Friday, August 12, 2016

M.J. LaBeff: the girl next door with a dark side

SRW: Today I’m yakking to new author, M.J. LaBeff, whose recently released romantic suspenser, Mind Games, is a fascinating page turner.

Without further ado, here’s M.J! How ‘bout you start with a brief synopsis of Mind Games?

MJ: Hi Stuart! Thanks for hosting me on your awesome blog I’m happy I kept you up all night and turning pages! That’s payback. Your novel Godland grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let me go. My eyes were on fire but I couldn’t stop reading. Oops, I’m going to give a synopsis of your book. I’ve nearly forgotten mine.

Mind Games: After a series of mysterious deaths Sparrow Von Langley is haunted by frightening visions that leads her down a murderous evidence trail and reveal her father’s unorthodox practices as a behavioral therapist, the truth about a friend's disappearance and exposes who the killer is.

I think that about sums it up without giving too much away.

SRW: You describe yourself as the “girl-next-door with a dark side.” Of course with a description like that, I knew I had to meet you. Where’d this dark side come from? Pulling the wings off flies as a child? And how has this dark approach formed your writing?

MJ: Thanks, Stuart, I’m happy to hear my dark side met your expectations! We both write rather twisty tales.

Uh, oh, I have to admit- flies have been harmed. Yep, I’m actually the girl who will squash a fly (I detest those germ flying, noise making creatures). It is the one bug who can find its way into my house and make me mad. I actually broke a blind I was so determined to smack a fly dead with my flip flop. It’s nasty business squashing a fly. Fortunately, we don’t have many flies in southern Arizona. And I don’t pull off their wings; that’s just not right. I will rescue a cricket, spider, Beatle bug and call the fire department to remove a rattlesnake. We do have rattlers in the desert. You’re really gonna give me a hard time over these dead flies. Come on now, I have three dogs and let me just say they’re spoiled! I adore animals including some pesky bugs. Geesh.

Now, I should explain that my family and friends find me and my writing in complete juxtaposition. I think if you ask people who know me, they’d say I’m kind, thoughtful, honest and generous and in the same breath would say, they read my book and I scared them. Sorry, not sorry. 

The dark side of my writing comes from years of reading mystery/suspense/thriller novels, a fascination with the paranormal, and my own scary dreams. I have a recurring dream where I’m always being chased and running breathlessly from a maniac but then there’s always some new element of terror. Dreams are great seeds for me to start a story. A scene in Mind Games was from a dream. That dream was the beginning of a full length novel. 
I still remember standing in Barnes and Noble and telling my friend about the dream. A woman in the aisle near us overheard the conversation. How was I to know she was eavesdropping? I’ll never forget the look on her face and wide eyes as she slowly moved away. My friend was certain the woman was going to call the police, considering my dramatic retelling of the dream. I couldn’t blame her. That’s when I knew I was really onto something.

SRW: Um, about those flies...(I, too, am a world-class, furniture devastating fly hunter). Do you ever see yourself not writing in the dark arena?

MJ: No. Gotta say sorry to my mom, she would luuuuv for me to write a contemporary sweet romance. Poor woman, the suspense/thriller series I have coming out has her a bit concerned.  Oh, well, at least I’ve made my dad proud. Ha! If anything I see myself gravitating more strongly to suspense, thrillers and possibly even horror. The most difficult scenes for me to write in Mind Games were the romance ones. My hat’s off to romance writers everywhere- it’s difficult to craft. 
They say “write what you know”- I suspect the “they” are other writers and I have to agree. I love reading a book that keeps me on the edge of my seat, breathless and turning pages. Your novel Godland was exceptional. As much as I tried to savor the story I wanted to devour it. Page turners are the best. Godland is a page turner. Always my goal, always something I’m working on especially with my suspense/thriller series the Last Cold Case.

SRW: Okay, in Mind Games, I have to be honest with you, M.J., I was a little concerned for the first part of the book as we have all sorts of disparate things happening: out-of-body experiences, ghostly visitations, death (or is it Murrrrrderrrrr?) by suicide, a new romance, teen runaways, a missing sibling, a potentially dangerous relative and other things. I wondered if you were going to be able to pull them together. But you did! Do you enjoy leading the reader down a seriously W.T.H. road?

MJ: Thank you so much! I like to keep the plot turning but want to keep it simple enough so that a reader can remember all of the details. 

W.T.H. road is my favorite one to drive- dangerous curves, dips, hazard signs proclaiming eminent danger if you don’t slow down. Buckle up I’m taking you on a thrill ride. I mean read. 

