Please welcome Dianne Emley as she discusses the first title in her new
series featuring Pasadena detective Nan Vining!
A Conversation With Dianne Emley Author of THE FIRST CUT
Question: Can you talk a little bit about The First Cut, what it's about and how the idea for it came to you?
Diane Emley: Itís about Nan Vining, a Pasadena Police Department detective and a single mother who returns to work a year after a horrific ambush attack in which she died for two minutes. Vining struggles with whether she ever again be the cop and mother she was before and worries about her attacker returning to finish the job before she can track him down herself.
When the battered body of a LAPD policewoman is found beneath the Colorado Street Bridge, Vining becomes profoundly drawn to the dead officer and begins to be tormented by otherworldly visions. Are they psychological residue from her attack or, as her fourteen-year-old daughter insists, messages from beyond the grave?
Regarding the origins of the story, I had long toyed with writing a character who had a near-death experience and is changed by it. I wanted her to be a Hitchcockian type of protagonist, an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. I had also been thinking about tackling a police proceduralónew ground for me.
Q: Your portrayal of Detective Nan Vining rings so authentic that a lot of readers might assume you've worked as a police officer yourself.
DE: I worked hard to make her realistic. My background is in business. No one in my family is in law enforcement. I had little contact with the police until I began the journey of this book.
I started tossing about the concept of Nan Vining while I was attending the Pasadena Police Departmentís Citizenís Police Academy. This is a public outreach program, a twelve week course taught by the police officers and covering all aspects of the department.
While wondering whether I could render the individuals and operations of an urban police department with veracity, I recalled something Nabokov, one of my favorite authors, wrote and took heart. Iím paraphrasing, but he said to write convincingly about a place, you have to have lived there only two months or your entire life. There is value in an outsiderís perspective of a new world.
I began educating myself about police work and life. I did ride alongs with officers on patrol and participated in volunteer work for the Pasadena PD. I was invited to sit on Disciplinary Review Boards, evaluating the cases of officers accused of misconduct. I read books on police science. I renewed relationships with college friends who had gone on to law enforcement careers. I developed a relationship with a Deputy DA in the Major Crimes Division of the Los Angeles County DAís Office. I lurked on law enforcement website message boards.
I found the experience life-altering. Law enforcement is a world into itself, clannish and unique. I was impressed how the Job (with a capital J) works on and changes officers. I came to appreciate what it means to put on that uniform and walk the streets and the pressures involved in making life-and-death instantaneous decisions that will be scrutinized by the public and media. Some dinner table discussions have become heated when I took the side of the police. My view of my surroundings and others has changed. Iím more watchfulÖ and suspicious.
Q: I understand that there are more novels in the works featuring Vining. How far ahead have you plotted the series?
DE: Iím at work on the second book in the series, Cut to the Quick. I have a general idea of the plot of the third book. Beyond that, in the first book, I set the table with unresolved personal and professional issues in the charactersí lives that can be explored for many books to come.
Q: What got you started as a writer, and what was your path to publication?
DE: I have always been a writer, ever since I first picked up a crayon, although many years would pass before I would be paid for it.
I began keeping a diary at seven years old, although when I hit high school, I started calling it a ďjournal.Ē When I was eleven, I asked for (and received) a typewriter and a desk for Christmas. This was an odd request in a world before personal computers. I wrote poems, short stories, and scads of letters to pen pals and far-flung friends.
My entire life, I nurtured a dream of being a novelist. But, being a practical person who enjoys a comfortable lifestyle, I pursued a business career. Plus, through my twenties and into my thirties, I felt I wasnít ready to write novels. I hadnít lived enough. I didnít have enough to say. My instincts have always been a guiding force in my career, and they were right on.
I got my MBA and a better job. After a couple of years at that job, I decided I was ready to give this writing thing a serious try and took a creative writing course at UCLA at night. The short story I started there turned into four chapters of my first novel. For many years, I rose at 4:30 in the morning to write for two hours before I went to work. After a long journey, I met Nan Vining.
