Amber Cowie and Ed Aymar (publishing as E.A. Barres) are sharing a book birthday on November 10, but they’re giving us a gift by interviewing each other!
Both of these novels deal with new widowers/widows. What was the hardest part about writing that? And how did you each get into the emotional space to write it?
Amber: I love that we’re starting with an intense question because writing a book about grief was both challenging and transformative for me. My brother died at the end of 2018 which I wrote about here. I was working on a different manuscript at that time which I intended to be my third book. Writing while grieving is tough. My thoughts were foggy, I was constantly distracted and I lost the story I was trying to tell. I struggled for months to revise the manuscript but every time I finished a draft it became even more muddled and messy. Finally, my editor asked me if there was anything else I could send her. I realized that the problem was that what I was working on was not the story in my head. I needed to write out my sadness by creating Mallory and helping her to work through the stages of her grief on the page. As I did so, the town of McNamara and the myth of the Loss Lake monster was born. My brother loved monster stories—watching old movies with him in his grungy bachelor apartment is one of my favorite memories of him—so I dedicated this book to him.
Ed: Everything I’ve written has, somewhat quietly, chronicled the current emotions in my life. My last book, The Unrepentant, was influenced by the sudden sense of protection I felt with my young son, an urgent responsibility I’d never felt before, although common to new parents. They’re Gone is, in many ways, representative of my worries about abdicating that responsibility and abandoning my family. I know that my wife and son are strong and would recover, but I deeply want the treasures of long lives together. Even if, in They’re Gone, that particular grief isn’t present in all the characters, it’s absolutely found in others.
When did you finish your novels?
Ed: The heavy revisions were completed earlier this year but, unlike a lot of writers, I haven’t been as affected – in regards to production – because of the pandemic. That’s probably a matter of timing. I was able to dive into edits during the first terrors of this global catastrophe, rather than creating something completely new, which would have been conceptually difficult.
Amber: I am so grateful that the big edits of Loss Lake occurred before the pandemic began. I had to turn around copy-edits in March, a week after schools had closed indefinitely, so juggling fine line edits and the raising of a seven year old and four year old was tough as hell. I cannot imagine (!) having to draft a story or consider big developmental questions during the early stages of social distancing. The looming uncertainty of the global pandemic and what it meant for the health, economy and overall well-being of my family and our community was as debilitating as the cloud of grief which had hung over me the year before.
If you did some of the writing or editing in 2020, after the pandemic had struck, was your work affected by it?
Amber: Having two young kids at home in a world when playgrounds were fenced off, playdates were forbidden and schools were closed left very little time for me and my words. My husband is a brewer so he kept working over the course of the pandemic which meant it was me and my kids all day every day. It was tough to squeeze in a shower let alone a story. I freelance non-fiction so I was able to cobble together a couple essays over the last few months—one on joining TikTok as a forty year old non-dancer and one as a mother struggling to understand how to create stability in a broken world—but it took months before I had the time to turn back to my novels. When I was able to dive back in, I realized that writing is a path to resilience for me. Without it, I go a little crazy (which might explain the whole TikTok thing).
Ed: Like Amber, I write a lot of non-fiction, and that was a good outlet. My writing gave me a place to breathe. But I was also inspired by my friend Alex Segura to do something on behalf of the writing community. I manage D.C.’s crime fiction reading series “Noir at the Bar,” and I moved the series online. I also increased the frequency of events – during the first wave of the pandemic, I did these events weekly, for an enthusiastic crowd that always numbered into the hundreds. I was fortunate that a number of publications supported and wrote about the series, and it proved a necessary reminder that, although things have changed, they’re not lost.
What are your concerns about releasing a book during such a turbulent time period? Has that taken away from some of the excitement?
Ed: It’s definitely different but, honestly, releasing a book never seems to happen smoothly. If there aren’t outside events creeping in, then personal events can affect it. And the reception matters. Both The Unrepentant and They’re Gone have been fortunate to receive early enthusiasm from readers, reviewers, and bloggers, so it’s not exactly like releasing novels into an uncaring vacuum (which seems to be the ultimate concern for anyone, at any time). I also have a variety of virtual events lined up and, even if the excitement of an in-person event isn’t matched, there are other benefits: anyone can attend, as opposed to people within driving distance; I can work with more bookstores than I normally would; I have the chance to partner with so many more writers than a regular book tour typically offers.
But They’re Gone is also coming out a week after the election and Trump will probably launch the country into another civil war, so there’s that.
Amber: This is my third novel. My first was released a week after my brother died. My second was released when I was still a mess from that though I didn’t realize it at the time. So in a way, I’ve been practicing releasing books during turbulent times for years. In the months leading up to Loss Lake coming out, I was feeling scared, weird and slightly helpless. I decided to make a list of book reviewers, bloggers and bookstagrammers who had read my work in the past and send them surprise book mail. It took weeks of covertly gathering addresses, assembling packages and becoming close friends with my local post office workers but, once they started arriving and people wrote to me to tell me that the packages had made their day, a lot of my worries began to dissipate. Writing can be lonely—especially in 2020—but I found a way to connect with people and give them joy in a super hard time. I’ve been trying to employ the same tactics in all my book promotion. We need stories more than ever right now and though I can’t talk to you in person or attend amazing writing conferences or do a fun book launch party, but I’ve still been having (remote, social distanced, digital) fun in the weeks leading up to the release.
