Here’s how I first met Sandra Brannan: I was attending Thrillerfest for the first time last year in New York. I was nervous, shy, and didn’t know many people. Sandra was not only appearing on a panel, she was also volunteering at the conference…a busy schedule. But…she found time to step aside and introduce herself, encourage me with the agent fest (although my novel was no where near agent submission) and she did this all with such enthusiasm and support that I admired her from day one. An author of numerous great mystery novels (IN THE BELLY OF JONAH, LOT’S RETURN TO SODOM, WIDOW’S MIGHT, and NOAH’S RAINY DAY), Sandra has been noted in the Top 50 Women’s Mysteries e-books, was an ABA Indie NextList, included in Suspense Magazine’s Best Suspense List and was also a USA Book News Best Book Award Finalist. And after all of that, she is still one of the most humble, approachable people I know.
CL: Sandra, first of all I want to say how much I loved this book (IN THE BELLY OF JONAH). And now I’m hooked on Liv Bergen. This novel succeeded in drawing me into the lives of every single character. Tell me something about what inspired you to Create Liv, the main character, a miner with a penchant for solving crimes?
SB: Thank you, Cynthia, for reading a Liv Bergen Mystery out of the millions of titles that exist out there. And I am so glad you enjoyed my characters. I love them, too, but they always seem to surprise me with every book I write.
I’m a data geek so bear with me. Nearly 40% live on the US coast, population 446 people per square mile. Where I live in South Dakota, it’s more like 11 people per square mile, only 5 in neighboring Wyoming. So imagine how so many of the stories I read are difficult for me to connect with, happening in big cities. I wanted to write about what life was like living in the mountain states of the west. Liv Bergen is Norwegian for “life as a mountain dweller” and since one of the only things my publisher changed about my series was my main protagonist’s name, I decided to make it count. As for mining, it’s all I know. I work in a fourth generation quarrying business. Yep, as if I was the granddaughter of Pebbles Flintstone.
CL: This book gave me a few nightmares. HA! It seriously did. I used to lucid dream when my nightmares were bad during graduate school. I had the same experience here…not a bad thing but definitely a result of you pulling me into this story. Tell me about the killer and his desire to replicate art. Where did this idea come from?
SB: My job as a suspense writer should be to make you lose a night of sleep, so I’m really, really glad to hear I gave you nightmares. I love the idea of pulling readers into my stories and if I can give someone nightmares using nothing but water and a pair of legs walking by a basement window, then I’ve done my job. Alfred Hitchcock taught me a thing or two about taking a reader to a scene and then letting their nasty imagination take over, so you won’t find my writing as overt as most novels are today.
The grain of sand that irritated me enough to grow a pearl called IN THE BELLY OF JONAH was one lazy day when I was talking with one of my sisters in her art studio and flipping through the pages of a Salvidore Dali picture book. I found myself loving or hating each of his works, emotions so strong I realized how talented he was to evoke such feelings from me. When I landed on ‘Nutrition’ I was so disturbed by the painting, it gave me nightmares. That nightmare turned into a culmination of my time working for Boeing and my total revulsion of Dali’s Nutrition. I later found out during a book club that Dali’s painted Nutrition because of his anger at his mother for letting a wet nurse breast feed him. No wonder so many of us mothers across this country loathe that painting. Ergo, opening chapter of IN THE BELLY OF JONAH.
CL: You are a professional miner. Tell me how you fell into writing?
SB: When I was in High School, I already knew I wanted to follow in the family business of quarrying and construction material supply, so I took every science and math class I could find. When I graduated, at the honors ceremony, a creative writing scholarship was given away for $500 and I admittedly thought they’d called the wrong name when they announced me the winner. I promptly spent that scholarship on my Industrial Engineering degree, yet being raised Catholic, felt guilty about it after all these years. So one night when my boys were young, I started writing at night after all my chores were done, refreshed by the exercise to go to work each morning.
