Books·Magic 8 Q&A

The secret to a successful story for novelist Nicole Lundrigan? 'Love, authenticity and (a bit of) madness.'

The author of The Substitute answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Nicole Lundrigan is the author of The Substitute. (Anna Lena Seemann)

In Nicole Lundrigan's chilling psychological thriller The Substitute, a middle school student is found dead in her science teacher's backyard. Narrated by an anonymous psychopath, the story unravels as a small community closes in around the man presumed guilty.

Lundrigan is also the author of Glass Boys and The Widow Tree. We asked her to take the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answer eight randomly selected questions from eight fellow writers.

1. Grace O'Connell asks, "Did you celebrate your first big writing success, and if so, what was the success and how did you celebrate?"

I can't recall ever celebrating any writing success. When I finish a manuscript, I generally have a mix of relief and dread — relief that I'm done and dread that I might make myself go through that process again. Book launches are supposed to be celebratory, I suppose, but I've never relaxed enough to enjoy one. I was actually thinking about this recently — how I never celebrate or feel proud of myself once something is completed. I put it away and move on. I should learn to take a moment and acknowledge an accomplishment.

2. Jillian Tamaki asks, "What do you wish was different about your workspace and how do you adapt?"

I've never had a legitimate writing workspace. In my house there's an office, but I rarely go in there. I wrote much of The Substitute in a library in Markham. I've written sitting on the floor, on the bed and in a very cold parked car. I'm currently writing at the dining room table. Lately I've been wishing for a space, as I'd like to stick notes on a wall instead of trying to juggle everything inside my head.

3. Emil Sher asks, "What three words would you use to describe what makes a great story great?"

Love, authenticity and (a bit of) madness.

4. Chevy Stevens asks, "Do you ever read your reviews? Do you learn anything from them?"

Yes, I read my reviews and it's always a strange experience. Thankfully the good ones outweigh the bad ones. I've also gotten much better at handling them as I used to get really down with any negative comment. If a reviewer offers constructive criticism, I try to understand what the issue was, and how/if I can improve. I'm always open to learning and growing, while at the same time I acknowledge not everyone is going to connect with a book.

5. Ivan Coyote asks, "What is one story that is rattling ghosts around in your head, but for whatever reason, you haven't tackled it yet?"

Once I heard about this app or program where you can record messages or texts that are delivered after you die. Before I started writing my next book, I thought about that for quite a while. A friend would have the password and let the program know you've died, and the timed messages would be activated. What if the dead person had secrets he/she didn't want to take with them? This has all kinds of possibilities for a psychological thriller. I've never written in a timeframe where technology played a major role in the storyline, so the thought of writing about this was daunting for me. It still rattles around in my mind, though.

6. Padma Viswanathan asks, "How do others' books figure in your own writing or process?"

I always find this to be the hardest sort of question, as I don't understand my writing process and I try not to think about it. In general I like to read mystery/crime books, but I also enjoy character-driven novels. For many years I've read a lot of children's books out loud and I read a great deal of nonfiction. I'm sure all of this figures into my writing and my process, though I'm not sure how.

7. Russell Wangersky asks, "Which do you like better? The heady rush of the first draft or the controlled precision of the edits and re-edits? Why?"

No "heady rush" here. For me, I prefer editing, hands down. Writing the first draft is always like pulling teeth. But once there's something on the page/laptop, I can add and take away and move things around until it feels right. Sometimes that's even fun.

8. Louise Penny asks, "What themes re-occur in your books that you need to explore?"

I've noticed certain themes come up again and again: vulnerability, isolation, detachment and loneliness. In my books, people often hide their true natures (for deceptive reasons or self-preservation), and there tends to be a lot of ugly stuff going on. I'm mostly interested in exploring human disconnect in the lives of everyday people with small towns as the setting.


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