Writing About the Light: A Conversation with Thriller Writer Elizabeth Splaine
Photo courtesy of the author
Elizabeth Splaine has lived a lot of lives. Healthcare executive. Parent. Opera singer. And now thriller writer. Splaine is also more than those things. She is a seeker of truths, a believer in spirit, and a voice for kindness and compassion. It is Splaine’s effort to integrate these elements of her life into a singular story about death, grief and forgiveness, that has culminated in her deft and twisty new novel Devil’s Grace. Full disclosure, I’ve been working with Splaine to bring this book out into the world. And I’ve been honored to do so. When I read the cold opening (which closes with gun in hand), I immediately wanted to read more, know more and follow the story wherever it wanted to take me. That the journey was so unexpected is a tribute to Splaine’s lyrical writing and our collective need for both escape and the opportunity to focus on something, anything positive. Devil’s Grace provides one with all of that, which was one of the many reasons I was excited to talk to Splaine about the book and the many lives she leads (and has led).
There's always an origin story behind the genesis of any work, but I find the story behind Devil's Grace especially interesting and I'd like to kick this off with that story.
I was happily working on completing my second book when a longtime friend named Michele texted me, asking how my writing was going. Although she had asked me about my writing in the past, she had never texted specifically asking about it. So I immediately called.
"You're supposed to be writing about the light."
I always have to pause here and tell my listener (reader) that Michele communicates regularly with those who have passed. And by regularly I mean she has two gentlemen with whom she has regular conversations. So her statement, "You're supposed to be writing about the light" was not said lightly.
I paused. "What does that mean?"
"I don't know, but that's the directive."
I told her that I was completing the second in a series of stories and that I would take up "the light" (whatever that meant) when I was done. "No. You're supposed to do it now," she answered.
Can you picture it? You've spent months writing a novel and then someone contacts you out of the blue and tells you to drop it so that you can write about something you don't understand. Priceless. Anyhow, I mumbled, "Okay," and then told her about two stories that my husband, who works in healthcare administration, had told me. Both stories had actually happened and he had urged me to write about them, but I didn't feel there was enough meat to write an entire novel.
After telling Michele the two stories, a thought struck. "Maybe I could combine the two tales to make a book?"
She laughed. "Yes. They're saying that's it. That's the Light."
Now, dear listener (reader), please take note of the change from a small l to a capital L in the word Light. Both of my husband's stories involved tragedy, which could have been met with anger and lawsuits, but instead were met with kindness and forgiveness. That's the Light. I hung up the phone and wrote the prologue to Devil's Grace that day, and continued to write over the ensuing weeks.
I stumbled into a writing competition when Devil's Grace was only 14,000 words long. When Steve Eisner, the CEO of the When Words Count competition asked me over the phone what the name of the book was, I panicked. I hadn't yet named the book. "Devil's Grace," I said. Steve thought it was a great name, to which I responded, "It is, isn't it?" I was as surprised as he was.
I managed to finish writing the book and entered it into the competition. The day of the actual presentations I woke up with a migraine and decided to go for a run. As I was passing over a brook I stopped, looked up to the sky, and said aloud, "You know, I could really use some help down here. Any advice would be welcomed." At that point I felt like someone slipped a piece of paper into the left side of my head. On the paper it said, "Stay the course." I felt like I had been struck. The sensation was so vivid. I looked to the sky again and smiled, said "Thanks" and completed my run. When I arrived back at the inn where the competitors were housed, I texted Michele. "Had a rough day yesterday and actual competition starts today. Any advice from the guys would be welcomed." Within thirty seconds she responded, "This is what I hear from our friends "Stay the course." My breath expelled quickly and I felt the room spin, but I knew I was going to rock my presentations.
I was on the phone with Michele the other day, worrying about the book's virtual launch. She asked me why I was cranky and I said, "I don't want to do a whole hour just about me." She smiled and said, "Honey, this isn't about you. It's about the Light and getting the word out there You are a pinpoint of light in a crowded world." I relaxed and realized that she's right. There has never been a more opportune time for the tenets of the Light to get out there. Kindness, compassion, empathy, patience, forgiveness, love. Devil's Grace is much bigger than me. I think I was simply the vessel through which the words flowed.
Now I really want to talk about forgiveness, which we will, but first please tell us more about what Devil's Grace is ultimately about and what you're hoping to tell the world with its publication.
"Sometimes it's only when the devil visits us that we can find the grace and humility to forgive. Not because of him, but in spite of him." Jim Barckett, Angela's father in Devil's Grace.
Often we are sculpted by our surroundings or our circumstances. What do we become if all of that is stripped away? What are we left with? All of us are many things to many people, but our thoughts and actions when we're alone or when we're faced with adversity ultimately describe who we are and what we believe. Devil's Grace is about looking inside in an effort to find your true self. Angela loses everything and is shocked to find a version of herself she didn't know existed. A patient, kind, forgiving, empathetic soul surfaces within the body of an emotionally ravaged woman. Would those characteristics have emerged if the "devil" hadn't visited her?
Throughout the twists and turns of Devil's Grace, the most surprising thing that happens is that Angela forgives those who have wronged her. She offers kindness to those whom she could very easily (and acceptably in society's eyes) blame. She repeatedly chooses love over hate, but the most fascinating thing is that she doesn't know why. As she travels her broken path, she begins to understand that everything that has happened is guiding her to a new consciousness that allows her to feel and experience more deeply than ever before. And that new awareness fosters an inner peace that glows and provides light to the world.
As the reader puts herself in Angela's shoes, I'm hoping that she'll reach inside to find her own Light. She is but one tiny spark among billions of people. But what if more people chose to find their inner Lights? What if they chose, as Angela does, light over darkness, love over hate, kindness over cruelty? What could we accomplish as a people, a town, a state, a country, a planet? I hope that the principles in Devil's Grace stay with the reader, haunt her, challenge her to find her own best self. It's a tall order for one book, but it only takes one thought that leads to one action that positively influences others to change the world.
So many questions, however, I want to ask you about this sense that you are merely the vessel through which the words flowed. Is that how you think about writing and writers in general, vessels for ideas that come from the ether, and if so, how does that work, and what makes writers, well... writers, and not something else?
I would never assume to know how other writers find or construct their stories, I can speak only for me. And I have held numerous roles prior to starting my writing career, so I think writers can be many things at the same time (as long as they allow themselves the necessary time to write.) At times my fingers fly across the keyboard in an attempt to keep up with the thoughts that beg to be put down on paper. In those moments it does seem like the ideas come from elsewhere and I am simply the vessel through which they flow. At other times I sit at the keyboard and struggle to find the correct word to convey a thought. Early in her career J.K. Rowling spoke about how Harry Potter and his stories came to her fully formed. Where did they come from? I don't know. Apparently she doesn't know either. All I can tell you is that I wish to be a point of Light in the world. And if writing Devil's Grace aids in that endeavor, then I'm happy.
Let's come at this from another angle. What was it about telling this story in the form of a medical thriller that appealed to you? Also, what components do you feel are necessary for crafting a proper thriller?
The two stories my husband told me were based in healthcare, so weaving them together using my own 11-year healthcare administration career made sense. It’s a world I’m familiar with so it’s relatively easy to write about. Plus, I could always turn to my husband if I had questions (which I did.) As for the actual medical scenes, open heart surgery for example, I did a lot of web research, and then after writing the scene I asked two physicians to read it and correct as necessary. I’m very grateful for their time and expertise!
The other thing about medical thrillers is that they are accessible to everyone. Our bodies (and minds) are vulnerable and are the least common denominator for us as humans. Not everyone can relate to reading a courtroom scene because they’ve not been in the situation. But every person can put themselves in the shoes of someone who has been affected by a healthcare problem. The reader can envision herself sitting in a waiting room or on an exam table. She can then imagine something going wrong. Once she can see that in her mind’s eye, she will identify with the main character and become invested in her outcome. And that’s the most important factor in writing a thriller. Obviously there needs to be enough action and hooks (drama) to keep the reader’s attention, but having the reader identify emotionally with the characters is what will ensure the reader keeps reading. Characters need to be real enough and accessible enough to be attractive to the reader. A reader doesn’t have to “like” the character but she needs to be able to identify with her in some way. Also, the main character needs to evolve throughout the story. The twists and turns need to alter her consciousness and affect her behavior. Otherwise she remains one dimensional and, consequently, unbelievable and un-relatable. Devil's Grace is a thriller in that there are twists and turns, but it's also a mystery as Angela seeks to understand why her daughter died. And of course, when the spiritual/metaphysical enters, it turns again and becomes even more thrilling, but in a different way.
And now I want to ask you about the spiritual/metaphysical elements of the book. You've spoken to inner peace and providing light to the world in earlier answers and I'm wondering why bringing a spiritual element to this work was important to you? I'm also curious how you got into the proper headspace to write about it?
According to a 2018 Groupon poll, 62% of Americans believe in life after death and I'm one of them. So as I wrote, I put myself in Angela's head. It's easy to imagine that, if one physically lost her family, she would seek alternative ways to communicate with them and feel their presence. Once you enter that headspace, all sorts of options open up to a writer...seeing the dead, feeling them, hearing them.
I've been spiritual my entire life, even when I was too young to understand what they meant. I grew up hearing stories of my maternal great grandmother, who was a registered psychic, and the gypsies she allowed to camp on her property in Missouri. I even experienced her abilities myself when we were visiting.
