An interview with Allison Brennan, author of Poisonous

Photo by Brittan Dodd

Photo by Brittan Dodd

Please welcome Allison Brennan to the blog! Her brand new book, Poisonous, comes out tomorrow, and she answered a few of my questions about it, and more!
Will you tell us a bit about Poisonous and what inspired you to write it?

On the surface, POISONOUS is about teenagers and social media. Ivy Lake, in an aim to be popular, can and will post anything about her peers—the more scandalous the better—in order to gain virtual friends and fans. She ends up dead, and there is little evidence and many suspects. The case grows cold … until 14 months later when Ivy’s step-brother reaches out to investigative reporter Max Revere and asks her to find out what really happened the night Ivy died. Was it an accident? Suicide? Or murder?

But more than the dangers of social media and what we share on the Internet, POISONOUS is about grief, anger, and disfunctional families. It’s about what we say out of anger and fear, how we hurt the people we should love the most and sometimes don’t even realize it.

The idea for the story didn’t just pop into my head – I wish it were that easy! But several things came together. First, I read an article where a young teen in my area killed himself after being harassed. The harassment wasn’t simple teasing—it turned into mean kids piling on against someone they perceived as “weaker.” I started wondering why? I get the one “bully” in the school who picks on everyone, but why do other people join in? Sort of a “me, too” mentality. Then, someone I know posted something on-line that had me cringing. I knew she didn’t mean what she wrote. I understood what she’d meant, but her word choices were poor, and a whole bunch of people berated her to the point where she disappeared from Facebook for awhile. And then I thought, I’m so lucky there was no social media when I was growing up! I made mistake after mistake when I was a teenager. I made some bad choices. I didn’t always know how to be tactful, and my bluntness hurt others. I learned from my mistakes and bad decisions and am hopefully a better person because of them. Yet today, I fear for my own kids. They should be able to make mistakes and learn, take risks and fail, and grow up to be better, stronger adults—but often, even the smallest of mistakes, if highlighted online, can have lasting repercussions. Not only for the individuals involved, but for their friends and family.

What can Max Revere fans look forward to?

Max does what Max does best – she never gives up. 🙂 I think that Max fans from the beginning will love how she has grown over the six months (story time) from NOTORIOUS to POISONOUS. And new readers will be able to slide right into the story, because in many ways, Max is a catalyst for the people who populate the cases she investigates.

What makes Max a compelling character? How do you think she’s changed the most since Notorious?

Strong, intelligent, independent women are often vilified in society. They’re seen as “bitchy” or “cold” where the same attributes would be seen as leadership qualities in men. Readers either love or hate Max – and I think this is true for most smart, independent women. They make loyal friends and harsh enemies. Max interests me because she herself is complex. She had an unusual upbringing and that has partly made her who she is—sometimes in ways she doesn’t fully understand. For a woman who prides herself on being self-aware, she’s blinded by how the first ten years of her life with a selfish, whimsical, mentally unstable mother created deep insecurities about love, family, loyalty and friendship.

POISONOUS is the third book in Max’s world, and it’s the first time she’s really considered how her childhood impacts her core beliefs—largely because this story is populated with young people in difficult emotional situations. It’s also the first time she’s felt emotionally vulnerable, and she’s not exactly sure how to handle it. Max has always seen the world in black and white. There is right and wrong. Lies are bad, truth is good. Max will always be a force to be reckoned with—and she may in fact earn the “bitch” moniker in future installments—but she is beginning to see how those around her affect her, both good and bad. For years, she had no close friends. No one could live up to her standards. Now, she fears she’ll lose the few close friends she depends on. And she has a hard time depending on anyone. Accepting those closest to her as they are—warts and all—is a sign of growth I wasn’t expecting, and neither was Max.

What kind of research have you done for the series, and in particular, this book?