For teachers who are fans, thank you! Especially to Mr. Harry Putnam, my 9th grade English teacher who saw something in me that I didn’t and who inspired me (through guilt) to get off my duff and start writing. By the way, Mr. Putnam, who is now 90, stood in line at my first book release in 2010 and with a grin, said to me, “I learned ya good” as I shot to my feet for a hug. Teachers, please don’t ever underestimate your ability to motivate. That WWII vet relegated to a lifetime of teaching apathetic 9th graders is a hero in my mind, for sure.
CL: What is the single most important thing you learned while writing IN THE BELLY OF JONAH?
SB: Never give in. IN THE BELLY OF JONAH was the 10th novel I wrote over a 15 year period and after dozens of query letter rejections, I decided to throw out all the rules and criticisms and second-guessing and simply write. With my voice. In my way. And out popped an agent-less publishing contract and an ABA’s Indie Notable for September 2010.
CL: Your enthusiasm is contagious. Tell me what keeps you motivated while you’re writing.
SB: My enthusiasm is solely born of my love to write. It’s a solitary sport that requires no one but me to make that decision to sit at the computer and tell my story. I love the process, which is so different than the rest of my life. In my home life, as a caregiver, I have to poll everyone on what they want for dinner, guess what they might need, and make sure they’re all taken care of with laundry, schedules, cleaning, groceries, clothes, school… (heavy sigh)… the life of all us parents out there, right? And at work, of course in the mining industry, we’re more regulated than the food industry, so we have to ask permission for every move we make, assure all our neighbors are happy with us, and that we’re still providing what our customers need.
With my writing, I can simply tell the story. I don’t have to ask anyone or make sure everyone’s happy with me. If fans don’t like the book, they stop buying. If editors don’t like the book, they tell me to move on to the next one (which is what happened with NOAH’S RAINY DAY, by the way… and it ended up being my most acclaimed book so far, Suspense Magazine naming it to the 2013 Best Suspense list.) That’s the quirky thing about writing is the enjoyment I get is by telling the story, letting it out, like an octopus that’s trapped in my stomach. Lovely.
CL: What are you currently working on? What is the next book that we should see from you?
SB: Next book SOLOMON’S WHISPER, the 5th in the Liv Bergen Mystery Series, is set to release in E-Book on September 2, 2014. I am so excited about this one because it answers at least one question my fans keep pestering me about after the first four books (don’t want to spoil it, so I won’t explain what question I answered).
I’m most excited because this time I had 48 books clubs ask to be beta readers before I sent the manuscript in to my publisher. I chose a Rapid City book club called the Church Ladies and an Ithaca, NY book club called Killer Coffee Club who did such a great job with ideas on how to improve SOLOMON’S WHISPER. And I even had a fan in FL choose the title. So my fans are quite involved with my writing and have a vested in stake in what happens to Liv Bergen. Lucky me!
I’m currently writing a novel that will likely never leave my computer screen, which happens to me often. I have a story itching to be told, even if only for me. This one I titled Bed #3, a literary fiction about a suffering woman who complains even after surviving a near-death car accident only to learn more about living from a ninety year old man in the bed next to her at dialysis. All about the power of gratitude and attitude, which is pleasing me if no one else.
What I SHOULD be writing is #6 for the Liv Bergen series and #3 for my new thriller series that my agent is currently trying to sell. So keep your fingers crossed for me.
CL: What advice do you have for debut and aspiring authors?
SB: Churchill: Never give in. Never, never, never. Seriously, I am the poster child for a writer who should have chosen a different path. 15 years and 10 novels later, you’d think I would have gotten a hint that maybe I wasn’t all that cut out to be a writer. Yet, I didn’t give in. I loved writing. Still do. And the day I don’t, I’ll hang up the keyboard.
To everyone out there who wants to be an author, I implore to dig deep and look inside yourself on why you write. If you’re writing because you absolutely can’t stop, then you’ll make it. Someday.
To find out more about Sandra Brannan, you can check out her website here
You can purchase Sandra’s books below: