Zibby Owens: Vanessa Lillie is the debut author of thriller Little Voices. A former editor for an e-publisher with fifteen years of marketing and communications experience, Vanessa currently lives in Rhode Island with her husband and son. She's originally from Oklahoma and actually won a poker tournament in Saint Martin.
Welcome, Vanessa. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Vanessa Lillie: Thank you so much. I'm a huge fan. I'm thrilled to be here.
Zibby: This is so fun for me too. I know we've been talking for so long. Little Voices, debut thriller, super exciting. Tell me what Little Voices is about. What inspired you to write it?
Vanessa: Little Voices is the story of a woman postpartum who is both struggling as a new mom, but then also her friend was murdered actually on the night she went into labor. She very much wants to return to who she was before, to be able to investigate, to be able to help find justice for her friend. It’s the story of an investigation. It’s also the story of motherhood, which is something I really wanted to read. I thought of this story and wrote a lot as a new mom. I wanted to see a new mom at the heart of a thriller, which is my favorite genre.
Zibby: The way you described new motherhood was so real, especially all the doubts and insecurities that come with it. You had so many scenes. I’ll just read a few examples. Devon is your main character. She's filled with this self-loathing at times, so much so that she has all these negative voices floating around her head telling her she's doing a bad job. You wrote, “This child hates the look of me, my smell, the taste of my breath, refused by her tiny perfect mouth. I want to be a good mother more than anything. I do not accept this failure.” Then you say, “After two hours of failing to soothe Ester, I am a possessed form, thighs burning, tears in both our eyes as I obsessively bounce on the workout ball to exercise these wails from my child.” Then in italics it says, “You were never meant to be a mother. If she had a different mother, she’d never cry at all.” Tell me about all this negative self-talk. Is this how you talk to yourself? I want to give you a hug or something.
Vanessa: That's so nice. I’ll always take a hug. As a new mom, you are very susceptible because, one, you don't know what you're doing, and two, the world likes to tell you that you're doing things wrong. Never in your life have you been more vulnerable, at least for me, to that feedback. While the voices in my head were not as severe or serious as my main character’s, it wasn't that hard to take it there. My experience was that there was usually something that was hard. For my son, he didn't sleep much for two years. That's a long time. You wonder, when you're exhausted, if you're doing something wrong. If he had a different mother, would he be sleeping more? Is it just him? You have no answers, and so you worry. It was definitely a dark place. It felt true to my own experience as a mom who wanted to do things right but just didn't know how to do them most of the time.
Zibby: That's the worst part, the lack of control and the uncertainty and nobody being able to tell you what you're doing. [laughs]
Vanessa: Even when you start doing something right, they change. It’s like, wow, he's been napping so well this week. I must be the best mom in the world. Then he goes through a sleep regression. You're like, oh, no. I'm not the best mom. It was just a good week.
Zibby: Totally, oh, my gosh. You actually start this whole anxiety train of thought in the book even when you were pregnant, which I completely relate to. You wrote, “When I was in my first trimester, I made a list of probable complications that could occur during labor. Seventeen of them seemed worth categorizing and diagramming and obsessing over. They're tucked away in a tiny spreadsheet on my computer.” [laughs] I can so relate to that. You didn't actually have a list, did you? Did you joke about it? Tell me.
Vanessa: That was about two degrees further than I actually was. It was a very small step. I definitely read the books. I worried. What was a big help was I joined a pregnancy group. You can sit around with other new moms or mom who will be new moms, all of us first time. We really talked about our anxiety. It felt good to know that I wasn't the only one worrying and obsessing. For a lot of us, you want this so bad. Some people have been trying for a long time. It’s so close. It’s inside of you. You can literally feel it growing. There's nothing more triggering for anxiety than when you're so close you can almost touch it. It’s something you want more than you've almost wanted anything in your whole life. To me, it pushed all those buttons. I needed to write about it and express it. I imagine that a lot of people felt the same way.
Zibby: Did writing help you?
Vanessa: Absolutely. That's how I process a lot of feelings. Even if it’s just journaling or making a list, writing calms my mind and focuses it. You're almost naming emotions. You're naming a problem. There's power to that. Maybe it’s that it takes the power away from the emotion. You can take it back and get some sense of control. Writing about this postpartum time in my life helped me see it for what it was and explore the hard parts and the good parts all with the hope that it would connect with other people. That's a lot of what I craved as a new parent was just to connect with others and be like, “Am I alone? Do you kind of feel this way?”
Zibby: Do you now have people pouring out of the woodwork telling you that they felt the same way?
