Interview: Nancy Hightower

Please welcome Nancy Hightower, author of Elementarí Rising.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I’m pretty much living it right now. Getting up to write, taking walks around New York City, and having coffee with friends when I nElemantari Risingeed a mental break.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I’m known for wearing a black jacket almost 99% of the time, to any function. The other thing I’m probably known for is having kind of crazy hair. Some days I really do look like a wild professor/writer gal. Signature fragrance is always vanilla.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Kafka, because I love his surreal landscapes and strange attic rooms. Tolkien, because he was the first epic fantasy I ever read and showed me you can create whole worlds. And all my professors at Fort Lewis College, who gave me the wackiest assignments so I would have to think creatively.

Do you listen to music when you write?
It all depends on the story or novel I’m writing. For Elementarí Rising, I listened to more ambient music—stuff by Lisa Gerrard, Adiemus, Enigma—because I was trying to reach that archaic, mythic place. When I’m writing short stories (which tend to be more surreal and creepy), the music gets more intense—there was one story where I replayed Bush’s “Mouth” over and over again just to stay in the vibe.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
I’m going to go with Jack Daniel’s fudge—a whole pan of it to sustain you through the journey. It’s a path full of mystery as they go on their quest, and you begin to see that there all are this underlying alliances and treacheries that have happened, and that many people are trying to correct a grave mistake they made in the past.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I’ve been living in Colorado a really long time, and have watched the weather patterns change, have seen the drought take its toll on the forests and land. So, part of the book came from a deep desire to explore the ecological complexities that we are dealing with today amid all the politics and economic factors. My characters have those same concerns, with no easy answers. But also, I’ve learned a great respect for nature, for the power of winds that are strong enough to blow you off a path, and for snow storms that can paralyze you for days. I wanted to explore that tenuous relationship we have with the elements—wanting to tame them while still being so awestruck by their force.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I am usually always looking at that mythic journey we want to take—that adventure outside ourselves and into something mysterious that draws us up into becoming more than we ever hoped to be. It requires sacrifices we might never have intended to make, but find ourselves able to sustain the cost of truly fighting for what we believe in. I usually look at what makes a family—is it blood or loyalty, serendipitous chance encounters or chess-like manipulations? All come into play with Elementarí Rising.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Jonathan lost his older brother the year before and he still feels guilty about it, even though it technically wasn’t his fault. His one desire had been to join the Order of the Seven Wood, to protect the deathless forest, but those plans have been put on hold indefinitely since he must now help his family keep their home and farm. So, he’s already experienced two great losses when we meet him and he feels pretty trapped by circumstances. All of this changes, though, as the elements awaken and begin to wreak havoc in their hunger. Jonathan finds himself in the middle of an epic war between humans and the spirits of earth, water, fire, and air, and so he gets the chance to become a part of the greater adventure, just not as he expected.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
That’s a hard one. Let’s go with an 18-year-old emotionally tortured Christian Bale, who has uncanny intuition and sensory abilities like Detective Nick Burkhard on Grimm, and the brashness of Han Solo. He craves adventure, but also wants to take care of the people around him.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Well, let’s have some fun with this, since I’m an epic fantasy writer. I’d have Agatha Christie and George R.R. Martin (she would have to deduce who he was going to kill off in the next few novels), Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis (they were good friends), G.K. Chesterton and Neil Gaiman (mysterious and otherworldly).

What’s next for you?
Too many things! I’m finishing up a short fiction collection called Kinds of Leaving.  There’s also the sequel to Elementarí Rising (it ends on something of a cliffhanger), and then there’s an urban fantasy lurking in the distance….


Nancy Hightower’s first novel, Elementarí Rising, just came out from Pink Narcissus Press and received a starred review from Library Journal. Her short fiction and poetry has been published in Word Riot, story/South, Gargoyle, Prick of the Spindle, Strange Horizons, Electric Velocipede, Bourbon Penn, and Prime Number Magazine, among others. She did the majority of her graduate work on Henry James, but asks that you don’t hold that against her. She has taught classes at the university level on memoir writing, the grotesque in art and literature, writing in the visual arts, and the ghost story. Currently, she resides in New York City.


