Terra Elan McVoy is the author of 5 novels, including her latest, Criminal, which takes a bit of a darker turn than her other novels, and she was kind enough to drop by and talk about the book!
Please welcome Terra to the blog!
You’ve been a reader, and a writer, for most of your life! What’s one of the earliest things you remember writing?
I have lots of memories of working on “stories” from when I was little, including dictating tales to a volunteer in kindergarten who would then write them down so we could practice copying the letters after. The writing time we had every morning in 4th grade was also one of my favorites. But the first “serious” project I did was the fantasy/romance novel I worked incredibly hard on in 6th grade. It’s lost now in our family’s old Kaypro, which I’m sure has been long recycled, but I do remember it was quite epic.
After four books that explore the (mostly) lighter side of being a teen, you’ve written the brand new Criminal, which is decidedly darker. Will you tell us a bit about it and its heroine, Nikki?
CRIMINAL, my 5th book is, you’re right, a bit of a darker turn for me. It’s about a girl, Nikki, who is very down-and-out, and has just about nothing but her boyfriend, Dee, and her best friend Bird (who has her own difficulties). Dee is not what you would call a nice guy, and before the book has even started he gets Nikki to help him in a murder. The whole story is about Nikki’s journey from protecting Dee at all costs, to finally acknowledging what has happened and her role in it, and I hope eventually repairing herself after the fact.
What made you decide to head into darker territory?
What made me take this turn was the same thing that has motivated all my other books, and that’s my deep interest in the human condition: how we’re all struggling to become ourselves, but especially during adolescence. Instead of exploring what sisterhood is like this time, or trying to be a person of faith while dealing w/ regular high school stuff, or being friends with a bunch of different boys, in CRIMINAL I was trying to understand what it would be like to be in this truly awful situation. I had heard about a murder case wherein a young man was accused of killing his girlfriend’s parent; with a little research, it seemed he maybe had another accomplice–a girl with whom he was also romantically involved. I was just fascinated by this possible accomplice girl. I wanted to figure out why she would do something like this, and then how it would really affect her.
What was your favorite part of writing Criminal? Without giving anything away, do you have a favorite scene?
My favorite part about writing CRIMINAL was the pacing. A lot of my work is very internal, about the characters’ relationships and emotions. This one is very much that too, but because of all the stuff with the police, the investigation, and jail and all that, there’s a lot happening externally too, and that was fun.
I think a lot of my favorite scenes involve Bird. I don’t want to give anything away, so I can’t say which ones, but she’s just so fierce and strong through the whole book, in a way I admire and am not sure I could be myself. Even when Nikki doesn’t know it, that’s such an important foil for her to have. I’m grateful, for Nikki, every time Bird’s in a scene.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
The research for this book was really important. First I learned the basics of the case, but then my imagination quickly took over and I wanted to not feel limited. I interviewed several lawyers (defense and prosecuting) to know more about the process, and a friend who had spent some time in jail. Surprisingly, there was a lot of great stuff online too, especially first-hand accounts of people who had been in county lockup where I live, which helped enormously.
What are a few of the biggest influences on your writing?
The biggest influences on my writing are by far the books I’ve read. Every single poem, story, and novel has influenced me in some way, because it’s all shown me what I do and do not want to do in my own work. I think the single most important thing any writer can do, especially a young writer, is read everything you can get your hands on, and look at how the writer is doing what they’re doing.
How about a few of your favorite thrillers?
You know, I’m not really a big thriller reader, surprisingly enough, but I do have some favorites. When I read WATCHERS by Dean Koontz in high school, I was just gripped, and I still love that story. I also think Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is one of the best books I’ve ever read. (Which means it’s up there with Jonathan Franzen, John Irving, Pat Conroy and Robert Penn Warren, just for comparison’s sake.)
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
If I could experience another book for the first time, it’d be a tie between WINTER’S TALE by Mark Helprin, or else ANNA KARENINA. WT is just so *magical* and surprising. I picked it up for no reason at the library, and it changed my idea of magical realism. And AK, I had tried to read several times and hated, but my sister kept insisting I finish it. Finally I found the right translation, and I got so sucked in, especially into the whole story of Kitty and Levin. That all said, I do also love reading favorite books multiple times.
What’s one piece of advice that you would give to a struggling writer?
My advice to struggling writers is probably not very popular advice, but it’s to focus on the work, not on the publication of the work. I see so many people fixated on “getting published” when often that takes years (for me decades) and many, many unpublished pieces. (And sometimes it still never happens; look at Emily Dickinson.) Good work–the highest quality you can make–should be the goal. Which means a LOT of practice. The truth is, just because you write something (just because I write something) that doesn’t mean it belongs out there amongst Dickens, or Zadie Smith, or John Green, or anyone else who has worked incredibly, incredibly hard at honing this craft. So focus on that: on learning and practicing and perfecting, not on publishing. That part, if you do the rest, will probably come.
When you’re not busy with your next project, how do you like to spend your free time?
When I’m not working, I still love absorbing stories, so a lot of what I enjoy doing is either reading, watching movies (or, lately, “Friday Night Lights” episodes) with my husband, or else hanging out with my friends and hearing about *their* stories. I also like to cook a lot, and when I have time I really love doing paper collage crafty things.
What’s next for you?
What’s next? Next is the book I have to hurry up and finish: IN DEEP. I’m actually bringing back a character from a previous book, and exploring her life before that one starts. Like CRIMINAL, this one is also darker and edgier than the first four, so after this I think I want to go back to a sweet romance or something!
Nikki’s life is far from perfect, but at least she has Dee. Her friends tell her that Dee is no good, but Nikki can’t imagine herself without him. He’s hot, he’s dangerous, he has her initials tattooed over his heart, and she loves him more than anything. There’s nothing Nikki wouldn’t do for Dee. Absolutely nothing.
So when Dee pulls Nikki into a crime—a crime that ends in murder—Nikki tells herself that it’s all for true love. Nothing can break them apart. Not the police. Not the arrest that lands Nikki in jail. Not even the investigators who want her to testify against him.
But what if Dee had motives that Nikki knew nothing about? Nikki’s love for Dee is supposed to be unconditional…but even true love has a limit. And Nikki just might have reached hers.
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