Q. Your female protagonists always face an inner struggle to find their own strength, often coupled with an outward struggle to forgive someone who has hurt or wronged them in some way. Is that intentional?
A. I think it began as instinctive and has since become somewhat intentional. I don’t know any women, myself included, who are born understanding their own inner strength or able to find their own voice immediately. It’s an ongoing journey. Each decade I find I’m a little bit stronger, a little bit surer of my own abilities, and a little bit clearer on how to express myself and be a voice at the table for things I feel are important. Forgiveness has always been what I consider a necessary struggle for me. I don’t think I intentionally put it in my work, but it seems to wiggle its way into the journey of at least one character in spite of me. I actually decided, in the novel I’m currently working on, not to have the “forgiveness thread” - as I think of it - in the book, but it surfaced in the ending when I fully intended it to go in another direction. I will say that I tackle this topic with characters and in settings that have no relationship to me or my life - with the exception of Dina in The Leaf Queen.
Q. How did you, as a writer, come to work in cyber security?
A. In my 20’s and 30’s, I worked as a journalist, a paralegal, a freelance writer and part-time teacher, a media relations specialist, and finally, in corporate communications - something I’d always said I didn’t want to do. It was paid twice the amount of money I’d ever made once I went into a corporation, but the culture in that first department was a terrible struggle for me. I was providing communications support to the information security department among others and the CSO wanted me to build a security awareness education program. I had no idea what that was and didn’t think I was qualified, but I was willing to do anything to make a change, so I took it on. A friend told me it was either a band-aid until I found something else or a new career. That was in 2010 and I’m now one of a handful of people who have built three security awareness programs - two global - and I’m at the top of my game in a growing career field. I love cyber geeks because they are truly good people with the same level of passion for their work and disinterest in the trappings of Corporate America that I have. I’ve built some really solid friendships with some incredibly smart, talented people who are more technical than I am, but are happy to give me facts and advice when I want to roll a little cyber security into my writing.
Q. How does your work influence your writing?
A. I always swore I wouldn’t work in a corporation because the entire concept of striving for titles and being rated on a Bell Curve each year was appalling to me. I felt a corporation would suck me in and ruin who I was as a creative person. Instead it has strengthened me. It’s given me resolve and confidence where I was wandering aimlessly in search of a sense of success before. It’s also given me a look into many people - not all - who allow that rating system and the race for bigger titles to validate them as a person. Without it they feel lost and that is sad to me. They lose all self-awareness and perspective in their drive toward a title that will make them feel like somebody in this world. If they are pushing for those things simply to make more money, I get that, but that is not always the case. Working in a corporation has made me stronger and wiser as a person. It’s helped me drive my writing a little better and harder. All my success has been because I find the work I do interesting and I have a passion for it.
Q. You travel quite a bit, and you’ve lived in a number of different cities, yet your books are all set wholly or partially in Western Pennsylvania. How strongly do your roots influence the choices you make in your writing and what made you finally decide to move back to Western PA.?
A. When writing The Narrow Gate, I envisioned Elise as a person with a secret and some bad history who is returning to the small town where she was raised. The only small town I was totally familiar with when writing the novel was McDonald, PA, where my mother grew up, so I used it as the setting. I’ve since tried to write in other settings, but there is a deep draw for me to what I know so well, which is Western PA. The novel I’m currently working on is set in Montana and in Pittsburgh. I’d taken a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, one of my favorite places on earth, for a writers conference and then rented a car and drove through Yellowstone National Park to Bozeman and on to Big Timber for a few days, just absorbing the state for the first time. I’d intended the novel to be placed in Chicago (where I was living at the time) and Wyoming, but I fell in love with Montana. Each time I tried to move the characters from Montana to Chicago, I’d walk the streets of Chicago, sit in coffee shops, imagine away, and then see them in Pittsburgh. A lot of my writing is done while I’m traveling or has happened when I was living in other cities. There was, for me, a sense of assuaging homesickness and allowing myself to enjoy the feeling of coming home by incorporating it in my writing. Now that I live in Pittsburgh, I’d like my work to highlight the region and provide a deeper sense of the place I call home no matter where I am on any given day.
Q. When you write, do you begin with a character or do the characters evolve out of the storyline?
A. I begin with a character, sometimes two characters. I can see them clearly and, at times, I even have a name rolling around in my head. Someone once told me all great novels start with a question and I know that I usually have a question popping up around the character I’m thinking about. In The Narrow Gate I started with the character of Elise and I wondered what kind of insecurities she might be dealing with as a large woman in a world designed for smaller people, and what if she did something out of anger that caused a rift with her family. In The Leaf Queen I could clearly see Dina and I wondered how she could find her own strength and voice in a dysfunctional family with a perfectionist sister. I saw her on a journey to become who she needed to be. In my current novel, I wondered how far the need for validation and a feeling of success would drive an insecure person to go in a corporation and how skewed could their priorities might become in the process.
Q. Twice you’ve written in both the male and female protagonists voices. Is it difficult for you to write in the voice of a male character?
A. I grew up with two brothers and five male cousins and for over ten years I’ve worked in a predominately all male environment. So it isn’t difficult for me to imagine a dialogue between any of the many men I know, and then work forward in the writing from there. I consider my writing genre to be contemporary fiction, although it could be defined as women’s fiction. I find that I can fairly easily write men and women. I like writing women on a journey to their best selves. Somehow, all of that, gives me a better ease when writing in male or female voices in my work. I do have a good writer friend, a man, who will read what I’ve written in a male voice and give me honest feedback. I feel it’s important for me to have this input and make sure I’m creating someone who is realistic to the reader.