How would you introduce your new book Dark Territory to a potential reader?
Signy Shepherd is a kick-ass young conductor on a modern Underground Railroad that helps shuttle women in peril, away from danger. After triumphing over a brutal assassin in her first solo assignment, Signy’s newfound confidence is tested when she begins to suspect that the young mother she is rescuing in her latest case may not be the victim she claims to be.
Dark Territory is an old-fashioned railroad term meaning a section of tracks without functioning signal lights, and I think it perfectly describes Signy’s dilemma as she quickly loses control over the entire operation and finds herself isolated, and in the dark. Relying on nothing but her instincts, and with the cops hot on her tail, Signy is forced to make a choice that not only risks her own life but also those of the people she loves.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I’ve been a social worker for over 15 years, assisting people living with serious mental illness, but before that, I worked as a placement student at a women’s shelter. It was a fascinating place to work — never a dull moment. The women who worked there were strong, brave and dedicated to keeping other women safe. Occasionally, there appeared to be a coordinated effort to help women flee particularly dangerous situations — tickets purchased, rides organized, that sort of thing.
At about the same time, there was a story in the newspaper about a woman who had fled her allegedly abusive partner. She ran across the United States, and eventually went into hiding with help from an Underground Railroad system. It was a controversial case. The woman claimed she was keeping her daughter safe — her partner claimed she had kidnapped their child — but what stuck with me was the entire concept of a modern underground railroad. I thought it was a brilliant idea, and very much needed by women who have been failed by the legal system.
The women I’ve served over the years also inspire me. Intelligent, funny, courageous, they often lack the solid foundation that most of us take for granted, and as a result, rarely come out on top. In an effort to give a powerful voice to marginalized women, Signy Shepherd was born, and Signy always wins!
In general, I am inspired by almost everything that goes on around me. From a newspaper article to the most innocuous conversation I overhear in a line-up, anything can be the seed of a new idea. I am always on the alert for those moments and try to write them down before they are lost.
How were you introduced to genre/crime fiction?
I have been an avid reader of crime fiction since I fell in love with Nancy Drew as a kid. I doubt there is a major series that I’ve missed over the years. Some of favourite crime writers include Jo Nesbo, Elizabeth George, Ben H. Winters, and Arnaldur Indridason. There is nothing I love more than discovering a new (to me) crime writer. Recently, I stumbled upon Yrsa Siggerdardottir, the Icelandic author of the tightly written, and often hilarious, Thora Gudmundsdottir series.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
Writing is without a doubt the hardest job I’ve ever done. Writing a novel is bad enough, but finishing a novel, is brutal. Especially for a new author, getting a novel to the stage where it is ready to be sent to agents takes commitment, discipline, perseverance, and a willingness to accept and learn from criticism. It is not an endeavor for the faint of heart.
Working within the publishing industry took me way out of my comfort zone. Almost every aspect was new to me, from working with a professional editor to marketing to public speaking. Self-promotion is probably the most difficult aspect for me. For the introverts among us, and I expect many writers fall on the introverted side of the scale, standing up in front of crowd and crowing about your achievements is difficult, to say the least.
Still, it’s been a wild and crazy ride, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
Stephen King recounts that when his children were little, he used to write in the laundry room, while his kids raised hell just outside the door. Not me. I need a quiet spot to write, preferably on my own. In order to get into the creative zone, I need to get deep inside my character’s heads, and that can take a long time of quiet contemplation. The minute someone or something interrupts me, I lose the thread, and then have to start all over. If I had a million dollars, I’d rent an office in a silent building with south-facing wall of windows looking out over the ocean. Since that isn’t likely to happen, I continue to write in a corner of my living room, with my computer on my lap, trying, unsuccessfully, to tune out the constant interruptions.
I will be travelling down to the gulf coast this winter towing my retro camping trailer. The hypnotic nature of driving is the next best thing to silence. The open road really cranks up my creative juices.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing?
I was in my early 50’s when I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing. I’d always been a reader, and after years of university, I could easily write a good academic essay, but I’d never had the confidence to attempt fiction. I started small, with a creative writing night class offered through Durham College. I LOVED it, and received good feedback, so I continued with Creative Writing, Part II. After successfully completing that, I took courage in hand, and enrolled in a yearlong novel writing course. Blown Red was the result.
Do you still look back on it fondly?
Yes, indeed! I loved those days when it was all about the learning without any of the publishing pressure.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I have a third Signy Shepherd novel fully plotted, but am once again stepping outside my comfort zone to work on a mystery novel. I worked for six years at the Toronto Zoo, and during my time there, could often be found contemplating the perfect murder. Exotic animals, cage doors left open, quirky characters, endless hiding spots. Could there be a more delightful setting for murder?
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I am a huge fan of Nordic Noir. Having exhausted my cache of Jo Nesbo mysteries, I am currently reading Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason. I recently loved All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, that, although it is a literary novel, reads like a thriller.
In the non-fiction category, I am currently re-reading The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblat.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I am stupidly gullible. I believe everything I’m told. As a new zookeeper, I was involved in the annual catch-up of wallabies (small kangaroo-looking creatures). Every year, the animals are transferred from their large outdoor enclosure to a warm winter holding pen. The operation involves a dozen or more keepers walking in a straight line, catching wallabies as they try to escape.
My supervisor at the time, solemnly instructed me never to grab a Wallaby by the tail, as it would almost certainly snap off, leaving the poor thing to bleed to death (Not true). Unfortunately, I believed him whole-heartedly, and while the rest of the crew caught their wallabies with ease, I remained empty-handed, crazed wallabies jumping on, and over me, while the other, more seasoned keepers, rolled their eyes, and laughed.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Going on the road, and finishing the first draft of my murder at the zoo mystery.
Dark Territory is published by Simon & Schuster. The novel is also the January selection for S&S’s Kick-Ass Women campaign, an initiative aimed at highlighting strong female protagonists in 2016 titles. For more on Susan Philpott’s novels and writing, be sure to check out her website, and follow her on Goodreads and Twitter.