M.J. Holt - Nonstop Action, Mystery, Romance, and Academia
M.J. Holt abandoned the big city to live on the family farm with her husband and many animals on a peninsula in Puget Sound. Their animals include rescue dogs and cats, ducks, geese, and retired hens. She writes thrillers and mysteries. As our Author of the Day, she tells us all about her book, The Devil's Safe.
Please give us a short introduction to what The Devil's Safe is about.
Stella Fargo moved into a house at the bidding of each of her estranged parents for the free rent and ease of access to the University of Washington. While she knew that the husband of her childhood best friend had sold drugs, she had no idea what she had fallen into. The police and three very greedy men think that she knows where either a missing drug shipment is or the money from it, which would be in the millions of dollars. She is struggling with recognizing and leaving her own dysfunctional relationship from a man who is fixated on her, and is angry and threatening her. When it becomes clear to her that she might be murdered if she stays, she starts to unravel the confusing situation, which leads her into more and more danger as she seeks the people who should help her, but who do not.
What inspired you to write this book? Was there anything that made you want to tackle this?
I had been wanting to write about the dysfunctional families that I knew and read about, and how the attitudes of the parents shaped the adult children of all generations. With that in mind, I wanted to set the story in one of my favorite genres, the thriller. That decision let me to research not only crime and criminals, but the effect that it had on their children, and how their adult children had to forge a new way to think about their own lives and their place in the world. Reading about crime has been an interest of mine since I was a child.
Tell us more about Stella Fargo. What makes her tick?
Stella Fargo is brilliant. No one in her immediate family and friends recognized this or, perhaps, cared. Her parents split from their painfully unhappy marriage when she graduated from high school, and this set her adrift. She moved as far away from Seattle, her hometown, as possible, to Boston, and took a job with a consulting firm, the Millis in the book. The owner of the firm, John Pickett, recognized her intellect and talents, and cultivated them. Then she became involved with a psychologically abusive man. When the book starts, she has just begun a prestigious Ph.D. program and has separated herself from the abuser. She has already suffered sexism, and sexist assumptions, and she wants nothing to do with that, but it’s hard to shrug that off when she’s bombarded with it. Stella has a B.S. Psychology, a Masters of Social Work, and is a Ph.D. Candidate in public/private Administration. All this education, and associated experience, helps her wend her way through the family and criminal entanglement, however, she is deeply affected emotionally by her family.
Why did you decide to involve lost money and drugs in the story?
Money is a great motivator in our society, and illegal drugs are prevalent. I’ve read about drug smuggling into the Seattle area all of my adult life. The police often report on the street value of uncut drugs, the spread between the wholesale and the retail price is astounding, based on the police reports I’ve read. I also have met a number of drug dealers and users, so I felt I had a good basis to write about this criminal pursuit. It provided a lot of motivation and reward for the bad guys, who don’t think that they are so bad at all. They’re just doing what needs to be done. I used information from some studies on the psychology of the criminal, and their own family backgrounds.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I can analyze a spreadsheet and understand the direction that a business is going. I’ve taught workshops and seminars helping small business owners understand the data about their businesses, even in the start-up stage. I can raise money for businesses and sell them. I’ve also helped business owners design the administrative part of their operation. I can milk a cow. I write and publish poetry. I have operated my own businesses for most of my life.
Readers say this is an edge-of-your-seat thriller. How did you pull this off?
I like books that provide “edge of the seat” thrills. I like to start with a sense of danger that is not created by the hero (Stella Fargo) but an unidentified outside source. Stella is in danger immediately, before we know anything about her. Her first dangerous person is the man who befriends her, but is he a danger to her or an ally? By the third paragraph a second set of immediate threats is identified.
I chose to have the entire story happen over a two-week period of time. That timespan compresses the danger, tragedy, and sorrow so that the action happens before Stella and the reader can get used to it. In my life, when I have a big problem, other problems seem to pile on. With each problem, there is a danger that Stella must thwart or sidestep. At every step of the way, she knows that she is in mortal danger and that if she survives, her life could be ruined. That tension brings the situation and thrill to the reader. I have yet to have anyone tell me they figured out who the bad guy is before he is revealed.
