(PART ONE OF A TWO-PART INTERVIEW)
Most novelists weave fragments of their own stories, experiences, friends (or enemies) into every book they write. For instance, in my novel Voice Lessons, I have nearly 100 fragments in there – but you’ll never know. The book is fiction. A fewer number write novels based on actual experiences, fictionalizing just enough to muddy the waters of the actual truth.
Rare is the author who bases novels on actual events, twisting timelines and events while keeping the essential truth intact – and pulls it off.
Claudia Whitsitt is that rare author. Her mystery thrillers draw directly from events in her life, which she unabashedly admits and promotes. When you write as well as Claudia, with a taut narrative style and compelling, unforgettable characters that keep the pages turning, you can say and do whatever you want. Her books are damned good.
Claudia is the author of Intimacy Issues, Identity Issues, The Wrong Guy, and the forthcoming Two of Me. Without having to blast the spoiler alert, I will give you this: Intimacy Issues deals with a very pissed-off mother whose kids and dog are seriously messed with. Identity Issues is loosely based on the real-life stolen identity crisis involving her husband, Don, and the hell it put them through for years. She writes through the character of Samantha Stitsill, a mother and teacher who tracks down hilarious moments as well as she chases leads. The Wrong Guy is derived from the Michigan Murders, the horrifying co-ed murders that took place on the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan campuses in the late 1960s. A college freshman, Katie, is the protagonist – a girl loosely based on Claudia, who enrolled at Eastern Michigan just after they caught the serial killer.
In all three books, Claudia lets it fly with a combination of tragedy, drama, some of the ever-engaging sassy, tough-chick persona, emotional roller-coaster rides, great characterization and dialogue, and a trademark of every great mystery writer – humor. Damn, she’s funny! (More on that in part 2 of this conversation). And an obsessed amateur sleuth, drawn from her childhood fascination with Nancy Drew mysteries. Every mother with a beating heart would laugh their tails off at the first 10 pages of Identity Issues – and frequently thereafter, even though this is a dead-serious novel that speaks to an epidemic affecting up to 2 million people per year.
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Claudia for almost four years; we met at the Southern California Writers Conference, where we both are presenters. Now, it’s your turn. Enjoy this conversation with the fabulous, recently retired Special Education teacher from Saline, Michigan – and then treat yourself to her books for some truly entertaining summer reading.
Claudia Whitsitt: I love to play “what if?” with real-life scenarios. My brain seems to be wired to tap into situations that I’ve heard about and ask myself how I’d handle myself in the same situation, or imagine the ways in which things could have gone differently. I never have trouble thinking of ideas for my novels.
True stories fuel my fiction. I often say, “I write my life as fiction.” There’s always a jumping off point from the actual story to fiction though. Once I reach that point, which is often before I even begin to write, I feel the magic begin!
Claudia Whitsitt: Because the early parts of Identity Issues are based on my own experience, it was easy to write the beginning of the book. The funniest part though, was that initial readers didn’t believe that anything like what I’d experienced could ever really happen. I ended up making several changes to make the story more plausible. Truth is stranger than fiction! In all honesty, I got much more of a rush fictionalizing the back end of the story. It was liberating, in fact. Sam is a much braver woman than me, and it was a delight to have her say the things I wish I had the nerve to say, and do the things I wish I had the guts to do. She’s a force to be reckoned with. Of course, my husband would probably say the same about me!
CW: My best friend reads all of my work. When she first read Identity Issues, she was furious with my husband. She could barely look at him after she read what his fictional character had done to put his family and marriage in jeopardy. Family and other friends also have had trouble distinguishing fact from fiction. I think I’ve conjured up all kinds of questions for them about my “real life”. Because the book is based on our own life experience, the lines sometimes become blurred between fact and fiction.
WJ: While Identity Issues is disturbing in the way identity theft can compromise and even devastate its victims and their families, The Wrong Guy is downright disturbing – a serial killer, a rapist, young co-eds scared to death. Could you describe this time of the Michigan Murders, and how you drew from your experience at Eastern Michigan to develop Katie?
CW: My college experience paralleled Katie’s in several ways. I entered college on the heels of (convicted murderer John Norman) Collins’ arrest. I experienced firsthand the fears of negotiating a campus where coeds lived with the constant worry of a predator’s existence. I attended countless meetings about safety. We were warned at every turn that there was no assurance we were safe just because a suspect was behind bars. We carried mace on our key rings, were taught to weave our keys between our fingers (in order to be ready to defend ourselves), and advised never to travel alone on campus. It was a tense time, and not the “typical” college experience.
I also had the most unlikely roommate, my complete opposite, just as Katie did. Katie’s roommate sits on closet shelves, tosses around profanity like loose change, and teaches Katie that there is more than one way to view the world. Katie learns to respect differences and forms a lasting bond with Janie. (My roomie and I are still best friends to this day!)
WJ: Your books have great plot twists. How did the necessity of switching gears as a parent, teacher, and in life shape your narrative style?
CW: As a reader, I love it when I’m comfortable with the plot and ease into predicting the next course of events. Then, wham! I’m blindsided. To me, that’s what creates the mystery and suspense. It’s my goal to create that same suspense in my own novels. Just when the reader settles back, I dish out something completely new and unexpected. It also mirrors what I went through after Don’s identity was stolen and I received late night phone calls in which the caller tried to convince me I didn’t know my husband. Much like Samantha, I had to be quick, smart, and savvy. Even when I’d only had a few hours of sleep.
WJ: Thirty-seven years of dealing with schoolkids made your flexible, I’d guess.
CW: Switching gears has been my M.O. for years. Life tosses me surprises on a daily basis. In my teaching of Special Education students, there was always some behavioral crisis looming. In raising my family, a sibling squabble, a last minute trip to the ER, or a broken heart to mend.
WJ: How did the theft of Don’s identity directly affect you?
CW: When my husband’s identity was stolen, I learned that thinking on my feet, flexibility, and multi-tasking were my friends. The identity theft occurred when my four older kids were in elementary school and my youngest was an infant. I held a full-time teaching position, and my husband traveled the world for business. I had an astounding amount to manage. Attitude was everything. I adopted a survival approach. Every day was a new and unexpected adventure. I learned to appreciate the surprises, and challenged myself to act rather than react. It became a game of sorts. I approached each day wondering what new wrench would be tossed into my day. The ordinary days became few and far between. Great writing fodder!
WJ: When we write fiction, we all have unanticipated surprises that just “fly out of us” during the writing process – and they become invaluable to the work. What were a couple of those surprises for you?
CW: When I become one with Samantha, she leads me through her innermost thoughts and feelings. They are sometimes deep. And dark. And way more personal than I anticipated. Being with her in her darkest hours takes me to surprising places. I feel privileged that she allows me to accompany her on her journey. The depth of emotion, or her internal timeline, as I like to call it, taps something in my soul that I didn’t know existed. There are times I walk away from a writing session completely spent. Sam faces her inner demons. When she does, I’m at my best as a writer. She’s opened my soul. I thank her for that.
(PART 2 will appear on Tuesday, July 2)