Welcome Susan Bickford, author of A Short Time to Die.
What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I roll out of bed easily, wide awake and ready at dawn or a bit earlier. I check email and do a bit of free writing and I actually have time for my stretching routine before I head out to my favorite aqua and swim combination class down the street at the local pool. After class, some of us have breakfast and coffee around the corner from the pool.
This day is completely open—no meetings, no errands, no cleaning. I head to the fabulous Mountain View public library, directly after coffee. There are wonderful work spaces upstairs that remind me of college. I write until lunch on my iPad using a separate keyboard.
I work in several one hour intervals in the afternoon so that I can relax and not write at night. I’m an introvert and I am thrilled that my evening is completely free for a change. If it’s cold, I make a fire, enjoy some wine with dinner. Because I was so productive during the day, I can watch something streaming or perhaps actually read a book.
Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?
I love bright highlight colors, but red is my favorite by a long shot. I like a fragrance-free zone in my house and on me personally, although scent from flowers is OK if it doesn’t permeate the whole place. What I like about food is something that surprises me—something new I hadn’t thought of before or that is easy to make if I’m eating at home.
Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?
Like most writers, I was always an avid reader. In my tweens, I discovered two books that were seminal: Cherokee Boy, by Alexander Key, and The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury. Cherokee Boy is the story of a band of children and teens who escape from the Trail of Tears forced march and work their way back to their homeland. The combination of injustice, sorrow, and the adventure of the journey was magical to me. The Martian Chronicles were the first adult-type stories I read and many of them stick with me, even today.
After that came all the usual suspects, of course. When I started reading genre fiction seriously, I was captivated by Ross MacDonald and Dashell Hammet, but it wasn’t until I read Sue Grafton that I thought, “This is something I want to do.”
Once I finally started writing I was taken with Daniel Woodrell. Best known for Winter’s Bone, he coined the phrase country noir and his stories are all set in a very vivid location with some overlapping aspects but are not a series.
Do you listen to music when you write?
No. I can tolerate just about any kind of background noise when I’m freewriting or doing a first draft, but it cannot impose in any significant way. When I do revisions I must have absolute silence.
If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Something with a very high percentage of cacao – 85+% – laced with interesting chunks of salt or an unusual flavor. It should break off in brittle snaps along irregular lines.
A Short Time to Die is dark with sharp edges but rich with hidden secrets and delights.
What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I tend to be obsessed with women and girls who overcome adversity. I tie this back to an incident when two of my freshman homeroom classmates were brutally murdered when I was a freshman in high school. The murderer(s) was never caught.
Those girls—Kathy and George Ann—were from rather dysfunctional family situations and an isolated, disadvantaged area, and I have always believed that their murders were downplayed because of that. In addition, many blamed them for their fates. I keep creating young women who need to escape and live to make their own mistakes or successes.
What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
First and foremost, moral ambiguity. What kind of choices do we make when there is no clear good or bad? Of course I love creating choices that I personally would never make.
I like to portray the conflict from the victim’s perspective, what I woud call the inside-out, rather than the outside-in from the perspective of a private detective or a cop. In A Short Time to Die, I ended up having both, with the result that Marly, the protagonist, knows things the cops will never find out, and the cops figure out things that Marly doesn’t know, but only the reader has the full story.
I also believe that there is a primitive side of humanity that is instinctively cruel. Perhaps this is what our ancestors needed to identify the weakest in a herd of animals and identify which ones to kill for food but in the present day this leads to sad abuses of those who are vulnerable.
However, on the other side of the coin, we have empathy combined with the ability to create narratives and transform ourselves. Empathy is our higher power that gives us the ability to feel the pain of others and reach out.
Tell us about your main character.
There are two protagonists. When the book opens, Marly Shaw is a senior in high school, living in a very isolated village in Central New York. Her step-father’s family controls all the local crime in the surrounding area and are a vicious, murderous bunch. Marly is smart and focused on figuring out how to get away, but she is emotionally bound to help her mother, sister, and her sister’s children. She eventually makes her escape but she never feels safe … with good reason.
Vanessa Alba is the child of Colombian immigrants and a big success story for her family as a Detective for the Santa Clara County (California) Sheriff’s Department. She would like to build a family of her own, but she lives with her aging parents, partially for financial reasons—housing in Silicon Valley is so expensive—and to help manage parents’ medical needs. Meanwhile, she needs to figure out why a couple of bodies turned up in the Santa Cruz Mountains—bodies of known criminals from a very small town in Central New York.
Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
For Marly, I would first pick Ree Dolly from Winter’s Bone, who is tough and grounded, followed by Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone. Kinsey is fiercely independent and has a very keen and subtle sense of humor. Last, I would choose Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. Like Elinor, Marly has a beautiful, flighty sister, prone to bad decisions, and is the calm, sensible anchor for her rather dysfunctional family.
If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
I would definitely incude Daniel Woodrell, Ross MacDonald, and Sue Grafton. I would probably also invite Ray Bradbury because I understand that he was a self-taught writer, and Val McDermid because I love her dark writing. The sixth guest might have to be a mystery, but I would be tempted to invite someone very different like Phillip Pullman or Neil Gaiman.
What’s next for you?
I just turned in Dread of Winter, which should be out in 2018. It is not a series, but it is set in the same fabricated location in Central New York as A Short Time to Die, with some overlapping spots and characters.
In A Short Time to Die, Marly and her friend Elaine must escape their town of Charon Springs to save their lives. Dread of Winter is about the women who choose to stay and fight.
Susan Alice Bickford was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up
in Central New York. Her passion for technology pulled her to Silicon
Valley, where she became an executive at a leading technology company.
She now works as an independent consultant and author. She splits her
time between Silicon Valley and Vermont.