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Q&A with Rachel Howzell Hall - What Never Happened

What Never Happened

By Jessica Blissit

We are thrilled to welcome Rachel Howzell Hall to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release What Never Happened, out on 11th July 2023.

Colette “Coco” Weber has relocated to her Catalina Island home, where, twenty years before, she was the sole survivor of a deadly home invasion. All Coco wants is to see her aunt Gwen, get as far away from her ex as possible, and get back to her craft—writing obituaries. Thankfully, her college best friend, Maddy, owns the local paper and has a job sure to keep Coco busy, considering the number of elderly folks who are dying on the island.

But as Coco learns more about these deaths, she quickly realizes that the circumstances surrounding them are remarkably similar…and not natural. Then Coco receives a sinister threat in the mail: her own obituary.

As Coco begins to draw connections between a serial killer’s crimes and her own family tragedy, she fears that the secrets on Catalina Island might be too deep to survive. Because whoever is watching her is hell-bent on finally putting her past to rest.

What Never Happened

What inspired you to write crime thrillers in the first place?

Living in a big city with lots of it—but also wonderful people who face it. Why does crime happen? What’s turned an honor roll student or a talented athlete to commit crime? How do you move ahead when the worst has happened to you? I needed to answer these questions personally and as a citizen of the world.

In crime thrillers, someone has been wronged (emotionally, psychologically, fatally) and that wrong is explored and justice sought. Not necessarily justice won but someone attempts to win it. The crime doesn’t have to be found in a penal code but there’s been a hurt there, plenty of damage to the person’s world. Crime fiction is highly relatable. Almost everyone in the world has experienced some level of it. Again, not necessarily a crime that gets the perpetrator a cot, a needle or steel bars for twenty years to life. Crime fiction is a big-tent genre.

What sets your thriller novels apart from others in the genre?

That’s a hard one. I’d say… I dig deep when creating characters. When I’m interviewing someone, I ask questions that may not have an answer you find on Google. I want to know-know because even if I don’t mention, I want that un-Google-able answer affecting the story. I think my novels are deceptively-simple in some ways—they take an idea that may be cozy and then, all hell breaks loose. Like in What Never Happened, Coco moves back on an island where her family were murdered. Very straightforward idea… but then, plots and twists come in and disturb that simple idea. I call my novels “onion stories,” that are layered and more complicated and disturbing the more you peel away.

How do you come up with the complex plots and twists in your novels?

I look at real life examples of what I’m writing about. Nothing is twistier than some true crime stories. In fact, many of my stories are inspired by things I’ve read.

How much research do you conduct before writing a crime thriller?

I do enough research to be dangerous. I don’t go all in because even though I outline, I don’t know what the story’s gonna be until I complete the first draft. Then, I start my true research—and keep researching as I write.

When I wrote They All Fall Down, which happens on an imaginary island off the coast of Mexico, I said then, about making up the island and how I needed a place that would offer privacy and I couldn’t murder people on Catalina Island. Little did I find out that I could. Not to say that Catalina Island is a hotbed of crime and murder—it isn’t. It’s a gorgeous place with wonderful warm people. But there are also folks who visit the island who aren’t so wonderful and warm and bring with them violence. There are residents there who do prey on the weak and frail. I studied their crime log as well as some neighborhood social media. It’s not a perfect paradise. There are land issues, immigration issues, race, economics… But I needed to research in order to see past the island’s perfection.

How does ‘What Never Happened’ differ from your previously published novels?

Well, it’s first difference is that it takes place at the start of the pandemic—and while I’ve written a locked-room-island story (They All Fall Down), the locked room wasn’t because of Covid-19. Also, this story takes place out of the city that I know yet is part of Los Angeles County. When you’re on the island, you’re just 26 miles away… and you can’t get there by car. It’s a different kind of isolation that Coco experiences than my other heroines. She’s also one of the very few Black folks on the island, and in that way, she’s also isolated. And once the shutdowns begin, even more isolated even though, like we all were, surrounded by people. Yeah, the global pandemic drove this story.