Fear Makes You Feel Alive

We hear it all the time. We tell it to our kids. Don’t be afraid.

Living in fear is generally a Bad Thing. Fear can hold us back, keep us from trying new things, or reaching our potential. But fear does something else that doesn’t often get talked about.

Fear makes us feel alive.

Think about it. The dead feel no fear. The dead don’t feel anything. And who wants to be dead, right?

I remember doing my SCUBA certification back in 1996. Part of the course was a deep dive, to the edge of a continental shelf, 105 feet down. The thought was more than a little panic-inducing. There would be no shooting to the surface. What if I couldn’t handle the pressurization/decompression stops? What if my mask broke, or I lost my regulator? What if my buoyancy compensator malfunctioned and I wound up sinking too deep? What if I get attacked by a shark?

You get the picture. It was almost enough to make me quit before I started.

But I went. My mask and regulator were fine. I handled the pressure stops with ease. My BC worked perfectly. I hung at 105 feet, table-sized plate coral to my left (seriously, I would have been crushed under that thing). In front and behind, the water tapered off into blackness. The next “land” beneath my feet was another 100 feet down, where I would have been squashed like a grape. And had I swum to my right, I wouldn’t have encountered land until I hit Africa.

I have never felt so scared.

I have never felt so alive.

When you feel fear, your heart starts pounding. The adrenaline may kick in. You get that “fight or flight” instinct. All of it reminds you that you are alive. You can feel, you can move, you can do – YOU ARE AWESOME!

Good fiction does the same thing – it makes us (at least a little) afraid, makes us turn that page. Are you kidding, don’t go into the dark cellar alone, in a storm, with no electricity, with a serial killer on the loose! Page flip – because while we might be afraid, we also need to know, how does it turn out?

Now, I’m not suggesting we all turn into adrenaline junkies. But the next time fear raises its ugly head, take a chance. Embrace it. Go out on that limb.

You might be surprised how alive you feel.

Fear of Being Wrong

When I attended college, I was not a very good student, and it was largely due to fear. Professors would ask a question and look out at those of us attending the class, waiting for someone to respond. I knew the two or three people who would raise their hand and contribute—those same people always contributed—and I was thankful for them. I diverted my eyes from the front of the classroom, studied the margins of my notebook, pretended to take notes, and hoped that one day a cloak of invisibility would really exist for such occasions.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn. It wasn’t that I didn’t have an idea of what the answer would be. It wasn’t that I was being humble about my knowledge. The reason I didn’t participate was simple: I was afraid of not being right.

Not being right meant being wrong. It meant looking stupid. It meant admitting that I wasn’t as smart as everyone else in the classroom. Those were my secrets. I could fake my way through lecture halls and avoid discussions and nobody would have to know the truth.

That fear of being wrong kept me from discovering that the biggest step in learning is admitting what you don’t know. Once I accepted that much can be learned from not being right, my whole world changed. I stopped pretending I knew everything and acknowledged how little I knew about the things that mattered to me. And then I set about changing that. Instead of being embarrassed because I was wrong, I started asking why I wasn’t right.

The fear of being wrong is much like the fear of failure. Why try to accomplish something that isn’t a guaranteed risk? Why set yourself up for ridicule and criticism? Why expose your shortcomings?

Why not?


Is Fear the Legacy of Crime Reporters?

Someone asked me the other day why I wrote crime fiction. Why did I choose to write about such dark things?

It all boils down to fear.

By writing about horrible things, I am purging my mind of images and thoughts that frighten me.

And boy is there a lot of them. I blame it on PTSD from being a newspaper crime reporter for so many years.

