We are very happy to have April Henry join us for this week’s Q & A. Her books have been short-listed for the Agatha Award, the Anthony Award, and the Oregon Book Award, and chosen twice for Booksense by the independent booksellers of America. They have been translated into Japanese, Spanish, Dutch, German, Polish, and French. Here’s what April had to tell us aboutGirl, Stolen, writing mysteries, and what it takes to make a protagonist a survivor. ~MM
Cheyenne is a 16-year-old girl who is legally blind. What is it about Cheyenne that you think makes her a survivor?
Cheyenne doesn’t think of herself as a survivor, at least not at the beginning. In the beginning, she is still feeling less because of her blindness. It’s only as the story goes along that she realizes she is stronger than she knew – and that she has learned a few things because of her blindness.
How did you find Cheyenne as your main character? What kind of research did you have to do to make sure you captured her point of view well?
In 2005, I saw a local news story about a blind teenager who was accidentally kidnapped when a man stole the minivan she was in. Her mom had left the keys in the ignition. I knew immediately it could be the beginning of a thriller. The real girl was released after a few minutes. Twenty miles away, I watched that girl and her mom being interviewed on TV. I kept playing with the idea. What if the car thief had been a teenager too? And what if he panicked and took her home to his dad, who was a minor-league criminal? And what if they thought about letting her go — only to learn her family was rich?
A few months ago, I connected with the real girl whose story inspired Girl, Stolen. Heather is studying to be a Braille proofreader, but she also is working on her other ambition: to be a writer!
To research the book, I read a lot of autobiographies written by people who were born blind or who went blind. I interviewed people who were blind, including a girl who went to a mainstream high school. I even spent a day at the Guide Dog School for the Blind. They even put a blindfold on me and brought me a dog and a harness and told me to put the latter on the former. I finally did and was really proud of myself – until I figured out I had harnessed the butt end of the dog.
You tell the novel in alternating chapters, to get both Griffin’s view and Cheyenne’s. Why did you choose to tell the story that way? What were the advantages vs. the disadvantages? Did you try to tell it another way?
After reading my first draft, my old editor thought I should only tell the book from Griffin’s POV. But I knew that wouldn’t work – readers wouldn’t want to hear Cheyenne telling Griffin about her experiences. They would want to know what it was really like to be her. I also wanted to let readers know that Griffin wasn’t a bad guy, not really. He’s not a big talker, so I wanted readers to understand what his life was like. The challenges were trying not to repeat any information, but to start off the next chapter where the last chapter had left off.
What is your process for crafting a good mystery? There must be so many clues to hide, traps to lay. How do you keep track of it all?
I think of Girl, Stolen as more of a thriller. The main question in a thriller is not why something happened (for example, why someone was murdered), but if the main character will get out alive. I have written a lot of mysteries, though, and am in the middle of one now. It’s not so much the hiding of the clues that’s hard, but figuring out what they will be, and how my sleuth will figure them out when other people see the same information and don’t. Recent research topics include weaponized hanta virus, fugue syndrome, and how fingerprints on a knife will shift depending on whether it’s used for chopping onions or stabbing someone. You can really go down a rabbit hole on research. The internet has made that worse.
Were there moments as you wrote when you really didn’t know how she was going to get out of this situation?
When I put Cheyenne in the bathroom, after she lied and told Griffin she had to go, I fully intended for her to climb out the window and go into the woods. I even started writing that scene. But I could’t figure out how she could get any distance away without making a ton of noise. So then I tried to think of another solution. And I like the one I came up with!
There’s also a scene at the very end where I tried to figure out how cops could know where you were when you were way out in the middle of nowhere and cell tower triangulation can’t really narrow it down. I ended up talking to a 9-1-1 supervisor (since it wasn’t an emergency, it was quite difficult figuring out how to talk to 9-1-1 without actually calling 9-1-1) and he told me about the real-life case of a woman who got lost in Montana and how the cops figured out where she was.
I spend a lot of time figuring out what I myself might do in a given situation. For another book, I had a kajukenbo instructor drag me backward while we both figured out how the character could get free.
Your first story was published when you were 12 with help of the one-and-only Roald Dahl. Please tell us a little bit about that experience. What advice would you give young people who are interested in writing today?
I loved Roald Dahl’s books when I was a kid. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, etc. My parents had told me that you could write to any author care of their publisher. So I used the address in the front of a book and sent him off a letter and a short story about a frog who loved peanut butter. Someone it found its way to England. He sent me a postcard about how much he enjoyed it. He also had lunch with the editor of an international children’s magazine and read her the story. She contacted me and asked to publish it. (However, it might have been a hint about the publishing world that I didn’t get paid and had to subscribe to the magazine.) Click here to see Roald Dahl’s letter to April.
How did you first get turned on to writing mysteries vs. other types of fiction?
By accident. I had written three books that didn’t sell, although the second got me an agent. When she read my fourth book, my agent said it would sell well as a mystery. I didn’t think of it as a mystery at all, but by that point was “I don’t care what you call it, I just want it to sell!” It sold to the first editor who looked at it, and because the first in a four-book series.
Now I love the fast pace and thrills. And the research is fascinating. I have even trained on an FBI gun range, where I fired a sub-machine gun. I know a lot about fingerprints, DNA, and how to rob a bank.
Are there other projects you are working on that you would like to tell us about?
I have two new books coming out in April of 2012. One is an adult mystery co-written with Lis Wiehl. It’s the fourth in our Triple Threat series, and it’s called Eyes of Justice. The second is a teen novel called The Night She Disappeared. It’s about a pizza delivery girl who goes missing and is thought to have been killed. Her two co-workers team up to find her before she really is dead.
What are some of your favorite books for strong girls?
Who doesn’t love Katniss in The Hunger Games? And Miranda in Life as We Knew It – it’s so easy to imagine yourself in Miranda’s shoes and ask what you would do.
Finish this sentence: Strong girls… can do anything.