Q: What made Detective Vining an interesting character for you? Did your idea of her change in the course of actually writing the book?
DE: Part of what makes her interesting for me is that she is not me. Iíve written other stories in which the protagonist is similar to me. Vining and I share a blue collar, working class upbringing and a difficult childhood, but her life path and personality are very different. Walking in her shoes makes me see life from a new perspective. Often, Iíve planned a scene, and then started to write it only to have Vining say or do something that I did not anticipate.
I did a lot of preliminary thinking about Vining, but once I started writing the book, she hit the page fully formed. The situations I put her in changed dramatically, but she remained constant.
Q: It sounds like you're the kind of writer whose characters are apt to try and take over a story and move it in a new direction.
DE: I pray that my characters take over the story and lead me someplace I couldnít have predicted! When that happens, I know Iím in the zone. It becomes their story and Iím simply the medium, writing it down.
When I first begin writing a book, Iím dragging the story, like dragging a dead body. Itís cumbersome, torturous work.
After weeks of chipping away, thereís a transformation. The book begins to drag me. Iím no longer in charge. The book is in control. Iíll spend twelve hours a day working on it. Hours fly by in the space of minutes. The book is nearly all I think about. The workaday issues of my life pile up. Itís both horrible and wonderful. At that point, the characters are pretty much on their own and Iím merely a voyeur.
I jokingly call my approach to crafting a novel ďthe big bang theory of writing.Ē In the beginning, there are swirling gases in the void. Thereís an explosionÖ A planet forms.
Q: As you mentioned earlier, Vining seems to have gained some psychic abilities that connect her to the supernatural world as result of her assault by the criminal she comes to call T.B. MannóThe Bad Man. Is this something you'll be exploring in greater depth as the series continues?
DE: Iím not exactly certain that Vining has acquired psychic abilities because of her near-death experienceóand neither is she. I intentionally crafted her otherworldly experiences to be ambiguous. The believer can see them as supernatural phenomena. The skeptic can see them as hallucinations resulting from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
That said, I am fascinated by the ďunexplained.Ē While the Nan Vining books will not be a ďpsychic detectiveĒ series, I may explore bizarre psychological, physiological, and mystical occurrences.
Q: Have you had any experiences involving the supernatural yourself?
DE: Iíve had curious experiences that some might view as supernatural but skeptics could interpret as products of my fevered imagination.
One concerns a dear friend whom Iíd known since we were both eight years old. We remained close through the years, although we saw each other less. She had a larger-than-life personality and we used to have fun yet get into spats like sisters, even as adults.
One day, I received a phone call and learned that after a brief illness, my friend had died. She was 38.
I was grief-stricken. During a sleepless night, I arose from bed and went into the bathroom. While drying my hands, angry and sad, I peevishly ripped the hand towel from the rack and threw it. It landed on the bedroom floor. After, I leaned against the sink. In the dim light, I caught my face in the mirror. I saw my image speaking, although I was not. Then I realized that reflected back to me was my friendís face, and she was speaking. She was telling me not to be so sad, that she was fine, she was happy. The illusion faded and her face morphed into mine and I was again looking at my own reflection.
In the morning, I recalled my strange but comforting dream. Then I got up and there was the towel on the floor. SoÖ Ghost or dream?
Q: As the novel went on, I began to feel that T.B. Mann was close by, keeping tabs on his former victim. That he's out there somewhere is no secret, but could he be a lot closer than Vining imagines?
DE: T.B. Mannís been busy, but in the second book Vining will learn that he is indeed much closer than she imagined.
Q: Your title alludes not only to Vining's injury but to her failed marriage. Both have left scars. Can you address this a bit?
