For many of us who work on college campuses, the specter of violence often looms.
For instructors, there is an additional vulnerability, a sense of being studied and examined as intently as if they were the subjects of the course. In my day job, instructors frequently speak of feeling naked and exposed when they teach.
Indeed, the public scrutiny can be tough for instructors. Even those who can bear it may still acknowledge a somewhat alarming truth: Students may know all kinds of things about us--often well before we know a single thing about them. So looking out at that sea of student faces, instructors may find themselves asking--who are these students, really? What are they thinking? What are they hiding?
These are the kinds of questions that Lori Rader-Day explores in her stunning debut novel, The Black Hour (Seventh Street Books). In this compelling work of fiction, a sociology professor seeks to understand why a student she didn't even know tried to kill her.
I invited Lori to chat about her novel on my blog. [Full disclosure: Lori and I work at the same university, although we actually met at Printer's Row in Chicago last year.]
Could you tell us about what inspired The Black Hour? I know that you work at a university—what role did that play in your inspiration?
You don’t have to work at a university to worry about the violence happening on campuses across the nation, but because I do work at a university, it’s something I think about. But The Black Hour is more about the aftermath than the violence itself. The idea was: what would a first day back on campus be like for someone who survived an act of violence? Since the perpetrator was no mystery, the question had to be why. When I started writing, I didn’t know why, either. I had to keep writing until I knew why.
The Black Hour is told through the alternating perspective of two individuals—the sociology professor who was the victim of the shooter, and a graduate student serving as her Teaching Assistant (TA). What contributed to your decision to tell the story using two voices? What were the challenges and the benefits of this technique?
Originally I started the book from Amelia’s perspective. In the first few chapters, she met a new graduate student who was interested in her work studying violence. About 50 pages into writing the book, I realized I had a problem. Amelia was newly injured. How was she going to go scampering all over campus looking into her own attack? It turned out that the student, Nathaniel, had more to say. And then took over half the book. The challenge was in keeping the two first-person narrators separate so that a reader would know who was talking at all times, but the opportunities were greater. I had a lot of fun playing them against each other, and forcing them to share the story gave the novel its structure and pace.
How long did it take you to write The Black Hour? I imagine, since you do hold a full-time job, that fitting in writing time has been a bit of a challenge. How did the process go for you generally?
I wrote the first draft between January 2010 and July 2011—and then spent another year revising and getting it right. For that first novel, you just want to give agents and then editors a polished manuscript. Make it more difficult for them to say no.
I wrote a lot of The Black Hour during my lunch hours. I also wrote before work sometimes, weekends, evenings, and vacations. I wrote about 10,000 words of this book on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. That’s vacation to me—having time to write.
It wasn’t easy writing a novel with a full-time job, but it’s possible. If you write a page a day, you’ll have a draft in a year, but I guess I’m even slower than that. But as slow as it went at times, it still got done.
Your book has been described by the New York Times Book Review as “rural noir.” Would you care to comment on that? :-)
Well, I think technically they were referring to the book listed above mine, but that book was set in a mountainous region of Pennsylvania, which is also not rural. I mean, I’m from rural Indiana—literally from the middle of cornfields—so I know rural. If the New York Times would like to consider rural noir, may I suggest they also consider my next book, which will be set in Indiana? [Great idea. And it's pretty terrific that your book was reviewed in the NYT!]
What has surprised you the most about the publishing process? As a debut novelist, did you feel you knew what to expect?
I read a lot about the industry as I got closer to being read to publish, so I was as prepared as anyone probably could be. Still, it’s surprising when you go from having this little side project for years and years to having so many people involved along with you. Also, I don’t think you can be prepared for how long a year and a half feels when you’re waiting for your book to come out. No complaints—that time is for the author and the entire team to get the book and the readership ready for the release date. But when you’re excited to have your book out, the time creaks along. I bet I feel differently about the next book’s timeline.
What advice would you give to other aspiring novelists generally? To those writing mysteries/crime fiction?
Write the book. Just write the book, then worry about all the other stuff. Until you have a full manuscript, researching agents or self-publishing options is just wasted time. For aspiring mystery writers: join Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. The mystery community is very generous with newcomers. Join up and start participating, even before you have a full manuscript. You’ll be inspired and helped out at every step.
What is next?
My next mystery, tentatively titled Little Pretty Things, is out from Seventh Street Books in July 2015. It’s the story of a young woman working below her ambitions at a roadside motel whose former high school rival arrives back in town and is murdered.
If you'd like to hear more about Lori's book and her writing process in detail, I will be interviewing Lori at the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, IL on July 31 at 6:30 pm. Join us!
From the official blurb:
For sociology professor Amelia Emmet, violence was a research topic—until a student she’d never met shot her. He also shot himself. Now he’s dead and she’s stuck with a cane and one question she can’t let go: Why her? All she wants is for life to get back to normal. Better than normal, actually, since life was messy before she was shot. Then graduate student Nathaniel Barber offers to help her track down some answers. He’s got a crush and his own agenda—plans to make her his killer dissertation topic. Together and at cross-purposes, Amelia and Nathaniel stumble toward a truth that will explain the attack and take them both through the darkest hours of their lives.
Bio: Originally from Indiana, Lori is now a decade-long resident of Chicago and works at Northwestern University. She's active in the area’s crime writing community. She is the vice president of the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, and a member of Sisters in Crime Chicagoland and the International Thriller Writers (ITW). She's a 2014 ITW Debut Author, and blogs with the 2014 class at The Debutante Ball.
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.