What is your process for developing characters in your novels?

My leads are always Black women in a strange land—even if that land is her home, Los Angeles. They are my stand-ins, ha. They’re also always Black because we have this ability to see America and other people in a way unlike other Americans. How we are treated and perceived—is it sexism driving the interaction or is it racism? Sometimes, it’s both. How will that affect this crime story. I’m a firm believer that if the world only had one crime story available—and seven women of different races write that one crime story, you’d get seven remarkably different stories. Which is the beauty of diversity.

And I also just look around—people are characters in their own stories. Some always have to be the main character in every instance. Some people like antagonizing others just for sport. I study these interactions. The way people talk to each other, or at each other. How they order a salad to be healthy but then load it up with cheese and dressing and croutons.

I also do a Briggs-Myers personality chart for each of my major characters. So yeah, I look at the people around me and pluck characteristics that I find fascinating. And of course, I turn inward and examine myself.

Are any of your characters based on real people or events?

There is always a sense of realness in events. In What Never Happened, the pandemic… happened. The land battles in Catalina… are happening. There are basically no homes to buy on the island and no place to develop more housing. A real thing. Not a lot of Black people who live full-time there—a true thing. My characters always arise out of the event rather than the other way around.

How do you balance action and suspense with character development in your novels?

By plotting! I outline each story I write and I also use the Save the Cat method. Both help me determine in the stories what should be happening when—including action and suspense. After I complete the first draft, I then grid it out long sheets of paper that I tape together and figure out where the highs and lows are. Reading aloud also helps me find balance.

I want to always write the truth and if that means showing Coco suffering, I’ll tap into my own reserves, my own health challenges, sadness and fear to make her and that suffering feel real. Again: there are readers who are going through something similar and may gain some kind of insight or encouragement by my characters’ journeys.

How do you handle writing about sensitive topics such as violence or crime scenes?

I always choose contemporary issues in my stories– they always have to be relevant to my ‘right-now’ and that’s what I’m thinking about as I create characters and figure out the plots. As I was writing this, the pandemic was in full swing and there were people—husbands, for instance—suffocating their wives and blaming Covid. “She got sick and couldn’t breathe and she died.” Well, that was certainly happening, but was that the case for this dead woman? Children who could usually escape abusive parents before by going to school were now stuck at home with that parent. This pandemic gave folks cover to hurt others.

And then, I also move on when describing the actual violence. I don’t linger and glorify what’s happening. I want to give enough for the reader to acknowledge and understand the seriousness of violence, the finality of murder, the brutality that comes from assaults. I think by now I’ve developed a ‘too-much-not-enough’ gauge internally that helps me with that. I also don’t want any survivors of violence reading this to think I don’t understand the gravity of it, how it changes you—I’ve witnessed violence and experienced violence. I know the gravity of it and I’ve been changed because of it. Writing crime stories helps me deal with it and understand how others cope.

What advice would you give to aspiring crime thriller writers?

Read diverse crime stories written by diverse writers, the people who are actually living that experience. Be committed to rounding out your characters by asking people questions of what their life is like. Go beyond the surface explanation. Find out why, for example, you shouldn’t touch a Black woman’s hair or why many of us wear scarves and bonnets to bed. There are reasons—share with the reader what those are.

What Never Happened

Rachel Howzell Hall is the New York Times bestselling author of We Lie Here; These Toxic Things; And Now She's Gone; and They All Fall Down; and, with James Patterson, The Good Sister, which was included in Patterson's collection The Family Lawyer. A Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist as well as an Anthony, International Thriller Writers, and Lefty Award nominee, Rachel is also the author of Land of Shadows, Skies of Ash, Trail of Echoes, and City of Saviors in the Detective Elouise Norton series. A past member of the board of directors for Mystery Writers of America, Rachel has been a featured writer on NPR's acclaimed Crime in the City series and the National Endowment for the Arts weekly podcast; she has also served as a mentor in Pitch Wars and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. Rachel lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.

Rachel's Intagram: @rhowzellhall


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