Vanessa: Yes. I love it. At this point, I'm pretty new, so maybe good friends who've read it. They're like, “Oh, my gosh. I'm the same way.” I'm like, “I know. I am too. You're not alone.” It’s hard for all of us. It’s okay that it’s hard. Even though this is a thriller and there's a lot of crazy things that happen, the heart of it truly is just a terrified new mom. I put all of my terrified new mom experiences into that.
Zibby: Thank you for that. I remember even before I had kids, sitting on the couch with my giant belly and spending hours researching different strollers so worried I would pick the wrong one. Once I had the kids, it’s not like it was a car. If I bought the wrong stroller, I could return it. I could get a different stroller. These aren't such big deals, the wrong brand of bottle warmer. Somehow, everything is amplified.
Vanessa: Yes. Stuff is something you can control. You can control the stroller you buy. You can control the wallpaper in the baby’s room. Those are things that you actually have control over. Ninety-five percent of it, you don't. It’s nice to just hang on and think about and worry about things that you know in the end you will be the one buying it. That was my experience. I was like, I've never thought about wallpaper this much in my entire life. What's going on here? Why am I so fixated on the baby’s room even though he's not even in there for the first three, four months? He's in my room.
Zibby: It’s easier also, intellectually -- not easier, but emotionally saying, do I need a wipe warmer versus what if something happens with this pregnancy? That's really what we’re all worrying about the whole time. I feel like I held my breath, that twin pregnancy, the whole time. I still hold my breath for my kids. I never really exhaled that breath. Your book also really touches on loss in so many ways and gets to the heart of the true fear that really unites all of us mothers and parents, not just mothers.
Vanessa: Absolutely. It’s maybe a cliché, but this idea of your heart is now outside your body is the truest statement to me. You imagine what it’s like, but you do not know until you hold that child. You see it. You think, wow, you are mine. I am connected to you on the cellular fundamental level. With that comes fears. It’s one thing to worry about yourself getting hit by a bus or something. That feels completely different as a parent thinking about something happening to your child. I imagined it. Experiencing it, for me, was so much bigger. It can be a daily worry if you let it.
Zibby: As soon as you create a life, you're creating a loss at whatever time it happens. It’s terrifying. It’s just terrifying, rewarding and amazing, but also -- anyway, sorry to -- [laughs]
Vanessa: With books or movies or anything, like why there's true crime obsessions and things, we want to explore the dark parts. Maybe it’s to help prepare us for them. Maybe it’s just our own worries. With Little Voices, I did want to take it as far as I could because I was worrying about things. Also, there is some sense of being seen and understood even if it’s a story that goes so far beyond your own experience. If you can connect with it, for me, it brought me back to a more normal place even though it’s going to an extreme. I don't know if that made sense. That's definitely how I felt when I was writing it.
Zibby: Your book is not just about being a new mother. It’s about losing a friend. There's this murder this happens right away and then the investigation behind that. After a while, I was like, did she work at the FBI? Did you intern there or something? There was so much detail with the investigation and the agents and the protocol and all of it. That was also very engrossing. You were in it with these people.
Vanessa: Thank you. A great way to procrastinate writing is by researching, I've found. I loved going down rabbit holes online. You can find crazy stuff, people talking about their experiences being investigated by the FBI. I don't know if it’s true. It sounded true enough. It just has to be believable if you're writing. [laughter] I loved looking into it. There's also so much good TV. You watch The Wire. Scandal’s a great fixer show. There's a lot of inspiration out there. I enjoyed the research and trying to create something I really had no experience with. I'm glad you liked it. That was fun for me. As a new mom who felt like I had a mushy brain, I wanted the story to have a pretty complex mystery at the center of it. That was something I was craving as a reader and a writer. There were a lot of twists and turns, and the FBI and the police because that's something I was in the mood to try to create. That had nothing to do with diapers and how many poops and pees there were that day or whatever the daily struggle was.
Zibby: Take me through your writing career, so to speak. How did you end at this point where you could craft a thriller like this?
Vanessa: Thank you. In my early twenties, I had a nice PR job in nonprofits. I was living in DC. I had a great boyfriend who's now my husband. I was living in Dupont Circle, which is a really cool place to live. I just felt really restless and unsatisfied. I knew that all the other pieces of my life were going pretty well. I finally narrowed it down to the fact that I wasn't being creative anymore. I just started writing. At the time, I was reading women’s fiction and some romance novels. I love romance. I joined Romance Writers of America, which is an awesome organization of women who care a lot about craft. I just jumped in. I wrote a really bad women’s fiction. It was basically an adult Princess Diaries, but you know what? I wrote it. It was a good experience. I kept working.
I wrote another book that I ended up querying probably well over a hundred agents. Had a lot of good feedback and went round and round for ten years of conferences and pitching and reading craft books and connecting with other writers. There's a lot of ways to go about it. I didn't get my MFA. I did study English in college. If you just love the craft of writing and you enjoy it, there are a lot of organizations that can help you get there. Any credit to this book and my debut is really just because there are a lot of people out there who've either written books or held sessions at conferences. Making yourself get out there and get in the mix, you can learn so much.
