by John Dwaine McKenna
Barbara Nickless is the talented writer who has conceived two of the best characters to ever grace the pages of detective fiction. I was fortunate enough to make her acquaintance and share a table at The Mountain of Authors event last March. With many thanks for being so generous with her time, and for sharing her thoughts with us . . . here’s Barbara Nickless
Why do you write?
When I was very young, around three years of age, and before I even knew the letters of the alphabet, I would “write” stories in a script that imitated my mother’s cursive handwriting. Then I’d make up tales to go with my scribbles. The drive to tell stories preceded any life event that would have made me wish to be a writer—the desire to do so was simply always there. As an adult, I think I understand the impulse a bit more: I write to make sense of the world. It’s the only way I know to shape meaning out of chaos.
What do you write about?
I write about people who are forced into situations where they must make difficult choices. Which is a fancy way of saying I write novels. More specifically, I write mystery novels in which the bad guy isn’t the only one doing questionable things; sometimes my detective is less than a saint. By writing about characters who blur the line between good and evil, I get to explore what makes people decide to cross that line. I especially love to examine how people behave against a backdrop of historical events or personal difficulties that aren’t of their own making. Wars, natural disasters, a relative who commits a crime and who comes to us for help. All of us hope to hold ourselves to a higher standard, but we never know what we’ll do until we’re tested.
Maybe by looking at my characters and trying to understand why they do what they do, I can approach some understanding of myself. The goal of the novelist is to explore, to highlight, to question. And to then offer possible answers to the questions that trouble all of us.
Who’s your favorite author?
Such a tough question! My mother was an English teacher, and I cut my teeth on the classics. Focusing on my own genre of mystery, I’ll choose Martin Cruz Smith. He writes complex stories with complex characters, then manages to distill these complexities into a beautiful essence of what it means to be a human being in a difficult world.
Great choice. Arkady Renko is one of the best sleuths in all of crime fiction.
Do you read your reviews?
No. The most difficult thing for me, as a writer, is to place my novels out into the world where they morph into piñatas, ready for anyone with a keyboard to take a whack. I understand the desire writers have to engage a critical reviewer—we want to explain ourselves, or point out a reviewer’s mistakes, or simply tell them that writing a novel is much harder than they might think and please don’t insult us for our weaknesses. We did our best. But you have to remain above the fray.
How do you deal with a negative review?
What negative reviews? If I don’t read them, they don’t exist, right?
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
If writing is a part of your soul, don’t quit. Set realistic goals, stick to them, work to get better, and don’t listen to the naysayers. Writing is a leap of courage that requires a strong will and selective blinders.
Do you use humor in your work?
I use sarcasm, which some say is the lowest form of wit.
Well, personally I think sarcasm takes a lot of creativity, so I really appreciate it. I love puns too . . .
Where do you get your story ideas from?
I’m an information junkie, and stories come out of that. I listen (NPR and assorted podcasts) and read (three newspaper subscriptions, ten magazine subscriptions, and hundreds of books).
Where could you be reached on the World Wide Web?
BIO – Barbara Nickless worked as technical writer, instructional designer, raptor rehabilitator, astronomy instructor, Sword Fighter and piano teacher before turning seriously to writing. Now an award-winning author, her short stories and essays and anthologies in the U.S. and UK. She lives with her family in Colorado. Dead Stop is the second book in the Rose Parnell Series