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Interview Wed Jun 24 2015

An Interview with Chicago Author Lori Rader-Day about Her New Mystery, Little Pretty Things

Lori Rader-Day is one of Chicago's most exciting and talented writers, having won massive praise last year for her first novel, The Black Hour, a murder mystery set in Chicago. On July 7 her second novel, Little Pretty Things, will be published by Seventh Street Books, and it's one of the best books I've read in 2015.

lpt.jpgSet in the farthest reaches of Chicagoland -- a fictional small town called Midway in the cornfields of northwestern Indiana -- Little Pretty Things centers on a bizarre murder at a roadside motel, when a maid named Juliet Townsend discovers the body of her best friend from high school. It's creepy, clever, and full of surprises, the kind of book you stay up all night to read in one sitting.

Rader-Day completed her MFA in Creative Writing here in Chicago at Roosevelt University, under the mentorship of another great Chicago writer, Scott Blackwood. She was kind enough to chat with me at length about her new book.

Your first book was set in Chicago, but Little Pretty Things is set in a small town between here and Indianapolis. Why did you choose the middle of nowhere?

That's where I'm from -- the middle of bleeping nowhere. Except of course it doesn't feel like nowhere to the people who live there, because it's the center of their world. The center of anyone's world is full of stories to be told, and yet the flyover parts of this country don't get as many book deals as they deserve.

Midway is based on Lebanon, Indiana, where I was born, with a dash of Muncie, Indiana, where I lived for 10 years. Muncie might be familiar because it's a college town (go Cardinals) and it was the basis for the Middletown Studies, a years-long sociological project on an "average" Midwestern town. Muncie is also certainly the prototype for Pawnee, the town in "Parks and Recreation." But Lebanon is mostly where people stop for gas. When you're young in these places, all you want to do is leave them. Of course once you leave them, all you want to do is write about them. You can see them -- and appreciate them -- much better from afar.

Growing up in rural Indiana, do people think of Chicago as a kind of Emerald City like Juliet does?

I did, when I was younger. I went to Chicago for the first time as a high school student with a group and was just amazed that such a place existed in real life. Sure, it existed in Adventures in Babysitting, but in real life, too. By the time I was Juliet's age I had traveled quite a bit more, to Europe and Asia, as well as other big cities in the United States. Juliet's problem isn't that she's from Midway, Indiana. It's that she's midway between all the things she wants out of life. When readers meet her, she's not making any effort to go one way or the other. She's letting life pass her by.

tbh.jpgWhat comes first for you as a writer... the setting? The murder? The protagonist?

The Black Hour began as a what-if. What if a professor who had been attacked by a student who then killed himself came back to teach and made everyone feel uncomfortable and gossipy? What was that first day back like? I had to figure out what kind of subject that professor would teach, who she was, all of it.

Little Pretty Things began with Juliet and Maddy. I wanted to write about a young woman who had most of her opportunities snatched away from her and about a friendship that couldn't survive competition, real and imagined. I had to think about what kind of direct rivalry they might have, which ended up being running. I don't know anything about running -- my high school sport was the yearbook staff -- so I think I can honestly say the topic chose me.

Do you know who the killer is when you first start writing?

I had an idea who the villain would be for Little Pretty Things, but then I ended up being wrong. It can happen. It's actually exciting when it does, when the story tells you something better than you first imagined.

But for The Black Hour, no. I was ridiculously out of my league when I was writing that first draft and had to back up and think about how I would finish it and finish it well. I had a three-week-long dark night of the soul in which I was sure I would never be able to solve the crime. I've since learned that this is what we call my process.

My theory is that if the author doesn't know who the killer is until at least halfway through the book, then neither will the reader. Of course if I do it right, the reader will suspect everyone and when they finish they'll be able to say they knew it all along. But if they knew it all along, they probably wouldn't keep turning the pages. I'm more interested in keeping the pages turning. I love it when someone says my book kept them up late reading.

Do you think Chicago is a good city for writers?

Chicago is a fantastic place to learn to be a writer. The city has five MFA programs in creative writing, tons of writing events every month, the biggest outdoor lit fest on the planet in Printers Row, a great community of independent bookstores, and so many ways to meet other people to learn from and commiserate with. It's a tremendous crime writers' city, I think it goes without saying. But there, I said it.

In some ways I think Chicago might be a hard place to get noticed as a writer, though. There are so many of us, and only so many teaching posts, for instance, only so many column inches that editors are willing to give to another new book coming out. But it's a very chummy writing community here, and Chicago knows how to put on a good time for writers and readers.

Why do you write about Chicagoland? Is it as simple as "writing what you know"?

I certainly benefit from writing some things that I know and also from writing some things that I have felt that can be transferred to my characters' situations. I first wrote about Chicago in a short story years and years ago and it was so obvious that I was in that first blush of love with Chicago. I don't know that I know Chicago enough to set every project here. I've been here 14 years. Which means I was in Indiana a hell of a lot longer than 14 years, and that's probably why I've gravitated toward Indiana this time around. Chicago is a lot of city, and I would hate to get it wrong after this many years. It's a big city -- so many people would know I got it wrong.

Your novels contain a lot of themes that go beyond the typical "genre" fare. Is that intentional or a byproduct of the writing process?

When I started writing The Black Hour, I didn't know it would have some of the themes of social inequality it would have. I just started writing. As I got to know my characters and to know what they cared about, I realized there was a place in the book for some of the things I cared about.

Little Pretty Things was born from the desire to talk about a character struggling to get by. I had read a mystery that promised to be about a woman with a terrible job--except the job was less terrible than jobs I'd already done, short-term, in my life and far less terrible than jobs my friends and relatives had done for their lifetimes. So I decided to write a (Barbara Ehrenreich) Nickel and Dimed murder mystery, about the kinds of real jobs people do because they have to. Juliet's Mid-Night Inn isn't a real place, but I hope it seems real. My dad says it sounds like the Sunset Inn, an old falling-down motel that used to be down the highway from my grandparents' house, and you know what? He's probably right. The important thing is that people worked there, and I think their stories are interesting.

What are you working on now? Will you set future books in Chicago?

I'm sure I'll come back to Chicago soon. The book I'm writing now, tentatively titled An Elegant Hand, is about a woman who works as a handwriting analyst but gets pulled into a missing-child case that has implications for the life she's carefully created for her and her son. It's set in Indiana, but the protagonist has seen a little bit of the country, keeping ahead of her past. The idea I have for the book after that is set in Michigan. I'll need to do some research for that one. Michigan and I need to get to know one another.

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