How do you each find the time to write novels in addition to raising a family, as well as your nonfiction pursuits?
Amber: There’s a lot of early mornings and late nights around here and sometimes my husband and I have to divide and conquer to allow us both to work our dream jobs. He works long hours four days a week so I can work on Fridays. I used to be a massive procrastinator as I wrote but I don’t do that anymore. When I’m at my computer, I’m working and when I have a deadline, I work harder. The great thing about writing is that it’s not a grind for me—I love this job so much—so I make the most of my minutes. Also, I think that time with my kids can be extremely helpful when I’m in the drafting stage of something. I love everything about my little ones but I don’t have to engage my entire mind to listen to a synopsis of the latest episode of The Octonauts so my next chapter is often formed in the background of my brain before I get back to my laptop. Down time is often my most productive in a strange way.
Ed: Somewhat selfishly, I’ve crafted my entire life around writing. Writing time affected my evenings and social life in my twenties and, when I got married, my wife was entirely understanding about what I wanted, and the time it required. My day job is also strictly nine-to-five, so it doesn’t bleed into outside hours. Some of that is by my own choice, much of it is the luxury of privilege – losing my job, for example, would affect my carefully constructed daily calendar.
You have to be kind of an asshole about your “writing time,” but that’s no excuse to be an asshole overall, which is something a lot of writers (including me, especially early on) fail to realize. I need my family, especially these past few years. If I died tomorrow, I don’t think my last regret would be that I didn’t spend enough time writing. I’d regret never seeing my wife and son again.
When did you sign with Fuse? What’s been the best part of working with them?
Ed: They’re Gone is dedicated to Michelle Richter, my agent, so that should tell you how much I value her. This has been a long journey for me. I started writing seriously in 1997 and, along the way to 2020, there were close calls, a different agent, false starts, everything. When I first queried Michelle, I was starting to find my place in the world of crime fiction. Artistically, you need to find your voice; professionally, you need to find your place. Signing with Michelle came as I was realizing both, and she’s been a wonderful partner in helping me find the right path. We’ve been working together five or six years now, and I can’t imagine ever working with anyone else.
Amber: I met Gordon Warnock at the Seattle Writers Workshop right after I pitched my first novel to an incredible acquiring editor. I was high on the possibility of publication and I had noticed in the program that Gordon was a fellow Canadian so I introduced myself in a very dorky way then moved on. Months later, when I learned that my pitch was successful, I asked Gordon if he would become my agent. I had two other manuscripts that needed a deal and Kerry Lonsdale, a kind and super generous author and friend, was signed with him and had very good things to say. I approached Gordon and asked him to consider me. We’ve been working together ever since. Gordon and Fuse have been incredibly supportive over the last few years. Not only did Gordon secure me a multi-book deal, he’s been an incredible advocate and counsellor for me. I call him my consiglieri (because I’ve watched The Godfather too many times) but I do think the right agent tells you the truth when you need it and gives you a shoulder to cry on when you need that too.
If someone gave you a time travelling machine and let you return to the moment when you finished your first manuscript, what advice would you give yourself?
- Everything is going to take much longer than you think it will, but you’ll get there.
- Your first draft kind of sucks, but it’s going to turn into something amazing.
- You’re going to meet some absolutely terrible human beings as you try to get this published, but they are going to lead you to the some of the best people you’ve ever known.
Ed: Don’t publish this until a woman named Michelle Richter becomes your agent. My first book was published under a very small press and I sold it to them myself. 0 out of 5 stars, would not recommend. Get an agent first.
What are you working on now?
Ed: I have a couple of essays coming up around the time of the book launch; well, I have a shitload of things coming up, but these two essays are two that I’m really proud of. The first is an essay for CrimeReads about “writing outside your identity,” with input from writers Radha Vatsal, S.A. Cosby, and Steph Cha. And the second is an essay for the Washington D.C. City Paper about why D.C. is such a hub for crime fiction. Both are scheduled to be published during launch week.
Amber: I got super into classic noir novels during the quarantine as well as old school horror movies. (Any port in a storm). The end result is a manuscript that blends them both—sort of And Then There Were None meets The Blair Witch Project. It’s a closed door mystery about a team of researchers who visit a remote wilderness location on the west coast of Canada to track down the truth about a sixteen year old girl who is alleged to have killed three men in 1922 before disappearing into the forest forever. Though her proper name was Ruth Savage, locals only speak of her as The Savage Witch when they dare to say her name at all. The team begins their journey believing Ruth has been unfairly maligned…until one by one, they begin to disappear.