Barbra Dillon, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor: You have quite a vast library of published works, including 10 suspense thrillers and a true crime novel. What drew you to the suspense genre, and do you feel that it offers specific tools as a storyteller?
Deanie Mills: I've loved reading good thrillers all my life. When I was a kid, I'd read Trixie Belden mysteries. My girlfriend Kathy and I would pretend we were Trixie and Honey and go around looking for mysteries to solve. An unexplained set of footprints could keep us busy for days! I knew then, really, that this was what I wanted to do with my life. Years later, when I was trying to break into the field myself--and getting repeatedly rejected--I was a young mother of two pre-schoolers, married to a cowboy and living in a 100-year old house in DA BOONIES of West Texas. We were unbelievably broke. It was a very stressful time, and I would go to the library and load up on mysteries and suspense--just as I'd done as a kid--and lose myself reading. For a couple hours, all our troubles fell away and I was in another world. Suspense is a mentally challenging genre--you are always trying to figure out what's going to happen and playing mind-games with the author. I could do that for hours and forget all about the overdue bills we couldn't pay.
Years later, when I was under contract to publishers, I never forgot the readers out there who, like me, were looking for an escape that would help them better cope with the stresses in their lives. I considered it a sacred trust, a public service, if you will, and I took my responsibility seriously. I respected them, and I wanted to keep them engaged to the last page. It was a true joy to be able to do that. To this day, my favorite compliment is when someone complains to me that they were up reading one of my books until three in the morning when they KNEW they had to get up and go to work in a couple of hours, but they could not put it down.
As far as "specific tools," there are, indeed certain elements of suspense fiction that are not necessarily present in the classic murder mystery. I'll give you one example: The great Alfred Hitchcock once said that you could put a man and a woman in a room, sitting at a table, talking. That would be one kind of story. THEN, you could put a bomb with a ticking timer underneath that table that the audience can see but the couple could not--and THAT would be an entirely different kind of story.
BD: How do you feel that the suspense genre has evolved throughout the years?
DM: That's an excellent question. The first thing that occurs to me is that they are more violent. I'll use movies to illustrate because more people have seen a certain movie than read a certain book. In the movie, "Psycho"--the original Hitchcock, not the re-make--most people aren't aware that at no time do you actually SEE the knife striking Janet Leigh in the iconic shower scene. You hear the famous music, you see the shadowy figure of the killer on the other side of the shower curtain, and you see the knife go up and down. Then, you see the blood going down the drain with the shower water, and eventually, the collapse of the woman, but you really DID NOT SEE her get stabbed! And yet, that scene was so terrifying that the actress herself said that she was never able to take another shower after making that movie; only baths. She was too frightened to stand behind a shower curtain.
(When my son was 19 and got his first apartment when he went to college, I bought him a "Psycho" shower curtain--it was white with the silhouette of an old woman holding up a knife. HA! That's what it was like having me as a mom!)
Anyway, nowadays, man, you'd see the guy cut off her head or whatever. I just don't think that is what suspense truly is. Suspense is ANTICIPATION of terror--it's not a gore contest.
In more recent suspense novels, sometimes I think modern authors go out of their way to put their characters in life-threatening situations--they get shot, stabbed, thrown off cars, trampled by horses...and after a while, it's just kind of annoying. Much better, I think, to keep the character on edge, never knowing when they might be attacked, than to make some kind of superhero out of them.
The perfect suspense thriller, to my way of thinking, is Thomas Harris's "Silence of the Lambs." In the movie based on that book, THE most terrifying scene is Jodie Foster, stumbling around in the dark with the killer behind her--and you can see her hands holding the gun are shaking so badly. THIS is reality for a terrified young agent alone in the dark with a serial killer. It's real, and the audience identifies so strongly that NO ONE can look away. Now, THAT is suspense!
BD: Faces of Evil is your sole venture into the true-crime genre. How would you describe the story, and what inspired you to venture into this new direction of storytelling?
DM: Some years ago I wrote a story called, "Trapdoor," (which my U.S. publisher re-titled, "Love Me Not"), about a forensic sketch artist who was attacked in her apartment by someone who took a hammer and broke every finger on her drawing hand, forcing her to take a long hiatus from work. During that time, she fell in love with a cowboy who'd witnessed a murder in the city and had once sat for her in a sketching session. She married him and went out West to live with him on his ranch. A few months later, she found a skull in a trunk in his attic. Being a forensic artist, she did a secret skull reconstruction using clay--and came up with the face of his first wife.
