#312 – Becoming a Best-selling Thriller Author with Amy Stuart

In this episode, we spoke to Amy Stuart, author of A Death at the Party, out today – get your copy now! A Death at the Party is a thriller that takes place over the course of one day as one woman’s plans for a party go terribly wrong, and has been aptly described as “Mrs.

In this episode, we spoke to Amy Stuart, author of A Death at the Party, out today – get your copy now! A Death at the Party is a thriller that takes place over the course of one day as one woman’s plans for a party go terribly wrong, and has been aptly described as “Mrs. Dalloway with a suspense engine of Lisa Jewell!” We were very excited with this title, and are sure you will be, too.

Amy discusses her new release, her path to writing, her experience being a teacher, getting an MFA, and working as a writing instructor, details the interesting framework of her murder mystery-thriller novel, gets into the cast of characters, and regales us with some amazing writing advice! Oh, and of course, we hear a little bit about her experience coaching youth hockey here in the Greater Toronto Area. Amy has some great insights and awesome advice to offer as mentioned, so whether you’re a seasoned writer with a big backlist of mysteries and thrillers or an aspiring author ready to get started, don’t miss this episode.

In this episode:

  • Amy talks about her journey to writing, and how she became a published author
  • We hear more about her teaching career as a high school English teacher and guidance counsellor and her experience completing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia
  • Amy tells us about the Muskoka Novel Marathon, and how this writing event helped her get started on her best-selling novel series
  • Amy gets into the premise of her latest novel, A Death at the Party, and how she got the idea for this book – spoiler-free, we promise!
  • We ask about the framing for this novel, the similarities between her structuring and the framing of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and what inspired her to have such an interesting structure for a murder mystery
  • We get some interesting details about the cast of characters in the novel, particular about Nadine, the main character
  • Amy gives some great writing advice for aspiring writers, writers working on their first drafts, and how to think realistically about your writing practice
  • And much more!

Useful Links

Amy’s website

Amy on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook

A Death at the Party

Amy’s books on Kobo

Mentioned in this episode:

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

Amy Stuart’s fourth novel — A Death at the Party — is forthcoming spring 2023. She is the #1 bestselling author of three linked novels — Still Mine, Still Water and Still Here, which have been optioned for television by Lark/NBC Universal.

In 2012, Amy completed her MFA in Creative Writing through the University of British Columbia. She worked for many years as a high school educator with the bulk of her career spent teaching guidance and English in downtown alternative high schools.

Amy’s other love is ice hockey. She is one of only four women head coaches in the GTHL, the world’s largest youth competitive hockey league. She was born in Toronto, where she still lives with her husband and their three sons. They also spend much of their time on Prince Edward Island, where Amy’s family is originally from.

Author photo © Joey Stuart

Episode Transcript

Transcription by www.speechpad.com

Laura: Hey writers, you are listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts, I’m Laura Granger, author engagement manager.

Rachel: And I’m Rachel, the promotion specialist at Kobo Writing Life.

Laura: Today we spoke to the number one bestselling author, Amy Stuart. Amy is the author of four novels and has been shortlisted for the author Best First Novel Award and was the winner of the 2011 Writers Union of Canada Short Prose Competition. Amy lives in Toronto with her husband and their three sons.

Rachel: We had a wonderful conversation with Amy about her journey to becoming a writer and her writing process. Amy started writing her first novel during the Muskoka Novel Marathon, which is like a condensed version of NaNoWriMo, and we talked about that experience. And then we really dug into her newest release, “A Death at the Party,” which comes out today, March 7th. Amy talked to us about the idea of this novel and really got into pacing and how important the editorial process was in finding such a compelling pacing in this novel. And Amy gives some great advice for taking editorial critique for writers. We had, like I said, a great conversation and I really hope you enjoy it. All right, today we are joined by bestselling author Amy Stuart. Amy, thank you so much for taking the time to sit with us today.

Amy: Thank you so much for having me.

Rachel: To kick things off, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Amy: Yes. I am a writer, as you said. I’m an author from Toronto. I have three books published and a fourth incoming in March. And well, I have three boys, three sons. They’re 11, 13 and 15. And I’m a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan and a hockey coach. I think one of maybe the most interesting tidbits about me is that I’m one of only, I think it’s right now, two female head coaches in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. So, lots of hockey in my life, lots of writing, lots of books,

Rachel: Hockey and books are two things that I can relate to. Did you always know you wanted to venture into the world of writing?

Amy: Yes. I mean, the short answer is yes. You know, recently we moved a few years ago, so I was going through boxes full of stuff and I found short stories that I’d written like in grade four and they’re, you know, seven or eight pages long. I was one of the editors of the school newspaper when I was in high school. I kept writing in university, but I always had this very practical side too that I sort of attribute to, you know, the way that I grew up. My parents were very sort of hardworking, practical people. They still are. And you know, the idea of something as kind of unstable or unstructured as a writing life seemed kind of like impossible to me. Like, I couldn’t imagine what it would look like. So, my other sort of passion and interest was teaching. So, I went to teachers’ college in my mid to late 20s and settled into a teaching career that I’m still sort of doing in a different capacity now. So, writing’s always been there. But I think, you know, in my early 20 when you’re sort of making those decisions, I was maybe a little bit too practical to say, “I’m just gonna try to make a living at this.”

