Valerie Brooks has received an Elizabeth George Foundation grant along with a Monticello Award for fiction. She served as fiction editor for Northwest Review, served on the board of directors for Oregon Writer's Colony, and co-founded the Willamette Writers Speakers Series.
When I first met Valerie, she was writing women's fiction. Since then, she has switched to femme-noir thrillers in her debut series featuring former attorney, Angeline Porter, Stealing Paris. She was a Five Star Finalist for the International People's Book Award and a finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award for Revenge In 3 Parts.
1) What immediately struck me when I read Revenge in 3 Parts was your use of voice. How did you develop such a perfect pitch for this type of genre, and what led you to this genre in the first place?
Thank you for that, Carol. Voice is so important to writing. I was a fiction editor at Northwest Review for four years and voice often pushed short stories to the top of the pile of pieces in consideration for publishing.
I found my voice when I studied film noir and neo-noir in college. I fell in love with noir—the voice, the atmosphere, and the characters who try to right the wrongs caused by the powerful, or to help the little guy who gets suckered in by greed or sexual attraction. Think Double Indemnity, for classic film noir, and Chinatown, a perfect neo-noir.
A few decades later, after writing two literary novels and having them seriously considered by publishers but eventually turned down, I was exhausted—but not deterred. I wrote a third novel that I considered a domestic thriller, the one you’ve read, Carol. But I wasn’t satisfied with it.
Then my husband Dan and I went to Paris in 2015 for Christmas and New Years. A few people tried to discourage us from going because a month before, terrorists had shot attendees at a Bataclan concert and at two cafes. I was adamant that we go to support the French.
When we arrived, December was unusually hot. Parisians seemed low key and a little edgy, but friendly. Beautiful, peaceful Paris now had 20,000 soldiers on the streets. The atmosphere felt heavy; security was tight. We found ourselves threatened while in the Marais. New Years at the Eiffel Tower almost made me cry. People of every race and religion were trying so hard to restore Paris to a sense of normalcy. But police and law enforcement were everywhere, driving up and down Quai Branly and over Pont d’léna bridge. White balloons were released from the tower instead of fireworks. So moving. And inspiring.
I flew home and started my first novel of the series. The voice sprang from my desire to create a female protagonist who kicks ass and captures the voice of neo-noir. I kept thinking of the great actress Kathleen Turner with her husky, tough, sexy voice in my favorite neo-noir, Body Heat. From there, the voice came easily and naturally.
2) The protagonist for this novel is a criminal lawyer who fights for justice. Clearly, she’s no shrinking violet. How did you go about researching the character and her choice of careers?
I wanted a backstory that would show how strong Angeline was, while at the same time showing her motive for fighting for justice in a cruel and inverted world. I didn’t have to think about it for too long. If I made her a criminal defense lawyer, she’d see some of the worst scum represented. The head of her law firm is in the pocket of a politician who is a serial rapist. The firm withholds evidence that could convict him. Angeline gives it to the prosecution, knowing she’ll lose her license to practice law but saving many women from this predator. Plus, being a former lawyer gives her lots of leeway to go after justice in her own way, but not always legally. I have one person who checks my specifics in this area, so it was an easy decision.
3) You, of all the people I know, are well-connected in writer’s circles. What advice can you give someone trying to break into the writing world?
Don’t quit your day job. Seriously. The writing world is a tough arena to break into. Make sure you love writing above all else. It has to be the driving force. I couldn’t quit writing if I tried.
Even if you’re an introvert, get involved, join writing groups, go to conferences, network like crazy, make a splash on social media, build a reputation. If you’re just starting and don’t have a finished manuscript, write short stories and send them out, join writing organizations, and learn as much as you can about the writing world. Also, know that you’ll have to write more than one novel. (I called my first my practice novel.) Above all else, learn your craft. Like me, remember what you loved to read as a child and teen. That’s where you’ll shine because that’s what you’ll probably love to write. Know that there will be rejection. It’s part of the game. Build your fan base, helpers, advanced readers, writing group, and connections with the authors you love.
4) Who is your favorite author and how did that author’s writing inform your own storytelling?