Now, for every one of my books, I've always done hands-on research, working with law enforcement, for months before I start writing. I had seen a forensic sketch artist from the Houston Police Department, Lois Gibson, on "Dateline" once, talking about her phenomenal work. I tracked her down and went down to Houston to follow her around for a few days. It was really fascinating. Lois's story was compelling. She was a portrait artist who, while still in her teens, was viciously attacked and raped in her home, traumatizing her so deeply that she almost starved to death because she was too afraid to leave her apartment to go buy groceries. Over time, she decided to use her own trauma to help other people, and she approached the Houston PD to see if they'd hire her to do forensic sketches. It took her nearly a decade to work her way into that job, but because she did, they were able to solve literally hundreds of cases in large part because of her almost surreal talent--mostly because she is able to coax victims to talk about their traumas in ways that the police detectives often cannot. (That's what the cops themselves told me in interviews.) You really have to see it to believe it--her forensic sketches look like portraits, and people need to know that she did them based on witness and victim descriptions and not by seeing the bad guy--who, after all, had not yet been caught.
Fast-forward some years. As I detailed for Ms. in the Biz, my career had gotten caught in the crossfire when my publisher went through a merger and embezzlement scandal in the late 90's, causing them to cut the contracts of hundreds of their authors, and I thought it was over. Then I got a call from Lois. She said she wanted to write her story, but she didn't know any authors who could help her, and did I know any?
Ha! Turns out, I DID!
She was stunned when I offered to write her story myself. We put together a book proposal which included some amazing illustrations comparing her sketches with the mug shots of the bad guys the police had caught because of them, and my agent sold it to a much smaller publishing house than I was used to. But they did a terrific job with the book. It's written entirely in Lois's voice, but I did the writing. We told her story, of course, but then we highlighted some of her more outstanding cases, done under the most extraordinary circumstances--like the one where a cop had been shot twice, run over, and dragged for 50 feet. He was critically injured, and all he could do to answer questions was blink his eyes. Lois went to see him in the hospital with her sketch pad, and came up with a sketch so good they caught the guy in a matter of hours. We did a number of her cases like that, and included some pointers at the end for any young artist who might be interested in going into the field.
BD: As your novels have been converted to the eBook format, your stories have had a chance to reach an entirely new audience. What do you hope that the new audience will take away from the books?
DM: Well, first of all, let me say how thrilled I am to have this opportunity. I owe it all to my daughter, Jessica Mills. I'd been thinking about it of course, but the technical aspects of it overwhelmed me. She just took over and, in conjunction with my literary agent, Al Zuckerman, and his staff at Writers House, they just DID it baby, and I could not be happier with the results. I'm especially pleased that I get to work with GraphicXDesigns (graphiczxdesigns.zenfolio.com), on new covers for each book. Before, the publisher would send me a copy of the cover after it was all done--I had no input whatsoever into it--and sometimes they were just awful, OR, they'd give away some plot point that made me cringe. So I'm very pleased with my new covers.
I did consider rewriting the books and modernizing them to include all the whiz-bang technology that is available now--I mean, I wrote my first book, "Darkroom," in 1986; it was sold in 1988 and published in 1990--and back then, few people even had home computers, much less Internet connections. Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube--none of that stuff even existed. Photographs had to be developed in a darkroom, so you had to send off film and wait for the photos to come back--or, like the lead character in the book, Skye Meredith--develop them yourself in a home darkroom. Cellphones also did not exist, although some people had car phones, usually because of their work, and they were installed in the car with one of those coiled-up cords. Everyone had land lines, and you'd have a phone with a big long cord--even home phones weren't portable, and few people had answering machines back then.
Jessica and I talked it over and she said she liked the vintage aspect of the books as written, so I left them as is, although I did take out the word "modem" whenever it appeared in reference to the Internet. Turns out, Jessica's instincts were right. Young people who are reading the books tell me they really dig seeing the challenges of solving crimes back when you couldn't carry a computer around in your pocket. In fact, back then, even at the FBI, they HAD desktop computers, but several agents at a time would have to share one--can you believe it? When I was riding patrol with Dallas cops to research my books, and we'd take a bad guy to the jail, they'd have to wait their turn to use a computer to call up the guy's rap sheet, then print it up on one of those printers with little prongs on the side--the clickety-clack kind you see in the old Kevin Costner movie, "No Way Out."
As far as the stories themselves, I always wrote about ordinary people who suddenly found themselves flung into extraordinary situations. Although they sometimes had help from law enforcement, in the final analysis, they had to confront the dangers themselves and figure their own way out.
What I was trying to say with every book I wrote is that we ALL have within us our own superhero. It's there; we just have to tap into it.
That's what I hope everyone takes away from my stories.
BD: Are there any new projects on which you are currently working that you are able to share with our readers?
DM: Well, one of the things we plan to do is bring out at least one thriller that I wrote that publishers rejected. It was a great story, based on some research I did into Charles Manson. Turns out, back before he was a murdering freak, he actually got married and had a son, but he divorced the boy's mother when he was two. This was many years before he wound up in a hippie commune at "The Ranch" in California.
