Interview: March 15, 2013
Becky Masterman’s debut thriller, RAGE AGAINST THE DYING, introduces readers to Brigid Quinn, a former FBI agent who made a legendary career out of hunting sexual predators but who resigned under cloudy circumstances. In this interview, conducted by Bookreporter.com’s Joe Hartlaub, Masterman talks about her inspiration for her tough-as-nails female protagonist, the long and arduous process of getting her first book published, the authors who have influenced her the most, and what we can look forward to in the next installment of what is shaping up to be a heart-stopping series.
Bookreporter.com: Your debut novel starts off strong and never fades, not even for a second. You have a strong protagonist in Brigid Quinn, a former FBI agent who made a legendary career out of hunting sexual predators but who resigned under cloudy circumstances. RAGE AGAINST THE DYING is a fascinating balance of plot and characterization, and is impossible to put down. Where does the character of Brigid Quinn come from?
Becky Masterman: Everybody has fantasies. When I put moisturizer on my neck and grab my walking stick before heading out of the house, I fantasize about a woman my age who is still so, well, hot, she makes men look up in restaurants. A woman who isn't afraid to cross a parking lot alone at night because she can take down a mugger, and you feel sorry for the mugger. I think no matter what your age, Brigid is a satisfying fantasy. And maybe not so fantastic --- when I say to fellow boomers, "We're not our aunts," they know exactly what I mean.
BRC: Carlo, Brigid’s husband, is one of the most interesting supporting characters I have encountered recently in a work of fiction. I want to discuss his relationship with Brigid, but let’s talk about him for a moment. He is a formerly practicing priest, obviously well-read, a widower, and content to let Brigid’s past stay in the past until circumstances overtake them and her past intrudes abruptly into their present, and their marriage. How did Carlo’s character evolve while you were writing the book?
BM: I'm so glad you like Carlo! Eight years ago I started dating an Episcopal priest in Florida. He told me he was retiring to Arizona and did I want to come with him. Rage started out as a competition between us during Novel Writing Month the following year, and I conceived a character who was seemingly the antithesis of Brigid and yet also mirrored her. Carlo isn't totally my husband, but Carlo is my love letter to him.
BRC: You obviously did a great deal of research into serial murderers while writing RAGE AGAINST THE DYING. Tell us about that.
BM: For 14 years, as a reference editor in forensic science, I've known the man who actually did “write the book” on sexual homicide. The research I did was as much about the man who investigated these crimes as about the murders themselves.
BRC: It appears that RAGE AGAINST THE DYING is the first in what I hope will be a long series. What is there about writing a series that appeals to you?
BM: I'll have to let you know after I finish the second book. Right now I'm focused on the challenge of finding out how the characters change, and how to make a story that doesn't repeat the first one. Serial killer? Nope, can't do that again.
BRC: Where will you be taking Brigid in future books? Will we be learning more about the cases she dealt with as an FBI agent, and will they come back to haunt her later?
BM: Brigid is likely to revisit old cases, old enemies, in future stories, but in the second book things have gotten more intensely personal. There are issues of family, friendship, and the horrors of modern healthcare. Trust me, it's still a thriller.
BRC: Carlo also has a past, though it is only briefly alluded to in the book. Will we be learning more about him in the future? And will his past come back to haunt him at some point as well?
BM: I need to talk to you. You've got some really good ideas! With Carlo's experience in academia, a short stint as a prison chaplain, and a Roman Catholic priest, there are all kinds of possible dangers.
BRC: Jeffery Deaver and Clive Cussler are mentioned here. A copy of one of Deaver’s books is found among a killer’s possessions, and Brigid is enjoying a Cussler novel over the course of the story. Are there any authors, working in any genre, who have influenced you?
BM: John Irving taught me to love all my characters, even the most flawed, because it makes them real. Ian McEwan taught me that suspense lies in the thing not happening. Mark Twain taught me writers must read. John D. MacDonald taught me that there can be moments of breath-stealing wisdom even in a crime novel. Anne Tyler taught me the beauty of a single best sentence --- "The baby crooned to a button mushroom." Joyce Carol Oates taught me to go fearlessly through the locked doors of my mind. Linwood Barclay, Lisa Gardner, Harlan Coben and Gillian Flynn, for obvious reasons. I could go on and on. Don't get me wrong, I know I can't reach the level of these authors, but the reaching is everything. Even books I don't enjoy have the value of teaching me what not to do.
BRC: Many of our readers --- and staff, for that matter --- are aspiring authors. So I’d like to ask you a couple of nuts-and-bolts questions about how RAGE AGAINST THE DYING came together. For many writers, finding a schedule that works and sticking with it is extremely difficult. What sort of schedule worked for you when you were writing this book? And how long did it take you from your first conception of a former FBI agent as a character, to the final draft of your completed manuscript?
BM: It may not be so much a matter of trying to write, as not being able to stop. I sleep from 9 pm to 5 am. I've dubbed our home Masterman Monastery. The seventh and final draft of my manuscript (I'm not talking tweaks here, I'm talking major plot changes) was completed in June 2011, six-and-a-half years after I began.
BRC: In the same vein, how did you go about getting your book published? Did it take you a long time to find an agent? And how long did it take you from completion of your manuscript to getting the book accepted by your publisher?
BM: I sent one round of queries out to a half-dozen agents in 2006. They said nobody wanted to read about an older woman. I waited. Then Helen Mirren happened and the world shifted. I sent out queries again, and Helen Heller requested the manuscript and called in three days, offering to represent me. We worked together on the book for nearly a year before she said it was good enough to sell. St. Martin's made an offer within the month. But there was a catch. My story was about a missing person. The editor wanted something more sensational, something more "worthy of your character." So I started from scratch with a serial killer plot and did three more versions. I'm saying, this writing business is hard work! But I can't stop.
BRC: Looking back on the process of creating the book and having it published, is there anything you would have done differently? And what do you think was the best thing that you did?
BM: I would have written the seventh draft first. I think the best thing I ever did was Brigid Quinn.
BRC: You have beenworking for the last several years as an acquisitions editor of books dealing with forensics for a science book publisher, and indeed, there are forensic elements that play an important part in RAGE AGAINST THE DYING. As an editor --- admittedly, for books that are far removed from fiction and all of its genres --- what is the single most important piece of advice you would give to a prospective author completing his or her first manuscript?
BM: Praise is useless. Seek criticism, and take it seriously. Then crash, eat a box of Russell Stover's, and write harder.
BRC: On a related note, considering your lengthy history in the publishing industry, what inspired you to “switch sides of the desk,” so to speak, and start writing? And why genre fiction, or, to be more specific, thrillers?
BM: I've been writing for 20 years, starting when I was in marketing. I started by doing children's theater with my then-12-year-old daughter and got hooked that way. Directing plays, writing plays, writing literary novels that nobody read…say, how about a thriller?
BRC: Of the books you have read for pleasure in the last six months, which you would recommend to our readers?
BM: THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X by Keigo Higashino, a mystery writer who I hope many people have discovered before me. Denis Johnson's TREE OF SMOKE, because it finally helped me to feel all the people in the Vietnam War. Lionel Shriver's WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, which was more like watching a train wreck, but wow was it gripping. Come to think of it, I guess we might have different concepts of “pleasure.”