Max research is much easier than the research for my Lucy Kincaid series, to be honest! Because Max is an investigative reporter, she doesn’t have to follow the same rules as Lucy (an FBI agent.) I’m lucky that Hank Phillipi Ryan—a real life reporter and a writer—helped with some of my reporter questions (though I took many liberties … mostly because of Max’s character.) The primary research I’ve done is forensic. Cold cases are handled differently than a fresh homicide. I’m lucky that Dr. DP Lyle, also a writer, is so gracious with his time in helping other writers get the medical and forensic details right. I’ve used his expertise in many of my books. There was very little specific information I needed for POISONOUS that I didn’t already know, though I talked with the assistant to the police chief in Central Marin so that I understood how their office functioned since it’s a bit different that most police departments I’m familiar with. I also poured over topographic maps in order to figure out where and how Ivy died. I needed to find the right cliff! I read articles about crime and criminal justice all the time—I have for years—so I pick up on things and file them away on my computer or in my bookshelf so I can call upon them as necessary.

You have a large family! How do you balance family life with your busy publishing schedule?

When I started writing full time, my youngest was six months old and my oldest was 11. My oldest is now 22! I do the bulk of my writing when the kids are in school, though I often write at night after dinner and almost always write at least three hours each day on the weekends. Because my hours are a bit flexible, if I need to take the kids to practice or a field trip or school event, I can easily do that. I just make up the time at night. When we went to Lake Tahoe for vacation a few summers ago and rented a cabin, I went to the closest Starbucks to write every morning from 8-noon, then took the rest of the day off.

It’s actually gotten a lot harder to juggle the schedules of older kids than when they were little. They’re all in sports; my two oldest are in college and I will drop everything when they call; when my oldest are home, I want to spend time with them because I don’t get to see them every day. However, they know I have to work if they want to go to college!

I also don’t sweat the small stuff. I don’t care if the house is a mess or the clothes are wrinkled or if the cupboards are bare and I need to order out for pizza two nights in a row. Life’s too short to stress about things that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. My life is all about my kids and my writing. Both make me happy. Everything else is secondary.

What is your writing process like?

You don’t want to know … Ha!

First, I don’t plot. It’s not fun, and I don’t like knowing what’s going to happen. But I usually start with a premise and a character. I ask myself what if? What if this or that? I write anywhere from 1,000 words to 5,000 words a day, six to eight hours a day. (Some days are definitely better than others.) At different stages of the book—roughly every quarter chunk—I’ll re-read what I have, edit to clean it up or fix problems, and then write the next chunk. By the time I’m done, the book is fairly clean and the story is all there, but it definitely needs editorial input. My editor will give me notes on what’s working, what isn’t, what scenes need more something, what scenes need less narrative (or need to be cut altogether.) I then go through, scene by scene, and do a major rewrite. Then a final read-through to make sure all my changes make sense! To me, rewriting is as fun and exciting as creating the story.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a bit about your background and that progression?

I have always wanted to be a writer, but I thought I needed a “real” job. I considered going into teaching (English) but I’m not a great teacher (and I’m not a detail person!) and I didn’t really like the classes I would have had to take. I considered journalism, but didn’t like my first journalism professor in college. I thought he was pompous. I ended up dropping out of college after two years and getting a job in the California State Capitol.

Fast forward a few years and suddenly I was thirty, married, with a couple of kids. I panicked. I realized that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. Call it an early mid-life crisis. When I was pregnant with my first son (Brennan #3), I took my full four months of maternity leave and read 77 books. After reading Lisa Gardner’s THE THIRD VICTIM and Iris Johansen’s THE SEARCH, I realized that I hadn’t been writing for years. I hadn’t known how much I missed it. Yet, these were the kinds of books I loved and wanted to write. Dark, compelling, timely suspense novels. With, of course, a happy ending. Once I made the commitment to myself to finish a manuscript, I wrote every morning before the kids got up and every night after they went to bed. I didn’t sleep much … maybe 4 or 5 hours a night. But I wrote five books in two years and ended up selling my fifth manuscript. I quit my job and never looked back.

What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?

That’s a hard question. The only thing I distinctly remember writing was my third grade weekly newsletter for my class. What everyone was doing, what projects were coming up, what “Sheriff Shewbridge” (Mrs. Shewbridge, our teacher) wanted us to know. I loved that ditto machine!

