Author Livia Harper’s first book, Slain, hit the shelves yesterday. Telling the story of a pastor’s daughter caught up in a murder conspiracy, Slain is available on Amazon and you can find out more at Harper’s official website.
A marvelous discussion was had with Harper about her writing methods, her new book, and what the future holds for the author.
- Your first novel, Slain, came out yesterday. What should readers expect from the novel?
It’s a mystery/thriller about a teen murder in a mega-church. Here’s the description from the back of the book:
Pastor’s daughter Emma Grant can almost taste freedom. In just a few short weeks she’ll graduate high school, giving up prayer rallies and purity balls for the halls of NYU and a new life with her secret boyfriend Jackson.
However, one night when she and Jackson are together, a teen girl is murdered in her father’s mega-church. Suddenly everyone is paying a lot more attention to how she’s been sneaking around lately. But Jackson has a dark past, and she can’t tell the truth without casting suspicion on him too.
When someone starts leaking her secrets and planting evidence, Emma realizes that being a suspect is no coincidence. As the evidence mounts against her and her life spirals out of control, she must find the real killer—before the killer decides it’s easier to frame her if she’s dead.
This was definitely my labor-of-love first novel and I’m so excited to share it with readers. You can read an excerpt from the book at my website.
- Where did you find inspiration for this particular narrative?
I grew up in a family that was heavily involved in fundamentalist Christianity, but eventually decided to leave the church. Probably the most common reaction I get when I share my past with friends is that they think I went through a rebellious phase. It’s not to be mean, it’s just an assumption that most people have about why someone would leave the church: they were acting out, they were trying to rebel against being too tightly controlled, they wanted attention, they wanted to try sex or drugs or dating or whatever else they couldn’t get their hot little hands on, etc.
That just wasn’t my experience at all. I was a sorta-awkward honor-roll student who was into theater and choir. I’d never had sex or done drugs. I’d never even tasted alcohol. And while my parents had rules, they weren’t overly controlling.
When I left the church it was because I was making an effort to seek the truth, and I didn’t find it there. And I ended up being pretty vilified because of that by a lot of former friends and mentors. I really think that’s more honest to most past-believer’s experiences. It wasn’t a story I’d read before. That’s the story I wanted to tell.
- What made you decide on the Mystery & Thriller genre?
It’s a genre I read a lot, and one I really respect and enjoy. I think there’s an evolution happening in the genre right now that’s very exciting too. While it was around before her book, the success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has really opened some doors to mystery/thriller writers who write outside of the traditional genre parameters. Gone Girl has really broadened the audience’s ideas of what a mystery/thriller can be. It’s focused on the crime aspect, yes, but it can be about something important, all while being a flat-out entertaining read. I think that’s what Slain is, and reading stories from Flynn and other writers like Megan Abbott, Tana French, and Rosamund Lupton really helped me believe that Slain could find an audience too.
- When did you make the leap to becoming a full-time writer?
I’ve been writing for several years, but I quit my day job two years ago to concentrate on writing full time. It was after a lot of thought, banking some savings, and my husband getting a promotion. We’ve sacrificed new cars and fun vacations ever since, but it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made.
- What came about that you didn’t expect in that transition?
When I originally set out to write my first novel, I thought for sure I would be publishing it traditionally. But after reading up on the self-publishing movement, I got really excited about all the opportunity and freedom there. It didn’t take long at all to understand that independently publishing my book was the right decision for me.
I’d been through the mill of trying to get a screenplay out into the world, and while I won some big contests and got really close to selling, it just never came together. It was exhausting and disheartening and I was tired of putting my fate into other people’s hands. I have no idea if my books will be successful or not, but I feel really good about being in total control of how and when they’re released.
- Your educational background is in film, how has that helped in writing your novel?
So, so much. Writing screenplays forces you to do some things that I really think helped me when it came time to write my novel.
First, you have to think of everything from a very visual standpoint. If it can’t be seen on screen, you don’t write it in your screenplay. It really helped break me of one of the beginner writer problems of “show don’t tell” before I even started the book. It also made me focus on moments in the book that are visually memorable and interesting.
Second, filmmaking is a very compressed, minimal story format. When you’re telling a story in 90 minutes or less, you have to concentrate on the important events that drive the story forward, or you’ll simply run out of time or lose your audience. In order to write good screenplays, I had to learn all about plot structure, character-driven action, hooks, pacing, conflict escalation, etc.
All of those techniques are really about how to keep a reader/watcher engaged. So when you make a film, and see people react to it in the audience, it can be a pretty harsh lesson about wether or not you’ve engaged them successfully. Novelists rarely get this kind of opportunity—unless they’re sitting next to you the entire time you read their book! A written critique from another writer just isn’t the same. I’m very thankful for the lessons I learned before I transitioned to writing novels.
- How did you have to modify your approach from film to novel writing?
As I mentioned before, screenplays are a minimalist format. You never write about a character’s thoughts. You get a single short sentence to introduce your major characters, and even less for smaller roles. The only time you write more than a slugline to describe a location is if it’s significant enough to directly effect the story. There’s no room for anything extraneous.
The plus side of this is that I’ve learned to be fairly succinct and define characters through decisive actions. It’s also given me a pretty keen eye for content editing. (I will cut anything. Anything. If it doesn’t serve the story, it’s gone.)
The hard part came when I had to translate the shorthand of filmmaking into prose. At first, writing about what a room looked like seemed to take a thousand years, give or take. Even if it was just a short paragraph, I hated how it slowed me down; I just wanted to get on with the story! But like all muscles, that one developed over time and it’s not quite so painful anymore.
One surprising benefit was that when I allowed myself to write out character thoughts, even if I decided to cut them later, it really helped me understand my characters better. Writing a novel is a much more intimate process. It’s inside-out rather than outside-in.
- What’s next in the docket for you?
I have a trilogy of psychological thrillers that I’ll be releasing simultaneously this coming winter. It’s sort of a modern take on The Talented Mr. Ripley with a creepy female lead. The first book is called Boyfriend Glasses. Here’s the description from the back cover:
The first time Greta saw Ben, she knew he was the one. Knew it like fire knows tinder. The frat party was electric; her dress was a spark. No one knew anything about her ugly duckling past or all the darkness before.
But Ben saw her roommate Amber first. And that would never work. Ben was her soulmate. She could tell. She knew all about soulmates.
Too bad about her last one.
It’s been a lot of fun to write and I’m super excited about it. You can read the first chapter at my website.
- Where can people connect with you?
10. Where is the book available for purchase?
It will be available exclusively on Amazon until the end of the year, then expand to more online retailers after that. You can search for Slain on Amazon or find direct links for purchase on my website.