Zibby: I've heard that there's formula elements to a thriller. How did you do it? Did you have an outline? Did you have a checklist? How did you go about it?
Vanessa: There's two schools of thought about writing style. There's writing by the seat of your pants, a pantster is the funny term, or there's outliners. It’s feels like this very -- you're either A or you're B. For the ten years I was writing, I was a pantster. I was really writing by the seat of my pants. For me, that felt creative. It felt exciting. You didn't know what was going to happen next. Also, at the end of it, the books were kind of a mess because, as you're saying, there wasn't a structure. There was in that when you watch a movie, you know there should be a turning point here. There's twists that you instinctively know, but there's still more to structure than that. After I had my son and I started Little Voices, I told myself, look, you cannot write two books over ten years and make this a career.
I studied structure very seriously, ending up entering the National Novel Writing contest, NaNoWriMo. You write a really bad book, basically, in a month, which is a little bit scary, but it’s fun. There are thousands of people all over the world doing it. I sat down and I outlined it as best I could. There was still lots of discovery in that process. Now structure is my first thought because I know that the creation and the creativity is something that comes. If the structure isn't there, particularly as you said, for a thriller, you're going to be in some trouble at the end. I do love structure. I'm a reformed pantster. That's what works for me for now. It can change, like probably with kids. Every book is different.
Zibby: It’s like when you're trying to build a house. The part I like is decorating or picking a fabric or finding a cool pillow or something, but you have to get the floor plan or else you have nothing to decorate.
Vanessa: That's right. The two-by-fours have to fit with other two-by-fours. Some of that is not that exciting. You will appreciate it when your roof doesn't fall in.
Zibby: Exactly. That's so funny. Tell me about book two. You already have book two launching in February. Is that true?
Vanessa: I do. This is the first time that I wrote a book and I knew someone was going to read it. My debut, I had no idea. That was a new experience. I do think, with the process of this one, I did a better job in terms of writing. There were some craft things that were clicking just through this experience of the first book. It is a little scary thinking people are going to read this. It was definitely a sophomore experience. I just got a bunch of notes back from my editor. I'm jumping into those.
At this point, it’s still set on the east side of Providence. Phillip, who is a character in Little Voices, and Detective Ramos who's also a character, are going to be in this book. The main character, she is very different. She's probably what people would consider an unlikeable female character, though I certainly like her, or I liked writing about her. She's a nonprofit CEO who has a pretty serious drinking problem. She's accused of a murder. She's the only suspect. She investigates this murder of her as the main suspect through a vlog, which is something I discovered with my son, which are a video diary of her looking into the crime. That's both the crime but then also an exploration of who she is and her past. I’ll probably need to work on that pitch a little bit. That's generally what it is.
Zibby: It sounds good. Do you have a title yet? Can you not say?
Vanessa: For right now, it’s For the Best.
Zibby: Like it. You had lots of other titles for Little Voices.
Vanessa: Little Voices was the fourth one. I was very open to titles. It’s such a very particular -- it’s like a child’s name. It hits people a certain way. Where we ended up, I was really happy with. The voices are a lot of the conflict and the central part of my main character’s story.
Zibby: Tell me the other three again. I read [indiscernible].
Vanessa: The first title I had was a focusing title just to keep me focused. It’s Dark is the Rhode, R-H-O-D-E like Rhode Island. Obviously, that's not going anywhere. It helped me think about the darkness and a lack of clarity. Then Rhode Island is also -- I've only lived here eight years. I'm obsessed with this state. I think it’s the most interesting, quirky, cool place. A lot of Little Voices has a lot of Rhode Island in it because that's where I am. I'm very fascinated by this place. Then the next one was Blood in the Water, which is a lot. The feedback I got was it was maybe a little too genre, which I guess means there's a little more women’s fiction elements in this. It was a little too hard. Then this is the funny one. I sent my agent a spreadsheet list, going back to your question earlier, of title ideas. The one that we landed on is The Afterbirth, which makes everyone sit up. That got quickly nixed by my editor. I sent her A Little Voice. She came back with Little Voices. I was like, that's it. Titles, covers, it is marketing, but it’s important because it hits you a certain way. It’s supposed to communicate what those hundred thousand words are about in a second.
Zibby: It’s really wild. It’s wild that it even works at all to attract the right people. I guess they’ve got it down to a science. I've noticed as I've been going through more piles by genre, even the font, the font, the capitals versus lowercase, the colors -- this is thriller versus this is not a thriller. It’s easy to get dumped into a category. Maybe it’s more helpful to be very clear about what type of book you're writing.
