Watch the interview and read the full transcript of our chat below:
Interview transcript: topics discussed
- Writing inspiration
- The writing process and working with a writing coach
- Studying history and writing fiction
- Editing and error blindness
- Writing what you know
- What makes a good mentor?
- Favorite mystery authors
- Gender dynamics and writing on topical subjects
- Future writing projects
Jordan Kantey 00:00
Hello and welcome. I am Jordan at Now Novel and today I’ll be speaking to Bonnie Traymore about her debut novel, Killer Motives, out now. Welcome, Bonnie.
Bonnie Traymore 00:09
Thank you, Jordan. Thank you for the introduction.
It’s a pleasure. So, will you tell us a little about your novel, Killer Motives, and what inspired you to write it?
Motivation was really pretty simple. I’ve always loved to read mystery novels and I love a page turner that kind of takes me away and makes me forget all my problems of the day.
And that was really my motivation, was to try to kind of write something that would be a page turner and also be satisfying at the end. Where the reveal would be plausible but not obvious, but not just ridiculously impossible to figure out.
And that puzzle, the challenge of doing that, was the motivation for starting the novel.
The writing process and working with a writing coach
Great, thank you for sharing that.
What was your writing process like for the story? At Now Novel we love to talk about process, because obviously writing a novel-length project is quite the challenge.
It is. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do, and I had a pretty good idea of the ending.
It was more the middle, how was I going to flesh that out and keep it interesting? That was the part that was a challenge.
I used the services of [writing coach] Hedi Lampert who works for Now Novel and she gave me an idea of taking post-it notes and putting scenes on a whiteboard, and just kind of pasting it on, and that that worked pretty well for me.
I know there’s a lot of online stuff that you can do. But for me, the physical act of writing and putting it on got me off the computer and standing up because writing and sitting is such a sedentary process.
And I’m a mover, I like to teach and move around and so that physical … putting the post-it notes was better for me. So, I started with that, and I had a rough idea of where I was going with the scenes, and then I just kind of started writing.
I’m more of a pantser than a plotter, you know, as they say (‘the pantsers’ versus ‘the plotters’), but I tried to be a little bit more restrained and rein myself in a little with being a little bit more structured.
Studying history and writing fiction
Great, that’s a great tip to move while you engage in the ideation/brainstorming [part] of the process. Because I think, as you say, so much of it is sedentary and that can almost stifle the free flow of thoughts as well, not to move. That’s very interesting.
Also, what I wanted to talk about was – having worked with you in a copy editing capacity – what struck me was how much the text was very polished to begin with. It’s quite uncommon (for writers of all experience levels) for a draft to be as polished as it was.
It made more sense upon learning that you had your PhD in History, so obviously you’ve done a lot of writing, but I was interested to learn: having studied history to that level, what would you say that meant to your craft or process as an author?
Well I think, you know, having written a master’s thesis that was 150 pages and a doctoral dissertation, that’s 300 pages and, I mean, it’s like a book and it’s published. It can be downloaded. So, I think that those processes, having so many eyes on that…
I mean, I had a great mentor. Margot Henriksen was my mentor for my dissertation, and she edited my manuscript. And I, you know, went back and you learn – it’s just correcting and correcting and correcting.
Editing and error blindness
But one thing that really stood out, when I got your edits back – I think I mentioned this to you – is how even when you’re really trying your best and looking over it and looking over it, you can still make these really stupid mistakes and I just felt so sorry for my students because I thought, “Gosh, was I too hard on them?”
You know, I always assume ‘maybe they didn’t proof it?’ But they probably did proof it; you just don’t see it when you’re in that creative mode, or just looking at it time and time again, you just miss things.
Absolutely. You do get error blindness. I find on the blog people often point out errors where I think, “Oh, my gosh, how could you have done that?” But you do [get error blind] from reading your own work and you shouldn’t be your own editor. That’s why the role of editor exists, essentially. That’s very interesting.
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Writing what you know
So moving on to the story, what interests me about the story is you can see these crosscurrents … you have a background in business, of course and in realty, and also in history and you can see all these things in your work.
