This week I’m excited to be featuring an interview with crime writer, Emily Donoho, whose novel, In the Canyons of Shadow and Light, was published earlier this year.
Tell me a bit about your writing journey.
I had a vivid imagination as a kid and for my own edification, wrote elaborate stories, novels even, about dragons and horses. I read a lot as well and usually above my grade, ie reading Les Miserables at age 12. At university, between writing research papers and assignments, I played about with writing Lord of the Rings fan fiction (should one admit to that?) I don’t know that any of it was very good — it probably wasn’t — but at least it was practice at fiction. I also wrote a very primitive, nascent outline for what would be Canyons, reflecting my interest in criminal justice and psychiatry (I was a psych major at uni, and I was planning on going into law school). I had seen an episode of the West Wing where it jumped back and forth between flashbacks and the character chatting with the shrink about the stuff in the flashbacks. For whatever reason, that struck me as an interesting way to write, rather than a straightforward chronology. So I gave it a go. It was about 16,000 words. Then in grad school, I stopped writing fiction, but composing stuff to a high academic standard makes you a better writer, no matter what you are doing.
How did you come to write In the Canyons of Shadow and Light?
As I said, it existed in one form or another since I was a student. The characters had different names, different backgrounds, but it had some of the fundamental ideas which underpin it now. And like I said, it was about 16,000 words. After I finished my PhD, I was slogging through unsuccessful job application after unsuccessful job application, and I figured I ought to be doing something worthwhile and less aggravating alongside that. I had time on my hands. Why not get serious about writing fiction, that being something I’d always played around with? So I started the project of turning that little 16,000 word story into something bigger and better. It took me about three years and a lot of drafts and rewriting to get it to a publishable standard.
The descriptions of New York and the police procedures are strong, what kind of research did you do?
I had done an internship in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office and spent a lot of time in New York while I was an undergrad in Massachusetts. My uni was only three hours away from the city. I knew the city well and had a pretty good idea of how its criminal justice system functioned.
Then I read every account of policing and homicide investigation I could get my hands on. Fictional works, like Ed Dee’s books, him being a former NYPD cop, were helpful. I’ve read a lot of these. Especially Richard Price. I love his stuff. Everyone should read Lush Life and Clockers. But non-fiction texts like David Simon’s Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets; Ed Conon’s Blue Blood; Miles Corwin’s The Killing Season; Robert Leuci’s ‘ All the Centurions; Steve Osborne’s The Job; and Tom McKenna’s Manhattan North Homicide, to name a few, proved invaluable resources. Also, I got a hold of some academic texts on the ‘crack wars’, policing in the 80s and 90s, and online archives from the New York Times, New Yorker, and similar sources. I read a lot of news. It’s an endlessly vast repository of weird and crazy criminal justice stuff.
What’s your typical writing day like?
I get up way too late. Spend time procrastinating, looking at the internet. Then start working until around 2 or 3pm, when I go ride my horse. I then work in the evening, after more aimless web surfing. It’s not very efficient.
How would you typify your writing process? What’s your next writing project?
I write a first draft as quickly as I can. I don’t care if it’s good; it just has to be there. I find writing the first draft the most tedious part of the process. I have an outline in my head; then it has to go onto the computer screen, which can feel like a slog. Once I have an entire draft, I get into redrafting, rewriting, editing, and making it good. I like this part of it; this is where really crafting the story comes into play.
My next project is a ‘pre-sequel’ for Canyons, jumping between the late 80s/early 90s and 2009. It follows the investigation of a few cases, the most screwed up of which is a woman who kills her kid and claims insanity. But where the architecture holding the plot of Canyons together was Alex’s failing mental health, the architecture holding this one together is an investigation into 20 year old cases where: sloppiness; the insane homicide rate; and some dodgy police work by one of Alex’s buddies, has led to people being wrongfully imprisoned. It will have everything: riots; grand jury investigations; an insanity defence.
After all, the only way to follow up one big, sprawling novel is to write a bigger, sprawlier one.
In the Canyons of Shadow Light is published by Upatree Press, read my review on Amazon: http://goo.gl/xyPV0P