Becky Masterman is a novelist with a taste for mystery and crime. After receiving her creative writing graduate degree from Florida Atlantic University, she found inspiration in the mysterious as a forensic science acquisitions editor. She then married and moved to Tucson, Arizona, where she and her husband decided one November day to have a writing competition in which each had four weeks to complete a novel. That was the beginning of her first thriller, Rage Against the Dying, featuring the middle-age protagonist Brigid Quinn. Her initial attempt at publication faltered because of the unusual choice of a main character older than 30, but a few years later, the time was right. Her book earned glowing reviews in the New York Times and Publishers Weekly, along with seven book award nominations. Her success launched her into writing a sequel, Fear the Darkness. She is slated to speak at this year’s James River Writers Conference (Oct. 16 to 18) on “The Anatomy of a Thriller.”
Richmond magazine: What brings you to Richmond for the James River Writers Conference?
Masterman: My dear old friend Erica Orloff, whose writing I have long admired, contacted me recently. I'm coming for her, and the other writers who will attend. We're such a solitary lot, it’s thrilling to have an opportunity to talk about the writing life with a group of people who don't just talk about it.
RM: What are you most excited to share with the attendees?
Masterman: I always share what I like to read. That is: prose pyrotechnics, a page-turning plot, and characters who aren't clichés are all good, but above all, use that craft to make me care. Dig into the dark place in your heart and have the courage to reveal it to me. Show me feelings I didn't know I felt.
RM: To what do you attribute your success?
Masterman: Lots of reading, lots of writing, taking advice from people who have been traveling this road far longer than I, and luck. About that last thing, I decided to write about a vibrant woman who was sexy, funny, smart, and could kill a man with her bare hands. She just happens to be 59. At first I couldn’t sell the book, but I was lucky that around 2008, the world caught up to the idea.
RM: Are you working on anything now?
Masterman: I'm rewriting my third Brigid Quinn book, this one about missing children, the death penalty and the stories of our lives, remembered and forgotten.
RM: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Masterman: Seek criticism. Praise is useless. Find out what's wrong with your work, listen to suggestions for improvement, and then give it a try. If it doesn't work, delete it and begin again. At least you've been writing. That's what you want to do, right? Sometimes my editor will recommend changes of character or motivation or plot and my initial reaction is, “NO!” And then I give it a think, and I give it a little try and I think, “Oh, that is a better book.” The book is not “your baby.” Get over it.
RM: How did you gain confidence in your own writing?
Masterman: Hearing women say that Brigid Quinn is the kind of woman they wanted to read about was very validating. But confidence? Sometimes my fingers are moving in composition while my mind is muttering, “crap, all crap.” But you keep moving the fingers because, as a mentor once told me, you can't rewrite nothing.
RM: What, or who, is your number one motivator and why?
Masterman: I can't not write. I love it too much when this world drops away and I'm in another one that I can control. For that, I'm willing to go for weeks of flat, unfeeling prose so that there comes that moment when I look at a sentence and see that it's truly original. And there's this little spurt of dopamine, that feel-good chemical, in my brain. That's right, I'm a word junky. Run, run; save yourself.
RM: What is your biggest source of inspiration for your writing and why?
Masterman: The people I've known and discover every day. This is the balance in writing, spending so much time alone, yet getting out in the world to collect material for it.
RM: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned through your writing career?
Masterman: It can all get really intense, what with the possible roller coaster of acceptance/rejection, sales, good/bad reviews. At those moments, I tell myself the future of mankind does not depend on my writing. No one will starve if I don't write (not even me). The zombie apocalypse will not descend on the world if I fail. It's not a battle. It's a very exciting game.
RM: If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Masterman: Actually, my younger self did get advice from a teacher who said I could have anything I wanted as along as I wanted it badly enough. Unfortunately, younger selves do not always appreciate advice. I was 40 years old before I realized I didn't have to wait for anyone to give me permission to try anything, to risk everything. It took my 12-year-old daughter to beg to audition for a children's theater production of The Wizard of Oz. I owe that initial nudge to her. I got the part of Auntie Em, and from then on I wanted to do everything, and be everything. Go. Be.