An Interview With Vanessa Lillie, Author of Little Voices

Little Voices, Vanessa Lillie’s debut thriller, is the story of a woman searching for her friend’s murderer not long after experiencing a horrific birth. When her close friend Belina is found brutally murdered and the main suspect is another friend from college, Devon Burges is determined to find the real killer. Devon, a former sex offense and domestic violence prosecutor who was almost disbarred, knows uncovering the truth won’t be easy. She’s juggling the demands of a newborn and struggling with post-partum depression, which reveals itself as a cruel voice that criticizes her abilities as both an investigator and mother. Set against the backdrop of Newport and Providence, Rhode Island, this page turner will have you guessing until the end.

For her debut novel, Lillie has already racked up an impressive list of accolades. In its starred review, Publisher’s Weekly says “this superb psychological thriller is hard to put down.”  Library Journal’s starred review calls it “fast-paced and psychologically complex” in yet another starred review. And Little Voices has made numerous must-read lists, including Refinery29 (“wholly original”), Real Simple (“fantastic, page-turning debut”), and Bookish (“completely engrossing”). So let’s stop gushing and get down to business!

Julie Peterson: Congrats on your debut! How did you come up with the idea for your novel? 

Vanessa Lillie: I worked on two other novels over ten years that didn’t end up finding an agent. After that process, I realized I needed to change my approach. I took time off to have my son, and as a new mom, I had a lot of complicated feelings I wanted to write about. My favorite genre is thrillers, and so I wanted to take the difficult and scary parts of being a new mom and explore them within that genre.

One of the things that makes your thriller unique is your main character has just given birth. Why did you choose to put her in this enormously difficult situation? 

This was my world for over fifteen months when I stayed home with my son. I went to mom groups weekly, I hung out with mom friends and generally obsessed about the different stages, especially at the newborn and infant stages. Despite all the love and support around me—and there was so much—I still felt really alone. It was isolating and exhausting, and as a writer, I wanted to explore all of that.

I also longed to see a new mother at the heart of a thriller. I wanted her to be pumping milk for her baby and solving a crime at the same time. I hoped it’d be encouraging if there were other new parents out there struggling with their identity post-baby or looking to connect back to who they were before. All of those complicated emotions were put into this book.

How does the stress of new motherhood mirror the investigation? What were the challenges in weaving these themes together?

The character’s postpartum psychology definitely complicates her investigation. I think she’s a very driven person, but when you’re experiencing a form of postpartum depression, you can really fixate on things. I also think you’re more sensitive and intuitive because now more than ever, you must survive. I tried to layer that into her investigation so that she was hyper focused and uncovering things the police missed.

Your main character, Devon, is hearing voices saying she’s a bad mother and that she’s putting her child and marriage at risk by pursuing the real murderer. Can you tell us how the voice came to be? Did you write the voice as you were drafting your manuscript or did it come later during revisions? 

The voice became a larger part of the novel in edits. For me, it’s a reflection of Devon’s own fears and insecurities. I wrote it that way because I felt those things. I often felt judged for my choices as a mother. I’d have ladies at Target ask why my baby wasn’t wearing a hat. Maybe that seems innocuous, but in the moment, I felt judged like I wasn’t doing something right that’s so obvious. You are already so vulnerable and doubtful of your abilities, so that made me feel like I had a target on my back. And, lack of sleep doesn’t make things any better.

The voice did change. I made it more an echo of Devon’s past. I wanted it to harken back to her difficult childhood because I do think that’s where a lot of our complexities and vulnerabilities occur. I like the saying, your parents push your buttons because they installed them. I think that’s really true for Devon and the voice. It knows every button to push and when she’s most vulnerable.

Little Voices is a financial thriller. What challenges did you face in making the facts and figures so engaging?

That’s such a nice way to categorize my book. It’s funny, I never really considered this book a financial thriller or political thriller as some people have pleasantly characterized it. I wanted my main character to be on a journey that was complex and showcased her as competent and smart. I also really enjoy research and get lots of ideas from that process. I read articles about financial crimes, and there was an ongoing court case out of New Bedford, Massachusetts that I borrowed some of the crimes in the fishing and shipping marketplaces. I just kept following those threads and then asked myself who would be good at unraveling this case.

Let’s talk about setting. Rhode Island, particularly the area around Newport, is so vividly rendered it becomes its own character. As a transplant to the smallest state in the US, was this something you intentionally set out to do? 

