Murder Books is pleased to present the following interview with Cate Holahan, author of the psychological thrillers Dark Turns, USA Today bestselling The Widower’s Wife, and the forthcoming Lies She Told, all from Crooked Lane Books. Cate is an award-winning journalist and former television producer. Her fine eye for emotional and behavioral detail gives her stories and her characters the kind of authenticity that will keep you anxious until the end and make her books the kind of true standouts that are so very worthy of the thriller label. Each new novel she writes becomes my favorite Cate Holahan book.
MB: The journalist-turned-novelist is a hallowed tradition. Hank Phillippi Ryan, Michael Connelly, Carl Hiassen, to name just a few. How did you find your way onto this path?
CATE: I always wanted to tell stories. When I was a kid, I wrote fictional tales. As I got older, I continued writing fiction, but I realized that I could get a steady paycheck telling other people’s factual stories in a clear and interesting way. So, I went into journalism and wrote fiction on the side. After I had my second child, I realized that the 24-hour news cycle and the demand to be there for the breaking story didn’t allow me to be the parent that I wanted to be. Life seemed to be pushing me to my earlier passion. And I made the leap.
MB: Your book-cover bio says you live in New Jersey, and your command of the geographic and the cultural environment of New York City life seems very deep. Did you grow up in the Northeast?
CATE: New Jersey won’t let me leave. I grew up in Teaneck, NJ, a suburb of NYC several miles from the George Washington Bridge. Swearing I would go someplace far for college, I ended up at Princeton in Princeton, NJ. After graduation, I moved to NYC, where I relocated to a different neighborhood every two years or so for nearly a decade. Now, I’m back in suburban, NJ. I, begrudgingly, love this area.
MB: You have an unusually keen eye for the telling detail in your characters’ thoughts, words, and actions. Where does this come from?
CATE: Thanks. I spend a lot of time analyzing every single thing I say and that is said to me. It’s actually a horrendous character flaw that seems to work well for my profession.
MB: What are you reading these days?
CATE: I’ve been reading a ton of psychological thrillers. I enjoyed Paula Hawkins’ new book Into The Water and Gilly MacMillan’s What She Knew. The Dry by Jane Harper was excellent. Brad Parks’ Say Nothing is spine-tingling. I also love a good ghost story with witty, smart characters and Alexia Gordon’s award-winning Gethsemane Brown series is awesome.
At the moment, I am writing (rewriting) my fourth book (due Sept.). So I am not reading anything. But I have a long TBR list.
MB: What is your writing process like?
CATE: I plot and plan in an excel spreadsheet. Then I write a first draft which rips up large sections of my plan. After letting the draft sit for a few days, I rip it up along with everything else and re-plot and plan with a better sense of who my characters are and their motivations. Then, I write a second draft that solidifies my characters. I tend to discard the majority of this one too, but not before embarrassingly showing it to some people. My third tends to be the keeper. Fortunately, I write a draft in six to eight weeks.
MB: Tell us what it is about psychological suspense that attracts you as a writer?
CATE: I love puzzles, which are at the core of the genre. Not knowing keeps the reader in suspense. I also am a complete apologist when it comes to people who do bad things. In my opinion, there is always some mitigating factor, something sympathy-inducing, that made the person act egregiously. I am not a fan of bad men and women who are rotten because, well, they’re a psycho killer or drug fiend. Villains are rotten for a reason. I like delving into the motivations and world views of severely flawed people and then building stories around them.
MB: While your second book, The Widower’s Wife, and your forthcoming book, Lies She Told, are very different stories, you show us quite convincingly in both that, for some, the lives they lead are fragile, vulnerable fictions. What draws you to explore this very serious theme?
CATE: I think the lies people tell themselves are the most dangerous kind. When those fictions start to unravel, the characters fall into a state of psychological crisis which can lead to all sorts of problems. It gives me a lot of room to write.
I also think that people lying to themselves is relatable. How many of us have wanted something so badly that we ignored evidence to the contrary?
MB: The parallel story lines in Lies She Told––one involving the ‘actual’ protagonist, and another involving the ‘fictional’ protagonist in the novel the actual protagonist is writing––is very interesting and very effective as a narrative device. Where did this idea come from?
CATE: I thought I’d freak my editor out by writing about a crazy novelist. Kidding. Actually, I think it stemmed from a very close family member suffering Alzheimer’s which spurred a lot of research on my part about memory. Why do we remember some events and not others? How does the brain retain information and how can emotional and physical stress disrupt this process, causing some information to be burned into the gray matter and other facts to fade away.
The best way to put all this research to work was to write a novel in which the protagonist is forced, through work, to realize that she subconsciously knows things she doesn’t consciously accept. A writer character allowed me to explore that.
MB: Can you give us a hint about what’s coming next, from the pen of Cate Holahan?
CATE: The next book will be a psychological thriller about a group of folks who should never have taken a vacation together. All the characters have secrets that they might kill to keep. It’s set in Amagansett, which I think is a beautiful backdrop for horrible happenings.
Cate’s books are available wherever books are sold. You can learn more about her at www.cateholahan.com. Along with several other talented mystery and thriller writers, Cate is one of the co-writers of the Miss Demeanors blog.
Cate was interviewed for Murder Books by Roger Johns.