Merry Jones was kind enough to join me today to talk about Child’s Play, the latest novel in her Elle Harrison thriller series. Before we get to the questions, I’ll kick things off with an introduction…
Merry Jones is the author of the Harper Jennings mystery series, which includes Summer Session and Behind the Walls, and the Philadelphia-based Zoe Hayes series, which includes The Nanny Murders and The River Killings. Over the years, she has written a wide range of material in a variety of styles and for diverse media. In addition to her thrillers, she has written non-fiction, including Birthmothers, and the best-selling humor book I Love Him, But…, and has contributed articles to Glamour, Ladies’ Home Journal, and American Woman. Her books have been translated into Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew, French, German, Norwegian, Turkish, and Dutch.
Welcome, Merry! To start things off, could you talk a little bit about your latest book, Child’s Play?
Hi Alison, thanks for inviting me to be interviewed!
So, Child’s Play begins with a second grade teacher, our protagonist Elle Harrison, preparing for the first day of school. She finds out that a former student, Ty Evans, has turned twenty-one and been released from juvenile detention where he’d served eight years for killing his father. Almost immediately, people against whom Ty has had grudges begin to get murdered—starting with the school principal, whose disfigured corpse Elle finds on that first day back. Ty seeks Elle out and, before long, she is assaulted. As she recovers, she worries for her own safety and that of her colleagues, and she questions her assumptions about family, childhood, female friendships, justice and innocence.
Child’s Play is the third book in the Elle Harrison series, and you have two other thriller series with recurring characters. What appeals to you about writing series? Is there a long arc for your characters that spans their entire series, or do you tend to have complete arcs within each book that build on each other as the series progresses?
Writing a series is fun for lots of reasons. You build a readership who have their own relationships with the characters. And these readers have expectations which are fun to meet/surpass. Also, you get to know your characters better with each book, so writing another one is like spending time with old friends. And it’s comfortable to begin a novel with “givens” about the protagonist and some of the other characters, not to have to reinvent new people with each book.
The arcs, I think, do complete in each book, enough so that if you only read one, you’re fine. But they also span the entire series in that the characters’ lives change and develop across titles. A divorcee might remarry, or a married person get divorced. A child might be born. A father might die. The characters’ arcs proceed through life after they survive the arcs of the individual books.
Crime and thriller novels often require authors to know grisly details about the ways people can die, what happens to their bodies after death, and how crimes are solved. How do you go about your research? What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever had to look up, or ask an expert? What’s the oddest or most unexpected thing you’ve learned while doing research? Do you ever get concerned looks from people while doing research, or when letting slip an obscure fact at a cocktail party?
I love this question. The concerned looks do happen. For example, I was in a bar with a friend, talking about a book-in-progress. “That effing rapist! I’m glad you killed him. He deserved to die.”
You can imagine the people in the next booth, overhearing this. So, yes, people do get uneasy with talk about murders and mayhem, but so far no one has called the police.
Research, though not always about cadavers and murder, provides some of the best fun of writing. In the course of a dozen suspense novels, I’ve had to learn about pre-Colombian religion, human trafficking, art smuggling, brain damage, sleep disorders, military secrets, Bible prophecy. Also about the juvenile detention system. Elective plastic surgery. Narcissistic personality disorder. Survivalists. I do a lot of research online, for sure. But I also interview experts like police detectives, surgeons, soldiers, prison guards. And I travel to relevant locations, for example, a sleep clinic, a museum, a national park, a funeral home. Getting details right is essential.
As to what I’ve learned during all this research, the list is long—Each book brings more information. Facts about rigor mortis, about how long it takes for bodies to start smelling. About the lack of an antidote for the puffer fish poison, and about its symptoms (which include sweating, hallucinations, a sense of flying, and horrible pain.) About the phase of sleep in which people are paralyzed but conscious, able to hear and see but not move or speak. I can list more examples, but you get the idea.
The research is important, but to me, the real terror in thrillers comes not from poisons or sleep paralysis or weapons of death, but from the characters who happily employ them.
A simple steak knife, for example, can be horrifying in the hands of a cheerfully sociopathic pre-teen. The tension and suspense about what she might do with that knife is far scarier than showing the hilt protruding from a victim’s chest.
Switching gears slightly, you’re a member of a group called the Liar’s Club in Philadelphia. Could you talk a bit about the group, how it came to be, and the work you and your fellow authors do to support those who are just starting their writing careers?
Sure, though this is my point of view, not an official mission statement. Loosely, Liars Club is an organization of writers of all genres who are committed to building and supporting their writing community. It was started by two Philly writers, Jonathan Maberry and Greg Frost, in a bar about a decade ago. Since then, we’ve spent a lot more time in bars, but we’ve also accomplished a number of projects, including touring and signing at Indie book stores, publishing an anthology, and holding monthly free Writers Coffeehouses to which anyone—new writers, longtime writers, or anyone else interested in writing–can come and talk about the business and craft of writing while bonding over coffee. Liars Club is growing, having already spread to several cities including San Diego, where Jonathan now lives. Philly Liars Club hopes to increase its impact, so we’re planning a podcast, workshops and other projects. It’s a group with great heart, and I’m proud to be part of it.
On a somewhat related note, there are quite a few authors in the Philadelphia area. Do you think there’s something particular about Philadelphia that draws creative types? Do you have a favorite spot in Philadelphia where you go to recharge your creative brain, or gather inspiration?
Honestly, I think there are creative people everywhere. Writers find stories no matter where we are. We can’t escape them. So, no, I don’t think Philadelphia in particular draws creative types. It has a lot of them, but so do other big cities.
When I want to recharge, I don’t have a particular place to go. I simply break my patterns for a while. Change my rhythm. I might travel, might not. Might clean the house. Might stop writing for a week or two. There’s no particular place or activity involved. It’s more about slowing down, letting go, changing perspective. Letting my mind breathe.
In addition to being a phenomenal and prolific author, you’re also a rower. Does rowing ever help you solve snarled plot points, or is it what you do when you need to completely get away from writing for a while? How did you get into rowing, and do you compete, or row just for fun?
Rowing, yes, is what I do to get away from writing and life. While I row I rarely think of anything but rowing—the condition of the water, the motion of the boat, the position of my oars, the fluidity of my strokes. What rowing might do is realign my brain so I can look at my work refreshed. But it doesn’t necessarily help me untangle plots.
As to how I started: It was eighteen years ago, when a community rowing program offered free lessons on the Schuylkill. My older daughter was then 12, and we signed up together. We both loved it and have been rowing ever since. I’m a member of Vesper Boat Club, but I race only rarely—most recently this fall with my daughter in a double. Mostly I row for the joy of being on the river. In fact, when my husband and I travel, we try to connect with local rowing clubs, so we’ve skulled on a bunch of rivers.
To finish things off, what are you working on next, now that Child’s Play is out? Are there any other projects in particular you want people to know about?
I think for writers, the next book is the most important one. I’m heavy into one but let’s talk about it when it’s finished. Not that I’m superstitious. Just that talking about it is bad luck.
Totally understandable! Thank you for joining me!
Thank you, Alison. This was fun!