DE: Viningís husband Wes, her high school sweetheart, dumped her for Kaitlyn, a hair stylist at Supercuts, leaving behind then two-year-old Emily. Wes married Kaitlyn and had two children with her. Heís not a deadbeat dad and contributes emotionally and financially to Emilyís well being.
Itís not a picture-perfect blended family, if those even exist. Kaitlyn has made it clear she disapproves of Viningís occupation. Emily has not bonded with her two half-brothers. Emily is polite to Kaitlyn but enjoys jerking her chain, and sheís an easy target.
Both Vining and Emily remain scarred by Wesís betrayal. Mother and daughter are very close, perhaps closer than they would be if Wes hadnít left. Vining made a decision not to date until Emily is grown, not wanting to recreate the traumatic childhood she had with her much-married mother. Her one slip, a short relationship with a fellow Pasadena Police detective, proves to her how difficult it will be for her to ever trust in love again.
Q: One of the things that keeps cropping up in the novel is how easy it is for cops to become jaded or even in some way corrupted by their work. I don't necessarily mean that they become crooks, but that the Job does something to their souls. Frankie Lynde is just one example. But this seems like a danger every cop has to face in one way or another.
DE: I believe the danger of becoming jaded by life for anyone is real, but itís heightened for individuals in law enforcement. Some officers over time do become cynical. On the other hand, since theyíve seen so much, they can become more tolerant and understanding in certain situations.
But the Job alone will never turn a good cop bad. Thatís an issue of character. Itís said that character is defined as the way you behave when no one is looking.
Frankie Lynde had deep-seated character issues. The motive was there. When the circumstances were right, she succumbed.
Q: How do you go about inventing monsters like John Lesley and T.B. Mann as characters? Do you ever feel creeped out by your own creations?
DE: Iím a true crime junkie. Fortunately for writers like me (and unfortunately for the world), there is ample real-life precedent for characters like John Lesley and T.B. Mann.
I do get creeped out by my villains, especially when theyíre not hiding the depths of their depravity. What I find interesting in writing these characters is how empty they are. A part of their humanity is completely missing. Apart from the torture and murder, which is of course creepy, I find especially jarring the way they lie and manipulate with abandon, without conscience. This is of course how the most notorious killers manage to carry on their activities for decades.
Q: As a fan of mysteries and police procedurals, I've often felt there's a close connection between the act of writing fiction and that of solving a crime. Is that something you've noticed?
DE: I havenít thought about it that way, but I suppose there is a connection. Certainly writing fiction and solving crimes both require day-to-day dogged determination. Neither occupation is as glamorous as it may seem to an outsider. Both require creativity, an open mind, and an obsessive personality. Although I must say that writing fiction has been the best job Iíve ever had. The pressures are huge, but the rewards more than make up for it.
Q: What more can you tell us about the next Nan Vining novel?
DE: In Cut to the Quick, Nan Vining and the Pasadena Police detectives are called out to the scene of a horrific, Charles Manson-style double murder of a local man-about-town and his socialite girlfriend. While Vining attempts to unravel a devious murder plot before the next victim falls, a mysterious stranger who knows too much about T.B. Mann enters her life.
Q: Are you working on any other projects you'd like to mention?
DE: Lately, when Iím not writing, Iím catching up on my gardening. Thereís something purifying about digging in the dirt.
Dianne Emley was born in Los Angeles, California. Except for her junior year in college when she studied at the Universitť de Bordeaux, France, she's always lived in and around Los Angeles. She has a BA in Philosophy and an MBA in Marketing, both from UCLA. She's held jobs as varied as drill press operator, polling place recruiter, California Department of Consumer Affairs complaint handler, clothing boutique buyer, egg and poultry industry marketer, software company sales and service manager, and technical writer. While having traveled the world, she lives five miles from where she grew up with her husband Charlie and two cats and is gleefully happy with her favorite and last profession: crime writer.
For more information, please visit Dianne Emley's
(Interview and bio reprinted with consent of Random House Publishing Group)