Since breaking onto the scene with her first novel (The Hungry Mirror) in 2010, suspense author Lisa de Nikolits has turned out one compelling page turner after another, most dealing with the darker aspects of human behavior. Originally from South Africa, de Nikolits lived and worked in Australia, the UK and the United States before becoming a Canadian citizen in 2003, gaining experiences and sensibilities that have greatly influenced her work ever since. I sat down with her recently to talk about her new novel “Rotten Peaches,” the use of humor in otherwise gritty stories and how she creates complex characters.
Open Mic: First, tell me a bit about the new book?
De Nikolits: The book is called “Rotten Peaches” and it takes place in Canada, the U.S. and South Africa. I wrote a blurb for it where I describe it as a gripping epic filled with disturbing and unforgettable insights into the human condition, touching on love, lust, race and greed. There’s two women and two men, and just one happy ending. It’s all about nature versus nurture. It’s also about racism and old prejudices. What happens when a biological half sibling tracks down another with insidious intent? And can moral corruption be blamed on genetics? Were these people born like that or did they become this way? It’s basically about morality and corruption, love and desire. It was very much inspired by “Gone Girl.” I was mesmerized by the awfulness of the characters in that book, and yet I kept pulling for each of them from their different perspectives. And I thought, why do you not want them to be discovered? These are terrible people – they should be exposed and reviled. But that’s what interested me. Also the old noir books like “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” The doomed love affair in that book is so compelling. They were basically born losers with no happy ending, but those are the seeds from where I wrote “Rotten Peaches.”
Open Mic: That’s a lot of inspiration.
De Nikolits: Well, I’m also from South Africa but had never written about the pre- and post-apartheid eras, and I felt a moral responsibility to in some way document how that time was. Unless something is noted historically it can be forgotten. In the book there is a particularly strong house keeper named Betty. We had a house keeper named Betty, and I dedicated the book to her and all the unsung Betties of the world. There’s no way Betty will ever know I wrote this book and dedicated it to her so it’s hardly a way of fixing things, but it’s just a way in which you try to make things better.
Open Mic: Your work is fairly eclectic, or at the least not easily pigeonholed into any one category. How do you describe your work and your style?
De Nikolits: You are correct. It’s actually very difficult. I’ve been telling people that “Rotten Peaches” is “Little House on the Prairie” meets “Pulp Fiction” because you have to put things into terms people can understand. I would say I am a literary writer of suspense thriller crime novels. When you use the term literary people are often immediately turned off, so people really do need that pigeonhole label. It’s funny, though. I was recently on a panel and someone asked me when does a writer sacrifice their art and write that best-selling genre murder mystery and just make your millions and sit back and be happy. And I thought that was hilarious. Don’t you think if it was that easy that bunches of people would be doing it? So it’s very difficult because all the books have been so different. But the common thread is that they all deal with an important aspect of social justice.
Open Mic: Do you generally create characters and then build a plot around them, or do you have storylines you create characters for?
De Nikolits: It’s a merging of both. The thing that preoccupies me the most is the question mark at the end of developing a plot. Then I can go back and work on the characters. I can feel them sort of chomping at the bit in my head to get going, but I can’t until I know what their story is. But once I do I think writing characters comes fairly easy for me. I love studying people and I’m very open to new ideas. I find characters abundant, but plots are a little trickier.
Open Mic: You’ve been an art director for many years. How does that help you visualize the characters and stories and settings in your writing?
De Nikolits: It’s extremely helpful. When I’m working on something I have the cinematic reel already started in my head – I can hear and see what characters are saying and wearing. I see writing in a very visual way. It’s almost as if I see the words and the sentences in my head. It’s a very visual experience. And on a completely practical level, I design my own book covers – which my publisher is really happy about – I design my own bookmarks, fliers for events, automated GIFs, all of that. So it’s a very handy skill to have. The downside is that sometimes I presume that something I have written is coming across as I intended because it is so vivid in my mind. Sometimes you assume people will have a good visual of something but they don’t.
Open Mic: Your protagonists often do bad things. In that way it seems you explore the intersection of good and evil through their eyes. Tell me a bit about how you develop these very complex characters.
De Nikolits: I’m a deeply cynical person with a good imagination. You take a cynic and you toss in an overly active imagination and the result is these kinds of characters. My friends find it odd because they see me as this happy friendly person, which I think is true but I can also very easily see the darker side of people, particularly when it comes to their motivation for doing things. Human self-deception fascinates me. I’m a very active watcher of people and how they are affected by power. Power, lust and greed and how they change people is very interesting to me. And more often than not my observations have not been very positive. I wish I could say generally behave well but those people have definitely been more rare.
Open Mic: Even your darker themes often have a running thread of humor and wit. I’ve interviewed writers who have told me that writing is the only place where their sense of humor or satire comes out. Does humor come naturally to you?
De Nikolits: It comes out naturally in my writing and then even I wonder where it came from. People sometimes think I‘m funny but honestly, that’s just social ineptitude. Because my mind is always so full of daydreams and observations I think I do see the world from a slightly different perspective than most people do. I say things people think are funny, but there’s not really intention there. I just said something that popped into my head. In life I actually find comedy to be stressful. I don’t always get the joke, which drives my husband mad because he has to explain to me why something was funny. So I’m just grateful that my humor come outs in my writing. It’s a strange thing.
