Jenny Milchman is an award-winning, critically acclaimed author and the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day (TYCBD). Her debut novel, Cover of Snow—the eighth book she wrote but first that was published (more on that later)—became a USA Today bestseller and won the prestigious Mary Higgins Clark Award for Best Suspense Novel of 2013. Ruin Falls, As Night Falls, and Wicked River—all of which were Indie Next Picks—followed.
This August, Milchman returns with her fifth standalone, The Second Mother (Sourcebooks)—her first book to be set largely outside of the fictional Adirondacks town of Wedeskyull. Protagonist, Julie Weathers, reeling from the recent death of her child and impending divorce from her husband, flees New York State to take up a teaching position on a remote island off the coast of Maine. But upon arrival she realizes that she may be the one in for a lesson…
Recently, Milchman—who is profiled in Issue 165—shared reflections on her life as a reader, writer, and literacy advocate with Mystery Scene.
John Valeri for Mystery Scene: To what do you credit your love of storytelling—and how has your reading life informed your writing life?
Jenny Milchman: All writers are readers first, I think. To a future writer, the idea of a day curled up with a book and nothing else to do is better than a swimming pool party. We disappear at a sleepover and are found huddled by the birthday girl’s bookshelf. We trek back and forth over the course of a sweltering New Jersey summer to the library. Or was that just me as a child?
I was weaned on the horror of the ‘70s. Stephen King. (Of course!) But also Ira Levin, Frank De Felitta, William Peter Blatty, David Selznick. Even earlier—William March. Doris Miles Disney wrote the book I believe has the single best last line of any story. It’s called Winifred.
Although I write psychological thrillers, I think that my preoccupations are the same as the writers above. How do we cope with evil? What effects does it have on us and how can we fight back? The characters in those authors’ books don’t always triumph, while my stories do rush on to a point of victory. That’s one difference between horror and many suspense writers.
As for my love of storytelling, two people get credit for that, beyond whatever is inside us at the start, and those are my parents. My mother told me bedtime stories that she made up each night. And my father plied me with book after book—way beyond my years—Charlotte Brontë, Andre Gidé, Thomas Mann, all the greats, there was nothing I was too young to read.
As I say, my childhood wasn’t perfect—whose is?—but books have a lot to do with love, and in this respect, my life was idyllic.
Your first published book was actually the eighth novel you wrote. What motivated you to persist—and were there any lessons learned along the way that you found particularly helpful?
Two things enabled me to keep going through years of discouragement and rejection.
First, sheer love of the stories. Every day I sat down at my keyboard and could sink into the life of someone faced with terrors and enemies and problems, who was going to come out on top. A bookseller once told me she feels a little stronger as a person when she’s reading one of my books, and that’s how I feel writing them. So getting that experience of power—even if fictional (though I have to say, it doesn’t always feel like fiction) was like a jolt of caffeine.
Also, my husband. I know, not the most modern woman response. I think it was the great Louise Penny who said one of the most helpful things a writer can have is a supportive partner, and that is true for me. My husband literally supported me; there were 11 years when I didn’t earn a penny from writing, and I had trouble justifying to myself all the unpaid time I spent on writing. I had trouble justifying it to myself—but never to my husband. He quoted Will Smith: There is no plan B. He said I would eventually make it, and even if I didn’t, I was writing stories people (not many of them, but my writers group, and my family members, and him) liked to read, and who knew what effect they might have one day just for existing?
If a writer doesn’t have a spouse, then the source of support can be a friend, a sibling, a parent, a child, even a pet. Someone whose loving eyes, and words (or barks or meows or fishy blurts) give you a boost. And you can be your own source of support too. You deserve this. You’re a writer and you have stories that need to be told.
Who knows what their effect might one day be?
Many people have an idealized notion of what it means to be a writer. Can you talk briefly about the sacrifices required—and how you endeavor to balance personal and professional responsibilities?
I think the idealized version is valid actually. We get to make up stories! Create worlds where everything comes out just as we want it to. Is there a drug more powerful than that?
And you even get some moments, if you’re lucky, that I call limo moments. Walking onto a stage, and there’s a roomful of people waiting to hear you talk or read or riff, and the host has a plateful of your favorite treats ready—I once had a women’s club bake desserts that reflected elements in my book. Cookie canoes. Creek cocktails. Or you get flown back and forth by your publisher and a literal limo is waiting to pick you up. These are high points—and I don’t mean to say they happen every day—but they do feel pretty darn ideal.
OK, and then the rest. I’ve sacrificed financially—years and years of lower income. Maybe that will balance out one day, I don’t know. I’ve sacrificed in terms of my family. The worst of this is an occasion I missed to be at a book event that had requested me and could only take place on one particular day. This one still feels shameful; I hesitate to describe it. You can find out what it was by becoming a subscriber to my newsletter—I wrote about it once there.