Rachel: I understand that like desire for a practical course for a career. Can I ask what you teach/taught?

Amy: Yes. So, I was a high school English teacher and guidance counselor in the Toronto District School board, like a public high school teacher for many years, like almost 20. But when my first book was published in 2016, I was essentially working 2 full-time jobs with 3 kids and it just became a little bit unsustainable so I had to off-ramp out. And what was interesting is, you know, people often say, you know, with their career, “If I won the lottery, I’d quit my job the next day.” And like, I was really surprised when I off-ramped from teaching how much I missed it because it’s such a deeply social and absorbing and inspiring. But also just, you know, you kind of get lost in it and you’re interacting like, you know, contrary to popular belief, teenagers are pretty great and you know, I really loved spending time with them. And so now, I’m a part-time professor instructor at Sheridan College teaching creative writing and really, that’s like sort of the perfect happy medium where I still get to do that but it’s a little bit less time-consuming, which gives me more time that I need for my writing life.

Rachel: I can only imagine how difficult it must have been balancing being an author and going through the process of publishing your first book matched with being an English teacher because of the amount of non-on-the-clock work that English teachers have to do, reading so many essays, that’s impressive, to be frank.

Amy: Yeah. And it’s like, you know, I think we all have compartments to our brain where, you know, you can feel full in one compartment like, “Now I can, you know, go watch a movie or play a game or go out and talk for hours with my friends.” But your creative compartment can be sort of drained. And I really found that reading essays or stories written by students and evaluating them and assessing and editing was using the same part of my brain that I need for my own work. And so then, you know, you try to do it yourself when you get home or early in the morning and you’re depleted. I certainly didn’t wanna sacrifice my own writing life, but I also don’t wanna be sort of pulling the throttle back and teaching. Like, you have to give it your all or else, you know, the students aren’t getting what they need from you. So, it was basically impossible. Like, something had to give. So, I’m just happy that I was able to figure something out to be able to keep doing it.

Laura: So, when we were prepping for this interview, we saw something pretty cool. So, you wrote your first novel during the Muskoka Novel Marathon. So, can you tell us a little bit about what that experience was like?

Amy: Yeah, so that’s actually still happening. I think it’s probably coming on like close to 20 years. The Muskoka Novel Marathon is a fundraiser that’s held in Muskoka, specifically Huntsville, Ontario. And they raise money for literacy initiatives through the YMCA by gathering a group of writers over a single weekend in a space. So, what it used to be like at a library or at a conference room or something, and literally some people, I couldn’t, stay in the space the entire time, like sleep on the floor. And you write as much as you can of a novel in it’s like Friday night to Monday morning kinda thing. So, by comparison to some of my peers there, I was a slowpoke, but even as a slowpoke I managed to write 50 pages over the course of the weekend. I believe it was 2010. Which was maybe my third time doing it.

But my submission was a variation of the first 50 pages of what became still mine and it won the fiction category. So it’s judged and then the winner gets like a sort of mentorship with an editor. And through the mentorship, they were super supportive of me continuing and you know, you’re onto something here. So, that really was the launching pad and so it still runs every year and I think because of COVID, they’ve now added like an online where you can join in online. They did it online for a few years and then now I think they are back to having some kind of in-person component. But if you really wanna sort of kickstart something, it’s such a great way to do that and it’s for such a good cause. They’ve raised so much money over the years for the literacy program up there. So, yeah, it was a great experience.

Laura: That’s really cool. And when you were writing that first part of it, did you always envision that it was going to be a series?

Amy: I don’t think so at the very beginning, but I remember getting at some point in the first book realizing that Claire, who’s the main character in my first three novels, which is a series. I call it like a link, they’re like linked because you can read them independently but probably the ideal thing would be to read them in order. But I think it was maybe around page 100 that I thought, “Okay, she’s got her own arc.” Like, this novel has an arc, a storyline that’ll finish over the course of the 300-ish pages. But this character, Claire, she has her own arc that I recognized I would not be able to wrap up over the course of a single book. So, then that’s when the idea of a series sort of presented itself. And then once it got to the stage where I was interacting with publishers, everyone sort of agreed that it would probably be three books and that’s what it ended up being.

Rachel: I’m really curious about how this Muskoka marathon works. Now, we’re really familiar with NaNoWriMo in these parts, we do it every year.

Amy: Yes. It’s totally the same.

Rachel: So, do you go in with a lot of prep done, like kind of a little bit of plotting?

Amy: I think the limit is one page, you’re like aligning.

Rachel: Interesting.

Amy: So, you have to start a new project and you’re allowed to have one page. And when I was doing it, I think the first time I did it was like 2006, it must have been because I didn’t have any kids. And it was like you brought in one page. And you know, remember when you would study for math tests in high school and you would have these like…and they’d say you can bring in a cheat sheet and you’d have this paper where you needed like a magnifying glass to read what was on it because you’d written so small to cram as much as you could? That was what it was like. That people were doing like size six fonts on this one page so they could maximize their outline material. But I think to some degree in this day and age it’s gonna have to be honor system.

