I was blown away by Laurel Hightower’s debut novel, Whispers in the Dark, so I was eager to get my hands on her new novella, Crossroads, the first title from Samantha Kolesnik’s Off Limits Press. After I read Crossroads it was the perfect time to sit down with Laurel (well, chat via Discord) to talk about writing strong female characters and what might be hiding in her closet.
From Laurel Hightower’s website:
Laurel Hightower grew up in Kentucky, attending college in California and Tennessee.
before returning home to horse country, where she lives with her husband, son and two rescue animals, Yattering the cat (named for the Clive Barker short story) and Ladybug the adorable mutt. She definitely wants to see a picture of your dog, and often bonds with complete strangers over animal stories. A lifetime reader, she would raid her parents’ bookshelves from an early age, resulting in a number of awkward conversations about things like, “what does getting laid mean?” She loves discovering new favorite authors, and supporting the writing and reading community.
Laurel works as a paralegal in a mid-size firm, wrangling litigators by day and writing at night. A bourbon and beer girl, she’s a fan of horror movies and true life ghost stories. Whispers in the Dark is her first novel, though there are always more in the pipeline, and she loves researching anything horror related. She can usually be found working on the next project into the wee hours, sometimes as late as ten at night, as long as her toddler allows. Follow her on social media, even though she’s really bad at it, and she’ll follow you back. Plus you’ll be rewarded by pictures of cute dogs and kids.
Eliza Brandt: Are you a visual thinker? Do you get inspired by pictures or art?
Laurel Hightower: I have, yes – I have some very cool, visceral art in my home that kind of sets a mood.
EB: Cool! Do you do lots of decorating for Halloween, etc?
LH: Absolutely! Harvest, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. More Halloween than anything else, but I love the constant visual reminders.
EB: Do you decorate your writing space as well?
LH: I’m afraid there’s not much of a space to decorate anymore- my office got turned into my son’s nursery. But prior to that, yes – my husband painted it lavender for me, and I had some excellent paintings and candleholders in there.
EB: No scary skeleton mobile above the crib?
LH: Lol! Nope, my husband isn’t a horror guy. We’re constantly going back and forth on what’s likely to cause nightmares. Tiny is turning out quite a bit like me, though.
EB: Now, when I was reading some background on you, I noted that your mother is a mystery novelist. Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
LH: I did – we’re not Stephen King and Joe Hill by any means, but I wanted to make my own mark. But in the end I liked going under my own name. I drop the hyphen for writing, but otherwise it makes life significantly simpler.
EB: I can see that!
LH: Since we don’t overlap genres it hasn’t much come up. And I love being a Hightower!
EB: Well, mystery and horror are close cousins. You mentioned in an interview on hellnotes that some of your favorite fictional characters include PD James Dalgliesh and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. Do you think you might ever write a straight-up police procedural without the paranormal elements? Or do you want to stay within the horror genre?
LH: That’s true, they definitely are close. I don’t think I’d do a straight police procedural because I’m not sure I have anything to add to that genre. The ghosts tend to slip in no matter what I do, lol. I have, however, written a completely ghost free thriller, but it’s more of an every woman character.
EB: Are you shopping that work?
LH: I hope to soon – I’ve just gotten a good round of notes to work through, but I’m excited about getting to them.
EB: You might have to change your name for that one — I was starting to think ‘ghost’ was your middle name!
LH: Lol! I would happily change my middle name to ghost.
EB: For you, what converted you to horror? What was it that really made you fall in love with the genre?
LH: I think it was always horror- I just remember always seeking out ghosts in anything I read or watched. I’d watch a horror movie every night as a kid if I’d had my choice. The Goosebumps books, and all the other ghost stories I read as a kid.
EB: Did you start with Scooby Doo or were you hardcore?
LH: Lol! Probably closer to hardcore- my parents didn’t much regulate what we watched or read, so I know I saw more of their level of movies and shows. I wish I could remember what my first was – apparently I watched The Blob as a toddler but I have no recollection of it, lol.
