Episode 419: When Past and Present Collide – Thrillerfest 2022 Debut Authors Roundtable

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Podcast

Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Stacy Willingham, Carolyne Topdjian, Allison Buccola, and Wanda M. Morris. We’ll be talking about their debut thriller novels.

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In this episode Stacy, Carolyne, Allison, Wanda, and I discuss:

  • Choosing whether to tell a story with multiple timelines, flashbacks, or an epistolary format.
  • How their characters deal with the past, secrets, and lies as the story unfolds.
  • What role the world and the setting play in how characters process their trauma.

Plus, their #1 tip for writers.

About the Debut Authors 

Stacy Willingham is the New York Times bestselling author of A Flicker in the Dark. Before turning to fiction, she was a copywriter and brand strategist for various marketing agencies. She earned her BA in magazine journalism from the University of Georgia and MFA in writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her novel is currently being translated into over two dozen languages. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina, with her husband, Britt, and Labradoodle, Mako, where she is always working on her next book.

You can find her on her website or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Carolyne Topdjian is the author of The Hitman’s Daughter (Agora/Polis Books), a gothic mystery which Library Journal lauds as a “fast-paced, haunting novel of survival.” In addition to writing suspense novels, Carolyne has published short fiction in PRISM International, Dreamers Magazine, and Firewords Quarterly. She is a professor in the Faculty of Media and Creative Arts at Humber College in Toronto. Currently, she lives in a 114-year-old haunted house.

You can find her on her website or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, and Pinterest.

Allison Buccola is the author of the psychological thriller Catch Her When She Falls.  Before she turned to writing fiction, she was a practicing attorney with a JD from the University of Chicago, and she also did a brief stint as a bartender in Brussels.  She now lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two kids.

You can find her on her website or follow them on Twitter, and Instagram.

Wanda M. Morris is the acclaimed author of All Her Little Secrets. It was named as one of the “Best Books of 2021” by Hudson Booksellers and selected as the #1 Top Pick for “Library Reads” by librarians across the country. It was selected as a Book Buzz Pick by Good Morning America, serialized in Entertainment Weekly and a Marie Claire book club pick. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and Crime Writers of Color. A corporate attorney, Wanda has worked in the legal departments of some of America’s top Fortune 100 companies. As a former President of the Georgia Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel, she established a signature female empowerment program known as the Women’s Initiative. She is married, the mother of three and lives in Atlanta,Georgia. All Her Little Secrets is her debut novel.

You can find her on her website or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

About the Books

A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham

From debut author Stacy Willingham comes a masterfully done, lyrical thriller, certain to be the launch of an amazing career. A Flicker in the Dark is eerily compelling to the very last page.

When Chloe Davis was twelve, six teenage girls went missing in her small Louisiana town. By the end of the summer, her own father had confessed to the crimes and was put away for life, leaving Chloe and the rest of her family to grapple with the truth and try to move forward while dealing with the aftermath.

Now twenty years later, Chloe is a psychologist in Baton Rouge and getting ready for her wedding. While she finally has a fragile grasp on the happiness she’s worked so hard to achieve, she sometimes feels as out of control of her own life as the troubled teens who are her patients. So when a local teenage girl goes missing, and then another, that terrifying summer comes crashing back. Is she paranoid, seeing parallels from her past that aren’t actually there, or for the second time in her life, is Chloe about to unmask a killer?

The Hitman’s Daughter by Carolyne Topdjian

The Château du Ciel was once the destination for the rich and famous to play, drink and ski―complete with a luxurious railway to shuttle those desiring extra privacy―now, however, the guests are few and far between. The New Year’s Eve party was supposed to hoist the rundown hotel back to its former status, until a massive blizzard descends upon the Châ teau, trapping the guests who’ve come to celebrate the grand hotel’s last hurrah. The circumstances might even be considered romantic; if only the hotel wasn’t reputed to be haunted.

When hotel employee Mave Michael finds the resident artist dead, and shortly thereafter hotel security finds Mave alone with the body, the reputation she has fought long and hard to outrun comes back to haunt her. Because Mave’s father is a notorious hitman serving multiple life sentences in prison. Mave changed her name and location dozens of times to escape her legacy, but he somehow manages to track her down―even sending her a postcard on the eve of her birthday, January 1st. Mave is the perfect choice to frame for murder, and now the number one suspect. She can no longer deny the lessons in survival her father taught her, and must use them and her uncanny sixth-sense in “finding” lost objects to navigate the maze-like hotel. To save herself, Mave not only has to stop running from her own past, she must unearth the history of the hotel, its elite guests and buried secrets―one deadly sin at a time.