But the gist is it’s a new project and you come in with one page and then you write over the course of the weekend. And some people, so when you’re doing it live, they have this thing where they have a bell on the wall and you ring a bell every time you hit 10 pages. And I’m like, “I can’t even type that fast. And you’re getting up like every 45 minutes to ring that bell.” Even if I was just typing like “all work and no play makes Amy a dull girl,” like over and over again, I couldn’t type that fast. So, some people are super prolific. But like I said, 50 pages, that was when I wrote “Still Mine,” that that was how far I got. That’s wild for a weekend. For me, I mean I don’t know, that’s a lot of writing for me.

Rachel: I recently saw somebody made a cheat sheet. And you know when those old 3D glasses where one is red and one is blue?

Amy: Yes.

Rachel: They had written the entire page in blue and then over it in red. And when you use one side of the 3D glasses, you can only see the blue. And then vice versa. So, if you do…

Amy: That’s very ingenious. Yes.

Rachel: If you do the Muskoka marathon again, there is your hot tip.

Amy: Yes. People are super clever. I never would’ve thought of that. I’m not an outliner. We can talk about that like in a separate thread. But I’m not an outliner, so I would never need that because I would just deviate from whatever I’d written on the outline within the first five pages anyway. So, I don’t need that.

Rachel: So, interesting. Okay. Because I wanna talk to you about your writing process, but specifically with your upcoming release, “A Death at the Party” which comes out March 7th. Can you tell our listeners about this book as spoiler free as possible?

Amy: Yes. So, I had the idea for this book…you know how you sort of have things germinating, like there’s always a couple around? So, this book, I always have the idea of taking like a traditionally structured novel, like a classic. So, in this case, it’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” which is I think like 1925. It’s about 100 years old by Virginia Woolf. And “Mrs. Dalloway” follows a single character, Mrs. Dalloway, over the course of a single day and she’s planning a party. And so, it’s her and she’s having thoughts and she’s remembering, you know, memories of jilted romances between people who are coming to the party and throwing in like sort of the idea of what if that was written by a thriller writer. So, you have to throw in some like a murder, right? Basically, keep it simple, a murder. Yeah. So, that, I mean, and that’s exactly what I did.

So, without any spoilers in the first three pages of the book, we are at the party and Nadine, the main character, is standing over a dead body and saying like, “Uh-oh” basically. And then we rewind to the morning where she’s in her kitchen and she’s getting ready for a party and she’s like, “I have so much to do today, and here’s my list of tasks. I gotta go pick up flowers, I gotta do all this.” And she’s wound up and she’s got a lot on her mind. And you know, there’s a lot going on in her life and a lot of sort of unresolved conflict among the people she loves. And so we, as the reader, know that someone ends up dead and that, you know, she’s standing over their body but she doesn’t know it and we don’t know who it is. So, instead of like being a who done it, it’s more of like a why done it? You know, we know someone ends up dead, why do they end up dead and who is it? And so that was really fun to try to… Because you’re playing with, you know, the idea of almost a reverse mystery where the reader knows more than the character.

Rachel: And it was incredibly fun to read. And I’m not just saying that because you’re on the podcast. Like, it was a blast to read. And I’m so curious about the framing because like you said, the book opens with Nadine standing over a body and you don’t know who, you don’t know why and then it rewinds to what, like 14 hours prior.

Amy: Exactly. Yeah.

Rachel: How did you come up with this framing idea? Was that the first idea, like, “Okay, I wanna start with the murder,” or did you come up with the story first and then establish the …?

Amy: Well, what’s actually interesting is originally, the idea was that she or she was gonna know… Like, that there was a planning element to it. But then once I removed that… Like, my books change a lot, draft to draft. And once I sort of removed that, then in order for the structure to work, the reader has to know at the beginning that someone dies at the party. Or else, you know, because once we go back to the morning, there is, I don’t wanna say a slowness because I do think, I mean I tried, but my editor is a huge help in this process, you know, very cognizant of pacing. But you do slow down, you know, and that’s a necessity too because readers need that sort of shift in pacing where it’s super speedy and then you slow down for a little bit and they can kind of absorb what’s happening.

But in order for the reader to sit with the sort of theme setting that happens in the first 30 or 40 pages, they have to know, right? And there has to be like a built-in curiosity about this person’s world because as I said, the reader knows it’s gonna implode. It’s like when you’re watching a horror movie and the person comes into the kitchen and they’re eating pizza and you’re like, “They’re about to die, right?” And so you’re all tense watching it and then they make some terrible decision like going up the stairs instead of out the front door when they hear the weird noise. And so I think that idea of, there’s almost like a theatrical or a play, a staged element to it where the reader just has more information than the characters. And it was like, I don’t know, I felt like I was challenging myself a little bit and it felt fun to write because it was just really different from anything I’d done before.

Laura: The other thing I really liked about the story was how it focuses on the women in Nadine’s family. So, you have like Nadine herself, her mom, Marilyn, her niece, Margot, and then her daughter Isabelle. So, it’s really all the kinds of different generations. How do you find this family dynamic kind of lends itself to the thriller genre?