Being an author also brought my family together in ways we never would’ve otherwise had. We traveled for a total of 15 months on what Shelf Awareness called the world’s longest book tour, crisscrossing the country, when my kids were little. Car-schooled them, my husband working from the front seat. That level of togetherness is some of the most precious time I’ve ever spent. So balance is key—how can I include my family, attend to their needs, and not let my dream shrivel.
This dream of ours takes sweat and blood and tears. It demands a lot…close to everything. It’s a beast we have to feed. And if we’re very, very lucky, one day it feeds us back.
There is much to be said for finding the right publisher. What appeals to you about Sourcebooks—and how does their vision for your future compliment your own?
I moved to Sourcebooks when my first editor left Ballantine, and it was a very intentional move. My agent had multiple offers on the book—there was an auction for my fourth novel, Wicked River—and while each publisher had definite advantages, Sourcebooks has a mission that matches mine. Which is to bring books to people. To always keep in mind that readers are human beings, and that’s who we’re writing for. It influences their editing, marketing, and yes, their vision for my career.
So, for instance, when Sourcebooks learned how much I love doing book events and had toured in the past, they put a nine-week tour together for me. Nine weeks! That’s unheard of in today’s publishing climate. I got to fly all over the country, see old friends, and walk into rooms filled with a hundred people. It was magical.
Sourcebooks realizes that investing in an author is key—Lee Child didn’t hit the New York Times list until the eighth Reacher novel—and their editing is as deep and substantive as it was in days of yore. Seriously…I’m talking Maxwell Perkins type stuff. Finally, the fact that Sourcebooks has a woman at the helm feels wonderful to me. Dominique Raccah brings an energy and a humanism to the company that affects everything they do.
You are the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. Tell us why you feel so passionately about exposing children to books and booksellers—and how your own family has lived this mission?
One of my concerns as a mom is all the time kids spend on screens. And don’t get me wrong—those screens open up worlds, and I am grateful for them. But I also want my kids to get their hands dirty in the woods, and to sit with their noses in a real, printed book. Booksellers provide that for a select slice of children, and Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day celebrates them. My family and I have traveled the country spreading word about the Day and every year, we celebrate in a different bookstore.
Today more than ever, I feel it’s crucial to delve into what I said about a select slice of kids, though. Not everyone has access to a bookstore. And I want that to change. TYCBD field trips began as a way to bring young children without a bookstore in their community to the one nearest them, and for each child to go home with a book. In some cases, it was the first book the child ever owned. My hope is to increase funding and interest in these field trips to the point where every child in this country celebrates TYCBD.
Your novels have all been standalones. What appeals to you about this setup vs. writing a series?
My stories always begin with a premise, a situation. What if a woman woke up to find her husband missing from their bed? (Cover of Snow). What if a woman’s honeymoon turned out to be the worst ordeal of her life? (Wicked River). What if a woman accepted a post as teacher in a one-room schoolhouse on a remote island in Maine? (The Second Mother).
I work backwards and forwards from there…who is this woman and how did she get to this place and how will she get out of it—and achieve victory over all the baddies along the way?
So, those are by their nature standalone novels, one person, one situation. That said, I do consider my novels a unique sort of series too. Which I’ll explain below!
To follow-up on that: While your stories are singular, you use the Adirondacks as a collective setting (at least partially). What about this backdrop lends itself so well to suspense—and how does your intimate familiarity with the area allow you to bring it alive for the reader?
Wedeskyull is the fictional Adirondack town where my first four novels take place. The Second Mother is my fifth book, and while it’s not set primarily in Wedeskyull, it opens there and Wedeskyull is the town that my heroine, Julie, flees to begin her new life. Julie also happens to be the niece of the police chief who fell from grace in Cover of Snow. Readers of both novels will get updates on characters they haven’t seen in a long time. Those who are new to my work will meet a woman they can learn more about if they wish to after they finish the novel. So that’s the way in which my books are a series. The setting is the continuing character. You can make as many or as few trips there as you wish. The more you go back, the more you will see life unfolding as it does in all small towns—with secrets and enemies and, because it’s the Adirondacks, natural beauty and the potential for drama due to the rugged terrain and weather. All of that interests me as a theme—how the place we live shapes us—and I’ve been told that my setting lives and breathes on the page. But what most compels me is this place that feels so real. Every window reveals another life, another story going on in Wedeskyull. I can’t wait to look through the next one! Herman Melville wrote: “It is not down on any map. Real places never are.” For me, that is Wedeskyull.
You practiced psychotherapy for over a decade. In what ways have you been able to draw on that background in developing character and motivation?
You know, I really do think it fosters realism—and this can sometimes bite me in the um, rear, as a writer. My characters are messy. As we all are. They have disparities and opposition and conflict within themselves. If you’re reading the story the way I hoped to write it, then very few people are any one trait or set of traits, which evolve(s) in a neat arc over the course of the book.
Having been a psychotherapist influences this dimension in my work because doing therapy drove home that truth to me—that we’re not all one thing or one way, and even if fiction is meant to package up life a bit more neatly than it usually unleashes itself, I want to be authentic as an author. Give my readers the potential for triumph via real people.
