the next Street Stories novel, and it has a project target where I tell it how long I want the book to be and when I want to have the first draft done and it tells me how many words I need to complete that day. I try not to cheat and tell myself I can make up the word count the next day, and it does feel good when I exceed the expected count. I usually eat lunch at my desk and am done writing before it’s time to cook supper. Then I am a free agent for the evening, talking my dog for a walk, enjoying a few favorite television shows and snuggling into a comfy bed at night. Sometimes when I sink into that mattress happy, healthy and filled, I think of so many hungry homeless people out there curled up in some less comfortable, more dangerous bed for the night and wish I could do something for all of them.
Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I guess my signature phrase would be “It’s what you do with the darkness that counts.” It’s from some dialogue I wrote in my first novel, Painted Black, and is the outlook of my protagonist in the series, but as I wrote the words, they struck true to me, too. It’s easy to be a good person when life is going great and you are surrounded by good things and good people. The true test of character is how we respond to the terrible thinks that can happen to a person. Can we remain caring and compassionate? Will we have the strength to continue on despite the odds? Or will we turn bitter and mean, railing against life for giving us a stone instead of a piece of buttered bread?
Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
The volunteers and staff at The Night Ministry in Chicago were influential in helping me see the importance of reaching out and how much of an impact compassion and acceptance can make in someone else’s life. If I have to name three people in particular, I think it would be three homeless young men I met while I volunteered with TNM. Eric was my first lesson in how to give unconditional love. He was messed up, involved in male prostitution to feed his drug habit, yet so kind and vulnerable that I couldn’t fault him for that. I could see there was more to him than the struggles he was going through. Then there was Chris, who was bi-polar but so smart. He was always the first to be there for his friends and anyone he felt was being treated unfairly. He and I studied for his GED and he finally got back on his feet and I’m sure is out there still standing up for those less fortunate. Then there was Anthony. He had some sort of learning disability and had had an abusive childhood, but he was always the happiest young man you could ever hope for. His positive outlook on life never wavered for long, and his smile always cheered me up when I was feeling down.
Do you listen to music when you write?
Sometimes I listen to a hard rock mix that I put together from songs that were popular while I was doing my volunteer work in Chicago. Each song on it reminds me of a particular person I met or a situation I saw and helps me get back to where I used to be when I lived and worked with the homeless on a regular basis.
If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Dark chocolate. A bit bitter with sweet overtones, yet healthier for you than milk chocolate.
What made you interested in writing this particular story?
As you can probably tell, I am inspired by the people living on the streets. What I hope to do through these novels, in addition to entertain, is maybe inspire readers as well, so that maybe they will treat street people the same way they would their neighbor across the street, rather than assume there is something vile and dangerous about them. The second novel, Bend Me, Shape Me highlights the fact that mental illness is a factor some street people struggle with, yet also that we are often too quick to slap such a label on a person and then treat them like their disease, rather than get to know them as an individual.
What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Dealing with the darkness. Homelessness. Respect for the humanity in all of us, not just those whose lifestyles we understand or approve of. Putting one foot in front of the other over and over and over again, because that’s just what you do.
Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Jo Sullivan is much more negative and dark than I am, but she shares the same concern for helping the homeless and has a thing for tequila, like me. Her father was accused of molesting and murdering a young boy when Jo was an adolescent and while he was acquitted, she still struggles with doubts that she tries to deny by avoiding her family entirely. There is a part of her that feels she needs to help the helpless because of that young murdered boy whose death was never solved or atoned for.
Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Kinsey Millhone from Sue Grafton’s Alphabet mysteries: tough and determined and methodical in solving the crime. Dr. House on the TV series because she is often sarcastic and has a way of pushing people away from her. Diane Sawyer from ABC news because she believes in telling it like it is and using the media as the best way to say what she feels needs to be said.
If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
I think I would invite the writers from my old writers group in Seattle, just because I miss them so much and would love to have their input and critiques. I know that doesn’t help your readers since none of you know them, but the point is that it is a group of dedicated, talented people who provided support and valuable insights while also valuing my thoughts on their work.
What’s next for you?
I am cranking away at the third novel in the series, tentatively titled Box of Rain. Cousins Shorty Davis and Booker T Brooks grew up in pretty much the same circumstances: single mother, too many siblings crowded into a small ghetto apartment. So what makes one kid choose violence as his method to survive living on the streets and the other choose education? When a severed head turns up in an alley dumpster, all the evidence seems to point to the one kid least likely to have committed the crime.
Though I grew up in a small town in the U.S. and loved it, I grew restless in my thirties–mid-life crisis, probably–and felt a calling to connect with people whose lifestyles differed from mine. I was particularly drawn to the poor and homeless living in crowded cities. It was so opposite of what I’d always known, so harsh, yet they seemed even more alive and tenacious and interesting than most people I knew. So I decided to leave the isolated confines of my home county and moved to Chicago where I could volunteer with the homeless.
The switch was scary and exciting at the same time. I found a part of me I didn’t know existed and before long I was just as at home on the late night streets handing out coffee and sandwiches to strangers as I had been in the front yard of my childhood home.
I spent twice a week volunteering with Chicago’s homeless, youth in particular, and got to know a few on a personal level that made me want to become a voice for them. That is what sparked the idea for my first Street Stories suspense novel, Painted Black, and continues to inspire me to write new stories that entertain while also revealing the reality of life for the homeless.