Amber Cowie - Writing Smart, Riveting Thrillers
Amber Cowie has served burgers at a frontier themed diner, hot chocolate at the only ski resort in Scotland and pints at a gay bar in downtown Dublin. She planted trees in northern Canada and staffed the front desk of a hotel on a remote island between France and England. As well, she has been a clerk at a high end liquor store and a low end beer store; support worker at homeless shelters; tax firm receptionist, grant writer for environmental non-profit organizations and photocopy assistant at Kinko’s. She has written for small town newspapers, snowmobile magazines and knitwear companies. As our Author of the Day, Cowie tells us about her debut novel, Rapid Falls.
Please give us a short introduction to what Rapid Falls is about.
The past and present collide for two sisters who survived a tragedy—and must now survive the truth behind it.
It’s been twenty years since Cara’s boyfriend died in a horrible accident and her sister, Anna, went to prison. The tragedy has become a local legend, but Cara has moved past her grief to have a successful career and a happy family. Pity about Anna. Recently released from incarceration, she’s struggling with addiction, guilt, and shame—a shattered life. Cara’s forgiveness seems to be the only thing that helps her pick up the pieces.
But as Anna pulls herself together, her memories of that night on the bridge start to come into focus. And few of them match her sister’s.
As past secrets unfold and nothing is what it seems anymore, Anna desperately searches for the truth. But what if Cara doesn’t want her to find it?
Was there anything in particular, an incident or something you read, that made you want to tackle this?
I’ve heard it said that an author’s first book is largely autobiographical and the rest are fiction. For me, that’s accurate. I grew up in a small town, beside a waterfall, where teenagers engaged in pretty dicey behavior on a regular basis. I always thought our bush parties and sketchy decisions were rich with opportunities for a thriller. Much of this book is based on real life, though much is also imaginary. I’ve had readers try to guess what’s real and what’s not, which is both flattering and unnerving. All I can hope for as an author is that the pieces that are real make the parts that are made-up even more compelling.
The book contains a couple of twists. Did you plan them out before you started writing?
Oh, geez. This book was outlined on several pieces of paper that became so messy they almost seemed like a piece of art providing a comment on whether outlines matter. The twists were there in the beginning, but rough as hell. It wasn’t until I re-wrote the manuscript a few times that I was able to make them really work. Twisty books are incredibly fun to write, but not always such a pleasure to plan.
Tell us more about Anna and Cara. What makes them tick?
I think to really understand a character, it is important to answer the question: what do they want? Anna is seeking forgiveness above all things, from both her sister and herself. Cara, more than anything, is seeking love. She has always felt lesser than her sister and though later in life, she protects her fiercely, there is always a part of her that is jealous of the acceptance and adulation their parents gave to her.
Sibling rivalry is a prevalent theme in this book. Why did you write it this way?
A good story needs a good conflict. In my life, the purest love and pettiest battles often happen at a sibling level, which made for an incredibly good place to start. Full disclosure: this story is not about my twin sister, but there are definitely scenes in here that borrowed from real life. As I wrote this book, I put Cara and Anna in the some of the same situations that my sister and I had faced, but their decisions and actions came alive because of who the characters are. Also, my sister and I made very different decisions along the way (thank god).
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I make a damn good spaghetti carbonara and, when the spirit calls me, I can knit a beautiful sweater.
What is the hardest thing about being a writer?
Right now, it is one hundred percent finding the quiet moments to create stories. I have a three year old son and a six year old daughter and my life is amazing but very loud and busy. I have so many stories in my head that I have to put on hold for now because time is my scarcest commodity. But they are patiently waiting for me and will become real live books someday. It’s not a bad problem to have too many ideas.
Which of your characters has been the most challenging to write for?
Honestly, I think it’s whoever I am writing at the time. They are all challenging and wonderful (just like actual humans). I haven’t written a book that didn’t make me cry at one point for my characters.
If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
Celeste Barber’s Challenge Accepted because what she does is magical, hilarious and bolder than I can ever imagine myself being.
What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
You can do this, from my husband Ben Greenberg, almost every day.
Do reviews and reader feedback shape your work? Or do you feel like it's better to avoid the feedback—both positive and negative—so that it won't interfere with your vision?
Oof. This is such a great question and a hard one to answer. Reading reviews is extremely difficult for me. The bad ones get into my head for days (sometimes months) and make me feel terrible. The good ones, oddly, often make me feel worse because I’m terrified that the reader will not enjoy my next book in the same way (why yes, my glass is half empty).
On a really good day of writing, I feel as though I have the incredible ability to be the reader of my own story: super engaged, super invested, incredibly excited about what’s coming next. Reviews take me out of that frame of mind because they remind me that I am not my only reader and that others may find the story confusing, boring or just a waste of time. It’s a confidence killer and I have to keep a certain amount of hubris to be able to make up these worlds.
Having said that, I have been extremely grateful to many people for their kind words and love for my book. It is a special and beautiful thing to learn that my story has been a part of someone’s life.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?
I write whenever I can. During the week, that is usually when my son is at preschool and my daughter is first grade. It’s just a couple hours twice a week, which is not enough to sink into a story, so if I’m on a deadline (like now), I write for longer stretches on weekend when my awesome husband can take care of our kids. Right now, the schedule is a bit hectic and all over the place so I don’t have a typical day, but because I’m away from my computer a lot, my ideas have time to form. I often tease out plots or problems in my head while playing blocks with my son or coloring with my daughter so I can show up at my laptop with chapters fully formed in my mind.
What are you working on right now?
Two things. The first is my next book RAVEN LANE, which is currently out for early review on NetGalley and will be officially released on November 12, 2019. It’s a sexy suspense involving Esme Werner, a former actor turned chef, who lives in a close-knit neighborhood where her closest friends turn out to be her worst enemies.
Second thing is my third book with Lake Union. The working title is THE MINES and it harkens back to RAPID FALLS, more of a fast-paced thriller. It features Ivy Dennison. In the middle of a heated political campaign to become mayor of a small city, she receives a blackmail threat and becomes embroiled in a twisted plot to save her chance to become mayor . . . and her life.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
Many many places. I’m slowly trying to take over the internet.
I am on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram: @ambercowie