Vanessa: I guess. The font, is it literary fiction? What's trendy in literary fiction? It’s really interesting. I'm a little geeky about fonts and book covers. I love to see what's coming out. It tells you a lot about how the publisher sees the book in the market. When it works, it works. It’s exciting to see trends. I love it too.
Zibby: It goes back to what we were saying before we started recording about how we enjoy Instagram because it’s an opportunity for people to be creative. It gives everybody a glimpse into someone else's point of view on something, which in and of itself is interesting. That's like the book cover thing. It’s somebody else's take on something. That creative output is also super interesting.
Vanessa: And interpretation, which is all writing a book is. That's the crazy part of it. You just write it. Then everyone else will reflect it back in their own experiences. The same with the book cover. Often, it’s a great artist who does book covers. The woman who did my book cover does all sorts of really cool visual art projects. Then she also does book covers. You get another person’s interpretation of your story based on their own artistic experience. I ended up really enjoying it even more than I expected because it’s interesting to see a creative person’s interpretation of a book.
Zibby: Right, so interesting. Awesome. We were also talking earlier about some of your advice to aspiring authors. You were giving me advice. Talk to me about following momentum and when life throws things at you, your advice on what to do with it, and any other advice you have for aspiring authors.
Vanessa: There's something about a creative momentum. Whether it’s the universe or the world -- there's a lot of writers who've also written about this. When something happens to you that really strikes a chord and you feel passionate about it and you feel energy for it and you want to pursue it, you have to honor it. You have to follow it and see what happens. Hopefully, it connects with other people. Hopefully, there's opportunities to share it. I do think there is a creative power in following the momentum. When you're open to what's happening around you -- for me, I never even considered writing a thriller about a new mom.
Because that was my experience and my heart was longing to be connected to people in that way, I just went for it. I had to work really hard to get it to a place that it was publishable. If you are drawn to a topic, if you are connected particularly, and have experiences that come from true emotional places, particularly for a debut -- it’s really hard to get a debut novel published. You're unproven. That's just how it is. If you can write from those true experiences and really follow them through, there's a lot of power in that, and truth. People will feel that connection. The rawness of new motherhood is in my book because I was in it. That's almost like a form of shorthand. It takes you to those important creative places that can be harder to find as a newer author because they're true to you and your experiences.
Zibby: Do you feel like you read a lot of thrillers to get a sense of it? I know you had already referenced the groups that you're a part of and meeting other authors. Was reading an essential part for you in crafting your own thriller?
Vanessa: Yeah. It was twofold. On the one hand -- this would've been 2015 -- there weren’t quite as many thrillers with new moms at the center of them. Part of it was just wanting to see a new mom at the center of a thriller, which is my favorite genre. I read lots of thrillers. It is often a detective. The domestic thriller boom was just happening. It was much more Gone Girl. The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy is wonderful book with new moms at the center. The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena is another great postpartum thriller. That was just starting to come out. I had a longing to see something in the marketplace, which I think is a good sign. If you are a reader in your genre and you have a feeling that you want to see something else, that's a good instinct. Follow that and see what you can create. Then as other books started coming out, that gave me some confidence. Okay, I'm not the only one. People do want to see new moms at the heart of these thrillers like I did. It gave me some extra confidence too.
Zibby: Are you thinking you might ever write a book about the insecurity of being a teenage mom or eventually an -- [laughs] How old are your kids now? I'm not sure.
Vanessa: He's four and a half.
Zibby: He's four and a half. Are you going to kindergarten? Maybe now you'll just have to follow your life, right?
Vanessa: That sounds great. I've really enjoyed exploring new motherhood. If I tried to write this book now with a four-and-a-half-year-old, there's so much I don't remember. Flipping back through this book, I was like, oh, yeah. When you're in the moment to capture it, either through journals or diaries -- it’s so easy to forget it, not only to forget the particular experiences, but to forget the emotions and what you really felt and what really made you cry and what was really hard. I probably would've forgotten how difficult showering was if you're a nursing mother because it hurts. That's something you want to forget. If you're writing and creating around these moments, I do think it captures it. My four-and-a-half-year-old’s pretty nutty. There's a lot to capture and a lot to follow. [laughter] They're very entertaining.
Zibby: I look forward to following the progression of your mothering as well as your writing. Hopefully it’s not quite as mired in anxiety as it was in the beginning.
Vanessa: No promises. [laughter]
Zibby: Thank you so much for sharing your experience and coming on my podcast. Thank you.
Vanessa: Thank you. This is really wonderful. Like I said, I'm such a fan. It’s incredible to hear writers talk about their experiences and what goes on behind them. Thank you very much for all that you do.
Zibby: No problem. It’s my pleasure. Thanks.