Here ye, here ye, court's in session. Today we have Joan Curtis, author of the spiffy mystery The Clock Strikes Midnight, on trial for charges of discrimination toward men in her book. But before we get to the kangaroo trial, let's chat some about the book.
*Hey, Joan, thanks for sitting in the hot seat today. If it gets too hot…well, just sweat it out, there’s no escape. You asked for it. Why don’t we start by your telling the reader what The Clock Strikes Midnight is about?
Joan: This is a story about two sisters whose lives are entwined in a bitter past shrouded in mystery.
Janie Knox wants nothing more than to live her life quietly in Savannah, Georgia and never return to her hometown of Atlanta. At age 17, a week after a jury convicted her
As the clock ticks away, Janie’s uses the last days of her life to right the wrongs that have haunted her for 20 years. She faces more than she bargained for when she discovers her sister’s life in shambles. Meanwhile her stepfather, recently released from prison, blackmails the sisters and plots to extract millions from the state in retribution.
The Clock Strikes Midnight is a race against time in a quest for revenge and atonement. This is a story about unleashing the hidden truths that haunt a quiet Southern family.
*One of the things I enjoyed about the book is I wasn’t quite sure what genre it fit in. That’s a good thing, I think. Sure, it’s billed as a mystery, but while it has some mystery elements, it’s really quite a bit more. Since we live in a label-pasting society, I’d call it a “women’s lit, character study, thriller.” How would you TRULY define the book, Joan?
Joan: Although not a traditional who-done-it mystery, this story centers around the mysterious death of the sisters’ mother. That’s what makes it a mystery. Gone Girl is not considered a mystery but, it, too, is labeled in that category. (But, please, do not compare The Clock Strikes Midnight to Gone Girl coz I hated that book!) I’d say this book is a family saga draped in mystery. How’s that for a new genre?
*You’ve written two interesting, extremely flawed characters in the siblings, Janie and Marlene. They’re tormented by the past, seemingly unable to let it go. And it drives them to be who they are, for better or worse. I’m thinking worse. Tell me the truth, Joan, did you actually like these gals? Who they are before the end?
Joan: I’m not sure I have to like my characters. I like things about them. Janie is strong and focused. Many of us upon learning of our impending death, might just say, “Oh, hang it. I’m gonna spend my final months doing exactly what I please.” Janie, on the other hand, felt compelled to reconcile with her sister and make up for what she had done in the past. Marlene, too, becomes a strong character as the book progresses. (Can’t say more!).
*I think my favorite part of the book was the surprise center section. We get a new back-story, another fascinating character study, one I wasn’t expecting. I liked the way the past intersects with the present in your book, forming the present. And, the center section bridges the gap in many ways. How’d you chart this? So you don’t mess up timelines? I know when I attempt such a thing, it’s tough. Do you have your own “murder board” set up in the living room, strings attached to port cards and the like?
Joan: Wish I was organized enough to have a “murder board.” My books evolve. There’s no other way to describe them. The stories and the characters bubble to the surface as I write. That makes editing a nightmare. (My own editing—before the manuscript is seen by outside eyes.) What I write in the beginning may not work at all later on. Originally, I wrote this entire manuscript from the points of view of the two characters as teens. Then, I re-wrote it from their adult points of view. So, I knew and understood the past as if it had happened to me. I would not recommend this technique to those at home!
*Janie appears to be seeking redemption. To a lesser degree, so is Marlene. But a lot of the things Janie wants to be redeemed for areof her own making. They carry around a wagon-full of guilt and they’ve been punishing themselves in different ways for years. Are they Catholic? Or just really, really messed up? We have survivor’s guilt, blaming oneself for abuse, mentally checked out parents. It’s a textbook case of psychology in many ways. So…what kind of research was involved, Joan? And, um, how much of this is true? (Ducks and covers.)
Maybe I should confess. My husband is a psychiatrist and my background is sociology. I’ve read and heard many a story and learned a lot over the years. The characters are not Catholic, but they are Southern. They grew up in a typical Southern household where everything was made to look good. “Put a good face on it.” Janie and Marlene (having lost their dad very young) clung to each other until something destroyed that strong bond. Later they acted out in different ways. No ducks and covers, my characters are totally fictional.
*Atlanta plays such an important part of the tale. You describe it so well, it’s nearly a character. Having survived driving the Atlanta highways during rush hour (nightmare!), I can attest to many of the things you describe. Drivers are dang crazy. Do you live there?
Joan: Thank you, Stuart. I’m glad the setting felt that real. I live in Athens, which is 75 miles northeast of Atlanta (the little a) I’ve had to work in Atlanta and have experienced that traffic first-hand. Yuck. The metro-Atlanta town where Janie and Marlene grew up, Decatur, is a place I know quite well. If I didn’t live in Athens, I’d probably move to Decatur or Savannah—another of my favorite Georgia towns featured in The Clock.
*I found it interesting that the one action piece in the book is experienced by the two main characters hearing it. They don’t see it, they’re not active participants. From one character’s POV, it’s a terrifically understated suspense set-piece. Did you intentionally set out to write quiet, effective suspense? Or do you just hate writing gunfights?
Joan: Geez. I wish I could be that intentional. “I’m gonna write a certain way…” Instead, things just happen the way they do because they do. I put myself in that character’s place and imagine what she or he is seeing and hearing. I love it that you describe it as “understated suspense.” I’m going to tell people I planned that from now on!
*Okay, let’s talk turkey. Not being sexist, but I’ll bet your book will appeal to women readers more than men. I may be in the minority as a male reader who enjoyed it. HOWEVER…I think the male characters aren’t given their due. Poor Peter. What’d he do to deserve this (okay, okay, he purchased a house without consulting his wife. Major bad. But other than that, he’s a stand-up guy)? Dude takes an emotional beating. And, sure, Ralph’s a heinous villain, there’s no way to defend a sexual predator/abuser. But Janie seeks revenge on him for killing her mother. After he spent years in prison. I got more gripes about Janie's attitude toward men but it'd lead into spoilers. Finally, the character of Nick. Gah. HATE him. Opportunistic player, yet he’s presented as a woman’s dream. Okay, Ms. Curtis, start dancing…how do you defend yourself in my courtroom blog? You’re up on charges of sexism and discrimination against male characters.
Joan: You forgot my favorite male character, Mark. He’s a lifesaver both to Marlene and to Janie. And, what about Marlene and Janie’s dad? Such a good guy. Indeed, Peter got a raw deal, but who knows what the future might hold for him.
I wrote a book I’d love to read. I’m a female, so it makes sense that my book might appeal more to the ladies. But, the first reviewer was a man. I was a bit surprised when he gave it five stars. So, go figure…
*Hmm, not sure I'm satisfied with that answer. What say you, readers? Guilty or not guilty on the charges of discrimination against men?
Joan, what’s up next for you?
Joan: My next book is the first in a series. More mystery-like, The e-Murderer stars Jenna Scali, a thirty-something, criminology graduate student who works for a shrink and who gets tangled up with a serial killer. Yikes. Murder and mayhem follow.
*There you have it. Go get Joan's book here.