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A few reviews draw parallels between The Neighbors Are Watching and Desperate Housewives when describing the intrigue that goes on behind closed doors. Where did you get your inspiration for the characters? Are any of their personality traits or secrets based on people you know?
I think the tone of The Neighbors Are Watching is probably closer to Rear Window than to Desperate Housewives (though my novel does share a suburban setting with Desperate Housewives). I really wanted to explore the idea of perception; how closely our neighbors – the people we see every day and think we know – hew to our expectations of who they are. And so, yes, I definitely drew inspiration from people I knew or saw frequently in my own neighborhood. I wanted to understand what these people – some of whom I assumed had inner lives diametrically opposed to mine – were about, what they thought, how they felt. Ultimately, of course, characters must contain a healthy dose of their author – there is just no way around that – but I tried very hard to put myself in other, different shoes for this novel.
The chaos during and after a natural disaster seems like an ideal setting for suspense. Was there a specific incident or personal experience that gave you the idea to set your novel around the California wildfires in 2007? How were you affected by those events?
I’d actually had the kernel of the idea for The Neighbors Are Watching years before the fires, but I’d only gotten as far as – “Pregnant teenager shows up on her estranged father’s doorstep. What does he do?” I was actually in the process of editing my novel, The Grift, when those 2007 wildfires happened and as I packed up the photo albums and laptops, I thought; you know, this would make a great central event around which to build that other novel! We were evacuated, along with a half million other San Diegans, but aside from days of not being able to breathe because of the smoke, we were all fine. But it was a very sobering experience and it led me to think about all the things that could go wrong during such a crisis.
Your choice of "bad guy" really goes against stereotype and was unexpected for many readers, including myself. Was it a conscious decision or did that character develop over time?
I’m not sure that there is a “bad guy” in this novel; at least that was not my intention! I’m fascinated by what exists between the clearly defined poles of right and wrong or good and evil. All of us exist in that grey zone to an extent. Part of overturning assumptions about people is finding the places where a “bad guy” becomes a “good guy” and vice versa. I wanted these characters to have depth, to act unpredictably as people do in life. That meant making some of them unsympathetic at least some of the time. I believe one review of the novel pointed out that readers would be surprised by how much sympathy they felt for “unlikeable” characters, which I took as a real compliment.
You not only write books but also review them. How did you get started as a reviewer? Does it affect the way you write as an author?
I began reviewing books in 1996 for the San Diego Union-Tribune and have been doing it steadily since then, most recently for Shelf Awareness. I am a book geek and have been all my life. For me, there is still nothing quite like the thrill of of opening a box of galleys or fresh, unread books. My approach to reviewing (even before I was a published author) has always been the same. I don’t consider myself a critic, I’m a reviewer and I think that is an important distinction. If I can find nothing of value in a book, I won’t review it. Why waste precious space on books that aren’t worthy of it? There are so many wonderful books that get overlooked in favor of the obvious titles and authors. So I suppose the answer to this question is really that reviewing doesn’t affect me as an author, but being an author does affect the way I review.
After writing three memoirs and three novels, which do you find more enjoyable? Challenging? What will your next work be?
Writing fiction is much more challenging for me than memoir. With memoir, the story, structure, and characters are all already there. Fiction means inventing everything from scratch and that is no easy task. It has taken me twice as long to write the novels as it has the memoirs. In that sense, the memoirs have been more enjoyable, though enjoyable isn’t really a word that comes to mind when I think about writing. There are times when it is incredibly rewarding and exhilarating, but 99% of the time it’s like extracting molars with no anesthetic. Having said that, my next book will be a novel (again, psychological suspense) which will be published next year. But I have other ideas brewing as well.
Librarians are often asked to recommend readalikes for our patrons. Which authors should we recommend for your fans?
This is a difficult question! One reviewer made the comparison between The Neighbors Are Watching and the novels of Lisa Gardner. I was incredibly flattered because I think she’s a wonderful writer with complex, nuanced characters. And I always recommend Laura Lippman, of whom I’ve long been a fan, and Kate Christensen, who is just brilliant.
If you were holding a lunchbox right now, what would be on it?
Barbara Eden as Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie. No question.