EB: Did you have a lot of nightmares as a child? I’m guessing not, from what you said earlier!
LH: I dreamed a lot of apocalyptic scenarios- I was always trying to gather everyone together, animals and all, to escape. It was exhausting, lol. But I do remember being freaked out by banshees, for some reason. And I seem to recall thinking the Leprechaun had made it into my closet.
EB: Celtic mythology is filled with scary creatures we don’t see enough of in horror here.
LH: Yes! A banshee tale will snare me every time.
EB: It’s interesting you mention animals, because we need to talk about Penny. Are cats ungrateful?
LH: Lol! Most of mine have been. Although there’s a connotation there, I suppose. I think they just have an expectation of what’s due to them. They know their worth. I had a tom cat, Jack, who was the complete opposite. He was damn near human.
EB: Really? Did he drink bourbon and watch Perry Mason?
LH: Lol! He did try to get my bourbon, for sure. He liked action movies and crime shows
EB: Cats are discerning creatures!
LH: They are!
EB: One of the key subplots of Crossroads was saving Penny. I assume that was a conscious choice on your part, to give Chris a pet she had to consider?
LH: Yes, for sure. A presence in her life, and one that was also a connection to her son. It was a bit demonstrative, too, of the men in her life – back when I was dating, that was always a big litmus test. Love my animals or be gone.
EB: Good test!
EB: Now, if I recall correctly, you once tweeted about deciding to have one child only, and for Chris, having no other children compounds her loss when her son dies. Was your personal decision something that impacted your choices for Chris in this story? Did Chris’s story ever make you second-guess your own decision?
LH: Well, I’m not sure having one kid did compound her loss – it’s something she considers from Beau’s perspective, and I think that might have come into play because sometimes people ask you, what if something happens? And probably before I had my son, I would have agreed. I think parental relationships are interesting because there are a lot of universals, but each individual relationship is different. We had a hell of a time getting pregnant, and even though once upon a time I wanted more kids, by the time Tiny arrived he was all I wanted.
I think I looked at Chris and I do the same thing most of us do – refuse to consider it, because if you do you’ll choke.
Relationships are created, too, upon changed conditions. I love that all my time and resources go solely to my son. But if I had another one, I’m sure that would adjust.
I think it’s loving in the abstract, if that makes sense. She would have loved another child if she’d had one, but losing Trey, there’s nothing she can picture that would mitigate that.
EB: Yes, sometimes people who lose a child try to have another, and that becomes it’s own complication.
LH: Ooo, yes, that’s some serious fodder for something like that.
EB: Rose and Chris are both strong women, but their strength presents itself in different ways. Is this something you want to consciously tackle in your writing, to show how diverse women are, and how different types of women have different strengths that might not always be visible, but make a huge difference when they face a personal crisis?
LH: Yes, although I don’t think it was always conscious. Rose and Chris kind of introduced themselves to me, and I saw where they would be strong and where they’d be flawed. I love Tana French’s books, and I forget which one has this line, but it’s along the lines of, men love strong women. And if you think you don’t, you’ve had the wool pulled over your eyes, because all women are strong as hell. I think some of the characters that have made me think the most are the flawed ones that screw up a lot.
EB: They’re more realistic and relatable.
LH: I think it’s important to see that we can be flawed as hell, but still strong.
EB: Yes! Perfection is a heavy burden to bear.
LH: Also a really boring one from a reading perspective, lol
EB: This is true. This is why it’s so hard writing compelling stories about kids who were too scared to break the rules.
LH: That’s a really good point.
EB: And yet, it’s funny, because Rose and Chris both strike me as women who were inherently good. And Rose really was a good child.
LH: She was, but that wasn’t necessarily what she valued. It certainly wasn’t what her parents valued – sometimes when kids are given impossible standards, it doesn’t matter how good they are. They won’t appreciate that aspect of themselves.