The plot contains a couple of twists. Did you plan it all out before you started writing, or did some of it just "happen" along the way?
The twists primarily came from how the characters evolved, although I had planned a few that mutated as I understood my characters and the situation better. For me, my characters do have a life of their own, and in my mind and notes, I have backgrounds and history of them all. I just don’t include all that in the book because then it would not be a thriller.
Which of your characters was the most challenging to create?
The most challenging character was Stella’s mother. She has huge anger issues and severe mental problems that I had to research. These two factors left her open to being manipulated. Most of all, over half of the time, she resents and even hates her daughter, Stella. This was difficult because my parents were solid sane people who loved me very much and gave me a stable, very deep footing for life. My husband’s parents and his rearing is just like that. I have known mentally unstable people; people jealous of their children; angry about aging; and unsure of where they fit into the world. This made Stella’s mother challenging, because the story is Stella’s story, and she can only respond to what her mother throws at her. The story is told in first person, I could not delve into the pain that Stella’s mother feels or why she is that way.
What did you have the most fun with when writing The Devil's Safe?
Stella’s relationship with her mentor, John Pickett. It is the fantasy part of the story because I never had a supportive mentor. While I did surround myself with good people, I never had anyone who was actively interested in my success long-term and who was able to give me either the leg-up or the ugly facts to help me succeed.
You also included some romance in the story. Why did you take this approach?
Who doesn’t like romance? There needed to be some sugar, some kindness, and hope, in Stella’s life. Yet, she has conflicted relationships with two men and whether either relationship is healthy is revealed as the story unfolds. One or both of the men could kill her. While she is being pulled into the morass of drug dealers, the rest of her life goes on.
Why did you title this "The Devil's Safe"?
Telling that would give away the ending. Suffice it to say that a devil’s safe is where all the secrets are hidden.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?
I think that I’m pretty normal. I do a lot of research online. Google Maps is my friend. I have done online research since the internet was invented. Often for my management consulting work, I rummaged through the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) paperwork that companies file, and other industry data. However, most writers do an immense amount of research. I write in my living room, sitting in a big chair writing on a laptop computer. I rarely even print out my drafts. I do have a computer program that reads it to me in a flat voice unforgiving voice. When I can find someone, I get readers for my early drafts, but I work mostly on my own.
I usually write for six or more hours a day, most every day. If I get stuck on what I’m writing, I work either on that problem, or I write something else. I work on several projects at the same time. Of course, my writing is interrupted by real life. Cats and dogs must be cared for, food prepared, dishes washed, and my husband likes a bit of attention, too.
What are you working on right now?
I am preparing the second Stella Fargo book, Making Angels, for publication. It is planned for release before Christmas, so it would be a good gift, and could be paired with The Devil’s Safe.
I am also working on the third Stella book (so far without a title)
In each of these Stella is faced with a new challenge. They are set about a year and a half apart, and in each, Stella’s life has changed. There are few reoccurring characters, and the stories are set in very different locales.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
The Devil’s Safe is available on Amazon.com, Barnes and Nobel, and other booksellers. I have short stories in several anthologies, including Black-Eyed Peas on New Year's Day: An Anthology of Hope, Low Down Dirty Vote Volume II, Alternate Theologies," and online at "Short-Story.me." I have poetry that can still be found online in "Gutter Eloquence," and in the poetry anthologies "300K," and "Timeless Love" published in India. Otherwise, my work is currently hard to find, and I hope to put it on my website.
My website https://mjholtauthor.com/ is one way to see what’s new. I plan to add a blog to it, but that is in the future. I have an author’s page on Amazon.com this is accessible from the page to buy my book. On Facebook, I can be found at https://www.facebook.com/WriterMJH. On Instagram I’m https://www.instagram.com/mjholtauthor/. Perhaps I should be shamefaced to admit that I do not keep these up as well as I should because I am writing. Seriously, each of these takes a lot of time. I encourage your readers to contact me. I love to hear from readers.