I also wrote a short story “based on a true story” about how my grandpa built a one-room cabin all by himself. I was so impressed when he told me about it I had to write it all down. I may have taken a few liberties to show how fabulous my grandpa was … hence, the “based on” tag.

Why crime/suspense? What do you enjoy the most about reading, and writing, in the genre?

Well, when my mom was pregnant with me she was reading an Ed McBain book and one of the characters was Allison, the other Matthew. If I had been a boy, I would have been named Matthew 🙂

Remember Encyclopedia Brown? I read them all. I started Trixie Belden when I was 7, Nancy Drew when I was 8, and Agatha Christie when I was 10. I still have all my Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew books. My mom took me to the library every week and she was always in the mystery section, so I suppose she was the biggest influence on my reading development. When I was growing up, there really wasn’t a Young Adult market. We went from reading Judy Blume and Lois Duncan and Joan Lowery Nixon to Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark. There was no “in between.” (Honestly, I’m totally jealous of my kids!) I read THE STAND when I was 13 and never read a kids book again … until I had kids of my own. My mom was a big fan of Lillian O’Donnell, Marcia Muller, and Joseph Wambaugh, so I read all their books because she had them. I love romantic suspense – Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz – so I wrote more than a dozen romantic suspense novels at the beginning of my career. But at the core of every story is a mystery that needs to be solved, and that’s my favorite part. I think what draws me to suspense is what draws others to the genre – I want the good guys to solve the crime and the bad guys to be punished. Maybe because sometimes that doesn’t happen in real life. It may sound simplistic, but justice is the driving theme in all my books. I want the good guys to win, victims to be avenged, and bad guys to go to prison.

What do you like to see in a good story? Is there anything that will make you put a book down, unfinished?

Twist and turns are fun, but to me the best books start and end with great characters. I have to care about what happens to them. I don’t have to love every character, but I need one person to root for. If I don’t have that in the first couple of chapters, I rarely finish the book. But my biggest frustration in reading are great stories with unsatisfactory or vague endings.

What are you currently reading?

I have a book due shortly, so I had to put all reading aside while I finish. But on the top of my pile is FIND HER by Lisa Gardner. I am VERY eager to read it (but I know if I start, I won’t get anything done until I finish.) The last two books I read were BROTHERHOOD IN DEATH by J.D. Robb and NO ONE KNOWS by J.T. Ellison.

What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’m currently writing MAKE THEM PAY, the 12th Lucy Kincaid/Sean Rogan thriller. I’m still stunned that Sean and Lucy have 12 books and counting! Their 11th book, THE LOST GIRLS, will be out in November. As soon as I’m done writing MAKE THEM PAY, I’ll start Max #4. No title yet, but I’m very excited about the story and can’t wait to jump in!

Keep up with Allison: Website | Twitter

About Poisonous:
Teen-aged Internet bully Ivy Lake fell off a cliff and few people cared … except her mentally-challenged eighteen-year-old step-brother, Tommy. He loved her in spite of her cruelty. He’s distraught and doesn’t understand why his blended family is falling apart. After a year, the police still have no answers: Ivy could have jumped, could have been pushed, or it could have been an accident. With too many suspects and not enough evidence, the investigation has grown cold.

Tommy thinks that if someone can figure out what happened to his step-sister, everything will go back to normal, so he writes to investigative reporter Maxine Revere. This isn’t the type of case Max normally takes on, but the heartbreak and simple honesty in Tommy’s letter pulls her in. She travels to Corte Madera, California, with her assistant David Kane and is at first pleased that the police are cooperative. But the more Max learns about Tommy and his dysfunctional family, the more she thinks she’s taken on an impossible task: this may be the one case she can’t solve.

If Ivy was murdered, it was exceptionally well-planned and that kind of killer could be hiding in plain sight … planning the next act of violence. Max believes the truth is always better than lies, that the truth is the only thing that matters to gain justice for victims and their families. But for the first time, she wonders if this time, the truth will kill.

Poisonous is the latest in the electrifying Max Revere series from New York Times bestselling author Allison Brennan.

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