EB: True. Now, in both Whispers in the Dark and Crossroads, you deal with some tough subject matter. Crossroads delves into some difficult terrain as Chris weighs her options. What did you do for your own self care while you were writing some of those scenes?
LH: At the risk of sounding saccharine, Tiny is my self care for those kinds of things. I only get to write during his naps, so once he wakes up, my life is centered around him and he banishes all that. Or, you know, you’re hosing a blow out so that breaks the tension, too, lol. Plus bourbon and chocolate.
EB: Favorite kind of chocolate?
LH: Dark! Preferably with chili peppers
EB: Now, you’ve mentioned you think Whispers in the Dark is a standalone novel. Does the idea of writing a series appeal to you, or do you like having the freedom of being able to move from project to project?
LH: I actually have written a series – it has 3.5 manuscripts plus ideas for several more. I loved writing it, and I love going back and reading it. I have no idea if it’ll ever be published, but when you create a place you don’t want to leave, series are the best. I like having the best of both worlds – Crossroads was its own thing, and I think there will be more one offs like that for me. But if my series ever gets published I’d probably settle in there for a good long time.
EB: Well, now I’m curious! Are there ghosts?
LH: Tons of ghosts, lol
EB: Awesome! Both Whispers in the Dark and Crossroads feature protagonists who get along with their exes. Is this a conscious, plot-driven choice or because you want to normalize this?
LH: It’s a bit of both. From a reader perspective, I get very bogged down with constant snark and bitterness between exes. If there’s a breakup on stage, that’s one thing, but otherwise it just gets old. So part of it is to create this more layered relationships, and to make the characters compelling in that fashion. But yes, also I’d like to see that normalized. Of course, I’ve never been divorced, or co-parented with an ex, so maybe it’s total fantasy, lol.
EB: Ha, you switched genres!
LH: LOL! I’m totally going to start telling people these are fantasies.
EB: Definitely dark fantasies, though.
LH: Yes, that requires minimal world building. Just imagine a world in which people co parent peacefully, lol.
EB: It might be easier to believe in evil leprechauns hiding in your closet.
LH: I think you’re right.
EB: Now, for Crossroads, you’re with Sam Kolesnik’s brand new press. Do you feel nervous being the first title out?
LH: Not at all. The first time we talked about this book, it was clear she had a well thought out plan. I’d spoken with her before on Inkheist, and gotten the impression we felt similarly about a lot of pub stuff, and it’s just been really easy. For me anyway, lol. She busts her ass and it shows in the kind of reception the book is getting already.
EB: That’s fantastic. She brings a lot of talent to publishing, as well as a lot of common sense and dedication.
LH: Absolutely. I’m very type a when it comes to deadlines and communication, and she is too, so it’s been very reassuring from that standpoint.
EB: It’s an exciting time for women in the genre, but still a tough time for women in the genre. What advice do you have for women who are entering the community now?
LH: Get involved! It was terrifying to contemplate when I started, but the best way to make connections and get on radars is to be involved with the community. Read, review. Read reviews and pump their sites – listen to podcasts, and help boost other folks’ signals.
So much has happened for me that was only made possible by me slowly getting to know people.
It’s a big community, but also in some ways a small one. So when you feel on the outside, and I know you will at first, know we were all there once. It’s a horseshoe, not a circle, I promise you. Come join us!
EB: Do you have a newsletter people can subscribe to?
LH: Ha! Apparently there is a link on my website, but it’s kind of a staircase to nowhere. I’m really bad at this.
EB: So where can people stay up to date with the latest Laurel Hightower news?
LH: Twitter, because I am a terrible addict. Also we sometimes remember to announce things on Inkheist!
Follow Laurel on Twitter @HightowerLaurel and visit her website https://laurelhightower.com/ for the latest news.
Crossroads will be released on August 10, 2020. You can preorder your copy now!
Online Launch Party!
Laurel Hightower will be hosting an online launch party for Crossroads Sunday August 9!