Amy: So, I’m just gonna say, and I did this as an homage to them, my mother’s name is Marilyn and I have a niece named Margo but I’m not Nadine, I just have to like, make that very clear. She is not me at all. But, you know, we talk about this too, but naming characters, I always say to the people that I love. If I’m naming a character after you, you can’t be offended if they turn out to be terrible. You have to just feel honored that I’m naming them after you. But I mean, I think that’s been true in all of my books. Like I just find the dynamic with women as the ability to be so deeply complicated while also being loyal in a way that’s really hard to pin down. Like, it’s fierce.

And you know, I think as women… Well, I mean I can only speak to the experience of a… Like, I am a mom. I have a mom. I have sisters. I have nieces and nephews. But the fierceness of how you can love and wanna protect the people around you can be surprising, right? And I think that in all of my books, one of the themes is the idea of a good person and a bad person is a very complex notion. And that we are all capable of doing terrible things if we believe that we’re justified, right? Like if you’re trying to protect somebody or you’re avenging something or whatever, and that’s at the root of most crime. I think very few people are just doing something because they’re inherently evil. So, that concept has always been really interesting to me and especially when it comes to women.

And I also think in this book, the idea that women are supposed to present as calm and poised and dignified even when things are like flying off the rails. Like, we are not allowed to lose our composure no matter what’s happening. You know, even if you were scream crying at a funeral, like people would still be like, “That’s a little excessive.” And you know, so I was sort of, I think in my writing, commenting on that too. I know Nadine uses the word poise a lot, almost as a bit of a weapon, that word.

Rachel: Well, and it was so interesting kind of the juxtaposition of Nadine’s exterior and this like, “I’m going to be the perfect host” kind of against like what was going on in her head. And just what was it like to live in Nadine’s headspace because she slowly kind of begins to unravel throughout the book into like almost a madness of her own making. What was it like to live in that headspace and slowly fall down the rabbit hole with her?

Amy: Well, I think that is exactly what you said, like the idea that we feel obligated to maintain poise and especially like in early… So, most of my early readers are women with the exception of my husband. And whenever I would say like, “Do you think it’s not believable that she retains this poise even when things are going?” And they’re all like, “It’s totally believable, right?” Like our ability to just be like, “No, everything’s fine” when things are going wild internally or in the background, but eventually, that’s gonna have to crack. Although in a lot of ways she does kind of maintain it all the way to the end. Like outwardly, there’s a few people who are privy to her, you know, snapping, but she kind of maintains that sort of veneer of everything being okay and playing with that and sort of trying to calibrate her inner… Because it’s narrated first person. So, we’re getting her thoughts, her internal like, “I hate you all and I’m gonna blow.” And you know, this is like, with say one character, his name is Seymour, she hates him and this sort of absolute venom that she spews at him in her mind. But then externally she’s like, “Okay, then see you at the party.” And that was kind of fun because I think that that… And even in the mother role, you know, that you can have all kinds of intense feelings about your kids that you have to kind of mask because they need you to be steady. So, it was really fun to try to, as I said, calibrate that and figure out how much the reader would accept and how much I, as a writer, sort of believed was possible. Pushing that idea of poise and keeping things together at all costs. Like to its absolute limit.

Laura: It’s almost like Stepford Wives, right? Like…

Amy: Yes, for sure.

Laura: …it is kind of keeping it under the surface and being like the perfect hostess. Because as women, we’re kind of trained to just like you said, poise, like just keep everything calm and you’re kind of responsible for running everything. And then you have Paul who’s kind of like just letting her do everything and just like, “I’ll do the dry cleaning,” and then he can’t even get that done, so…

Amy: Yeah, so that’s her husband. And even with him, like I wasn’t trying to make him like useless, it’s more her perception of him that he’s not helping, which he kind of isn’t. You know, there’s one part where he and the kids are like, “Okay, but the issue here isn’t us not contributing. The issue is your standards, right?” And that’s…

Laura: Expectations for everyone else.

Amy: …part of it, right? Is that if you enter into your relationships with these exceedingly high standards and other people don’t match them, then, you know, how do you balance that? And that’s, I think, you know, especially in marriage and with kids, like that’s a constant question of how do you, where do you meet if one person’s standards are totally different from another? And you know, so I do feel like, I hope that readers can see that Paul’s not like a total deadbeat. Yeah, he’s a bit of a deadbeat for sure. But also it’s like he doesn’t care if the flower arrangements are just so. He’s like, “Put some daisies in a vase, no one’s gonna look at them.” Whereas she’s like, “No, no, no. It has to be like dewy peonies mixed with this and a little bit of like baby’s breath and it has to be perfect.” And so, that’s not him being lazy so much as him not like buying into the exceedingly high standards that she’s set.

Laura: Yeah. And he doesn’t understand almost like the gravity of the party to her and her head.

Amy: No, he doesn’t. And nobody does. That’s the big thing.

Laura: Yeah. Exactly.

Amy: She’s grappling with, you know, if you read the book, you see that there’s this whole backstory to the day and its significance that really, he only knows the true depth of that. You know, it kinda comes out over the course of the book. But yeah. That’s the best part I think with writing is trying to time the way and the pace that you’re dropping the crumbs, right? Like, how much information are you giving the reader at a time and, you know, when do you reveal each little secret? And that’s the best part and the hardest part.

Rachel: I actually wanted to ask you about that and how… Because like you said, this is all first-person narration, so how did you find the balance between what Nadine is experiencing present day and how it would kind of lead into, not necessarily flashbacks, but memories that would drop those crumbs for readers?