On the surface, I’d probably be considered brave. I’ve watched autopsies without flinching. I lived in a Mara Salvatrucha gang neighborhood in Los Angeles. (If you haven’t heard of the MS gang, take my word for it — they are the baddest fothermuckers you’ll ever meet.) I’ve flown in an FA/18 fighter jet. I’ve slept in a parked car in Jersey City for four nights because I couldn’t afford a hotel room in New York City. (Right now all the New Yorkers are saying this by far is the scariest thing I’ve done, right?)

And yet, my fears are there, invading my thoughts during the most peaceful times.

Last summer my family and I slept in a camping cabin at Yellowstone. One night I had to use the bathroom, but was too afraid to go outside by myself even though it was only about thirty feet away. In the morning, I confessed this to my husband.

He tried to reassure me: “There’s no way a bear is going to come this close.”

Me: “Do you remember that story I wrote about the guy who was eaten by a cougar and all they found were his shirt buttons in the cougar scat?”

My husband didn’t answer. He knew there was nothing he could say.

“But I’m actually more worried about a person,” I said.

Now, he looked confused.

“Cary Stayner,” I said. “The serial killer? You know the one who killed those tourists at Yosemite? Chopped them up? He must have been messed up because his brother had been kidnapped and held prisoner for so many years.”

This time my husband just shook his head. He doesn’t understand, just accepts it. The only people who truly get it are other crime reporters. They know that these thoughts and fears are the legacy of my crime reporting days — I have a story illustrating every worse case scenario:

* It’s a beautiful day so I decide to go for a walk. There are many directions I can head from my house. I avoid the path through the woods even though it is the prettiest route. Too isolated for me.

Flashback: The Concord woman joined dozens of other office workers who took to the wooded walking paths during lunch breaks. She was talking on the phone to her husband when the line went dead. A drifter had grabbed her, dragged her into the bushes, raped her, and killed her before the next walker came along the path.

* When I work at home, I keep all the doors locked, even though I live in a very safe neighborhood.

Flashback: The men who got off the BART train that day wandered into the first open garage door they saw in the upscale suburban neighborhood. They took all the woman’s jewelry and strangled her with a phone cord.

* I swerve madly to avoid a piece of metal in the roadway. And not because I’m worried about getting a flat tire.

Flashback: The driver in front of her ran over the barbell disk in such a manner that it launched the weight into the air, spinning it with such force that it smashed through the windshield and decapitated the woman.

Well, anyway, I could go on and on.

Throughout my day, these worse case scenarios pop up in everything I do. The way I view the world is not a burden. Instead, it’s a backwards gift left over from a career covering the crime beat. Because each time fear shoots through me, it sets off sparks of ideas that can be turned into books.

Announcement: New Format

Dear Readers, we are making a change.

The weekly Facebook chats will be discontinued in favor of more regular discussions here on the blog. We will continue to host author interviews and guest posts…there will just be MORE material here, too. We’ve decided to have a theme for each month, and individual bloggers will adhere to (or veer from) the theme as they see fit. This month’s theme, appropriate for both Halloween and mystery alike, is FEAR.

Here’s the schedule, beginning tomorrow, 10/15.

Monday: Pamela Oberg
Tuesday: Kristi Belcamino
Wednesday: Diane Vallere
Thursday: Mary Sutton
Friday: Visiting Writer

Monday: Sarah Henning
Tuesday: Cynthia Kuhn
Wednesday: Donna White Glaser
Thursday: Theresa Crater
Friday: Visiting Writer

We hope you’ll join us and chime in whenever you can. We love to hear from you.

New Release: The Secrets We Keep

Donna White Glaser’s latest book in the Letty Whittaker 12 Step Mystery Series is now available!

When psychotherapist and recovering alcoholic Letty Whittaker responds to a middle-thesecretswekeepof-the-night crisis call, she knows helping Trinnie face her demons won’t be easy. However, instead of finding her friend dead drunk, Letty finds her just . . . dead.  And Paul, another close friend, is the primary suspect.

Worse, Trinnie’s Fourth Step—AA’s infamous list of resentments—implicates Paul.  Letty has a choice: turn the list over to the police or use it to track the suspects back through the hard-drinking bar scene. In a race to prove Paul’s innocence, Letty wrestles the dark addictions that nearly consumed her just months ago—and comes face-to-face with the person whose secrets were worth killing for.

