Interview with Therese Heckenkamp
How long did it take you to write Past Suspicion?
The first draft took about four months, from May to September of 1999, but I didn’t write every day. Some days I’d write for hours, and some days I didn’t write a word.
Many authors draw on real life experiences when writing, even for fiction. Did you find this true in writing Past Suspicion?
Yes. Directly and indirectly, I drew material from familiar places, situations, and characters. That’s not to say I used people I know for my characters. (My dad insists he’s Uncle Peter, though those who know him may beg to differ). But certain qualities, conversations, quirks, or descriptions can be picked up, consciously or subconsciously, from people you know or meet, and emerge in your writing. The setting came from my own hometown, and some events were taken directly from things that occurred that spring and summer, such as a storm, a power outage, attending a Memorial Day parade, and roaming a graveyard. From here, fictional elements suited to the story developed and moved the plot forward. As I lived with the story, everything became possible material, but I only used it if it had a valid reason for being included, propelling the story to its climax. I will definitely say that the emotions are real; anger, resentment, pity, love, fright, hope — everyone experiences these at some point in their life. And for a teenager, it’s not unusual to experience them all in one day!
How did you find a publisher for your book? Was it difficult?
I feel it was a long, tedious journey, but I remind myself it could have been much longer than the two years it took. Most twenty-two-year-olds don’t publish books; and, as my dad told me, most eighteen-year-olds don’t spend their summer before college writing one. After completing the manuscript, I followed guidelines, studied writers’ markets, and sent off query letters, proposals, sample chapters . . . and got rejection letters. Sometimes they came with encouraging notes. I kept trying because I believed in my novel. I knew persistence was key. I reminded myself that a rejection from one house does not mean the work is unpublishable. One editor’s opinion is not the whole world’s. However, many of the houses that “rejected” my novel never even read the manuscript because they were not open to receiving unsolicited works. If my one-page query letter did not motivate them to request the manuscript, I had to cross that house of my list. Many houses are afraid to take risks on new authors. Since I wrote the kind of book I liked to read, I knew that plenty of young adults who eagerly read romantic suspense would welcome Past Suspicion. Yet many times I felt as if I would never find a home for it, and that made me sad because I wanted so much to share it with others, instead of letting it sit in a corner of my room, collecting dust. Still, I felt shy about letting relatives read the manuscript because I felt, until it was accepted, it hadn’t proven itself. I didn’t even let my dad read it until it had been accepted — then I was eager for his reaction and suggestions. When I learned that PublishAmerica, after six months in the consideration process, wanted to publish Past Suspicion, I was almost afraid to believe it. My dream was coming true!
How many drafts did it take to get Past Suspicion to its final version?
I couldn’t even say. All I know is, every time I read through the manuscript, I made changes; sometimes minor, sometimes major: a word here, a scene here; delete, rearrange, rewrite . . . It got to the point where I had to leave the manuscript sit for months, then return to it with a fresh eye. Judging from the stack of manuscript papers in the corner of my room, I worked on it considerably. Finally, I realized the best I could do for my book was send it out and stop tinkering. Then, when it was finally accepted for publication, I was back to revising — but this time I was propelled by the thought that Past Suspicion was becoming “reality.”
Why did you write this book?
I had a story to tell, one I felt strongly enough about to devote years to. To make it real and suitable to share with others I had to go through the time-consuming process of telling it the best way possible. It’s rather daunting to have this wonderful vision of events in your mind, and to try to get it all down on paper so it creates the same image, because no matter how hard you try, it’s still going to come out differently . . . that’s the challenge of writing. But it also means you surprise yourself. I wanted the finished story to be preserved on paper in the most compelling way possible. The more I thought about the situation and characters, the more real they became in my mind, and I had to get them out on paper before I lost them.
How did you write this book? Did you work from an outline?
Actually, Past Suspicion began as a short story, but the plot kept growing, twisting and turning with possibilities. Suddenly, I realized I had the potential for a book. This thrilled me! I read everything I could about writing novels and writing for young adults. Yet I went my own way, as every writer must, to find what works best for him or her on a particular project. My writing method was free and unstructured, and consequently I derived a lot of excitement (and frustration) from it. I made no formal outline, but jotted down notes for scenes as they came to me. I thought about the story every day, and most nights, so I always had some idea where it was heading. While I had the basic concept ever in my mind, I had to work at building the climax. It was a journey of discovery.
How did you come up with the title?
After much thought. Yet I didn’t dwell worriedly on it, and consequently it presented itself in its own good time. It didn’t come to me till months after the first draft was completed, perhaps because the first draft was an exploratory journey and I didn’t know exactly how it would end. I tried titles such as Echoes from the Past and Twenty Years Later, but these were missing something. One day I thought of Suspicious Past. It was simple, I liked how it held the heart of the story, but I didn’t like how sounded. Then I discovered that by simply inverting the order of the words, I had a unique title with a double meaning. And somehow, it sounded much better. I’ve never doubted this title, so I know it is the one.
Is this the first book you’ve ever written?
It’s the first book I ever completed, but not the first book I ever began. When I was in my “Nancy Drew stage,” I began a novel called The Grand Canyon Plot, a book I intended to be the first of a series involving (big surprise!) a teen girl as an amateur sleuth. I got considerably far for an eleven-year-old, but never completed it. My sisters used to beg me to! At sixteen I wrote 141 pages of a historical novel called Sabela’s Story. I now look back on these projects as valuable writing experience — but I won’t be sending them out for others to laugh at!