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Interview: June 25, 2010

Linda Castillo’s latest novel, PRAY FOR SILENCE, is the second installment in a series featuring Kate Burkholder --- a former member of an Amish community who returns to her hometown as head of their local police force. In this interview with’s Joe Hartlaub, Castillo explains how she first became interested in the Amish lifestyle and what she finds most appealing about her protagonist’s flawed personality. She also discusses what prompted her to start a crime thriller series after penning 20 romantic suspense novels, reveals where she finds inspiration for the dark and disturbing acts of violence featured in her work, and mentions some recent memorable reads to recommend to others. PRAY FOR SILENCE, your new Kate Burkholder novel, is one of the most startling books I have read this year, as well as one of the darkest. Set in what would normally be considered a peaceful, crime-free setting --- Amish Country --- it begins with the unspeakable murders of seven members of an Amish family. As Burkholder and the police force she commands investigate the murders, additional new horrors are revealed. It was one of those books that I couldn’t stop reading and has given me nightmares since I finished. Let’s start with the murders that open the novel. I vaguely remember a case where a farm family was murdered under mysterious circumstances. Are the murders in PRAY FOR SILENCE based upon a real-world occurrence? Which do you prefer: bringing the crimes and sins of the real world to your books, or creating your own?

Linda Castillo: This is probably one of the best interview questions I’ve ever received. The horrific murders portrayed in the book are a product of my imagination. (That may be a scary answer in itself.) I’m sure there have been similar crimes in real life, unfortunately. But when I conceived the idea for that particular scene, I knew exactly what I needed to happen to make it work for the book.

As a crime fiction writer, I do spend quite a bit of time reading about crimes and watching crime programs on cable TV. The mind of a killer, his thought process and the motivations that drive him are so foreign to the rest of us. Frankly, it’s a scary place. But in order to write a villain with credibility, it’s important for a writer to have some understanding of what drives them psychologically and emotionally. Sometimes I’ll take one small element of a true-life crime and then set my imagination to work.

BRC: One of the underlying themes of PRAY FOR SILENCE, as well as SWORN TO SILENCE, is the friction that occurs between the Amish and English --- non-Amish --- cultures even as they peacefully, though occasionally uneasily, co-exist. The Amish have an innate distrust of the English, while the English find the Amish way of life quaint at best and bizarre at worst. Burkholder was raised as Amish but is under the meidung --- expulsion from the Amish community --- for refusing to follow religious guidelines as a result of a number of traumatic events that she experienced as a teenager in the area where she is now the police chief. The plots of these books slice in and out of Amish life and customs with a detail that is close and personal. Where and how did you acquire your knowledge and expertise regarding Amish life? And --- understanding that there are few conversions from the English to the Amish --- have you ever been tempted to convert to Amish beliefs yourself?

LC: I went to school with an Amish girl for a few years. At the time --- being a teenager --- I didn’t realize how interesting the culture was. My fascination with the Amish didn’t come into play until I conceived the idea for the series. At that point, I read everything I could get my hands on. John Hostetler’s AMISH LIFE has been invaluable. I also made contact with a formerly Amish woman from Pennsylvania, but our communication is hit or miss at best. I’ve also travelled to Amish Country twice and spent several days talking to people and taking in the sights. The contrasts really are very stark.

BRC: You reside in Texas, but your Burkholder novels are set in Painters Mill, a small town in Holmes County, Ohio. Having lived in near proximity to Holmes County for the majority of my life, one of the elements of PRAY FOR SILENCE that I enjoyed most was the attention to the geographical and cultural details. How did you acquire this? Were you raised in Ohio? If so, what chain of events resulted in your move to Texas? And what steps led to you to decide to write a series based in East Central Ohio?

LC: I grew up in Western Ohio’s farm country. I’ve always heard the phrase, “write what you know.” I know the rural lifestyle. Until I conceived the idea for this series, I had always considered that knowledge pretty useless. I moved to Texas is 1985 after meeting my husband, and I’ve lived here since. I do visit Ohio on occasion and that part of the country will always be special to me. One of the elements I love about this series is the juxtaposition of the wholesome Amish Country setting versus the dark tone of the crimes.

BRC: Someone reading PRAY FOR SILENCE might think that it exaggerates the frequency and violence of rural crime, yet the truth is that rural crime in some areas is the equal of its urban cousin. What factors do you think contribute to rural crime that you don’t necessarily find in urban areas?

LC: With regard to the series, the amount of violent crime is exaggerated quite a bit. I think this is one of those times when the crime fiction reader must [happily] suspend his or her disbelief.

BRC: How did Kate Burkholder come into being? Is she based upon someone --- or a composite of people --- you have met? Is she someone that you might have been if your life had taken a different turn? Or is she someone else entirely, created by you from whole cloth?

LC: I love writing police officers or any kind of law enforcement, but I’m not nearly brave enough to be one in real life. I couldn’t imagine stopping a car at three o’clock in the morning on some dark country road. Could you? Kate Burkholder is completely born of my imagination. All writers draw from their life experience, and so to a degree she may be a composite of people I’ve known. But mostly she is from my imagination. One of the things I love about her is that she is flawed. She breaks the rules. She makes mistakes. Sometimes she behaves badly. Kate feels things deeply and her heart is always in the right place. Those things make her real and very human to me.

