gretchen mcneil

Interview by: Fatimah

Q: What first inspired you to become a writer?

A: I came to writing really late. I think most of my peers wrote when they were young, in high school and college. I was always a performer. I was a dancer as a child. I did a lot of musical theater in high school and college then got a BA in vocal performance and a Masters in opera performance. So I was externally storytelling, as I like to say. And I didn’t start writing until I was in my thirties—I was actually going through a divorce—and I read a nonfiction book called Kitchen Confidential by the now-late Anthony Bourdain, which is about a memoir about being a chef in New York in the nineties. And I’m not a chef, and I don’t live in New York, but there was something about his voice in that book that just sort of reminded me of myself, and I was like, I’m going to write a book. I had no experience, and no idea what I was doing, other than being a lifetime reader. I sat down and wrote a very crappy bookthat will never be publishedbut I just totally fell in love with storytelling in prose. After I wrote that manuscript, I learned a little bit more about storytelling and read a few books. There was a wonderful one called Self-Editing for Fiction Writers that did me a lot of good, and when I wrote my next book, it was better. It landed me an agent—not a book deal, I had to write another onebut it was sort of a progression. I was learning my voice and my style, and getting published, but it was late. I was in my early thirties, like that’s late. I’m old. [laughs]

Q: What does your writing process look like?

A: It has changed a little bit. I have recently had a child. Before that, I would spend the morning kind of answering emails, and whatever things I had to sort of get out the door. Then I would work in chunks of short spreads. Twelve minutes is sort of my sweet spot. Fifteen is too long, ten is too short. For twelve minutes, I just write. I don’t think about it, I don’t self-edit, I just sort of plop it onto the page. You can get through 300-400 words like that in twelve minutes, so it’s a lot. I work in daily word counts, so I know how many words I’m aiming for in a manuscript. I break that down into how many days I’m going to be working in an average week, and come up with a daily goal which is usually between 1500-2000 words. I do a little twelve minute session, I give myself a little break, and I do another one. I sort of churn it out. Some days, I can get through my word count in a couple hours, some days it takes four or five hours, with a lunch break, and maybe a dog walk in between. Now, I can only work when my child is sleeping, or the nanny is there—she’s only part-time—so I still work in twelve minutes sprints, but I don’t get to do it every day, and I have to work around someone else’s schedule for a change.

 Q: What comes first for you, the plot or the characters?

A: Definitely plot. I come up with a concept, like I want to do a book that’s A meets B. I know who the killer is, I know generally how the pieces of the mystery will unfold. I sort of work that out, and then I start thinking of the characters. Normally, depending on when people die, it influences their character. A character who is going to die earlier is going to have a very different personality than say, someone who makes it to the end. I start to plot out the characters, and as the plot pieces unfold, I learn a little bit more about the characters. It’s really not until my second draft, which the one I turn into my editor, that I really get a full sense of who the characters really are. It takes me a while, whereas other authors will have the characters first, and figure out a plot for them. 

Q: What was the hardest scene you had to write?

9780062118790A: Hardest scenes for me are usually the ones where there’s a lot of people and they all have to be accounted for. It’s sort of like a game where you have to keep all the balls in the air. So if you have like ten people in a scene having dinner, which is a scene I wrote in my book Ten, you have to know where everyone is at the table, and you have to know who they can hear and talk to. Everyone has to be accounted for. Everyone’s personality has to sort of manifest. That is a lot with a big scene and so I definitely try not to have too many scenes in my book where everybody’s together at once, because they’re very complicated. The dinner scene in Ten, which is near the beginning of the book, was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I rewrote it a dozen times to get it right. It was tough. 

Q: How do you research for your books?

A: Well, the good news about my books is I’m not doing historical fiction and I’m not creating fantasy worlds with magic systems or things like that, so my books are set in the here and now. But what I do have to do is figure out is place very carefully. Some of my books are set in places that I know. My first book is set in San Francisco, I grew up there, my two books, Get Even and Get Dirty, the ones that are going to be on a Netflix series next year, are set a little bit farther south in Menlo Park in the Bay area. But if I’m writing a book about a place that I’ve never been or a place that I maybe like drove through that one time, I need to do some time researching. Especially if it’s a different state, like California is a very large place, where I’m from. It’s very different than other places. In #murderfunding that came out this year, the first part of the book takes place in the upper peninsula of Michigan, where I’ve never been. And I don’t know, what are the roads like? What’s it like in winter versus in summer? Because we don’t have a lot of snow in Los Angeles, so I’m not sure how that looks. When was I setting it? When would the snow come in? So you end up doing a lot of geographical and demographic works and research. Google Earth and Google Maps street view is an amazing resource when you’re like, if they were driving down this road, what would they see? Setting place and making it feel authentic to the here and now is a different challenge than creating something brand new. It’s definitely easier, but it still requires some leg work, like what’s it like there, in this place I’ve never been to? 

