Sherry Knowlton is a fellow ITW author and I introduced her upcoming book in the previous post. Both the protagonist and the subject matter sounded fascinating and I asked Sherry if she would answer a few questions about Alexa Williams, her protagonist and her writing. Here are her answers.
Michael Niemann: How did you meet Alexa Williams?
Sherry Knowlton: About six years ago, I decided that if I was ever going to write that book I’d been mulling, I better get started. I had retired from full time work and moved into part time consulting, so I had the time I needed to write. Choosing a female protagonist was a given. I don’t believe I ever even contemplated a man as my main character. But, I made some very deliberate decisions about who Alexa would be.
Although I was originally focused on just completing one book, I wanted to lay the foundation for a suspense series. So, I thought a younger woman would provide me with a character who could evolve and mature. I made her a lawyer – a smart, educated, professional with a job that provides some flexibility.
Friends tell me that they see some of me in Alexa. And, certainly, Alexa has some of the same interests that I’ve had in my life; for example, yoga, social causes. But, I’ve tried hard to create her as a distinct person, with characteristics and a life of her own. She’s not just a younger, more attractive and interesting version of Sherry Knowlton.
MN: Having a strong female protagonist is not as rare as it used to be. However, often “strong” simply means assigning “male” characteristics to female characters. How did you approach creating Alexa Williams?
SK: I do like to think of Alexa as a “strong female protagonist.” While there are more and more novels with females as the central character, we’ve still got room for growth. In another positive development, the suspense genre is expanding the definition of female strength. There are still plenty Lara Croft Tomb Raider-type heroines out there who can go one-on-one with any guy and kick his ass. But, many female protagonists are being written as much more complex characters.
While Alexa is physically fit, her strength comes more from self-confidence, smarts, determination and compassion. Yes, she finds reserves of bravery when she’s faced with a dangerous situation. But, she rarely wins by brute physical strength. She succeeds through intelligence, perseverance and strength of will. Plus, I’ve tried to create Alexa as a real person with foibles and failings. She has a circle of close friends, but is most comfortable at home with her English Mastiff, Scout. She’s pretty much a mess when it comes to romantic relationships. And, like many women, she has trouble saying no to demands on her time.
I think it’s important to show Alexa as an everyday person, who finds strength to battle for a cause and protect herself. She’s not a cardboard cutout.
SK: All three of my novels have a historical story that parallels the main, contemporary suspense story. The role historical stories play in the outcome of the contemporary plot has evolved. In my first book, Dead of Autumn, the historical story dealt with the real-life murder of three young girls during the Depression. Although this “Babes in the Woods” incident had personal meaning to Alexa, its major role in the book was to amplify some of the themes of the present day mystery. In Dead of Summer, the historical story about Woodstock intersected and drove the resolution of the contemporary story. In this new book, Dead of Spring, the historical story about the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis in 1979 relates both to theme and an important plot twist in the current-day story.
MN: Your novels are unabashedly feminist in tone. How do you balance the story with the underlying message you hope to convey?
SK: I’ll freely acknowledge that I approach my writing from a feminist point of view. That’s who I am. However, I’d like to think that feminist issues are—at their heart—human issues, so the messages have universal appeal. My primary goal with Dead of Spring and the earlier books is to write a story that will have people on the edge of their seat. I want readers to stay up all night because they can’t put the book down. But, I believe that dealing with substantive issues helps add depth to the story and draws the reader into the plot.
I have to admit that I’m also aiming for a little stealth education about topics that are near and dear to my heart. As an active environmentalist for most of my life, I’d like people to know more about the human and environmental effects of fracking that figure prominently in Dead of Spring. Sex trafficking (Dead of Summer) is not just an overseas problem, it’s much closer to home than many people realize. Religious extremism, domestic violence, and reproductive rights for women (Dead of Autumn) are complex issues that affect people daily.
I’ve gotten a comment or two from readers who say that I’m “pushing” an agenda in one of my books. But, the vast majority respond to the suspense elements and the story as a whole. So, I believe I’m achieving a pretty good balance between tone and story.
MN: Does your professional background influence your novels?
SK: My career has been in human services at the State Government level and in Medicaid health insurance. So, I’ve spent most of my working life on programs for low-income people or others with human service needs. That includes child abuse, homelessness, domestic violence, rape crisis services, family planning, refugee services, and health insurance coverage for the uninsured. My job also included a lot of interaction on these and other policy issues with the State legislature and Congress.
So, yes, my work experience has definitely influenced my novels. But, I’ve also drawn on many of my other interests and experiences – my travels around the world, my three days of peace and music at Woodstock in 1969, hearing the sirens go off during the Three Mile Island crisis in 1979, and more.
However, when writing fiction, I’ve found that your experiences ultimately have to give way to the story that you want to tell. My work history and personal background might open the door to each novel. But, when I step over the threshold and begin to write, the story takes on a life of its own.
MN: Will there be a Dead of Winter?
SK: Yes. I’m working on Dead of Winter now. At this point, I don’t have an anticipated publication date.
For more information on the upcoming novel read my previous post. To whet your appetite, check out the trailer.