Amy: Yes. So, I am getting better at that. I guess because I was a teacher for so long, I can now consider myself a student and I have a fantastic editor at Simon & Schuster, Nita, and she is excellent at sort of…so, is my agent. But Nita and I worked really closely together for a long time and she’s really good at helping me sort of with the accordion of, you know, “Okay, this much is okay here, but now you have to compress here.” But I think over time because we’ve actually worked, this is our fourth book that we’ve done together, I’ve gotten better just by having sort of worked in this apprenticeship relationship where now when I’m writing a scene, I can predict. Okay, she’s had this memory, so now she’s in a cemetery, there’s gonna be backstory, but I’ve got this much leeway in this scene, and then the next scene I have to stay in the present maybe a few little paragraphs here and there of memory. But, you know, you sort of think about it from the reader’s perspective and it’s not like I’m writing, you know, readers won’t like this or readers will. But I do think you get better at figuring out, you know, how to chunk it and how much to give the reader at once a backstory.

Rachel: And just sort of saying on the theme of pacing, like you mentioned, this book takes place over one day. It’s kind of cut into segments, morning, afternoon, and evening. And I don’t want this to sound like flattery, but it never feels like it’s just, it’s dragging, it is moving the entire time. How did you manage that?

Amy: Well, that pacing I think is really an editing thing. So, what I always say to writers, if they’re starting… So right now I’m teaching, you know, a fiction workshop to second and third-year students. So, sort of like, you know, people early in their own writing careers. And the absolute definitive advice that I would always give is, you can’t be precious about your first draft because you are at the beginning when you finish a draft, you are not halfway through and you are certainly not close to the end. You are at the beginning of the process like you have poured the foundation for the house you’re gonna build, but you don’t have a house yet. You have the basis for which it will be built on. And some people write super clean first drafts, I don’t. But generally speaking, the reason that I sort of drive that home is because you have to be able to accept feedback and to really make substantive structural changes to the story.

And pacing is the biggest thing, right? Like, if you’re like precious about… Pacing is all about, you know, if you compare it to you’re sort of slimming something down, like you’re removing excess stuff that doesn’t need to be there. So, let’s say you might write a scene between two characters and it’s four pages long, but then when you revisit it, the dialogue really only needs to be two pages. And I think this is a particularly true of backstory, you can write two pages and then only a paragraph ends up in the book. So, pacing is really about editing and figuring out how to dole out the information and just never luxuriate for too long in, you know, a descriptive passage or a conversation. And that’s not to say you can’t do deep dives or write poetically. You’re still entitled to do all of those things. It doesn’t take away from your ability to sort of hone your craft and try to write as well as you can, but you have to be committed to the pacing element.

Laura: You mentioned before that you don’t really do a lot of plotting before you start writing. So, for the “A Death at the Party,” did you always have like the ending in mind or like, did you always know who the victim was gonna be I guess, did that ever change?

Amy: Yes. Again, it’s like, the short answer is yes. So, with all of the books, I think like I do and I would say if you’re writing a thriller, you’re taking a big risk not knowing the general end when you start. Because what you’re doing when you’re writing a thriller is you’re tangling up a whole bunch of different strings, right? So, it’s good to know what it’s all gonna look like when it’s untangled and it, and I think my understanding of how my books are gonna finish is pretty big. Like, it’s almost like a dreamy, you know, someone’s given me an out-focus picture of a location and I know generally where it is. And then I have to like drive to it and it’s, you know, a meandering path. But I kind of know where I’m going. But I can’t like I said, you know about the Muskoka Novel Marathon like, I could write the most elaborate outline and then I would chuck it out in the first two days. So, there’s no point, I have to just… Eventually, you learn things about yourself as a writer and it’s useful for me to stop along the way and sort of regroup and think, “Okay, what are you doing here? What’s gonna happen to this character?” But I’ll never outline, I think it’s like sort of counterintuitive for me because I’ll just ignore whatever I wrote.

Rachel: So, when you’re building up like you said, the tangled web that you’re going to untangle while writing a thriller without an outline, how does that work in your head? Because like, I don’t think I could write a thriller that makes sense with the most detailed outline. So, I’m just so curious as to how you are able to kinda keep those threads straight throughout the drafting process.

Amy: Okay. So I think like I said, the first draft for me is a total mess. And acknowledging that and then not being precious or having any ego about that and also really recognizing that the structural changes to the first draft are going to be significant. Like on some very fundamental level, the first draft is the story. But the way that I see building, and I guess this is in a way, a form of outlining, is that every draft is like a layer, right? And you’re just layering it. So, my first drafts are sort of like 50,000-word outlines. I mean you could say that because they don’t have a ton of depth. They don’t necessarily…I always, a main character, always. So, in this book, for example, there’s a reporter named Julian and he was not in the first draft and he’s a pretty like, fundamental character to the book. Because I see in the first draft, “Okay, there’s an element of complexity.” I need, you know, secrets to be divulged. I need information to path around and I need a character who can facilitate that. And so, okay, it’s a reporter or a, you know, whatever, who could do that. And then you figure that out and then you layer them in and then they become quite pivotal to the story because there was something missing in that first draft that you needed to address.

