Q&A with Erin Healy

ErinHealy_4_horz-medIt’s always a pleasure to discuss books with Erin Healy.  She joins us today to talk about her latest book, Hiding Places.

Melissa: Thank you so much for answering some questions for us. I always enjoy digging a little deeper into your books and discussing the various aspects of them.

In most ways, Hiding Places has all the elements readers have come to expect from your writing, but with one exception. There’s no supernatural element. Why?

Erin: Before I wrote Hiding Places, my publishing team and I talked at length about how to expand my readership base. Though “supernatural” has been a trademark element of my books until now, that category is an obstacle for some readers who might otherwise enjoy my stories. As a creative person I’m game to try things. We decided I’d try a straight-up thriller and see what happened.

Melissa: I talked to Mike Dellosso earlier this summer. He too released his first non-speculative book. I’d like to ask you the same questions I asked him. In what ways does the market affect how you write your books and what are your feelings about the health of the speculative market within the CBA?

Erin: I think the speculative market within the CBA is healthy but small. In fact, as a niche genre, the speculative fiction category just might boast the most loyal readers. But their number is pretty fixed, and much smaller than traditional publishers would like it to be. In a time when they need to maximize the sales potential of all of their books, they have to acknowledge the limitations of the genre. They’re businesses; they’re always asking, “How can we increase the commercial appeal of this title?” My publisher has never told me what to write, and I’ve always considered my partnership with them a cooperative effort. So the process is unscientific. We give and we take and we try new things. This is part of the fun—and the uncertainty.

Melissa: Because I’ve always loved the supernatural elements in your books, if you had added a supernatural theme to Hiding Places, what would it have been?

Erin: At the heart of Hiding Places is the theme of what it means to be a family, and not just in a genetic sense. What does it mean to be responsible for our brothers and sisters and sons and daughters around the world and in our own homes? I could have had a lot of fun exploring the supernatural connections between individuals. The things that bind people together rarely have anything to do with blood, and a lot to do with causes and ideals we can’t always explain.

Melissa: My friends know that I am totally in love with Colorado. I have wanted to live there for almost 30 years. So books set in Colorado already have an advantage over all others. J I fell in love with the Harrison Lodge. It has all the quaint hominess that so many Colorado accommodations advertise. On which places did you base the Harrison Lodge? If someone were traveling to Colorado, which place do you think would come the closest to the Harrison Lodge?

Erin: Evergreen, Colorado, is a real mountain town just outside of Denver. All that I describe in the book about its location and history is true to the facts I know. I actually based the lodge on a Southern California hotel, The Pierpont Inn, which was owned by my great-grandparents and extended family from 1921-2000, and where I lived for a few years as a child. It’s a historic landmark today, and much larger than it was in 1921! Fortunately my own family bears no similarities at all to the Harrisons. If you were to travel to Evergreen on one of your vacations, though, and want a quaint experience, you should try The Historic Brook Forest Inn or The Bears Inn (the latter of which is featured in a novel by former FBI agent, thriller writer, and Evergreen resident Dale Lovin).

Melissa: Until my junior year in high school, I did not know that America had concentration camps for Japanese Americans during WWII. This is a little piece of history that never seemed to make it to the textbooks. Talk a little bit about this aspect in your book and did Colorado take the lead in providing some protection for Japanese Americans?

Erin: Those internment camps don’t reflect our most shining moments as Americans, to be sure. Fear makes people do terrible things. I didn’t know there was a camp for Japanese Americans in Colorado until I started researching this novel. It was one of ten, and one of the smallest, and because of the severe weather year round on our eastern plains, one of the least hospitable. I can’t say Colorado took a lead, necessarily, in providing the Japanese Americans with protection; the state was bound by federal laws. However, perhaps because of the state’s interior location, and certainly because of the governor’s position that Japanese Americans were as good citizens as any other, Colorado was one of the less hostile places for them to be during the war.

Melissa: There are some excellent themes that run throughout Hiding Places. One that I particularly enjoyed following is the idea that the Harrison family lived together, but no one really knew each other. Four generations living in the lodge, but somehow their heritage has not been passed down and they are almost like strangers to each other. What first inspired this idea for your book and in what ways do you see it reflecting modern families?

Erin: When I was a high-school senior, and my parents still had close ties to the family hotel I mentioned above, I felt a lot of bitterness toward the business. Family members who are in business together experience unique conflicts and division. I might have even said back then that I hated the hotel. But that summer my mother asked me to help her assemble a historical wall of photographs and narratives about the family history at the inn. The process of poring over pictures and documents with her, then writing stories about it to accompany the images in the lobby gallery, changed my view of what the family had accomplished together in our community. It helped me become more patient, more grateful and appreciative of my relatives and of the inn itself.

As for modern families, I think technology and busyness separates us. Much of our work is “virtual” or at least invisible to our closest relatives. Sometimes I wonder if my children understand what I do for hours on end, hunched over my computer in my home office.

Melissa: I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve lived in a bubble so much that I was not familiar with the concept of a street family. To a certain degree they sound almost like gangs. Tell us a little bit about street families and how prevalent are they in most major urban cities?

Erin: I don’t think that street families are well understood, in part because one of their goals is to stay off everyone’s radar. I wasn’t able to find any hard data about how common they are in urban areas; my sense is that they are probably increasing in number. Whereas gang members generally organize along racial and territorial lines, street families are generally comprised of homeless minors. They create their own complex and rigid hierarchies. They are governed by appointed “moms” and “dads”; each member has specific tasks or roles. The purpose of the “family” is to increase everyone’s chances of survival by gaining financial security, and safety in numbers. Gangs are more likely have open confrontations with other gangs or with authorities; street families are more interested in the behavior of their own members. Discipline of those who step outside of their assigned roles or who violate the family “code” can be severe—even deadly—but the focus is on internal dynamics rather than external conflict.

Melissa: You’ve always made some tough decisions in your books and sometimes what the reader may want is not what would in reality happen and therefore isn’t what happens in your story. From an “I don’t want to do this to my characters” standpoint, what have been a few of the more difficult writing choices you’ve made?

Erin: As a supernatural writer, I suppose it does surprise some that I try to be realistic when it comes to human behavior. In Hiding Places, the murder of Coz kept me up for several nights. No one likes to think that anyone could kill a child. I think I also sensed that some readers would struggle with my portrayal of his gang-leader father as a loving, grieving dad who wanted the best for his wife and son but didn’t know how to make it happen.

I hoped to contrast to Coz’s hopelessness with Kate, another child his age whose family was even more dangerous in some regards. And as for Charlie, he had perhaps the most redemptive journey of any character in the story, but in our culture redemption doesn’t mean pardon. I couldn’t pretend that it did. The most important parts of anyone’s journey, whether that person is fictional or real, often happen in the context of things we don’t want to experience. So I find those scenarios among the most honest I can choose.

Melissa: What’s next for you?

Erin: A little bit of a break. At least as far as writing goes. My mind is brewing some new ideas for more novels, and my publisher and agent are gracious to allow me the time I need for these to steep. In the meantime I’ll continue to edit others’ great books and will look forward to returning to the novel scene at the right time.

To learn more about Erin Healy, visit her website or Facebook page.

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