I’m interested to know, are there specific aspects of business, your experience in realty, and maybe in history, that contributed specific things to your storytelling or approach in writing?
Invariably, it will get in there just because it’s what’s in your head. I mean, you write what you know, you write people you know (not that they are people that you are actually modelling them after). But it’s just all that … composites of all these things that you’ve seen and heard, and that’s where your worldview is.
I also wanted to make it relatable. A lot of people have looked for a house, gone house-hunting, so they could relate to some of that.
Sometimes when you get too deep into somebody’s profession, you know, it might be a little bit boring for the reader unless they’re really interested in that topic.
So, I stuck with things that were a little more like accessible I think, but I do notice that some of the themes of gender and class come up in the novel.
I didn’t intend to insert them in there; I think it just came out because that’s maybe how I think or that’s what’s top of the news.
And that’s what characters might be talking about and saying. I mean, it has to be realistic dialogue.
What makes a good mentor?
Another thing I really loved in the story was the connection between [detectives] Jack and Lexi Sanchez …. and that sense of mentoring and of care. And I thought, given your own background in career coaching as well, that must be something close to your own heart.
I was curious, what in your view makes a good mentor?
Yeah, I think when you look at someone as a mentor … although I have had mentors who are younger than me, I think they’ve mentored me well in how to deal with or coach or relate to people younger than me. So, I think … you can also have mentors who are younger, but generally you think of older people who are mentors of younger people.
And I think that one of the things that came through and that comes through for me is you can be young and brilliant, you can be young and smart, but you really can’t be young and wise. I mean that’s a different kind of thing.
And so, I think to develop wisdom, you’ve got to just live through things. And that’s kind of what Jack is doing with Lexi. He’s just trying to impart this wisdom.
And he’s also a nod to some of my old, you know, hard-boiled detective writers that I love, like Dashiell Hammett, people who wrote write those, those kind of … curmudgeonly but lovable characters.
She’s [Lexi Sanchez, a trainee detective in Killer Motives] sort of like a new fresh take on a detective, but they still have the same issues when you’re starting out and just like when you’re mentoring somebody who is a new young teacher or young writer, being impatient; wanting black and white answers.
I mean, the maturity that comes with that… so I think just pulling someone along, but also meeting them where they are, is kind of a good mentor.
Favorite mystery authors
Right. That’s such an interesting point because in my experience I’ve also worked in a coaching capacity with authors who are much older than myself, and what I love about it as well is that then I feel like I’m the beneficiary of their wisdom in some ways.
So, there’s that interesting collaboration across perspectives, across those kinds of experiences.
So, another thing I wanted to ask you about was I enjoyed how you keep the reader guessing about the identity of the killer. And I think you touched on this just now, you mentioned Dashiell Hammett who is of course a great name in hardboiled detective novels, but who are some of your favorite authors in specifically crime mystery books?
There is a lot and I think that it depends a lot on my mood and what’s happening in my life.
So, for example, in the summer is when I’m not reading a lot of heavy stuff, I’ll pick up something by Louise Penny, who I love, and she just has this beautiful … you know her characters are just unforgettable. They stay with you. I feel like I ‘know’ Inspector Gamache, you know, I feel like he’s the guy I could say, “Oh, that’s him!” on the street.
But sometimes it is a little dense for me, like if I’m in a phase where I’m reading 80 term papers, and I just want something ‘boom, boom, boom’, I’ll read Shari Lapena, which is like – I can’t put her novels down. She just writes novel after novel that just flow through my fingers. I don’t necessarily tend to remember all her characters. It’s just a different kind of read, but it’s just as fun.
I guess I was trying to shoot somewhere in the middle with mine, make a page turner but also have a little depth with the history in there.
I mean, I love Ken Follet and Pillars of the Earth, you know like that was a great historical read. But I didn’t really want to write historical fiction. Maybe someday, but right now I needed a break from that. So, I just I peppered it in with the Sleepy Hollow and all the backstory. Got my history in there, but…
Gender dynamics and writing on topical subjects
Great, that’s very insightful, thank you.
Speaking of depth and dimension, I was also interested, when you shared your PhD thesis topic was to do with feminism and the sexualization of femininity post-war with the ‘Riot Grrl’ movement. I was interested because the book touches on themes relevant to this.
