Monday, March 31, 2008

The good, the bad, and the ugly: These debut novels have a splash of each

Two debut suspense novels, released this week, have memorable, strong female leads you won't soon forget.

Karen Harrington: author of Janeology, and Linda Merlino: author of Belly of the Whale, recently put their keyboards together to talk character development. Specifically: the good girl and the bad girl.


Belly of the Whale: Meet Hudson Catalina, age thirty-eight, a wife and mother who has lost both breasts to cancer. This is twenty-four hours in her life, the morning she awakes devoid of hope, certain that she will die of the same cancer that took her mother, and the night she is taken hostage in a market by a killer more deadly than her disease.


Janeology: Meet Jane Nelson, age thirty-eight, with soft eyes, south Texas natural highlights and a penchant for paperback romances. A former ER nurse, Jane is smart, sexy and confident. Only she hasn’t felt that way about herself since she had her twins a couple years ago while at the same time, her husband begins spending more time at work. In an attempt to soothe herself, she develops an odd compulsion to garage sale, filling up her empty hours, and filling up her garage with needless stuff.

What makes your female lead so good or bad?

KH: Like the Chris Isaak song says, “Baby did a bad, bad thing.” Jane did a bad thing by committing murder. In a moment of psychosis, she drowns her toddler son, and nearly kills her toddler daughter. Her mind dissolved into a twisted mess as a result of her depression and isolation. The result: Indefinite confinement to a state mental hospital while her husband, Tom, tries to care for their surviving daughter and shed the guilt that he should have seen Jane’s approaching mental snap.

LM: Strong women, those are the one’s that are cut from the cloth of good women; determined, do-it-myself kind of females that act assertively when the situation gets grim. Hudson Catalina is just this sort of woman. We are our history; even fictitious people have a background, that seed from which he or she grew. The molding of a person, their experiences and their choices generally determine the good or bad theory. That is not to say that, real or imaginary, a seemingly good girl can’t go bad. But, again, something in her past, some quirk or turn-of-the-screw is the trigger. And the mental illness factor is huge. History, for sure, determines the genetics for Jekyll and Hyde personalities; the good girl mask on a bad girl. In Belly of the Whale, Hudson has given in to cancer, the flaw in her otherwise seamless character; she’s hit a wall of hopelessness. This glitch turns her inward, makes her self absorbed. Life shuffles the cards, and on the day she thinks she knows “what will happen”…she is taken hostage in an all-night market by a killer more deadly than her disease. It is in the market, Whales Market, that the good versus bad portion of the novel takes place.

Characters are multi-dimensional. What qualities defy this characteristic in your female lead?

KH: There was a part of her, once, that was good. In fact, her entire motivation for wanting to be a nurse was to save people. When she was nine, her mother died and she always thought this was a mistake. And in the novel, when readers meet her as a nine-year-old girl, all of her vulnerable side is on display. She wanted to be pretty. She wanted to fit in. I think she struggled against this side of her, which was perceived as weak by her mother, for a long time. That is actually my favorite chapter in the whole book because you witness the slate of a child’s life being written on with things that strip away her innocence.

LM: Hudson Catalina has a boulder-size chip on her shoulder. Despite her seemingly good life, good family, great husband, beautiful children, she is still bitter about the loss of her mother when Hudson was fourteen. She has spent two decades plus running away from her fear of having breast cancer like her mother. This is her history, this is what shaped her, and this is how the Good Girl loses hope and succumbs to her own fears.

How did your character come into existence? What was your motivation?

KH: Stephen King is responsible. A few years ago, Stephen King issued a short story writing challenge to take a common situation and turn it on its head, possibly reversing the sexes. I thought about the fear a woman has of being stalked by a deranged boyfriend, and I thought, “What if a man was afraid of woman he still loved? What would make him afraid of her and desire her at the same time?” So those were the seeds for drawing Jane as a bad girl, as someone a strong man could fear.

LM: The seed of this story, Belly of the Whale, came from thinking about heroes. What does it take to be a hero, who is capable of being a hero and could someone who defies the acknowledged criteria for heroism, be a hero? The character Willy Wu in Whales Market is this person. The book’s title was originally, Willy Wu. I wanted to depict this young man as a hero. In order to do that, I built a story around him and it became, not just his story, but Hudson Catalina’s story.

Check out these great novels today on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or at your local bookstore.

Come back on Wednesday, April 2 for Part 2 of our Good Girl/Bad Girl discussion.

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