Interview with Heather Young, Author of The Distant Dead

What is your novel about?  

One cold March morning Sal Prentiss, an orphaned eleven-year-old boy, walks into a fire station to report a body, burned almost beyond recognition, that he found in the high desert hills near the ranch where he lives with his uncles. Meanwhile Nora Wheaton, a middle school teacher, wonders why her colleague is late to work. By days’ end, when the body is identified as local math teacher Adam Merkel, their small Nevada town will be rocked to its core by a brutal and calculated murder.

Weaving together the last months of Adam’s life, Nora’s search for answers, and Sal’s anguished moral reckoning, the novel’s narrative is driven by the mystery of Adam’s death. But to me it’s really about complex, flawed characters wrestling with the burden of their own guilt, the steep price they must pay to forgive the sins of the people they love, and the debts they owe their dead, both recent and distant. 

What were your book launch plans pre-Covid?  

I planned to host a launch event at a women’s coworking space I belong to, and give readings at local bookstores, but under the current circumstances none of these businesses are willing to commit to any June events. No one thinks they’ll even be open by then.

Where were you when you heard your book tour/ launch was cancelled?

I was out running errands, and my phone started buzzing with rumors that the San Francisco Bay Area was going to order everyone to “shelter in place” and close all non-essential businesses. I stopped to pick up milk, and found my normally quiet neighborhood grocery store clogged with panicked hoarders pushing carts full of toilet paper and spaghetti. I knew then that life had changed fundamentally and irrevocably, and any hopes I had for a “normal” book launch were over.

Are you and your publisher doing anything special/ different to promote your novel?  

We are reaching out to local bookstores about virtual appearances, and I’m trying to become an expert in online book marketing. 

Can you tell us bit about the path to writing and selling your book?  

This is my second book, and it was sold to the editor of my first book based on three chapters and a synopsis. This threw me into unfamiliar and very choppy waters: after meandering my way to a debut novel over seven years, I was expected to produce a second novel on deadline. It was a crucible of pressure and anxiety during which I stress-ate my way to an extra twenty pounds, but I am, in hindsight, glad to have gone through it. I wrote this book in a third of the time it took me to write my first, and in the process, I evolved from a middle-aged woman with a writing hobby to a professional author. I’m proud of that. 

On a lighter note, do you have any quirky writing rituals?  

I have the “dark couch” and the “light couch.” Most of the time I write on a couch in my well-lit living room. But when the story takes a more somber turn, I go to a couch in the small library at the back of my house. This room has no windows. Its walls are covered in dark wood paneling, the furniture is heavy and antique, and the lamps have thick vellum shades that make the light as dim and golden as candlelight. When I’m in there I feel like Edgar Allen Poe. There is nothing I won’t do to a character in that room.

What was the hardest cut you made from your book, your favorite Dead Darling?  

Sal, the sixth grade boy at the heart of the story, was originally a bit kinesthetic: he could “see” people’s emotions in the form of colored auras that hovered around him. I loved that he had this secret “superpower,” and I thought his being extraordinary in this way was crucial to the plot. My editor pushed me to take this out, and I resisted, but finally she persuaded me that giving Sal a less supernatural but equally remarkable gift for empathy would serve the story better. It’s hard to explain why without spoiling the book, but it turned out she was right. (And I can always give this superpower to a future character—isn’t that what we all tell ourselves about our Dead Darlings?)

Where can we buy your novel?

Bookshop, Indiebound, Barnes and Noble, Amazon.

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