Oh, gosh, I’ve never had just one favorite author, and they change over time. The reason I love them has to do with either their voice or noir sensibilities, plus the story itself. I’m always attracted to novels that deal with the theme of justice, too. I remember watching “Perry Mason” with my mom. She loved it because the bad guy got caught and punished. But even then, I knew it was a fantasy. I tended to like the darker writers. This is my current list:
Daphne du Maurier was an early influence for her gothic sensibilities. Patricia Highsmith and Dorothy B. Hughes came into my life after I had taken film noir classes. They are the ultimate female noir writers. Laura Lippman, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Oyinkan Braithwaite are all very different writers, but each has a great way with voice and story. Tim Applegate, a friend, writes the most compelling literary noir around. Just recently Hannah Mary McKinnon hit my list with You Will Remember Me. Someone suggested to her that she should write darker stories, and wow, did she! Her novel blew me away.
5) Most people who know you well, know that you were the inspiration for Val in the comic strip Stone Soup by Jan Eliot, a good friend of yours. Tell us how you met and how the two of you encouraged each other along the way.
Jan and I were working jobs that had really come to their natural end. One day, one of the vice presidents at the community college where I worked asked me this incredibly insightful question: “Is your job still creative or is it now just maintenance?” Boom. I didn’t know it and didn’t know Jan at the time, but she had similar thoughts about her job. I honestly don’t remember the first time we met, but we were both reading a book titled Wishcraft. We followed the advice in the book to form monthly or weekly meetings to get back to our creative selves. Jan wanted to become a syndicated cartoonist, and I wanted to be a published author. We met every week for thirty years. We talked about how to overcome obstacles, how to break in, and what we could do for each other. It worked. Jan is now retired so we don’t meet regularly, but we’ve become besties.
6) Marketing can sometimes be difficult for writers, who are often introverts by nature. Is there any advice you can give them?
If you’re an introvert, start by trying to publish short pieces. That’s a good way to grow your chops and your platform. Also, start with social media. You don’t need to meet anyone or schmooze. When I started going to conferences, I usually went with someone I knew, making it so much easier to mingle.
Plus, it’s really easy to go to conferences if you do the following:
1) Start with the idea that it’s not about you
2) If you’re scared and don’t know what to do, recognize that there are others in the same situation and approach them with, “This is my first time. How about you?” That makes them feel better, and you might make a friend for life.
3) I try not to see any of these gatherings as me selling myself. I want to know these people and, if I can, make them feel comfortable. Then you’ll have someone to sit with and talk to about what you’ve learned at the conference.
4) Don’t forget your sense of humor.
7) Could you sum up what you have learned as a writer that might be useful to others?
Check yourself at the gate before you decide to be a “writer.” By this I mean, ask yourself these questions:
1) Do I love to write and rewrite?
2) Is it a true passion or just a cool idea?
3) Am I willing to devote all the time and energy, plus resources, it takes to be the best writer I can?
4) Can I be easy on myself when a rejection comes?
5) Can I deal with the highs and lows just as in any vocation?
6) Can I see myself devoting half the time I will need to function as a business, learning bookkeeping, platform building, etc.?
Regarding rejection: Here’s what I do whenever I receive a rejection, my agent taught me to see it as a “redirection.” That means it wasn’t right for that person. So redirect it to someone else. We are in the business of language. Keep that in mind. It helps when we can apply the right word to the right situation.
Other ways to support yourself through the journey:
1) Join an organization that has a mission to help you. I joined three Northwest writing organizations and the international Sisters in Crime.
2) Ask a lot of questions. There are no stupid ones.
3) Find someone you can meet with on a regular basis like I did with Jan. It’s a lonely life and you need support and a cheerleader.
4) Be careful when sharing your writing with friends and family. They probably have good intentions but don’t know how to say the right things to keep you going.
5) Again, be easy on yourself. Reward yourself for every step you take that brings you closer to your goal. I often bought myself flowers when I had a win or a loss.
One final piece of advice: keep writing. Enjoy it. Writing is my escape, like reading a good book. If you love what you’re writing about, someone else will too.
Best of luck! Break a leg! Go for it!