Catch Her When She Falls by Allison Buccola

In this “propulsive” (Kimberly McCreight) debut thriller, a young woman questions everything she thought she knew about the shocking murder that changed her life when she was in high school.

Ten years ago, my boyfriend killed my best friend. 

When Micah Wilkes was a senior in high school, her boyfriend was convicted of murdering her best friend, Emily, a star ballerina with a bright future. A decade later, Micah has finally moved on from the unforgivable betrayal and loss. Now the owner of a bustling coffee shop in her small hometown in Pennsylvania, she’s happily coupled up with another old high school friend, the two having bonded over their shared sorrow.

But when reminders of her past begin appearing at her work and home, Micah begins to doubt what she knows about Emily’s death. Questions raised on a true crime blog and in an online web sleuthing forum force her to reexamine her memories of that fateful night. She told the truth to the investigators on the case, but was there another explanation for Emily’s murder? A stranger in the woods. An obsessive former classmate. A domineering ballet instructor. Or the internet’s favorite suspect: Joshua, Emily’s outcast younger brother who hasn’t been seen since his sister’s death.

As Micah delves deeper into the case, she feels her grip on reality loosening, her behavior growing more and more secretive and unhinged. As she races to piece together the truth about that night ten years ago, Micah grapples with how things could have gone so wrong and wonders whether she, too, might be next to disappear.

All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M. Morris

A fast-paced and twisty thriller about a black lawyer who gets caught in a dangerous conspiracy after the sudden death of her boss . . . A debut perfect for fans of Attica Locke, Alyssa Cole, Harlan Coben, and Celeste Ng, with shades of How to Get Away with Murder and John Grisham’s The Firm.

Everyone has something to hide…

Ellice Littlejohn seemingly has it all: an Ivy League law degree, a well-paying job as a corporate attorney in midtown Atlanta, great friends, and a “for fun” relationship with a rich, charming executive, who just happens to be her white boss. But everything changes one cold January morning when Ellice arrives in the executive suite and finds him dead with a gunshot to his head.

And then she walks away like nothing has happened. Why? Ellice has been keeping a cache of dark secrets, including a small-town past and a kid brother who’s spent time on the other side of the law. She can’t be thrust into the spotlight—again.

But instead of grieving this tragedy, people are gossiping, the police are getting suspicious, and Ellice, the company’s lone black attorney, is promoted to replace her boss. While the opportunity is a dream-come-true, Ellice just can’t shake the feeling that something is off.

When she uncovers shady dealings inside the company, Ellice is trapped in an impossible ethical and moral dilemma. Suddenly, Ellice’s past and present lives collide as she launches into a pulse-pounding race to protect the brother she tried to save years ago and stop a conspiracy far more sinister than she could have ever imagined…

Anywhere You Run by Wanda M. Morris

From the award-winning author of All Her Little Secrets comes yet another gripping, suspenseful novel where, after the murder of a white man in Jim Crow Mississippi, two Black sisters run away to different parts of the country . . . but can they escape the secrets they left behind?

It’s the summer of 1964 and three innocent men are brutally murdered for trying to help Black Mississippians secure the right to vote. Against this backdrop, twenty-two-year-old Violet Richards finds herself in more trouble than she’s ever been in her life. Suffering a brutal attack of her own, she kills the man responsible. But with the color of Violet’s skin, there is no way she can escape Jim Crow justice in Jackson, Mississippi. Before anyone can find the body or finger her as the killer, she decides to run. With the help of her white beau, Violet escapes. But desperation and fear leads her to hide out in the small rural town of Chillicothe, Georgia, unaware that danger may be closer than she thinks.

Back in Jackson, Marigold, Violet’s older sister, has dreams of attending law school. Working for the Mississippi Summer Project, she has been trying to use her smarts to further the cause of the Black vote. But Marigold is in a different kind of trouble: she’s pregnant and unmarried. After news of the murder brings the police to her door, Marigold sees no choice but to flee Jackson too. She heads North seeking the promise of a better life and no more segregation. But has she made a terrible choice that threatens her life and that of her unborn child? 

Two sisters on the run—one from the law, the other from social shame. What they don’t realize is that there’s a man hot on their trail. This man has his own brand of dark secrets and a disturbing motive for finding the sisters that is unknown to everyone but him . . .

If you decide to check out the books, we hope you’ll do so via these Bookshop.org affiliate links: A Flicker in the Dark, The Hitman’s Daughter, Catch Her When She Falls, All Her Little Secrets, and Anywhere You Run, where if you choose to purchase via the link DIY MFA gets a referral fee at no cost to you, and you get to support independent bookstores! As always, thank you for supporting DIY MFA!

Link to Episode 419

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