And then every draft, Nadine’s thoughts about her family and her grief and her emotional state gets just a little bit more complex and the conversations get a little sharper. And that’s how I see it that I’m writing by layering, like, I don’t think you could even count the number of drafts I do. And it’s not like start at the beginning, draft to the end. Sometimes I spend, you know, two or three months just working on the beginning and then switch to the end. But I see it as layering in like I’m building something kinda piece by piece over time and then you manifest that complexity that way.

Rachel: I love that just like the mental image of layering in all of the threads. I’m using hand gestures here, forgetting this is an audio medium, but once it’s a full story, then kind of cutting it down for pacing. I love that.

Amy: Yeah. And it’s easier to like, in some ways, I think ultimately even though it’s, you know, it’s not a straight line. Ultimately, I get there faster by not trying to, you know, write a strong first draft. Like just being really forgiving with myself and recognizing that it’s very little of the work is done once I’ve got something and then being very receptive to feedback and ideas about how to proceed from there. But that’s now like, it’s taken me four novels to really sort of assertively say like, that is how I write. I hammer out some version of a first draft and then I spend a lot of time layering in the complexity from there.

Rachel: Another element of this book that I really wanted to talk to you about was the setting because Nadine and her family live in this… It reminded Laura and I, we were talking about this before we started recording. It reminded both of us of kind of like Stars Hollow from “Gilmore Girls” meets Wisteria Lane from “Desperate Housewives.” Just like nosy neighbors all up in your business with a very idyllic atmosphere which kind of lends itself to Nadine’s obsession with poise. And I’m just curious, what was the inspiration behind the setting and how did you kind of utilize it to create the atmosphere in the book?

Amy: So, I used to live in a neighborhood in Toronto downtown that I actually think on some level I… So, it was actually more like, you know, the Victorian houses, the downtown and I mean my neighbors were nothing like in this book. But it’s the idea of, you know, you leave your house and you are not going to make it to the corner store or you know, shopper’s drug mart or wherever you’re going without running into somebody. So, you have to be sort of prepared for that. And you know, I actually loved that. Like, I’m not the kinda person who just wants to hide and not be seen and not run into people. But it is this element of people really kind of knowing what’s going on in your life. And I actually find that very comforting to sort of, you know, the idea of people bearing witness to your life and your family and knowing about your kids, but they’re, you know, in a thriller. When you’re writing a thriller, I think the trick is to take things that are part of everyday life and then, you know, twist them.

It’s like if you watch “Stranger Things,” the idea of the upside down where you know you can have this beautiful place, and what’s the dark side? And so the dark side of a friendly, communal, heavy community neighborhood to me is the idea of having no privacy. And if you are doing something illicit, like having an affair or you know, sneaking around or trying to kill somebody, you know, having neighbors peering through your front window is not the best thing.

Rachel: And nosy neighbors could definitely get in the way of a murder plot, 100%

Amy: Yes. Nothing, I’m taking nothing. There’s nothing to see here.

Laura: The book also touches on some darker subject matter. So, we have some generational trauma for sure. Some teen drug use, a couple of other things. How did you balance kind of the compelling thriller vibes with the darker subject matter?

Amy: Well, I think it’s important when you’re taking on a topic that’s touchy or sensitive to try to be too authenticated as best as possible. And you know, I had that in my first few books there was, you know, domestic abuse and I’m very aware you’re not trying to like… I mean fundamentally I guess you are, it is part of your plot, but the idea of that you’re not sort of using it flippantly as a device, that you are sort of trying to understand and avoid moralizing around complicated issues like, you know, drug use or domestic abuse. So, I think that’s a big part of it is for me, having worked in high schools for a long time and interacting with a lot of teenagers who had, you know, big life issues that there’s no sort of moral standing in terms of what might happen to us and the things that we might fall victim to. So, I think for me, that’s important is not to take like a moral stand and to just sort of authenticate them as things that people who have teenagers or people who are existing on a certain plane are dealing with in their everyday lives.

And with the generational trauma, I mean, I think that what we’re witnessing in this book is the main character, Nadine, sort of finally acknowledging that something she experienced and it’s triggered by the day, right? Finally acknowledging something that she experienced as a child, as being traumatic. That even that word, you know, that she herself would never toss that around even though clearly that’s what it was.

Rachel: Stepping aside from “A Death at the Party” and just your writing in general. I’m really curious about your MFA and creative writing because we hear conflicting things about, I don’t wanna say like the value of it because I think the program is really valuable. But I’m wondering if you think MFA programs are really helpful for aspiring writers.

Amy: I think it depends. Like what an MFA program can offer you is, enforced structure, right? An MFA will give you deadlines. It will give you a built-in sort of network of readers. Obviously, you know, officially it sort of adds an assessment or evaluative element to your writing, which is not the right fit. But again, I’m like a teacher by trade, it’s like how I roll. And so, I got into my MFA program at UBC, a fantastic program and it’s optional residency, so you can do it. It’s online basically. And I had like a 4-month-old when I started and I just knew that writing was something that I really wanted to maintain in my life. But with a newborn and, you know, we knew we were gonna have more kids, like it just wasn’t gonna happen if I didn’t have that enforced structure.