BRC: PRAY FOR SILENCE presents some interesting heroes and some equally chilling villains. James Payne was definitely first among equals on the villain side of the equation. Payne, in my opinion, is too chilling a character to fade away, quietly or otherwise. Do you have any plans for him to be back in a future novel?

LC: I’m so glad you mentioned James Payne. He was strange and chilling and, as a writer, a pleasure to write. He is also a creation of my imagination. I think you’re correct in that he is a memorable character perhaps because he is so bizarre. We, as human beings, I think, have a need to understand the things around us. Even monsters like Payne. I may find a place for him in future books.

BRC: The Burkholder novels represent somewhat of a shift in genres for you, given that they are thrillers as opposed to the romantic suspense novels you wrote throughout the majority of the 2000s. In retrospect, one can see that your work was gradually moving in the direction of the thriller genre prior to SWORN TO SILENCE. What prompted you to make the jump, so to speak, to this genre?

LC: I’ve always had a thriller trapped inside me. I loved writing romantic suspense, and I firmly believe the genre was a powerful force with regard to my growth as a writer, particularly when it comes to writing emotion or relationships. That said, I love a high level of intensity in the books I write. I also love to push the envelope. When I was writing romantic suspense, there were times when my editors had to pull me back or reel me in. Some of the things I wanted to write were too graphic for the romantic suspense genre. Some of my ideas were simply better geared toward crime fiction. I had been wanting to make the change for quite some time before I actually did it. I’m always thinking of stories and getting ideas. When I conceived the idea for the Kate Burkholder series, I knew I was onto something. With the help of my brilliant agent, I wrote a proposal and the rest is history.

BRC: Looking back upon your writing career, is there anything that you wish you would have done differently? And what do you consider to be the best decision you have made with respect to writing?

LC: I’ve always loved to write and wrote my first book when I was 13 years old. As I grew older, went to school and began my corporate career, writing went by the wayside. As a Midwesterner with a strong work ethic, I thought it wasn’t a practical vocation. If I could do things over, I would have pursued a writing career from the time I was in high school and college instead of going into the corporate world for 12 years. The best decision I ever made was when I decided to write thrillers. It was a risk at the time, but I wanted it so badly I was willing to take that risk. And it paid off.

BRC: You have been writing for several years. How has your writing schedule changed, if at all, since you started professionally? Do you, or have you, had any problems sticking to a schedule?

LC: I’m a morning person and I adhere to a pretty strict writing schedule. I’m a schedule person and I always have been. Having worked a full-time job and written for so many years, I have a lot of self-discipline. Just in the last few years have I let myself relax and enjoy a bit more leisure time --- which I enjoy immensely!

BRC: On a related note, have you ever had any problems with writer’s block? How do you overcome it? Have you found that writing in a variety of genres helps to avoid it?

LC: I’m lucky in that I’ve never experienced writer’s block. That’s not to say the words come easily. They don’t. In fact, some days getting those words on the paper is akin to having a tooth pulled with no anesthesia. The key, I think, is to keep it interesting. Always challenge yourself. Not only with the writing itself, but also strive to come up with fresh ideas. Don’t ever relax your standards and don’t let your writing become stale. Not only will you become discontent and bored, but your readers will too.

BRC: All great writers start out as vociferous readers, and often the authors they have read early in life influences their own work. What authors, of any genre, inspired you to begin writing? And is writing something you have always wanted to do?

LC: I can’t really think of one work or genre that inspired me as a youngster. But I’ve always loved to write stories. I loved inventing characters and putting them into suspenseful and/or difficult situations [yes, even as a teenager, I was a budding thriller writer].

BRC: What would you be doing for a living if you weren’t writing?

LC: I’m really not sure. Writing is the only thing I’m really good at. And it’s the only vocation I could really love. If I had to guess, I think I would be training horses and/or competing.

BRC: What books have you read in the past six months that you would like to recommend to our readers?

LC: The first book that comes to mind is Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD. It is a very powerful post-apocalyptic novel I absolutely couldn’t put down. I was lucky enough to snag an advance copy of Chevy Stevens’s STILL MISSING. It’s not out until July, but thriller readers are in for a real treat. Dan Simmons’s THE TERROR. Chelsea Cain’s Gretchen Lowell series. Cody McFadyen’s thrillers. Brian Freeman. C. J. Box. Lisa Scottoline. John Hart. John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport series. All of these authors are mega-talented, and I can’t get my hands on their books fast enough.

BRC: I understand that you are currently working on the next Kate Burkholder novel. What can you tell us about it? Will there be any major changes in her life? And do you plan to keep the series going for as long as you can, or do you have a definite ending planned for the series?

LC: I recently turned in the third book of the series. My editor promptly responded by telling me it was the strongest book to date, which I was very pleased to hear. There are no major changes in Kate’s life --- not in the third book, anyway. But change is coming and not all of it is good.

As a writer, one of my personal rules is to strive to make the current book better than the last. That’s a tall order. But I think it’s vital to the survival of a series. Currently, I don’t have an ending planned for Kate Burkholder or John Tomasetti. They are such fascinating characters with so much to draw upon. I’d like to continue writing them as long as readers will continue to read and love them.

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