Even with all of that as background, when I was writing Devil's Grace, I paused before diving into the first "ghost" scene in the book, because I realized that I was crossing a line into another genre, another shelf in the bookstore, one to which many people do not subscribe. The potential of losing readers was outweighed by the power of the story waiting to be written. And once the floodgates were opened, a torrent of letters flew onto the page and resulted in the rest of the book. The writing came easily then, as if the thoughts had been waiting a long time to be put on paper.
It's easy for me to imagine that we all have guardians looking out for us. Think about the thought that pops into your head that you ignore, only to regret it five minutes later. Was the thought coincidence or was it an angel trying to offer helpful advice? In Devil's Grace, Angela's father asks her if she believes in God and says that she doesn't know. Then he asks her another question, "Would it help you to believe?"
What is faith but a thought process that empowers us to be our best selves? Faith gives us power to move proverbial mountains. Faith in however-you-define-the-beyond, as well as faith in each other and ourselves. I say we should all believe whatever we want to believe, as long as it moves humanity and our country to a more positive, hopeful place.
So, speaking of the country, and the state of the world in general, we know faith can play a role in seeking positivity, and so can books. Please talk about the importance of books for the world right now, especially thrillers and crime novels.
Books have always been relevant, but as we are all spending more time at home these days, they have become an escape, an outlet for the imagination to soar away on a mini-vacation. Thrillers and crime novels allow the reader to bury herself into another world in which she can feel titillated, yet safe. These genres are almost a type of voyeurism, much like staring at an accident as you drive by. You know you shouldn't but you always do.
One of the interesting parts of your story is that you're a creative who's moved from one art form - opera singer - to another - writer - and I'm interested in where you see similarities (and differences) between these forms and how those years of training and performing prepared you for this new career.
I love this question because there are soooo many similarities. First off, I used to work on a new aria (or role) for months in preparation. The same attention to detail is paid to my manuscripts. As singing is born of the singer, so, too, is a novel born of a writer. It is a precious thing that deserves special care and attention before it is released into the world. And once it's out there, you can't undo any of it, so it better be the best you can do at the time.
I'm finding the business side of writing jibes with the business side of music too. There are companies (music and publishing) that are more organized than others and there are people who are more detailed than others. It's all good. The writer/singer needs to find what works for her. Similarly, one can sing at various levels (locally, regionally, nationally, internationally) and a writer faces the same challenge. If she self-publishes, how does she get the book past the local level? The arts are creative, but the artists need to understand that there is a business side that allows the artists to create. Both sides need to respect each other and honor each other's timelines. I have very little patience with artists who feel they're above the monetary details that allow them the freedom to create. When auditioning, a singer is lucky to earn one out of every ten roles auditioned for. Those odds are higher than in the publishing industry, but no less daunting. When you sing, you're pouring your heart out publicly. You're literally being judged in real time. Judges sometimes barely look at you as they write their opinions on paper you'll never see. In writing, the writer sees only the positive and negative criticism the reader wants her to see via reviews. It is less direct, but no less powerful. In both professions, one needs to develop a thick skin. In both professions, one needs to listen to constructive criticism and make every effort to improve while not shattering the sometimes fragile egos that live inside our creative brains.
I'd love for you to take another beat on the "business side" of things, but come at it from a different angle: in making the leap to a mid-size press with Devil's Grace, what has surprised you most about the business side of the publishing business? Also, what advice would you give authors as they try to grow their careers as you have?
One thing that shocked me was how much the publishers truly care about their authors. I felt like my book and I were valuable to them, not just because of the money that might come in, but because of the positive message that Devil's Grace communicates. I also was surprised that I was responsible for ensuring the final editing of the book. My editors were great but we are all human and mistakes get made. The book has gone to press with a couple of small editing errors...a space where there shouldn't be or vice versa. My perfectionist personality doesn't like that, but like everything else in life, my book will not be anything close to perfect. And that is okay. Will I correct the errors in future printing runs? Of course. But I am proud of Devil's Grace and can't wait until it's out in the world.
As for advice to aspiring authors, I'd say this: never accept no for an answer. A rejection is simply a delayed acceptance somewhere else. Easier said than done, so develop a thick skin. If you're getting rejected to the point where it's affecting your confidence and ego, then switch tacks and try a different course: enter your book in a contest, send in a chapter to a local newspaper or magazine to see if you can print it that way, attend conferences. Publish it yourself and then spend money on marketing if you can. Also, listen to your beta readers and your editors. You don't have to take their suggestions, but truly listen to what they have to say. My general rule of thumb is that if two people make the same comment or recommendation, then I address the issue to which they're referencing.
Finally, what have I failed to ask you, or what else do you want to be sure and share? Thanks!
I am humbled and so grateful to have written Devil's Grace because of the positive message it will offer to whomever reads it. Sometimes it's a challenge to accept that we are where we are supposed to be when we sit in a dark place. But then the light comes...and I don't think we'd realize how bright our Light is if we hadn't experienced some darkness first.
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