And I have memories, especially after my second son was born, of leaving the house. I’d get a babysitter for two hours and leaving the house to go right at the library and then the babysitter would bring my son so I could nurse him and there was just no way that I was gonna do that if I didn’t have those deadlines. And it really taught me about that accountability around deadlines. And I think honestly, the biggest skill that I learned that I really am trying to now pass on to my own students is the active editing and workshopping. And that the value in, if you’re trying to assess someone else’s work and figure out, “Okay, what is it about this that’s working or not working?” That’s like a muscle you flex in your brain that then when you go to edit your own work, you can see the issues with your own work. And the humility around like, “All right.” Like people just giving you feedback that you don’t wanna hear, being receptive to it, and recognizing that you’re really lucky to have people putting their time and energy into making your work better. And so, you have to sort of come at that from the humble place. Those are all things that I learned. So, I’m very grateful for my program and for anybody who sort of like sees themself as a writer but can’t kind of make it work in terms of time or really wants to add like a rigor to their writing process, I would recommend it. But if you’re already getting up at 5:00 a.m. and writing for 3 hours a day, you need to do your own thing if you’re one of those unicorns that manages that.

Rachel: And one thing that I have heard consistently is that MFA programs are great for both finding writing groups and like having that feedback and learning how to take feedback, because I think learning how to absorb feedback and not take it personally is a skill.

Amy: Yes. And you know what? You’ll always take it personally, but it’s like learning how to pick yourself up. It’s funny, last week I taught a workshop, and we talked about giving and receiving feedback and I said, “When you get your feedback…” So the rule is people have to submit their feedback the day before we talk in class. Because I said the writer needs that 24 hours to like throw themselves on the floor and cry and you know, eat chocolate and rage and say “This isn’t fair” and nobody gets them and how dare you say that about my writing. So, that they can get over that and be ready when it’s time to sit down and accept the feedback. And I think we’re always gonna get that. Like, that’ll never get easier. We’ll always be precious about our writing, but recognizing that that’s something you have to overcome as opposed to being able to just convince other people that your writing is great all the time. Like, it’s better to be able to overcome that and be receptive. And then the skill becomes like trying to figure out because not all feedback needs to be taken, not all feedback is good. So, it’s about, again, learning how to figure out what are you gonna fight for and if five people are telling you the same thing, then you’re being a big risk ignoring what they’re telling you and just sort of figuring all that balance out.

Laura: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? I think learning how to take feedback is a big part of it, but any other advice?

Amy: You know what? I would say that you have to be realistic about what you can accomplish. So, if you say like, “Okay. We talk about the people who get up at 5:00 a.m. and write till 7:30 and then like have a shower, work out and go on with the rest of their lives,” that is such a rare segment. So, like figure out what you can do and then commit to that. And if it’s 20 minutes, 3 times a week, like you would be surprised if you committed to just that, how much you would pull together in say, 6 months. Like you could end up with like 5 short stories in 6 months or 60 pages of a novel. So, be realistic. You know, I can call myself a writer, I have published novels, but someone who’s writing 3 times a week for 20 minutes can also call themselves a writer. Like it doesn’t have to be some kind of a rigorous, super-intensive writing practice. So, that’s number one.

And then the other thing that I would say is when you’re setting your goals around writing, keep it to writing. Because the writing industry and the publishing industry and fame and fortune, like those things, are elusive and you know, they come and go and there’s no guarantees. And also, you have very little control over whether, you know, you can publish a book, you can do pretty well, but whether it becomes like a rip-roaring, best-seller, you don’t really have any control over that. So, you have to keep your goals focused on the craft. Like I wanna write a fantasy novel that’s 400 pages by, you know, the end of next year and like that kind of thing. Focus on the craft element because if you put your time and attention and energy there, then your chances of things going well for you, you know, in sort of the publishing landscape are better. But you can’t control the outside factors. So, just focus on what you can control, which is writing the absolute best piece of writing you can come up with.

Laura: I think that is fantastic advice. And just kind of along the lines of the first thing you said of only setting goals of what is achievable or what you can actually do and knowing what you can do. You mentioned you’re also a hockey coach, alongside parenting several preteens and teens and being an author. So, how do you balance your coaching responsibilities with the GTHL, which is one of the largest youth competitive hockey leagues? How do you balance all of that?

Amy: Well, so coaching hockey is, if you were to try to figure something out in life that is the exact opposite of writing, it’s coaching teenagers on a hockey team. Because writing is like you’re alone, you’re in your own head, you’re trying to be creative and you know, you’re typing and it’s like all this sort of emotional toil. And then you go to a rink and you’re in a room with 17 teenagers and 3 other coaches. And then you go and it’s a game or it’s a practice and everything’s loud and there’s like, you know, you’re blowing your whistle and constantly navigating dynamics and referees in place. And it’s so high intensity and hyper-social and active and moving. And it’s just such a different beast that like, you know, I think the idea of having, you know, compartments like tanks. We have different tanks that we need to empty and fill up and they just draw from such different tanks.