It’s so much sweeter that way because then we can imagine ourselves achieving victory.
We all need to believe in that—and as a writer, I believe we have a right to.
Jenny Milchman is an award-winning, critically acclaimed novelist from New York State. Her fiction has won the Mary Higgins Clark and Silver Falchion awards, been nominated for PEN/Faulkner, Macavity, and Anthony awards, earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist, received praise from the New York Times, New York Journal of Books, San Francisco Review of Books, among many other publications. Miclhman is the co-chair of International Thriller Writers' Debut Program and a member of the Sisters in Crime Speakers Bureau. She speaks nationally on the importance of the face-to-face in a virtual world and never giving up on your dream.
Nestled at the heart of any mystery is a secret that must be safeguarded at all costs. A web of lies is spun to deceive, deflect and shroud the truth. Should the unthinkable occur and the secret slips out, there is only one recourse for the guilty: murder.
I know I’m speaking to kindred spirits. Therefore, I’ve decided to trust you with my secret. I see murder everywhere. Even the most bucolic and genteel of settings are fair game. I can’t control it. My imagination is a free spirit—with lethal impulses hovering just beneath the surface. Don’t be shocked. I assure you my victims have only died on the printed page.
As my revelations sink in, allow me to tell you about Old Sins Never Die, the sixth book in my mystery series featuring journalist Emmeline Kirby and jewel thief/insurance investigator Gregory Longdon. The kernel of the idea took me unawares, when I visited Grasmere in England’s enchanting Lake District a few years ago.
I stayed at a lovely white-washed, 17th-century hotel called The Swan, which is set in the Lake District National Park. The rolling hills and mountains, lakes and forests, conspired to seduce my soul. In my dreams, I sometimes find myself tramping once again among the lush fields, where honeyed strands of sunlight drizzle warmth among the emerald blades of grass. And the soft susurration of the breeze mingles with the sparkling chatter of a stream as it rushes onward to meet a distant sea. It’s a haven where everyday cares can be forgotten, at least for a little while.
Emmeline and Gregory begged me to take them to Grasmere. After all, they needed a respite from all the nefarious goings on back in London. Alas, my above-mentioned secret intruded on what should have been a romantic interlude. While on a sightseeing trip on Lake Windermere, they overhear a man attempting to hire an international assassin. I ask you, who else would conjure up a contract hit in such an idyllic spot? Probably only me.
Since I have a wicked streak, I could not make this easy for Emmeline and Gregory. Oh, no. They rush back to London to warn the authorities. But there’s one tiny problem—well, one to start—it’s rather difficult to prevent a killing, if the target is unknown. Emmeline and Gregory really should have stayed in Grasmere because London is a simmering cauldron of danger. As Emmeline pursues a story about shipping magnate Noel Rallis, who is on trial for murder, she discovers that he is blackmailing Lord Desmond Starrett. Desperate to keep his dark past buried, Starrett reluctantly partners with Rallis in a sinister scheme called Poseidon. Prima ballerina Anastasia Tarasova, Rallis’ spurned lover, dangles promises of an exclusive glimpse into a world of treason and greed. However, she’s silenced before she can utter a word.
The hunt for the truth draws Emmeline and Gregory up to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull in Scotland. I fell in love with Tobermory, when I was on a cruise that took me to the Inner Hebrides. The town was built as a fishing port in the late 18th century. Wooded hills surround the bay and brightly painted buildings with shops line the main street along the harbor. If one ventures farther afield, spectacular views of the sea can be had from the cliffs. But as I ambled about that day, murder shadowed my footfalls. I pictured the harbor in November with a bracing wind gathering charcoal clouds in the midnight sky as pelting rain seeped into one’s bones. Gregory was guiding a Zodiac across the harbor’s inky netting of undulating liquid silk, as Emmeline clutched at the rope that ringed the motorized dinghy. At their feet lay a dead man. It would have been a crime to leave this scene out of my story.
Meanwhile when I first caught sight of the nearby uninhabited Isle of Staffa, I was left breathless. The island’s hexagonal columns of basalt rock loom out of the sea, as if the giant hand of an ancient god wrenched it from slumber in a watery underworld. The yawning mouth of Fingal’s Cave beckons with an invitation. I gave in to temptation and featured Staffa because I knew that deep in the bowels of the cave myriad perils were waiting to be unleashed.
In a sane and ordered world, murder is an egregious transgression. But in a mystery, murder takes pride of place. And as I’ve explained, the reader can be certain that I can always find a place for murder and intrigue.
Daniella Bernett is a member of the Mystery Writers of America New York Chapter and the International Thriller Writers. Lead Me Into Danger, Deadly Legacy, From Beyond The Grave, A Checkered Past and When Blood Runs Cold are the other books in the Emmeline Kirby-Gregory Longdon mystery series. She also is the author of two poetry collections, Timeless Allure and Silken Reflections. In her professional life, she is the research manager for a nationally prominent engineering, architectural and construction management firm. Bernett is currently working on Emmeline and Gregory’s next adventure.