Oh, yeah, I hope to keep a reader guessing and reading. I’m happy you enjoyed the various storylines and collision course to the end. I enjoy writing secondary characters with shady pasts and shrouded in suspicion that’s where the multiple story threads emerge. Sometimes I’ll think a certain character is the villain and then as the story continues to emerge I learn I had the wrong guy or gal. I think that lends to leading a reader in different directions. Somehow, it works and I don’t have to do much if any rewriting. The writing process is strange and different for all of us.
SRW: Sparrow’s an alternately frustrating and admirable heroine. Being a guy, I suppose, is why I get frustrated with her in her on-again/off-again dealings with Derrick. (I also realize it’s a staple any time romance is part of the genre; happy relationships no one wants to read about). But then Sparrow is also capable of great courage. Still, at times, I wanted to shake her. Defend Sparrow, Counselor LaBeff!

MJ: All right then, ladies and gentleman of the jury…
I had intentionally named the main character Sparrow hoping readers would equate the name with a fledgling bird just pushed out of the nest. Initially she’s frightened by the visions, then delves deeper into their meaning. Eventually, she faces challenges head on, pushes forward and finally resigns herself to the harsh truth. 

Again, the romance angle was difficult for me. I tried to imagine what she was going through- the bad relationship she’d come out of and how she would long for Derrick but have to get over her fear of trusting him. Plus, she’s dealing with potential evidence involving her father. I kept thinking her gut reaction would be to defend him, to attack Derrick, and then slowly come around to reality. Yes, she pulls Derrick close then pushes him away. It’s her initially knowing this man is going after her father intent on sealing his fate. It’s not until cold hard facts hit her upside the head does she snap out of the denial and fully commit to Derrick and expose the truth about the deaths.

SRW: So…yoga. There’s a great deal of talk about yoga in the tale. My wife takes yoga classes (she even made me go to a meditation class with her; alas, I’ve forgotten everything). I assume you do as well. Did your research start and stop with your own experiences? Or did you go beyond the call of duty and research, research, research (and by that, I mean calling upon the Great God Google)?

MJ: Let’s Ooooommmmm, and that’s about all I've got.
The research started with me and ended with a book on both subjects. I had taken Pilates twice a week years ago and it was a great compliment to weight training and cardio. Then my favorite Pilates teacher left the gym and despite every effort to replace her, the class ceased. That’s when I thought I’d give yoga a try. It’s an amazing form of exercise that takes skill, technique and patience. I gave those basic yoga classes my best shot. It was difficult. The breathing exercises weren’t easy for me. I felt quite dizzy! However, I was determined and purchased a book with basic and intermediate poses and meditation exercises and practiced in the privacy of my own home. It really helped me to better understand how to position Sparrow’s body and how meditation could transcend her mind. I think we all have the ability to unlock our subconscious or recall information from our past. Sadly, I never stuck with the yoga or meditation.
SRW: The book raises some ethical issues regarding how far a professional physician should take matters. Do the ends justify the means? Was this at the forefront of your mind while writing?

MJ: I’m sure it was in my subconscious. We have such a huge prescription pain pill addiction in this country. It’s not necessarily the doctors over prescribing. I think the dangers of pain pills weren’t really known and now we’re all becoming better educated as patients and doctors.  With this thought in mind I’m sure it helped spin the story, but it wasn’t the driving force behind the book. Truth- Dr. Phil inspired me with an idea.
The character, Dr. Theodore Von Langley came from playing the “What if…” game. You know the one. It’s a common technique all authors employ. What if a doctor with national recognition and a platform went too far? The person I had been thinking of was Dr. Phil. I’m sorry to drag Dr. Phil into the discussion but I catch his TV show occasionally, and I couldn’t help but think… “What if…” 

A reader who had written a review really captured this idea. She wrote, “What happens when those trusted with the well-being of others are a danger to themselves?”
You’ve posed a difficult question. Do the ends justify the means? I think doctors have difficult decisions to make when it comes to saving lives. I’d like to believe all doctors run ethical practices and have a strong moral compass guiding them to make choices that are responsible and in our best interests.  

Again, “What if…” a medical professional believed so much in the research being conducted and potential outcome that things went too far and once that line is crossed… 

SRW: I thoroughly enjoyed the alternating P.O.V. between Sparrow and Derrick. As you know, it’s how I like to write, too. I always think more than one character’s P.O.V. is more interesting. Simple mathematics! Had you decided at the onset to write it this way? Or did it come naturally once you started? Planner or pantser?

