Author Interview: Brandilyn Collins
We are thrilled to bring an in-depth interview of Mystery/Thriller Shortlist Author, Brandilynn Collins. Gone to Ground is amongst the 5 Mystery/Thriller novels shortlisted for an Inspy. Ms. Collins is no stranger to the Inspy Awards, having had a previous novel on the shortlist for 2011.
Amaryllis, Mississippi is a scrappy little town of strong backbone and southern hospitality. A brick-paved Main Street, a park, and a legendary ghost in the local cemetery are all part of its heritage. Everybody knows everybody in Amaryllis, and gossip wafts on the breeze. Its people are friendly, its families tight. On the surface Amaryllis seems much like the flower for which it’s named—bright and fragrant. But the Amaryllis flower is poison.
In the past three years five unsolved murders have occurred within the town. All the victims were women, and all were killed in similar fashion in their own homes. And just two nights ago—a sixth murder.
Clearly a killer lives among the good citizens of Amaryllis. And now three terrified women are sure they know who he is—someone they love. None is aware of the others’ suspicions. And each must make the heartrending choice to bring the killer down. But each woman suspects a different man.
What led you to writing?
I came from a family of writers. My mom and dad both wrote books, although they were mostly nonfiction. I’ve been making up stories in my head since I was in second grade. In fact, during that year of school I won the first prize for writing the best short story in my class. Something major to brag about, right? I still remember the first line of that story: “Once there was a stallion named Betsy.” I’ve been trying to write with such insightful brilliance ever since.
In college I majored in drama before switching to journalism (after I’d fulfilled all the required drama classes). I loved creating characters on the stage. Now I’m creating them on the page. My education in acting proved extremely helpful in my characterization for novels. I automatically used techniques I’d learned in method acting, tweaking them for best use in writing fiction. After awhile it occurred to me that other novelists didn’t know these techniques. So I ended up writing Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors. It’s a great thing to hear from other novelists how much that book has helped them with characterization, dialogue, and story structure.
Is there such a world? :]
I hang out with family. I jog. In the summer, go boating or travel. Take care of our house and property. We have a big home, and it’s on eleven acres in the forest on a lake, so there’s always plenty of work to do, inside and out.
We also enjoy entertaining. Our place is a lovely property to share with others. When we first bought it, we walked the grounds and through the house, praying God’s blessings over every room in the house and all the property. We asked that He’d allow us to use it for others. And He’s given us some great opportunities to do that. One of those opportunities is the author retreat I host every year. For four days every July a group of 11 authors (many of whose names you would know) come to the retreat to “Plot, play and pray.” We help plot each others’ next books, pray together, and laugh a lot. It’s become a highlight of the year in these authors’ lives, and a way to help recharge us all so we can return to our individual writing ministries.
When I was first learning how to write fiction in the early 90s, I learned a lot about plot and POV (point of view) from legal suspense author Richard North Patterson. I also devoured every book by Anne Rivers Siddons, who writes contemporary novels, many of them set in the South. She taught me a lot about characterization. And I love her vocabulary! She knows a lot of unusual words and isn’t afraid to use them. (My editors tend to fight me when I want to do that.)
Something else, though. When I was seriously studying how to write fiction (it took me a decade of self-study to finally sell a novel), I’d go to matinee movies while the kids were in school. In two hours I could study plot structure, symbolism, dialogue, setting, and on and on. I’d notice everything—the music, even the font the credits are in. All these things effect the mood, the aura, of the movie. Then I’d think, “How can I translate that onto the written page?” Movies still teach me a lot as I continue to learn more and more about writing fiction.
As a reader, I read widely and in various genres in both the secular and Christian markets.
What are the challenges/benefits of incorporating faith into your story?
Well, the benefits are glorious! I get to help change people’s lives. How can any secular author possibly top receiving letters that say such things as, “I’ve become a Christian because of your book,” “I’ve learned how to pray through reading your novel,” “I’ve patched up a long-broken relationship I thought could never be healed after reading your book” …? I’ve received so many heart-rending letters. I can only be grateful to God for allowing me to take part in these people’s lives in such a way.
As for challenges of incorporating faith, here’s my philosophy. I’m not a preacher, I’m an entertainer. My job is to keep a reader turning pages. If I fail to keep him/her interested in the story, that reader will put down the book—for good. I could have a tremendous Christian lesson within the story—but it wouldn’t be seen if the reader stops at page 30. As a result, I never sit down to write a Christian novel. I sit down to write the best, heart-thumping, gripping suspense I can. I don’t even think about a Christian message. But as I write, that message will come through. Sometimes the message is pretty subtle. Sometimes it’s much stronger. It must grow intrinsically out of the protagonist’s struggle, her experience and current trauma. It must feel natural to the story. As long as the faith element does this, those readers who want to pick up on it will do so. My nonChristian readers, who read purely for the suspense, will also see it and not feel preached at. Because it’s not tacked on. It’s a necessary part of the protagonist’s growth.
There are always readers on one end of the spectrum or the other who won’t agree with the amount of the faith element in my novels. With the same novel, I’ve had readers say “too much” and others complain “too little.” These complaints are a very small percentage, however. Most readers see the faith element in my books as natural and right for that particular character.
Gone to Ground is one of my novels with a more subtle faith message. But it’s certainly there. Most everyone in this story, including the three protagonists, indulge in some level of hypocrisy. Cherrie Mae, a wonderful Christian woman, runs her own house-cleaning business. She’d never steal from anyone and is a praying woman. But she does tend to snoop around the houses she cleans, and she knows she’d lose customers if they found her out. Tully is a young woman married to an abusive husband, but she must hide that fact from everyone. She’s too ashamed, and too afraid of proving her parents right (they didn’t like the guy to begin with) to tell the truth and save herself. Deena strongly suspects her younger brother is the town’s serial killer, but she can’t give him up to police. Supporting characters have their own hypocrisies. And many of them are supposedly Christian. The question for the reader becomes: what hypocrisy has crept into your own life?
Cherrie Mae, who loves to spout quotes from classic literature, says this quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost at the end of Gone to Ground: “Neither man nor angel can discern hypocrisy, the only evil that walks invisible except to God alone.” That’s a wonderful summation of the faith element in the book.
Brandilyn Collins is a multi-award winning novelist and writing teacher. Her novel Over the Edge, nominated in 2011 for an Inspy, centers on Lyme Disease, of which Ms. Collins has her own healing testimony. Brandilyn can be found at BrandilynCollins.com