Tuesday, April 06, 2021

The Story Behind the Story:
“Endings,” by Linda L. Richards

(Editor’s note: This is the 88th installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Our guest author today is Linda L. Richards, the editor of January Magazine and the author of more than a dozen books, including three series of novels featuring strong female protagonists. Her latest book, Endings, is being released today by Oceanview Publishing. She writes below about the unexpected roots of that tale.)

In 2011 I got an idea for a short story. Which is weird, because I usually don’t think in short stories: the flashes of ideas I get tend to go long.

In this case the idea I got came to me complete (a total gift!) and the premise was simple: what would have to happen in the life of one totally “normal” woman to make her kill people for money?

Now before we really begin, understand this: I am as close to a pacifist as you are likely to meet. More: even though I live in Phoenix these days, I am Canadian. That means I don’t have to pretend the Second Amendment makes any kind of sense and I don’t have a political axe to grind other than, in a very general and civilian sense, I am by nature peaceful and I think guns are bad. Full stop. But I am also a crime-fictionist, so these scenarios come to me: what if, what if, what if?

So what if some completely normal middle-aged woman lost everything, and lost it horribly. What might happen then?

And I wrote the short story. It was a set piece, I thought. I saw nothing more, in that moment, for the character. As it happened, I wrote it at the time of the first e-book wave, and I like to experiment in technology, so I decided to publish the short story in e-book format because, well, it was there. That short story was published as “Hitting Back” and was reviewed in The Rap Sheet all those years ago. (A decade ago? What?)

So I did that and it was done. Complete. Next. I never imagined more. Why would I? A hit woman, running around killing people. Beyond the short story, that did not seem interesting to me. So even though I was very proud of the story, and reader mail let me know it had touched some people, I moved on.

One of the things I moved on to was a succession of books for newly literate readers, produced by British Columbia-based Orca Publishing as part of its Rapid Reads series. And after the first of those, If It Bleeds, came out in 2014, I was invited to read at a Noir at the Bar event in Vancouver. Don’t get me wrong, I love If It Bleeds; but when I looked for a portion of the story to read that night, I was stumped. Because of the nature of the Rapid Reads books, there was nothing in my new novel—the one I was supposed to be promoting—that I felt would be quite right for an audience craving edgy and dark material. So, instead, I dusted off “Hitting Back,” and tried reading the first few pages aloud to my cat in my own office. To my astonishment, I started to cry as I read. And I’m not talking a couple of attractive little tears, either. I mean, halfway through the reading I was choked with tears, which I have to tell you, is not a particularly good look for me.

“So this is weird,” I said to myself, deciding right then and there that I would go ahead and read from “Hitting Back” at the Noir at the Bar gathering, and just see what happened.

And so, yeah: you have probably already guessed what happened: I cried. Despite the embarrassing moisture that came from my eyes, I knew it was the best reading I’d ever done. From that moment, people started asking me when the completed novel was coming. At that point, of course, it wasn’t. I just wanted to read something that might have impact. And this did. But, still, I couldn’t see myself writing a hit-woman book. I mean, why? Hadn’t it been done before? And how interesting could it be? Lady goes around killing people. Big deal. Not a book.

(Left) Author Linda L. Richards

A few months later, I was invited to speak at another Noir at the Bar event. I decided to read from the same story—and surprised myself by crying again. And I wondered again why I’d cried. I couldn’t come up with a coherent answer. Something in the material was speaking to me, that was obvious. But what? I really didn’t know, and—still—despite the entreaties of several fellow authors, I could not imagine my short story morphing into a full novel.

So fast-forward some more. In the summer of 2016, the talented novelist and superb human Dietrich Kalteis had put together a series of author tours in outlying regions of British Columbia. It happened that he, along with Sam Wiebe, Owen Laukkanen, and I were all promoting novels at that time, and we would go on these grand expeditions together. At the time I had a curmudgeonly giant Volvo sedan, which somehow got nicknamed The Codger, that we would take on these tours. Quite often it would be me, Sam, and Dietrich in The Codger and Owen in his Jeep, because he liked to chase trains. (I’ll tell that story on a different occasion.) I will never forget the day, returning from one of these trips, that Dietrich asked me—again!—when I was going to turn that story into a book.

“But there’s nothing there, Dieter,” I said, or something very like that. “That’s it. The whole story. I’ve told the whole tale.”

“Why do you cry?”

“I dunno,” I said.

“There’s more, Linda.”

“But who wants to read about a hit woman running around killing people? That’s boring.”

“It isn’t about that,” he said. And he said it in a way that made me understand he was stating something obvious. “It’s about her redemption.”

I did not cry when he said that. But something very like that happened inside me. The instant he said it, something clicked into place. Of course that was it. The book would not be about her killing people. That was the mission of the short story: what would make a nice lady kill? But in the novel, we get to explore the larger question: when you have broken all of society’s rules, how do you walk back? How do you redeem yourself? Or, more basic yet, can you?

I don’t remember the rest of the trip. I only recall dropping Dietrich and Sam off (Owen was away somewhere, photographing trains), and then heading to my computer and writing. And writing. And writing. Until, one day, redemption was at hand. A lot of tears were shed. Endings was born. And now here we are.

READ MORE:Linda Richards: Endings Is (Fortunately) Only the Beginning” (Jungle Red Writers); “Off the Cuff with Linda L. Richards,” by Dietrich Kalteis (Off the Cuff).


Howard said...

I am certainly interested in the story of Owen Laukkanen and his chasing trains in a Jeep.

Lori Steed Sortino said...

Aaaaaahhhhh! I want to read this, Linda!

Linda L. Richards said...

When I think of it, I guess it's not my story to tell. He's talked about his love of trains publicly, though. For instance, here's an interview he did re: his foaming back in 2016: https://blog.traingeek.ca/2016/09/10-questions-for-owen-laukkanen.html

Jo Perry said...

I think the crying-while-reading is so interesting and important. I had a similar experience: I had to give a talk about ny work and decided to focus about my first novel which has a dog as co-protagonist. In my rough draft of the talk which I was testing on my son, I got to the part about the dog and began to cry. And cry. I had arrived, I guess, at the emotional source of that book/series--death and a real dog--were much deeper than I'd let on to myself when I was writing the speech in silence.
I cut that section of the speech as I was afraid I would cry when I delivered it
But I'd learned something important about my book and myself.
I'm so eager to read ENDINGS--a novel whose meaning was so deeply felt. Congratulations again.