MJ: I always write in third person with alternating points of view. That’s probably from reading a lot books written that way versus first person P.O.V. which I think is very hard to write. I agree that allowing the reader insight into each character makes a more riveting read. I have much admiration for writers who can write deep P.O.V. Let’s not get into all of that or this point of view stuff. It’s tricky business. Let me move onto plotting and flying by the seat of my pants. This is the fun stuff.
I’m part planner and pantser. I always say I know the beginning, middle and end. I plot some, take notes along the way, jot down scenes, but mostly the story is in my head or stuck deep inside it and once I start typing information seems to emerge. I write in what I call a linear manner. I can’t skip ahead or write future scenes whereas I’ve heard other authors can write chapters out of order from following a plot outline. That’s just way too much planning for me. The story would never come out the right way. 

SRW: Although I’m not a romance fan (yucky stuff! Ew! Kissing!), I have to say your two chapter “sex scene” was well written and tastefully done. But for me, it did somewhat slow down the pacing of the tale. I wanted them to wrap it up already and get back to the mystery at hand! But I know readers enjoy these private peeks. Am I alone here? (I guess one of these days I’ll have to take the time-out to write a sex scene; um, one not ambushed by a demon or something along these lines).

MJ: Yikes, I’m glad you survived Sparrow and Derrick’s first kiss and that punch of romance near the end. Oh, come on now, you don’t like a happily ever after?  Just kidding, I really get where you’re coming from here.
Often when I’m reading romantic suspense I’ll rush through the love scenes because I want to get back to the suspense. I had a difficult time deciding on whether or not to keep those scenes. They weren’t easy to write. You know how it is when you go through the editing process to cut or not to cut, to rewrite or not to rewrite. I consider it all part of my author growth. Some of my friends read the book and had the same reaction as you, and I’m actually happy to have learned I craft a much better thriller than love story! 

Stuart, if you give the romance genre a try let me know. I’ll beta-read, I might be able to help cut the demon from the scene, but that’s a big might. I get caught up in the suspense, too.  Honestly, my crit partner writes sweet contemporary romance for Harlequin, and it’s funny to me that I’m useful to her. I’m here for ya if you need me to read.

SRW: You’d told me you have a planned trilogy. Does this mean more Sparrow (and Derrick) mysteries? Will her (slightly) supernatural powers play a part in them?

MJ: Sparrow’s and Derrick’s story has been told. It is a single title stand alone, and I have no intention of writing any future books with these two characters. I had always viewed Sparrow’s supernatural gift as part of her uncovering her past but that once she’d resolved things the visions would end.
The Last Cold Case series is a four book suspense/thriller series so far and will be released with Muse It Up Publishing. The first book, Last Summer’s Evil comes out this fall/winter. The second book, Last Fall’s Hunted releases spring 2017 and the third book, Last Winter’s Taken releases fall 2017. The fourth book, Last Spring’s Stranger comes out spring 2018.
I can’t wait for readers to meet homicide detective Rachel Hood and FBI agent Nick Draven and the diabolic serial killer, the Summertime Slayer in Last Summer’s Evil.

I’ll have updates on my website and in monthly newsletter. There’s a nifty signup form for the newsletter on the website.   

SRW: Besides the series, what else are you planning?

MJ: I have an idea for a fifth book in the Last Cold Case series, but I’m not sure if I’ll move forward with these stories or not. I hope readers fall in love with homicide detective Rachel Hood and FBI agent Nick Draven and want to read more books featuring them tracking a new nemesis.
I’m a big fan of suspense/thriller novels and will continue writing in those genres. 

I also have another single title stand alone novel written that I haven’t submitted to my publisher yet. Currently, it falls in the paranormal genre… perhaps with some rewriting I’ll turn it into my first horror!

You’re welcome. This has been fun!  

SRW: Thanks for being a good sport, M.J! Folks, go pick her book up. It can be found here:                      barnes&


  1. Wow! What a great interview! Sounds like Mind Games was an appropriate title and is quite the complex novel. The Last Cold Case Series sounds intriguing.

    I'm with you Stuart on the sex scenes in books.

    Best wishes to both of you in your writing endeavors.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, I agree with you and Stuart on the romance aspects. It's great hearing my twisted plot kept readers engaged. Wishing you the best with your mystery writing too!

  2. I loved the interview. Both, Stuart's and your own humor, wit, and knowledge shines through. And I totally agree about Godland...then again all of Stuart's books that I've read so far have a way of connecting me straight to the characters, the setting, and their predicaments.

    Wanted to stop by before I head out for a mini vacation with my daughters tonight. Once again, awesome interview!

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by, I'm really happy you enjoyed reading Stuart and I chat it up. I can't wait to read more by him and agree with your comments regarding his characters and awful situations he manages to put them through- he's great at drawing out their back stories. Enjoy your mini trip!

  3. Mind games what a great read, kept me in suspence the whole time. What a great plot twist at the end. Definately looking forward to her next novel. A great upcoming new auyhor.