The writer weaves the mystery of a small town in Texas

Samantha Jane Allen (Courtesy photo)

Samantha Jane Allen, author of drive dirt road, Winner of the Tony Hillerman Award for Best Mystery Collection in the Southwest. I’ve already written a second book that will take readers back to Garrett, Texas, and daring heroine Annie McIntyre. She is currently working on a third in the series. However, each book, like her first, would be a great place to read on its own.

Samantha Jane Allen has a Master of Fine Arts in Literature from Texas State University. Her writings have been published in Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine, Joint, And the Electrical literature.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Allen about her writing process, what to read, and how being away from a place can bring a person closer to it.

Emily Mayer: I read that this book was based on an upcoming story you wrote while completing your MFA at Texas State University. How did this story first come to you? Was it through setting, mystery, or a certain character, Annie?

Samantha Jane Allen: Yes, my MFA thesis was a story about the relationship between a young woman who came home from college and her grandfather, in a small town in Texas — these were the two elements of the story that came to me from the start, and they were as well as the parts that I transferred to this book. While a lot has changed between my message and drive dirt road (The former wasn’t a mystery), I guess I’ve always been trying to tell a story about the family, and about the complexity of nostalgia.

M: I know a mystery writer who writes four drafts of each novel. The first draft is just a plot. The second draft develops the characters, then layers in the details etc. with each draft afterwards. With ambiguous writing, the plot is of paramount importance. How did you handle the process of this book?

SA: This is actually very similar to my process. I found that what really helped me succeed with this book was persistence. Just to get to “the end” in the first draft. I pressed to finish the story – to find out the plot – doing my best not to stop trying to make it perfect yet. Once I finished the first draft it seemed much easier. I knew I could go back and fix any character issues, and rewrite any old paragraphs, but I couldn’t visualize the novel as a whole until I knew where the story ends.

M: I went to school in Texas and I think I read that you grew up in Texas and have family from different parts of the state. But you now live in Atlanta. I know some book Who said they couldn’t really write about a place until after he left. There is something about the distance, perhaps a bit of homesickness or longing for that place, which allows the writer to access it in a different way. Did you find this to be true when creating this small town and writing about Texas?

SA: Yes, this was exactly my experience. I have to write about Texas because I miss it and want to spend time there in my imagination. I think with distance comes the kind of long vision I need to properly analyze somewhere in writing, but with distance also comes the desire to make up myths. I think since I’ve lived in Atlanta for nearly a decade now, I’m really starting to get that kind of feeling about this city too – the rejection of a particular street, or the way the light looks different on the first great day of the year I feel so loaded with connections I’d feel the need Snap to analyse. Much of the writing for me is sifting through memories of the place – and that’s usually the spark for me.

M: I read that there will be another book featuring Annie. When can we expect to see it on the shelves? Did you know from the start that you’d like this to become a series?

SA: The second book in the series, heavy rain, It will be released on April 18. It’s about how natural disasters bring out the best and worst in society. A flood destroyed Annie’s hometown, and in the aftermath she is set to find a man who went missing that night. When her search shows a different victim–she was shot, not drowned–she wonders if the man she’s looking for is actually a murderer. I wrote drive dirt road So he can stand on his own, but still hope he might launch a streak. It is a dream come true to write the third book now.

M: What did writing your first book on writing taught you? And what about the second?

SA: My first book taught me the importance of enjoying the process and writing the kind of book I wanted to read. Also, it is important, simply that I can do it. I’m out of writing it – I’m already done! With a sense of confidence I didn’t know before. Of course, when I first started talking to the second book, a lot of that confidence started to fade. While writing my second book I had my first child, and had to learn new ways of thinking about my routine. I’ve learned that a lot of writing think about writing in any quiet moments I have – I don’t always have a lot of time at my desk, but when I sit down, I go now to see what I really want to say, which makes writing faster of course, but also with more depth and clarity.

M: Are there books or authors that you re-read? What are you reading now?

SA: I like to reread while drafting for inspiration, but also for convenience. I reread a lot of serial books that I love, like those by Louise Penny, Robert B. Parker or Sue Grafton to name a few. I re-read my favorite poems often (Mary Oliver, Natasha Trithewi, and Ada Lemon are some of my always-on instrumentalists). I also love going back to the Larry McMurtry novels when I need a good dose of Texas. I just started a new novel (for me) called the body in question By Jill Cement, about a pair of murder trial jurors who are held at the Econo Lodge in Central Florida and have an illicit affair — if that’s not a predicament, I don’t know what is.

M: What do you want your readers to know?

SA: I am thrilled to participate in this year’s festival. I look forward to some great discussions with fellow committee members, and I hope they’ll join us over the weekend. Thanks for having me in beautiful Harbor Springs!

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