Strand Magazine Interview – Siri Mitchell
Siri Mitchell graduated from the University of Washington with a business degree and worked in various levels of government. As a military spouse, she has lived all over the world, including Paris and Tokyo. Siri enjoys observing and learning from different cultures. She is fluent in French and loves sushi. Her newest suspense novel, Everywhere to Hide, is out this October.
1. When did you first decide to be a writer?
My favorite assignments in school always involved writing and I had an idea (long before the advent of the ‘bucket list’) that I had a novel in me. I didn’t start on my first story idea, however, until after college. And I didn’t dedicate much time to it until after a move to Paris in 1996. There, I met Noreen Riols, a British novelist who worked during WWII in SOE’s F-section. She took my aspirations seriously and inspired me to do the same.
2. Do you use outlines, or tend to make up more of the story as you go along?
I’ve moved from making my stories up as I go along to putting a serious effort into outlining. I started my career writing contemporary women’s fiction. Writing those stories by the seat of my pants offered me daily surprises even though I also sometimes wrote myself into corners. I then moved into historical fiction which involved quite a bit more research and a timeline on which to hang my stories. But it wasn’t until recently, when I began writing suspense, that I decided I needed to get better at outlining and devised a homegrown course in plotting. I read all the non-fiction books I could find about different techniques and then I read most of the top 20 books in the suspense category, taking notes as I went.
3. Tell us about your most recent book.
Everywhere to Hide is a novel about Whitney Garrison, a law school graduate, who grapples with life as a person with prosopagnosia (face blindness). The condition leaves her unable to remember faces. As she studies for a quickly approaching bar exam, she juggles two jobs as she struggles to start paying down her student loans. When she becomes the sole witness to a murder, she tries to convince herself that it was just a crime of opportunity. But when it becomes apparent that the victim was involved in espionage and that the killer has a way of anticipating her every move, she decides her life is in danger. And that the killer might be closer than she thinks.
4. Have you always been interested in prosopagnosia, and if not, how did you become interested in it?
I didn’t know about the condition until several years ago when I was listening to an NPR broadcast. It featured an interview between a man with the condition and his former girlfriend. She revealed to him that after they broke up, she went by the place he worked sometimes, just to stand there and watch him. The pause in their conversation after she said that was haunting. All the memories of their relationship were still shared, but she – as person – had been effectively erased by his condition. My writer’s brain went to work on the idea that you could intimately know someone and still not be able to recognize them. From there, it was a short leap to, ‘What if the person they had no way of recognizing was a murderer?’
5. What does your research process look like?
Not surprisingly, for a person who is a voracious reader and a classic introvert, my research involves quite a bit of go-it-alone effort. I always reach for books first. I consume on-line articles too. It’s usually toward the end of my process that I reach out to actual people if I need to verify facts.
6. Who are some of your favorite authors, and how do you feel they influence your writing?
Laurie R. King, Lindsey Davis, and Daniel Silva are some of my favorites. They all have the ability to create vivid, genuine characters while maintaining twisty, fast-paced plots. Another commonality is that they all write series. Every time I pick up one of their books it’s like checking in with old friends. In my own writing, I also strive to create well-developed characters. Although I would love to write a series, so far my stories haven’t developed that way.
7. What are you currently reading?
I’m focusing on trying to understand the moment we’re living in. I’m reading The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby and thinking now might be a good time to re-read Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean and American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodward.
8. What advice do you have for beginning authors?
At some point, you have to stop preparing to write and you need to sit down and actually do it. So much of writing is learned in the doing.
9. What do you use for idea and/or story inspiration?
I’m a devoted reader of news. I love listening to public radio. I subscribe to Atlas Obscura. The more bits and pieces and odds and ends I can put into my brain, the more there is for my subconscious to work with. I keep a running list. Sometimes I come up with a great title. Sometimes I jot down an interesting fact. Periodically, my agent and I go through the list together. As she likes to say, most of the items aren’t really stories; they’re just ideas. I’ve found that for an idea to turn into a story, I have to be able to hear the characters speaking.
10. What part of the writing process is the most rewarding, and which is most difficult?
For me, there’s nothing like the exhilaration of writing a first draft. The story is fresh and new. I haven’t messed it up yet. At that stage, I’m still discovering things about my characters as I write. The most difficult part? The developmental edits. Because, let’s face it, if I had known how to fix those problems while I was drafting, I would have. There are always things in the version that goes to my editor that I’m hoping she’ll just overlook. I’m always telling myself that some of the rough areas of the plot that I tried to gloss over aren’t quite as bad as I think. Turns out that’s never the case. But while the developmental edit might be the most difficult stage for me, it’s also the stage where I learn the most. I’m a person who writes in order to explain my thoughts to myself. It’s worth the pain of an intense developmental edit if it teaches me how to better articulate those thoughts.