Q: Which character that you’ve written do you feel like you connect to the most?

A: That’s hard. Some authors put themselves very specifically into books or write books about the experiences they had or the books they wish they could have read when they were young because it would speak to whatever they were going through. My books are just about kids surviving the night so it’s definitely not an experience that I’ve ever had [laughs]. You know, I am an extrovert which is relatively rare in writing. I think most writers are introverts, to be able to spend that much time by yourself thinking up stories is definitely an introvert’s world. As an extroverted it’s a little bit harder for me to spend that time alone. It’s also harder to see yourself in a book. How many books have you read in YA where the main character is an extrovert? Not a lot, right? I did that with #murderfunding very specifically. It was like an exercise, because that’s the main character of the first book #murdertrending is very much an introvert she’s had some trauma that happened to her in the past and she’s very like closed off and I needed to write the main character of the next book to be completely different. Becca it probably is the most like me simply because she is so external. Everything she thinks comes right out her mouth, which is very much who I am. It was very irritating when I was younger, but I’ve learned to reign it in as an adult. I think there’s a lot of me in Becca. Other than that, I see pieces of myself in secondary characters like Ethan in #murdertrending, or Gabe in my debut, Possessed. I see myself in those secondary this side characters, more so than in any of the main characters that I’ve written.  

Q: Do you have any new series planned?

A: I don’t have a new series planned, but I do have a new book coming out in 2020. I literally just turned it into my editor this past week, so it’s very new. It’s called No Escape. I’m not sure if the title’s going to change or not, but as of right now, it’s called No Escape. It’s actually a companion novel to #murdertrending and #murderfunding, so it’s not a direct sequel. It’s set in an escape room competition, it’s eight people who have one invitation to this competition with this ten million dollar prize for the winner. They don’t know what it’s going to be, but it ends up being a series of escape rooms. Nine different escape rooms, with nine different sets of puzzles. But because it’s a Gretchen McNeil book, of course people start dying. First, they’re not sure if it’s an accident, or maybe it’s all part of the game, maybe it’s fake. Then people start dying for real and they have to figure out why and who’s doing it. I had a lot of fun with it. #murderfunding and #murdertrending are definitely pretty high on the crazy scale, and I feel like No Escape may have just dialed it up a little bit. 

Q: What author’s writing style has most influenced your own?

A: I am heavily, heavily influenced by Agatha Christie. In my book Ten like literally because it’s an homage to And Then There Were None which is my favorite book of hers but I learned so much. I read Agatha Christie when I was a teen. I think it was the summer between 8th grade and freshman year of high school when I read like half of her books. I was babysitting a lot, and just whipping through books. The way that she introduces people is brilliant. If you haven’t read a lot of Agatha Christie, but you’re looking for a quick master class on how to characterize people very quickly, she is the author. I also love how there’s a pattern to her mysteries. Like we introduce the characters and you know everybody, including who the killer is before that first murder happens. So there’s nobody that comes out of the blue that’s going to be the killer. I love that idea, of I’m gonna give you everybody and make you figure it out. Sort of shake the box. You think this person is the killer, but then they end up dead. She wrote so many books that you would think eventually she would start repeating herself as far as plots or reasons, but she never did. She really had an amazing talent for creativity, whether it’s a locked room, or a bunch of people at a dinner party, they’re all unique. I strive for that in my own writing like I don’t want to repeat the same twist. I want to come up with a new twist. The more books I write, the more difficult that becomes, and the more I appreciate what she did. 

Q: What’s your favorite genre to write?

A: I love writing horror and murder mystery. I love crafting scares. I don’t like a lot of horror movies that are out there right now. I love things that are scary and I don’t necessarily love things that are gory for the sake of being gory. I appreciate the psychological dilemma of the original Saw movie without the splatter of it all. So I much prefer a Hitchcock version of what horror is.

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In Psycho, you see the blood in the drain. You don’t see the mangled corpse, you know. That said, my books tend to be on the gory side, so I’m definitely breaking my own rules there [laughs]. I also love humor, and my books have a lot of humor in them. I have written one contemporary romantic comedy that was a challenge to write a book without a dead body. It was fun, though, to be able to craft that. I would love to be able to do more comedy with the horror. I think those two things go well together but I also don’t want it to verge into just farce. If I could continue to write my horror murder mysteries till the end of time, I’d be perfectly happy.