That means a lot, thank you. I wanted to capture Rhode Island because I’ve really fallen in love with the littlest state. To that point, I became fascinated by everything about it (like you do with new love). And, I’m proud to live here and wanted to share all the aspects I find most interesting. As far as Newport, that place is so beautiful, I cannot believe it exists. The stretch of road along Ocean Drive where it’s you and the ocean and a bunch of mansions is like nothing else I’ve experienced.

Your story has a twist at the end that is both mind blowing and completely believable. Can you talk about how you pulled that off (without any spoilers of course!)?

This story began as a simple mystery of a new mom solving a crime because initially that’s all I wanted. But as it developed, I realized to capture all the complicated feelings I have, I need to go bigger and darker. The final twist at the end didn’t come right away, but it was early in the process. I knew as soon as I had the thought, I needed to follow it. Even if it made me sad and uncomfortable, which it did. I’ve realized that I often write from a place of nervousness or fear. If what I’m creating isn’t scaring me by putting it on the page then I need to dig deeper.

Every thriller writer and reader wants to know: Are you a plotter or a pantser? 

So two books in ten years is not a good average for a commercial thriller author. I really needed to aim for a book a year. An important piece of that was structure, which I struggle with constantly. I basically decided to redo my writing process, which up until then was to just “write by the seat of my pants.” I learned how to outline, and found that it didn’t limit me as I’d expected. Yes, I was more constrained in that I had plotted the largest points of the novel, but there was still lots of discovery. Once I had an outline, I decided to do National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and wrote 50,000 words. Not a good first draft, but the pace and momentum really worked for me. Then I spent December writing another 30,000 words and spent the next year revising.

I am a very dedicated plotter now. However, I think there’s still a lot of discovery (or what I love about pants-ing) in plotting and as you write. Lots and lots of thing change. Many things don’t work. Some things work better, and then you have to build them out. For me, it is about a plan and getting to a destination, but the road can change. If anyone is looking for books on outlining and structure, my new favorite is Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody.

I’ve been told mystery writers need to know the ending before they can go back to strategically feed the reader clues and misdirections. Do you ever worry about giving too much away?

I absolutely worry if I’m giving too much away or maybe something isn’t as exciting as I think it is. These worries are constant because writers care so much and really want to get it right for the reader.

One of my favorite thriller authors is Shari Lapena. She writes completely by the seat of her pants and her novels work great. Another author I admire is Gillian McAllister, she creates super detailed excel charts of her novels. They both write great thrillers, and they get there in totally different ways. I’m sure they both have to go back and weave in what they uncover and revisit plot points and turning points. For me, it’s ongoing work.

What was the hardest part of writing this novel? 

Patience was really tough. There were a lot of moments where I thought maybe this is good enough to query. But deep down, I knew it wasn’t. And after a decade of passes on other projects I want to feel certain this book was really as good as I could get it before I queried.

Do you have a writing group? 

Nothing very formal. I’ve reached out to writer friends to see if they wanted to swap. I got feedback then revised. But the biggest element of my revision process was hiring a developmental editor (Heather Lazare, who is fantastic). I had to book her nine months in advance (and she ended up giving me extra time). She really helped me level up my writing. And, since then, I’ve worked with my amazing editor, Jessica Tribble at my publisher Thomas and Mercer, and she’s continuing to help me grow as a writer. Editors have such a sharp eye for story, in my experience. They can really help focus our creativity.

In the course of almost fourteen years now that I’ve been trying to be published, the absolute best part has been making writer friends along the way. I really encourage people to build a community of support and to keep supporting others. You’ll be happier for it and likely a better writer too.

What are you reading now?

I can’t wait to read Your House Will Pay by Stephanie Cha. I lead a reading group and our first selection is Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. Also, while at the Bouchercon Debut Breakfast, I heard Polis Books author Patricia Shanae Smith speak about her book Remember and it sounds incredible. It’s definitely on my TBR stack. At that same event, I was sitting with John Vercher (Three-Fifths) and Angie Kim (Miracle Creek) —two incredible debuts everyone should read.

About Vanessa Lillie: Vanessa is originally from Oklahoma, but she calls Providence, Rhode Island home with her husband and dinosaur-aficionado son. Smitten with the smallest state, she enjoys organizing book events and literary happenings around town. Her debut thriller, Little Voices, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal as well as must-read lists in Refinery29, Cosmopolitan UK, Real Simple, and Bookish. The Providence Journal review said, “Aficionados of mystery, thriller and horror will savor this intricately plotted page-turner that builds to a stunning denouement.” You can follow Vanessa on Facebook, Instagram, or  Twitter.


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