The time management, I’m still working on. But I really stick to that premise where even as a novelist, like a published novelist where this is like my career, if for a couple of weeks, you know, when my kids’ schedules are really busy and I’m in the playoffs and hockey and, you know, life is busy, if I’m only pulling off 20 minutes a day or an hour, 3 or 4 times a week, then that’s way better than nothing. You know, my hand is still in the pot like I’m still putting something together. So, the balance is just always doing something, even if it’s very little, which some weeks it will be.

Rachel: You know, if somebody had asked me what the opposite of writing is, I don’t think I would have said coaching hockey. But that makes so much sense. And I just love the idea that it’s like you said, like you’re filling different wells, you’re emptying different wells. And that’s…

Amy: Yes. Exactly.

Rachel: I do have one…

Amy: Like after coaching a hockey game, you come home and you’re like, “Thank God I get to just sit at my quiet deck and there’s no noise, and I can write and be creative and just be in my own head.” Whereas same thing after, you know, a writing session where maybe I’m feeling like a bit frustrated or whatever, and then you go to this environment where like, forget having a single selfish thought. Like, you know, you’re just completely absorbed by something external to you for two or three hours. So, they do really complement each other that way.

Rachel: I love that. And I do have one incredibly important hockey-related question. Apologies to our listeners who are here for writing, but do you think the Leafs will win a cup in our lifetime?

Amy: That depends on how long we live. I don’t know. You know what? Being a Leafs fan is very much like being a writer. You have to just be along for the ride. No expectations, no expectations. Just enjoy the games. Enjoy the games. When they win, they win because, you know, otherwise it’s just heartbreak city, right?

Rachel: I want that on a T-shirt. Being a Leafs fan is like being a writer. You just have to be along for the ride.

Amy: Yeah. You’re just along for the ride. Because as soon as you start to have a… Like, you know, who needs their heart broken year after year? It’s that quote from “The Office,” you know, “I’m ready to be hurt again.” That’s us every September, “I’m ready to be hurt again.”

Rachel: Every September. Oh, man. So, I know we’ve had you for almost an hour here. So, before we let you go and get along with your day, can you just let us know what you’re working on next? Do you have any new ideas ruminating?

Amy: Yes. So, I’m in the extremely preliminary stages, the sort of nebulous ideas floating around stages of my fifth novel, and also playing around with some screen stuff. But yeah, just like note-taking, writing the odd scene super early, but it’s fun. All the stages are fun. This is maybe the most, you know, in some ways, it’s the most fun because everything’s just so new and different. Another thriller though.

Rachel: I was gonna say, do you think a hockey thriller is in the future?

Amy: Oh God. No.

Rachel: No murder at sunrise.

Amy: That’s too close to home. Yeah. Then people would be like, “Wait a minute. That character seems really familiar.” So, yeah. I can’t write about my own life and there’s no way I could write a hockey thriller without stealing from my reality.

Rachel: Do you ever think you’ll switch up genres or do you kind of like sticking with thrillers?

Amy: No, you know what? Well, I think like the idea of a genre I think is less and less. I think as writers we’re less and less kinda beholden to it. I would describe my writing as thrillers, but, you know, when I’m writing them, I’m super like, focused on each, like the turn of a phrase and you know, I want it to be well written. So, you know, maybe from a screen perspective, like my number one genre is rom-com. Like I would love to try to write a rom-com, but I don’t know that I could do it in a book because I don’t really read rom-com books. But I do watch them. Like if I hit on a good rom-com on the screen, I feel like I’ve won the lottery. You know when you watch like a good one. And so, yeah, I think I could try a screen rom-com. But I have no interest for now in departing from thrillers as a writer because I love writing them.

Rachel: What is your go-to screen rom-com?

Amy: I don’t know. There’s so many. I have so many. I don’t know. That’s hard to say. But I feel like for me, the fun is in the search when you… I can’t even think of the name, but I found one recently. The guy from “Top Gun.” Now, that’s not enough information about the two workers who try to set up their bosses.

Laura: “The Set Up” that’s on Netflix with Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell.

Amy: Yes. Okay, there we go. Good. Good. Well done.

Rachel: IMDB Laura over here, just…

Amy: I know. Seriously. It’s like an encyclopedia. Yeah, like that was a good one. You know, where you watch it and you’re like, “That was a good one.” I love landing on good ones.

Rachel: I feel you. I also love a good rom-com. And just before we let you go, where can listeners find you online?

Amy: Well, I think my website, which is amystuart.ca has links to the socials that I’m on, which is primarily Instagram and Twitter. Twitter’s definitely a mix of hockey and like complaining about being a hockey fan and book stuff. Instagram, I’m a little more committed to books. Yeah. And then I think, you know, on my website I have all the information about my books and pub dates and where to find them, how to pre-order, all that stuff.

Rachel: Amazing. We will include links to all of those in our show notes as well as a link to “A Death at the Party,” so folks can pre-order and/or order depending on when they listen to this. Amy, thank you so much for joining us today. This was wonderful.

Amy: Thank you for having me. It was a great chat.

Laura: Thank you. This was awesome. Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in picking up Amy’s books, we will include links in our show notes. If you are enjoying the podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com. Be sure to follow us on socials. We are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter, and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.

Rachel: This episode was hosted by Rachel Wharton and Laura Granger with production by Terrence Abrahams. Editing is provided by Kelly Robotham. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker. And a huge thanks to Amy Stuart for being our guest today. If you are ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.

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