For example, the #MeToo movement, workplace sexual harassment, and how often cisgendered women still face different rights/choices versus cisgendered men even today (and a lot of law-makers making decisions about women’s rights are predominantly men).
So, I was thinking about this and also at the same time what I liked in the story was that your women and your male characters also all behave in morally grey ways at times. So, there’s no gender essentialism.
Was this something that was important to you, or conscious or intentional? If you could just speak about gender dynamics in the context of your story.
It wasn’t intentional that I didn’t do gender essentialism, I think it’s just a reflection of how I am.
I really believe that there’s a lot of grey areas. We know that sexual harassment happens. It’s happened to many people; it’s happened to me. It has happened to almost every woman I know.
But we also know that sometimes it’s overstated. And sometimes people who are innocent are accused who aren’t [guilty]. And so, it’s just a very grey area and we’re living in a time where people are really polarized and things are really black and white and that’s just not how I think and that’s not how I train my students to think.
I train them, you know, not train, but teach my students to try to see the grey areas and see the other side and with the social media, the echo chambers. I think people are just stuck in their camps. And life’s not like that most of the time.
Most of the time, people are nuanced, and they have these different sides. I mean, we’ve all felt, I think sometimes bad about something we did and maybe we didn’t make the ultimately great decision but, you know, generally I think people are pretty good most of the time. So that’s what I was trying to get at, the complexity.
And it’s also what … because I work with young people all the time, it’s something that’s really topical right now. Especially with the young girls that I work with – reproductive rights and things like that are in the news and the Me Too stuff. So, it’s just things that people are talking about, and that are timely that just end up in a book because that’s what’s happening.
Right. Ja, it’s interesting when you say that about polarization and the echo chambers on social media because essentially what you’re talking about is critical thinking, which is I think also something that is a privilege in terms of university education, really. One of the things it does help you develop, I think, is critical thinking.
I mean, it’s all about writing these papers and so on, and studying all these theories. It really is ultimately about investigating the grey areas in minute detail and having to grapple with really complex thoughts and politics and positions and so on. So that’s very interesting.
Future writing projects
One last thing I wanted to ask was, are there plans for a sequel? I liked how Jack Stark has a folder of unsolved cases, so I immediately spotted an opportunity there for a serial or something of that nature.
Yeah, that’s funny you say that because I actually just started on it two days ago [laughs].
Oh fantastic, great.
I really feel like I wanted – because my background is in education, I’m trying to find a way to – I have an idea for something that happens at a school campus. But I don’t know if it’s two separate books or if I could thread these characters in, so I’m kind of playing with that but I thought that would be kind of easier for me because I know that world so well.
It’s like when I have Victoria as an art dealer and art historian, I don’t really know that business as well, so I couldn’t really put as much as I wanted to.
But if it’s education, that’s kind of my field, you know that would be kind of easier, I think that’s why… I read a lot of writers, you know, do what they know. They were private investigators, or they worked for the CIA, and then they write. So it could be kind of fun. And of course I have a lot of ideas in my head just from being in that field.
Yeah, I kind of like them. I’m not really done with those characters. So it would be fun to bring them back in some way.
Ja, I definitely got the feeling of that from the story so I’m very glad to hear that.
Well I ended it – I don’t want to give any spoiler alerts, either, but I did sort of end a little ambiguously, you know, in the epilogue with things.
So, I think there’s room just to have a sequel or it could be combined with something that happens on a campus. A new situation that also develops.
Yeah, well, that’s great. I look forward to finding out more once you are further on in the project. Thank you for this chat. It’s been wonderful to hear about your process and your inspirations sources.
Thanks for interviewing me. It’s my first official interview as an author.
Hopefully there’ll be many more to come!
Hopefully! Okay, thanks Jordan. Aloha!
About the author
Dr Bonnie Traymore is a veteran educator and administrator, a Certified Professional Career Coach who has her MA and PhD in History. You can learn more about her on her website at Pathways Career Advisory. Her indie debut novel Killer Motives is available via Amazon. Read an extract from Killer Motives on River Journal Online.