This is Part 2 of our interview with Claudia Whitsitt, the author of mysteries Intimacy Issues, Identity Issues and The Wrong Guy, all based on real-life experiences. Claudia’s taut writing and captivating story lines have made her a fan favorite of a lot of readers the past two years. In this interview, she talks about how she developed a narrative voice that turns every day life into an event, laced with equal parts humor and seriousness – and then converted it into mysteries with more twists and turns than Six Flags.
Claudia’s latest work, Intimacy Issues, released on April 28, but this is a woman on a mission. After 37 years as a schoolteacher, specializing in Special Education, Claudia retired in June. She wrote four novels (Two of Me) in the past three years while teaching full-time. One can only imagine what we’re in for now from this delightful, engaging tour de force. Speaking of which, her next novel, Two of Me, is being prepped for publication in the next several months.
Word Journeys: What do you enjoy most about writing fiction?
Claudia Whitsitt: I love storytelling. In the classroom, it was one of my favorite things. I’d tell my students, “I’m going to tell you a story.” Their ears would perk up, they’d take a collective lean forward, and I had them in the palm of my hands. An electricity takes over when you tell or hear a good story. I love that element of writing fiction. When the story and the characters take over and lead me down an undiscovered path, the adrenalin rush is amazing, and oh so satisfying.
WJ: What about the mystery intrigues you so much? Why does it play so well into both your personality and the way you write?
CW: I grew up in the “olden days”. We had a 12-inch black and white television, which the seven of us crowded around to watch The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights. Reading provided me with some alone time. Mostly, I picked up mysteries. I’ve always loved solving puzzles. With five brothers and no sisters, it seemed like a good skill to develop, as they were always cooking up some kind of scheme! While I wasn’t always successful at figuring out what they were up to, I was quite accomplished at guessing what would happen next in the mystery I was reading. I took great pride in putting the pieces together.
WJ: Your main character in Identity Issues, Samantha Stitsill, has been a crowd favorite since she was first released to the reading public. I could see you writing a series around her. What about Samantha made it so much fun for you to write her character?
CW: Samantha has a fiery spirit. When I sit down to write, her voice flows through my fingertips. She’s smart and sassy, and she has a comeback for everything. I give myself over to her. I trust myself with her. She trusts me, too. Sometimes I disagree with her, but she’s strong and stubborn. It’s very difficult for me to change her mind after she’s made a decision. I love her. I think she feels the same way about me.
WJ: A question from one converted academic writer to another: How did you move beyond critical, objective writing? Did you practice journaling, writing exercises, etc.? Or were you able to make the shift in the course of writing the story?
CW: I welcome the opportunity to divert my writing from thought-based to emotion-based and from objective to subjective, but I need coaxing at times. Because my life is so full (CRAZY), it’s often difficult to transition. Journaling and free writes have helped me enormously. I’ll put my fingers on the keyboard, or better yet, pen to paper, and let the words flow. That, and listening to music, opens my soul to the depths required for novel writing.
CW: Good question. I grew up in a sarcastic household. I have five younger brothers. FIVE! There was teasing and joking in our household 24/7. I carried that caustic nature into adulthood, so much so that people don’t always know how to take me. As a result, I’ve learned to be more careful about what I say, but my inner dialogue is fast and furious. I tend to be critical, so it was essential that I learned to temper that in the classroom. When an acerbic comment slipped out like, “Seriously, dude. You’re going to talk when I’m teaching?” my students enjoyed it. They’ve always considered me “nice” and “sweet”, so I guess I haven’t damaged too many psyches.
The tautness in my writing comes from juggling so much in my real life. I’m quick to cut to the chase because I don’t ever have “extra” time, and I’ve always viewed my life as a “to-do” list. There isn’t much wiggle room, so this part of my personality comes through in my voice. I’ve even been accused of jumping ahead, writing the second paragraph before the first. Hmm.
WJ: Humor really enhances a book, doesn’t it? I find it works great to provide levity after, or in the midst of, deadly serious scenes. Plus, most of us use humor for any number of reasons. How do you see it?
CW: Humor is a healthy release and a welcome coping mechanism in times of strife. It’s a natural defense, and a very helpful tool in surviving life’s body slams, or controlling a tenable situation. The funniest people are those who’ve suffered great pain in their lives. They look at life in a way that allows them to survive those wicked blows, and say, “Go ahead, Life. What else have you got? Give it to me. ‘Cuz I can throw it right back at ‘ya!”
CW: Growing up, I was a huge Nancy Drew fan. I hid under the covers with a flashlight and read into the wee hours of the morning. Hence, I became a mystery writer. My high school years were all about discovery. I loved the classics. The Scarlet Letter. Catcher in the Rye. And anything by Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. For years, Holden Caulfield held the honor of being “my favorite character”. Then, D.H. Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Nuff said. One of my favorite passages is when Holden Caulfield says:
“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
Raising kids, I read to them each night. Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, and Shel Silverstein were the top requests at bedtime during those twenty years.
For a while, I read mostly Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Mary Higgins Clark, and Janet Evanovich. Quick, easy reads for a busy mom. Then Anita Shreve, Elizabeth Berg, and Anna Quindlen. To this day, Fortune’s Rocks, by Anita Shreve, is my favorite book.
WJ: What gives you the greatest satisfaction as an author?
I’m in my element when I’m writing. Losing sense of time and place and becoming immersed in my characters and story gives me untold joy. Having someone read my work and enjoy it is rewarding, too. It’s nice to know readers care about my characters as much as I do!
WJ: Finally, what is the most surprising thing someone said to you about your books, or your writing, at a book signing?
CW: I’d met a gentleman at a book signing at Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago shortly after my first mystery, The Wrong Guy, was released. He read the book, sent me a creepy email about the parts he would have changed (all related to the sex scenes, and very graphic, of course), then had the nerve to show up at Printers Row the following year.
When he saw a man standing behind me, he had the nerve to ask, “Who’s he?”
“My husband,” I answered.
He was indignant. “What’s he doing here?”
Wish I hadn’t been so darned naïve and nice the year before. (It does make for a good story idea though…writer stalked by reader! Scary!)