For more information, please visit

Congratulations, Donna!

Interview: Terry Ambrose

Please welcome Terry Ambrose, author of the McKenna Mysteries and License to Lie series.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
My perfect day begins with a walk on a warm, sandy beach. With the trade winds blowing gently and the day becoming warmer and more humid, it would seem that nothing could go wrong. Grabbing a couple of hours to write in the shade of some kauaitemptationstall trees would be a fabulous addition. Then, I’d finish it off with a dip in the ocean to feel refreshed and energized for the evening.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
This question seems to come down to style. Mine tends to be island style. Aloha shirts, shorts, and barbecued chicken or fish.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Ed Stackler is the first one on this list. He was my first editor and the one who got me moving in the right direction when it came to writing mysteries and suspense in a way that kept readers intrigued rather than bored. While I never met him, Jack M. Bickham’s book “Scene and Structure” has also had a major influence on my writing. At a time when I found myself wondering what the next step was, I read that book and knew instantly what direction I wanted to take my writing. Number 3 on my list is Ray Bradbury. In addition to devouring his books when I was younger, I was fortunate enough to see him speak at a writers conference.

Do you listen to music when you write?
I’ll listen to music to help set the mood. It’s especially helpful to me to listen to Hawaiian music when writing the McKenna Mysteries.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
If Kauai Temptations were chocolate, it would probably be something like the “Chocolate Dome” at PF Chang’s. It’s a deep dark chocolate on the outside and even richer on the inside, then drizzled with a raspberry sauce. Best of all, it’s gluten-free!

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I’m a victim of identity theft myself and the feelings that McKenna experiences as he learns about what’s happened are those I went through. While McKenna actually puts his plan to bring the thieves to justice in place, I was never that brave. Maybe this book is me doing what I would have liked to have done at the time—without the whole murder caper, of course.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
My stories usually involve a con artist or scammer of some sort. In the McKenna Mystery series, I’m currently focusing on the issue of redemption. In the License to Lie series, which features a female con artist as a protagonist, I explore the issue of trust—what we must do to gain it and how far we must sometimes go to keep it.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
In the McKenna Mystery series, my protagonist is Wilson McKenna, a guy who is struggling to put his life back together after having fled to Hawaii years before. His “go to” reaction when he’s not in a difficult situation is typically one of fragility and avoidance. However, as the stakes rise, his inner strength comes out and the more trouble he gets in, the stronger his resolve and personality become.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
One part Jessica Fletcher for his sleuthing
One part Thomas Magnum for his somewhat fractured personality and his ability to play a hunch
One part Richard Castle for his sharp tongue, theories, and flighty behavior in mildly difficult situations.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
What mystery author dinner party would be complete without Sue Grafton? I’d also love to see Hank Phillippi Ryan attend—I’m sure she’d keep everyone talking with her questions. I met Andrew Gross at a lunch one time and would have really liked to talk with him more, so let’s invite him. I’d also invite a couple of relative “newcomers”: Kim Fay and Susan Elia MacNeal. Both were 2013 Edgar Finalists for Best First Novel, but have been writing for years. And just to keep us all laughing, I’d round things out with Carl Hiaasen.

What’s next for you?
My next project is the sequel to License to Lie, which is called Con Game. In this installment, Roxy Tanner (a con artist) and Skip Cosgrove (a criminologist) have taken their relationship to the next level and are still sorting out whether they can trust each other enough to continue. The book opens with Skip being shot by a man he helped put in jail and Roxy conning an L.A. stockbroker out of a $1 million. In order to save themselves, the two will have to fight off a killer, recover a stolen fortune, and help a homeless 12-year-old to survive.


Terry Ambrose is a former bill collector and skip tracer who now uses that background to write mysteries and thrillers. His debut mystery Photo Finish was a 2013 San Diego Book Awards Finalist.