Open Mic: You also do short stories. How is your approach different for that genre?
De Nikolits: I’m always writing things down wherever I go, like on an airplane or what have you, and those are fragments I use for creating short stories later on. I structure my short stories the same way I do my novels. Sometimes those turn into something I will work to turn into a novel, which requires me to restructure them a bit more to fit that format. I like to write the flash type of sort fiction – 800 words or so – or I like to write longer pieces that end up around 10,000 words. I struggle to write the 2,000-4,000-word pieces. So I think maybe my short stories are more of a stepping stone for the novels to come.
Open Mic: Do you use outlines or do you prefer to wing it as you go?
De Nikolits: I always have an idea of a beginning and an ending. I know some people use software like Scrivener, but I don’t. I scribble out notes and send emails to myself of snippets of ideas and other notes that would make no sense to anyone else. I also sometimes wallpaper my entire study with brown paper, and then I’ll print out picture of what I think the characters look like or what the setting might look like or just a saying that might inspire me, and then I stick them up on the wall. The whole study becomes papered in these things. It really helps me because if it’s all just in my computer I can’t see it. It comes back to me being a visual arts director – I need to see the whole thing in front of me. With everything in an Excel file or in folder within other folders you lose the thing because you can’t see it.
Open Mic: Do you have a word count or page count you go by?
De Nikolits: I never pressure myself like that. My thing is to just do one thing a day for my writing. Maybe it’s a sentence. Maybe it’s a paragraph. Or maybe on a good day it’s 10,000 words. I keep the plot arc in my head, and I know where I need to be at 20,000 words, I know where I need to be at 45,000 words. That’s actually the most nerve wracking because then I have to be able to answer the question, do I have enough of a story to get me to 80,000? So I never get too wrapped up in needing to write a certain number of words. It’s more about where I’m at with the story.
Open Mic: Rejection is such normal part of any creative endeavor. How do you handle it?
De Nikolits: I wish I could say I had a thick skin and it doesn’t bother me, but it’s really horrible. I wish it was easier to not have that horrible sinking feeling, and the funny thing is it never gets any easier. I know “Rotten Peaches” is not going to be to everyone’s taste, and I’ve considered the possibility that I just don’t read what people say. But you can’t help yourself – you have to know. But yes, it’s like drinking something bitter where the aftertastes just sticks with you for a really long time. What I don’t understand is why the moments of joy don’t seem to stick around as long as the moments of disappointment. Because the joy is really intense. Sometimes I say to myself, ‘yes, that was a really bad thing, but look at this really good thing!’ But somehow the scales don’t really even out. These days I resort to sports analogies – this didn’t work out but you have to get out there and try again. Suck it up and get on with it.
Open Mic: You were born in South Africa and have lived in Australia, England, the U.S. and are now a Canadian citizen. You’re truly a citizen of the world. How do current global events impact your writing, if at all?
De Nikolits: I think they have a very direct affect. Everybody is so angry, and things seem to be going really, really wrong. I’m deeply distressed about so many things, and so my reaction is to try to find a way to work it into a story. That’s my way of trying to do something. There’s no point in getting involved in political tirades on Facebook. Even Facebook has become such an angry place, which I think is because people are feeling more and more powerless in their lives. It’s so utterly depressing that the best thing for me to do is to try to turn it into a creative project. It’s my way of trying to do something or to say something.
Open Mic: We are living in very strange times, particularly for women. Has the #metoo movement sparked greater interest in stories about or featuring strong women?
De Nikolits: I feel like the movement is also separate from the cause. I think people are very supportive of the movement, but are women actually being treated differently in the workplace? I haven’t noticed that. Single perpetrators have been brought to justice more, but in terms of the bigger picture, including people reading more books with strong female leads, I haven’t seen anything reassuring. But it takes time for real changes to take effect, so let’s remain hopeful!
Open Mic: What does your writing space look like? Do you need certain things in place to be able to work?
De Nikolits: Silence. I can’t understand people who say “here’s the soundtrack I listen to when I write.” How do they concentrate? Sometimes I even put in ear plugs. If there’s a blue jay outside the window or a squirrel making noise up in the tree, I get so distracted! My office is full of all kinds of things, from a pineapple sculpture to many dolls, but it is not a mess. Everything has to be in exactly the right position because everything in my room has a meaning. At least it starts out super tidy. Once I get really into my writing there are papers everywhere and that kind of thing, but I can’t stop to tidy it up again because I’m in the middle of writing.
Open Mic: I like to end with a fun question. Let’s say I can put you in room with any one of the following three people for dinner and drinks and conversation. Who would you choose and why? You options are: the British author Virginia Woolf, the legendary Hollywood wardrobe director Edith Head or the great French philosopher Rene Descartes?
De Nikolits: Definitely Descartes! Philosophy was one of my majors. If I ever stopped writing I would love to go back to studying philosophy because it is utterly fascinating. So definitely Descartes, and I think it would be a very, very long dinner that would then become a breakfast and then a lunch and hopefully a lot more. After that it would be Edith Head because of course I love fashion. Virginia Woolf would terrify me.