So, I got to thinking...What if YOU were actually named Charles Manson, Jr? And, say, your mom had been one of the girls who took part in the Sharon Tate murders? Say you grew up in foster care after they were both incarcerated, where you got beat up repeatedly at school, so as soon as you were eighteen, you changed your name. You went into the Marines to make a new life for yourself, and had an exemplary service. When you got out you used the GI Bill to get a doctorate, and now you're married, have a child, and are teaching at a university and nobody knows anything about your previous life--not even your wife--but then...you hear from dear old Dad--and not in a warm-and-fuzzy way. He threatens your family unless you do something very bad for him. What would you do?
Of course, I fictionalized everything. I didn't REALLY write about Charles Manson or his son--that was just a springboard to get me started. The serial killer character is fictional--he's obsessed with Friedrich Nietzsche, for one thing--I thought it was a good story, but when I was trying to get it sold in the early 2000's, the publishing industry was in a great state of chaos and fluctuation, undergoing titanic changes and many mergers. They pretty much didn't want to handle authors who weren't bestsellers--it was all about franchises and movie tie-ins. So I stuck the book, called, "Beyond Evil," in my closet, where it has remained for the better part of a decade. We're working to bring that out now as an eBook and screw the publishers who rejected it. After all, several of those same publishers rejected "The Cuckoo's Calling," too, because they'd never heard of the author, Robert Galbraith.
Turns out, "Robert Galbraith" was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. "The Cuckoo's Calling" is now a massive bestseller and the joke's on them.
Also, I'm writing what I refer to as a "collective memoir," called, "American Woman." It's my story, of course--growing up in the Big City suburbs in the 60's, then suddenly marrying a cowboy and moving to a place where they measure ranches in the square miles and not acres, then winding up writing suspense thrillers and traveling all over the country. BUT, I was afraid even then, my life would be a big yawn to some people, so I decided to do a sort of cultural history for each decade and then personalize it.
In other words, what was it LIKE, living through the Kennedy assassination or watching men walk in the moon for the first time? How did it FEEL to kneel two feet from your television set and sit transfixed while the Beatles played on the Ed Sullivan Show? I call it a "collective memoir" because my peers love re-living eras like the 60s or the 80s, but also, because my daughter and daughter-in-law are also reading it as I write it, and they have really enjoyed kind of living it vicariously. They understand their parents better, but they also think it's cool. So I'm hoping their generation will enjoy it as well as the Baby Boomers.
BD: Your books will no doubt influence young writers throughout the world who share your love of storytelling. Which writers inspired you the most?
DM: Although his books have a strong sci-fi-fantasy, and sometimes, horror slant to them, I was very fortunate to have been mentored early in my career by Dean Koontz. We shared the same publisher back then, and when they first signed me, they said, "We want to groom you and build your career the way we did Dean Koontz's." So I wrote him a letter and told him I knew that NO ONE had "built his career" but HIM. He got a kick out of that, and we corresponded for years--even spoke on the phone a few times. Just the fact that Dean took an interest in my work gave me a tremendous boost to my confidence, because I knew how incredibly busy he was, and I will always be grateful for the time he took to encourage me. I was also greatly inspired by Gloria Steinem. Her work, and that of "Ms." Magazine, gave me the balls I needed to tackle a male-dominated field when there weren't a lot of women in it. She wrote me a letter once, in longhand, on the back of an amazing photograph taken in a third-world country, and encouraged me to tell my own story. She said she thought it would be inspiring, which is one reason I started "American Woman." Also, in the early years of her career, Mary Higgins Clark wrote some real page-turners, the kinds of books that made me think, "I think maybe I could write something like this."
If I could inspire even one young writer the way these writers helped me, I would feel so honored.
I have a Tumblr page, "Deanie's Books," in which I post something about once a week that is geared to young writers to offer them encouragement. My latest post has to do with how to handle rejection.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about your body of work?
DM: Well, this is my author's page at Amazon.com. That gives a brief bio, and you can read reviews of books of mine that you can find in paperback but we haven't yet released them in Kindle form. The Kindle books we have brought out are here. If you'd like a Nook or Kobo, you can find those here.
The next book to come out as an eBook will be, "Losers, Weepers." You can read reviews on that one here. We're real excited about that because it has a strong fantasy/Dungeons & Dragons slant to it. Some of it is written from the point of view of a nine-year old girl, and when I wrote it, Jessica was about that age, and I had her read those passages as I wrote them and help me shape them so that they really would be from a child's mind and not an adult pretending to BE a child.
If you'd like to learn more, my Tumblr account is under Deanie's Books, and you can find me on Twitter, @deaniemills. My daughter and I are about to launch an "Ask Us Anything" series, (this is my daughter's YouTube address, where it can be found for now), where we have a lot of fun sitting together and answering questions on just about anything that people put to us, from the serious to the goofy. We're also in the process of transferring my domain name, deaniemills.com, from a political blog--which is what it's been for some years now--into a formal website for the books and other info.
I love publishing books in this new era of Internet connectedness. It lets me be much closer to my readers--get their input, answer their questions, joke around with them--that I couldn't do back in the days of working alone on my windy West Texas hilltop. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to hang out with you guys. It's been a privilege.