by Lisa Yanaky
Kate Pepper is the author of Seven Minutes to Noon (reviewed here), a suspense novel about a woman that is 8½ months pregnant who goes missing and her friend’s struggle to find out what happened to her – and if she’s at risk herself. Kate Pepper was marvelous enough to put her novel-writing on pause to answer some questions from Book Brothel about throwing her readers for a loop, creating complex characters in suspense novels, and her personal terror-barometer.
What gave you the idea for Seven Minutes to Noon?
I’ve always wanted to write about the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I’ve lived for over twenty years; it’s an inspiring area of nineteenth century brownstones, full of history and the sense of hidden stories. More specifically, the idea to make Seven Minutes to Noon about the dark underside of local real estate came from a personal experience, when we were unceremoniously ordered by a new landlord to be out of our rented home in two weeks. In the months that followed, my husband and I learned a lot about real estate laws, greed – and human nature.
When you’re writing a suspense novel, how does the story line come to you? Do you start working with the villain in mind?
An idea can come to me in any way, but usually it just pops into my mind one day. The idea for my first suspense novel Five Days in Summer occurred to me while I was standing on the beach, thinking about the risks we take in loving other people, especially our children — risk and vulnerability. The essential idea for Seven Minutes to Noon, as I said above, came from a personal experience, though in writing the novel I used the idea of the experience and fictionalized the story. I do a lot of thinking before I start writing; thinking, note taking, reading, and finally outlining. It’s in the outline and ultimately the writing that the story line takes on a life of its own and the idea really begins to blossom. As for villains, I do begin with a villain in mind, but often the real villain emerges during the course of writing.
As a mother yourself, what’s it like putting children in danger, even if they are fictional characters?
It’s terrifying and disturbing! If I feel scared writing and reading what I’ve written, then I know the suspense is working. I use myself as a barometer. As for how this impacts my real life, I’ve come to understand through my research how dangerous the world can be for children, and I react by being an unabashedly overprotective mother. My children do not go outside by themselves and our house is a fortress. I just don’t believe in experimenting with my children’s safety, because it only takes one true creep to destroy a child and a family.
Is it important to you to impart a sense of humanity and deep relationships rather than simply focusing on the fast-paced adventures of one-dimensional characters?
Absolutely. I realize that some suspense authors don’t feel it’s necessary to flesh out their characters, and some readers find it annoying, but I could not write a suspense novel or any novel without making it a priority to create deep, emotive characters. Like gas in a car, characters are what make a story go; without a sense of what matters to them, the story won’t have a lot of emotional impact and will just stall out. (Okay, enough of the automotive metaphor!) I’ve had readers tell me there isn’t enough action in my books, and other readers say they love the depth of the characters. You can’t please everyone. Mostly, a writer needs to write what they like to read.
Your book takes place in Brooklyn, New York, which is also where you live. Does writing about crime in the place you live ever hit a little too close to home, so to speak?
Before Seven Minutes to Noon came out, I wondered how it would feel to publish a novel about the place where I live. Would it feel like an exposure? Would people who know me be angry, or feel I had misrepresented their neighborhood? Would I regret having mined personal territory for something so public? In the end, I didn’t feel any of that. I feel very satisfied to have fictionally explored a neighborhood that I deeply love, almost as if I’ve given this special place a valentine of appreciation. And friends and neighbors have been enthusiastic and supportive, which has been great.
What do your kids think about your writing? How old do you want them to be before they start reading your books?
I think my children are proud of me — at least, I hope they are! As they struggle to master writing in school, I think they look at what I do and understand that it’s an accomplishment. I’m not sure they really get it that I work, because when they’re not in school or camp I’m always available to them, yet they see these books appearing in the world with my name on them and they know something has happened during the hours they’re not at home. When will they be old enough to read my books? Hmm. When they’re about thirty!
What’s something you do in your books to throw off the reader, preventing them from guessing the ending?
Lots of misdirection. I’ve found that one way to surprise the reader is to surprise myself! So, as I write, I stay open to new ideas and shifts in the story line. In writing, as in life, it’s very hard not to drop hints about secrets you’re harboring, so it works out well for me if I myself don’t always know the exact ending as I’m writing the novel. And in revision, I iron out wrinkles that might suggest things to the reader that I don’t want her to know.
What’s your daily writing routine like? How long did it take you to complete Seven Minutes to Noon?
I usually start my writing day between nine-thirty and ten o’clock in the morning, once I’ve gotten the kids off to school, had my shower and possibly put in a load of laundry. I write until about two-thirty in the afternoon. Once or twice I week, I might break to go to the gym. It generally takes me three or four months to write the first draft of a novel, and six or seven months to revise it (during revision, I do a lot of rewriting).
Your husband, Oliver, is a film editor and Emmy Award winner. Has the possibility of adapting your books for the big screen ever crossed your mind?
We would love to see my novels on the big screen! Oliver is a great editor and I would love him to edit my stories for film. At the moment, he’s working on writing his own screenplay, a comedy. He has a fabulous sense of humor and is exploring that for a film right now, so suspense will have to wait.
As well as your novel writing, you also teach a college writing course. What’s the main thing you try to drill into the minds of your students?
First, they should discover their own voices and write their own stories. Every writer has his or her own unique vein of talent which should be mined on its own terms. The most important thing I ask of my students is to critique each other’s work on the writer’s own terms, not the reader’s.
What authors have inspired you? Are you a big suspense reader yourself?
The suspense authors who have most inspired me are Patricia Highsmith, Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, but the sad truth is that I’m not as well read in the genre as I might be, so there are probably other wonderful suspense authors out there I should read. I probably read more literary fiction, and love too many authors to name.
Have you read anything worth recommending lately?
I’m in the middle of reading the suspense novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. He’s got some interesting, original ideas and a funny narrative voice that I’m really enjoying. I’d recommend it to anyone.
What’s up next for you?
I’m finishing my third suspense novel, which should be out in the summer of 2006, and about to embark on a fourth.