Books·Magic 8 Q&A

What's the biggest writing lesson crime writer Amy Stuart ever learned?

Amy Stuart, author of the new thriller Still Water, answers 8 questions from 8 fellow writers.
Still Water is Amy Stuart's second novel. (Simon & Schuster/Paige Lindsey)

In Amy Stuart's latest thriller, Still Water, Clare is dispatched to a mysterious town called High River where women run to escape their pasts. Clare poses as a long-lost friend to resident Sally Proulx, who has gone missing along with her son. While investigating their disappearance, Clare learns that virtually everyone in High River has their secrets, including Malcolm, the man who hired her.

Still Water is an unofficial sequel to Stuart's bestselling novel Still MineBelow, Stuart takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Chevy Stevens asks, "Is there another genre or style of book you would like to write? Why haven't you?"

My middle son, Joey, really wants me to try my hand at comic books; but given I can't draw to save my life, I should probably leave that to the experts. One day I'd like to try my hand at a comedic novel, though. My books tend to be dark but I like to think I'm pretty funny in real life. Could I translate that to the page? Not sure. I imagine writing funny might be harder than writing anything else.

2. Susin Nielsen asks, "Do you ever get fan-girl/fan-boy-ish when you meet an author whose work you admire?"

All the time! I was over 40 when my first book hit the shelves, so it's always a thrill for me to attend festivals and events alongside writers I've been reading for years. My first real fan-girl incident was as part of a lineup with Yann Martel at the Ben McNally Books and Brunch. At one point I looked across the table and he was thumbing through a copy of my book. I got woozy at the sight of it. A Man Booker Prize-winning writer checking out my novel? It was too much to take. After the event was over we took a group photo and I'm pretty sure I elbowed the other writers out of the way so I could be beside him in the shot. He was very gracious.

3. Canisia Lubrin asks, "What do you know now that would have greatly aided you when you first started writing?"

I wish I'd known that writing is editing. The first draft, at least for me, is only the very beginning of a much longer and more difficult process than I'd ever realized when I started. I wish I'd known not to worry too much about the intricacies of each sentence in early drafts, because the odds of any given sentence ending up in the trash bin are high.

4. K.A. Tucker asks, "How concerning would your Google search history be to law enforcement?"

Let's just say I don't Google research questions when I'm at work! I was recently reading about a case where law enforcement used browser searches like "how to hide a dead body" against a couple charged with murder, which makes sense. But my first thought was that the defense should have just claimed that one of them was writing a thriller.

5. Robert Rotenberg asks, "On average, how many times do you rewrite your first sentence, first paragraph, first page, first chapter?"

I've been lucky that I've rewritten my first sentences remarkably very little. The last sentence, on the other hand, has always been a struggle. As a reader, the moment I close a finished book is more powerful than the moment I open one to start; my own endings plague me as a result.

6. Ausma Zehanat Khan asks, "At what point in your career do you believe you will have accomplished what you set out to do as a writer? How will you know?"

I think the curse (and blessing, maybe) of being a writer is that the target is always moving. There are infinite ways to tell a story or to string a sentence together, and while it's exhausting to think about it, part of me hopes I'm still setting goals and planning stories when I'm old and grey. To make it all feel manageable I try to measure my sense of accomplishment with each finished project instead of looking ahead to the millions of words I've yet to write.

7. Rajiv Surendra asks, "Is there a book that you wish you had never read? Explain. Please. Thanks."

I've never finished a book I regretted reading. I'm not afraid to put something down partway through if I feel it would be better to move onto something else. There are, however, hundreds and hundreds of books I regret having not yet read. The pile gets higher as the hours and years get fewer.

8. Larry Tremblay asks, "Do you believe that knowing too much about a character can damage his or her creation?"

I know a lot of writers who draw up full character profiles before they start a novel. They'll complete charts with likes and dislikes, physical descriptors, habits good and bad. I tried to do that earlier in my career, but it never worked; I always ended up veering so far away from that original outline. Now I treat the writing process as a blooming relationship with my characters. By the end of the first draft I know them reasonably well, but it still takes me several more rounds before they feel full and real to me. Even then they still have secrets up their sleeves.